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A Presuppositional Critique of Behaviorism

Gregg Strawbridge, Ph.D.

All Saints' Presbyterian Church, Lancaster, PA, Pastor



The influence of behaviorism on education in America is substantial. If consideration is given to the philosophical and psychological foundations of American education behaviorism must be reviewed. In many cases educational tasks such as learning objectives are almost exclusively conceived of in terms of behaviorist's categories. Likewise, discipline in public schools is shrouded in the terminology of behaviorism (e.g., behavior modification).

Indeed, the most popular spokesman for behaviorism has indicated its purview concerning education. "The experimental analysis of behavior has improved education by clarifying its objectives, suggesting new practices in classroom management, and introducing instructional programming texts and other materials" (Skinner, 1978 p. x).

As Christian educators, we have a great need to evaluate prevailing educational philosophies as well their foundations. It is important to consider educational philosophies for several reasons: (1) for evaluation in light of Christian presuppositions in order to refute or receive them in part or whole, (2) for effective use in Christian service since unbelievers can discover truth, and (3) for a philosophy's effects on practice, especially since Christians tacitly accept false views which undermine the faith. In this light I offer this critique of behaviorism. Thus, this critique is concerned with this question: Is behaviorism an accurate philosophy? The answer to that question will answer the concerns of educational philosophers to know how behaviorism can be applied pedagogically.

Description of Behaviorism

At least three kinds of behaviorism have been identified: structuralism, methodological behaviorism and radical behaviorism. According to Skinner (1980) all but radical behaviorism are inadequate since the others do not full explicate why humans behave the way they do, but merely attempt to analyze what they do (pp. 11-18). Certainly Skinner is the most popular spokesman for behaviorism and that is an important reason his view will be the main substance of this critique. But further, his view claims to give a complete answer to both aspects of behavior, what and why (pp. 17-18). Aside from popularity and scope, Skinner's work with radical behaviorism and operant conditioning was innovative and significant (Bennett, 1990).1 Another reason for addressing Skinnerian behaviorism is the adequate critique of foundational behaviorists such as John B. Watson from Gordon Clark (1980).

Skinner (1974) says that behaviorism is the philosophy of the science of human behavior (p. 3). Consider what behaviorism teaches: "A person's behavior is determined by a genetic endowment traceable to the evolutionary history of the species and by the environmental circumstances to which as an individual he has been exposed" (Skinner, 1971, p. 96). For an educator behaviorism is applied by shaping the learner by controlling stimuli and conditioning responses to bring about the desired outcomes of behavior. Skinner calls this "scientific" saying that the view that man is free to deliberate, decide, and act, possibly in original ways, and is to be given credit for his successes and blamed for his failures, is a prescientific view (1971).

The goal of behaviorism is to change all of human experience through prescribed and some yet undiscovered methods. Skinner (1971) proposes a world,
 

in which people live together without quarreling, maintain themselves by producing the food, shelter, and clothing they need, enjoy themselves and contribute to the enjoyment of others in art, music, literature, and games, consume only a reasonable part of the resources of the world and add as little as possible to its pollution, bear no more children than can be raised decently, continue to explore the world around them and discover better ways of dealing with it, and come to know themselves accurately and, therefore, manage themselves effectively. (pp. 204-205)
 
Philosophical Critique

I will argue that there are adequate reasons for rejecting behaviorism as an accurate anthropology and therefore, as a comprehensive educational philosophy. My critique is three-fold : (1) Behaviorism cannot account for human rationality, (2) behaviorism undermines human experience and (3) behaviorism is ultimately self- defeating2 because the premise upon which it is based contradicts its own goal. A similar critique has been applied to refute other materialistic philosophies (Bahnsen, 1986; Moreland, 1987).

First, human rationality can only be accounted for in a universe in which immaterial abstract entities exist.3 Rationality presupposes abstract entities such as laws of thought, ideas, and mind. Skinner explicitly rejects the existence abstract entities (Kendler, 1988, p. 822), because behaviorism is a materialist or physicalist view of the universe (O'Donnell, 1985, pp. 52-65). "Physicalism denies the existence of proposititions and nonphysical laws of logic and evidence which can be in minds and influence thinking" (Moreland, 1987, p. 96). Laws can only exist in a universe where non-material things can exist. Of course, in a materialist's universe, these things are excluded in principle since they are not matter, for no materialist would argue that a law of logic is composed of material substance. Behaviorism, thus, cannot adequately account for such things as invariant, abstract, immaterial things like laws of logic.

To answer this problem, the behaviorist or materialists generally are not at a loss for words. Yet, as a materialist such nomic principles which are seemingly absolute and invariant by calling them cultural and linguistic conventions (Stein, 1985). This is unsatisfactory, however, since we treat them as absolute laws. If logic, for instance, does not bind us invariantly and absolutely, this paper could be laden with contradictions but still receive be acceptable. As Moreland (1987) aptly states, "Physicalism cannot be offered as a rational theory because physicalism does away with the necessary preconditions for there to be such a thing as rationality" (p. 96). Further, if laws of a moral nature bind us only as cultural or linguistic conventions, why is Hitler's Third Reich universally condemned as wrong. One may argue such universal, invariant laws are conventions, but it is difficult to live consistently with such a position. Therefore, the radical behaviorist as a strict materialist is not able to adequately account for the very things being used in propagating behaviorism.

Second, behaviorism undermines human experience by insisting that freedom, responsibility and novelty, to name just a few things, are illusions. For example, on freedom Skinner (1974) says, "Unfortunately the feeling of being free is not a reliable indication that we have reached such a world" (p. 198). However, the human experience valued by poets, musicians and educators is based on just such a world of freedom. These things are the subject of novels, films, and poetry.

Historically, behaviorism's necessary eradication of classical attributes of humanity caused the beginning of new schools of psychology (e.g., Abraham Maslow) even in the post-WWII golden years of behaviorism (Decarvalho, 1991). If behaviorism is true then those things that are uniquely human are worthless being only figments of our conditioned imaginations. Of course, imagination also must be a bio- chemical/environmental response. Thus, behaviorism undermines human experience to the point of annihilating the very purposes for which science and education have been developed.

This criticism is well illustrated in the fiction of C. S. Lewis (1946) in his last book of the "Space Trilogy" series, That Hideous Strength. The scientist in the narrative struggles internally with the contradiction of his experience and his radical behaviorist philosophy.

For many years he had theoretically believed that all which appears in the mind as motive or intention is merely a by-product of what the body is doing. But for the last year or so--since he had been initiated, he had begun to taste as fact what he had long held as theory. Increasingly, his actions had been without motive. He did this and that, he said thus and thus, and did not know why, his mind was a mere spectator. He could not understand why that spectator should exist at all. He resented its existence, even while assuring himself that resentment also was merely a chemical phenomenon. The nearest thing to a human passion which still existed in him was a sort of cold fury against all who believed in the mind. There was no tolerating such an illusion. There were not, and must not be, such things as men. (p. 357)
 
Third, behaviorism is self-defeating because it is logically bound to material determinism (Williams, 1990; Moreland, 1987).4 Material determinism is a description of reality which if true would mean every effect is produced by a material cause which is linked together in an unbroken chain, ad infinitum. In a behavioristic world a person's behavior as well as everything else is predetermined by this blind cause/effect series. For example, Skinner (1974) likens a person's spontaneous or free actions to the alleged spontaneous generation of maggots in Pasteur's day, a fiction (p. 54).

If everything is materially predetermined, however, how can the behavioral scientist escape that unbroken chain and decide who, how, and what is to be programed by stimulus/response conditioning? Of course, given the presuppositions of behaviorism, the programming is also determined. Skinner (1974) is acutely aware of this objection (p. 4) and concedes, "It would be absurd for the behaviorist to contend that he is in any way exempt from his analysis. He cannot step out of the causal stream and observe behavior from some special point of vantage..." (p. 234). He goes on to answer this criticism by arguing that the behavior of the logician, mathematician, and scientist are the hardest kinds of behavior to analyze but because it is hard or subtle does not mean we should abandon the method which we know yields effective results (p. 235). In other words, Skinner is saying it is difficult, but we should proceed on the assumption that in the future there will be an answer to such dilemmas.

This is a poor answer because it begs the question. If the behaviorist is predetermined he cannot meaningfully assert that one world is a better another or that something is true (e.g., behaviorism is true). Since making value judgments and truth claims requires that someone be able to stand outside what is determined and arbitrate. This implies transcendence from the determined stream of causes. Behaviorism, however, explicitly rejects such transcendence.

In a behavioristic world, all our thoughts are determined. Therefore, the thought that argues for the truth of behaviorism is also determined. And in that case saying something is true is an illusion since no one can step outside their determined thoughts to arbitrate truth over falsehood. As Van Til once remarked, it is like making a ladder of water to climb out of the ocean.

Concerning "truth," Skinner says, "No deduction from a rule or law can therefore be absolutely true. Absolute truth can be found, if at all, only in rules derived from rules, and here it is mere tautology." (1974, p. 136) This kind of statement is self- refuting since saying, "Absolute truth [cannot] be found," is itself a statement pretending to be an absolutely truthful statement. If there is no truth then the statement, "there is no truth" is untrue and thus, self-refuting.

Other examples of self-refuting components within behaviorism can be found such as the implicit contradiction in its claim to offer a "better" world and its lack of transcendence to make moral judgments. If the behaviorist's actions are determined, he cannot transcend that determinism to assert what ought to be determined. As Harper (1980) puts it, "...even if the behavioral scientist can control human behavior, how does he, being limited by his own frame of reference, know what human behavior ought to be?" (pp. 157-158).

Thus, the behaviorist on his own principles cannot know the truth of his system, nor can he freely decide to implement his principles to change the world for the better, since he cannot arbitrate good and evil being, himself, predetermined.

Evaluation and Conclusion

To turn from critique to a more positive evaluation, whatever valid predictions of human action behaviorism makes can be attributed to the valid study of two factors which influence humans: genetic heredity and environmental conditioning. Behaviorism has valid insight into the area of operant conditioning, reinforcing the behavior of an already behaving organism. With this insight Skinner was able to do amazing things with pigeons (e.g., "teaching" them to play ping pong).

Programed learning is an educational outcome of behaviorism. Learning is broken down into minute steps and at each point the correct behavior (e.g., a learning step) is reinforced and the incorrect behavior is discouraged. This can be done with a teaching machine, computer (Skinner, 1986), a well designed lesson plan, or simply, a book. Developing specific instructions and carefully analyzing all the components of a learning situation is a universally recognized educational skill.

The criticism this paper raises is pertinent to accepting behaviorism as an exclusive philosophy of humanity. If it is accepted exclusively then humanity is viewed in a reductionistic way, reducing the totality of a human being to his behavior alone. Positively, we may affirm behaviorist's careful consideration of action, behaviors and external influences. This accounts for behaviorism's effectiveness with some student populations and with certain measurable behaviors. However, people cannot be reduced to animals and persons are more than the sum of their behavior. "Persons are more than well-conditioned animals. Freedom and dignity have a place ...[!]" (Pazmino, 1988, p. 108).

In conclusion, I have argued there are adequate, if not compelling reasons to reject behaviorism. This means for an educational philosophy we must look elsewhere. We may be able to utilize some components of behaviorism in practice if we do not reduce people to chemically ordained animals that may be manipulated to our design. Finally, we should seek to balance our behavioral techniques with a recognition of the other aspects of humanity such as attitude, reason, and values. Educators need a philosophy of education which can account for the things it seeks to propagate: that which is true, good and beautiful. References



Bahnsen, G. L. & Stein. G. H. (Speakers). (1985). The great debate: Does God exist? (Cassette Recording No. 00433). Irvine, CA: Christian Studies Center.
 

Bennett, C. M. (1990). B. F. Skinner: An appreciation. Humanist, (50)6, 26, 38.
 

Bornstein, R. F. (1988). Radical behaviorism, internal states, and the science of psychology: A reply to Skinner. American Psychologist, (43)10, 819-821.
 

Decarvalho, R. J. (1991). Abraham H. Maslow (1908-1970): An intellectual biography. Thought, (66)260, 32-50.
 

Harper, N. E. (1981). Making Disciples. Memphis: Christian Studies Center.
 

Kendler, H. H. (1988). Behavioral determinism: A strategic assumption? American Psychologist, (43),10 822-823.
 

Lewis, C. S. (1946). That hideous strength. New York: MacMillan.
 

Moreland, J. P. (1987). Scaling the secular city. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.
 

O Donnell, J. M. (1985). The origins of behaviorism: Psychology, 1870-1920. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Pazmino, R. W. (1988). Foundational issues in Christian education. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.
 

Skinner, B. F. (1980). About behaviorism. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Skinner, B. F. (1971). Beyond freedom and dignity. Toronto: Bantam Books.
 

Skinner, B. F. (1978). Reflections on behaviorism and society. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
 

Skinner, B. F. (1986). Programed Instruction Revisited. Phi Delta Kappan, (68)2, 103- 110.
 

Williams, D. T. (1990). Propositions for a theistic argument. Toccoa Falls College, Georgia. Footnotes



1Burrhus Fredrick Skinner died in 1990 leaving a legacy of behavioralist research, more than ten volumes and numerous articles.

2Self-defeating or self-refuting positions entail a contradiction. Self-defeating statements are implicitly contradictory, for instance, "I cannot write a word of English." "If a statement is self-refuting, it refers to itself, it fails to satisfy its own criteria of acceptability, and it cannot be true" (Moreland, 1987, p. 92).

3To state that immaterial entities exist may sound a little odd but philosophers often speak of the existence of entities which are not "extended in space." These are referred to as "abstract entities." To say that they exist is to say that they are part of reality, not meaning that we can locate them physically. "Most dualists [material and immmaterial things exist, e.g., minds, the self] hold to the existence of the laws of logic and thought (propositions, concepts) which can be instanced in minds..." (Moreland, 1987, p. 94).

4I cannot take time here to argue in detail demonstrating that behaviorism as a physicalist view of the universe is logically bound to material determinism. However, others have adequately demonstrated this conclusion with various arguments (Williams, 1990; Moreland, 1987). Generally the arguments which succeed proceed to show that if there is no transcendent being (i.e., God) and then the universe is an infinite nexus of material cause/effect sequences. In which case, everything must be exactly as it is. This view does away with the transcendence of rationality and therefore, the claim of the materialist that his position is true. Thus, Williams (1990) says, "The naturalist [materialist or physicalist] must therefore give up either his naturalism or the right to assert that his naturalism is true" (p. 4).