Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Duality of Skinner

[Johnathan Clayborn]
In my Personality Psychology class this past week I had to write a book review. For my particular book I chose an early work of the famous psychologist B. F. Skinner, who is a noted behavioral psychologist in particular. In my work in the Behavioral Health field many of my colleagues refer to Skinner with a love-hate attitude and I never understood why…until I read one of his books. In my mind Skinner comes across as equal part genius and madman.
The particular work I read that lead me to this conclusion was originally published in 1971 and is entitled Beyond Freedom & Dignity.  Upon completion of that book I was definitely left with mixed feelings about Skinner. On the one hand I had a new found respect for him, and on the other hand I found him to be completely absurd at times.
The thing that made me respect Skinner and appreciate his keen insight was laid out in the first chapter of the book. He basically points out that all of the major problems that humanity faces in the world today are caused by humans and human behavior. He suggests that biological and/or technological means alone are not enough to correct these issues. If we want to correct the problems of the world we need to alter our behavior. To me, this seems rather brilliant. I mean, if your dog takes a crap on your rug you don’t invent technology to clean it up, you train the dog to crap outside. Problem solved. Why should humanity’s problems be any different? If we can avoid the problems altogether by altering our behavior, then certainly this seems like the wiser, simpler, more cost-efficient option. In the last chapter of the book he also talks about how, despite our in-depth knowledge of everything else in the world around us, the human brain and human behavior is one subject about which we know relatively little by comparison.
But then there’s the entire middle section of the book. I’ll spare you the ludicrous details and summarize for you. Skinner believes in a principal called determinism. In this part of the book he outlines a concept not too dissimilar to the “divine right” notion that medieval monarchs used to solidify their claim to power. He asserts that the actions of people are pre-determined and beyond their control. He states that it is folly to reward people for their actions, since they didn’t have any choice in them anyway. He also says that punishing people for their actions is folly for the same reason.  I cannot believe in this philosophy for reasons I’ll explain in a moment.
One thing that I found particularly interesting was that at points Skinner uses circular reasoning to support his claims. He suggests that ideas are not the cause of behavior, and then in the very next breath blames the “freedom literature” for people believing that they have a choice in their actions and the subsequent behaviors that follow as a result. But if choice and free will are only illusions, then certainly the existence of “freedom literature” would have no bearing on whether people develop behaviors that try to assert free will because we don’t have control over our behavior anyway, right?  Also, as an alternative to punishment Skinner proposes that people should be rewarded for good behavior instead of being penalized for bad behavior as it is a more effective method for behavior modification. Excuse me? In the preceding chapters you just stated that people should not be rewarded for their behaviors because they can’t control them anyway. And it people truly cannot control their behavior, then attempting to modify their behavior is going to be beyond your control anyway.
In some ways I do buy into the determinism thing in some small measures. For example, I truly believe that I was put here on this earth to accomplish something. I have to believe that. Logically, I should not be alive. It’s a statistical impossibility, so it’s the only conclusion that I can draw. (More on that in a later posting). However, I do very much believe in the concept of Free Will.
If Free Will did not exist, then logic would dictate that, all things being equal, people who are put into the same situation would respond in the same fashion. However, history is full of examples where this is certainly not the case. Some slaves just gave up and accepted their fate, while others rose up and rebelled against their masters despite the obvious dangers. Some soldiers in conflict choose to run away from danger only interested in saving their own lives, while other soldiers will sacrifice their lives to protect the lives of their comrades. Some people remain addicted to drugs or alcohol while others make the decision to quit and do so successfully. I would wager that we have all been in situations at some point or another where we have been in conflict about what to decide and we have chosen to do one thing over another. The notion that everything that we do has already been predetermined and that we all are just mindless drones carrying out some set-in-stone-plan is one that the very fiber of my being tells me is wrong. That’s the very essence of humanity. We have the choice to make decisions about our future and our fates. And if we don’t like the future that stands before us we have the power and the ability to change it.  I cannot believe that we are locked into a predetermined path and nothing we do or say will change that. Maybe I’m wrong about this. And no doubt some of you will disagree with me, and I respect that. But based on my personal experiences I cannot logically reconcile how it would be true. If we are predetermined to do something or act in a certain way, then I could theoretically just give up and stop doing everything and it wouldn’t matter because it would all end up the same anyway, so why bother trying? That part just doesn’t make sense to me and it flies in the face of every personal experience I’ve ever had. I have to believe that I have the power to make my own destiny, that we all do.

No comments:

Post a Comment

These blogs represent my thoughts, ideas and opinions. They may be different from yours. You may not agree with them. While I do enjoy a good, polite debate on a topic (where points are countered with other points based on logic, reason and fact), I do not enjoy an argument (where you tell me that I am wrong simply because you disagree and cannot offer any reasons to support your position). I am very respectful of others, and I expect everyone on here to be respectful in return, not only to me, but to each other as well. Disrespectful posts will be deleted automatically. Feel free to share your ideas, but keep it civil, please.