Thesis: An analysis of and Christian response to Walden Two by B.F. Skinner, especially regarding his radical behaviorism.
- Of Communes and Utopias
- The Heritage of Skinners Thought in Walden Two
- Summary of Walden Two
- Analysis of Walden Two
People have unquenchable desires to attain the “good life,” and this hunger explains the popularity of Utopian literature and of Fantasy literature in general. From Thomas More’s “Utopia” (canon in the liberal arts) to Bellamy’s “Looking Backward” (The bestselling book of all time at the point of publication, behind only “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and “Ben Hur” (Morgan, 252) and finally to B.F. Skinner, who’s fictional novel about a community in the country inspired a host of real-life experimental communities in the 1960’s and 70’s, people have been thinking and writing idealistic portraits of the future.
People like to imagine what the world would be like, both negatively (Orwell’s 1984, Huxley’s Brave New World) and positively (The before-mentioned More, Bellamy, Bacon, and Skinner), and they are incredibly poor at predicting the future and imagining possible results into the world. We are only slightly better at predicting the coming of negative aspects of society. People like to imagine what life would be like without sin, misery, or envy. In a kind of “rosy retrospection” inversion, people always imagine the future to be better than it will actually be. In the ’60s and ’70s, this angst against the status quo flowered into a rejection of western society and its capitalistic and war-mongering ways. Hopeful communards (a term referring to those involved in living in communes) sought to establish life sealed off from the problems of society. Some communes were more free-wheeling, rejecting structure in general as part of their philosophy. Others, especially ones inspired by Skinners Utopian novel, were more interested in replacing capitalistic and western culture with another, but perhaps as equally structured community centered around a philosophy of scientific experimentation and eradication of society’s problems. As we shall discover, escaping from reality and human nature, and eschewing institutions, turns out to be exactly that: escapism.
This paper will attempt to analyze Skinner’s thought and how his thought was implemented by the “intentional communities” he inspired.
Before we begin, we will quickly trace the heritage of Skinner’s thought, Behaviorism, and of the name which his book bears. The title comes to us from the 18th-century poet, Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson (1803-1882) was a romantic and transcendentalist poet and philosopher. For our purposes, all we need to know is his influence on Henry David Thoreau. Emerson believed that all people are basically good and that in order to improve himself, he must free himself from modern society and reconnect with nature. Doing so helps one to be truly self-reliant and independent. Thoreau (1817-1862) carried this philosophy forward but attempted to experiment with it on himself. He lived on some land owned by Emerson, called “Lake Walden,” and sought to implement his transcendentalist philosophy by living simply, in nature, without much contact with outside society. He published his year-long experiment in a book titled “Walden.” B.F. Skinner took the name and spirit and sought to take it further but in a more practical and collective manner. Thus he named his book “Walden Two.”
Skinner, like Emerson and Thoreau, believed that mankind was basically good and that part of the solution to man’s ills was natural. Indeed, throughout “Walden Two” (hereafter ‘W2’) Skinner compares societal problems to health problems, and health to nature itself. But Skinner pushed forward in his belief that mankind is utterly determined by his environment. This radical determinism postulated that man’s environment (as perceived through his senses) influenced his actions and even thoughts. His prior actions and thoughts then determined his future actions and thoughts. Man was not essentially free, then, but determined by his environment, and ultimately, by nature itself. In order to change man’s lot then, one must change his environment. This philosophy became extraordinarily popular in the latter half of the 20th century and influenced both the fields of Psychology and education enormously. The American Psychological Association considers Skinner to be the #1 most popular and influential Psychologist of the 20th century, ahead of luminaries like Freud and Jung (American Psychological Association, apa.org).
Summary of Walden Two
Walden Two is about a group of people led by a washed-out professor named Burris. He is approached by some of his former students who have found out about an experimental community in the country founded by a former graduate student of Burris’ named Frazier. Frazier turns out to be a key character in the book and ultimately the book’s downfall, as we shall see. The group visits this community and is given a tour by Frazier, who explains all of the experimental and behavioristic traits of the economy, culture, and housing. The community is around a thousand strong, nestled in 400 acres somewhere in the American northeast. Everyone lives together, eats together, works together, etc. The economy is completely communal and cashless. Work is done in exchange for “credits” of which someone must accrue a certain amount of each week. Easier jobs earn someone fewer credits than harder jobs. Everyone is basically happy and the character traits of sadness, envy, strife, and overall evil are strangely absent. Frazier accomplishes this through “behavioral engineering”. Members are conditioned to be happy through careful training and weeding out of negative emotions from birth (in highly controlled environments) up through adulthood. Through positive and negative enforcement, members have supposedly “weeded out” negative emotions.
The problems with Walden Two can all be summarized under the rejection of human nature, not only from a Biblical point of view but also a historical point of view. This is altogether even more shocking given that Skinner wrote this novel in 1948, right after World War II and the disasters and atrocities perpetrated by communistic and fascistic governments. However, the premise of the book rests on the idea that mankind is basically good, and that all issues are outside of him. Man can be cured by changing his environment (such as retreating into a community in the wilderness) and by working to change his behavior. Nothing is innate, and everything can be changed. From marriage to education, things can and should be tweaked if experimentation warrants it.
Analysis of Walden Two
Some concrete ways in which we see a rejection of human nature as it is described Biblically are as follows:
Firstly, W2 rejects the usefulness of negative punishment, and advocates the eventual exclusive use of positive reinforcement. People are never punished in W2, only praised. Ironically, an early description of experimental behavior illustrates the failure of this philosophy. When Frazier has just begun showing his group around Walden, he shows them a flock of sheep that he has taught to stay within certain perimeters without the use of an electric fence. One used to employed, but now the sheep respond equally well to sticks and string that form a fence. However, Frazier points out a sheepdog: “‘I should have told you,’ said Frazier soberly, ‘that no small part of the force of tradition is due to the quiet creature you see yonder.’ He pointed…to a sheepdog…’ We call him Bishop.” (Skinner, 21) Even while apparently showing the proof that positive conditioning can work on animals, Frazier, (and through him, Skinner), seems to admit that some external threat of punishment is necessary. For animals, a sheepdog named Bishop, for humans, society would indicate through a human titled the same. Professor Hilke Kuhlman, who wrote his doctoral thesis on the communities founded out of a desire to implement the philosophy of W2, agreed that in all instances, requirements to work were met by increasing disobedience unless some sort of incentive was implemented. He quotes Roger Ulrich, founder of the Lake Village Commune: “We had study after study where people had effectively gotten other people to act in certain ways. Now, here I am, living in this commune and I can’t get my kids to put away their socks. We couldn’t engineer getting the dishes done…Walden II is simply not realistic.” (Kuhlman, 66.) This held true even when one considers that these communes were self-selected, in other words, only those who would be predisposed to behave well in a commune, and who wanted to join, and who was on board with the principles, STILL wouldn’t act in certain ways absence of incentives and punishments.
Biblically, this is no surprise at all. Scripture says that man’s heart is wicked (Jeremiah 17:9) and that nobody seeks after good (Psalm 14). Everyone is a rebel (Romans 1). Because Skinner ignores this, he gets into trouble. When this philosophy is implemented in real life, it doesn’t work out. The turnover at many of these communities is high (Kuhlman, 122) and people leave because they resent working without being able to build capital or any other kind of wealth. (Kuhlman, 129).
Secondly, The philosophy of W2 is inherently antithetical to the family, yet the ways this is seen only work in concept. In Scripture and in fact, they fail. In W2, The childcare from infancy to adulthood is communal–that is, all the children are kept in one large nursery and the parent-child relationship is severed. Women are encouraged to marry early so they can have their children when healthy, and then get on with their lives without having worry about caring for them. Children are discouraged from bonding with their biological parents, and vice versa. Castle, the skeptical visitor to W2, asks: “What about the children?’ I said. ‘the group care we saw this morning must weaken the relation between parent and child.”
It does. By design. We have to attenuate the child-parent relationship for several reasons. Group care is better than parental care. In the old pre-scientific days the early education of the child could be left to the parents…but with the rise of a science of behavior all is changed…Home is not the place to raise children. (Skinner, 142)
Basically, all affection towards the community’s children should be directed at the children in general. Anything else is favoritism. In this way, the community, or less favorably, the state, becomes the parent. Time doesn’t permit the study of parallels with the communist and nazi states that Skinner’s home country had just vanquished! This collectivist child care is done for the purpose of engineering every part of the child’s life, discouraging negative emotions and encouraging positive ones using various techniques. Since the behaviorist denies original sin, then one can isolate the child from evil and gradually acclimate them to it. In addition to this, any and all married couples sleep and live in separate rooms to allow for privacy. Skinner makes clear his destruction of the family is intentional:
The family is and ancient form of community, and the customs and habits which have been set up to perpetuate it are out of place in a society which isn’t based on blood ties. Walden Two replaces the family, not only as an economic unit, but to some extent as a social and psychological unit as well. What survives is an experimental question. (Skinner, 138)
In W2, everyone is totally fine with this system. But how does this system work out when it is implemented in real life? Kuhlman summarizes: “The Twin Oaks [one of the communities] communal child-care system is perhaps the area in which Skinner’s ideas failed most obviously to live up to the expectations of the communards.” (Kuhlman, 102.) She continues: “Skinner vastly underestimated…the emotional impact it would have on parents and children.” (ibid.) One of the biggest reasons people left these places was the communal child care. People wanted to raise their own children: “In an interview with former Twin Oakers, several ex-members report that it was their strong attachment to their children that made them leave Twin Oaks.” (ibid.)
While Skinner takes a nonchalant attitude to monogamy, noting that the only issue with divorce is the deserted mate (Skinner, 140), many of the communes inspired by W2 took explicitly lawless stances towards love and sexuality, encouraging polyamory. Many times, the sexual illicitness was a draw to the communities in the first place. Kat Kinkade, the founder of the most successful (and still running, as of 2018) of these Skinnerian Communes, Twin Oaks, said in an interview with Kuhlman: “Everybody who comes here is looking for love.” Kuhlman fills in: “She [Kinkade] thinks that it was the community’s anything-goes attitude towards sexuality–which was, of course, in stark contrast to Skinners early-marriages solution…that helped the community gain in strength and recognition.”
In contrast, the most successful commune was Los Horcones, which is “strikingly different” from all of the other communities. (Kuhlman, 135). One of the ways it was different (and more successful) was in its sexual and family ethic. Marriage is encouraged, monogamy is the stated norm, and although they don’t dissuade homosexual activity, it is looked down upon. Visitors feel the community is “conservative” and “Catholic” in its understanding of the family. In fact, the entire makeup of the community resembles a large, extended family, (Kuhlman, 141) with the grandfather (Juan Robinson) the founder and leader. It is not a mistake the most successful commune is run like a large, Catholic family! There is no communal childcare; each family cares for their own children. Kuhlman writes: “Los Horcornes is the only Walden Two community in which Skinner’s proposals appear to function quite smoothly.” (Kuhlman, 150.)
While Skinners focus on self-meditation, introspection and connectedness with nature can be lauded (similarly to Emerson and Thoreau) his rejection of objective moral values and the innate goodness of man is untenable both Biblically and in fact. While we can all agree that we should use techniques to better ourselves scientifically, we need to be careful that “science” doesn’t steer the ship of our lives. Science can only tell us about our world, it cannot tell us how to live in it.
Skinner’s sexual and familial ethic clearly cuts against Biblical injunctions and doesn’t work in the real world, even when implemented in the mold of the novel. It turns out that people were made to be monogamous, and to have and raise their own children. An overly collective view of society and a delegitimizing of the family is simply not practical or Biblical.
Arthur E. Morgan, Edward Bellamy. New York: Columbia University Press, 1944. Print.
“Eminent Psychologists of the 20th Century.” American Psychological Association, American Psychological Association, 2002, www.apa.org/monitor/julaug02/ eminent.aspx.
Skinner, B.F. Walden Two. New York: Macmillan, 1948. Print.
Kuhlman, Hilke. Living Walden Two: B.F. Skinner’s Behaviorist Utopia and Experimental Communities. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2005. Print.