Conrad Martin's Third Place Essay

Behaviorism: The Broken Machine

In the late twentieth century, the invention of microchips spawned a revolution in artificial intelligence. Robotic machines are smaller and smarter than ever before, and the twenty-first century student finds the philosophy of Behaviorism quite palatable. He ought to consult the Christian philosopher Gordon H. Clark. Dr. Clark's book Behaviorism and Christianity cuts through Behaviorism's facade of pigeons and lab rats to the fundamental questions of epistemology. An alliance of this book with his earlier work The Philosophy of Science and Belief in God[1] leaves Behaviorism in ruins.

Behaviorism, as a theory of psychology, is identified with such methodologies as operant conditioning. Underlying its methodology, is a comprehensive philosophy of man, science, and ultimately all truth. This philosophy is naturalism. Applied to psychology, naturalism becomes Behaviorism. In his 1954 presidential address to the American Philosophic Association, Ernest Nagel gave a classic statement of naturalism and took the logical step to Behaviorism:

The occurrence of events, qualities, and processes, and the characteristic behavior of various individuals, are contingent on the organization of spaciotemporally located bodies, whose internal and external relations determine and limit the appearance and disappearance of everything that happens. That this is so, is one of the best tested conclusions of experience…. There is no place for the operation of disembodied forces, no place for an immaterial spirit directing the course of events, no place for the survival of personality after the corruption of the body which exhibits it. [Clark, 93-94]

The proof of all Dr. Nagel's assertions is that they are the "tested conclusions of experience." He implies that empirical observation is the source of truth. John B. Watson, who popularized Behaviorism in America, agrees when he bases his denial of the soul on the fact that "no one has ever touched a soul or has seen one in a test tube" (Clark, 94). Naturalism and Behaviorism are based on empiricism.

Since God and the soul cannot be empirically observed, they are imaginary. Many people use a God or some other immaterial being to explain why events happen in one way instead of another. The Behaviorist's rejection of such explanations puts his universe in danger of randomness and inapplicability. To avoid total chaos, he posits mechanism. Dr. Nagel's speech is a clear statement of mechanism. He says that physical forces "determine…everything that happens." Mechanism explains order in the universe, but it also provides a key argument against the existence of souls. For, if everything is determined physically, no room is left for a decision-making mind.

Not only Behaviorism's rejection of the soul, but also its foundational philosophies of empiricism and mechanism, conflict with Christianity. Behaviorism and Christianity are contradictory: for one to be true, the other must be false. To defend Christianity the logical integrity of mentalism must be upheld. Then, Behaviorism must be demonstrated to be false by debunking its epistemology and by showing its self-contradiction in key subsidiary aspects. Finally, the Christian wishes to see that Scripture repudiates Behaviorism.

Mentalism explains human behavior by means of an incorporeal mind. Behaviorism denies such a mind and explains behavior by what can be observed in test tubes and beakers. Since the goal of both is to explain human behavior, as long as mentalism remains intact, Behaviorism is unproven. Gilbert Ryle, a philosophically minded Behaviorist, recognized the obligation to refute mentalism and launched a valiant attack in his 1949 book The Concept of the Mind.[2]

According to Ryle, the official mentalistic theory posits: "Human bodies are in space and are subject to the mechanical laws which govern all other bodies in space.… But minds are not in space nor are their operations subject to mechanical laws."[3] He likes to speak of this theory as "the dogma of the Ghost in the Machine."[4] The problem with it, according to Ryle, is a "category-mistake." … Now, pointing out that there could be a category mistake does not prove that there is one, but, more fundamentally, mentalism need not accept that the body is a machine. Ryle assumes that mentalists accept his own presupposition of mechanism. They do not. He shows the absurdity of a mentalism that accepts mechanism, but he leaves other forms untouched.  Mentalists, of course, do not "deny that physicists formulate mathematical equations. But the philosophy of Operationalism does not take these equations as descriptions of an external world" (Clark, 111). More on Operationalism later; for now, no ghost is ensconced in a machine because there is no machine. …

Influential Behaviorist B. F. Skinner makes a popular accusation against mentalism in his book About Behaviorism[5]: "Mentalistic explanations allay curiosity and bring inquiry to a stop."[6] In other words, if behavior is explained by a transcendent mind, the scientist, bound to the physical, has a hopeless job. The argument depends on an ambiguity in the term explanation. The scientist formulates constructions by which he can explain one motion in terms of a second, previous motion. The second motion must also be explained by yet another motion, and the regress is infinite. Thus, while each motion is temporally explained in terms of a previous motion, the logical explanation is never complete. Mentalism supplies the logical explanation for human actions. The scientist is not concerned; he continues to explore the infinite regressions of the temporal sequence. The Behaviorist ought to be concerned. Since mentalism has not been removed, Behaviorism is unproven.

The importance of fundamental principles is too often underrated. No matter how impregnable a fortress is, if its foundation is undermined, it must fall. The empiricism of Nagel and Watson has already been noted. Edgar A. Singer (Mind as Behavior[7]) understood the significance of epistemology and unhesitatingly states the premise of Behaviorism: "Experience is the only means of verifying assertions, and behavior [is] the only aspect of the beings we call living or conscious which is a matter for experience."[8] Epistemology is the most fundamental branch of philosophy. It lays out the means of arriving at truth: the way by which propositions are to be known and proven. Behaviorism holds that experience is the only means of verifying assertions.

Empiricism is fraught with problems. Even before observations begin, empiricism must overcome its own premise – that experience alone verifies propositions. Trying to prove this assertion by experience results in circular reasoning; and, since experience is the only means of verifying assertions, it cannot be proven by any other means. Thus, empiricism is based on an assumption, one of those leaps of faith which it so much despises.

Empiricism proceeds by induction. Observations compile into laws which, with enough testing, approach certainty. Empiricists might not like to be reminded that induction is a logical fallacy. Universal propositions cannot be deduced from particular experiences. A future experience may at any time disprove a well-tested law. Newton replaced Aristotle and Einstein replaced Newton. In Clark's words, "Experience is always finite and induction is always a fallacy" (141).

To escape this objection, Behaviorism turns to mechanism. Mechanism holds that the universe functions according to absolute laws to which there can be no exception. By close observation, these laws can be approximated and eventually discovered. Though experience is limited, the physicist will eventually hit on the right one, and truth is discovered. Thus, Behaviorism takes refuge in a philosophy of science. It has set up a logical chain. That scientists formulate mathematical equations after making observations is indisputable and is the first link. At the other end of the chain is Behaviorism holding that all human actions are physically caused and determined. The link between these two is the philosophy of mechanism: laws of nature are absolute and without exception. …

According to mechanism, the laws of science are accurate descriptions of how the universe works. One major problem is that it is impossible to verify empirically that scientific laws are accurate. Johannes Kepler's first law of planetary motion, which Newton was later able to derive mathematically from his own laws, illustrates why. The law states that the path of each planet about the sun is an ellipse with the sun at one focus. Now, this law assumes that the sun and the planet are the only bodies in the universe. In reality, other stars and galaxies stretch the planet's orbit in various directions. Hence, the situation described by the law has never been observed and cannot exist. Clark points out the philosophic significance: "Since the Newtonian laws do not describe the actual workings of nature, they cannot be used as a satisfactory demonstration of the impossibility of God and miracles" (55).

The problem is not just with subsidiary laws. At the base of Newtonian mechanism is the law of inertia. It states that every body continues in its state of rest, or of uniform motion in a straight line, unless it is compelled to change that state by forces impressed upon it. The trouble is with motion in a straight line. Can such motion be empirically verified? Newton used the concept of "absolute space" to define it. Absolute space is a three dimensional grid in which all bodies move while the grid itself remains constant. A body is said to travel in a straight line when it takes the shortest path between two points in this space. But take a particle hurtling through space. Its starting position is one point, but what of the second? Every star and planet is also moving in absolute space. Clark remarks that it is entirely possible that "the planet Mars is moving in a perfectly straight line toward some invisible, hypothetical point in space, carrying the whole solar system along with it; but if it is, we could never know it because we cannot fix that point" (59). It may even be that the hurtling particle is fixed in absolute space and that the rest of the universe is doing the hurtling. There is no way to determine empirically that a body has traveled in a straight line or that it has traveled at all. The law of inertia and the grand system based on it were constructed on a non-empirical, imported assumption. The Newtonian system is just one possible construction, no doubt more useful than Aristotle's but with no better claim to absolute truth. Science proves nothing, discovers nothing. …

To some minds criticisms of mechanism may not be acceptable without some other philosophy of science to fill the vacuum. An excellent one is Operationalism. When the Newtonian scientist walks into his laboratory and takes a measurement, he believes that he has discovered a real attribute of a physical object. He assumes, for instance, that each object has a length which he can measure.  That assumption, however, is not necessitated by the data. What he really does is, not discover a length, but perform a set of operations. He places a stick of wood beside what he wants to measure and tallies up some arbitrarily placed marks. Perhaps he uses a more technical method. In any case, length cannot be separated from arbitrary operations. Therefore, the scientist has no right to assume that length, or any other concept he uses, exists apart from his operations. A concept is simply a set of operations. Percy Bridgeman, a prominent Operationalist, argues:

To find the length of an object, we have to perform certain physical operations. The concept of length is therefore fixed when the operations by which length is measured are fixed: that is, the concept of length involves as much as and nothing more than the set of operations by which length is determined. In general, we mean by any concept nothing more than a set of operations; the concept is synonymous with the corresponding set of operations. [Clark, 67]

Thus, the concepts of physics describe no real physical objects; they describe operations in a laboratory. Clark pithily remarks, "The laws of physics, the equations embodying the concepts, do not describe how nature goes on. They describe how the physicist goes on" (68). Once the scientist has developed his concepts (operations), he uses them as variables in his equations, and so the laws of physics are also subjective and relative. But this is no cause to despair of truth, as some Operationalists have. The relativism of science does not imply the relativism of all knowledge. Christianity, for instance, does not take empirical observation and science as its epistemology. …

Behaviorism also has difficulty accounting for meaning. It must find some way in its mechanistic psychology to account for meaningful words and propositions. If it cannot, it must slip into irrationalism and deny its own truth.

The mechanism of Behavioristic psychology is evident in Skinner's work. He says, "A small part of the universe is contained within the skin of each of us. There is no reason why it should have any special physical status because it lies within this boundary, and eventually we should have a complete account of it from anatomy and physiology."[9] The body, including the brain, is part of the universe and is subject to the same mechanical laws as planets and stars. Chemical reactions determine behavior. Thus, the statement "I am hungry" needs no other explanation than "the contractions of the stomach" and can be accounted for by "these stimuli alone."[10]

Some Behaviorists seem a bit afraid of their own premise. Ryle makes a feeble attempt to save the mind from the "The Bogy of Mechanism" and from the conclusion that everything is "explicable by mechanical laws."[11]  He points out that in chess even though the moves are determined by absolute rules, the result of the game is undecided.[12] Clark argues, "The Bogy of Mechanism is not dispelled by the fact that the rules of chess cannot predict the course of the game: In the philosophy of mechanism every move of every game has been mechanically determined…. In a Behavioristic, mechanical system, the motions of the player…are predictable by mathematical equations" (119). The Behaviorist is eventually forced to admit that "however complicated the chemistry may be, thoughts are the chemistry of physical bodies" (115). …

Like it or not, Behaviorists are left with physical bodies bouncing around according to fixed laws; or, if they prefer, they may skip mechanism and be left with bodies bouncing around lawlessly.  Now, judging by their attacks on mentalism, Behaviorists would like to show that it is a false theory. From their long books full of arguments and dogmatic assertions, it may be assumed that they put forward Behaviorism as true. "In other words," says Clark, "they assert a difference between truth and falsehood" (The Biblical Doctrine of Man, 29). But it is an assertion that is incompatible with their fundamental tenet that men are purely physical. The incompatibility may be clearer if the brain be blown up to a larger scale. Leibniz pictured it as a grist mill; Clark's illustration is baseball. One analogy is as good as another, but a clock may be helpful. The clock represents the human body. One gear is the Achilles tendon; its shaft is a nerve. The time is 6:00 o'clock on Monday morning. The second hand makes its first jump in the hour. This jump is a thought. According to Behaviorism, thoughts are simply functions of the body (the clock). The first motion of the second hand after 6:00 A.M. is a particular dated event which can never happen again. Thus, we conclude with Clark that "memory is impossible" (139). The Behaviorist will probably object that, though the same thought cannot occur twice, a similar, and for all practical purposes identical, thought will occur twenty-four hours later on Tuesday morning. But the Behaviorist must now answer how he knows that the two motions are similar. This thought of similarity must also be a motion of the clock. It cannot be either of the first two motions since they are the thoughts to be compared. Let the thought of similarity be the first motion of the second hand after 7:00 o'clock on Tuesday morning. The problem is that, once the first second after 7:00 o'clock rolls around, the first two motions (thoughts) no longer exist, as your employer will doubtless explain when you are an hour late for work. "Behaviorism therefore cannot discover that two motions are similar" (Clark, 140). The minute the Behaviorist stops writing, he can have no recollection of what he has written. Further, our clock and the clock next door cannot make the same motion. Thus, someone reading Skinner or Watson cannot know what they mean, not to mention evaluate its truth. …

To sum up the arguments thus far: Behaviorism has failed to disprove mentalism; and, as long as a contradictory theory remains un-refuted, Behaviorism remains unproven. More importantly, Behaviorism's epistemology of empiricism is self-defeating. Since mechanism is irreparably flawed, Behaviorism's godless, soulless universe slips into randomness and irrationality.  No room is left for the concepts of truth and falsehood. Behaviorism's inevitably materialistic world and mechanistic psychology cannot substantiate even one universal proposition. The argument is elementary: "Experience is always finite and induction is always a fallacy" (Clark, 141).

Behaviorism is not content to be a mere theory of academics: it wants to change society. It makes political, ethical, and religious claims. If Behaviorism cannot arrive at knowledge, it seems unlikely that it will have success with ethical norms. Nevertheless, Watson confidently asserts, "I would like to point out here that some time we will have a behavioristic ethics," and later, "The Behaviorist…wants to control man's reactions as physical scientists want to control and manipulate other natural phenomena. It is the business of Behavioristic psychology…to control human activity" (Clark, 96). The final statement of Skinner's book is: "In the behavioristic view, man can now control his own destiny because he knows what must be done and how to do it."[13] Behaviorism wants to manipulate, control, and change human behavior. "One therefore wants to know," says Clark, "the direction such a change will take, the justification of that direction, and, in the case of Behaviorism, the consistency or lack of consistency between the fundamental principles and the derivative ethics" (135).

Skinner maintains a typical Behavioristic system of ethics. He begins his discussion in a chapter titled "The Question of Control" by asserting his premise: "A scientific analysis of behavior must, I believe, assume that a person's behavior is controlled by his genetic and environmental histories rather than by the person himself as an initiating, creative agent."[14] This supposition seems inconsistent with his later assertion that "man can now control his own destiny," but perhaps he can reconcile them. "We often overlook" he says, "the fact that human behavior is also a form of control."[15] Of course it is. "If water is dripped on iron, not only does the water rust the iron, that is, oxidize it, but at the same time the iron ferrizes some of the water" (Clark, 136). Thus, a man "controls [his environment] in order to control himself."[16] But forest fires create gales of wind to supply themselves with oxygen, and, according to Behaviorism, man is not fundamentally different from other parts of the environment. It would seem that man no more controls his own destiny than a wild flower or rock controls its destiny.  Skinner moves on to say, "Organized agencies or institutions, such as governments, religions, and economic systems…exert a powerful and often troublesome control."[17] "Troublesome?" asks Clark. "Does water trouble iron?" (136). Skinner’s next section is titled "Ethics and Compassion." He claims, "We refrain from hurting others, not because we 'know how it feels to be hurt,' but (1) because hurting other members of the species reduces the chance that the species will survive, and (2) when we have hurt others we ourselves have been hurt."[18] "Yet Hitler murdered the Jews in order to ensure the survival of a better human species" (Clark, 136). Is the fire that is used to make fire lanes immoral because it ruins the larger forest fire's chance of survival? And why should an individual be concerned about the fate of the species anyway? After his own disintegration, nothing can affect him.

We sometimes say that we acted in a given way because we knew it was right or felt that it was right, but what we feel when we behave morally or ethically depends on the contingencies responsible for our behavior.… [No one] acts because he knows or feels that his behavior is right; he acts because of the contingencies that have shaped his behavior and created the conditions he feels.[19]

What then is left of morality? Here are contingencies but not ethics. How are the men who threw Christian girls into the Colosseum any more guilty than the animals who devoured them? Both acted because of contingencies. The murderer is no more worthy of punishment than the bullet he fired. …

Christianity does have ethics, and it does not base them on environmental histories. But disagreement between Christianity and Behaviorism goes far deeper than this subsidiary question. Mechanism and naturalism are fundamentally anti-Biblical. Clark says, "There is no such thing as Christian Behaviorism for the same reason that there is no such thing as Arminian Calvinism or Augustinian Pelagianism" (144). It is strange that any Christian should try to recycle Behaviorism from the trash heap of philosophy, but such a one is Donald M. McKay who wrote The Clock-Work Image (Clark, 145). …

The text of Scripture should have the final word on Behaviorism. Jesus used an instructive parable to illustrate the Pharisees' unbelief. There was a beggar named Lazarus who was cruelly treated by a rich man. "It came to pass, that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels into Abraham's bosom: the rich man also died, and was buried" (Luke 16:22, KJV). Now, even if the rich man's brains were not completely decomposed, Abraham's surely were. Yet they proceed to have an argument. Someone may say that this parable is not meant to be theologically precise, but surely Jesus would not base his whole attack on the Pharisees on the false assumption of thought after death. If there be any doubt of Christ's position on the subject, His words to the thief on the cross clear up the matter: "Today you shall be with me in Paradise." Both were dead and buried by night fall, yet in Paradise "no doubt the thief was praising God for his unanticipated salvation" (Clark, 159-160).

Behaviorism is not new. Plato dealt with one form of it and Leibniz with another. Though the behavior of its proponents changes periodically, the basic theory remains the same and is as deadly as ever. Paul warns Christians to "beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit" (Colossians 2:8), and Behaviorism would like to do just that. Yet the Christian doctrine of man has held up in all collisions. Behaviorism's epistemology has ruptured and its mechanism has broken. The whole thing is stuck in an ethical quagmire. The solution to Behaviorism's troubles is not spare parts and a tow rope but a whole new machine. Christianity never breaks down.

[1] Gordon H. Clark, The Philosophy of Science and Belief in God (1964) and Behaviorism and Christianity (1982) included in Modern Philosophy, Volume 5 of The Works of Gordon Haddon Clark, (Unicoi, TN: The Trinity Foundation, 2008). Unless otherwise specified, all quotations of Clark are from this work.

[2] Gilbert Ryle, The Concept of the Mind, (New York: Hutchinson’s University Library), 1949.

[3] Ryle, 11.

[4] Ryle, 14.

[5] B. F. Skinner, About Behaviorism, (New York: Vintage Books), 1976.

[6] Skinner, 15.

[7] Edgar A. Singer, Jr., Mind as Behavior, (Columbus, OH: R. G. Adams), 1924.

[8] Singer, 53.

[9] Skinner, 24.

[10] Skinner, 32.

[11] Ryle, The Concept of Mind, 76.

[12] Ryle, 78.

[13] Skinner, 277.

[14] Skinner, 208.

[15] Skinner, 208.

[16] Skinner, 209.

[17] Skinner, 209.

[18] Skinner, 211.

[19] Skinner, 212-213.