Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Skinner and Hamlet I

I don't imagine it will come as a shock to anyone to learn that most of my friends (who trend to the liberal and artistic) wrinkle their noses at any mention of B.F. Skinner. As I've described here, I used to wrinkle mine, too. I've devoted many previous entries to a defense of Skinner, because I believe his insights have been undervalued in many circles (certainly the circles where I've been traveling). I think the reflexive rejection of behaviorism by many humanists poses a barrier to the interdisciplinary dialogue that we need if we hope ever to marry (or even to weave together as independent threads) mechanistic and holistic accounts of cognition and action, our descriptions of brain and mind as they impel the body (or vice-versa, as Antonio Damasio has intimated in his somatic marker hypothesis). Of course, many behavioral and cognitive scientists have been just as stingy and unthinking in their refusal to admit the significance of intangibles like emotion, belief, and individual character to their investigations. The imperatives of their discipline more formally forbid it.

If we cannot invent or cobble together a third vocabulary that encompasses subjective experience and objective observation, we will have to develop fluency with the conventions of scientific and poetic description at once, to take full advantage of both languages while recognizing their respective limitations. It's in the interests of this bilingual approach that I have learned to love Skinner-- I have been intent these last few months on countering my own prejudice. I feel a little more confident now that, if I invite my inner artist back to the table, the discussion won't devolve into a shouting match: "Deluded parasite!" "Heartless bastard!"