Psychologist at Large: An Autobiography and Selected Essays

By Edwin G. Boring | Go to book overview

When Is Human Behavior Predetermined?
1957

In 1956 my very good friend, Richard M. Elliott, after thirty‐ eight years of service to the University of Minnesota's Department of Psychology, retired, and the Elliott Lectures were begun in his honor. I was complimented by being asked to give the first of these lectures in November 1956. I chose the ancient topic of freedom and determinism in psychology because B. F. Skinner, himself a former member of the Minnesota Department, had interested me in it by what I thought was his inconsistency. He was—in his Science and Human Behavior (1953), for instance —conducting an eager propaganda for the universal belief of educated people (Harvard students) in the predetermination of human behavior. It seemed to me that he was using an essentially voluntaristic language to advocate an unvoluntaristic view of behavior, and I even rewrote one of his eager admonitory paragraphs in sober descriptive language to show how I thought a determinist should talk. Skinner, of course, had his answer: he had to be eager, for how could he escape from nature's necessities?

In giving this talk at Minnesota I also had in mind the fact that Minnesota is the spot when the positivism of psychologists is centered in minds like Herber Feigl's and Paul Meehl's. These positivists did not like my applying the word antinomy to the concepts of freedom and determinism and to my four other instances of incompatibles; presumably I erred there—and perhaps Immanuel Kant did too. As I see it now, freedom is not a denial of causation but an ignoring of it.

____________________
Reprinted with permission from the Scientific Monthly, 1957, vol. 84, 189-196.

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