David Brooks, pop sociologist and amusing, even insightful, commentator on Bobos, in and out of Paradise, blew it in his review of Rebecca Lemov’s book on behaviorism. Like the advocates of intelligent design who oppose the very idea of biological evolution, he confuses a scientist’s job with the jobs of politicians and spiritual leaders. To argue that the facts of geology, biology, paleontology, and molecular biology support the idea of evolution is not to deny the soul, or the creator –whose “truth” lies elsewhere. The scientist’s “worldview” doesn’t “deny the existence of the soul”, as Brooks claims. It is simply concerned with other things. Human beings have hearts, livers – and brains – which can be studied in purely materialistic terms. Indeed, the scientist can study them in no other way. But no matter how profound the scientist’s understanding may be (as far as the brain is concerned, it’s not yet very profound), that doesn’t give him the right to tell us what we ought to do. “If human behavior is controllable, then who better to control it than the technicians who understand how the mechanism works?” writes Brooks, in an analogical leap which makes as much sense as saying that the engineer who built our car is the best person to tell you where to drive it.
Not that some scientists, behavioral as well as others, aren’t a smug bunch, often just as unaware of the philosophical limitations of their knowledge as Brooks seems to be. B. F. Skinner, in a wonderfully arrogant sentence, once wrote that “To confuse and delay the improvement of cultural practices by quibbling about the word improve is itself not a useful practice” waving aside all uncertainty about what kind of society we should strive for. E. O. Wilson, brilliant biologist, lucid writer, and hopeful secular fundamentalist, wrote in his book Consilience “If the empiricist world view is correct, ought is just shorthand for one kind of factual statement…”, brushing aside the naturalistic fallacy that “ought” cannot be derived from “is.” But Brooks unfairly slams poor Jacques Loeb, earlier 20th century biologist, for writing “I wanted to take life in my hands and play with it,” – which sounds pretty megalomaniacal if you don’t know that Loeb worked mostly with plants and sea urchins.
Behavioral scientists study what is, not what ought to be. To do so, their working assumption is the same as the working assumption of all scientists: that their subject matter is lawful. Not that “there is a predictable pattern between stimulus and response in the human brain” as Brooks parodies it, but that by understanding the past and present environment of organisms, and the workings of their nervous systems, we may understand their future behavior. The scientist’s assumption may be wrong – perhaps there are few laws that can tell us how an individual’s history shapes his future behavior; perhaps the brain is so complex that in the end we may learn little or nothing about how it controls our behavior and our thoughts. But to deny there is a comprehensible material substrate to human psychology not only precludes all behavioral science, it represents a leap of faith that the successes of biological science refute more emphatically with every passing year.
Staddon, J. (2001) The new behaviorism: Mind, mechanism and society. Philadelphia, PA: Psychology Press. Pp. xiii, 1-211.
Staddon, J. E. R.(2004) Scientific imperialism and behaviorist epistemology. Behavior and Philosophy, 32, 231-242.