VERITATIS SPLENDOR CONFERENCE (Part 17)
by 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
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
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
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
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
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.