By: Jeffrey Newholm
For most of us, our free will is just a matter of common sense. But to many academics, it’s not so simple. Among those was eminent 20th century psychologist B.F. Skinner. Skinner was a pioneer in the field of behaviorism, the study of how an organism responds to its environment. If an organism is rewarded, or reinforced, for responding in a certain way to a certain stimulus, it will repeat that behavior in the future. If an organism is punished in responding in a certain way in a certain environment, it will be less likely to do that behavior again. Skinner thought this environmental apparatus of conditioning was so complete there wasn’t any room left over for free will-human behavior was an endless sequence of responding to our environment. In his bestselling book Beyond Freedom and Dignity, Skinner argues that, since we don’t have free will anyways, why not have a dictatorship of behaviorist kings to condition a better population? Well there’s quite a few things I have to say about that.
First off it seems rather self-aggrandizing that Skinner thinks we should have a dictatorship, and his profession just so happens to make the best dictators. Thousands of years earlier Plato said something similar: “There will be no end to the troubles of states, or of humanity itself, till philosophers become kings in this world, or till those we call kings and rulers really and truly become philosophers”. Oh and conveniently Plato was his day’s preeminent philosopher. No one science has a monopoly on the knowledge of our world. Secondly I think one can make a more charitable definition of free will than the one Skinner uses. If one defines free will as an action that springs solely from inside a person, then I would admit there probably isn’t such a thing. Every phenomenon science has discovered is either deterministic or random-there doesn’t seem to be a magical third option. But one could instead define free will as freedom from outside constraints. Man has a will, and if he lives in a free society, he is free to act on that will. If we lived in a dictatorship, our desires would be frustrated at every turn. It doesn’t really matter if our desires come from free choices, genetics, or conditioning, what matters is that we have the ability to act towards fulfilling them. But I think the most troubling aspect of reducing humans to clay to be shaped by behaviorist masters is that we’re so much more wonderful and complex than Skinner’s pigeons. I don’t mean to discredit behaviorism-it’s a fascinating science that has many practical applications for working with both animals and people. But humans have higher thought processing powers and are also social creatures. I think coaching is a good example.
To condition his laboratory animals, Skinner would use an elaborate contraption called the Skinner Box. I can’t even imagine what such a thing would look like in a gym. Would an athlete get a squirt of Gatorade for every made shot and a zap of electricity for every miss? I don’t think the result would be a very good basketball player, for two reasons. Now certainly social reinforcements are very useful in coaching. If a coach says “hey good job” his player will be more likely to play that way again. There have been some mean green coaches, such as Vince Lombardi and Geno Auriemma, who make liberal use of punishment and ridicule for mistakes. The athlete who messed up will be very careful not to make the same mistake again. The same rationale is certainly used in training soldiers. But a coach still needs to respect the humanity of his players. He has to be careful what his athletes are thinking. Punishment can backfire if the athlete starts brooding and questioning his self worth. If the coach never says anything nice, the athlete could start resenting the coach and either stop listening or even quit the team. I was told in my last forensics tournament I judged that one judge only put down negative points in one girl’s performance. That girl didn’t participate in forensics after that. Man has a breaking point, and a coach has to be careful not to pass it. Also, team chemistry is very important in a team sport. And players have to figure that out on their own-the coach can’t force people to like each other. The 2013 Lakers assembled an all star team of numerous big name players. The team barely made the playoffs and then were swept by the Spurs in the first round. The best collection of players isn’t always the best team. Sometimes a less talented team that works as one cohesive whole makes it further. And even if a Skinner Box could make a star athlete, it wouldn’t be a very interesting one. All we would have created is a clockwork orange that automatically makes the best play. Part of the joy of sports is watching an athlete hone his craft through repetition and grow as a person as the years go on. A mindless automaton, no matter how good, would be a bore.
So I think I’ve made a good argument for man’s freedom, but what about his dignity? Perhaps one could argue that, since we just respond automatically to our conditioning, we don’t deserve credit or blame for our actions. First off determinism is no excuse for wrongdoing. Explaining does not mean excusing. The whole point of behaviorism is studying how an organism reacts to its environment. If we didn’t let someone deal with the consequences of his actions, how is anyone ever going learn? I also think that one should be encouraged to feel good about their accomplishments. It doesn’t make sense to say to an athlete to say, after a big play, “well wipe that smile off your face because you didn’t really choose to do that”. No, perhaps a person isn’t a free actor in this cosmos. But he is the vessel through which the universe works. After making a big shot an athlete should feel good, because he was lucky enough that he was the means through which that feat was accomplished. Isn’t that just as beautiful a thought as “oh cool I’m glad I chose to do that?” Skinner is wasting his time arguing that we’re just slaves to our conditioning. Man cannot thrive in a dictatorship. Free will or not we deserve the freedom from outside coercion to fully develop, and we deserve the dignity of being a part of the magnificent machine of creation. I like behaviorism. It’s an interesting and useful field of study. But no one should be our kings.
You can follow me on Twitter @JeffreyNewholm and our blog @NutsAndBoltsSP.
Featured picture credit: Ken Heyman-Woodfin Camp and Associates.