Control: An Ironic Defense of Skinner’s Behaviorism (from Meditations Whilst Manic)

I am an existentialist at heart, but I find a lot of interesting things about behaviorism in the light of recent research. I had always assumed that behaviorism meant that we didn’t, and couldn’t, choose, because we didn’t have the capability. We don’t have the capability. Freedom is an illusion, according to the behaviorists, and human choice is driven by rewards and punishments, negative and positive reinforcements.

But behaviorism offers an interesting counterpoint to existentialism that only occurred to me today. It’s the idea that we are controlled, by external stimuli, for the advancement of the human species, so that way the species can evolve and grow. The problem with this claim is of course the insidious nature of advertising and propaganda, and how Skinner happily went with propaganda.

But, is even something like propaganda merely brainwashing? The common idea behind the excess of external stimuli in modern culture is that it creates a feeling of restlessness, boredom, confusion, but, is this necessarily true? Is it possible that the propaganda is being used to keep us strong and fit (survival of the fittest?), keeping us alive and well to reproduce and continue the species in all forms? Maybe control isn’t as bad as it seems. Especially if the control comes from the external world.

In what ways can social engineering be a good thing? Is what we see powerfully correlated with an ironic sense of freedom, even though the stimuli controls us? Behaviorism, by taking the extreme opposite stance of existentialism, has ironically posited a kind of freedom.

Again, these are things I hadn’t thought of before. This is because I am used to internalizing a radical freedom with my life. But when I look around me, at the city, at my neighborhood, at stores and malls and fast food joints, I see the way in which we are being manipulated. Billboards, too. We are manipulated, but surely, such manipulation isn’t as destructive as we think it is, and in fact, is it possible, metaphysically at least, that the people who manipulate us know things about the human condition that we could never know?

I mention all of these aspects of control because I’m at an interesting crux in my life. I’m losing my grasp of free will. I am sincerely wondering if I have free will, or if it really is just about rewards and punishments. Of course, I don’t take such a strict behaviorist stance when it comes down to it, but I acknowledge that perhaps, the external world has much more influence than an existentialist like myself would ever want to give it. This is because I find behaviorism destructive: It’s reductionist. Mechanical. To say we are merely beings who behave and not beings who think, is problematic for people like me. But, in what way can we ever really know the inner thoughts and the inner world of someone else. In a sense, behaviorism is a kind of monism, because it implies there is only the external. But is it possible that this isn’t as bad as it seems?

I don’t know. Being at the crossroads of realizing just how complex the world is, and how life is complicated, and how interactions with others are complicated, and interactions with our own very selves are complicated: What does it mean, and can we really posit a freedom, or do we have to say that the physical world, what is observable, will always have more sway than whatever substance exists within us or outside of us, that is still nonetheless a part of us?

These are difficult questions to answer, and I can’t posit a solution. This is because I’ve accepted, no matter how hard it’s been, that behavior is a staple, at the very least, of how we exist in the world. Without behavior, how do we know anything? How can we observe? And why place all this mystery on human thought?

Does this mean I’m abandoning my theories of mind, ranging from freedom of the mind to the importance of metacognition in our lives? No. But I am acknowledging the incredible and not necessarily good, but perhaps not all bad, force and sway of the external world, and the things that exist outside of us, that cause us to behave in certain ways. At what level do we have to let go of personal freedom for the greater good? Do those who suffer actually serve a purpose in society? Are those who are overt in their behavior somehow contributing to the species? In what way is freedom actually irrelevant to what we should be, and how we should be?

I don’t want to surrender my notions of free will. But I’ve reached the hardest point in my life, because my life is changing, and I’m afraid. I don’t know what’s going to happen, and the world has never seemed so uncertain, with only the external world obvious and apparent, the internal world a baffling mystery. So in that way, sometimes, I want to forfeit my mind and my thoughts so I can just live. And even more important than live: behave. But, I don’t know what this means. I don’t want to destroy freedom or any notion of freedom because I think it’s important, but there are always multiple aspects to what exists in the world, and what exists metaphysically, and what exists in the here and now. How did we end up here? This is a question I ask a lot, but external stimuli may be a part of it. I think behaviorism is destructive in the wrong hands and in the wrong light, and is destructive to my own philosophy, but nonetheless, I think that in the right context, it can show us that the world is a place with a sway on what we do and what we become. We do become conditioned. We do become a certain way by virtue of external stimuli, rewards and punishments. It would be nice if we could fully say we were sovereign agents, and I’m aware that the metaphysics of freedom and the soul/mind are complex, the transcendental, but I think that, if you really want to understand life, see what’s happening outside of you (as hard as it is for a person like me who trusts his intellect and his thoughts above mostly anything else …), and observe. And think through your observations, and then, translate this into behavior that will maximize your life and will conform just enough to the expectations of society to get what you want.


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