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A Case for Observability


Observability is a tricky concept that has been used by philosophers and scientists in an inconsistent and vague way. In this article a reformulation and operational analysis (as used by Skinner, 1945) of this concept is proposed and its implications are discussed. According to the view presented in this article, observation is defined as the act of making contact with a natural phenomenon and should not be conflated with observability, which is defined as the potential to make contact with a natural phenomenon. On the basis of our current faculties and tools, observability may be divided into four levels, labeled as (1) public, (2) private, (3) technology-enhanced, and (4) conceptual. Conceptual observability (typically referred to as interpretation) is especially important for scientific purposes, as long as it is informed by observations conducted at the other levels. Entities that fail to classify in those categories should be considered unobservable. It is further suggested that because all natural phenomena by definition lie within the observability spectrum, the notion of existence might be restated in terms of observability. An observability-based truth criterion is also proposed, according to which a statement may be considered true insofar it tacts (i.e., is controlled by) an observable event or series of events. Last, some implications of the present conceptualization of observability for putative psychological entities will be discussed.

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  1. What about those who claim to have seen fairies? What about those who have seen them “in their mind” (i.e., they have imagined them)? We will address those questions below.

  2. This criterion need not be the only one; other theorists are welcome to propose different or additional criteria.


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Correspondence to Ioannis Bampaloukas.

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I thank Dr. D.C. Palmer for his suggestion to focus on observability, as well as Dr. J. Moore for his lengthy comments on an earlier draft. Special thanks to Efi Orkopoulou for all of her support and help.

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Bampaloukas, I. A Case for Observability. Perspect Behav Sci (2022).

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  • observable
  • unobservable
  • behaviorism
  • mentalism
  • behavior analysis
  • empiricism