Skinning Skinner

Voice Card  -  Volume 12  -  John Card Number 11  -  Mon, Feb 12, 1990 04:04 PM

This is a response to Vol 12 Larry 5 ("Seems to me")...


This sounds like an interesting topic and I will be delighted to pursue it. But first I must spout off about something. I probably shouldn't, it really doesn't matter, BUT I JUST CAN'T HELP MYSELF!

---Spouting off begins here:---

As I recall, you are something of a behaviorialist, so perhaps you hold B. F. Skinner in some regard. I, to put it bluntly, do not. I was required to swallow quite a bit of behaviorialist dogma to get my psych degree, and I paid my dues shaping rat behavior and what-not. (I got the meanest rat in the lab. He maimed five people and I named him "Carcharost - the bloody maw".)

It seems to me that poor old Skinner was born fifty years too soon. He wanted to study the human mind in a scientific fashion, but the technology just wasn't there yet. So he came up with a clever, although somewhat fraudulent work-around. The mysterious human brain, he pronounced, DOESN'T MATTER! Inputs and outputs are all that count! There's no need to wonder about what goes on inside "the black box"!

The results of this approach, I think, are necessarily meager. Skinner documented a few tricks that animal trainers had known for centuries, and that's about all. The really useful insights are only now beginning to surface as we trace the wiring of the human conputer!

I didn't really get annoyed with Skinner, though, until I read Walden Two. In this book, Skinner purposely tries to shock his audience with various sacreligious ideas and sophomoric philosophical speculations. None of this shocked me in the least. What did shock me was the smugness of his tone as he described "realistic" people in a realistic Behaviorist's Utopia. I sensed that there was something distinctly UNREAL about Skinner's people, something false, something wrong. And the stench became especially thick when he tried to decribe "creative" people.

For those of you who have never read Walden Two, the book decribes a Utopian commune run under behaviouristic principles. By carefully shaping human behaviour, Skinner seeks to create a brave new world in which everyone is truly happy and productive. He adds all sorts of minor details and concrete touches to give the novel a sense of realism.

But there is something deeply distrubing about the happy, productive people in his commune. They float around like zombies or stepford wives with a manikin's grin pasted on their faces. What really infuriated me was Skinner's suggestion that these zombies were not just great farm workers, but great artists as well.

Skinner would have us believe that after a pleasant afternoon of milking cows, joe artist pulls out a canvas and whips up a happy picture of happy cows, and that this sketch is a deeply moving work of art. The other zombies stare at the smiling cows and they smile too. Artist and audience.

This is not art! This is not creativity! This is not even human! I have spent a lot of time amongst writers and poets and potters and artists of all kinds and none of them are happy people who paint happy cow pictures. Some are depressing and some are downright cheerful, and some are more than a little odd, but all of them are driven in one way or another.

Creation is hard work. It doesn't look hard from the outside, but in fact nothing is harder. Consider the famous advice about how to write a story: "Put a blank sheet of paper in the typewriter and stare at it until drops of blood begin to form on your forehead." And often, artists are not only unrewarded, they are punished and discouraged in a thousand different ways.

People do not engage in this dreadful activity because they are overflowing with contentment. They do it out of ego, out of anger, out of love, out of a driving need to understand. They do it to ward off demons. Or they do it for reasons they don't understand. They do it for all the crazy human reasons, because creation, the act of making strange things, is perhaps the most deeply human activity of all.

It irks me that a man like Skinner, who sets himself up as an authority on human behavior, does not better appreciate this. When he dismisses the contents of the black box, he dismisses too much. He dismisses the very things that make us human. And that is why I got so riled when you mentioned Skinner's definition of creativity. That's why I had to spout off.

---End of Spouting Off---

Now then, in spite of my suspicion about any Skinnerian view of art, I think it would be interesting to nail down some way of definining creativity in such a way that it could be measured or observed objectively. I can tell in advance that such a definition will be unsatisfying in many respects, but perhaps we can come up with something not TOO far off the mark.

So far we have come up with two concepts: my notion of the "strange" solution, and Skinner's notion of the multiple solution. Let's brainstorm for a bit.

Skinner's idea has one important grain of truth in it. The creative mind, it seems to me, is capable of viewing situations from MULTIPLE PERSPECTIVES and can hold these perspectives simultaneously without prejudging one as "right" and the other as "wrong".

When small minds are presented with a problem, they expect to find a single solution, and upon finding it, quickly move onto to the next problem. Such people also tend to take a rigid black-and-white view of the world. They divide the world into right and wrong, good and evil. And by strange coincidence, they are always on the "good" side. "America! Love it or leave it!"

A novelist, in constrast, enters into each one of her characters and looks at the world through a hundred different pair of eyes. One minute she sees through the eyes of a princess, the next through the eyes of a rapist. These multiple perspectives create a kind of ambiguity which the creative person must tolerate. The capability to withstand this ambiguity is what Keats described as "Negative Capability."

Let's see, what else? The creative person must be skilled at both analysis and synthesis and must strike a balance between these two opposing forces. The creative act may look peaceful from the outside, but inside is a raging battle. When I am at work on a story or a program I physically thrash about. I pace furiously. Sometimes I even threaten inanimate objects.

I see by the old word-o-meter that I have already said more than enough for one card. So I'll wrap this up.

Before we can narrow our definition of creativity, I think we need to kick around a few more ideas. We have several "official" creative types in this group; I hope they will pitch in a few personal observations. What do creative people have in common? Perhaps we should talk more about analysis and synthesis; these areas may lead to something that could be measured. Is it true that the artist must suffer? (Stuart and I have had lively discussions on this point.) Are creative people introverts?

Keep prodding us, Larry. This is starting to look interesting...