What Makes Johnny Good? Rewards or the Ghost in the Machine? : Mind: Cognitive science is the creationism of psychology, an effort to reinstate that inner initiating-creative self, which simply does not exist.

<i> B.F Skinner, America's premiere behavioral psychologist, died Aug. 18. At the American Psychological Assn.'s convention this year in Boston, he received the organization's award for lifetime contributions to psychology. His acceptance remarks, delivered Aug. 10, are excerpted here</i>

Psychologists, following the philosophers, have looked inside themselves for explanations of their behavior. They have felt their feelings and observed their states of mind andmental processes through introspection. James Watson (the father of behaviorism) attacked introspection in 1913. And I suppose you could say he was successful, because, at any rate, psychologists have stopped introspecting almost entirely.

Cognitive psychologists probably see the representations of reality they talk about. In fact, they say that’s all you possibly can see. But I don’t think they claim to see themselves processing them, storing them in memory, retrieving them and so on. Instead, they have resorted to theories--theories about what is going on in the head or the mind. But how can you be sure the theory is right until you can see what is the theory about?

Well, most of them have turned for that to brain science. The mind is what the brain does; the brain can be inspected rather than introspected. But does the brain really initiate behavior as the mind or self was said to do?


The brain is part of an organism and what it does is simply part of what the organism does. It is part of what is to be explained. Now that explanation, I think, can only be found by looking outside the organism--the individual--rather than within, and it is found in three kinds of variation and selection.

The first was natural selection, which explains why we have a body and a brain at all. But there was a difficulty with that: It prepares a species only for a future that resembles the selecting past. That fault was corrected by a further evolutionary step: the evolution of operant conditioning, which enables the environment of the individual to select behavior with contingencies that were not stable enough to work through natural selection. But one can learn very little in a solitary world by operant conditioning--unless you have a social environment that is a rich set of contingencies of reinforcement and responsible for the elaborate repertoires we all acquire. Culture has also evolved and that is the third type of variation and selection.

If these three external kinds of circumstances explain what the body does, what is this mind supposed to be doing?

What has happened, I think, is that psychology has split in two ways; one part going in the direction of finding out the essence of the feeling, the essence of the cognitive process, and the other going in the direction of references to contingencies of reinforcement. The psychologist who is a practitioner uses the vernacular of his or her clients to find out more about what has happened to them and what they are probably going to do. The psychologist who claims to be a scientist investigating, searching for an inner-originating, creative-originating-initiating self is quite different and is doing quite different things.

Also, psychology has advanced as a practice, as a profession, far more rapidly than as a science. It began as a science. That is, it began as an effort to discover what was going on inside the mind or the self. But people who were interested in that particular topic soon became a minority. They were not only replaced by the professionals, but by psychologists who didn’t care too much about what was going on inside, but were interested in behavior, not necessarily as behaviorists in teaching clinical psychology, developmental psychology and so on.

The old notion of selection by consequences seems extremely difficult to understand. We’ve seen what has happened in evolution. It is still true that biology cannot be properly taught in America because those who call themselves creationists or creation scientists oppose it as some kind of threat. If I say that psychologists in searching for this inner self or mind had wasted their time, you may feel that I am being arrogant. If I say that the philosophers, who over the centuries have tried to discover themselves in that sense, wasted their time, you may feel that I’m being arrogant. But I recall your attention to the fact that equally or even more brilliant men and women, over a much longer period of time, have been trying to establish the existence of a different Creator.


Now that is a very great problem. You know how difficult it has been for natural selection to be accepted. Imagine how difficult it is going to be for the individual selection by consequences of operant behavior to be accepted over the other in evolution of cultures and the other kinds of selection that take over the role of a creative self or mind. So far as I’m concerned, cognitive science is the creationism of psychology. It is an effort to reinstate that inner initiating-or-originating-creative self or mind that, in a scientific analysis, simply does not exist.

I think it is time for psychology, as a profession and as a science, to realize that the science that will be most helpful is not cognitive science searching for the inner mind or self, but selection by consequences represented by behavior analysis.