Thursday, July 23, 2009

A Harmful Philosophy

B. F. Skinner, the apostle of Behaviorism, spent much of his life preaching a doctrine proven false by his own achievements.

A failed novelist whose philosophy is best known through a novel which is not a novel, his career was in opposition to the forces he contended shaped individual existence.

A native of Susquehanna, Pa., a small community with socio-economic similarities to my own area, Skinner rose from a background of limited opportunity to achieve prominence as an educator, psychologist, writer and inventor.

Yet his theories negate free will, viewing man as a mere robot reacting mechanically to the influence of environment. His views influenced generations of students and have engendered much harm to a world sorely in need of hope and reason.

Despite his own achievements, Skinner was blind to the human capacity for change and adaptability exemplified by those who continue to overcome bleak existence and monumental obstacles through imagination and perseverance. He denied the wonders of faith, optimism and creativity which are responsible for all that is marvelous about the creature called man.

He abandoned hope of achieving success as a writer of fiction when he decided he had nothing to say. Turning to the study of psychology, he forged a radical philosophy which was as much rooted in the Calvinistic religion he abandoned as a youth as it was in the discoveries of Pavlov he championed.

Skinner’s experimentation with rats and pigeons convinced him man could be similarly be influenced for behavioral modification. He failed to grasp that man’s superior brainpower makes him less susceptible to generic gratification and more capable of eccentric resistance to control devices.

He taught that man could be reshaped for a happier and more productive life only through a tightly controlled system of rewards and punishment. Apparently he was unable to achieve the proper balance of these influences in his own life for he is remembered by colleagues as an unhappy person.

His 1948 utopian novel “Walden Two,” which quickly became a textbook in colleges across the nation, is little more than a polemic for his theories.

The thesis he expressed later in life already had been formed when he abandoned literature at age 24. This is confirmed by a quote from his journal of the period: “I feel that greatness is merely the result of a happy combination of trivial influences, that the great man cannot help being great, the poor man cannot help being poor.”

A critique of the playwright Ibsen in Skinner’s readable autobiography “Particulars of My Life” might as easily be applied to him: “Philosophy deals with or rather plays with objects of its own creation. Ibsen was essentially a philosopher in his habits of thinking. The desire for order led him, as it leads all of his ilk, to defining, to delimiting, an aspect of life into a word and hence to deal with the word rather than the aspect.”

Had Skinner contemplated Carantouan, the magic hill of the Susquehannock Indians which can be seen from his hometown, he might have been led to speculate on a people who defied the limitations of a harsh environment and the encroachment of stronger enemies to create a rich and complex society uniquely their own.

Each person chooses whether to float passively with the stream or swim boldly against the current.

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