What is happening in the world today? Why is it facing such terrifying problems? Pollution, overcrowding, bad sanitation, diseases, ghettos … Physical sciences and technology have advanced so much, yet, we see things growing steadily worse! Then, we can say that physical and biological technology alone cannot solve our problems, since almost all of them involve human behavior. What we need is a “good” technology of behavior, one comparable in power and precision to physical and biological technology, one that helps us to treat the causes of behavior. However, this “good” technology of behavior is lacking, why? Why have physical sciences -- which have led to so many catastrophes and disasters-- why have they advanced so much whereas the behavioral sciences -- which study how major aspects of the environment interact with, and influence our own continuously evolving behavior-- haven’t advanced as much?
In the chapter entitled “A Technology of Behavior”, excerpted from the book “Beyond Freedom and Dignity”, B.F. Skinner gives us a detailed answer to our main question. I shall try in this essay to enumerate and explain the points that he gives.
According to Skinner, there are three major problems that have prevented the behavioral sciences from advancing properly:
1- Mentalistic explanations (hard to get rid of)
2- Alternatives for mentalistic explanations (hard to find)
3- Control in the “controlled society” (hard
1- Mentalistic Explanations: (Unobservable
and useless for scientific
“The task of a scientific analysis is to
explain how the behavior of a person as a physical system is related to
the conditions under which the human species evolved and the conditions
under which the individual lives.” Therefore, in order to have a good scientific
analysis, we should focus on the environment which keeps us going, and
on the antecedents that get us where we are. We should then get rid of
those mentalistic constructs and explanations that lead us nowhere. Can
we do that? Can we get rid of those wonderful feelings like freedom, dignity,
autonomy, reward &
punishment … ?
Our main problem is that we refuse to believe that it is the environment that causes us to do everything. We like to feel free, autonomous; we like to be held responsible and be given credit; we like to believe in the “inner person” (“homunculus” or “the little man”) that resides inside us and is used to explain our behavior, ideas like soul, mind, ego, will, self, and personality. There is nothing like this in modern physics or most of biology, and this fact may well explain why a science and a technology of behavior have been so long delayed. We are not focusing on the antecedent events and circumstances, just as we are not focusing on consequences: “It is now clear that we must take into account what the environment does to an organism not only before but after it responds. Behavior is shaped and maintained by its consequences.”
2- Alternatives for Mentalistic Explanations:
The second major problem is that it is very
hard to find alternatives to those “mentalistic explanations” used in social
sciences. We are supposed to look for them in the external environment,
while the role of this environment is not clear at all. It does not push
or pull, it selects. Its role is similar to that in natural selection,
and this function is difficult to discover or analyze.
In physical sciences, we don’t deal with things we cannot analyze, observe, or measure with the precision demanded by a scientific analysis, that’s why these sciences can’t but advance quickly.
3- The Exercise of Control in the Controlled Society:
Once we have created a society based on
the environment, where there is no autonomy, no freedom… Who will be controlled?
Who will exercise control? What type of control will be exercised? Most
important of all, toward what end or what purpose, or in the pursuit of
what value, will control be exercised?
These are questions whose answers are difficult to find! Then, how can the social sciences advance as quickly as the physical sciences? Problems such as this one don’t exist in physical sciences where everything is clear, where solutions are at hand.
After having enumerated and explained the
major problems that are preventing the behavioral sciences from advancing
as much as the physical sciences, we can say that we haven’t by any means
exhausted the possibilities that lead us to the advancement of the social
sciences. Behavior has to be recognized as a subject in its own right.
Solutions have to be found
if we want to solve our problems in the world today. We need to take control, to design culture in such a way that good gets rewarded and bad gets extinguished; we need the right behavioral technology in order to reduce the harm of physical technology.
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