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Listening to B F. Skinner

by James W. Woefel

Dr. Woelfel is professor of philosophy and religious studies at the University of Kansas, Lawrence. This article appeared in the Christian Century November 30, 1977, p. 1112. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission.  Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org.  This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Amid the furor periodically aroused by B. F. Skinner’s behaviorism, scant attention has been given to the intriguing relationship between his ideas and Christianity. The shortcomings of Skinner’s theory -- that human acts are the product of heredity and environment -- are well known; I shall return to one of them later. At the same time, criticism of Skinner’s work tends to be marred by emotional overreaction and by downright inaccuracy. Defensiveness about behavior modification’s apparent threat to “freedom and dignity” has to some degree blinded critics to its positive value  -- both as it illuminates human behavior and as it has proved to be a means of helping persons. In contrast, I believe that Skinner’s work and the growing influence of “behavior mod” techniques in educational, mental health, and penal programs need to be responded to in a constructive and integrative way. Here, then, is a modest attempt to spell out the implications of Skinner’s thought for religion.

The Earnest Adventure That Failed

No unusual or significant involvement with religion seems to have touched Skinner’s own life, at least as he describes it in the first volume of his autobiography, Particulars of My Life (Knopf, 1976). He attended the Presbyterian Sunday school regularly in his hometown of Susquehanna, Pennsylvania, and he recalls being terrified as a young child by his grandmother’s vivid description of the hell that awaits children who tell lies. In the classes of a revered English teacher, Mary Graves, Skinner appears to have received a thorough exposure to the Old and New Testaments taught as literature. But in terms of serious personal involvement with faith, his experience was textbook-typical: an intense but brief period of religiosity as an early adolescent that accompanied and conflicted with his awakening sexual awareness. As Skinner described it in a “historical-religious” account of his religious education, written a year after graduating from college: “Religion and religious ideas bothered me and I thought a great deal about them. I had never associated freely with other boys [as he began to do at that time] and now my doubts about things and my sex shame drove me almost to solitude” (Particulars, p. 110).

The adolescent Skinner considered the recovery of a lost watch a divine revelation; Elijah-like, he believed that faith really could move mountains, and he tried to demonstrate it with an experiment in levitation that failed. But the earnest adventure with faith was short-lived. Having come up against the usual sorts of doubts about religion that arise for persons as intelligent as Skinner, he marked the end of this period of religiosity by announcing to Miss Graves that he no longer believed in God -- to which that fascinating woman replied (sardonically? sympathetically?), “I have been through that, too” (p. 112).

The Christianity ‘Phenomenon’

The adult Skinner evinces in his writings a literate awareness of the phenomenon of religion, specifically of Christianity. References to religion are scattered liberally throughout his works. He recognizes religion as one of the chief social and ideological elements in human experience. Frequently, Skinner’s references to aspects of religion are illustrations of behavior or behavior control, as for example when he writes in Beyond Freedom and Dignity (Bantam, 1972): “Heaven is portrayed as a collection of positive reinforcers and hell as a collection of negative, although they are contingent upon behavior executed before death” (p. 129). Only in his early, very systematic work Science and Human Behavior (Free Press, 1953) does Skinner deal with religion topically. There he devotes a chapter to it as one of several “controlling agencies” -- along with government and law, psychotherapy, economic control, and education (pp. 350-58).

Religion also figures importantly, if briefly, in his historical analysis of how scientific explanation developed. In Skinner’s perspective, prescientific humans needed the gods -- mythical “theoretical entities” -- to explain natural and human phenomena. Our continued belief in mind as an “indwelling agent causing the behavior of a body is a relic of the old unscientific belief in invisible causes of phenomena. “Physics and biology soon abandoned explanations of this sort,” says Skinner, “and turned to more useful kinds of causes, but the step has not been decisively taken in the field of human behavior” (Beyond Freedom and Dignity, p. 5).

Skinner’s characterization of the gods as explanatory fictions is, of course, a very familiar partial truth: it constitutes the least interesting aspect of his treatment of religion. He also persists’ in attacking the “homunculus” caricature of mind or self even after nearly all sophisticated accounts of the human being and behavior have long abandoned mind/ body dualism.

‘Walden Two’: Human Utopia, Not Machine

Significantly, it is in his popular fictional work Walden Two (1948) that Skinner chiefly manifests a fascinating relationship to Christianity. Almost 30 years after its publication, this novel remains the best introduction to the man and the spirit of his behaviorism. More fully than any of his nonfiction writings, Walden Two reveals Skinner’s humanity and humanism, his wide reading and general literacy, his wit and imagination, his loves and aversions. In personal passion it much surpasses his autobiography. Walden Two also has the virtue of making appealingly clear the fully human face that “behavior mod” has always had for Skinner and his followers -- over against the sinister, mechanistic caricature of the Skinnerian world.

Walden Two lets us see the principles of behaviorism ideally at work among concrete, normal human beings interacting in a social setting. In the course of the story Skinner touches on a remarkable number of issues large and small, dramatizes specific examples of behavior-changing techniques, and reveals a larger appreciation of the nuances in actual human behavior than is apparent in his other books. In one way (but only one!) he is like some of the existentialist writers: he seems to state his position more clearly and compellingly in fiction than in nonfiction.

It is commonplace for novelists to warn us against identifying them with any of their fictional creations or the particular views that characters express. As it happens, however, in a 1956 American Psychologist article we have Skinner’s own word for it that his protagonist, Frazier, is to a large degree a spokesman for himself -- boldly setting forth some ideas that Skinner at the time was not prepared to advance in his own name. Even without the author’s confirmation, the reader is most likely to infer such an identification from the clearly didactic -- indeed, evangelical -- tone of the book, a tone which is also the source of its artistic flaws. There is no reason to believe that Frazier’s remarks about Christianity do not reflect something of Skinner’s own thinking.

Frazier turns out to be a warm admirer of Jesus -- not, of course, as a religious figure, but as a person with great psychological insight. Burns, the narrator of the story (Burrhus Frederick Skinner’s questioning alter ego?), relates that Frazier “spoke as if Jesus were an honored colleague whose technical discoveries he held in the highest esteem” (Macmillan, 1962, p. 299). Jesus’ greatness lay in his being “the first to discover the power of refusing to punish” Frazier is deeply impressed by Jesus’ injunction to love one’s enemies. This he sees as an effective method of avoiding both self-punishment and the use of physical force to control other people’s behavior:

To “do good to those who despitefully use you” has two unrelated consequences. You gain peace of mind. Let the stronger man push you around -- at least you avoid the torture of your own rage. That’s the immediate consequence. What an astonishing discovery it must have been to find that in the long run you could control the stronger man in the same way [p. 261].

Frazier chides Castle, the philosopher who is a wretched caricature and little more than a foil for his arguments, because the latter sees only two alternatives -- free will on the one hand, and on the other, control of behavior by physical force or threat of force: “Not being a good behaviorist -- or a good Christian, for that matter -- you have no feeling for a tremendous power of a different sort” (p. 259). What Frazier is talking about is positive reinforcement as a means of changing behavior; he seems to equate it with what Jesus and Christianity are trying to get at with the notion of agape, the power that alone overcomes evil and reconciles human beings to one another. Of course, Frazier goes on to say, Jesus discovered and articulated the principle but lacked the knowledge we now possess: through reinforcement theory we can deliberately create social conditions in which punishment has been eliminated as a way to control behavior.

As exegesis, of course, all this is seriously wanting. But as a practical contribution to the Christian “art of loving,” Skinner’s work on the effectiveness of positive reinforcement and the ineffectiveness of punishment continues to deserve serious attention.

Frazier’s Providential Economy

In Walden Two Skinner indulges in a bit of fun directed, I think, at both himself and his critics. Frazier confesses that, as the designer of the Walden Two community, he “likes to play God”; jokingly, but not altogether facetiously, he compares himself to the Creator-Father and to Christ the Son. At one point his physical posture even mimics Jesus on the cross.

“In many ways the creation of Walden Two,” its creator says, “was closer to the spirit of Christian cosmogony than the evolution of the world according to modern science” (p. 299). That is, Walden Two was brought into being by Frazier’s purposeful design; it did not evolve hit-and-miss. The “science of behavior” enables Frazier to design the community so that he knows what the consequences of each aspect of its design will be -- just as in traditional theology it is according to God’s eternal plan and purpose that the universe as a whole and in all its parts unfolds. In a key passage, Frazier goes on to relate this creation analogy to what he calls “the old question of predestination and free will.” As he describes it to Burns:

All that happens is contained in an original plan, yet at every stage the individual seems to be making choices and determining the outcome. The same is true of Walden Two. Our members are practically always doing what they want to do -- what they “choose” to do -- but we see to it that they will want to do precisely the things which are best for themselves and the community. Their behavior is determined, yet they’re free [pp. 296-7].

Skinner’s Denial of Freedom

It is the linkup Frazier makes here -- between Walden Two’s “behavioral engineering” and a classical theological determinism -- that provides the touchstone for the rest of this essay. Skinner’s explicit and robust determinism is of course well known, not to say notorious among his detractors. He grants that determinism is unprovable; nonetheless he claims that it is axiomatic for scientific inquiry and continually vindicated by it. Frazier makes this claim unmistakably: “I deny that freedom exists at all. Perhaps we can never prove that man isn’t free; it’s an assumption. But the increasing success of a science of behavior makes it more and more plausible” (p. 257).

There is no contradiction in Frazier’s two statements -- his assertion of freedom and his denial of it. In the first he uses “free” in the everyday sense of being able to do what one wants to do. In the second he uses the term “freedom” to refer to the idea of a causal agent, a personal author of actions, whose agency is necessarily but not sufficiently accounted for by its antecedent conditions.

John Hick very aptly describes this concept of freedom in Evil and the God of Love: “Whilst a free action arises out of the agent’s character it does not arise in a fully determined and predictable way. It is largely but not fully prefigured in the previous state of the agent. For the character is itself partially formed and sometimes partially re-formed in the very moment of decision” (London: Collins, 1968, p. 312). It is this basic notion of freedom as indeterminisin that Skinner denies. (I shall return shortly to Frazier’s positive use of an “everyday” notion of freedom.)

According to Skinner’s behaviorism, all human behavior results from the interaction between genetic-evolutionary endowment and environmental contingencies. He grants that human actions are highly complex and that frequently we cannot predict them accurately because of the many factors involved. But he believes that all actions are predictable in principle. He is. furthermore, convinced by the actual successes of behavior-modification experiments that empirically we can learn enough of the relevant factors to predict and bring about desired behavior.

Other references in Skinner’s writings indicate as well that Skinner is clearly aware, at least in broad outline, of the tradition of theological determinism in Christianity. Theologians, perhaps more than any other humanistically oriented inquirers, should be able from out of their own biblical and theological tradition to appreciate the Skinnerian picture of our utter creatureliness and interdependence. Admittedly, his narrowly physicalist conceptual scheme and terminology are off-putting. Those who are scandalized by Skinner, however, should recall that some of Christianity’s finest minds have been driven into a theological determinism by central elements in the biblical and theological portrayals of the Creator and his relationship to his creatures. I am speaking, of course, of Augustine and those other luminaries of the Augustinian tradition: Luther, Calvin and Edwards.

Edwards’s Necessary World

Jonathan Edwards in fact provides an excellent example: the exponent of a thoroughgoing, consistent theological determinism, he brilliantly reworked theology in the light of that early modern philosophical and scientific knowledge which made possible Skinner’s work. Edwards was overwhelmed by the mystic contemplation of the infinite, eternal, omnipotent, omniscient Being whose creative power and wisdom brings into being out of nothingness, alone sustaining the whole universe of myriad creatures visible and invisible.

To Edwards it was metaphysically preposterous to think that there was anything whatsoever, whether in the “natural” or in the “moral” order, that did not have a necessary and sufficient cause. In Freedom of the Will he wrote: “So that it is indeed as repugnant to reason, to suppose that an act of the will should come into existence without a cause, as to suppose the human soul, or an angel, or the globe of the earth, or the whole universe, should come into existence without a cause” (Bobbs-Merrill, 1969, p. 54). As for the Arminian notion that the will is self-determined, Edwards attempted to show that the very concept of self-determination is riddled with contradictions.

The alternative to self-determination is other-determination. Edwards’s analysis of human behavior might be called “environmental,” in Skinner’s sense of the total environing field -- physical, social, linguistic -- to which human behavior is a response. According to Edwards, volitionally the human mind is determined by the strongest among the various “motives” that it perceives. A motive is any sort of fact -- or environmental contingency or set of contingencies, if you will -- perceived as an object of choice or preference. Volition or “willing” is inseparable from motivation so understood. In his classic study of Edwardean theology, Piety Versus Moralism, Joseph Haroutunian -- writing in the heyday of the earlier (and much less sophisticated) Watsonian behaviorism -- made this striking observation:

A modern rendering of this analysis is the study of human behavior in terms of “stimulus and response.” A stimulus is Edwards’ “motive,” and response is volitional behavior. Such a study is based upon the principle that where there is no stimulus, there is no response; where there is no action, there is no reaction; where there is no cause, there is no effect. The nature of a given stimulus is irrelevant to the fact that it acts as a stimulus. An “S-R bond” may be physical or it may be moral, and in both cases it is a “certain connection” between a “motive” and an act of volition. Edwards’ metaphysical principle of necessity is the modern methodological principle that all action is reaction [Harper & Row, 1932, p. 225].

Like the other Augustinians, Edwards considered the “ordinary language” definition of freedom to be the only coherent and usable one: “power, opportunity or advantage that any one has, to do as he pleases” (Freedom of the Will, pp. 31-2). I am free insofar as I am able to carry out in action without impediment what I prefer to do. But of course what I prefer to do is determined by the strongest motive that presents itself. It is certainly the case that I may or may not be able in any given circumstances to do as I please, but it is not the case that I am similarly able or not able to “please as I please.”

As we have seen, Frazier expresses an analogous notion of freedom in Walden Two. Persons in the utopian community do what they want to do -- and hence are “free” in the ordinary sense. But what they want to do is determined by environmental contingencies of reinforcement. A chief difference, of course, between Walden Two and God’s world is that behavior in the former is a predictable and humanly desirable consequence of reinforcers that are designed and controlled by human beings.

The Limits of Determinism

Of course, theological determinism is utterly out of fashion -- for what are generally good and substantial theological reasons. As for Skinner’s contemporary naturalistic determinism, many natural scientists would simply deny that the deterministic hypothesis is absolutely necessary to scientific inquiry. They would point to the indeterminacy principle in physics, which establishes at least the possibility that scientific theory may have to adapt itself in some areas to phenomena that are insufficiently determined by general laws. Some scientists engaged in the biological study of human behavior would go on to say that a strictly determinist theory is not adequate to explain the nature and complexity of data such as self-awareness, self-criticism, symbolization and choice-making.

There are several other important criticisms to be made of Skinner’s theory that I shall not go into: his apparent obliviousness to the inherent limitations of his and every particular theoretical model, his methodological tunnel vision, and his explanatory superficiality. And yet even when the severe inadequacies of Skinner’s portrayal of the human situation are taken into account, we must go on, I believe, to acknowledge the sobering measure of truth contained in it. For Skinner is simply an extreme and provocative exponent of a persuasive general proposition with which we have long been familiar, chiefly through the work of the social sciences: that human being and behavior are, at least to an indeterminably large degree, shaped by the interaction between biological nature and social/physical environments.

Skinner’s challenge to the defenders of human freedom is one of his most important and useful contributions. There is still far too much unwarranted confidence, careless equivocation, unexamined assumption, and plain self-deception in our talk of personal liberty. Skinner forces us to face up to the formidable reality of genetic-environmental conditioning, the elusive nature and scope of freedom, and the far-reaching ethical, social and theological implications of such data.

In the continuing debate about human freedom, not only determinists but also nearly all indeterminists (the early Sartre is the notable exception) recognize that our behavior is at least to a very large degree determined by heredity and environment. C. A. Campbell, one of the most distinguished philosophical defenders of freedom in this century, believed that very few human actions qualify as free behavior. And in The Ghost in the Machine -- a brilliantly creative synthesis of recent work in the biological study of human behavior, albeit a dismal caricature of Skinner’s behaviorism -- Arthur Koestler defends human freedom on biological grounds, while concluding nevertheless that it is impossible to decide whether or not anyone’s actions in a given situation are free. “How am I to know,” he asks, “whether or to what extent his responsibility was diminished when he acted as he did, whether he could ‘help it’? Compulsion and freedom are opposite ends of a graded scale; but there is no pointer attached to the scale that I could read” (London: Pan Books, 1970, p. 251). Koestler here puts his finger on the dilemma: on the one hand, if we are faithful to the full range of the data of human selfhood we need to be open, pace Skinner, to genuine indeterminacy. On the other hand, such indeterminacy is impossible to identify.

A Balanced Response to Persons

Skinner’s work -- and 20th century advances in the social and natural sciences generally -- poses a practical moral question for all of us: How can I respond compassionately to the bondage in your and my character and actions, while at the same time nurturing the elusive, unbound dimension of our selfhood? The balance between these two responses is extremely difficult to strike; we are hampered by our deep-rooted assumptions about freedom, as well as by the nature of our involvements with other persons. Nonetheless, it is just such a balanced response to persons that the data of human behavior demand of us.

Contemporary knowledge of human nature and action gives new force to the commandment to love my neighbor as myself. It is typically the case that I rationalize my own behavior -- in part, that I excuse it with causal or determining explanations: “I’ve had a bad day,” or “It’s just the way I am.” At the same time, I tend not to excuse other persons in this way but to hold them fully responsible for their actions. In other words, generally speaking I am a determinist with regard to myself and an indeterminist with regard to others. To love others as myself means, in part, that I must be compassionate enough to recognize in their actions the determining factors that I recognize honestly in my own life.

The balanced response of love also demands that I recognize, challenge and nurture both in others and in myself, in a quite unmoralistic way, that mysterious and hidden center which is an unpredictable source of creative response-ability. The elusiveness of freedom that should make us charitable in our judgments about other persons is that same freedom which renders all of us responsive to challenge and which enables us to grow in surprising ways.

A Powerful Reminder of Creatureliness

In the final analysis, Christianity does not need to be reminded of human freedom -- quite the contrary. However, neither classical nor modern Christian thought, I believe, has faced with utter seriousness the heavy “weight” of biology and environment as they shape human actions. Even the Augustinian theologians indulged in tortuous verbal gymnastics at they attempted, for example, to hold persons responsible for their sins within the context of a theological determinism. (In view of my previous remarks, the vital notion of responsibility must be justified on pragmatic -- behavioral -- grounds; it cannot, it seems to me, be defended “ontologically” by arguments for human freedom.)

Skinner’s work is an invaluable, if clearly limited, reminder to Christians of some of the radical implications of our earthly creatureliness and interdependence within the web of nature and society. In depth and explanatory power, the psychoanalytic tradition remains a far more illuminating interpretation of human bondage, one that (in good “Augustinian” fashion) graphically accounts for the demonic character of that bondage over against Skinner’s irrepressible optimism. Nevertheless, his single-minded scientific labors, in spotlighting what is surely the enormously important role of environmental reinforcers in human behavior, are of real practical usefulness in understanding and helping persons. Skinner’s work also forms yet another essential piece in that whole puzzle of human nature and behavior which theologians are obliged to integrate into a realistic picture of human life and the cosmos.


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