Are Humans 'Conditioned Response Machines'?

A Critique of Behaviorist Philosophy

By Christopher Whitt 9435991

For Dr. J. Bradley

Engineering 3102

Knowledge, Values, and Technology


The theory of behaviorism originated in the natural empirical science boom of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In order to best understand human nature it was argued that humanity should be studied scientifically.

The behaviorism position states that to scientifically study humanity it is necessary to restrict the study to objectively observable facts. The behaviorist view of scientific reason assumes that everything is analyzable and can be reduced to cause and effect, and all things lend themselves to purely objective description. This means that all internal states such as feelings, ideas, and internal observations can and must be discarded or translated into overt behavior.

Consequently, behaviorism maintains that there is no fundamental difference between mental and physical phenomena. A statement about something mental is only an abbreviation for a set of statements about behavior and bodily processes. Since internal states such as thoughts and emotions can be reduced to physical causes, which are determined by some combination of past states and environmental influences, every action has an external cause. Every decision can (in theory) be described in terms of the external causes. Human beings are seen as simply 'conditioned response machines'.

To determine if it is reasonable to accept this conclusion, the assumptions of behaviorism must be analyzed. Behaviorism assumes that a scientific study of humanity must be based exclusively on objective observations, that the environment is the primary influence on human behavior, and that behavior is completely determined by external causes.

Science is based on observation

Behaviorism assumes science is based on observation alone. It adopts the ideas of the philosopher David Hume by assuming reasoning is limited to deduction and induction. On this analysis, science can only be conducted on the basis of empirical observations.

Science is not actually based purely on observation because observation is just one aspect of science. The great revolutionaries like Newton and Einstein made radical leaps outside the thinking of their day. They used a form of reasoning other than deduction and induction. By interpreting the evidence they had available to them, they were able to change paradigms and reach new levels of scientific understanding.

The place of experiment and observation is in the framework of new theories to test and confirm them. Even so, many scientific theories are based on unobservable features. Even in rigorous discipline like physics unobservable quantities abound, such as heat, light, and magnetism. In the same manner, virtually everything regarded as characteristic of human nature is unobservable: memory, emotion, thoughts, desires, motives, will, motives, aptitudes. It is naive to believe that a scientific approach to the study of human nature requires a reduction to purely observable evidence.

Environment is the primary influence

Behaviorism assumes that environment is the most important influence on human behavior. This is hotly contested in scientific circles. Animal behaviorists argue that heredity is most important. It is the genetic makeup of animals which forms the basis for most animal behavior, and humans should be seen as simply complex animals.

It is even conceivable that neither environment nor heredity is the primary influence on behavior. It is at least possible that human behavior is the product of a free will. Human existence seems to exhibit a self-awareness which breaks the causality chain between environment and behavior. Humans have the ability to objectify objects, other people, their own bodies, and even their past actions. Humans may simply be complex animals influenced by environment and heredity, but it is possible that the individual has the freedom to make decisions which are not entirely determined by external causes.

Science may tell us which of heredity or environment is more influential, but never whether heredity and environment are exhaustive influences. To assume that environment is the essential influencing factor is questionable.

Behaviorism is naturalistic

Behaviorism is naturalistic: The central assumption of behaviorism is that the material world is the ultimate reality. This reductive approach requires that internal states such as thoughts and feelings must be defined in strictly observable terms. Since internal states can be reduced to physical descriptions, no action can be caused internally or independently, but has an external cause. If every action must have an external cause, this implies that man has no consciousness or will, but only a brain the responds to stimuli.

An example of the reduction used is that language is regarded as a verbal form of imitation. This mistakes how we learn for what we learn. Imitation is limited to reproducing concepts which are already existent. Children learn to speak by imitation, however they speak more complex sentences than they are ever taught. Because children can understand concepts they can rearrange words to express new and original thoughts, which indicates internal thought processes. This ability is not the same as the mechanistic responses observed in natural sciences. Because imitation is necessary for language does not mean that language is imitation. The limitations that apply to imitation do not apply to language.

Another example of the naturalistic, reductive approach is in the analysis of mental processes in the brain as physiological phenomena, such as the firing of neurons. It can not be proven that anything outside of the physical universe controls the firings of neurons in the brain. In science, if a hypothesis cannot be proven false it is said to be unfalsifiable, and should be ignored in the study of processes. Since the possibility of a cause which is outside of the physical realm is outside our frame of reference and is unfalsifiable, it must be ignored. Because we can only observe in the physical world, we can never disprove the existence of a non-physical entity by physical means. The result is that humans are seen as purely deterministic.

However, in this case, the possibility of a non-physical reality cannot be ignored because we can directly experience self-awareness. The possibility that a non-physical will or consciousness does control the firings of neurons in the brain as a rudder controls a ship, or a spigot a faucet, is entirely consistent with the way humans report that they subjectively experience existence. An individual can will the body to perform a specific movement, and it obeys.

Individual observations tell us that we have control over our actions and that we can choose to override our natural reactions. This is difficult for the behaviorist, who wants to rely exclusively on third person observations, but it is verified by the consistency with which individuals report this ability.

In contrast to what behaviorism implies, science gives us a precedent for accepting the existence of an unobservable things on the basis of indirect evidence. Physics again provides many examples: x-rays because of colorations on a photographic plate; nuclei of atoms because of minute scattering of electrons fired through gold foil; sub-atomic particles because of bubble-chamber tracks. The predictive power of the concept of will is on par with many similar methods of verification used in traditional'hard-science' areas.

A third example of reduction is found in feelings, beliefs and emotions. If a person feels that she has freedom then the behaviorist would say that she is actually free. If a punishment forces a change in criminal behavior, it is equivalent to a change of attitude. If a person eats, she is hungry. This reduction seems most unnatural because many millions of people worldwide eat when they are not hungry. Many more are hungry and do not eat. It is obvious that some people suppress their attitudes to conform in fear of punishment, and other people resist the most varied range of mental and emotional conditioning, threats and even torture because they refuse to change their attitudes.

The error of behaviorism is to mistake the necessary conditions (overt behavior) for the sufficient conditions of existence or humanity. While the reduction of thoughts and emotions to physical actions makes it possible to approximately predict human behavior , translating everything we characterize as unobservable into the language of overt conditioned behaviors seriously weakens and distorts the meaning of the common everyday experience of being human. The translation is not a necessary effect of human nature, but a requirement imposed by scientific method.

Behaviorism denies the most characteristic human traits: consciousness, reason, emotion, creativity, insight, genius, individuality, responsibility, morality, compassion, and the desire for freedom. They are all considered 'learned responses,' and people become seen as mindless, manipulable tools. The assumption that man is naturalistic cannot be defended, and in the end is irrational.

The paradox is that the logical conclusion of this 'rational' theory of human behavior is that man is fundamentally irrational (or at least a-rational). If this is true, then we would not even have the ability to understand that we are 'conditioned response machines,' and even less the ability to devise such a theory. The heart of behaviorism is a self-contradiction, and this paradox destroys the concept that man is mindless.


Behaviorism assumes that environment is the primary influence on human behavior, yet this is debatable and denies the strong possibility of self-determination. Behaviorism assumes science is based solely on observation, yet without interpretation of observations and the ability to create abstract concepts, humanity would never have reached its current state of scientific understanding. Behaviorism assumes humans are naturalistic, yet this assumption leads to conclusions which deny our own rationality. Behaviorism fails in a swamp of contradictions.

Behaviorism is an insidious, dangerous view of human nature that contradicts our basic conceptions of individuality, morality, and free well. Even if many people do not choose to be self-determining, humans are free agents. Humans are not conditioned response machines.

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