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Billy's Cancer: Faith & Verbal Behavior


Seeing Darkly

Talk that is illogical

I was at a dinner party and religion was brought up as a topic of discussion.  After 10 minutes, I joined in by telling the story of Billy Dole, my dear, devote Catholic friend.  In the fall of 1998, god decided to call Billy through pancreatic cancer.  Prior to his illness we would spend a couple of hours per week discussion various topic including religion.   Discussions continued during his illness.  Shortly before Xmas, I loaned him my copy of the Merck Manual.  He read the section on pancreatic cancer, which states that only 5% survive for one year.  A week later, he told me of plans to sell his business, and undergo heroic medical treatment. I suggested first that he should be stoic about his fate, consider his daughter, and then treading upon his Catholic faith, I told him—gently--that he should be pleased for soon he would be in heaven.  Thus, he ought not attempt to delay his departure.  That line of logic concerning heaven was not well received. 


Certainly I would be looking forward to a trip to paradise, like the Arab faithfuls who detonate themselves as a way to get there sooner—and enjoy the company of 10 virgins.  However, I have for many good reasons doubts about there being a heaven; Billy, though he professing an unshakeable faith, did also. 


This is one example of how people come to a reasoned conclusion, but behave otherwise.  Their verbal behavior, and arguments in support there of are separated from their actions. The reinforcements associated with their religion dominates.  It effects both what they say and do.  Bill behaves when it comes to religion in a way that is much less justified than the primitives of South America—for they are still living in a stone-age world. 


This process of reinforcement of behavior extends also to verbal behavior.  Thus Bill emits utterances that his logical side knows to be illogical.  Verbal behavior defending their faith is nothing more than verbal behavior:  a learnt and polished response for a particular situation.  Verbal behavior can be taught just like physical behavior such as kneeling before the alter. 


A person who cavalierly dismisses his obesity, tobacco smoking, or a marriage from hell, he is simply using verbal behavior.  Conditioning can be so strong that the person feels compelled to kill as a member of a street gang, to be a suicide bomber for Allah, or to join the Marines and risk life and limb.  Like Billy with heaven, they too know what time it is, but they can’t use their intellect to rise above how they have been conditioned to behave.  


In the same way people understand the role of reinforcers in shaping behavior; however, they haven’t developed the verbal behavior to build upon it when talking about behavior.  In fact that they have another set of verbal behavior learnt and polished that precludes adopting this new and fundamentally incompatible verbal behavior.  The skeptical verbal behavior they label as damnable, sinful, and blasphemous.  They use mind-will talk.  Similarly Billy couldn’t develop skeptical talk about religion verbal; he had learnt and practiced Catholic verbal behavior—the two are conceptually incompatible.  But even so the rules of reason kept running in the background, and showed its influence by causing him to want heroic medical treatment. 


The religious point of view is unfortunate.  For much harm is done in the name of their Gods, and much good that is not done.  The mind-will analysis is also unfortunate because it makes an inscrutable mystery of behavior, and this entails on an average less rational controls when compared to those who apply the behaviorist alternative.  Mind based psychology is like treating diphtheria with herbs, they might help some, but they keep most people away from the much more effective treatments.  Behaviorism makes people good:  it is a box full of tools for adjusting the vehicle of behavior.  It gives the rational side of the brain better tools.  Using the behaviorist tools with maximal effectiveness entails discarding archaic mind-will tools. 



For another article on death and faith.