Science in Christian Perspective



Can A Christian Be A Behaviorist?
Clinton W. McLemore

Graduate School of Psychology Fuller Theological Seminary
Pasadena, California 91101

From: JASA 30 (March 1978): 45-47.

No psychologist, with the possible exception of Freud, has raised more eyebrows, created more astonishment, and instilled more fear into the hearts of Christians than B.F. Skinner. Though not a clinician, Skinner has developed "behavior modification" techniques which have proven highly effective when applied to some of the most recalcitrant psychiatric problems. This has led some to hail the Harvard psychologist as a great humanitarian.

Others, reacting negatively to such publications as Beyond Freedom and Dignity,1 have seen Skinner as a naive utopianist, diabolical materialist, and psychotecbnological guru of totalitarianism. Skinner, so the rhetoric runs, wants to dehumanize us by stripping away our most fundamental rights as persons. He wants to control us by placing at the apex of society, not Plato's philosopher-king, but a panel of cold, manipulative, emotionless scientists who would arrange for everyone else, and indeed for themselves, "contingencies." Contingencies specify consequences. "If you do this, such and such will follow."

Behaviorism as a "school" of psychology was launched in the second decade of this century as a reaction against the introspective methods of the structuralists. Structuralists, like Wundt in Germany and Titchener in the United States, were busy trying to discover the basic building blocks of mind. This they attempted to do by training "observers" to examine their own conscious contents, for example to look at a broad array of colors and to decide which ones were primary. Structuralism and its methodologies ran into trouble when it became evident that observers at different universities could not agree on their findings. What were primary colors for one research group turned out to be different from those for another. The contaminating effects of observer bias and expectancy became increasingly more manifest. Structuralism was dealt its death blow at the hands of John B. Watson. Capturing well the spirit of his times, he ridiculed psychologists for asserting what was in the consciousness of another, whether rat or human. Although three other schools of psychology were either flourishing or being born, namely psychoanalysis, functionalism, and Gestalt, behaviorism quickly cornered the academic marketplace and has been the dominant stream of psychology in America ever since.

It is helpful, if not crucial, to make a distinction between methodological and philosophical behaviorism. A philosophical behaviorist denies the importance, and sometimes the existence, of mental activity broadly defined. All states of consciousness, thoughts, feelings and attitudes for example, are anathema to the philosophical behaviorist who views them as "epiphenomena." While mental contents may seem to be important in the determination of behavior, this is mere illusion. Above all, the philosophical behaviorist is against granting any real status to the contents of mind. To him or her, the arch enemy is "mentalism." John Watson was this sort of behaviorist, and the same has been said of Skinner, though Skinner has taken great pains recently to clarify the exact nature of his position in About Behaviorism.2 Behaviorists such as Watson and Skinner are sometimes called "militant behaviorists," to indicate the vehemence with which they attack mentalistic conceptions.

A methodological behaviorist does not deny the existence or the importance of mental contents. On the contrary, thoughts, feelings and attitudes are, if not the stuff of life, at least very important. The methodological behaviorist does insist, however, that a science of psychology cannot be based on introspection. Certainly it cannot be founded on listening to someone else's introspection. While such a procedure may yield valuable clinical information (Freud's great contribution and genius was his ability to make good use of such reports) it cannot be used as the basis of a science for at least two reasons: (I) introspections and reports of introspections are rarely systematic enough to meet the canons of science' and (2) they are not capable of public verifiability. A science must be based on procedures sufficiently rigorous so that the same experiment may be conducted by someone else half way around the world and yield the same results.4 Admittedly findings in behaviorial science are rarely this neatly replicable. Methodological behaviorists nevertheless insist that only "objective" data are truly scientific.

The position of the methodological behaviorist is based on the recognition that, while your internal states are primary data for you, they are only secondary data for me, and conversely. Ultimately the only person who has direct access to an individual's mind is him- or herself. Methodological, or scientific, behaviorists assert that science mutt be grounded in data which are primary to all. Thus, we can admit only that which both of us can observe directly. This fairly well rules out aspects of consciousness.

I should note in passing that there are respectable indirect ways of getting at mental operations, procedures to measure what methodological behaviorists call "mediating events." Over the past decade or two, centers for the study of cognition have emerged all over the country without any attending lots in scientific respectability for themselves or the profession at large. The research conducted at most of these centers, however, is very
carefully performed. Sophisticated mathematical analyses are often used to uncover subtle and complex relationships among variables and subjective reports of mental operations are rarely taken at face value. Instead they are treated as simply one more source of information to be checked and double checked just like any other source. It is common for a methodological behaviorist to treat such self reports as "verbal behavior." Such a designation makes it clear that they provide no "royal road into consciousness" similar to what Freud maintained dreams to be with respect to unconscious processes.

A methodological behaviorist, therefore, has no philosophic axe to grind. He or she has no particular metaphysical or ethical position, at least not as part of his or her science. He may be a good or bad man, a Christian or an atheist, a socialist or a democrat, it makes little difference. As a scientist, all that matters is that he be rigorous, which partly includes refraining from making large inferential leaps from data to theory (ideas).

Can a Christian be a behaviorist? Yes, I think so, if by a behaviorist one means a careful, scientifically-minded methodologist. Can a Christian be a philosophical behaviorist? Perhaps not and here's why.

To deny the existence or the importance of what goes on within a person, specifically his mental contents, seems to fly directly in the face of biblical data. "As (a person) thinks in his heart, so is he" (Proverbs 23:7; KJV). "Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks" (Matthew 12:34; KJV). "For we believe in our hearts and are put right with God; we declare with our lips and are saved" (Romans 10:10; TEV). Indeed, scriptural references to knowing God place a premium on events of consciousness, though we should not understand knowing to be exclusively cognitive. Thinking is necessary but by no means always sufficient for knowledge.

Ills difficult to write an article such as this without paying at least passing note to the matter of determinism. While it has been maintained that a person cannot be both a Christian and a determinist, the issue is far from simple and it would be foolish of me to try to dispense with it in a paragraph or two. I will suggest that philosophical behaviorism may not rise or fall on the matter of determinism per se but rather on the nature of the determinism which is said to operate.' The Christian and the typical philosophical behaviorist usually run into trouble over materialistic determinism, whose adherents tend to discount the events of consciousness.

Each year I have the responsibility of teaching theories of personality to doctoral students in our clinical psychology program at Fuller Seminary, and each year I announce that the course is largely one in "clinical philosophy." I say this for two reasons. First, most traditional personality theories are not theories at all, in that they do not generate in any clearly specified way testable behavioral predictions. Second, most personality theories are riddled with metaphysical and ethical assumptions. I would insist that the practicing clinician finds it virtually impossible to avoid philosophic matters and, thus, has to operate on either an explicit or implicit personality theory of the sort I teach in my course. This, however, is not a matter of science. Clinical practice is an art based on the application of findings presumed to be scientific. All of this means that the next time you hear someone call himself a behaviorist, ask him what exactly he or she means. If the person with whom you are speaking means the use of principles and findings from behavioral science to conduct effective psychotherapy, fine. If he or she means the conduct of research according to behavioristic principles, fine also. But if he announces that he adheres to the reductionist assumptions of a thoroughgoing materialism, ask him if he is also a Christian. If he answers yes, I think you have found someone who has not yet resolved his theoretical inconsistencies.

There is no question now that behavioral principles and their application (behavior therapy) are exceedingly effective for treating certain kinds of disorders. There is also little question, at least in my mind, that methodological behaviorism is the only basis on which we can establish a scientific psychology. At the same time, a person is more than a chunk of protoplasm whose behavior has been shaped entirely by "its" reinforcement history. So, in answer to the question "Can a Christian be a behaviorist?," I suppose it all hinges on what you mean by "behaviorist."


1B.F. Skinner, Beyond Freedom and Dignity (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1971).
2B.F. Skinner, About Behaviorism (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1974).
3I refer here to science narrowly defined. Although philosophers and psychologists hotly debate the nature of behaviorial sciences, a working definition might be "the systematic observation and
interpretation of 'objective' data collected under controlled conditions." Thus, strictly speaking, to refer to "the science of mental life" is a non sequitur (though one might justifiably speak of "the science of verbal behavior"). Ironically, the workings of the mind (including feelings) are of crucial interest to most
practicing psychologists.
4Unless, of course, one is deliberately studying cross-cultural differences.
5Some Christian thinkers, for example C.S. Lewis, strongly decry all forms of hard determinism. In his opening essay to God in the Dock (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1970) entitled "Evil and God," Lewis puns, "If thought is the undesigned and irrelevant product of cerebral motions, what reason have we to trust it?" (p. 21). For a psychologist's treatment of kinds of determinism, see Joseph F. Rychlak, A Philosophy of Science for Personality Theory (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1968).