Science in Christian Perspective



Psychology as a Science*

From: JASA 11 (September 1959): 99-103.

I suspect that there are several approaches to a subject matter that sports a title such as mine. Because of the interest and special background of my audience, my main goals will be to convince you that psychology is indeed a science and to raise some important issues concerning the future of psychology. For the sake of continuity and clarity, I have planned to discuss four subtopics: Is psychology a science? should psychology be a science? the contemporary status of psychology, and the future of psychology.

Just for the record, let us first see what science proposes to be or do and then compare psychological goings-on with established scientific aims, processes, criteria, and standards. In the broad sense science can be described as one of man's attempts to discover truth about nature. In this context, truth becomes identical with human understanding and man's ability to predict future events of the universe as a whole as well as particular aspects of it. The one single question that can be asked in this respect is: What makes the universe and everything that's in it tick?

It is sometimes argued that the criterion of prediction is superfluous when genuine understanding is present.

*Paper presented at the Seventeenth Annual Convention of the American Scientific Affiliation held at St. Paul, Minnesota, August, 1962.

**Mr. Van Eyl is Instructor of Psychology, Hope College, Michigan.

The rationale behind this argument is that if we truly understand, prediction follows as a consequence. 1, for one, should like to insist on both criteria, however. First because we have examples in science where one but not the other condition is present. Seismology, for instance, understands much of what there is to know about earthquakes, yet it is not capable of predicting where and when along a fault the next quake will take place. Seismologists, to be sure, continue to strive for more understanding so that they will eventually b.- able to make such predictions. However, we do not exclude their efforts from the realm of science because they have not as yet attained this power. Then in physics we see how the physicist makes good use of the law of gravity. With it he can make any number of predictions. "Gravity," however, is a concept. Physicists, have yet to fully comprehend the force it signifies. Gravity is simply referred to as an "intervening variable." Because the physicist does not completely understand gravity, we do not exclude him from among the scientists. (In our missile age to do this would almost be synonomous with committing a capital crime!)

The second objection to placing prime importance on understanding alone derives from the fact that psychology has provided numerous examples which should caution us to take human inferences with a few grains of salt, i.e., there is not always a one-to-one relationship between our perceptions and physical reality. In fact, the history of science abounds with examples of "understandings" which were hailed as truths only to be scuttled later. We know that the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Hence, if understanding fails to give a reasonable amount of predictive ability, it suggests that there is something wrong with this so-called truth. In other words, if we feel we need to emphasize either understanding or predictive power as supreme in the making of science, I would choose predictive power. In practice, of course, the two cannot be separated because they supplement and interact with each other. My point is, however, that too much emphasis on understanding can lead to fallacious results.

When I speak of interaction between understanding and prediction, I have specific reference to one of the main vehicles of science, namely, theory. I doubt whether science would exist were it not for human curiosity and intuition giving rise to speculations about the material world and one's experience of it. Such speculations are forms of understanding, i.e., theories. These should lead to attempts at verification, efforts to assess the validity of the theory under consideration. But the fact is that our criterion of validity is the measure of predictive power inherent in the theory.

Other basic scientific procedures include the use of units of analysis, technology, and experimentation. Biologists, for example, use the cell or gene as their unit of analysis, while the chemists work with atomic particles. The experimental method is, moreover, being increasingly regarded as something requiring special training on the part of the scientists. Skilled treatments of matters dealing with experimental design play the major role in obtaining support for a theory or the degree of validity that can be attached to an understanding. Technology, which is often confused with science, provides us with ways either to augment human limitations or to keep them in check.

Now let us see how psychology measures up to my brief discourse on the purpose and procedure of science. In its broadest sense, psychology is a study of human behavior. The aims of the study are (1) to understand human behavior and (2) to predict human behavior. The question is: What makes man tick? Why does he do what he does (understanding) and under what conditions does he do it? (prediction). To give you a familiar example: Why do we have mental illness? and, what things determine whether a person will develop a normal or an abnormal personality? Logically, full understanding will automatically lead to prediction, i.e., an answer to the "why" question should lead eventually to the answer of the "how" question.

Concerning units of analysis, psychology has several. This does not speak well of psychology's present maturity. We should not forget, however, that the scientific approach to psychology has barely outgrown its infancy. Moreover, while in no way minimizing either the task of natural sciences, I should like to suggest that psychology has the more difficult task both because of the greater complexity of its objects of study and its well-nigh complete dependency on inference. Perhaps more complex organisms will require more fundamental units of analysis.

The most frequently employed units in psychological analysis are drive, need, motive, habit, trait, and percept. Two of importance in an earlier day were sensation and reflex.

Experimentation is perhaps the major vehicle in bringing about the birth of psychology as a science. Even so, for many years its use was restricted to only a few areas of psychology. In fact, for decades experimental psychology was almost synonymous with the study of sensation, perception, and certain learning phenomena. Since the mid-thirties questions concerning motivation have become subject to the experimental approach also. Recently, more and more areas of psychology are being exposed to experimentation. In fact, I cannot think of any area of psychology that has not had at least a brush with experimental techniques. The trend seems to call for more and more of it.

Psychology also has its share of technological activity. With the aid of the conventional and not so conventional methods of observation and measurement it has developed testing instruments, questionnaires, the color wheel, the memory drum, and animal mazes. In addition, growing use is made of equipment such as tape recorders, computers, chronometers, EEG, and polygraphs.

To the question of psychology's scientific standing, the answer must be in the affirmative. True, some psychologists cannot be called scientists because of their orientation toward and treatment of human activity. So also, psychology is rather primitive in its development, when compared with, let us say, physics. But its aim, orientation and methods are scientific. It seeks to understand human behavior with the ultimate goal of prediction.

This question can be broken up into two questions: Should psychology be a science from the religious-moral point of view? Should psychology be a science from the point of view of adequacy? Let's look at the religiousmoral point of view first. To simplify matters, I will speak of the religious aspect leaving the parallel moral aspect to your own analysis.

As most of you know, the roots of the word psychology come from the Greek psyche, meaning soul, and logos meaning knowledge. I bring this up because many people still assume psychology to be the study of the human soul. The word "psychology" has been in use since the days of the ancient Greeks, but the subject matter under study has changed. It became the study of the mind. In recent years it has been simply the study of human behavior, i.e., human activity like neural behavior and the way man acts upon his environment and reacts to his environment. At most, "soul" and "mind" are now inferred variables on the order of such processes as learning, motivation, and perception. It follows that how psychology is defined will determine whether the scientific approach is acceptable or not. If it is to be the study of the soul, the scientific approach is inappropriate. In my opinion, the study of the soul is the domain of the theologian or the philosopher. On the other hand, if psychology intends to be the study of human behavior, it readily fits the format of other sciences. Scientists study natural order. They can do so on the assumption of lawfulness: nature is lawful. Man is significantly part of nature (even though the Christian insists his total nature is not bounded by the natural order). Ergo: man's behavior should be lawful. The study of psychology has become an attempt to find the laws of nature as they apply to human behavior. What all this amounts to is that the psychologist attempts to study man as an aspect of creation, where as the theologian concerns himself with the Creator, and man's responsibility to Him.

I think that most of you will immediately want to raise the question of relationship between the two. In fact, you may want to argue that the two studies cannot ultimately be separated. Of course this is true partially, but I don't want to go back to the middle ages and profess that theology is the all-embracing and only way to truth. There are several approaches if not kinds of truth. The main two categories being: the truth about the Creator and His intentions, and the truth about His creation and its behavior. There are examples from all our scientific enterprises (psychology included) to suggest that one area of truth does not necessarily reveal that contained in the others. In my opinion, the main but partial interaction that occurs between religion and science lies in one's basic assumptions about man. Is he a machine, or is there a purpose of his being? Is he at the mercy of fate, or is he capable of free will? The point that I am trying to make is that notwithstanding these important and influential propositions there are principles of man's behavior that have been discovered and that hold regardless of man's relationship to his Creator and his point of view. More about this later.

For the record, another important relationship between religious and moral considerations on one hand and science on the other has to do with the products of science, i.e., the application of man's discoveries. I wonder, for instance, how atomic physicists felt about the thousands of Japanese dead as a direct result of their research on the bomb. Some must have wondered whether they were morally justified in turning over their scientific discovery to a world intent on violating God's highest commands. As psychology marches on, it will be faced with similar problems. Perhaps the picture as painted by Aldous Huxley in Brave New World may serve both as an illustration and a warning. Suppose we do discover the conditions which produce a given personality? Who will determine which personality is desirable and what pattern of personality development should be avoided? And on what basis? In other words, are we right in employing the scientific approach if it will ultimately lead to the destruction of man as God may have intended him to be? My answer is again a cautious affirmative providing that psychology and theology and the humanities do their share in preparing man for newly gained power. (The possibility of such knowledge is a powerful argument for urging able, committed Christian young people to enter the field of psychology.)

Should psychology be a science from the point of view of adequacy? Here too, we encounter skeptics. One of the arguments encountered most frequently is that man is so complex that it is arrogance or disrespect to attempt to penetrate his nature. Here again, there is a partial point with which I agree. Man is complex; but so is all of nature. Take instincts, for instance. Commonly they are thought of as simple, primitive forms of motivation. They may indeed be primitive but they are far from simple! Anyone who has studied them deeply is soon struck by how complex they are. Yet, the scientist who studies them does not give up in despair. Quite the contrary. To the true scientist, this challenging complexity is exactly the spice of life for him. It is what makes him go on and on in his research.

Another argument often heard is that science is not adequate to study man because of the many phases of his behavior that seem to defy lawfulness. More often than we would like to admit, man's behavior is not indicative of purpose, a means-end relationship or even regularity. In some instances, it is practically impossible to make inferences about motivation. That is to say, our present understanding of drive and motive do not explain or handle all of man's behavior. There is no doubt hat this is an undesirable state, but we should also remember that psychology (as distinct from particular psychologists) does not claim to have found all the answers yet. It does not follow from this, however, that the answers cannot be found. Here again, the true scientist finds his real incentive or challenge to continue. 

Evaluation of Contemporary Psychology as a Science

It is my contention that much of the progress made in the field of psychology came about through the work of scientists and the scientific approach. Even psychoanalysis, which is far from the most sterling example science in action, has played its role in the total scientific process; for Freud and most of his early followers were men trained in medicine. In addition to men entering psychology from the field of medicine, there were numerous contributions from physicists and mathematicians. Their introduction of experimentation, in particular, gave rise to the process of theory building. This led to more experimentation which in turn called for modifications of theory or new theory, and so on.

It is interesting and also disturbing to note how the more ambitious efforts of the early days to establish a  general theory of psychology have gradually given way to the current interest in theoretical models. This seems due to the ever-increasing complexity of the subject matter as more and more data become available. Rather than grappling with all the questions, all at once, psychology has been forced to limit itself to dealing with certain aspects of man's behavior at a time. Gen erality has been sacrificed for the sake of parsimony and partial success. The reason for the perpetuation of this development appears to rise from the way in which psychology must do its research. Most psychological re search is done by university teachers under constant pressure to "publish or perish." A psychologist's future often hinges on the number of publications, rather than the quality of them. Unless well established financially or professionally, few psychologists can afford to em bark on thorough research, research that may see the light of publication ten or twenty years after onset. Small-model research provides far more security.

The more molecular approach to theory and research has led to another undesirable side effect. Sigmund Koch calls it the "gentle process of dehumanization." As he and others have observed, it is more than likely that we have become too objective, too rigid, too insistent on controls, and in consequence too removed from the real human. Contributing to this development is the psychologist's conscious or unconscious desire to match the accomplishments of his older brothers in the natural sciences. It is no secret that psychology and psychologists have often looked to physicists and biologists for inspirational guidance. Certain theoretical principles of the natural sciences have been adopted by the psychologist, lock, stock, and barrel; frequently without regard to the unique aspects of the psychologist's subject matter.

In short, what I have reference to is the very obvious lack of relevance in many contemporary models. The  tendency is to fragment behavior into specific aspects on an input-output basis, i.e., questions related to values or ultimate meaning are mostly shunned; the deliberate omission or simplification of internal factors.

The Future of Psychology

This brings up the question of the future of psychology, especially as a science. Is it possible to maintain the
scientific approach and still arrive at something whole  and meaningful? Are we not throwing out the baby
with the bath water when we continue to insist on the scientific approach? If it is possible to continue in the
scientific direction without doing violence to the whole of man, how can it or should it be done?

In my opinion, part of the problem lies in the schizophrenic nature of psychology itself. There are areas of
psychology where the scientific approach has paid-off and will continue to pay off handsomely. Questions
about meaning or the introduction of subjectivity will only stand in the way of progress. However, in other
respects (and I am thinking particularly about the realm of personality theory and its application to therapy) the
reverse is true. To be an effective therapist, the psychol ogist must deal with questions about meaning. He must
introduce subjectivity rather than strive for strict objectivity. Personality theory, the quintessence of all
  psychological study, seems caught in a typical avoidance-avoidance conflict. Too much science or insist
nce on predictive ability leaves the data too shallow for the therapist and the educator; too much subjectivity de stroys a truly predictive point of view.

As I see it, the situation is not as hopeless as it may seen, however. The present schizophrenic condition ex ists primarily because of the temperment of the psy chologists involved. The scientific psychologist tends to be most rational and skeptical; the practitioner feels more at home in an individualist, poetic, sometimes even
  mystical milieu. In my opinion, man being what he is,  there not only is room for both, there is necessity for
  both. Both sides of the street can and must learn from each other. As long as the scientific psychologist keeps
pointing out the weaknesses in the therapist's methods and the therapist and the applied psychologist continue
to insist on representation of all of man's aspects, eventually, some good is bound to come from it all. By analogy perhaps it serves the same purpose as the two party arrangement of our political system.

To carry the political analogy a bit further, the op posite side of the coin can show us the disadvantage of
a stalemate, a balance of power with a lack of movement. Perhaps this is the condition of psychology today.
Many experimental (scientific) psychologists would not want to come within miles of anything that could be
identified with the subjective approach of the humanist; and too many therapists stay at least as far away from
anything scientific. The tension that exists between the demands of the scientific method and the appreciation of the richness of human individuality is real indeed! There is no doubt in my mind that there is room-no, a necessity-for both. The problem however, is how to draw the valuable aspects from both for the sake of one common goal. How can we bring out their relatedness so that cross fertilization can take its full effect? How do we mold the kind of psychologist who has both the scientific temperament and humanistic sensitivity? An occasional specimen has appeared now and then, but how can we produce them in quantity?

To be frank with you, I don't know. So far as I know no one else does either. But we need the answer. There has been a recommendation for a so-called third force (like the third party idea), but I am not so sure what this would entail and whether this would work. I am more in favor of a fusion rather than a continuation of the present situation complicated by a would-be pacifier.

Perhaps Christianity has something to offer in this respect. At most Christian colleges it is customary to teach science as well as the humanistic and Christian philosophies. I would like to suggest that the students of our colleges be confronted with this problem on as mature and comprehensive level as possible. I have a feeling that if we present our students with this and similar problems and with respect for all points of view, eventually, an adequate synthesis would come about. Furthermore, I believe that this could become one of the real contributions of our Christian colleges. It is well known that the large universities have a tendency to avoid matters of value, particularly religion's values. The scientific approach reigns supreme. In our Christian colleges, the religious, philosophical humanistic emphasis is presented, sometimes almost as an antidote, but there is no real tie-up with the sciences. I think that because of our interest in the matter and the flexibility provided by the relatively small size of our institutions, the obvious call is being extended to us to pursue the problem with all our might. It seems to me that here is one opportunity to do some real pioneering. As a beginning, I think it is about time that we drop defenses and recognizc the assets of the scientific approach. True, it is based on too much positivism and has many shortcomings, as was pointed out above. But I believe there is also much good to be said for it. The scientific method has prevented much erroneous philosophy and given us many new insights. We don't have to feel threatened by it if we inform ourselves adequately concerning the possibilities and the limitations of science. It seems to me ridiculous to think that science can ever become the single method in our desire to know man. As I see it, it is our task to continue to philosophize and theologize about man within the framework of our religious convictions and attempt to validate those aspects of our theories which lend themselves to empirical verification through scientific procedures and modify our theories accordingly. "Now we see through a glass darkly . . . now we know in part." (I Cor. 13:12)