Barney Leith Blog #10a: Science, Religion and Human Reality

Barney Leith Blog #10a: Science, Religion and Human Reality

Barney Leith

This is the first of a two part series on human reality.

Exeter, October 1966, and my first lecture in the introduction to psychology course.

I’d just started my first undergraduate year at Exeter University and I’d managed to locate the premises of the psychology department, which were, for some reason, down in the town rather than up on the hill with the rest of the campus.

“What do you know about psychology?” The meshing of the lecturer’s black polo-necked sweater and beard made his head look as if it was sitting in an egg-cup.

The word “Freud” was hardly out of my mouth before the lecturer sneered and began to put us freshers straight about the realities of psychology.

A mechanistic theory of learning

We quickly learned that this was a department of behaviourists and positivists. The rule was, if you can’t measure it, it doesn’t exist. You cannot measure your thoughts, the argument went, ergo thought doesn’t exist. All that counted was stimulus and response.

Black Box Theory or Learning

Operant conditioning, we were told, was how animals – pigeons, dogs, monkeys, humans – learn. What went on in the black box between the S and the R, if anything, was irrelevant. Thus the beautiful complexity of animal and human behaviour and cognition and emotion – let alone notions of soul and spirit – were deleted tout court.

B.F. Skinner
Sigmund Freud

As I came to understand later, neither Skinner nor Freud turn out to be reliable guides to human life and behaviour. Skinner denied the inner reality that makes humans what they are. Freud, perhaps, made too much of it.


The young child’s joy in learning language

Conditioning, an attempt to mechanize human learning, could never get anything as complex as language off the ground. When he was an infant my grandson developed his language skills willy nilly. Yes, his parents and grandparents spoke to him – had been speaking to him since he was born – and responded to his vocalizations. They applied stimuli, if you will. But no thought was given to systematic applications of stimuli and monitoring of responses, nor was there any schedule of reinforcement.

What happened was a joyous, chaotic process, full of errors, misunderstandings and achievements. It was a dynamic, social, complex process. My grandson learned language for the fun of it – behaviourism could never account for fun.

And now, at the age of five, he is a reasonably skilled exponent of linguistic skills with a rapidly growing vocabulary and a deeply embedded sense of how to use different tones of voice to get what he wants. Yes, he knows how to use language to wheedle and manipulate and to negotiate.

But that’s not all.

He is increasingly using language to make sense of his world, to grapple with meaning.

His rate of learning surely far exceeds what could have been accomplished by the use of operant conditioning, even had it been possible to use such a simplistic model to generate such a complex set of behaviours.

We’ll come back to meaning and humanity shortly. But I just want briefly to explore the tendency to apply reductive explanations to human complexity.

Human as mechanism


I’ve long observed that the latest technology often becomes the fashionable explanatory model for human behaviour. For example, Descartes, familiar with the automata that have fascinated philosophers and scientists from ancient times and particularly in 17th century France, proposed that the bodies of animals were nothing but complex machines. He did try to preserve a place for mind as an autonomous area of human activity, but inevitably, following where Descartes reluctantly led, mechanism became the standard ‘scientific’ explanatory theory. Mind came to be considered by some philosophers as an epiphenomenon, as “steam above the factory” of the mechanistic functioning of the brain.

Automata in the Swiss Museum CIMA
Automata in the Swiss Museum CIMA

In the 19th century, as photography developed, eyes were held to be cameras. In the first half of the 20th century, information transmission between humans was likened to radio. By the second half of the 20th century the human brain was explained as if it were a programmable computer.

Our fascination with technology has repeatedly led us to try to use the latest gizmos as our explanatory tools, even to the extent in some cases of insisting on a functional equivalence between the explanandum of human functioning and the explanans of  technology.

(next, Neuroscience – the latest fashion)


This is first part of the 10th in a series of blogs on the unity of science and religion and its applications by Barney Leith, a member of the UK Bahá’í community and its National Spiritual Assembly. For more of his blogs, see on Posterous.

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