Many psychologists are envious of the prestige—and the achievements—of the physical sciences, which they try not to emulate, but to imitate. [B.F.] Skinner is archetypical in this respect: he is passionately intent on being accepted as a “scientist” and complains that only [the concept of] “Autonomous Man” stands in the way of such acceptance (which, I am sure, is true). Mr. Skinner points out scornfully that primitive men, who were unable to see the difference between living beings and inanimate objects, ascribed the objects’ motions to conscious gods or demons, and that science could not begin until this belief was discarded. In the name of science, Mr. Skinner switches defiantly to the other side of the same basic coin: accepting the belief that consciousness is supernatural, he refuses to accept the existence of man’s mind.
Apparently to appease man’s defenders, Mr. Skinner offers the following: “In shifting control from autonomous man to the observable environment we do not leave an empty organism. A great deal goes on inside the skin, and physiology will eventually tell us more about it” [Beyond Freedom and Dignity, p. 195]. This means: No, man is not empty, he is a solid piece of meat.
Behaviorists define psychology as the study of “observable behavior” (their term for action) and claim that man’s behavior is controlled by the environment. In Beyond Freedom and Dignity, Skinner states that “a person does not act upon the world, the world acts upon him.” Thoughts do not cause actions, according to Skinner, but are simply another type of behavior: “covert behavior.” Learning is not defined cognitively (as the acquisition of knowledge) but as a change in behavior, caused by the environment. Behaviorism dispenses with such concepts as the self or personality, emotion, and mental illness, and replaces them with behaviorally defined notions such as response repertoire, bodily reaction, and abnormal behavior.
Behaviorism’s substitute for the mind is certain entities in the environment called “reinforcers.” A “reinforcer,” say the Behaviorists, is an event which follows a response and makes subsequent responses of the same type more likely. “What type of events change the probability of responding?” we ask. “Reinforcing events,” we are told. “What is a reinforcing event?” we inquire. “One which modifies response probability,” they reply. “Why does a reinforcer reinforce?” we ask. “That’s not a relevant question,” they answer. . . . To understand why a “reinforcer” reinforces, Behaviorists would have to make reference to the individual’s mental contents and processes—i.e., they would have to abandon Behaviorism.