Conversations with Famous Persons: B. F. Skinner

 

   A long time ago, when I was an undergraduate at Grand Valley State here in Michigan, we had a few great professors, among whom were James Blight and Carl Bajema. In a class called “Mental Hygiene,” we were studying different things like Karl Popper, evolution, and evolutionary epistemology, and also considering the philosophic basis of modern psychology, including that of B. F. Skinner.

   As when one reads Hobbes, one wonders with these modern thinkers how it is not apparent that the basis of their theory is self contradictory. With B. F. Skinner, we wondered how he could not see that his system makes an instrument that is useful to certain ends, but the ends themselves must come from outside the science. Skinner might be consistent philosophically, we thought, if only ideas could be considered causal stimuli.

   Then we went with Mr. Bajema to visit Mr. Blight, after the scientific psychologists had finally chased him out of Grand Valley, and he had to go get a job teaching at Harvard. We happened to go on a day when the Skinnerians were debating the Kibbutz guys over who had the better utopia. We heard a raucous lecture and debate, and then had a chance to ask this icon a question. Gathered around his desk were many butt kissers asking questions about how best to train their pet rats. When I got my chance, I asked Him, “Mr. Skinner, can ideas be considered stimuli?

   He did look up, and was gracious enough to reach for a stock and practiced answer: In our science, we consider only external stimuli to be causes, because these are assessable scientifically, or can be subject to being measurable, and the hypotheses testable and the experiments repeatable.

   The questioners went around his table again, with all sorts of technical questions about positive reinforcement and Skinner box design, with hardly even a question about the relative merits of the Kibbutz to that society described in that book of his, what is its title…I forget.

   I got another chance, and asked again, explaining how it is obvious to us that we sometimes think of a thing then do it, and isn’t it rather a contortion to trace these to the matter of which they are assumed to be epiphenomena, just to avoid the messy truth that the human being is not accessible to science if science will consider only material and efficient causes- or something like that, I did not know those words then.

   He answered again that in Behaviorist psychology, they consider only external behavior, because this is accessible to observation, measurement and experimentation.

   The questioning went around a third time. Finally, unbelievably, I got a third chance to question the icon. I asked him directly: “Mr. Skinner, when you wrote your last book, did your thought not effect your behavior? He looked me in the face and, a bit annoyed, but stern in the defense of his baby, answered, “No. when I wrote my last book, my thought did not causally effect my behavior”

   What is one to do when given a wide open net and the puck, a gift as if from on high?

   To the delight of my philosophic friends, I answered, “Mr. Skinner, next time you write a book, see to it that it does.”

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