Veritatis Splendor Conference

Author: Fr. Peter Pilsner


I would like to begin this week's post with a little background on the school of thought called "behaviorism." This is mostly for the benefit of those who are newcomers to the fields of theology and philosophy.

Evan Pavlov was a Russian scientist who lived from 1849 to 1936 and won the Nobel prize in 1904 for his study of digestive physiology. During the course of his research, he was examining the digestive system of dogs, in particular, the salivary reflex. He would put food powder in the mouth of a dog, and then measure the drops of saliva that formed in the dog's mouth, collecting them in a tube that had been surgically implanted. As he continued with his experiments, he noticed something that interested him, namely, that after a while the dog began to salivate, not when he put the food powder in its mouth, but as soon as it saw him walk into the room.

He realized that this reaction could not be caused by a physical reflex, since it did not happen the first few times he walked into the room. The reason it must have occurred, he concluded, was that the dog made a connection between his appearance and the coming of food. This kind of reaction, which was not a physical reflex, but a kind that was formed when one experience followed repeatedly after another, he called a "psychic reflex" or a "conditional reflex." It was psychic because it was not the result of the physiological makeup of the animal. It was conditional, because past experiences set a kind of rule that "if this happens, then that will follow." Because of a mistranslation of Pavlov, psychologists do not speak of a "psychic reflex" or a "conditional reflex" but of a "conditioned response."

Now, let's ask some questions. Do animals have physical reflexes? Undoubtedly, yes. Do human beings have physical reflexes? Of course. (If you doubt it, breathe in some smoke, and try to figure out when you decided to cough.) Do animals have "conditional reflexes" or "conditional responses"? As explained above, yes. (It's easy enough to observe. My aunt's cat used to run to the kitchen every time it heard the electric can opener. It connected the soft whirring sound with the opening of a can of cat food.) Do people have conditional reflexes? Again, yes they do. Think for example of a shell-shocked war veteran who dives to the ground when he hears a car backfire.

But now, let's ask this question: Can all of the actions of animals be attributed either to physical or conditional reflexes? The answer is, yes. Whatever an animal does is either the result of its physical makeup (its instincts, genes, or nervous system), or the result of a kind of "programming" that comes about when one event repeatedly follows another (as with the food following the appearance of Pavlov). And finally this question -- the big one: Can all of the actions of human beings be attributed either to physical or conditional reflexes? The answer is, NO. Why? Because in addition to reflexes, be they physical or conditional, human beings have FREE WILL. They have a spiritual component, called the soul, in which resides the power to know (the intellect) and the power to choose or desire (the will).

This essential difference between animals and human beings, namely, that human beings possess intellect, free will, and an immortal soul, and animals do not, was lost on Pavlov and his followers. They formed a school of thought which was called "behaviorism" in the field of psychology, and held that conditioned reflexes explain not only the learned behaviors of animals, but ALL of the learned behaviors of human beings. The only difference is that in humans, conditioned reflexes are more complex. For example, let's say that a person decides to take a day off from work to visit a relative. How do we explain his decision? Most of us would say that he made a choice; he exercised his power of free will. But a psychologist of the behaviorist school would say no, he is not making a free decision. He is reacting to the various stimuli in his environment, in basically the same way the dog reacted to the appearance of Pavlov. True, his reaction would be more complex. It would be more difficult to figure out exactly which series or concurrence of events triggered it, but in essence it would be the same. But, one might object, what about his experience of freedom? The behaviorist would respond that the man's perception of freedom is an illusion.

It might seem difficult to understand how a person could observe animal behavior, and conclude that it provides some kind of explanation for actions and choices that ordinary human beings experience as manifestly free. (After all, since when have scientists so mastered the knowledge of conditioned reflexes that they have been able to predict the behaviors of any individual human being? The answer is, NEVER!) But the difficulty in understanding the appeal of this theory is resolved when we realize that those who represent the behaviorist school of psychology are not drawing it out of an objective study of the facts. They are doing things the other way around. They are fitting the facts into their theory. What is the theory? If we go to the root of it, we will find that the one, over-riding "theory" is this: That there is no God. It's as simple as that. If there is no God, there is no spiritual reality, but only the forces of energy and matter. If there is no spiritual reality, there is no soul; if no soul, no free will.

Ah, but now there is a problem. If there is no free will, how does one explain the apparent experience of free will in oneself? How does one explain actions in others that seem to be the result of free will? This is where the theory of the behaviorists comes in. The idea that every human action (apart from purely physical reflexes) is a complex kind of conditioned response is an attractive solution to this problem. Just as the theory of evolution (Darwin's, that is) was a handy way for atheists to explain how human beings got here if there was no God to create them, behaviorism is a handy way of explaining why people think they have a free will (a sure trademark of a divine creator) when really they don't.

Hence the scientists who embrace the theory of behaviorism have burdened themselves with this monumental task: to try to explain in terms of their theory all of the glorious manifestations of human freedom. Or to put it another way, to try to explain away reality. It's impossible to do, but -- God pity them -- they keep trying.

Permit me to give an example of this effort as it continues even today. A few years ago, I found an interesting article in the Science section of the New York Times. Its purpose was to answer this question: if there is no freedom, how do we explain the human experience of falling in love? It was a tough nut for them to crack, especially because love is commonly considered one of the most beautiful expression of the power of the free will. They wondered, could love be part of nature's way of attracting members of the opposite sex to each other so that they will reproduce and thus perpetuate the species? No, that couldn't be it. People could be motivated to reproduce for the sake of pleasure, as the animals do. Why the excess baggage of romance? Why the great importance placed on falling in love? The scientists whose opinions were the subject of the article felt they had made a great discovery. Here is, according to their theory, where love comes from: In the early history of mankind -- those cave man days -- falling in love was useful for survival. If a woman were pregnant, she would not have the physical stamina or energy to gather food. But if she had formed a relationship with a man who had a powerful emotional attachment to her, her problem was solved. For the sake of this positive emotional experience that we call "love," he would gather food for her. Love then is a behavior, developed through evolution, that helped women to survive during their child bearing years. And of course the survival of women is necessary for the survival of the species.

(As I read the article, my heart went out to all of the husbands who would return home downcast that evening and say to their wives, "Dear, I thought you really loved me. But I learned from the New York Times today that all you really want me around for is to gather food.")

Now, for a look at VS:

33. "Side by side" with its exaltation of freedom, yet oddly in contrast with it, "modern culture radically questions the very existence of this freedom."

FP>> Strange, isn't it, that the modern world criticizes the Church for stifling freedom, and, at the same time, ridicules her for insisting that freedom exists. One cannot but think of the chapter on The Paradoxes of Christianity in Chesterton's _Orthodoxy_. There, G.K. Chesterton writes about how surprised he was to find that the enemies of Christianity would first attack it as a gloom and doom religion, and then criticize it for being full of naive optimism. He went on to observe that the same people who belittled Christianity for being overly timid, for expecting people to "turn the other cheek," also blamed it for being too warlike, and for causing wars of religion. Further, he wondered why the agnostic would first say that the Church oppressed and belittled women, and then try to discredit Christianity as something that ONLY WOMEN care about. After citing a few other examples, Chesterton reached this conclusion:

"Suppose we heard an unknown man spoken of my many men. Suppose we were puzzled to hear that some men said he was too tall and some too short; some objected to his fatness, some lamented his leanness; some thought him too dark, and some too fair. One explanation...would be that he might be an odd shape. But there is another explanation. He might be the right shape. Outrageously tall men might feel him to be short. Very short men might feel him to be tall. Old bucks who are growing stout might consider him insufficiently filled out; old beaux who were growing thin might feel he had expanded beyond the narrow lines of elegance. Perhaps Swedes (who have pale hair like tow) called him a dark man, while negroes considered him distinctly blond. Perhaps (in short) this extraordinary thing is really the ordinary thing; at least the normal thing, the centre. Perhaps, after all, it is Christianity that is sane and all its critics that are mad--in various ways."

Yes, Christianity is sane. It asserts the existence of human freedom, and describes its proper use in God's plan. Those who insist that there be no restrictions on freedom, and those who refuse to admit that there is such a thing as freedom -- it is they who are mad.

VS>> A number of disciplines, grouped under the name of the "behavioral sciences", have rightly drawn attention to the many kinds of psychological and social conditioning which influence the exercise of human freedom. Knowledge of these conditionings and the study they have received represent important achievements which have found application in various areas, for example in pedagogy or the administration of justice. But some people, going beyond the conclusions which can be legitimately drawn from these observations, have come to question or even deny the very reality of human freedom.

FP>> True, there have been some legitimate uses of the "behavioral sciences." For example, the veteran mentioned above can be given some kind of therapy to "unlearn" his reaction of falling to the ground. A teacher might learn certain reward-and-punishment techniques that will help him to control his class, or develop in them good learning habits. However, a scientist who thinks that conditioned reflexes explain away human freedom goes "beyond the conclusions which can be legitimately drawn from these observations."

VS>> Mention should also be made here of theories which misuse scientific research about the human person. Arguing from the great variety of customs, behavior patterns and institutions present in humanity, these theories end up, if not with an outright denial of universal human values, at least with a relativistic conception of morality.

FP >> This last paragraph mentions a problem more characteristic of sociology than psychology. Some will look at the "great variety of customs, behavior patterns and institutions present in humanity," and emphasize the differences there. They will point out that while monogamy is the acceptable practice in western culture, polygamy is the practice in Africa and the middle east. Or again, they will attach great importance to the fact that the Eskimos practice a form of euthanasia, even though it is harshly condemned by most people in North America. A simple report of such practices would be harmless enough. However, the conclusions often drawn from them have weakened the moral convictions of many a college student in "Sociology 101." After relating these and other such cultural differences, those who hold the theories John Paul is referring to will say that polygamy is not immoral "in African culture," and that euthanasia is not wrong "in Eskimo culture." In other words -- and I dealt with this in an earlier post -- morality is thought to be relative to culture. According to people who hold these theories, to say that polygamy is "wrong" is like saying "you should not wear your pajamas and bathrobe to the opera." What is not acceptable to wear at the opera is perfectly OK to wear in your bedroom. In a like way, so the theory goes, polygamy is not "culturally acceptable" in America, but it is perfectly OK in Africa. When confronted with these kinds of theories and arguments, we should keep in mind that despite differences in cultural practices, human nature is everywhere the same, and objective moral norms always apply. If some cultures condone what is immoral and contrary to human dignity, then the human family must help them to progress in their understanding of the worth of the human person, the dignity of marriage, and the sacredness of life.

See you next week. Fr. Peter

No one tried to answer the question at the end of the last post. Any takers?