Tuesday, August 18, 2015

25 years ago: The death of B.F. Skinner

The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God. Psalms 14:1a (also Psalms 53:1a)

Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools, Romans 1:22

On August 18, 1990, Dr. Skinner, one of the 20th century's most prominent psychologists, went to his own place. He became an atheist in the typical way--as the result of an emotional reaction in his youth, and not as a result of a rigorous intellectual pursuit of truth. In Dr. Skinner's case, he reportedly became an atheist after receiving conflicting views on hell. His atheistic views influenced Dr. Skinner to become a "radical behaviourist," believing that human will was an illusion and that people behaved on the basis of reinforcement, which he called operant conditioning. His best known books were the utopian novel Walden Two (1948) and Beyond Freedom and Dignity (1971).

I won't go into detail about Dr. Skinner's theories; the reader may use his Wikipedia entry as a starting point, and his name can be found in almost any psychology textbook. Herbert Schlossberg, in his book Idols for Destruction (1983), makes mention of Dr. Skinner a few times, and offers an excellent critique:

B.F. Skinner advocates a science of human behavior as the means of solving social problems that otherwise remain intractable and says that it must adopt the strategies of physics and biology. This is consistent with his view, and that of many other psychologists, that psychology is a biological science. Human beings are simply a part of nature, in that conception, and a science of human behavior must study them in that light. Such a science produces the technology that will enable people to control human behavior and therefore permit humanity to survive...

...When Skinner says that the science of human behavior must follow the strategies of natural science, he means that it must be wholly materialist. He sees no hope of ever solving the old philosophical problem of how mind and matter interact and follows the common practice of assuming that one of them does not exist, the monist position. For behaviorists, everything is material, and therefore qualities we have been accustomed to attribute to mind or spirit are merely epiphenomena of material origin. They are successions of mental events that find coherence only in their identification with the nervous tissue of a particular organism...That is why Skinner insists that to speak of human behavior in terms of aims, purposes, intuitions, or goals is to betray an understanding of man which is "prescientific..."

...There can be no free choice in the world of behaviorism because there is no human faculty that may be said to "choose." The organism simply acts as the prior contingencies have programmed it (him) to act. Moral categories, therefore, are superfluous in understanding human behavior...The moral life, in short, is a delusion, and it often functions only as a hindrance to the survival of the human race...If man cannot be distinguished ontologically from other forms of matter, then materialist determinisms are logical inferences from the observed facts of nature. But empirical observations alone yield no information about ontology. Skinner tells us repeatedly that human beings may not survive if they do not accept behavioral engineering, but nowhere does he explain why that should bother us. Human survival--the sanctity of human life--is a value, and there is no way he or anyone else can derive value from material facts. Materialists almost invariably use language that is value-laden, even though their avowed epistemology does not allow for values. Mystification covers the logical gaps. The only ethical framework compatible with materialism is nihilism, defined as living without values. (Herbert Schlossberg, Idols for Destruction, pp. 146-147, 149-150).
A 2002 survey revealed Dr. Skinner as the most influential psychologist of the 20th century, which speaks volumes about psychology (and the 20th century). Dr. Skinner is presumably no longer an atheist. The best comment on the death of an atheist--if one is to look at it from a purely materialistic point of view--that I've seen is from blogger Vox Day, on the death of "New Atheist" Christopher Hitchens on December 16, 2011:

The conglomeration of atoms that were, for a very brief moment in history, collectively known by the name Christopher Hitchens, have begun to disperse.

The universe continues as before, uncaring and unaware.

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