Science in Christian Perspective



The Behaviorist Bandwagon and the Body of Christ. II. A Critique of Ontological Behaviorism from a Christian Perspective
Department of Psychology 
York University Toronto, Canada

From: JASA 31 (June 1979): 88-91.

In the first part of this paper, we were primarily concerned with briefly describing what can be understood by the term "behaviorism." We pointed out that one can distinguish among (a) behaviorism as a total world-view ("ontological behaviorism"), (b) behaviorism as a convenient working assumption in the conduct of laboratory research into the behavior of animals and people ("methodological behaviorism"), and (c) behaviorism as a set of techniques for dealing with certain behavior problems encountered in the world at large ("applied behaviorism"). It was further pointed out that someone can embrace behaviorism in the senses implied by (b) and (c) without necessarily subscribing to the view of reality implied by (a). We concluded, however, by pointing out that since contemporary western mail is largely bereft of belief systems to help him make some consistent sense of his world, he can be very susceptible to the message of ontological behaviorism when it is proclaimed by an apparently' erudite and authoritative academic such as Harvard's B, F. Skinner. For this reason, the second part of the paper sets forth briefly some of the essential criticisms of ontological behaviorism, and tries to provide some guidelines from a Christian perspective for grappling with their manifestations in contemporary society.

Ontological Behaviorism: Some Problems

The essential features of Ontological Behaviorism include determinism (that mail is passively shaped by his environment and that free will is an illusion), "mental processlessness" (a complete psychological account can he given of man by studying his externally observable behavior to the exclusion of any supposed events taking place in his head), and materialism (even if man does appear to engage in mental or spiritual activities, these activities are merely the by-product of the physical and chemical activity of the brain and therefore need to he examined as legitimate, important phenomena in their own right.)

These assumptions are no more than faith assumptions that precede and direct the course of research, and are not decisively proven conclusions resulting from that research. Even Skinner himself, when closely questioned, admits that the state of research is still in no position to state unequivocally that man is no less determined than a pigeon (or a molecule) by his environment, but he believes that this is a "worthwhile scientific assumption"' which future experimental findings will continue to validate. When the "faith nature" of this deterministic model of man is thus revealed, its scientific trappings should become somewhat less intimidating. We are dealing not with scientific conclusions writen in stone (in fact, there are no such fixed conclusions anywhere in science) but instead with a belief system about the ultimate nature of man and his world which, while not devoid of supporting research evidence, goes well beyond it. In this respect it is no different from the faith of the Christian, or of the humanist, or of the Marxist of ally other "true believer," all of whom appeal to a combination of faith plus empirical evidence to convince others of the truth of their position.
A close perusal of the writings of ontological behaviorists shows that they themselves find it difficult to be consistent in practising their determinist assumptions. This becomes evident when a curious exercise in double-think is uncovered in the writings of Skinner and others committed to a behaviorist view of mall. On the one hand, it is suggested that man should resign himself to the realization that he, no less than the molecule, is totally determined by his environment, but, having thus stripped man of his autonomy, Skinner repeatedly suggests that mall both can and should exploit his scientific knowledge of mechanized man to "raise himself to new heights of kindness, intelligence, and happiness."2 How, we are forced to ask, can a totally determined organism transcend his environmental determinism to take charge of the environment that totally determines him?

If everything about us (including our moral values) is environmentally determined, on what basis can anyone's (including Skinner's) injunctions about what we "should" do be taken as peculiarly binding on us? Presumably his concern for man to "raise himself to new heights" is no less the product of his environmental conditioning than my concern as a Christian for the salvation of souls. As such, neither value can be said to he "better" or "worse" than the other; each simply "is" the inevitable product of our respective reinforcement histories. And yet Skinner takes considerable pains to persuade us that his particular ultimate-value (the survival of the human race and of western civilization) is one that we "ought" to adopt. A brief glance into the history of ideas reveals that this kind of double-think is nothing new: from the time of the Enlightenment, western man (having progressively abandoned his faith in a Creator-God) has struggled to reconcile his faith in the unlimited potential of the natural-scientific method with an equally strong faith in the capacity of autonomous man to exploit this knowledge of a mechanistic universe for his own chosen ends. That these two idealsthe "science ideal" and the "freedom ideal"--are basically at odds with one another is one reason why Christian philosophers like Herman Dooyeweerd have maintained that their adherents must he basically misguided in their views of man and the universe.3

Implicit Appeal to "God"

Perhaps of greatest importance to the Christian is the observation that the ontological behaviorist, despite his insistence on a determined universe totally devoid of irreducibly mental or spiritual aspects, still ends up appealing to something like a "God outside the system" in order to make his system work. This is clearly evident throughout Skinner's Walden II. A closer examination of Skinner's behaviorist Utopia suggests that it is not everyone who can or will transcend his environmentally-determined destiny in order to plan a more perfect environment, but rather a particular elite of planners who are experts in analyzing people's present response-reinforcement patterns and changing them in such a way as to yield more desirable behavior.4 This, as we pointed out earlier, is exactly what the professional behavior therapist is doing when he helps a person to overcome a dog-phobia, or a chain-smoking habit, But while the average behavior therapist now sells his skills to a clientele who have come to him voluntarily and can leave him whenever they become dissatisfied with his product, Skinner envisages (yea, pleads for) the adoption of operant conditioning techniques as a matter of policy in all the institutions of society that one might care to name-the school, the family, the prison, the hospital, the market-place. His position boils down to a programme for the manipulation of human beings, whether or not they know about it, whether or not they consent to it, for their own supposed benefit and for the good of society as a whole. But the notion of manipulation implies that somewhere there is a manipulator, and (as many of Skinner's critics have repeatedly asked), who is to choose the Grand Manipulators of us all, and whence do they derive their authority to manipulate us without our knowledge? To be wise enough for such responsibility would require an omniscience of all short and long-term consequences of all possible shaping programs working singly and interactively in all possible places at once-a task which even our most sophisticated computer simulations cannot begin to solve. To be pure enough for such a task, even if we were to concede the possibility of knowing all the pertinent factors operating, supposes that the Grand Manipulator can he trusted always to use his infinite knowledge in our best interests. Either way, we are assuming the possibility that there exist (or can exist) human beings who have attributes (omniscience, moral perfection) which Christians, banking on the revealed-truth of Scripture, claim are exclusively God's.

Walden II: An Imagined Case History

That some such Nietschean god-complex lurks in the background of Skiunerian thinking is suggested by the character of Frazier, the hero of Skinner's behaviorist Utopia, Walden 11-a novel-cum-social vision which, thirty year after its initial appearance, is still being read in college courses all over the continent, and which has even been used quite seriously as the blueprint for at least one real-life attempt at setting up a commune on reinforcement principles.5 Frazier is an acknowledged genius in the estimate of those visitors to the commune who realize how successfully and perfectly he has used principles of reinforcement to arrive at a society where all negative emotions (such as selfishness, jealousy, and aggressiveness) have been shaped out, where technology and ecology, labor and leisure, have been perfectly wedded, and where charming, scintillating inhabitants go about their daily routines in near-perfect harmony. When problems do occur, their solution by an appeal to the laws of operant conditioning is automatic.

Towards the end of the book, Frazier takes one of his visitors (a fellow psychologist, Burns, who arrives as a skeptic, but ultimately is converted to the Walden II life-style) up to a high hill from which he can survey the entire community with a telescope. As he oversees Walden II through the glass, he comments that
"Not a sparrow falleth . I look on my work, and behold, it is good,6 and, a little later, he adds that there is a curious similarity between himself and God-with this difference: "God's children are always disappointing him . . . (but my) original design took deviations into account and provided automatic corrections. It's rather an improvement on Genesis."7 To Burns' accusation that he has "a sizable God complex". Frazier replies, "Of course I'm not indifferent to power! And I like to play God! Who wouldn't under the circumstances? After all, man, even Jesus Christ thought he was God!"8 Skinner hastens to add that Frazier is not being the least bit blasphemous in all of this; in fact, he speaks of Jesus as an "honored colleague" who, we discover earlier in the book, Frazier feels stumbled on the essence of the principle of positive reinforcement when he told his followers to love (rather than hate) even their enemies. Frazier himself is by no means portrayed as perfect: he is arrogant, socially somewhat awkward, and personally sloppy. But, Skinner asks us, how could this he otherwise? How could he do other than suffer from his original, outside-world conditioning, not being a product of Walden II from birth? It is enough that he has set in motion, by his dedicated application of the laws of behavior, a system which can produce perfect people who, (unlike God's children) rarely if ever disappoint him.

And so we have, not a perfect messiah who vicariously redeems a sinful race, hot an imperfect messiah whose technological innovations nonetheless result in a system which produces automatic and consistent sinlessness, lie is furthermore an anonymous messiah; the "planners" and "managers" of Walden II have no special status; they get no more credit nor blame than anyone else for the jobs they do, and no one in the community accords Frazier, its founder, any particular dignity-indeed, few people even know who he is. But like the Deist's god, who was presumed to have wound up the clockwork of the universe and then left it go to its lawful, automatic' way, Frazier has designed the perfect environment for shaping the perfect race, and is content to sit anonymously back and behold the goodness of his creation.

The weaknesses of exploiting this particular type of god-talk to persuade us, as readers, of the necessity of the mechanistic universe are precisely those cited previously, Firstly', to be able to apply so innovatively and perfectly' the laws of conditioning to others, Frazier has to have been able to transcend his own conditioning in a way which releases at least one person from the confines of this mechanistic universe of which he simultaneously' claims everything and everyone is a part. Hence autonomous man (or at least one autonomous man-or demi-god) makes a sneaky return through the hack door of the clockwork. Secondly, to have used the laws of operant conditioning to produce a "perfect" people implies a standard of perfection, a set of values against which man's behavior can be measured and the techniques of conditioning (themselves value-neutral) used to produce. That such standards (largely the product of Frazier's personal faith about what constitutes the "good life") abound in the novel is very clear-and, despite the novelty of the communal setting, sound to the Christian reader suspiciously like the protestant ethic (now secularized) tinder which Skinner himself was reared: people "should" be industrious, productive, content with a modest standard of living, individually creative and self-reliant, yet prepared to co-operate with others for the common good.9 Children do not have the same rights and privileges as adults, monogamy is considered preferable to promiscuity, and (despite certain feminist sentiments somewhat ahead of the time the book was written) women still take their husbands' names.10

Assumptions of determinism, "mental processlessness," and materialism are no more than faith assumptions that precede and direct the course of research, and are not decisively proven conclusions resulting from that research.

We may agree or disagree with this particular pre-scription for the "good life"-but the point still remains that, in a world where everyone's values are merely the inevitable product of past conditioning, there can exist no way by which Skinner's prescription can be declared the particular one to which we should all adhere. Frazier, an empiricist and a pragmatist like Skinner his creator, appeals to the evidence of the senses to convince us: look around you, Burns; Walden II really does work. It really has solved all those messy post-war social and political problems that the world at large has failed to grapple with. But Walden II is still a fictitious Utopia, an extrapolation of faith from Skinner's limited (and only vaguely-alluded to) laboratory experiments to a world which he believes could operate on the same principles. It is a blueprint which he has personally never attempted to actualize, and those who have made such an attempt show as yet no sign of attaining the paradisal state of Walden 11.11 Hence, what we are being asked for as we read the book is ultimately a faith-allegiance to a Utopian ideal --an allegiance which can be nourished and maintained only by faith in the superior competence and insights of its creator, to whose visionary extrapolations from the limited evidence of the laboratory we must necessarily ascribe the status of special revelation.

Furthermore, religious - specifically, biblical - Image and metaphor are constantly being exploited in the novel to buttress Frazier's case for his operantly conditioned society. Why?? Is it merely Skinner's attempt to make light of conventional religion in order to exorcise its remaining hold on his post-World War 11 readers? Or is it because he realizes that a quasi-religious appeal is needed to bridge the gap between the limited findings of behaviorist research and the vision of the totally-planned society to which Skinner would like us to extend them?

Or again, are such images included to give the illusion of a ready-made value-system, without which we would have no guidelines for the application of a behavioral technology? For whatever reason, we do have Frazier admitting that, with people coming into Walden II from the outside, "we have to appeal to something like conversion."12 We have the humble return of Burris, prodigal-son-like, to Frazier and to Walden IT after his final, unsuccessful attempt to deny to himself its perfection.13 We have the "Walden II Code", a decalogue-like set of rules to which everyone agrees to adhere-not because they have been proved scientifically workable in the laboratory, but because the original planners of the community hypothesized (read: had faith) that they would be empirically shown, in the course of the community's development, to be the best slate of rules for living.14 The psychologists of the community are "our priests, if you like",15 who prescribe curative programs for members who are haying difficulty adhering to the code. One is reminded of the way in which National Socialism in Germany made a similar appeal to a combination of technological power and religious zeal in order to achieve its ends. That the latter did so to promote the power of a single, so-called Master Race, while Skinner's Walden Ii is aimed at an egalitarian society does not alter the fact that each calls for an unlimited faith in the powers of science and the superhuman capacity of a certain person (or persons) to prescribe the ends to which such powers should be used. Our willingness to accord such faith unreservedly will be determined by even deeper faith assumptions about the intrinsic fallenness or perfectibility of all men.

Is "Mental Processlessness" Valid?

Our final criticism of ontological behaviorism centers around its assumption of "mental processlessness." If the behaviorist image of man is correct, then neither our knowledge of, nor our consent or lack of consent to the conditioning process will affect the success of that process, since "knowing" and "consenting" are regarded by the ontological behaviorist as mythical, or at least irrelevant, internal processes which have no significant influence on behavior. The pigeon it appears, cannot reflect upon the conditioning process he is undergoing in any way that alters the efficacy of that process on his behavior, and man's apparent capacity for reflection should likewise he useless to alter the effects of the environmental program being imposed on him. But the realities of psychological research with human beings seem to contradict this notion: experimental social psychologists in particular have always realized that if a person in an experiment knows about the nature and purposes of the manipulations he is undergoing, he will react differently than if he did not know about them.16 The researcher's way of combatting this "ghost in the machine" has always been to lie (often quite elaborately) to his research subjects about what is going on in the study, on the assumption that, lie will get a spontaneous, uncontaminated reaction to it by distracting their attention.

But quite apart from the ethical considerations surrounding the use of such duplicity,17 its practical consequences simply seem to reaffirm the capacity of human beings to "create their own internal environment" to add to (even if not totally negate) the effects of externally imposed factors: for as the reputation of psychologists-as-liars becomes increasingly widespread, fewer and fewer subjects (at least among the student population and informed laity) enter the research situation prepared to believe what they are going to be told about it. Hence, while they may not get so far as to discern the real purpose of the study, they at least know what it is probably not what it is said to be, and may proceed to react in accordance with, not the experimenter's, but their own hypotheses about what is going on. This process in itself does not eliminate the effects of the experimental manipulation-but it does reduce them from the status of total determinants to mere influences.

Inconsistency of Ontological Behaviorism

We thus see that ontological behaviorism, with its assumptions that man's behavior is environmently determined, uninfluenced by mental processes, and the product of a material, non-spiritual universe does not consistently live up to these assumptions. Determinism leaves no room for the moral pronouncements needed to guide the use of conditioning principles. Materialism fails to supply man's yearning for something to worship outside the world of the five senses. "Mental processlessness" ignores the fact that people even in an experimental situation can and do influence its outcome merely by the way they conceptualize it in their heads. Does this mean that the entire behaviorist enterprise is bankrupt, and has nothing good to offer to the Christian community? To answer this question, we need to turn to the area of applied behaviorism and examine its track-record. For, as we stated earlier, those applying the techniques of behavior modification may or may not do so in rigid adherence to ontological behaviorism? Our answer is a qualified "yes", and our elaboration of this answer constitutes the final major section of this paper.


l As interviewed in Learning and Behavior, A.A.A.S. films, C. 1958.
2 Ibid.
3See Kalsbeek, A. N. Contours of a Christian Philosophy, Toronto, 1975. Wedge Publishing Foundation.
4See Skinner, B. F. Walden II, especially Chapters 8 and 29. (Note: all references to Walden II are from the 1968 MacMillan Paperback Edition)
5Scc Kinkadc, K., op. cit. (in Part I of this article) 
6Skinner, B. F. Walden Ii, p. 295.
7lbid., p. 297. 
8lbid., p. 299.
9lbid,, throughout the novel, 
Ihid., especially Chapters 12-15. 
11Kinkade, K. "A Walden II Experiment", Psychology Today, January, 1973, and February, 1973.
12 Ibid., p. 162.
l3Ibid., Chapters 35 and 36. 
l4Ibid., p. 196. 
15Ibid., p. 199. 
16See Miller, A. N. (Ed.) The Social Psychology of Psychological Research. New York, The Free Press, 1972,
17For a discussion of the ethics of experimental deception in psychology from a concerned psychologist's point of view, see Kelman, H. C. A Time to Speak, San Francisco, Jossey-Boss, 1968.