I used to be more interested in consciousness. The question of what it was and how it happened seemed fundamental to understanding why humans do what we do. The "problem" of consciousness was key to the question of free will, which all broader questions of social politics seemed to hinge on.
It was a decades-long, rambling trip which ultimately - quite by chance - led me to behaviorism, the actual science of behavior, which generally puts this question to bed. Or at least tucks it in nicely. Not that the explanation is complete, but there is plenty of basic science from which to derive a solid foundation on the matter.
Of course, this understanding is far from mainstream, for a variety of reasons. In the main, it is an unintuitive understanding: "I" plainly choose my behavior, do I not? Free will seems self-evident. But as is often the case with "common-sense" intuition, this evidence is a cultural construct. We live in a world in which the individual is assumed to be the master of his own destiny. In the majority of Judeo-Christian religions, common interpretation views man as a free actor in a morality play, choosing between the temptations of the devil and religious teaching, each moment the crux of an epic, metaphysical struggle. Our legal system follows suit, as it has tended to since its founding. The "guilty" is he who could have acted differently but chose not to. Our economic system also follows, assuming the profit of man's economic actions to be his own responsibility - whether leaving him destitute or in gilded chambers.
The intuition-based concept of the Free man is thusly reinforced everywhere through social institutions at every level. But the meat of the intuition, fundamental to these larger structures, is a philosophical game we have all learned to play. Behaviorists call it "mentalism", and it is as essential to our early formation as the milk in our baby bottles. In his paper Behavior Analysis, Mentalism, and the Path to Social Justice(2003), Jay Moore writes:
...Mentalism may be defined as an approach to the study of behavior which assumes that a mental or "inner" dimension exists that differs from a behavioral dimension. This dimension is ordinarily referred to in terms of its neural, psychic, spiritual, subjective, conceptual, or hypothetical properties. Mentalism further assumes that phenomena in this dimension either directly cause or at least mediate some forms of behavior, if not all.
Examples of mentalism are rife in our language. People get in fights because they are "angry". People don't do their work because they are "lazy". People do great things because they are "driven". The list of adjectives supposedly describing causative inner states is endless. People act because they are: smart, dumb, ambitious, shy, calculating, cruel, evil, compassionate, kind, generous, stingy, clever, funny, quiet, rambunctious, etc.
Yet what are these words actually describing? People certainly behave in ways that have these characteristics. However, this is not an explanation but rather a description of past behavior, and an educated guess as to how they might behave in the future given similar circumstances. The problem with mentalisms is that they can easily become circular: a person acts a certain way, is described with a mentalistic term, and the term is then purported to be the cause of the behavior.
The so-called "cognitive revolution" in the social sciences, heralded in by Noam Chomksy's (1959) famously vicious critique of Skinner's landmark work, Verbal Behavior, was predicated on the notion that mental events are indeed causative. To this day, cognitivists use the architectural language of the personal computer to seek out causation, hypothesizing mental events using computational terms like memory, processing and algorithms. However to Skinner, all of this is merely further description. Even if one were to develop a precise cataloguing of every possible rotation of the smallest molecular particle involved in the process of say, my daydreaming about fishing for trout, it would still have nothing to say about what actually causes my thinking behavior.
Here, the behaviorist has the advantage of being informed by science, more specifically the science of behavior. A core principle of radical behaviorism is that a a science of behavior is possible. That is, behavior is a deterministic process which can be understood without appealing to non-physical events. In short, to quote William Baum (1994), "A science of human behavior is possible". To the behaviorist, the structure of the moving parts - while certainly an honorable and interesting subject phenomenologically - are secondary to the larger truth of causation: that behavior is a product of an environment acting upon the genetic make-up of an organism over time. Behaviorists design experiments to manipulate environmental variables, in order to find controlling relationships with variables in the organism that are dependent on the manipulation.
However, society is still firmly in the camp of the structuralist. While I realize there is an element of simplicity to the notion that to completely understand a thing is to account for all of it's parts, I've long been suspicious that the zealous embrace of Chomsky's attack on Skinner was ultimately more about a cultural zeitgeist than anything else (In 1971, Chomsky showed his cards a bit when he wrote a statement so absurd it offers a clue to his sense of deep ideological resentment: "At the moment we have virtually no scientific evidence and not even the germs of an interesting hypothesis about how human behavior is determined").
America was entering the 1960's, and libertarian rebellion was fomenting against the strictures of the past. Nothing less than a quasi-religious awakening was occurring, which sought to bust the shackles of old institutional dogma and paint a road to enlightenment upon the canvas of the expanding mind. In the eyes of the many on the left, institutional knowledge had brought us the atom bomb, Vietnam, sexism, racism, and the suit and tie. To many on the right, scientific knowledge was less suspect, but to the extent that it encroached upon the established order of institutions such as the church, marriage, and capitalism (communism was an existential threat almost nothing ought not be sacrificed to prevent), it was dangerous for different reasons.
Skinner's Verbal Behavior could not have come at a worse time. In it, he laid out the most detailed and cogent argument yet for a radical behaviorism in which all of human behavior - including thought itself - was under the control of physical contingencies. In his suit and tie, with his cumulative records and operant chambers, he represented everything the left despised. As Camille Paglia (2003) argued in her essay Cults and Cosmic Conscousness: Religious Visions in the 1960's, the 1960's was a time of "spiritual awakening" and "rebellious liberalization", just one of many religious revivals in American history. She likens the period to Hellenistic Rome, in which "mystery religions" rose up in response to an oppressive institutional order. Dionysianistic practice emphasized "a worshipper's powerful identification with and emotional connection" to God. She goes on to note the context in which a certain long-haired man in sandals rose to prominence:
The American sixties, I submit, had a climate of spiritual crisis and political unrest similar to that of ancient Palestine, then under Roman occupation.
In the 20th century, the culture moment was projected through popular media icons such as Frank Sinatra, Elvis, Jim Morrison and the Beatles: each embodied the generation's desire for personal emotional liberation and sexual independence. Describing a strange episode in which rumors circulated of Paul McCartney's premature death:
The hapless McCartney had become Adonis, the dying god of fertility myth who was the epicene prototype for the deified Antinous: after Antinous drowned in the Nile in 130 ad, the grief-stricken Hadrian had him memorialized in shrines all over the Mediterranean, where ravishing cult statues often showed the pensive youth crowned with the grapes and vines of Dionysus.
Burrhus Frederick Skinner, with his measured demeanor and supremely rationalistic style of communication, was the very opposite of Adonis.
On the right, his argument was often viewed as nothing less than paving the way for godless totalitarianism. Indeed, in his 1971 Beyond Freedom and Dignity, he writes:
A free economy does not mean the absence of economic control, because no economy is free as long as goods and money remain reinforcing. When we refuse to impose controls over wages, prices, and the use of natural resources in order to not interfere with individual initiative, we leave the individual under the control of unplanned economic contingencies. (emphasis added)
The critique, whether or not its fear that radical behaviorism leads to a state controlled economy is quite irrelevant to Skinner's point: if human behavior is controlled by contingencies, then they will be in effect no matter what type of economic system one chooses.
On campuses across America (Europe had never quite embraced behaviorism to begin with), young students (future professors) of psychology took up the banner of cognitivism and never looked back. Never mind that most of them likely never bothered to read Verbal Behavior. Granted, it is a difficult book. Radical behaviorism is a concept which requires a good degree of open-mindedness, and courage to go where the evidence takes you, rather than relying upon the safety of old cultural intuitions. It no more paves the way to totalitarianism than does Darwin's theory of evolution pave the way for eugenics. But like evolution, radical behaviorism is rather unintuitive. Both are selectionist. In evolution, the organism is the product of a biological shaping process extending back through time, with each generation. There is nothing in the structure of the organism per-say, that "is" evolution. The only way to understand evolution is by examining the relationships between organisms - which have been selected - over long periods of time. Similarly, radical behaviorism says there is no thing in the organism that "is" behavior. Rather, the behavior is selected for over the course of the organism's lifespan.
Just as the genetic configuration is selected for that most suits the organism to its environment, the organism's patterns of behavior are selected for which have been most reinforcing. Just as the genes for a white coat have been selected for as most beneficial for polar bears hunting in the arctic ice, the behavior of speaking the phrase "Where is the restroom?" has been selected for as most beneficial in English verbal communities. Once familiar enough with the basic science of evolution, the concept isn't too difficult to grasp. I think the same can be said for radical behaviorism.
Most people never have to fully grasp the complexities of the science of evolution - radiocarbon dating, genetic drift, sedimentary rock, random mutation, etc - in order to embrace it. Instead, they can rely upon an environment in which the "settled" science immerses them from grade school to instill in them an intuitive grasp of geologic time and the notion of natural selection. The science of behaviorism has no such mainstream acceptance. Therefore concepts such as discriminative stimuli, schedules of reinforcement, the matching law, respondent versus operant, extinction bursts, establishing operations, etc. are not considered "settled" outside of the field and no such intuition is able to be built.
Rather, mentalistic accounts of behavior rule the day with nearly the degree of vigor that they did a hundred or even a thousand years ago. In this sense, society operates with a basic psychological outlook that could quite easily be considered medieval. Indeed, one only need look towards subjects such as criminal justice or income disparity to see where such thinking leads - in which "driven" men claim moral right to mansions, and "evil" men are delivered to concrete cells of solitary confinement.
So too in our daily lives do we encounter the suffering and anxiety caused by confusion over the basic principles of behavior. Intuiting the actions of others as being caused by them, we become resentful and intolerant, blinded to the reality that their actions are the result of the contingencies in their lives.
Further still, we turn this false mentalism upon ourselves, believing falsely that there is something in us that is responsible for our actions, as opposed to the contingencies within which we are shaped. Just as we develop toxic emotions as a response to others, we develop it in response to our own "self". We imagine this entity as responsible for actions we would rather not have occur. This leads us down the fruitless path of "becoming better people", and looking only into our own thoughts and feelings, rather than examining the functional relationships between our environment and our history of reacting within it. We have been sold on the notion that there is something wrong with how we "process" the environment, rather than our behavior being a perfectly natural, learned response to environmental contingencies.
The cognitive revolution did not represent a shift from a centuries-old deterministic, mechanistic view of behavior in which Free man did not exist, to a new view in which Free man existed as a function of a "self" which processed information and chose to act based upon some emergent, metaphysical system. Rather, for hundreds or even thousands of years, Free man was commonly assumed to exist as an independent actor responsible for his own lot in life, and it was only for a brief period - a few decades - that behaviorism developed and held sway in psychological study. Aside from it being a mature, complex field of study with numerous insights into human behavior, to the extent that cognitivism rejects a behavior analytic approach in favor of appeals to mentalism, the cognitive revolution would better be described as a "cognitive reversion" to the old, intuitive conception of "self" that has always been foundational to religious, economic and civic institutions.
However, as fitting for a revolution, cognitivist mentalism indeed led to a widespread purging of behaviorism as a respectable science. In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1970), Thomas Kuhn writes of this process:
When it repudiates a past paradigm, a scientific community simultaneously renounces, as a fit subject for professional scrutiny, most of the books and articles in which that paradigm had been embodied. Scientific education makes use of no equivalent for the art museum or the library of classics, and the result is a sometimes drastic distortion in the scientist's perception of his discipline's past. More than the practitioners of other creative fields, he comes to see it as leading in a straight line to the discipline's present vantage. In short, he comes to see it as progress. No alternative is available to him while he remains in the field.
To the hapless psychology student, there is simply no point in engaging with behaviorism beyond the most primitive level. Textbooks routinely dismiss Skinner's work as, while describing an important part of human behavior, antiquated when it comes to dealing with the true complex natural of human behavior. While is is sometimes suggested that cognitive science hasn't abandoned behaviorism, but rather quietly subsumed it, David Palmer (Behavior Analyst, 2006) argues the contrary:
....Such examples suggest that, instead of building principles of behavior into its foundation, cognitive science has cut itself loose from them. Cognitive psychology textbooks neither exploit nor review reinforcement, discrimination, generalization, blocking, or other behavioral phenomena. By implication, general learning principles are peripheral to an understanding of cognitive phenomena. Even those researchers who have rediscovered the power of reinforcement and stimulus control hasten to distance themselves from Skinner and the behaviorists. For example, the authors of a book that helped to pioneer the era of research on neural networks were embarrassed by the compatibility of their models with behavioral interpretations: “A claim that some people have made is that our models appear to share much in common with behaviorist accounts of behavior … [but they] must be seen as completely antithetical to the radical behaviorist program and strongly committed to the study of representations and process”.
In my personal experience, I routinely encounter Psychology graduates who possess little more than a rudimentary understanding of behavioral principles. If the general education teachers I worked with in public schools were consciously applying behavioral principles in their classrooms, they certainly never spoke of it. In my own training, as an undergraduate in Social Sciences, and as a graduate in Elementary Education, Skinner's work received at most a total of one lecture in an undergraduate course, and a paragraph or two in graduate school. His work on operant conditioning, while acknowledged as important to understanding learning at rudimentary levels, is quickly passed over in favor of the work of cognitive theorists such as Vygotsky (zone of proximal development, scaffolding), Piajet (schema), Bandura (social learning) and Erickson (psychosocial development), who are commonly viewed as offering something more than would be possible through adherence to behaviorism alone. Their work is commonly viewed as refuting behaviorism, and thought of as taking our understanding of learning further, in ways that would be impossible under a behavioral analytic approach, and thus more critical to learning and social development. While their insights are indeed valid and useful, to view them as in any way a refutation of behavioral principles would be a serious error. Each these theorist's work can easily be accounted for via the application of behavior analytic principles. Ironically, to the extent that these cognitive theories fail to engage with the scientific, behavioral principles underlying their existence, they are in their own way reductionist; to properly understand the concepts of zones of proximal development or schema without taking into consideration principles such as establishing operations, generalization, learning histories or schedules of reinforcement is to reduce these phenomena to vague simplifications. Yet simplification, especially when presented in the context of a compatible reinforcement history, is itself highly reinforcing. To an individual raised to believe in an all-powerful God who is communicated in an inerrant bible, the notion of divine creation of man in a short period of time is much easier to embrace than a chaotic process of natural selection over hundreds of millions of years.
The first edition of On the Origin of Species was published in 1859, but the theory of evolution wasn't widely accepted until decades later. Widespread public acceptance wasn't gained until perhaps the 1940's, with the Catholic church eventually allowing that evolution is at least compatible with the bible in 1950. Still, to this day evolution remains a controversial theory accepted by only 60% of the populations in the U.S. and Latin America, according to Pew Research (2015). In many respects, the evidence for evolution is more clear-cut, in that developments in multiple areas of science - from biology to geology to particle physics - have played a key ole in its understanding. The structure of DNA was not even understood until a century later. In many respects, our understanding of the brain, the most complex object known in the universe, is much less far along. For behavior skeptics, an emphasis on structuralism combined with mentalistic bias, points toward an almost unfathomable complexity. Indeed, consciousness has famously been coined as "the hard problem" - an rather mythical designation. Behaviorists who question whether the problem is all that hard are often labeled as "reductionists" - too easily seduced by a naively simplistic account of a complex phenomena.
But the radical behaviorist does not deny the complexity of the moving parts (environmental stimuli, biological molecules, and past history). Rather, he merely insists that at its core there is a deterministic, functional relationship at work. I'm often struck by the similarity with the "Intelligent Design" argument put forth by evolution skeptics. Biological organisms are claimed to be "irreducibly complex", so as to never have been able to originate without an intelligent designer. Yet this argument also chooses to misdirect attention to the structure of the organism, to seek an understanding of it removed from the context of history. And just like evolution can only be understood as a function of geologic time and the interplay between genes and environment, so too can behavior only be understood as the interplay between the phylogeny (genetic history) and ontogeny (environmental, life history) of an organism.
Compared with Darwinian evolution, the rate of acceptance of radical behaviorism over cognitivist mentalism may not be in terrible shape. Maybe by the 2040's we'll have seen a steady shift towards a behavior analytic approach. However, I have my doubts. Evolution's largest direct social implication might have been a sound refutation of biblical literalism. But that was never so central to our institutions. Religious freedom, after all, had long been enshrined in our constitution.
The threat from the radical behavioral perspective to the established institutional order is in my view much greater, in that it provides scientific justification for the moral claim that as social products, ultimate accountability lies in the system we build for man, not for man's actions within that system. How to redraw our institutions so as to align with this truth is the real challenge. But we must begin with the premise that, to the extent that it is founded in mentalistic notions of human behavior, the current system is not only unjust, but misguided and philosophically corrupt. There are a great many aspects to the current order that are reinforcing to behavior that preserves it, not the least of which is simple human greed (the tendency to accumulate wealth in a manner that is unjust). But the opposite of greed is generosity, and generous acts are simple to argue for. What is more difficult is the untangling of the mentalistic rationale for systems that allow the behaviors of human greed.
Baum, W. M. (1994). Understanding behaviorism: Science, behavior, and culture. New York: HarperCollins.
Chomsky, N. (1959). ”A Review of B. F. Skinner's Verbal Behavior”. Language, 35, No. 1, 26-58.
Kuhn, T. (1970). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press
Moore, J. (2003). Behavior Analysis, Mentalism, and the Path to Social Justice. The Behavior Analyst. 26 (2), 181. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2731454/pdf/behavan00006-0003.pdf
Chomsky, N. (1971). The Case Against B.F. Skinner. The New York Review of Books. 17(11), 3. http://www.nybooks.com/articles/1971/12/30/the-case-against-bf-skinner/
Paglia, C. (2003). Cults and Cosmic Consciousness: Religious Vision in the American 1960s. Arian 10 (3), 60-61. http://www.bu.edu/arion/files/2010/03/paglia_cults-1.pdf
Palmer, D. (2006) On Chomsky’s Appraisal ofSkinner’s Verbal Behavior: A Half Century of Misunderstanding. The Behavior Analyst. 29 (2), 260.
Skinner, B.F. (1957). Verbal Behavior. MA: Copley Publishing Group.
Skinner, B. F. (1971). Beyond freedom and dignity. New York: Knopf.
“Religion in Latin America: Widespread Change in a Historically Catholic Region.” Pew Research Center, Washington D.C. (Nov. 13, 2014)http://www.pewforum.org/2014/11/13/chapter-8-religion-and-science/, 07/02/2016.
“US Becoming Less Religious,” Pew Research Center, Washington D.C. (Nov. 3, 2015)