Viewpoint: Science, Skinner and Human Affairs


Not long ago B.F. Skinner made it very big on the bestseller lists of this nation. For those convinced that a free society is the one best suited for human beings, Skinner's success was just another discouraging clue to the intellectual climate of our culture. Skinner made his pitch for a planned society in direct opposition to libertarianism. He is explicitly hostile to human rights and tells us in BEYOND FREEDOM AND DIGNITY that "Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are…the rights of the individual and were listed as such at a time when the literature of freedom and dignity were concerned with the aggrandizement of the individual. They have only a minor bearing on the survival of a culture." (p. 172, Bantam edition)

What makes Skinner so attractive to many is that he is always a champion of science. Anyone concerned with solving problems tends to give a favorable reception to a book that proclaims an unabashed adherence to "scientific analysis" and "technology." As Skinner notes, "We play from strength, and our strength is science and technology." (p. 1) Science deals with the natural world and makes no appeal to supernaturalism. In this much, at least, little controversy exists. And advocates of human liberty would always want to justify their views by reference to the facts of nature. Yet with Skinner, they are the ones whose stance is made to conflict with science, the study of nature.

If one grants Skinner's claims to being strictly scientific, it is a quick leap from there to accepting his "technology of behavior." From what scientists identify about nature, we can proceed to learn how to control the world around us. That again seems uncontroversial enough. But a lot hinges on just what someone's idea of science is, before we can accept the claims he makes about topics in some field of science. This is where Skinner's ideas must be scrutinized, for it is in his conception of science that Skinner is dead wrong.

For B.F. Skinner science consists in the observation of events and episodes and moving from these to rules and laws. (See his SCIENCE AND HUMAN BEHAVIOR, pp. 3-10) Although he believes that his conception of science is itself a result of a scientific analysis, he does admit, here and there, that he has philosophical debts to such thinkers as David Hume, Immanuel Kant and Alfred North Whitehead. It is this last whose views he adopts most openly—both by self-proclamation and in practice. Whitehead's metaphysics has the world basically composed of processes, not things or entities. And Skinner's choice of events as the basic units of science in general, and his choice of behaviors ("processes") as the units of the science of behavior testify to his commitment to a Whiteheadian metaphysics.

Based on this metaphysics—and not, as he says, on science—Skinner reduces all human affairs to the physical events of human action, namely behaviors. But this leads to a very strong philosophical prejudice against individuals. Since individuals are things in nature, not events, anyone who considers things or entities as, at best, secondary to processes must view human action along lines incompatible with the tradition of human rights theory. In this tradition people are viewed as capable of choice, as capable of causing some of what they do, some of their own behavior. But Skinner must ignore that possibility altogether. As he says in BEYOND FREEDOM AND DIGNITY, "the individual is at best a locus in which many lines of development come together in a unique set…[and]…the individual nevertheless remains merely a stage in a process."

What this means is that Skinner could not offer an explanation of human behavior by reference to what people choose to do, since that would mean that his last point of reference would not be some process, but an entity, namely some person. Having restricted his candidates for causes to events, he can then say that by adopting the idea of human agency—i.e., that people can cause their actions—we are left without the possibility of an explanation for human action.

The trick as well as the trouble is that Skinner would have all this follow from his scientific research, whereas in fact it follows from a very doubtful metaphysical point of view. Today this same point of view underlies many fields of study. Virtually all of the social sciences accept it. In almost every study of social affairs, scholars seek after "the causes" of behavior—but in terms of their metaphysical viewpoint, they must exclude people themselves and confine their candidates to what happens to people, events in the environment, in the brain, in one's history, etc. The causes are restricted to one kind of cause. Yet this is not called for by science. And just like Skinner, most social scientists refuse to debate the matter along philosophical lines. So while wearing the cloak of science they give the impression of paragons of openmindedness—in fact they are prisoners of a very questionable philosophy.

Unfortunately Skinnerianism, and other pseudo-sciences, are often favored with some justification. This is that the alternatives offered are generally fuzzy irrationalist doctrines. The "touchy, feely, fucky" psychological schools, where reason is explicitly rejected; the various new theologies; Eastern mysticisms; and other cults of the irrational are offered as alternatives to the "hard headed" scientific view of human affairs Skinner is taken to advocate. And if people know little about other alternatives, where neither reductionism nor mysticism are accepted but reality/nature is acknowledged to come in many fashions—physical, biological, psychological, political, etc.—then Skinner's doctrine would appeal to the more earthbound. Indeed when one reads the alternative (psychological, social scientist, humanist, existentialist, etc.) views of human affairs projected in the pages of magazines like PSYCHOLOGY TODAY, not to mention the scholarly journals, one can sympathize with B.F. Skinner's stubborn refusal to consider them seriously.

Where does one find alternatives that respect man's place in nature yet do not reduce people to rocks, rats or pigeons? Not in many places. But Professor Isidore Chein's THE SCIENCE OF BEHAVIOR AND THE IMAGE OF MAN (Basic Books, 1972), Dr. Roger W. Sperry's essay "Mind, Brain and Humanist Values" (in John R. Platt's NEW VIEWS OF THE NATURE OF MAN, University of Chicago Press, 1965), and some other publications emerging from psychology and philosophy (by John Yolton, Robert Efron, Edward Madden, Rom Harre, Richard Taylor, et al.) have recently begun offering something other than reductionism and mysticism as general viewpoints by which to make sense of human affairs. (Most REASON readers know of Nathaniel Branden's works addressed to this problem.)

A final point about Skinner. At base, Skinner himself cannot secure a clean environmental deterministic theory of human action. He simply cannot account for the origins of human behavior, although he does argue that once such behavior has been originated, there are better or worse ways in which to encourage it. And to the extent that he has developed some of these ways, he has contributed something to learning theory (in the teaching of skills, primarily). But nothing of what he says justifies comprehensive behaviorism, nor the view that people cannot cause their own behavior. Moreover, his discussion of the technology of behavior can be of some use, provided the reader eliminates the reference to some outside controller and acknowledges that in the end it is the individual himself who must exercise the control over his behavior, otherwise it can only end in ineffectiveness and unhappiness. But if this revision is administered upon Skinner's doctrine, he no longer can reject human rights and his political speculations lose all their theoretical support.

Which is just as well.

Tibor Machan's Viewpoint appears in this column every third month, alternating with the views of Murray N. Rothbard and David Brudnoy. Dr. Machan's book on B.F. Skinner will appear late in 1974 from Arlington House.