B. F. Skinner

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B. F. Skinner (Burrhus Frederic, 1904-90) was an American psychologist best known for his exposition and development of Behaviorism. Skinner followed in the tradition that began with the Russian Ivan Pavlov and which was helped along by J. B. Watson.¹

For Skinner, free will is an illusion. We are simply the outcome of positive and negative conditioning. This view is called determinism. Skinner’s book, Walden II, outlines an experimental community where everyone is happy, fulfilled, has meaningful work and lots of leisure time due to their being positively reinforced to behave harmoniously. The book made the cover of Time magazine but was not without its critics. Likewise, Skinner’s ideas had a considerable influence on education. He emphasized positive instead of negative reinforcement and a step by step teaching method. Too many teachers, he said, resorted to negative reinforcement – punishment – which only brought on more bad behavior.

Chomsky at the World Social Forum (Porto Alegr...
Chomsky at the World Social Forum (Porto Alegre) in 2003 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Noam Chomsky criticized Skinner’s behaviorism, saying that it was tantamount to word games. Other humanistic thinkers and contemporary psychologists uphold Skinner as the epitome of barren reductionism where the human being is nothing more than a set of inputs and predetermined outputs. Religious critics argue that Skinner’s ideas overlook what is most important in life; namely, the higher and eternal aspects of consciousness which involve God, spirituality, the soul, free will, and our ultimate journey toward heaven.

¹ Pavlov was the first to scientifically study behaviorism but there were philosophical precedents. See » Behaviorism.

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