• Skip Wilson

Walden Two: The Lie of the Lost

In the book Walden 2, a community of around a thousand individuals happily gives up their natural rights. Instead of individual choices, an authoritative body rigorously dictates most of the day-to-day activities of the individuals in the community. Children are raised in a communal nursery; meals are eaten as a community and follow a preset menu and strict dietary schedule. Everything from living places to occupation are pre-established for each person of the community. I absolutely wanted to live there.

As a junior in high school, I was not a Christian. Instead, I believed the ideas I had been taught that humans are simply animals. I knew that society was not as it should be, and I believed ardently that human animal tendencies were ultimately to blame. After all, I had not come to these ideas in a vacuum. This is the “reality” that was being taught to me in school and it was the predominant scientific theory among academics.

I absolutely loved psychology, and I had become fascinated with the ideas of B.F. Skinner in particular. Skinner had developed a theory of conditioning known as operant conditioning. Operant conditioning basically works off this chart:

The theory behind operant conditioning is that through the methods on this chart, you can basically control or direct a person’s every action- literally everything. For example, think of the idea of laziness. This is something that any society would want to reduce because an unproductive society is an unsustainable society. So, using the chart, you can either decrease laziness (punishment) or increase productivity (reinforcement). Let’s say you choose punishment. Then you can either punish by adding something (i.e. forcing a lazy person to complete physical labor by himself/herself) which is called positive punishment, or you can punish by negative punishment or taking something away (i.e. no food for individuals that do not work).

Skinner had demonstrated operational conditioning in the lab repeatedly on animals. When he wrote Walden 2, he was basically writing out what his theory could mean for human society. He was imagining what a community that perfectly applied operational conditioning could become. They worked 4 hour days because everything was so efficient. The crime rate was effectively zero. Children were all well-educated and productive. This society’s abundant free time was spent in the humanities- doing art and philosophy together. Everyone was in good health because they all kept up with proper diet and exercise. The authorities in charge of the community constantly tested things. If they made a change or if a new technology was invented that was deemed beneficial to the community, then the implementation was instant and unanimous so that everyone immediately receives the benefit.

I found these concepts absolutely fascinating. As I read, it frustrated me that this book could have been written decades ago and yet still no one had done it. I saw a community like Walden 2 as the great answer to our societal woes. I was, of course, 100% wrong about everything.

This is where the story has benefit to us as believers today. As Christians, especially those that have been in the Church most of their lives, it can be difficult to relate to the concepts and ideas of those outside of the Church.

Try to think about operational conditioning in the eyes of a young idealistic non-believer at that time. We were in the middle of what seemed like a failing war on terror, school shootings were on the rise all over, Hurricane Katrina was showing our government to be completely inept, environmental concerns were at the forefront of the news and the individual health of the average American was at an all-time low. If you take the viewpoint that humans are nothing more than just a slightly smarter animal, then the solution seems obvious and logical- we need to be removed from making our own decisions. It made much more sense to me that we grant a governing body overarching control based upon shared ideals, and then it is the goal of that governing body to enforce those ideals no matter what.

Who should raise children? Well, young me would have been absolutely convinced that parents are not typically the best choice. I would’ve argued vehemently that trained professionals would do a better job than just random people who happened to be the ones that procreated, and operational conditioning backed me up on that.

These are the logical conclusions one comes to when one rejects the Biblical narrative. If humans are just animals, then the data seems to suggest that we are completely incompetent at deciding our own lives. When we’re given the choice of food, then dumb humans keep choosing unhealthy things. When we’re given the choice of jobs, then dumb humans either don’t work enough or they work themselves to death.

So, how was I so wrong about everything? How was a well-intentioned kid that spent his free time reading academic psychology articles so absolutely wrong about everything? Well, I had the wrong starting point.

You see, the Biblical narrative paints a very different picture of humanity. According to the Bible, humanity is a special kind of creation- one of a higher sort than just merely animal. According to the Bible, evil in the world exists for a very different reason. The secular academics view “evil” as simply the result of living in a cold and indifferent universe, and humans do “evil” simply because of their own animalistic tendencies. In the Biblical worldview, however, evil exists because we live in a fallen world that is separated from God.

The solution from a Biblical worldview is a restored relationship to God. God, as the objective law giver, ought to be the one that dictates our ideals because only God is perfectly able to do so without error. Furthermore, only God is able to help us accomplish this task as it is a separation from God that is the problem (we talk about this more in a previous blog post here).

Humans must be allowed to make choices in their lives because humans are established as God’s image bearers and therefore they are the ones placed in charge of the temporal care for the world.

The problem is not that humans are just dumb animals- the problem is that mankind is fallen. There is a part of every person that seeks his or her own destruction because of the Adamic curse.

So, for example, why do people eat unhealthily? Is it because people are too stupid to know better? No, it is because we are in active rebellion to God’s creation and His created order. Again, a large part of our own self desires to see our own destruction. Operant conditioning cannot explain something like poor diet. It should work like this. If I eat poorly and in excess, then I will become ill. This should operate as positive punishment (addition of my being sick as punishment for over indulgence). However, alas, it does not.

Instead, the only cure for something like gluttony is a death to one’s own desires. Once one dies to his or her own self, and lives to glorify God- only then can one come close to idealistic society. Of course no person can achieve this perfectly without the direct intervention of God through the Gospel.

In reality, now that I have been made new by the grace of God, I see that Walden 2 has been tried dozens of times in history. Virtually every cruel and evil police state and dictatorship began with the same basic concept expressed in the book. A group of individuals could never agree on a societal good- it would never last. People are wicked and self-serving, even if they can objectively see that it leads to their own downfall.

The reality is that those of us in Christ can sometimes begin to look at the lost with something less than love. We can sometimes grow hateful because of a frustration that they do not see things for how they really are. We can sometimes grow cruel as we mock their failures and pitfalls. We can become jarring and abrasive as we try to convince them of the Truth.

In actuality though, no one believes something to be true unless they have a reason. Of course those outside of Christ have a bad idea of how to solve the world’s problems, that’s why we call them “the lost.” We should not be surprised by that, instead we should use their errors as a platform for explaining the Truth- and the Truth inevitably leads to the Gospel.