The Indignity of B.F. Skinner

Jeff Carreira Blog Posts 35 Comments

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.

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Mary
11 years ago

As someone who has debated the issues of behaviorism with Carl many a late night, I totally identify with the resistance to accepting everything as “behavior”. But I have to admit that over the years I have come to believe that much more of our behavior is deterministic—as we have discussed before—conditioned behavior. Those conditions come from so many complex dimensions that they are in most ways unsortable—-but, nonetheless, they are deterministic behaviors expressing themselves uniquely as who we appear to be. But part of me does hold out, that, though they may be small corners, there are corners in… Read more »

Carl
11 years ago

Well, I feel a little self-conscious at this moment, but I have a couple of questions to ask. What is it about the word “conditioned” that so repulses us? What if we substituted the word “learned?” Would that be better or worse, or the same? Because that is all that Skinner is talking about — learned behavior, which can be simple and “rote” or very complex, like jazz improvisation, but nonetheless learned at the level of behavior components. Skinner simply said that our behavior is the product of learning, influenced by our genetic endowment and by environmental conditions. Is there… Read more »

Brian
Brian
11 years ago

Could our ignorance of the net effect of the causes when making conscious choices provide a degree of freedom? We must decide and act without full knowledge of the causes and the outcomes.

Jeff Carreira
Jeff Carreira
11 years ago

Brian, that makes a lot of sense. Since we can’t possible predict the outcome of individual cases that are so complex what is the difference between that and freewill.

Shizuka
Shizuka
11 years ago

I think there is no argue about “Our behavior and our very existence and awareness arise interdependently with everything else in the Universe.’
But our behavior (choice of action) have been leaned for the sake of our survival.So yes,I admit I think “free will” is that it it seems to place humans outside of nature, outside of the Whole, as though, like the ancient views of God, we were uncaused causes. to discribe .
Thank you to point out my(our )limitation.

axel
axel
11 years ago

..it feels almost impossible to let go of the concept of free will, because it is so interwoven with responsibility. giving up the first seems to give up the latter as well. and furthermore how to explain creation then. creation seems to have no depth, if its just a extremely complex clockwork in its core. and how about wonder, awe all those aspects, which seem to be connected to free wil as well. or? but – in contrast of that, there seems to be now way to deny that “learning” and “conditioned ” part, and that this spehre seems to… Read more »

Carl
11 years ago

I would say that creation is creation by the WHOLE, starting with the Big Bang, through us. If we are simply the Universe looking at itself, experiencing, feeling, knowing itself from a whole lot of different sets of its own eyes, peering out from different angles, then the Universe has 6 billion or so little “nodes” at which it is creative through us, let alone through the trillions of other beings on this planet and elsewhere. What could be more mysterious, magical, wonderful and awesome than that? Seems a lot cooler to me that puny little me somehow acting like… Read more »

Mary
11 years ago

I like that, Carl. Grasping to the idea of free will for individuals seems to be a reaction to a mechanistic interpretation of determinism (by some scientific models), in which each thing is determined and no freedom of expression or experience is to be had. But I think we understand from complexity theory that causes and conditions need not be completely deterministic. That is, in the play of causes and conditions the universe has left room for creative events to happen. Obviously. And maybe some small range of capacity for us to choose is the embodiment of the universe’s mechanism… Read more »

Carl
11 years ago

“Determined” or “caused” does not mean unconscious, sometimes quite the opposite. My vote for Obama was by all means determined by what I read, what I heard, and my entire background that “determined” my values and understanding of what is needed for the world going forward. My “choice” of food this morning was completely determined by what was in the refrigerator, my own preferences, what I ate yesterday, and countless other things. I chose, but not randomly. That choice could be traced to specific inputs — some of which I am in a position to know and some of which… Read more »

Carl
11 years ago

By the way, you can check out some of Robert Epstein’s work on creativity at http://drrobertepstein.com/index.php?option=content&task=view&id=11&Itemid=30

Margo
Margo
11 years ago

It does seem as though consciousness requires a structure or vehical in order to BE, hence, it can always look like “conditioning” from some other Source. What I think is happening now, for the first time, it that we are coming together to choose the detail of the directionality, consciously and non-locally ( beyond the individuated self). I see this as the Will BECOMING. What an exciting time to rise up to the occasion of this great Change!

Mette Mollerhoj
Mette Mollerhoj
11 years ago

It suddenly hits me that maybe “free will” is an error. Does a plant choose to grow in the direction of the light? Like Shizuka said: why place humans outside of nature?
But we can certainly get more and more intelligent, so that we can reach our predetermined goals, and there are obvious clever and less clever things to “choose” to do to reach them…
Then all it comes down to is getting greater insight… that will automatically lead to acting on it then…(?)

Carl
11 years ago

Mette, that sure sounds like the right direction to me! I don’t think we need to think of it as “predetermined goals.” At least from a behavior science perspective, our goals are not necessarily predetermined. Behavior is influenced by its consequences, whether we know about them in advance or not. An interesting thing about expanding insight or awareness is that it might enable us to be more aware of likely consequences in ways that influence our choices, which in turn cause us to produce consequences which in turn influence our behavior, and so on. So our awareness and intelligence, being… Read more »

Stuart
Stuart
11 years ago

I really like where this discussion is going. I never thought of myself as a behaviorist but I sure resonate with what’s being said here. I think responsive creatures pretty much sums it up for me. And the more awareness we have of our experience inner and outer the more there is to respond to. Which means that a response that is more “free” is one that is responding to a bigger picture or more of our experience. It seems like when we talk about “conditioning” in the sense of acting like a robot, it’s when our responses are very… Read more »

Mette Mollerhoj
Mette Mollerhoj
11 years ago

Hi Carl and Stuart. I think the example of “the flower reaching for the light” can explain what I meant by “predetermined goals”. We want to live and have the best conditiones to keep going – as individuals, but also as a whole, the future generations, or even as all life in the universe. That is the predetermined goal. Then we can say that insight in what will bring us there, will automatically make us take action. But I think habits is a component we have to think of. It is also a part of Skinners work – the example… Read more »

Shizuka
Shizuka
11 years ago

Thank you Matte Your insight solved two of my questions 1,Survival-Wanting better life condition-Bigger the perspective,more articulate to the truth,more align to the universe ,better life condition-view of narrow ,less,smaller perspective is less of survival possibility. So if we compare survival for my own sake vs survival for the whole,it’s obious which is more better survival chance. 2,Yet,unless dynamic response come from superior intelligence,awareness and insight is not consistant which means stablized and become habit,it doesn’t have much impact to the environment.Also,Unless that become new set of social, conceptual, verbal behavior (culture). But as we all know ,changing habit is… Read more »

Renata
Renata
11 years ago

Hi Everyone, I was quite taken by Jeff’s blog and all the comments, and am pulled to respond as I have been thinknig about the question of free will and ‘conditioned self’ recently as well in order to make sense out of some recent events. How far can we say we have free will? The fact that we are more conditioned than we like to think can be quite nerve-racking, and the fact that circumstances and past consequences of conscious and unconscious actions inform our so called ‘free will’ is nerve-racking too, because that means that we are not as… Read more »

Mette Mollerhoj
Mette Mollerhoj
11 years ago

Yes, and if we really do not have “free will” like we normally think, then it explains why we cannot force anyone to “choose” better. We can only spread wisdom (enlightenment we can call it) cause it will lead to a change of habits if we really understand that our lifeconditions depend on it…
And it explains that everyone do as he or she does because in some complex way it is what he or she is convinced will make the best conditiones for life, right?

Mette Mollerhoj
Mette Mollerhoj
11 years ago

(maybe “the choosing faculty” then is only a calculator, and that is why 51% is needed…)

Antonietta Francini
11 years ago

Dear Friends, just a quick comment. We need to put some order in this story of some WILL that is supposed to be FREE. First of all take in account evolutionary re-incarnations, many thousand of them. So, humans are initially beings of “belief”, they do not think by them-selves and they just obey. When intelligence opens up, they become beings of “learning”. This transitional period is very difficult as old beliefs must be discarted and the intelligence is still not clear. But, it is a progress, more incarnations are needed. Next comes the stage of being born to “knowledge”, and… Read more »

Carl
11 years ago

Wow! The discussion itself is evolving. And would you say that it has been “caused” or is it “free?” Maybe both, in exactly the way that Stuart meant when he wrote, “And maybe this is where the whole notion of free will comes from in the first place. It’s our own experience of the First Cause, the Uncaused Cause, in our own experience.” Each of us is being “caused” by what others write, and by our own backgrounds, and then we respond. So we experience both our own “position” and the evolution of the Whole at the same time. From… Read more »

Brian
Brian
11 years ago

Carl, you’re beside yourself. Clapton is God!
http://www.claptonisgod.co.uk

Jeff, you are very brave to work things out in a public forum. We’re watching you learn and you’re taking us all along with you. I notice your most contentious posts bring the most comments. Keep us on edge!

Mette Mollerhoj
Mette Mollerhoj
11 years ago

This great topic kept me up all night, and I have been thinking in my sleep as well, and now I think about how we can formulate what we found here in a simple language. To me it is very exciting if we can come closer to “how we choose”. We normally think that we choose completely freely. But looking at habits we see that we have difficulties in many choices, because our entire body-mecanism is so deeply convincing us to do what we use to do. If we look deep into where all our convictions – both psycological and… Read more »

Kookai1
Kookai1
11 years ago

The granfather of behaviouralism
Martin E. P. Seligman
Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life

Kookai1
Kookai1
11 years ago

This is his interesting work
Learned helplessness theory

Shizuka
Shizuka
11 years ago

1,(It’s kind of repetition of Carl’s insight),we experience our subjective position of choice,first cause as” free will” and same time objective experience ,uncaused cause-predetermined goal,(evolutionally impulse,life mission) simultaneously.So the definition of free will is description of subjective experience. 2,Although,our mechanism of choice is complex,not only our entire body-mechanism is so deeply convincing us to do what we use to do,so as, cultural habit as well and both held old belief of “this is the best survival choice (best survival philosophy) so to speak,and what is the major conviction factor to change ,sift to new habit is “Show me the proof”.like… Read more »

Antonietta Francini
11 years ago

Dear Friends, we are all wondeful with our left brain efforts to grow toward the right brain that does not speak, but that is not the point…. Lets try SILENCE first. Deep long silence, then formulate just one question, not ten, just one….then long long silence again and wait for one answer that is the result of both left and right brain in harmony. In order to have an idea about what is FREE will there must be total harmony between Right anf Left brain, then no more brain, but a different COGNITIVE INTUITION, that is what we want…intuitive cognition…that… Read more »

Mette Mollerhoj
Mette Mollerhoj
11 years ago

What can we learn from Wilber? He puts Skinner in the Upper Left, and I think we can claim Skinner for denying the inner dimension, but I’m not sure..

Mette Mollerhoj
Mette Mollerhoj
11 years ago

Oh no, Wilber puts Skinner in the Upper Right, I would have written!

Lonny Jarrett
Lonny Jarrett
11 years ago

I met Skinner @ 1977 at a lecture he gave at Clark University called, “Why I’m not a cognitive psychologist.” His basic position was that you can eliminate all speculation about the interior dimension of the individual and be concerned solely with stimulus in and response out. His assertion was, as I remember it, that this was quantifiable statistically and therefore predictable. I speculate that this is relatively true in the realm of ego but not in the realm of authentic self where there is a certain unpredictable and radical spontaneity. It’s an interesting consideration though because it does lead… Read more »

Megan
11 years ago

Lonny, that is HILARIOUS. Talk about a conditioned response! The idea of free will being a dimension of the whole — a built-in capability of the space in which we operate, rather than an individual super-power — really resonates. If free will isn’t mine or yours, if it is liberated from “me,” and not embedded in who “I” am — then it is simply there, working through me and everything else to different degrees to generate novelty and possible improvements in creation as a whole. Up until very recently, novelty has come about mostly by accident, but we’re now beginning… Read more »

Antonietta Francini
11 years ago

Dear Friends, I like the “the free-floating capacity of free will” of Megan… It is a nice vision..this free floating stuff, but think for a moment in Biology: you have a forest, thousand of trees, billions of leaves…and not ONE leave identical to the other. The Free will is intrinsic in the Universe, all shapes that could possibly exist (given the limitations of this precise universe) do exist. All the Platonic solid, that represent all the shapes of solids that can possibly exist derive from one unique “thing” called the “vescica piscis”. Yes, this universe is the expresion of an… Read more »

Sandra MacDonald
Sandra MacDonald
11 years ago

Wow! This is a fantastic conversation! It reminds me that just as the Universe is ever expanding, so too our awareness, knowledge and capacity to question our existence and the inner workings of the Universe, as ourselves. It seems even the inquiry of “one individual” ignites something in the “collective” and our knowledge and capacity to change our behavioral components sets forth a seemlingly new dimension and increases our capacity for more than what we thought or did before. Is it a “conditioned response” from the “First Cause” to want to keep finding out and questioning our creative nature to… Read more »

Antonietta Francini
11 years ago

Dear Sandra, great! You got it all straight..just at the last moment a little doubt slided in…”do we change the Laws?’ No Sandra, we atune with the laws so perfectly that we experience total fulfilment and intense joy…because we become the laws…. there is nothing “external” to us; the moment that the little ego only does its duty to care for our body, but do not interfere with out mental and spiritual levels we are totally without FEAR… as the fearful one is always the little ego, because it knows its impermanence, so it is afraid of everything. On the… Read more »

Margo
Margo
11 years ago

Antonietta… where did you get that quote… “sword cut them and fire burn them not”?… I am not familier with it and wondered where it came from… thanks… Margo