Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Approaching Limits

The philosopher Mortimer Adler, always desirous of showing that humanity is different in kind from other living creatures, not just in degree, argued that humanity is distinguished by having an almost unlimited potential which its members may or may not actually develop. We won’t find the same uniformity of behavior in people, Adler argued, that we find in other species.

By contrast the behaviorist, B.F. Skinner, argued quite the contrary. Skinner invented the Skinner box to demonstrated operant conditioning. It had an electrified floor (it could shock the test subject), a lever to cause food to be dispensed, and a communication port to signal when it was “all right” to press the lever—and when it was dangerous. Suppose now that some aliens make a Skinner box large enough to hold a person. They provide it with the same apparatus, but now it’s only the little bed, inside the box, that carries electric current. The subject can lie down on the bed only when the light is green—otherwise the bed will deliver a high-voltage jolt. The food-lever will produce a fast-food meal, but only when the light is yellow. They put a traditionalist into the box who will be damned if he’ll conform. He’ll show those aliens that he is human. The light is red but he lies down, writhing in agonies just to show them—but eventually the pain forces him off. He ignores the food lever when the light is yellow—but in a day or two he cannot help himself; he succumbs and wolfs down the fast food meal. Skinner’s great idea (discussed in his Walden Two) was to bring about millennium by engineering the environment so that it would produce the optimal behavior. Chicken and egg. How do you condition those who will engineer the optimal environment? Both Plato and Skinner needed an elite exempted from the drag of original sin.

FDR used to get speeches written by two speech writers, one on this, one on that side of an issue—and then hand these to a third to kind of, you know, blend the two. Thus must we do here. Humanity is a fusion of the all-too-easily conditioned and of the transcending. Human potentials are limited by nature—and nature is transformed, but only to a limit—by humanity.

These thoughts arose in wake of my post yesterday on changes in employment—services taking up the slack produced by enormously increased gains in agricultural productivity. That transformation points at a certain limit, it seems to me. The age-honored mode we follow is that a living, an income, must be earned by work. The work produces what people need to have—goods and services. But what if that which people need requires only a small portion of the labor available? Why in that case we must artificially augment those needs by creating human wants: and consumerism is born. Born—and then absolutely driven to grow, because people need to work to live. And so the products and services multiply. Suddenly Toys R Us—whereas, in my own growing up, a stick, a string, a ball wadded from old bits of cloth (it was World War II then) sufficed us for amusement. And we amused ourselves without uniforms or hordes of adult hoverers, played soccer in a corner of the church yard, and we weren’t members of a league, Little or Big.

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