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The Case Against B.F. Skinner

dylancatlow
Posts: 12,244
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3/19/2016 3:45:33 AM
Posted: 8 months ago
"At this point an annoying, though obvious, question intrudes. If Skinner"s thesis is false, then there is no point in his having written the book or our reading it. But if his thesis is true, then there is also no point in his having written the book or our reading it. For the only point could be to modify behavior, and behavior, according to the thesis, is entirely controlled by arrangement of reinforcers. Therefore reading the book can modify behavior only if it is a reinforcer, that is, if reading the book will increase the probability of the behavior that led to reading the book (assuming an appropriate state of deprivation). At this point, we seem to be reduced to gibberish. [...] Recall that reading the book reinforces the desired behavior only if it is a consequence of the behavior. Obviously putting our fate in the hands of behavioral technologists is not behavior that led to (and hence can be reinforced by) our reading Skinner"s book. Therefore the claim can be true only if we deprive the term "reinforce" of its technical meaning. Combining these observations, we see that there can be some point to reading the book or to Skinner"s having written it only if the thesis of the book is divorced from the "science of behavior" on which it allegedly rests."

In other words, Chomsky is arguing that if behaviorism is true -- if our behavior is merely a function of what gives us pleasure, and what actions have, in the past, closely preceded pleasure -- then our reading Skinner's book cannot in any way induce us to take steps toward fulfilling the book's recommendations, because there's no "reward pathway" from the book to the ideal society it proposes. I'm not an expert on behaviorism, so I'm not certain what sort of reasoning it allows, but it seems like a behaviorist could get around this. For instance, couldn't they argue that past experience suffices to tell us that good outcomes typically result from careful and reasoned consideration of the facts, thus "reinforcing" the use of reason itself? In that case, the book merely points us in the direction of new applications of our reason (assuming its thesis is correct), the use of which is already "reinforced" by past experience. We wouldn't even have to assume that the "positive effects" of reason was something that we each stumbled upon individually (since, after all, why would we even bother listening to reason in the first place so as to notice a relationship between reason and good outcomes if it was not already a"reinforced behavior"). It could be argued that we were forced to notice this relationship through more basic reward mechanisms, for example being deprived of play time as a child until applying our reasoning faculty to solve homework problems, and thus coming to notice that following reason "gets us what we want". The behaviorist thought process could play out like this: play time gives me pleasure, and listening to my parents precedes play time. Sometimes listening to my parents means doing homework, and what precedes the solution of homework problems is using reason. Thus, reason is "reinforced."
PetersSmith
Posts: 5,820
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3/19/2016 5:54:16 AM
Posted: 8 months ago
At 3/19/2016 3:45:33 AM, dylancatlow wrote:
"At this point an annoying, though obvious, question intrudes. If Skinner"s thesis is false, then there is no point in his having written the book or our reading it. But if his thesis is true, then there is also no point in his having written the book or our reading it. For the only point could be to modify behavior, and behavior, according to the thesis, is entirely controlled by arrangement of reinforcers. Therefore reading the book can modify behavior only if it is a reinforcer, that is, if reading the book will increase the probability of the behavior that led to reading the book (assuming an appropriate state of deprivation). At this point, we seem to be reduced to gibberish. [...] Recall that reading the book reinforces the desired behavior only if it is a consequence of the behavior. Obviously putting our fate in the hands of behavioral technologists is not behavior that led to (and hence can be reinforced by) our reading Skinner"s book. Therefore the claim can be true only if we deprive the term "reinforce" of its technical meaning. Combining these observations, we see that there can be some point to reading the book or to Skinner"s having written it only if the thesis of the book is divorced from the "science of behavior" on which it allegedly rests."

In other words, Chomsky is arguing that if behaviorism is true -- if our behavior is merely a function of what gives us pleasure, and what actions have, in the past, closely preceded pleasure -- then our reading Skinner's book cannot in any way induce us to take steps toward fulfilling the book's recommendations, because there's no "reward pathway" from the book to the ideal society it proposes. I'm not an expert on behaviorism, so I'm not certain what sort of reasoning it allows, but it seems like a behaviorist could get around this. For instance, couldn't they argue that past experience suffices to tell us that good outcomes typically result from careful and reasoned consideration of the facts, thus "reinforcing" the use of reason itself? In that case, the book merely points us in the direction of new applications of our reason (assuming its thesis is correct), the use of which is already "reinforced" by past experience. We wouldn't even have to assume that the "positive effects" of reason was something that we each stumbled upon individually (since, after all, why would we even bother listening to reason in the first place so as to notice a relationship between reason and good outcomes if it was not already a"reinforced behavior"). It could be argued that we were forced to notice this relationship through more basic reward mechanisms, for example being deprived of play time as a child until applying our reasoning faculty to solve homework problems, and thus coming to notice that following reason "gets us what we want". The behaviorist thought process could play out like this: play time gives me pleasure, and listening to my parents precedes play time. Sometimes listening to my parents means doing homework, and what precedes the solution of homework problems is using reason. Thus, reason is "reinforced."

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