John Locke and a Dog

I remember the first time I realized I was conditioned to respond to certain sounds and symbols just like a dog is taught to sit with the snap of a finger. I was sitting in Mr. Simpson’s A.P. European History class my junior year of high school discussing John Locke’s conceptions of free will. If I can recall correctly, Locke believed in neither free will nor determinism. He thought the sum total of voluntary human behavior was the ability to postpone a decision long enough to contemplate the consequences, which would mean that humans really have pretty little control over our lives except to make decisions and choices between things. Although I realize now that Locke’s opinion was actually pretty mild, forgiving even, at the time, we were outraged. We were moderately intelligent, middle-class, suburban white kids in the midst of being recruited by great colleges. We were captains of varsity sports teams, presidents of clubs, state-level musicians, etc. etc. We felt indomitable. The world was our oyster, or whatever that saying is and we were going to fight for our free will. To reign our rowdy crowd back in, Mr. Simpson set off on a lesson about behavioral training. He went through a demonstration, training one student to do some activity I can’t remember anymore using positive reinforcement. He may even have read Karen Pryor’s book – Don’t Shoot The Dog!. To round out the class, we were told to sit in silence. So we sat, lollygagging, rolling our eyes at this weird lesson. When the bell went off, we all jumped from our seats, packed our bags, and began rushing out the door. And Mr. Simpson just laughed.

 

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