Comprehending human nature, understanding and controlling human behavior has, over many years, been the concern of religions, sciences, and even philosophies. They all seek to provide answers to questions such as, how can human nature be defined? How can a science of human behavior be established? Moreover, even, how can it be controlled? The complexity of the human nature has led to many diverse theories which are on many points opposed to one another. This article will compare and contrast the theory of Behaviorism respectively and mainly, the Behaviorism of B. F. Skinner, the Buddhist self-empowerment teachings and the Biblical perspective on human nature.
I. The Behaviorist Theory of Human Nature
In this section, I will provide a brief definition of Behaviorism, and we will examine its theories or teachings regarding human nature. We will put more emphasis on Burrhus Frederick Skinner’s Behaviorism given that he is considered as the one who has had much influence in this field of study. According to Bjork, B. F. Skinner “may well go down in history as the individual who had a greater impact on Western thought than any other psychologist.”
1. A Brief Definition of Behaviorism
The term behaviorism was coined in 1913 by John B. Watson who studied how specific stimuli could lead organisms to make responses. Watson believed that psychology was only an objective observation of behavior that can be observed and measured. In this sense, Behaviorism would be defined as the science of behavior. However, B. F. Skinner, the founder of radical behaviorism, believes that “Behaviorism is not the science of human behavior; it is the philosophy of that science.” Behaviorism is therefore viewed as a set of theories that govern the study of human behavior. John Woollard, in his book Psychology for the Classroom: Behaviourism, gives a more comprehensive definition of Behaviorism. He writes, “Behaviourism is a theory of animal and human learning that focuses upon the behaviour of the learner and the change in behavior that occurs when learning takes place.” Thus, Behaviorism, whether it is considered as a science or a philosophy, operates on the same principle, that of stimulus (mainly external) and response.
2. The Theories or Teachings of Behaviorism
Is a science of human behavior possible? How can it be established? How can the human behavior be controlled? These are the questions that underlie the behaviorist’s work. Even though all behaviorists would not agree on what Behaviorism exactly is, they all agree on the fact that a science of human behavior is possible and they worked towards the establishment of such a science. Through the analysis of human behavior, they seek to establish a science of human behavior or a philosophy of the said science. There are many tendencies of Behaviorism. We observe the original or classical Behaviorism as initiated by Watson, Edward Tolman’s Purposive Behaviorism, Arthur Staats’ Psychological Behaviorism and Skinner’s Radical Behaviorism. In this paper, we will give more attention to Skinner’s Radical Behaviorism given the influence of his philosophy of human behavior not only in the field of education but also, in the development of modern psychology.
The concept of Operant Conditioning is the groundwork theory of Skinner’s work. Skinner operated on the principle of “stimulus-response.” He believed that all behavior is caused by external stimuli which he referred to as operant conditioning and that a learner is essentially passive, reacting to environmental stimuli. This led him to the conclusion that human behavior can be shaped and controlled by positive or negative reinforcement. Skinner’s analysis of human behavior was based on the description of collected data and not on its explanation and, he concentrated his effort on showing that there is a relationship between a careful manipulation of stimuli and subsequent behavior. Therefore, if the environment can be controlled efficiently, then it will be possible to shape and control human behavior efficiently.
The environment made its first great contribution during the evolution of the species, but it exerts a different kind of effect during the lifetime of the individual, and the combination of the two effects is the behavior we observe at any given time. Any available information about either contribution helps in the prediction and control of human behavior and in its interpretation in daily life. To the extent that either can be changed, behavior can be changed.
However, he says that even though some environmental or societal agents can contribute to controlling human behavior, the individual can also to a certain extent control his own behavior through self-control or self-determination although this may just be partial. “The individual often comes to control part of his own behavior when a response has conflicting consequences—when it leads to both positive and negative reinforcement,” he declared.
The Skinnerian, like all the other forms of Behaviorism, raises many questions. How can conclusions drawn from an experiment carried out on animals in a laboratory be logically applied to human beings? If human behavior is merely a reaction or an answer to a particular external stimulus, what about human free-will?
In fact, some behaviorists such as Pavlov and Skinner worked mostly with animals and not with human beings and thus, framed their picture of human behavior on the features which human beings seem to share with animals. They ignored man’s ability to reason and make free choices. By presenting human behavior as a set of responses to stimuli, Behaviorism represents man as a robot or machine who is not responsible for his or her choices and actions. According to Skinner’s philosophy, the individual is seen as a passive learner while the environment is considered as the behavior-shaper. That is why he believed human behavior could be controlled by controlling the environment. Moreover, Skinner’s reinforcement theory did not take into account the individual’s development. What reinforces a child may not reinforce an adult.
II. The Buddhist Theory of Human Nature
In this section, we will briefly examine how Buddhism views the human nature. First, we will make a brief description of Buddhism beliefs, and then, we will examine the Buddhism philosophy concerning human behavior.
1. A Description of Buddhism
Buddhism is known to a certain extent as an atheistic religion given that in Buddhism there is no deity or divinity to whom worship is given.
Dr. Wulf Metz wrote,
Buddhist thinking does not centre around the veneration of one person, human or divine. Buddha is not a god, nor a god-sent mediator or redeemer for others…Far more important than the person of Buddha is the idea of teaching (dharma).
Buddhism thus offers a spirituality without any accountability to any higher deity. According to Buddhism, there are Four Noble Truths which constitute the foundation of the Buddhist teachings.
Dr. Wulf says,
The first truth is the knowledge of suffering. This states that all individual existence is miserable and painful. …The second truth is concerns the origin of suffering…Suffering and all existence …has its source in desire and ignorance. … The third truth deals with the destruction of suffering. … The fourth truth indicates the way to this removal of suffering.
Following the teachings of the Buddha, the way to ending this suffering is the eightfold path. Wulf summarizes the eightfold path as the “Right knowledge, right attitude, right speech, right action, right effort, right mindfulness, right composure.”
Anyone who wishes to reach the Nibbana – a state of perfect peace and happiness where there is release from all forms of suffering – should not only have a knowledge of the Four Noble Truths but also, they should observe and live according to the “eight-fold path.” “Of all paths, the eight-fold path is the greatest…This is the path. There is no other for the achievement of clarity of insight. You must follow this path for the total bewilderment of Mara. …If you follow this path, you will reach the termination of suffering.”
It can be noticed here that the main objective is to show the individual what to do in order to be delivered from the daily struggles. Anyone who needs deliverance should not rely on any strength from the outside but, on the self. “One’s best refuge is oneself. A Buddhist seeks refuge in the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha as the Teacher, the Teaching and the Taught in order to gain his deliverance from the ills of life. The Buddha is the supreme teacher who shows the way to deliverance. The Dhamma is the unique way.” Still, in the Treasury of Truth, in chapter 20 we can read that, “The effort must be made by yourself. The Buddhas (the teachers) only show the way and direct you.”
2. Buddhism and the Control of Human Behavior
While Behaviorism focuses on the external to control human behavior, Buddhism advocates human or personal effort in or order to achieve this. According to Buddhism, for a man to achieve any transformation, he or she must observe and walk according to the eightfold path teachings. All the elements described in the eightfold path –the right knowledge, the right attitude, the right speech, the right action, the right living, the right effort, the right mindfulness and the right composure- are essentially moral and mental and, they call to a self-discipline. In chapter 25 of the Treasury of Truth, it is written, “It is good to be disciplined in the body. It is good to be disciplined in words. It is good to be disciplined in mind. The monk who is disciplined in all these areas will achieve freedom from all suffering.” Therefore, in order to achieve deliverance from suffering, the Buddhists are invited to self-control their behavior.
III. Biblical Perspective on Human Nature
Understanding the human nature is essential to understanding and controlling human behavior. The way one describes the human nature also defines what they prescribe. In this light, the Bible stands as the most authoritative voice for it gives a more comprehensive description of human nature and behavior and eventually, how it can be transformed. In his book, Dispensationalism Tomorrow and Beyond, Christopher Cone, introducing the third pillar on the incapacity of man to grasp Revelation says,
Once man has a proper perspective and understanding of the reality of and the essentially communicated identity of God, he can begin to have a proper understanding of himself. As man is a reflection of his Creator, he cannot successfully grasp his own nature without having first ascertained that of his Creator.
The Biblical perspective on human nature stands solely on what God, the Creator of man, says about His creation. It is a mere description of the physical and it goes way beyond the physical and, it deals with the spiritual, that is, man’s mind, heart, spirit, and soul. In this section, we will explore the Scriptures in order to have a panoramic view of what God says about man and, we also examine the work that God does in transforming the human heart.
1. God’s View of Man
The Bible teaches that God created man perfect in character, in moral attitude, in love for God and with a strong desire to serve Him. However, because of Adam’s disobedience, sin entered the world and man (Gen. 3). From this time on, man became corrupted, and God’s view of man changed. He declares in His word that the heart of man “is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked” (Jer. 17.9). He says that men’s thoughts “are thoughts of iniquity” (Isa. 59.7). In fact, every part of man became corrupted by sin, and he became an enemy of God, unable to appraise and accept spiritual things or anything that is from God.
Even though Scripture teaches that man has a cognitive understanding of God’s revelation, it is no less true that he is unable to respond submissively to Him because of the effect of sin. According to Romans 1.18-23, man has understood God’s general revelation cognitively. However, he failed to adequately respond submissively to this self-revealed God. As Cone explains, man’s failure here is not a lack of understanding God’s revelation but, he failed in that he chose to worship the creation instead of fearing God and giving Him the praise and worship He deserves. Man has also understood God’s special revelation through Scripture in a cognitive sense. Given that Scripture is written using the tools of language, the unbeliever can understand Scripture from a grammatical viewpoint. Nevertheless, 1Corinthians 2.14 says that he considered God’s self-authenticating truth as foolishness and consequently failed to respond accordingly. Dr. Cone also affirms that man understood God’s revelation in Christ Jesus in the cognitive sense. The Lord Jesus Christ in His incarnation revealed the Father to all men. Nevertheless, He was not received as man preferred darkness to light (John 3.19). On every occasion, man understood God’s revelations cognitively, but he failed to personally respond to them accordingly without God’s help. This is due to the noetic effect of sin which results not only in the lack of ability to accept spiritual things but also, in the tendency of the human mind to suppress and reject the truth of God. Consequently, according to Romans 1.28, God has given the ungodly to a depraved mind, and 2 Corinthians says that Satan has blinded the mind of the perishing. It is thus evident that the intellect alone cannot help man either to accept God’s ways or to overcome the effect of sin. No amount of personal goodwill or human devices can bring the right change into man. God alone can restore man by the power of the Holy Spirit, and His perfect and all-sufficient Word.
2. The Transforming Work of God in Man
When a sinner accepts the Lord Jesus Christ as his Savior, he becomes a new creation as it is written in 2Corinthians 5.17. The Holy Spirit regenerates him (Titus 3.5) and gives him a new nature which, nonetheless, dwells in him along with the old nature.
In fact, the Bible teaches in Ephesians 2.1 and 4 that man without God is “dead in trespasses and sins” and that God who is rich in mercy and grace has “quickened us together with Christ.” Being “in Christ” (Ephesians 1.1) is the right position for anyone who wishes to experience a real transformation, that of the heart. Richard Ganz wrote in his book Psychobabble that, “it is not possible to understand or deal with man’s nature apart from his relationship to God.” In 2 Corinthians 5.16-20 Paul says,
Wherefore henceforth know we no man after the flesh: yea, though we have known Christ after the flesh, yet now henceforth know we him no more. Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new. And all things are of God, who hath reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ, and hath given to us the ministry of reconciliation; To wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation.
There is no transformation or restoration outside of a genuine relationship with Christ. In Christ, the sinful man becomes a “new creation.” He is transformed not by human philosophy or self, but by the transforming power of the Holy Spirit. According to Ganz, “The Biblical reality of total depravity means that every area of a new believer’s life needs to be touched by the transforming power of Christ. All our thoughts, attitudes, and presuppositions need to be filtered through our new eyes and ears and hearts.” This is a process of progressive sanctification in which the believer has to walk every day, relying on God strength to please Him in everything he says and does. In the epistle to the Romans, the Apostle Paul invites believers not to be “conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind” (12.2). The keyword in this verse is the verb “transformed.” From The Greek μεταμορφόω, which could also be rendered “change, transfigure, transform,” it refers to a total and deep change or transfiguration from inside out. John Witmer comments, “The key to this change is the mind “noos,” the control center of one’s attitude, thoughts, feelings, and actions (cf. Eph. 4:22-23). As one’s mind keeps on being, made new by the spiritual input of God’s Word, prayer, and Christian fellowship, his lifestyle keeps on being transformed.” Writing on the renewing of the mind as stated in Romans 12 in relation to Paul’s exhortation to the Philippians (4.8), Charles Ryrie says,
The formula is a continuous renewing of the mind (Rom. 12.2). Notice that this is a complete metamorphosis, not a surface change. And notice too that the verb in this verse is in the present tense, indicating that it is a continuous process. This reminds us again that spirituality is not an instantaneous achievement but one that requires time for maturity…. Continual renewing of the basic ideas of the mind (Rom. 12.2) and persistent concentration on right thoughts (Phil.4.8) are the secrets for effectively manifesting the mind of Christ in the daily life.
It is important here to note that these right thoughts are not self-made thoughts or external input aimed at transforming or controlling the human behavior. Rather, they are the expression of a transformed life.
In 2 Peter 1.4, the Apostle Peter teaches that when we are in Christ, we become partakers of the divine nature. The new nature, in contrast to the old nature, thus comes from God Himself. Though the two natures are in constant conflict for the control of the human heart, the believer is strengthened by the power of the Holy Spirit who gives him the ability to conform to God’s word. Ryrie says,
Salvation brings into life a new capacity and with it a new ability to think right, to love God, to purpose to do the will of God, to have a changed heart. The heart of the Christian (and this means his intellectual, emotional, volitional, and spiritual life) can now be true and pure (Heb. 10.22). It is now circumcised (Rom. 2.29); that is, it has put off the sinful flesh. Now the heart can become a vital center of spiritual living for the believer.
The believer can effectively live a transformed life and produce the awaited fruit only if he continually abides in Christ who is the source of real transformational power. In John 15, he invites believers to abide in Him so that he will bear fruit suitable to the Father.
In conclusion, it can be noticed that Behaviorism, Buddhism and the Bible share many contrasting views on the human nature. These diverse views lead to diverse positions or teachings on the control of human behavior as well. The behaviorist preconizes the control of the environment and circumstances in order to control the human behavior. Man nature and behavior is seen as a result of a set of external stimuli. The Buddhists, focus on the development and transformation of the self by personal effort. The Biblical perspective differs from the other ones in the sense that it presents man as completely lost, unable to save himself or even transform his behavior. According to the Bible, man needs God’s intervention in order to be saved and live a transformed life. Man is here transformed not by any human philosophy or religion, but by the renewing of his mind by the power of the Holy Spirit.
 B. F. Skinner, About Behaviorism, (New York: Knopf, 1974) p. 209
 John Woollard, Psychology For the Classroom: Behaviorism, (Taylor & Francis e-Library, 2010) p.1
 Skinner, Op. Cit., p.218
 F. B. Skinner, Science and Human Behavior, New York: Macmillan, 1953, p.230
 Wulf Metz, The enlightened One: Buddhism in A Lion Handbook: The World’s Religions, (Lion Publishing, New Revised Edition 1994) p.226
 Wulf, ibid., pp.231-232
 Wulf, Ibid., p.232
 Ibid., p.623
 Ibid., p.855
 Op. Cit., p.1081
 Christopher Cone, Dispensationalism Tomorrow and Beyond: A Theological Collection in Honor of Charles C. Ryrie (Tyndale Seminary Press, 2008) p.20
 Ibid., p.21
 Cone, Op. Cit., p.21
 All Scripture quotes are taken from the King James Version unless stated otherwise
 Richard Ganz, Psychobabble: The Failure of Modern Psychology – and the Biblical Alternative (Crossway Books, Wheaton, Illinois, 1993) p.57
 Ganz, Op. Cit., p.59
 Strong’s Talking Greek & Hebrew Dictionary
 John A. Witmer, The Bible Knowledge Commentary: New Testament. (Published by David C. Cook, 1983) p.487
 Charles Ryrie, Balancing the Christian Life, (The Moody Bible Institute Of Chicago, 1994) p.41
 Ibid., p.43
Bible (King James Version)
Bjork, D. W. The Contingencies of a Life. In G.A. Kimble & M. Wertheimer (Eds.), Portraits of pioneers in psychology. Vol. 3. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association, 1998.
Cone, Christopher. Dispensationalism Tomorrow and Beyond: A Theological Collection in Honor of Charles C. Ryrie. Tyndale Seminary Press, 2008
Ganz, Richard. Psychobabble: The Failure of Modern Psychology – and the Biblical Alternative. Crossway Books, Wheaton, Illinois, 1993
Metz, Wulf. The Enlightened One: Buddhism in A Lion Handbook: The World’s Religions. Lion Publishing, New Revised Edition 1994
Ryrie, Charles C. Balancing the Christian Life. The Moody Bible Institute of Chicago, 1994
Skinner, B. F. About Behaviorism. New York: Knopf, 1974
Skinner, B. F. Science and Human Behavior. New York: Macmillan, 1953
Strong’s Talking Greek & Hebrew Dictionary
Treasury Of Truth, Dhammapada (text), www.buddhanet.net.
Witmer, John A. The Bible Knowledge Commentary: New Testament. Published by David C. Cook, 1983
Woollard, John. Psychology For the Classroom: Behaviorism. Taylor & Francis e-Library, 2010