Philosophical Society of Washington

Beyond Determinism and Indignity: A Reinterpretation of Operant Conditioning

Teed Rockwell

2004th Meeting Abstract
Friday, December 18, 1992 at 8:15 PM


B. F. Skinner was an active and articulate philosopher for many years. His influential book "Beyond Freedom and Dignity" and his acknowledged greatness as a pioneer in developing behaviorist laboratory techniques have fostered the assumption that his philosophy and his psychology are a package deal; i.e., that his philosophy derives from, and explains, his laboratory data, and that the data provide strong evidence for his philosophy. But this is not true. Behaviorist research does not provide proof of a deterministic universe. On the contrary, it provides the strongest inductive evidence we have for the existence of free will. I will cite Skinner's own writings on scientific method as support for the existence of freedom, not only in humans, but in rats and pigeons as well. Reasons that Skinner misinterpreted his own data base are also suggested. These include his apparent inability to tell a fact from a presupposition, and his definition of free will derived from Hume which renders that concept magical and incoherent. I propose a new definition of freedom that is comprehensible in behaviorist terms and which fits our common sense experience of ourselves more accurately than does the straw ghost that Skinner labels "Autonomous Man." With this new definition of freedom, it is no longer necessary to go beyond freedom and dignity for society to reap the benefits of behavior modification technology.

About the Author:

Teed Rockwell is a musician by profession, performing with the world folk chamber trio Geist, whose recordings of original music have received extensive national distribution, as well as radio and television airplay. He studied Philosophy of Science with Wilfrid Sellars and has a Master's Degree in Philosophy from Duquesne University, with additional post-graduate work in philosophy at the University of Texas. He has published papers in several prominent journals, and presented papers at a variety of conferences, including a recent National Convention of the American Philosophical Association.

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