On the Autonomy of Psychology From Neuroscience: A Case Study of Skinner’s Radical Behaviorism and Behavior Analysis

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Abstract

The main goal of this article is to discuss the place of psychology in the domain of natural sciences as an autonomous endeavor from neuroscience. However, given that psychology is not a monolithic field, it is necessary to specify which particular psychological approach is being taken into account. Here, I take B. F. Skinner’s radical behaviorism and behavior analysis as a case study. The focus on Skinner’s behaviorism can be justified for at least 2 reasons: (a) Skinner is one of the most influential psychologists of the 20th century, and (b) he is well known for his defense of the autonomy of behavior analysis from neuroscience. The first part of this article is dedicated to the analysis of Skinner’s arguments for the autonomy of behavior analysis from neuroscience in 73 of his works, published between 1933 and 1993. In the second part of this article, I analyze Skinner’s arguments by taking into account contemporary neuroscience. Incredible advances occurred in neuroscience since the 1930s, and even the late 1980s, period in which Skinner developed his ideas. Therefore, it is important to discuss the pertinence of his arguments in light of today’s neuroscience in order to evaluate the validity of his “autonomy” position. I argue that the relation between behavior analysis and neuroscience can shed some light on the more general debate about the relation between psychology and neuroscience by presenting an interesting nonreductionist alternative free of the problems faced by cognitivist theories.

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