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Response to Arguments Made by B.F. Skinner. Essay (Critical Writing)

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Updated: Sep 10th, 2021

In 1945, B.F. Skinner wrote a book that wouldn’t be published for another three years in which he made an argument that there was no such thing as freedom. Skinner’s ideas have been categorized as ‘hard determinism’ in that it is based on the idea that “every event is necessitated by antecedent events and conditions together with the laws of nature” (Hoefer, 2003). Skinner, a well-known behaviorist at the time he wrote this book, unsurprisingly takes the stance that all of our behavior is based upon our reactions and responses to other events that have taken place previously.

In doing so, he completely discounts the possibility of free will in the equation, indicating that even here, actions are governed by external forces. The crux of his argument can be found in a passage in Walden Two entitled Hard Determinism. Although he makes a strong case for determinism, he also finds it necessary to incorporate a situation in which free will is accounted for, suggesting that in some sense there is such thing as freedom.

The case for free will itself is made by Sarvepalh Radhakrishnan, who points to his own Hindu customs as proof of the need for free will in the progression of awareness. Without it, he says, the awareness that comprises the universe and each individual part of it would be unable to move in any direction. Since that is not the case, the universe is constantly in motion, there must be free will. To understand the two sides of this argument enough to take an informed stance, it is necessary to explore in greater detail what each of these men had to say.

Skinner presents his argument for the non-existence of freedom in the form of a conversation among three friends, one of who is the first-person ‘I’ observer and who seems inclined to Frazier’s point of view without a clear conception as to why ‘I’ should be feeling this way.

The other two characters are Frazier, who takes on the role of teacher/mentor and seems to have all the answers as to why Walden Two is working out where so many other communities have failed, and Castle, who is steadfast though not the overly well-informed spokesperson for the concept of freedom of choice. It must be acknowledged from the outset that the conversation and characters thus presented are heavily biased in favor of Skinner’s point of view, as should be expected.

While Castle is definitely of the belief that freedom does indeed exist, his characterization continues to paint him as someone slightly less intelligent than those he is speaking with and therefore his arguments lack weight and conviction. Although some pretense is given to the idea that perhaps Skinner had given weighty thought to the idea of freedom over determinism, as it is recorded in this conversation, freedom is thus given hardly any voice at all.

In his argument for determinism, Skinner begins his argument with the assertion that an effective science of behavior has been developed that provides individuals with the means to effectively control the behaviors of those around them. Because there is such a science available, he, through Frazier, argues that it is irresponsible to trust that the power to determine who controls whom would be left to the individuals themselves. Instead, he argues, such an approach places this power within the hands of the uncontrolled, the educators, the politicians, the religions, and the capitalists through their advertising campaigns and other elements of society designed for promoting social control.

One example he provides of a condition in which the power to control was given into the wrong hands is the Nazi political party of Germany. Although Castle argues that man is free as long as he is not constrained by outside bounds, Frazier continues to illustrate how Castle’s insistence on freedom is an assumption rather than fact. In the example of Castle choosing to drop the matchbook, he illustrates how the choice of whether to set them down or drop them was actually made in response to external conditions, in this case by the motivation to prove Frazier wrong.

While the ultimate minute results of behavioral expression might not be completely predictable given the current knowledge base, the fact that they are based upon a wide range of external factors such as previous experience, reactions to current events, and so on, remains the governing factors regarding the basic course an individual will choose.

In considering the question of freedom, Skinner highlights three primary means by which freedom is usurped by outside forces. Castle points to the concept of slavery in terms of prisons, handcuffs, or other externally, physically coercive means. “These are ways in which we shape human behavior according to our wishes. They’re crude and they sacrifice the affection of the controller, but they often work” (Skinner, 1948: 21).

The ‘I’ character chips in another form of control as being the threat of force, under which the individual may feel a slightly greater sense of freedom because he is able to determine whether he wishes to participate in a given behavior or to suffer the consequences of ignoring it. However, neither Castle nor the ‘I’ character is capable of conceiving of any other form of control. This, Skinner suggests, is exactly the reason why this third form of control works to such a successful degree. No one recognizes it as a form of control. “It’s what the science of behavior calls ‘reinforcement theory.’

The things that can happen to us fall into three classes. To some things we are indifferent. Other things we like – we want them to happen, and we take steps to make them happen again. Still, other things we don’t like – we don’t want them to happen and we take steps to get rid of them or keep them from happening again” (Skinner, 1948: 522).

By providing situations that a particular individual likes, then, we can control what that person does, because we know that they will behave in any way necessary in order to keep that situation or environment that they like.

Because the man who is being provided with what he likes as a result of correct behavior does not feel himself to be controlled, he has a sense of freedom that is unequaled by the man who is coerced through the threat of violence or more physical use of force. With this understanding of the power of positive reinforcement, Frazier indicates a much more regimented form of social control can be imposed without creating a society that feels controlled. “We can achieve a sort of control under which the controlled, though they are following a code much more scrupulously than was ever the case under the old system, nevertheless feel free.

They are doing what they want to do, not what they are forced to do. That’s the source of the tremendous power of positive reinforcement – there’s no restraint and no revolt. By a careful cultural design, we control not the final behavior, but the inclination to behave” (Skinner, 1948: 524). While there is a great deal of control suggested in society using this form of a social behavioral model, Frazier suggests that the idea of freedom never comes up precisely because it is never threatened or forced.

Each individual feels as if they are making a choice through their own freedom of expression regardless of the fact that they are actually being controlled by greater forces carefully manipulating the system so as to control the basic motivations and possibilities available to them. Indeed, Skinner argues, if the process is approached correctly, the feeling of freedom among individuals is actually increased because of the absence of force even if the actuality of freedom is not present. Rather than protecting society by refusing to use social control methods, Frazier suggests that using these methods is absolutely essential if one is to maintain at least a sense of freedom in modern society.

Sarvepalh Radhakrishnan also sees a connection between the concept of freedom and the greater universe, as it is connected through the forces of Karma. Karma, he says, is a concept that ties all of our past actions to our present self.

This can perhaps be seen in Skinner’s terms as a collection of all of our experiences to the present moment informing and determining our present actions, but Karma reaches much further into the past when one particular awareness started becoming aware of itself and extending well into the future as it guides whatever our spirit has become in future lives. “Every single thought, word, and deed enters into the living chain of causes which makes us what we are. Our life is not at the mercy of blind chance or capricious fate” (Radhakrishnan, 736).

As he explains the concept, it also tends to sound a bit like behavior theory in that good produces good and evil produces evil. This also fits with behavior theory as we perceive that good behavior should tend to bring rewards while bad behavior should tend to bring punishment. In suggesting that there is a force that continues to dictate our present and future behavior and life situations, based upon our actions of the past, this theory, too, would seem to suggest that there is no case for freedom of choice in the world.

However, Radhakrishnan, like many others, stresses the importance of freedom of choice in the development of the individual and the ability of a society to live happily. The universe is a constantly changing environment that would have no purpose at all if it weren’t to provide space for the exploration of variants. To me, it is this exploration of the variants that we define as freedom. The degree to which we are able to explore the variables of our lives, the directions we choose to take it, and the way in which we opt to cope with exterior controls all serve to make us unique in each second that we are alive. Without the existence of freedom, the universe ceases to have a reason for being.

Even Skinner has to acknowledge the importance of at least the feeling of freedom within his theory. Although the arguments of Castle for the existence of freedom might not seem to be overly convincing, Radhakrishnan provides much stronger arguments to support his view that freedom does indeed exist. When discussing the principles of Karma, he stresses the importance of not confusing it with the concepts of physical pain and suffering versus material gain and comfort. “All things in the world are at once causes and effects. They embody the energy of the past and exert energy on the future. Karma or connection with the past is not inconsistent with creative freedom.

On the other hand, it is implied by it” (Radhakrishnan, 736). In other words, because we have the freedom to choose in the present, although this choice may be somewhat constrained by our individual actions and the circumstances our previous choices have brought us, we have the power to change the world with little more than a few words. “When Jesus said, ‘Destroy this temple and I will raise it again in three days,’ he is asserting the truth that the spirit within us is mightier than the world of things. There is nothing we cannot achieve if we want it enough. Subjection to spirit is the law of universal nature” (Radhakrishnan, 736).

What Skinner sees as a carefully manipulated sense of freedom in man is only the beginning of what Radhakrishnan sees as the true freedom of the self. “Human freedom is a matter of degree. We are most free when our whole self is active and not merely a fragment of it” (Radhakrishnan, 737). This again supports my contention that freedom as we understand it is the means of exploring the possible variables of a situation brought about by the previous exploration of the possible variables. When we are given the best of all possible worlds, we have the best possible chance of becoming everything we thought we could be, thus becoming the highest expression of freedom possible.

In the Western world, this might mean being born with the right hair and eye color to be attractive to the greatest number of the opposite sex, being blessed with a healthy and athletic body that carries muscle tone well without looking unbalanced, and be given a loving, nurturing home, obvious intellectual talents, the best possible education at the prime age for receiving it and suffering no adverse trauma in early life. This hypothetical person, with no concerns that his support or welfare would suffer in any possible way, then has the freedom to explore every interesting variable presented to him – perhaps becoming a circus star and perhaps becoming the next superstar astrophysicist.

Thus, Skinner’s concept of giving all men what they need and provide them with the means necessary to make the ‘right’ choices for the benefit of a manipulated and controlled society can actually achieve the definition of freedom offered here. “Human choice is not unmotivated or uncaused. If our acts were irrelevant to our past, then there would be no moral responsibility or scope for improvement … Freedom is not caprice, since we carry our past with us” (Radhakrishnan, 737).

What Skinner describes as the incidental accidents of specific details within his organized society is exactly the space in which Radhakrishnan indicates freedom exists; both of whom support my concept that freedom is really the ability to explore options – the degree of freedom experienced by the individual in making small choices is the degree of freedom a society can rightfully claim.

Works Cited

Hoefer, Carl. “” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2003. Web.

Radhakrishnan, Sarvepalh. “Karma and Freedom.” Reprinted in Jeffrey R. DiLeo. From Socrates to Cinema: An Introduction to Philosophy. Place of publication: Publisher, year of publication.

Skinner, B.F. “Hard Determinism.” 1948. Reprinted in Steven M. Cahn; Patricia Kitcher; George Sher; & Peter J. Markie. Reason at Work: Introductory Readings in Philosophy. Third Edition. New York: Harcourt Brace, year of publication.

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