Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Death of the Autonomous Man?: A Review of BF Skinner's "Beyond Freedom and Dignity" (Part 2 of 2)

Wrapping up the chapter summaries and some thoughts on Skinner's world view...

Leonardo da Vinci's helicopter.  Although in many ways a brilliant design, da Vinci's helicopter would not work because it lacks a second, antitorque rotor.  The antitorque rotor applies an opposing force to the torque created by the rotor which provides lift.

In a continuation of the series started here, first the final summaries of the chapters:

6: Values

Here Skinner explores the meaning of "good" and "bad."  He suggests that what is "good" is what is "reinforcing," which is partially based on previous experience, such as cultural values, and partially on natural inclinations.  "Good things are positive reinforcers.  The food that tastes good reinforces us when we taste it." [Skinner, BF&D.]

However, calling things "good" and "bad" are also reinforcers.  We condition those around us by telling them when they are "good" or "bad," "right" or "wrong."

(One thought that I had here is that Skinner had perhaps never met an internet troll.  However, this was written in 1971, and the concept of "power motive" had yet to be fully developed.  In the power motive model, a troll would be reinforced even with "Bad!" or "Wrong!" simply by getting what he wanted: a reaction and attention from others.)

He also refers to "remote reinforcers": reinforcers in the distant future.  This can be concrete, such as storing grain for the winter or more abstract, such as heaven, the ultimate remote reinforcer.

(One thought that I had here was that if he thinks that he's the first to recognize that heaven is a remote reinforcer he needed to read the 16th century classic Chinese novel Journey to the West.  In one of her conversations with Monkey King, Guanyin explains that it is necessary to believe in heaven for people to be good and it is therefore a good thing to believe.  In most Christian thought this would come off as possibly duplicitous or disingenuous reasoning, but this sort of strange philosophical frankness is one of the reasons that though I am a Christian, Buddhism appeals to me.)

7: The Evolution of Culture

This chapter strikes me as somewhat rambling and poorly thought out.  He identifies (correctly, imho) that culture is co-reinforcing.  Furthermore, he (correctly, imho) suggests that cultures develop patterns because those patterns were positively reinforced earlier on.  Examples might be something that helped the populace survive or a tendency to grow a certain grain that an early king was fond of.

However, these same traits may no longer help survival later and may, in fact, become detrimental.

He emphasizes that he believes cultural changes are not directional; there is no such thing as an "evolved" or "mature" culture.

8: The Design of a Culture

Here Skinner talks a great deal about the predictability of large groups of individuals within a culture.  People will follow the reinforced path.  If there is no reward for being industrious, why should a person remain industrious?  If there is no punishment for being sexually free, why should a person remain chaste?  I agree with this; I think when you look at huge populations you can tell where individuals will end up by the paths that are positively or negatively reinforced.

One of the things I feel he never had a solid handle on was whether or not the path of a culture could be changed.  He says yes, it can, but it's a little unclear how he means and whether the change can be predictable.

One of the very best parts of this chapter is where Skinner imagines an argument against Dostoevsky, or at least an argument against Underground Man.  This was thrilling to me as I had long wondered what a Skinner v. Underground Man argument would look like; I was delighted that Skinner had wondered the same thing.  This is how Skinner plays it out:

It is sometimes said that the scientific design of a culture is impossible because man will simply not accept the fact that he can be controlled.  Even if it could be proved that human behavior is fully determined, said Dostoevsky, a man "would still do something out of sheer perversity - he would create destruction and chaos - just to gain his point... And if all this could in turn be analyzed and prevented by predicting that it would occur, then man would deliberately go mad to prove his point."  The implication is that he would then be out of control, as if madness were a special kind of freedom or as if the behavior of a psychotic could not be predicted or controlled.

There is a sense in which Dostoevsky may be right.  A literature of freedom would inspire a sufficiently fanatical opposition to controlling practices to generate a neurotic if not psychotic response.  There are signs of emotional instability in those who have been deeply affected by the literature.  We have no better indication of the plight of the traditional libertarian than the science and technology of behavior and their use in the intentional design of culture.

- BF Skinner, Beyond Freedom and Dignity, Chapter 8: The Design of a Culture

9: What Is Man?

In this chapters he argues against his detractors, both real and imaginary.  He argues that behavioral technology - like all technology - is merely a tool and should not be feared.

He then, however, attacks the emotional ideal of the human soul and man's uniqueness among the animals.  While he right in the scientific sense and argues the point quite eloquently, I have to say that I disagree: while it may be true that man is "mere animal," it is also true, imho, that it is not healthy or positive to perceive himself or his fellow humans as such.

It does have some lovely quotes, including:

Nothing is changed because we look at it, talk about it, or analyze it in a new way.  Keats drank confusion to Newton for analyzing the rainbow, but the rainbow remained as beautiful as ever and became for many even more beautiful.

- BF Skinner, Beyond Freedom and Dignity, Chapter 9: What Is Man?

I don't know if this is true; I actually wrote a poem on this subject several months before I read Beyond Freedom and Dignity; it was published in an anti-death penalty journal.  I was actually thinking of the analysis of the human soul when I wrote it:


Lambda one
Lambda two
Sine theta one
Divided by
Sine theta two

I cried
Because I could not 
the rainbow 

(See?  I said I would eventually subject readers to one of my poems.  :-) )

While I overwhelmingly agree with Skinner, I do disagree with him on several points.

First, I do think that actions can be called "autonomous," even if "autonomous man" or "free will" or other such notions cannot be shown to exist.  If you do not feel that you are under observation, obligation, pressure or otherwise to commit an action and you choose to do so anyways the action can be called "autonomous."  People do not just sit and stare at a wall because they are alone and unobserved.

That being said, I think people like the notion of the "autonomous action" and that acting autonomously is like the taste of sugar: while it may be perception or considered a matter of "taste," let's face it, most people like to occasionally taste something sweet.  In the same sense, I think most people like to believe that their actions are occasionally unobserved, unjudged and "free."

Thus, I think a controlling environment can only work if a person chooses to enter it of his own free will.  An excellent example of a highly behavioralist environment is the military.  I think the military works so well simply because it is, in fact, something people enter of their own free will.  They are choosing to sacrifice most of their autonomy to gain other things, e.g. a job, prestige, etc.

I also don't think that we'll ever really be able to abandon God.  There's this notion that God, admiration for character or virtue, disgust at vice, etc., are "unnecessary" aspects of a "primitive" human culture.

I totally disagree with these notions.  I'd love to ask Skinner: "How do you propose to make people act in good faith and with good character in high stress environments without God or morality?"  I've seen moral atheists, but I don't think it's realistic for a large population.  There's no believable remote reinforcer.

And that's my final point of criticism: he never focuses on the belief or faith in remote reinforcers.  He notes they sometimes work and sometimes don't, but never suggests that the foundation of a remote reinforcer is faith and belief.  Will a kid really go through college if he does not believe it will provide him with advantages?  I believe some would, predominately those who learn because they love to learn.  But if there is no benefit, why do it?  And if you don't believe in the benefit, the remote reinforcer doesn't exist for you, does it?

So, ultimately, one of the great juggernauts of behavioralism fails to understand that a huge part of uniquely human reinforcement - the remote reinforcer - is founded on faith and belief.  

Faith and belief are the opposing forces Skinner neglected in his re-design of human society.  IMHO.


  1. I need to spend a lot of time - more than I have - to respond. But I am pretty clear than I don't do things because of heaven anymore, where that might have been my motivation when I was a teenager.

  2. I hope you do respond. I honestly do a lot of things because of heaven, even if heaven is often an abstract idea to me.

  3. Could Heaven be meaningless if we view doing what is right (something that almost always requires thought) as an end in itself?

    1. Eh. What's "right" without an objective, without principal? For me, Heaven helps provide a direction, helps me orientate in a complicated world. Maybe others don't have that.