Back to CQ Homepage



Beyond Determinism and Indignity:

 A Reinterpretation of Operant Conditioning

(published in Behavior and Philosophy, Spring 1994)


W. Teed Rockwell

2419A Tenth St

Berkeley CA 94710

510/548 8779 Fax 510/548 3326


       In his most well-known philosophical work, Beyond Freedom and Dignity, B.F. Skinner implied that  psychological research had somehow proven that freedom of choice was an obsolete concept; that a scientifically ordered world would  necessarily be a determined world. Skinner claimed that freedom only appears to be possible because we have clung to concepts derived from  primitive physics, which conceived of inanimate objects and persons in terms similar to the ones we use only for persons today.


. . .  Aristotle argued that a falling body accelerated because it grew more jubilant as it found itself nearer home. All of this was eventually abandoned, but . .  .  Almost everyone who is concerned with human affairs. . . continues to talk about human behavior in this prescientific way. ( Skinner 1971. pp. 8-9)


        We now know, thanks to Newton and his colleagues, that these kinds of descriptions, which presuppose something very like free will and purpose,  are not correct for stones.  Skinner claimed that if we were consistent we would no longer apply these assumptions to living organisms either.  From this assumption he concluded that those people who think of themselves as free are really controlled by unknown and disorganized contingencies, and they would lose nothing genuine if their lives were controlled for the good of society. He consequently claimed that to let human beings remain "free" has condemned society to chaos,  and to take away that freedom would be to deny individuals nothing that actually existed . This conclusion made many people desperate to prove Skinner wrong, and fearful that he might be right.


        What seemed important about the appearance of Beyond Freedom and Dignity  was the sense of a major change in our world view and values, which seemed to parallel what had happened with Copernicus and Darwin. In each of these previous cases, important scientists revealed proven facts which had philosophical implications that profoundly shrunk the difference between us and the rest of reality . Copernicus revealed that we were  not at the center of the universe, but only scuttling along the surface of a spec of dust in an obscure corner of an obscure galaxy. Darwin revealed that we were really nothing but very smart monkeys. Skinner appears to have taken this progression one step further and said that we (and monkeys) are really only machines, and that the only way to understand us is with the same scientific laws that govern machines.


               These rhetorical descriptions are overstated, of course. But they do capture the sense of fear which gave Beyond Freedom and Dignity  an aura of historical urgency when it was first published. For anyone who believes that science reveals the truth, it meant that one needed the philosophical courage to accept yet another degradation of the human condition. Skinner was certainly one of the most important psychologists of his generation, and if he said there was no free will, it had to be taken seriously. Philosophers say depressing things like this all the time, but seeing as they never agree with each other, there seems to be no real urgency in this fact.  But when a scientist says something of this sort, you look like a plaintiff in the Scopes Monkey trial if you don't agree with him.


        However, if Skinner is to be considered to be another example of this "scientist revealing the truth of the human condition"  archetype, his claims have to be evaluated only on the implications of the facts he discovered. Skinner's philosophical arguments date back to Hobbes and Hume, and his presentation of them is in fact, not up to professional standards philosophically (see  "Skinner Skinned" in Dennett 1978 ) The real question is:  what scientific evidence does Skinner have to offer that would cause us to doubt the existence of free will? The answer is: nothing whatsoever.


        The force of  Skinner's argument rests on  the claim that what he and his colleagues have discovered in the laboratory proves that there are no significant differences between the laws that govern stones and the laws that govern living organisms. However, a closer study of what Skinner had to say about his own laboratory procedures (especially in the book Contingencies of Reinforcement, written just before Beyond Freedom and Dignity) reveals something quite surprising.  Most of what Skinner achieved as a laboratory scientist resulted from his discovery of an essential difference between the laws of physics and the behavior of organisms, and this difference is just the sort that would exist if there were such a thing as free will.


        Almost all of the important discoveries of physics and chemistry are expressed in mathematical formulae,  which make it possible to  predict exactly how one quantity will vary when another quantity is varied. For example the formula P= E x I/R tells us that if we increase a given voltage E from 3 volts to 5 volts,  then the power P will increase by a factor of exactly  5/3. Formulae of this sort are the strongest weapons in the arsenal of Newtonian science, for they establish precise quantitative relationships between qualities as diverse as heat and pressure, magnetism and electricity, wavelength and frequency.


        Many psychologists, both before and after Skinner, understandably tried to find similar mathematical formula governing the behavior of living organisms, in order to give themselves the same ability to predict and control that is possessed by the physical sciences.  But more than a century of careful psychological study  failed to find these laws, and Skinner made his most important contributions to laboratory research by accepting this fact and finding ways of working around it.


         Skinner assumed that the reason Newtonian style laws could not be found in the psychology laboratory was epistemological i.e. that the behavior of organisms was so complex and difficult to trace that these laws could not be discovered.  It never occurred to him to consider the possibility that this difference between the animate and inanimate might be ontological i.e. that the reason psychologists have found no mathematical formulae governing the behavior of organisms might be that there aren't any such formulae. The fact is that the existence of deterministic laws  governing the behavior of organisms remains an assumption, for which psychological research provides no inductive evidence .  The indeterminacy that psychologists encounter in the laboratory could be an intrinsic aspect of living organisms, and not just a reflection of our ignorance.


                 If we were to take  Skinner's research at face value,  It can be seen to offer a very high level of replicability for data supporting the claim that human behavior, unlike the behavior of inorganic matter, is not causally determined by Newtonian laws, (and an even higher level of replicability for data supporting the claim that the behavior of rats and pigeons is not causally determined by Newtonian Laws).  It thus appears that the evidence which Skinner offers for determinism could be the strongest body of evidence we have against  determinism. Of course, evidence against determinism is not the same thing as evidence for free will. But if there is an intrinsic indeterminacy in the behavior of organisms that is not present in the behavior of stones, it would mean that Skinner's collapsing of this distinction between them would be less accurate than the common sense view which sees human beings as free and stones as determined. 


                *                             *                             *


        The person who conceived of the goal of psychology as a quantified science most vividly was Clark Hull who, in  such works as Mathematico-Deductive Theory of Rote-Learning  and Principles of Behavior,   formulated mathematical functions which attempted to do for psychology what Newton did for physics.  There is no question that his basic vision inspired and influenced many psychologists.  Unfortunately, none of his formulae were actually capable of predicting what an organism would do in a laboratory with anywhere near the accuracy of physics equations. Hilgard's description of Hull as "giving a foretaste of what psychology will be like when it reaches systematic quantitative precision" (Hilgard 1940) still expresses the psychological community's  evaluation of his work. Everyone admires and shares his vision of a quantitative, scientific psychology, but almost no one now believes that he succeeded in becoming "the Newton of Behavior".


                 There were, however, other aspects of the scientific method which  other psychologists applied to their subject matter with great success. Nobel prize winner Ivan Pavlov made precise quantitative measurements, but contented himself with predictions that were only qualitative. For example, he was able to show that a conditioned reflex could be created between the ringing of a bell and the salivating of a dog. But he did not have a formula which enable him to predict exactly how many grams of saliva would be produced per bell ring, or per decibel level of the bell ring or any other quantifiable factor whatsoever. This is why his Lectures on Conditioned Reflexes  contains many pages of accurate measurements, and  descriptions of his innovative and careful laboratory techniques, but no mathematical functions with predictive pretensions. Nevertheless, he was able to repeatedly produce certain effects on demand, to predict with previously unequalled accuracy how they would fade , and to show how organisms could discriminate between various kinds of stimuli. To be able to make vebalizable predictions was obviously a tremendous step forward, so it was easy to postpone the sense of urgency for mathematical predictions.


        It seemed at first that categories similar to those of physics and chemistry might eventually be discovered by Pavlov's school of psychology.  It was natural to assume that if psychology developed a more and more precise taxonomy of stimuli and responses, it would eventually be possible to classify organisms and/or S-R connections into a system of natural kinds which could make the leap to the quantifiable predictions of natural science. After all, chemistry has classified inanimate matter into natural kinds, called elements, and once one has discovered which of those elements are present in a chunk of stuff, one can predict with replicable accuracy exactly what that chunk of stuff will do when you do something to it. Why shouldn't psychologists eventually be able to discover similar natural kinds if they were careful with their laboratory observations?


        Instead, Pavlov became at least somewhat aware that each organism he worked with was an individual, not just an exemplification of a type, and had to be treated as such if its behavior was to be predicted and controlled.  Skinner spoke admiringly of Pavlov's awareness that he was studying individuals, not members of a species.


Animal psychology at that time was primarily concerned with the behavior of the average  rat. The learning curves which appeared in textbooks were generated by large groups of organisms. Pavlov was talking about the behavior of one organism at a time. (Skinner 1972, p. 594)


F.A. Volgyesi, a student of Pavlov's, also remarked that the dogs Pavlov was testing could only be understood if they were considered as individuals, with individual characteristics.


One animal is best suited for experiments with inhibitions, sleep, or hypnosis; another is better suited for experiments related to arousal...Individual differences of the nervous types are so subtle...there were as many differences as we experience...with humans. (Volgyesi p.56-57)


                 To be a laboratory scientist in the Pavlovian tradition thus required sensitivity and flexibility, because the rules  that governed their laboratory procedures were not quantifiable formulae, but intuitive rules of thumb.


                It was extraordinarily lucky that he [Pavlov] began with the salivary reflex. There seems to be no other response quite so simple. Other glandular secretions, for example tears or sweat, are by no means so easy to control, and we have heard today something of the enormous complexity of conditioned cardiac responses.(Skinner 1972, p.595)


      It is thus not surprising that when Skinner extended Pavlov's work in new directions, he began to stress that the rules sought by psychologists should not be theoretical structures built with mathematical formulae, but rather verbalizable generalizations that strayed as little as possible from the particular individuals observed in the laboratory. In his first major work,  The Behavior of Organisms, there are several laws of behavior stated, but not one of them is a mathematical law. For example, the law of the magnitude of the response says " the magnitude of the response is a function of the intensity of the stimulus" (Skinner 1938 p. 13). But this cannot mean a function in the strictly mathematical sense of the term, because it does not show us how to use a known stimulus intensity to compute an unknown response magnitude, or vice versa, (unlike physical laws, with which it is possible, for example, to set up exact ratios between voltage and current in an electrical system, or heat and pressure in a gas). Occasionally he illustrates these laws with letters concatenated by operator-like symbols. But these are  meant to be only heuristic devices, because Skinner never claims that these letters can be translated into quantifiable units.


        Because he believed that psychology must rely completely on the data, rather than on theory and formulae, Skinner was willing to be agnostic about some of the ontological presuppositions of deterministic physics. He admitted that the terms "cause" and "effect" were not strictly applicable to his findings.  For his purposes, a cause was merely a change in an independent variable, and an effect was a change in a dependent variable. In other words, the cause did not necessarily boot the effect in the seat of the pants or otherwise compel it to happen. The two were merely linked by the more metaphysically neutral term "functional relation". (Skinner 1953 P. 23). Consequently, Skinner was able to stand the assumption of cause and effect underlying Pavlovian conditioning on its head with his greatest contribution to psychology: the concept of operant conditioning.


                 Skinner realized that although the reflex described by Pavlovian  conditioning explained a great deal of human and animal behavior, (he wrote his doctoral thesis on the subject), it could not explain all of it.


                It is neither plausible nor expedient to conceive of the organism as a complicated jack-in-the-box with a long list of tricks, each of which may be evoked by pressing the proper button ( 1953 p.49)                


        The jack-in-the-box analogy does effectively describe the salivation that Pavlov produced by ringing a bell, because the bell comes first, and thus "causes" the salivation. Sometimes, however a stimulus can occur after a bit of behavior, and cause a similar kind of behavior to occur again. For example, if a pigeon pecks a lever, and receives food after doing so, he is more likely to peck the lever again. This kind of stimulus was called a reinforcement, and the conditioning that used reinforcements was called operant conditioning. The principle that behavior could be shaped by reinforcement made it possible to control kinds of behavior that were far beyond the reach of Pavlovian conditioning. Not only could one control glandular secretions and muscle twitches, it was now also possible to control what Skinner referred to as "what an organism is doing." (Skinner 1938 p. 6). Operant conditioning was so called because it controlled the operations performed by an organism in its attempts to survive in the world, and this class of behavior seemed to be capable of including almost any kind of behavior an organism could perform. Skinner was able to train rats and pigeons to perform extremely complex forms of behavior (for example, the controlling of guidance systems for missiles), and many of the techniques he developed in the laboratory worked quite well on people as well.


        But this new-found control was bought at considerable price. The relationship between stimulus and  response in operant conditioning was much harder to predict, and psychologists begin to admit, at least implicitly, that they were now studying only probabilities, not certainties. Skinner acknowledged this difference  by making a distinction between eliciting a response (in Pavlovian conditioning), and setting the occasion for the response (in operant conditioning). One cash-value difference between these two terms was that occasion-setting merely increased the probability of the response, it did not guarantee that the response would occur. Consequently, Skinner usually referred to the fundamental datum that he was measuring as probability of response (1953, p. 65 ; 1969 p. 75, 80, 91, 117 ; 1984, p. 518), and in his (1984) he devotes quite a bit of space to insisting that any attempt to describe these probabilities in terms that posit the existence of actual entities is unjustifiably speculative.


        How then is it possible to have so much control over one's experimental subjects when all of one's knowledge is only probabilistic? Skinner gives many maxims that explain this. Apparently it helps a great deal to work with a small number of subjects and get to know them really well.


The number of organisms is usually much smaller than in statistical designs, but the length of time during which any one organism is observed is greater.  (Skinner 1969 p.81)


Operant methods make their own use of Grand Numbers; instead of studying a thousand rats for one hour each, or a hundred rats for ten hours each, the investigator is likely to study one rat for a thousand hours.  (ibid p. 112)


Like Pavlov, Skinner believed that the behavior of organisms cannot be predicted simply by classifying the organisms into natural kinds.  In Methods and Theories in the Experimental Analysis of Behavior,  Skinner admitted that most “satisfactorily smooth” rates occur when one is measuring an individual subject, and that when one tries to analyze the responses of populations of different organisms, “such a statistical datum raises more problems than it solves” (p. 518).


        But more importantly, probabilistic knowledge is not as great a handicap when one is more interested in controlling behavior than in predicting or explaining it.


                Relations among dependent and independent variables are seldom explored according to a prior "experimental design" . . . The contingencies depend in part on the behavior which the organism brings to the experiment. Provision is usually made for changing the apparatus as the organism changes, but seldom according to a predetermined plan.  (italics mine) (Skinner 1969 p. 81)


        In other words, when you don't know exactly what an organism is going to do, you need to observe it carefully and adapt your behavior to it. (This is what Skinner means by the sentence in italics.) Once you have produced the behavior you want in an individual, you  have not thereby created an algorithm that can be applied mechanically to all future subjects according to a "predetermined plan". The next subject has to be granted the "dignity" of being considered an individual, whose behavior can be shaped only by reinforcements tailor-made for it. Skinner usually does not stress the fact that a behavioral psychologist needs this kind of flexibility, and that  a physicist does not. But his frequent criticism of "the hypothetical-deductive method" in psychology {which he admits works fine for physics (1969 p. ix)} shows that he has learned from his years in the laboratory that no psychological theory is guaranteed to predict exactly what the individual subject is going to do. Better then to observe as carefully as possible, and use theories as rough guides rather than as precise predictors.


        When control of the organism is your goal, "It is most efficient to explore relevant variables by manipulating them in an improvised and rapidly changing design" (1969 p. 112). Operant conditioning experiments can discover many of the variables that reinforce behavior, and the knowledge of these variables is what gives operant techniques their power. But discovering what variables to recombine in each case requires repeated trials (or an occasional stroke of good luck), and can thus never be reduced to a precise quantifiable law. It is tempting to speculate that, like the "improvised and rapidly changing design" created by a good jazz musician, a great deal of the success of operant conditioning depends upon the intuitive artistry of the individual researcher.


        This is not to say that Skinner's cautious anti-theoretical methods are universally accepted. The Hullian dream of a quantifiable psychology is now strived for by means of statistics. There are a number of behavioral laws that have been recently discovered by combining Skinner-inspired laboratory techniques with statistics, (for example, see Williams in Atkinson 1988). These laws can be expressed using mathematical equations, and they fit the data about as well as the laws used in some areas of the physical sciences. But this fit is obtained only by averaging out variations that occur in individual cases. No predictions based on statistical analysis are binding on any single member of the population, even though they can be highly accurate about the population as a whole. Skinner himself was aware of this, which is why he frequently felt the need to de-emphasize statistics.


Statistical techniques cannot eliminate. . . individuality; they can only obscure and falsify it. An averaged curve seldom represents any of the cases contributing to it. (1969 pp. 111)


Nevertheless, it is frequently useful to predict the behavior of large populations, and so the demand for statistics in psychology remains high. Statistical studies of different kinds of populations will probably always be used, not only in the laboratory, but also with some degree of effectiveness for a variety of business reasons, such as insurance actuarial tables and market research.


                 However, for the purposes of this paper, the differences between statistical and Skinnerian laboratory psychology are not as important as their similarities .  Both styles of psychology agree that the fundamental datum of their discipline is what Skinner calls probability of response. The main difference is that statistics make it easier to measure this probability, and operant conditioning makes it easier to control it. Despite the apparent controversy over the two methods, most behavioral psychologists use both statistics and operant conditioning in varying amounts. And this means that while physicists are  usually studying what will actually happen, psychologists are  usually studying what will probably happen. When you put a piece of sulfur in a test tube and heat it to a certain temperature, there is a prior experimental design written in chemistry textbooks that will tell you what that piece of sulphur will do, and this design holds (to several decimal places) for every other piece of sulphur of comparable size, weight and purity. There are some variations that do occur  when an experiment is replicated, but these are small enough that they can plausibly be assumed to be laboratory errors, and not variations in the laws themselves. Hull's assumption that this would be equally true for organisms was highly plausible, and Skinner's discovery that Hull was mistaken is an important and profound one.


        This does not mean that nothing can be said with certainty about living organisms. But it does seem to indicate that there is a kind of hierarchy, in which certainty decreases as we travel upward to the "higher functions".[1]  All matter, living and dead, is governed by the laws of physics at all times. If you drop a rat, a pigeon or a person from a tenth story window, their falls will be governed by the same mathematical laws that predict the fall of a rock or log of comparable weight, wind resistance etc. But there are also laws that are unique to living organisms, and these seem to become less predictable as we work our way up to those behaviors which are distinctively psychological. The conditioned reflexes elicited by Pavlovian conditioning are not as predictable as the cause-and-effect connections discovered by physics. And the operant conditioning reinforced by Skinnerian techniques is even less predictable, and consequently it can be described only as a functional relation that measures or controls probabilities.


        Why then is inanimate matter so much more predictable in the laboratory than living organisms? Skinner offers what seems to be the most plausible explanation.


                The complex system we call an organism has an elaborate and largely unknown history  which endows it with a certain individuality. No two organisms embark upon an experiment in precisely the same condition. (It is characteristic of most contingencies that they are not precisely controlled, and in any case they are effective only in combination with the behavior that the organism brings to the environment.) (1969 pp. 111-112)


In other words, Skinner believes that the unpredictability of the individual organism is a reflection of our ignorance, and is not a function of any intrinsic freedom possessed by that individual. According to this view, the entire universe, organic and inorganic, is equally determined by the same sort of laws.  The apparent freedom possessed by living organisms is assumed to be an illusion produced by the complexity and untraceability of the laws that determine their behavior. This is probably the explanation that most practicing laboratory psychologists would give if they were asked. 


        Although this position is the explanation that comes most readily to mind, this does not mean that it is the explanation that is the least speculative or the closest to the facts. Metaphysical speculations which are firmly buried in the warp and woof of shared opinion can easily masquerade as self-evident, whereas newly formulated theories can encounter resistance even when they are less speculative than the entrenched theories they are designed to replace. It is impossible to disprove the claim that the behavior of organisms is completely determined by Newtonian style laws, none of which have been discovered by over a century of psychological research. There may be no smoke only because the fire is very carefully hidden. My only point is that this claim is a speculation, and that Skinner has offered us no new evidence that it is true. On the contrary, Skinner's research seems to indicate that, so far at least, the data we have discovered underscores the difference between the laws governing organisms and the laws governing matter.


        These differences are not proof that organisms are  ungoverned by Newtonian laws, but I think they can be said to qualify as evidence for that claim. When Sir Edmond Hilary spent a week in the Himalayas looking for a Yeti and did not find any, this did not prove (as he and many others claimed) that there are no Yetis. But if he and thousands of others continued to look to the best of their ability and still found nothing, one could say that each unsuccessful expedition could be seen as a gradually accumulating body of evidence that weakened the probability of their being any Yetis. Believers in Yetis could always cite the size and inaccessibility of the Himalayas and the cleverness of the Yetis as explanations for why they have not been found, but there is no denying that each unsuccessful expedition (assuming it was competently and sincerely conducted) counts as partial evidence against the existence of Yetis.  The number of researchers trying to find Newtonian style laws for human behavior vastly outnumbers those searching for Yetis, and these unsuccessful searches do count as partial evidence for the non-existence of such laws.


        Is the deterministic explanation accepted by Skinner  preferable because of Occam's razor? After all, we already have the laws of physics, which are deterministic. Wouldn't it be unjustifiably speculative to posit another set of laws different in kind from the ones we already have? This objection is unfounded, however, because many branches of physics now rely heavily on statistics and probabilities, and accept the fact that their data cannot in principle be understood any other way. Quantum statistical thermodynamics, which relates heat to changes in the motion of the atoms and molecules of matter is described as follows by the Encyclopedia Britannica. a given time, the most that can be said  about results of measurements on a system is the probability of finding particular values of properties, such as coordinates and momenta, rather than the particular values that will be observed....the principle of indeterminacy... requires a description of the state of a system in terms of probabilities. (italics mine)(v 18 p.311)


The behavior of an individual atom of decaying radioactive matter is equally indeterminate and is thus predictable only in terms of probability.


We have, let us say, half a million atoms of radium in this room...the new laws merely tell us that one of these atoms is destined to disintegrate today, another tomorrow  and so on. No amount of calculation will tell us which atoms will do this; we must rather picture fate as picking out her atom, by methods undiscoverable by us. (Jeans p.150).


        These facts, and others like them, show that the objectivity of statistical phenomena is accepted in post-Newtonian physics, and that there is no reason to automatically assume that probabilities are only a function of our ignorance when they appear in scientific data.  Similarly, the behavior of the population of a city can be predicted using statistical methods, but the behavior of each person in the city cannot, and there is no reason to assume that the unpredictability of each of those persons is an illusion. Modern physics accepts the fact that reality can be intrinsically statistical and probabilistic. 


        Although individual atoms of radium may possess this kind of indeterminacy,  the rate of decay of the piece of radium in front of us can be predicted with unassailable replicability. Consequently, it is usually assumed that these various probabilities are present primarily at the submicroscopic level, and average themselves out in such a way as to make causal laws possible at the macroscopic level.  When science is studying medium-sized perceptible objects traveling at medium speeds, Newtonian physics is usually adequate to the task. Its weaknesses only became obvious when sophisticated equipment made it possible to measure the movements of sub-atomic particles, and objects that could travel near the speed of light.  Because living organisms are medium sized objects, there was no reason to assume that the sub-atomic indeterminacies of quantum mechanics would be relevant to understanding them. Consequently, behaviorist psychologists have usually thought in Newtonian terms, and considered  the ambiguities of quantum mechanics to be outside of their domain. Skinner did borrow the term "functional relation" from post-Newtonian physics, but he did this only to capitalize on the principle that a contingency of reinforcement could  functionally determine a response even though it comes after the response. There is no indication that Skinner ever considered the possibility that the connection between behavior and reinforcement might therefore be indeterminate.


      However, now that thousands of  behavioral experiments have been run, the entire cumulative record appears to indicate that living organisms, like subatomic particles, are individually indeterminate, and predictable only statistically in large populations. If we take these data at face value, rather than assuming that there is a Newtonian structure hidden in it somewhere, we could conclude that Skinner might be wrong in saying that our behavior is determined in the classical sense.


         However, as I said earlier, evidence against determinism is not the same as evidence for free will.  Indeterminacy is necessary for the existence of free will, but it is not sufficient by itself to prove its existence. One of the points I am making is that the triumph of Pavlovian and Skinnerian techniques, with their strong emphasis on observation of the individual, and the eclipse of the Hullian dream of absolute quantifiable predictability, is another piece of strong inductive evidence for the indeterminacy of living systems. We cannot infer from this that free will, as common sense and/or philosophy understand the term, has thereby been vindicated.  If modern psychology does come up with a theory that explains the indeterminacy of the behavior of organisms, there is no reason to assume that it would resemble the common sense or philosophical definitions of "free will", any more than the physicist’s definition of “energy” resembles the common sense concept of that word. 


        I do think, however, that the points I have raised require a  revaluation of Skinner's confident assertion that we must simply replace the folk-psychological idea of freedom with the Newtonian idea of determinism. Skinner liked to stress the similarities between psychology and physics, and to assume that the differences between the two stem from the fact that psychology is a very young science. If we assume that some of these differences are inherent in living organisms, however, it implies that Skinner has ignored a significant distinction. We now know that there are two different kinds of causes: those which always produce the same result under  identical conditions (call those Newtonian causes), and those statisical post-Newtonian laws which only "incline without necessitating" (to use Leibniz's helpful expression—see Kane p. 57).If the behavior of living systems is, like the behavior of a decaying radium atom, genuinely indeterminate,  this would mean that operant conditioning only inclines without necessitating, (i.e. it increases the probability of reinforced behavior occurring, but does not guarantee that the behavior will occur). 


        This is obviously different from Newtonian causation in a significant way, but can we assume that this difference is equivalent to our concept of free choice? The subatomic particles of quantum physics certainly do not have free choice as the term is ordinarily used  and I have been told in conversation with physicists that there are some inanimate macroscopic phenomena which are also indeterminate. (such as the motion of a BB balanced on a razorblade.) Before we can prove that there is such a thing as free will, we need a definition that will distinguish free choice from ordinary randomicity.  However, I don't have such a definition, so I don't intend to claim that Skinner or anyone else offers evidence for or against free will in the technical sense of that term. I am only claiming that if operant conditioning only inclines but does not necessitate, it is not incompatible with the concept of choice. This concept, although an essential part of the concept of free will, is distinct from it, because it does not require the metaphysical baggage that free will has attached to it. I am not claiming that I or anyone else can define or prove the existence of choice. But I am saying that neither Skinner's philosophy arguments nor his scientific data can disprove the existence of choice once we acknowledge the possibility of indeterminacy in human behavior. 


        Many of the characteristics traditionally attributed to "free will" are fraught with mystery and/or confusion.  Plato saw the mind as being able to somehow rise above the dictates of desire through self control,  without acknowledging that the love of the good which propels self-control must also be a desire (see Hocutt 1990). Kant had to posit a noumenal self, transcending space, time, and knowledge, in order to have free will. In Beyond Freedom and Dignity,  Skinner rightly points out that this ideal of freedom as an attribute of Autonomous Man, who floats untouched over the world of causes, is primarily a cop-out to protect humans from the embarrassment of scientific study. His argument against free will, derived largely from Hume's An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding, is based on the definition of a free action as an uncaused action, and the fact that it  makes no sense to claim that free agents do things without cause. If this is the only possible definition of free will, than freedom is not only indefensible, it is not even worth defending. As Hume pointed out, this definition of free will only leaves open the possibility that humans could occasionally go completely bananas, and do things that are totally chaotic and irrational.2 


        However, we could still have something describable as choice, even if we are not "autonomous", when there are aspects of our life where no single cause can compel us to obey it. What this kind of indeterminacy gives us is the possibility that sometimes when we experience ourselves as choosing a course of action, we could have done otherwise than what we did. This means that during the act of deliberation, the outcome is genuinely in doubt until the decision is made.  Certain causes can compel us: If you prick us, we bleed, if you tickle us, we laugh, and if you poison us, we die.  But there are other causes which apparently do not force us into this kind of cul-de-sac, which is why we can respond to them in more than one way. The fact that operant conditioning only increases the probability of response makes it likely that it is the second sort of cause, and therefore it does not produce what Kane refers to as "Covert Non-Constraining Control.(CNC) (1985 p.35) Kane argues, I think correctly, that it was Skinner's belief in the possibility of CNC that made him deny the existence of freedom.  If indeterminacy is real factor in human behavior, there would no longer be any conflict between the existence of choice and the effectiveness of operant conditioning. Operant conditioning eliminates the possibility of choice only if an operant stimulus has only one possible response. As noone has ever found an operant stimulus that produces its response with certainty, the concept of choice remains unthreatened by the discovery of operant conditioning


                 Skinner's research shows us that an organism's  behavior is never aloof from causal explanations, because all behavior is shaped by reinforcing contingencies in the environment. This means that there always is a reason for everything it does. This need not imply, however, that there is  only one thing that the organism could have done in that circumstance. It only implies that if the organism had done something else, there would have been a reason for that  as well (or instead). For example, if I am dieting I have the choice of whether to eat chocolate cake or an apple for dessert. If I eat the apple, there is a reason for that which is explicable in purely behavioristic terms (I have been positively reinforced by hearing praise of attractive thin people, and negatively reinforced by hearing ridicule of unattractive fat people). If I eat the chocolate cake there would also be an explanation for that in behavioristic terms. (I was positively reinforced by past occasions when I ate and enjoyed chocolate cake, and negatively reinforced by past occasions of being unsatisfied by having apples for dessert.). There is consequently no need to posit that miraculous entity which Skinner calls Autonomous Man. Nevertheless, these stimuli do not force me to take a single course of action, because my response to each of them is only probable, and not certain.


        Skinner, however, was  not aware of any of this.  He clearly maintained that the effectiveness of operant conditioning did prove that there was only one possible future for each of us, and therefore our belief that internal deliberations could change our behavior was an illusion. For example, he criticized many Freudians for being closet free-will advocates because they “have no hesitation in assuring their patients that they are free to choose among different courses of action and are in the long run the architects of their own fate.”(p. 20-21). However, if operant conditioning only inclines but does not necessitate, then Skinner's research offers no evidence that contradicts this possibility. He does not realize this , however, because he assumes that  freedom always implies the existence of  Autonomous Man, who does things for no reason whatsoever. Skinner quotes Joseph Wood Krutch as stating a position very similar to the point I am making here.


                We can predict with a considerable degree of accuracy how many people will go to the seashore on a day when the temperature reaches a certain point, even how many will jump off a bridge...Although I am not,  nor are you, compelled to do either. (Skinner 1971 p.21)


Skinner’s reply makes it clear that he considered Hume’s definition of freedom as irrational chaos, or inexplicable autonomy, to be the only possible definition.


...he [Krutch]  can scarcely mean that those who go to the seashore do not go for good reason, or that circumstances in the life of a suicide do not have some bearing on the fact that he jumps off a bridge (ibid.)


His definition of freedom made him ignore the fact that actuarial tables only describe probabilities, not certainties, and therefore the reasons people have for going to the beach do not eliminate the possibility of free choice.


        He cited as another example of the illusion of Autonomous Man the fact that “we read that hundreds of people will be killed in traffic accidents on a holiday weekend and take to the road as if personally exempt.” (p.20). But people who drive on holiday weekends are not just playing Russian roulette. There are a variety of stimuli that make drivers respond in ways that increase accidents on the road during holidays. There are more opportunities to drink, there is a greater tendency to relax and be careless when one is on vacation, there are lots of other people on the road who are drunk and careless. But the effects of any of these stimuli can only be predicted with probability, and not with certainty. A certain number of people will choose not to respond to those stimuli; they will not drink an hour before driving, they will become more vigilant, instead of more careless, and/or they will drive defensively to protect themselves from those who remain drunk and careless. The people who do any or all of these things will do them because of other stimuli they are responding to; they might have received advice from their parents or seen friends die in car accidents. But these stimuli would only produce a probable response; there would always be other people who would not have responded that way to those exact stimuli.  No matter how far back we followed this chain of causes, we would find no necessary responses, so none of these stimuli would have eliminated the choices of those who responded to them. If Skinner’s behavioral engineers wish to use their technology to decrease holiday traffic accidents, they have no need to deny the validity of this kind of freedom. The conditioning they imposed would decrease the number of accidents statistically, while leaving the choices of each individual driver completely intact.


        The compatibility of operant conditioning and choice is perhaps best illustrated by an apocryphal story about two children of an alcoholic, one of whom became an alcoholic and the other a teetotaller. The explanation that each gave for his behavior was "with an alcoholic father, what else could I have done?"


        It thus appears  that Skinner the scientist offers us no new data that compel us to consigned free will to the ontological scrapheap next to caloric and the alchemical essences.  There are plenty of problems with the idea of free will, and Skinner often confuses us by juxtaposing his paraphrases of these ancient conundrums with references to his laboratory research. There is nothing in the research itself, however, that compels us to jettison the idea of free will and use Newtonian causality to explain both the behavior of organisms and the motions of matter.  On the contrary, Skinner's data indicate that radically different methods are needed for each, and that the concept of free will, as confused as it is, contains many elements which are more applicable to Skinner's subject matter than is the notion of Newtonian cause.




Atkinson, R.C. (ed.) [1988]  Stevens handbook of experimental psychology 2nd Edition New York Wiley.

Dennet, Daniel [1978]  Brainstorms  MIT Press Cambridge

Dennet, Daniel [1984]  Elbow Room  MIT Press  Cambridge.

Hilgard, E.R. review of Hull et al Psychological Bulletin  37: 808-815.

Hocutt, Max Free Will  (a talk for the 1990 meeting of the southern society of philosophy and psychology)

Hull, Clark [1943] Principles of Behavior  New York Appleton-Century-Crofts.

Hull, Clark et al. (1940) Mathematico-deductive Theory of Rote Learning; a Study in Scientific Methodology. New Haven Yale University Press. 

Hume, David  An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding.

Jean, Sir James  [1945]  Physics and Philosophy  Cambridge University Press.

Keenan J.H. et al. [1982]  “Thermodynamics, Principles of “ in Encyclopedia Britannica Chicago William Benton.

Kane, Robert [1985]  Free Will and Values  Albany SUNY press.

Leahey, Thomas [1991] A History of Modern Psychology  New Jersey Prentice-Hall.

Pavlov, Ivan [1928] Lectures on Conditioned Reflexes  New York International Publishers.

Skinner, B.F. [1938]  The Behavior of Organisms  D. Appleton Century Company.

Skinner, B.F. [1953] Science and Human Behavior  New York Macmillan

Skinner, B.F. and Ferster, C.B. [1957] Schedules of Reinforcement  New York Appleton Century Crofts

Skinner, B.F. [1969] Contingencies of Reinforcement  New York Appleton Century Crofts

Skinner, B.F. [1971]  Beyond Freedom and Dignity   New York Alfred Knopf.

Skinner, B.F.  [1972]  “Some responses to the stimulus ‘Pavlov’” in Cumulative Record; a selection of Papers    New York Appleton-Century Crofts.

Skinner,  B. F. [December 1984]  "Methods and Theories in the Experimental Analysis of Behavior" in Behavioral and Brain Sciences  Vol. 7 #4.

Stapp, Henry P. [1990]  A Quantum Theory of the Mind-Brain Interface  Invited presentation to the conference: Consciousness within Science, UCSF.

Vitielo, G. , and E. Delguidice, S. Doglia, and M. Milani. [1984]  "Boson Condensation in Biological Systems." in Nonlinear Electrodynamics of Biological Systems  W. Ross Adey and Albert F. Lawrence, Editors. Plenum Press.

Volgyesi, F.A. [1963]  Hypnosis of Man and Animals  Baltimore Williams and Wilkins.

Young, Arthur  [1976] the Reflexive Universe  Delacorte Press. 



[1]The first person to make this point was Arthur Young, in his fascinating book The Reflexive Universe. He also pointed out there is a similar decrease in certainty as we travel downward from physical matter to atoms and to subatomic particles. More on that later.


2 Hume's definition of Free Will is not only unsatisfying, it is not actually a very accurate description of lunacy either. Neurotics and psychotics are unpredictable only to the majority of people who do not take the time to study them carefully. Most therapists usually find that their patients are more rigid and machine-like than normal people, and thus frequently become stuck in repetitive and self-destructive patterns.