The Indignity of B.F. Skinner

Warning: This post represents my very first thoughts about the Behaviorism of B.F. Skinner and is probably equally likely to offend both fans and foes alike.

Those who follow this blog may realize that my friend and brilliant commentor Carl has got me reading B.F. Skinner. Skinner is the famous (and to some infamous) Harvard psychologist who developed his own brand of Behaviorist psychology that he called “Radical Behaviourism“- Carl got me started reading Skinner because he felt that Skinner represents the fulfillment of Pragmatism’s scientific destiny. I certainly was interested in finding out more about Behaviorism because it is true that it became the dominant force in American psychology during the middle decades of the 20th century and does represent a scientific turn from the Pragmatism of American Philosophy.

I knew of Skinner from my background as a school teacher, but as Carl pointed out, my knowledge – as is generally true – is superficial and mired by misinformation and negative propaganda. With that, I accepted the challenge to learn more about Skinner and his work, but I found it tough going, not because reading Skinner is difficult, his writing is clear, but emotionally I find my sense of autonomy being insulted with almost every page.

Skinner’s Radical Behaviorism views everything as conditioned behavior and ultimately sees all behavior as deterministic. To the part of me that believes in freewill I find this not slightly offensive – so emotionally I have to keep pushing myself onward. “Skinner is an obvious genius, and my friend Carl is pretty bright himself, so there must be something to this.” I would say to myself.

Then yesterday while reading about one of Skinner’s early experiments with rats in mazes I had my first Radical Behavior insight. I was feeling offended by the rat running through the maze every time the bell sounded, because of course I didn’t like the implication of me living my life like that rat. Then it hit me that I was taking it all too personally. I was looking at Skinner’s logic from the inside of all of my assumptions about my freewill.

I had one of those moments where for a second I realized I didn’t really know yet what Skinner was getting at. I was just jumping to all kinds of conclusions that were challenging my sense of dignity. Then I had a moment of recognition where I think I saw for a second what he was seeing.

Every time the rat heard that bell it would act. Every time! Actually that is quite amazing. The organism was learning to respond to the sound of the bell. I don’t think it was learning in the way we think of learning. It wasn’t figuring out that, “Every time that guy rings that bell he also puts food down so I better run and get it.” It wasn’t the rat’s brain that was learning; it was the entire organism. That is when I realized that there was something outrageous in that. The organism was learning to respond – not just the brain, not just the mind.

So I started to wonder how much of what I do is simply me as an organism responding and not me as a “thinker” making choices. Maybe “I” as a thinker don’t need to be around at all for many of the so called choices that I make to happen. Maybe my idea about being the one that is thinking and choosing is all just another response to stimulus – a story that gets made up to explain conditioned responses and make them conform to my need to maintain a sense of dignity.

I realized that Skinner was asking some tough questions about what is really going on in our choices and actions. Still, I am somewhat repulsed by the implications of this, but I am also fascinated. If it is true that many of what I relate to as conscious choices are in fact conditioned responses, isn’t better to know? As I warned at the beginning, this is my very first glimpse into a challenging world, but if you stick with me I will keep going.