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B. F. Skinner

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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choose determinism

choose determinism by alyceobvious via Flickr

Fatalism (also called determinism) is the philosophical and religious belief that life (and by implication history) is strictly predetermined or unalterable, governed by the laws of necessity. There’s no room for free will here. All apparent choices are perceived as resulting from past influences.

Some who believe in the illusion of free will argue that fatalism and the belief in free will are the same. The argument goes as follows:

Most theologians will tell you that you are free to choose but God knows in advance how you are going to choose. That means that you may believe you’re choosing but your’re really not. Why? Well, because God created you in the first place, knowing, all along, how you’d make your choices in life.

So where’s the free will? critics of the belief in free will will ask.

Defenders of the belief in free will usually reply as follows, appealing to ethics:

God made human beings free, otherwise they would be of no value. The presence of evil in the world enables us to learn why it’s good to choose the Good and shun the bad. If we didn’t have free will, we’d be no better than mindless machines.¹ And God, being Good, made us better than machines. That is, God made us free.

I might add to this debate that the fatalist critique about God creating us in the first place is an argument bound up in the human idea of linear time. The Swiss psychiatrist and thinker Carl Jung falls into this trap when talking about God in his Answer to Job. Jung is not strictly a fatalist but his many comments about God complicate his outlook. Sometimes he seems like an innovative Christian. Other times he comes off like a New Age pantheist. And when talking about being inconsistent, he simply asks, “who isn’t inconsistent?”

I mention Jung’s approach because it highlights the difference between those who have it all figured out by an official church teaching vs. those who want to figure things out for themselves. That is, Jung illustrates the difference between the passive acceptance of dogma² vs. individual investigation. Interestingly enough, each camp tends to demonize the other.

¹ This argument is now complicated by the fact that some software can appear to learn and “choose” new routines. See

² This in contrast to those who say they accept dogma after much thought and experience, all of which, they say, supports the dogma. An example here would be someone who believes they receive a revelation about the Christian Trinity. Also, some say that the belief in a dogma is a “divine gift” (without the need for a great revelation), so this debate can get complicated.

Related Posts » Determinism, Epicureanism, Providence, Soteriology, Teleology, Theodicy