The Pseudo-Science of B.F. Skinner


The Pseudo-Science of B.F. Skinner, by Tibor R. Machan, New Rochelle: Arlington House, 1974, 224 pp., $9.95.

The Pseudo-Science of B.F. Skinner is divided into two almost equal parts, each being a side of the same coin. The first consists of a destructive critique of the claims and methodology of B.F. Skinner as embodied in his attacks upon human freedom and dignity (most notably in his book Beyond Freedom and Dignity) and in his advocacy of a supposedly scientifically controlled society. The second consists of a vindication of the very concepts and things most vigorously attacked by Skinner, freedom and dignity, and a society predicated upon these concepts. Thus, says Professor Machan in his introduction, Pseudo-Science should "provide what so many commentators on Skinner and his critics asked for: a counter-thesis to Skinnerism." (p. 19)

Probably as long as there have been domesticated animals it has been known that they can be made to behave in various ways by using either instruments of pain (beatings, punishment, etc.) or pleasure (praise, reward, etc.): the whip or the carrot. One's impression is that until fairly recently animal trainers employed mostly the whip (fear, punishment, etc.), but that in the last several decades, with the development of more humane attitudes toward animals, animal trainers—professional ones, anyhow—have turned increasingly to the use of the carrot ("love," reward, etc.) and have had pretty good success in doing so, though probably no more success than their predecessors (and that is to say, none at all with respect to felis catus).

Concomitantly, behavioral psychologists in the past concerned themselves hardly at all with prescriptive questions and aims. Their concern was limited almost entirely to causal and other descriptions of behavior; to questions like "Do human beings forget nonsense symbols faster than meaningful ones and at what rate?" or "What caused these rats to do X—fear or hunger?" One can see why this was so, given the older method of aversive reinforcement for training animals. Electrically shocking rats (or starving pigeons) in order to discover what caused their behavior could be excused in academic circles (the native habitat of behavioral psychologists) but not electrically shocking them to make them perform various tricks, and it goes without saying that beating, electrically shocking, and otherwise inflicting pain on human beings would not have been condoned, no matter what behavioral results were envisaged or desired. But given the new method, the door to prescriptive training and control of both animals and human beings is flung wide open or, at any rate, it may seem to be.

For does not the new method have the appearance of benevolence itself, employing as it does only uses of love, reward, praise, and gentleness in reinforcements, and just reinforcements, of behavior? Suppose by titillating the palates of pigeons when they happen to do X we are able to get them to do X as a matter of course: have we done anything wrong or brutal? It might seem that we have not. And is it not the case (we can hear the new breed of behavioral psychologists exclaiming) that we have succeeded in getting our pigeons to do X as a matter of course (unmentioned goes the fact that reinforcement was mixed with erasure of consequences. A lion, for instance, trained to live at peace with lambs is relieved of the need of having to seek food)? But now (we can hear them continuing) assuredly every human being wants peace, community good-feeling, noncompetition, and benevolence to reign and he wants civilization, on the brink of extinction, to be saved.

If, then, without floggings or punishment—if with only applications of benevolent titillations to their appetites and feelings—people can have their hating, hateful, competitive, individualistic, laissez-faire modes of behavior (the sure causes of unhappiness and of the extinction of civilization, as every good socialist knows) replaced by sweet, loving, cooperative, nonindividualistic, noncompetitive modes of behavior (the very modes that produce, as all good socialists know, happiness and civilization, witness the bushman)—can there be any possible objection to this program's not being carried out? Indeed, ought it not be initiated at once by society or Government?

This intoxicating vision of things, which involves neither metaphysics nor theory of science, but only the new method of animal training extended and adapted to the laboratory and human beings and then applied prescriptively on behalf of some conceived Utopia, constitutes what I shall call "low Skinnerism." The term "low" must not, however, be construed as meaning, e.g., "vulgar." The vulgar typically have no interest or fondness for Skinnerism, low or high. By "low" I mean only "low in theoretic content."

Low Skinnerism flows copiously and constantly from the glib, caustic, urbane, careless pen of B.F. Skinner, providing (as high Skinnerism does not) heady intoxication to governmental and kindred minds. To keep this new wine protected from unfriendly elements Skinner has selected, with more cunning than wisdom, various bottles into which he pours it. On inspection these prove to be the long-discarded, musty old bottles of early 20th century radical positivism and Watsonian behaviorism, with their patched and tattered labels denouncing inferred entities, ordinary language, experientially transcendent models, and metaphysics; and extolling, as scientific truisms, a reductionist metaphysics of behavior-bits and events, an equally metaphysical determinism, and a perfectly unusable, simplistic conception of scientific method that resembles merely the "method" of simple enumeration clothed in hortatory language. By "high Skinnerism" I shall mean these musty, old theoretical containers into which Skinner has poured the heady new wine of low Skinnerism ("new" in that it promises Utopia without the use of whips and torture-chambers, so characteristic of earthly Utopias, or the test-tubes and other horrors of Brave New World).

In dealing with Professor Machan's destructive critique of Skinnerism I shall ask, first, how it succeeds with respect to high Skinnerism and then how it succeeds with respect to low Skinnerism.


As we have noted, high Skinnerism pretends that its reductionistic and deterministic theses, along with its conception of scientific method, all have their origin in science (it also pretends, it should be added, that all antithetical theses, e.g., human freedom, human dignity, have their origin in superstition, philosophy or metaphysics, and pre-scientific or ordinary language). With good effect Professor Machan points out that Skinner's conception of scientific method is itself neither a finding of any science (p. 65, p. 148) nor a very plausible conception of science to begin with (pp. 80-81). He observes that the only evidence that Skinner can be said to present for his purportedly scientific contention that persons fall completely under the rule of environmental determinism is his antecedent reduction of persons and objects into episodes or events, and that this reduction is not only a piece of rather bad metaphysics (and not science at all, p. 66), but incorporates a gross misinterpretation of the subject matter of science, since science deals basically, in order of logical priority, with entities and not events or episodes (pp. 63-88). In the jargon of the prize ring these are, in my opinion, each and everyone a knock-out punch.

The most devastating of Professor Machan's criticisms of high Skinnerism, however, and an absolutely devastating one in my opinion, is his demonstration that Skinner's advocacy of universal, Humean determinism is self-defeating. In a series of detailed, closely-reasoned arguments, Professor Machan points out that if Skinner's deterministic position is accepted the consequence has to be that nothing asserted by any person, including Skinner, can coherently be claimed to be either true or false; that the very notions of true and false no longer are intelligible (and, he implies, neither are the notions of judgment, claim, etc.). I shall not try to fill in the substance of these telling arguments, but refer the reader to pp. 28-30.


It should be evident that in our view Professor Machan's destructive critique of high Skinnerism utterly succeeds. Does it with respect to low Skinnerism? The picture is not quite so unequivocal.

Professor Machan in various places and ways suggests that high Skinnerism represents an attempt by Skinner to disarm the moral objection to low Skinnerism that in treating human beings as mere objects of manipulation it takes no account of and even robs persons of human freedom and dignity. High Skinnerism attempts then to disarm this moral objection by claiming that human freedom and dignity are, first of all, demonstrable myths, in that science shows that persons fall completely under the rule of environmental determinism, hence are not free, hence possess nothing that could be called dignity; and second, they are pernicious myths, in that they stand in the way of a general acceptance and implementation of low Skinnerism (and that is to say, the road to Utopia). I think Machan is correct in his diagnosis of motive. Skinner quite obviously thinks that human freedom and dignity constitute, if legitimate concepts, a moral barrier to the acceptance and implementation of low Skinnerism and that, in fact, the widespread belief in these two concepts accounts for the stubborn opposition to low Skinnerism on the part of most persons: hence his insistence that they are not legitimate concepts and the almost pathological animus he displays toward them.

But is low Skinnerism as morally dependent upon a refutation or vindication of high Skinnerism as Machan and Skinner respectively seem to think? The answer depends, as far as I can see, on whether every normal person is capable of deciding political and related issues correctly or whether only a certain few persons are. Of course, if political decisions could be designed to be so limited in scope that a person's wrong decision could not injure another person, and this would be the restricted scope of political decisions that Professor Machan would subscribe to, then even this consideration would not count. We could say—Let everyone make his mistakes; just being able to make mistakes is what counts. But in actual fact one's own political decisions do affect other persons for better or worse. Granted this, it might indeed seem that a Platonic elite, whether consisting of Skinnerians or Randians, would have the right and even duty to see to it, using even subliminal manipulations, that the masses acted in certain ways and not others, just as parents see to it by similar manipulations that children act in certain ways and not others. This would mean, to be sure, that we could not ascribe dignity to most persons (just as we do not ascribe dignity to children). But if the truth were as described then, it seems to me, Professor Machan would have to concede that the moral objection that he raises (and that Skinner attempts to parry through high Skinnerism), namely, that low Skinnerism is immoral, falls to the ground. According to my recollection, neither Professor Machan nor Skinner provides us with evidence showing that most persons have or have not the capacity of making right political decisions.

But suppose that Professor Machan's devastating critique of high Skinnerism leaves low Skinnerism untouched (I do not say that it does; only that it can plausibly be argued to): does low Skinnerism pass through the gauntlet of Part One unscathed? I do not think so.

For one thing, it does not evade Machan's point that whatever triumphs in prescriptive training have been achieved with pigeons and other animals in Skinnerian laboratories, it does not follow, as Skinnerians seem to think, that they can be achieved with men. It would only follow if these animals and men were in all essentials alike. But Skinnerians merely assume that they are—they nowhere adduce concrete, scientific evidence to show that they are and a great deal of common sense evidence in fact argues against the supposition. As Machan notes, human beings conceptualize, legislate, deliberate concerning alternatives, engage in political life, etc., and these are things that the Skinnerian pigeons and chimpanzees do not do (p. 141).

In addition, and lending independent weight to the previous point, Professor Machan perceptively observes that "it is not one's responsibility to prove that the scientist cannot do something; it is the scientist's responsibility to prove that he can." (p. 143) If, for instance, Skinnerians established someplace a Brook's Farm and in actual fact produced a community of joyous and productive persons—if even Skinnerians appeared to lead more joyous and productive lives than other persons (but they do not)—one might have some reason to take their pronouncements and promises seriously. But Machan is right: one cannot, one should not, take seriously their claim, empty of any show of actual accomplishment, that they might, for all one knows, be able to produce a Utopian community, for who can prove that they cannot? Persuasive as this sort of argumentum ad ignorantium may seem to be it amounts, as Machan says, to a mere hoax.

It goes without saying that I have had to pass over, without comment, many subordinate but telling arguments and considerations that Professor Machan brings to bear against both low and high Skinnerism, and against Skinner himself (as an objective discussant). But those that I have excerpted dispose conclusively, it seems to me, of high Skinnerism and profoundly undermine—if not demolish—the claims of low Skinnerism. At the same time I should like to interject a note of complaint. This has to do, not with Professor Machan's arguments themselves, but the mechanics of their presentation. There is a tendency in the book for primary arguments to be lumped indiscriminately with secondary ones, and the latter to be given as much billing as the former. There is also a certain amount of fatty repetition that could stand rendering.


In his vindication of human freedom and dignity, which occupies most of Part Two, Professor Machan attempts to carry out two major projects: one, to present a scientifically acceptable account of human freedom; and two, to present a rationally acceptable ethics and politics, based upon the concepts of human freedom and dignity. As can be at once perceived, the last program, if carried out successfully, must stand as a concrete refutation of Skinner's dismissal of the notions of human freedom and dignity as pernicious myths and the first, if successful, must stand as a concrete refutation of Skinner's contumelious relegation of human freedom to the limbo of a mere superstition. The logic of Professor Machan's strategy is sound. To have shown that Skinner's arguments attempting to disestablish human freedom and dignity are untenable and fallacious (as Part One devotes itself to doing) is not equivalent to having shown that human freedom and dignity are not in fact pernicious myths.

Before undertaking a critical examination of Professor Machan's two programs for Part Two it might be helpful to fill in some of the contents of both. In this way the persuasive force of Professor Machan's ideas, which is considerable, will not be lost in the dust of criticism.


Following Branden and others, Machan locates human freedom in the "capacity of men to choose to conceptualize within their own individual range of intellectual abilities and circumstances." (p. 163) The capacity to conceptualize is, in turn, located in the capacity to reason or "man's rational capacity." The line of argument for these locations or partial identifications presumably goes something like this: unless we had a conception of alternatives (thus, conceptualization) we should not have the power to choose (p. 163); and unless we added to action something that distinguished it from mere movement (and what can this something be but intention, judgment, or some other mental activity?) we should not be able to characterize the action as free, for freedom is not a characteristic of mere movement (p. 164). But while the capacity of choice is located by Machan in reason or the capacity to conceptualize, it is not wholly identified with it: as said, it is "the capacity to choose to conceptualize." It is (Machan here quotes Branden with approval) "the choice between focusing and nonfocusing, between thinking and non-thinking." (p. 164) Thus, Machan's model of human freedom, as so far depicted, looks like this: an action, e.g., going to bed, is free when it originates in a process of thought covering various conceived alternatives, e.g., to stay up or to go to bed, and when this process of thought originates in the person's choice to initiate that process (viz the alternative of not initiating it). This model, Machan holds, permits us to escape the charge of indeterminism (p. 165). Since the source of the voluntary action, i.e., to go to bed, lay finally in the person's choice to originate a process of thought one might say that the action was self-determined or self-caused (hence, not undetermined).

On what grounds can this model be said to present a scientifically acceptable ("respectable") account of human freedom? Machan cites a psycho-physicist, Roger W. Sperry's, "observations" on the brain, which indicate that we can, in terms of brain-processes, conceive of "free will" if construed as "self-determination" (p. 165); moreover, a freedom that allows for moral responsibility (loc. cit.).


A distinction usually has to be made between what a theorist's first premises dictate as theorems and what the theorist himself gratuitously asserts as theorems. Professor Machan explicitly contends that what is morally right or good transcends freedom or the mere capacity to choose to initiate or not initiate thinking. He says that "the idea of moral responsibility means that while each person is free to choose between alternative courses of action, there are among these ones he ought to select and others he ought to avoid." (p. 174) This seems to imply that the mere capacity to choose to initiate or not initiate thought, i.e., freedom, cannot be identified with being moral; and it must be granted that in various places Machan plainly indicates that it cannot be: being moral must be identified with being rational as well as being free (p. 183). At the same time Machan wants to claim that being moral consists in that "sort of conduct by which human beings, just by virtue of their humanity, ought to live." (p. 174) But antecedently Machan has maintained that he has "developed the case for a certain definition of man—i.e., that any individual with the capacity for volitional consciousness is properly said to have a human nature." (p. 172) Presumably, then, possessing humanity means possessing the capacity of volitional consciousness.

What, then, does possessing volitional consciousness consist in? The closest Machan comes to telling us is in a quotation to the effect that "volition is…the capacity of human beings to regulate their consciousness." (p. 167) What does "the capacity of human beings to regulate their consciousness" mean? From a quotation from Branden (p. 171) we can assume that it means "focus one's consciousness." But "focus one's consciousness" would seem to be synonymous with "thinking or not thinking." Thus, in all strictness, what Machan would seem to mean by "humanity" is the capacity to choose to think or not to think—in other words, freedom. In what follows later we shall first hold him to this strict construction of his premises; but then we shall allow him to add, deus ex machina, the qualification "but also rational": in short, being moral is being both free and rational.

For lack of space we cannot embark upon a critical examination of either Machan's politics or his theory of human dignity (even though the latter concept does explicitly enter into his meta-ethics). We can only comment that both topics are advanced in an interesting and prima facie persuasive way (though, to be sure, we find grave difficulties with Machan's theories concerning both).


Now it must be understood: I absolutely agree that humans (and indeed, Killer Whales, Gorillas, and some other species of mammal) exercise freedom of choice in the fullest sense of that term. It must be understood, in short, that if I find difficulties with Professor Machan's model of freedom, it does not follow that I find difficulties with the concept itself, or the thing itself, nor should I want to deny for an instant that persons do exercise freedom of choice. Indeed, I think that Professor Machan's destructive critique of Skinner's universal determinism conclusively demonstrates that individuals must (logically must) exercise freedom of choice. At the same time, I find insuperable difficulties connected with Professor Machan's model. Thus, I shall want to deny that he has accomplished the first part of his Part Two program. What are these difficulties? Here are the two most visible ones.

1. Professor Machan wants to maintain, as we have seen, that the theory of freedom as self-determination is scientific (not necessarily scientifically conclusively true; just scientific). We have to grant that the conceptual picture presented is scientific. That is to say, the model talks in the scientific terms of this causing that. But astrology talks in the same terms, and so does primitive animism. The cash-value of such talk—what makes it scientific as opposed to merely imaginative—is the existence of established, experimental confirmations or disconfirmations. So far as I can make out, there is no possible way of experimentally confirming or disconfirming the claim either that something called the self-determination of thought processes exists or does not exist. The claim seems to involve a methodological impasse. That impasse is this. I am supposed to have the power of willing to think, and having willed to think, I think. But unless I first had the thought of thinking I could not have willed to think. Thus, to will to think I already had to think. How is such a peculiar sequence of actions to be scientifically confirmed or disconfirmed? Purely and simply: it cannot be.

2. This same consideration takes us to our second and major objection to Professor Machan's model of freedom. Forget science. We shall attend only to the broadest conceptual questions, which Machan has agreed do not lie within the province of science. (Incidentally, our objection is not original. It has been adduced against Rand and Branden's (and therefore Machan's) model of freedom for a good number of years.) The gist of the objection is this. Freedom is supposed to involve rationality and simultaneously it is supposed to consist ultimately in the choice to think or not to think (focus or not focus). But unless I am already thinking how do I rationally decide to initiate a process of thought? Clearly, I cannot. Thus, if we are to believe Machan's model (and Rand's and Branden's), every initiation of thought is purely arbitrary and indeterministic. But let me reiterate: I do not deny for a moment that persons can will to think or not to think. What I am denying—and all that I am denying—is Machan's (and Rand's and Branden's) analysis and explanation of how this takes place. But this perhaps seeming quibble is not of trivial proportions. We must, I think, agree with Rand (and Branden and Machan) that theoretical errors are the source of moral and practical errors—some of which lie at the bottom of our contemporary political and ethical troubles. Until, then, Machan's model of freedom is properly reconstituted it can only vitiate thought and practice.


Let us consider first the strict construction of Machan's ethics, according to which being moral consists merely in freedom or the capacity to initiate or not initiate thought by choice. Any casuist worth his salt should be able to dream up a dozen counter-examples to this naive theory. A more interesting disconfirmation can be modeled on Socrates' demonstration in the Theatetus that radical empiricism cannot account for the possibility of error or falsity. It can similarly be maintained that the present definition of being moral cannot account or allow for the possibility of a person's being immoral. If being moral consists in having the capacity of choosing to initiate or not initiate thought and if this capacity is shared by all human beings (as Machan wants to maintain it is) then everyone at all times is being moral. Just how could one be immoral?

Machan's more loosely constructed theory, that being moral consists in both being free and being rational, is not much more viable. Take the case of a person at the bottom of a dungeon. He knows that any sound he makes can be heard by no one and can only result in a painful throat. Having initiated this process of thought he nonetheless screams and continues screaming. In this he is being much more irrational than a person who reasons that he can acquire wealth and other things which he desires by murdering his father. Thus, according to Machan's looser theory, we must conclude that the poor wretch screaming at the bottom of a dungeon is not only immoral but he is much more immoral than the cold-blooded parricide! But this is absurd!

It is plain to see: I do not think that Machan's two programs in Part Two get off the ground. What this negative conclusion comes to, however, is not: Skinner vindicated (not that at all!) but "Let us return to our drawing boards!" I should want to add, moreover, that The Pseudo-Science of B.F. Skinner, not only in its credible but its incredible parts, provides a valuable base for these future operations and warrants any serious thinker's attention and study.

John O. Nelson is professor of philosophy at the University of Colorado. He has published numerous articles in various scholarly journals.