Science in Christian Perspective




From: JASA 17 (June 1965): 56-59.

The authors express general disagreement with the point of view presented in a recent JASA article regarding the bankruptcy of modem Psychology in failing to fully comprehend the nature of man. Modern psychology as a natural science must be dedicated to the empirical investigation of behavior. Rather than constituting a "procrustean bed," the scientific method is a powerful tool for deciding issues and testing hypotheses. While the possibility of other approaches to knowledge is not denied, it is felt that the scientific method has proved fruitful where philosophical methods have not, and is thus rightly considered definitive for the field of psychology. The authors do not consider behavioristic psychology and Christianity incompatible.

In the December, 1964, issue of this journal, under the title "The Need for a New Approach in Psychology," appears an article by Dr. John Finch characterizing the "merely scientific" approach to an understanding of man as bankrupt because "it refused to cope with the very man-ness of man, his spirit."l The issue is viewed as a choice which psychology must make: "it is the difference between a logical positivistic approach to understanding data and the existential approach."2

It is our intention to show that Dr. Finch's proposal represents an inadequate conception both of the power and flexibility in the scientific method and of the scientific status of contemporary psychology.


To be sure, Dr. Finch does not say that the scientific method is to be repudiated. In fact he attempts to deny that this is at the root of his proposaL His compromise reads as follows: "Recognize the limitations of the scientific method, derive from it alltbe information possible, but under no circumstances limit the subject of knowledge to its methodology."3 On the surface this sounds like an acceptable and reasonable strategy, since it seems clear that there are aspects of human experience traditionally thought of as psychological which we wish to discuss, but which apparently cannot be operationally defined or publicly observed. However, it is important to note that psychology as a natural science cannot (nor does it attempt to) comprehend the full stature of man.

An analogy with other sciences may clarify this point. There are questions concerning the physical world which are not amenable to the methods of physics; e.g., What is the purpose of the material universe? The failure of physics to deal with questions of this sort certainly does not indicate the bankruptcy of scientific method nor the need for a groping after existential relationships with truth within physical theory. Biologists, whose application of scientific methodology was at one time also viewed with considerable dismay, do not seem to feel intellectually impoverished by being restricted to propositions which are confirmed with reference to observable characteristics of physical objects.4

Let us emphasize that the criticism being leveled at scientific psychology (restricting ourselves to a verifiability criterion of truth) in principle is not restricted to psychology alone. All other natural sciences may also be so criticized. Is it or is it not true that God in some real sense supports and is immanent in His creation? This proposition cannot be tested by the methods of science. If we as Christians believe it to be true, then perhaps we should propose an expansion of physics beyond the limitations of natural science. At the point where a question arises which is not empirically answerable, the Existential Scientist may disregard the rules and limitations and answer the question on the basis of his personal relationship to the truth. This is the point at which the cornerstone

*The authors are Assistant Professors of Psychology at Westniont College, Santa Barbara, California.

and foundation of science is demolished, and scientific progress stops.

In the historical development of the established sciences as sciences there came a separation of questions which could be approached in terms of empirical methodology and questions which, by their nature, remained in the area of philosophical analysis and speculation. What seems to distinguish science from non-science, then, is this very separation of questions into those which are subject to empirical investigation and those which are not.5 Since the rise of scientific psychology during the latter half of the last century this process has also been operating in the various fields of psychological inquiry.6

Why should psychology be singled out as the discipline that must not sell its soul to science? Whatever else may be said about them, human beings act and interact in observable ways (as do other living organisms) and may therefore be described in scientific terms. Man did not need to be "objectified" by any special philosophical viewpoint-he is already "part of the material phenomena."7 His actions seem in many respects to be orderly and predictable, and it is the task of psychologists to investigate this observable orderliness in behavior. It is difficult work, and basic variables and satisfactory conceptual schemes have yet to emerge clearly. But to say that psychology as a science has proved itself bankrupt is decidedly premature and unjust. It is certainly tedious and time consuming to try to deal, for example, with anxiety experimentally as a behavioral variable with functional relationships to other variables, but at least the goal is to have a concept of anxiety which is understood in precise terms. To observe that "anxiety is the moment (or series of moments) when man is thrust inward upon his own nudity, when his history confronts nullity, when the question as to his own significance balances between life and death"8 is poetic but useless in practice.

The chief difficulty with beginning the study of man under the assumption that scientific methodology is inadequate is that no generally accepted alternative criterion for truth is (at least as yet) available. Scientific method, in restricting itself to certain kinds of propositions, furnishes us with a criterion which works well in practice. To try to extend science beyond its self-imposed limitations into "non-materialistic science"9 would have the devastating effect of making its criterion for truth inapplicable, without furnishing a suitable replacement. Science in general and psychology in particular would again be plagued by the basic problem in philosophical speculation, that what is "true" depends on who believes it. If there are things to be said about mental life and spiritual relationships that are beyond the vocabulary and grammar of natural science, they should be clearly recognized as philosophical or theological statements. No useful purpose is served, and a great deal of harm is done, by robbing natural science of its basic, distinctive methodology.

Let us illustrate the difficulty we run into by citing two passages in Dr. Finch's paper. The closest Dr. Finch comes to providing us with a criterion for truth comes following a quotation of Jaspers distinguishing the philosophical mind from the scientific mind in terms of personal faith. Dr. Finch then says, "the so-called scientist who adheres to logical positivism . . . limits himself, shall I say, by a lack of faith to certain philosophical presuppositions. This limitation tends to put faith in a methodology above a faithful confrontation by the everchanging facts."10 A "faithful confrontation by the everchanging facts," then, is our new criterion. The details of how such a criterion is carried into practice are omitted. An important point which Dr. Finch misses in this discussion is that scientific methodology is precisely a strategy useful when one is confronted by facts-a strategy for digging them out and making sense of them-a strategy worthy of faith! In any case, before abandoning scientific methods of confronting facts, we would like to see a more complete explication of the specific procedures of existential research.

The second illustration involves a comparison of the Freudian conception of anxiety with Dr. Finch's conception as to validity. Freud (as summarized by Dr. Finch) believed that "When the instinctual drives are thwarted, anxiety results. When the libidinal flow is blocked, the damming up of such a flow causes anxiety."11 Here we have a proposition containing terms which are not operationally defined, and which are not connected to specific operations through other variables. Our judgment is that the proposition as it stands is not useful. Dr. Finch agrees (but for other reasons), and he suggests that if Freud had not been blinded by rationalistic and physiological assumptions, he might "even have noted that anxiety is the creative directive to every being to be one's self, relentlessly."12 In Dr. Finch's definition, however, we also have a proposition unconnected to specific procedures for testing its validity or applying it in practice. Although Dr. Finch treats his proposition as if it were the most obvious observation in the world, his relentless selfactualization directive as a specification of the term "anxiety" does not seem to us any more intrinsically acceptable, useful, or true than Freud's libidinal hydraulic system. Again, if we are to detect existential truth, we would like to know exactly how to go about it.

It is somewhat difficult to follow Dr. Finch's discussion of the inadequacy of the scientific method, since most of his paper is devoted to a rebuttal of rationalistic philosophy rather than of scientific methodology. Descartes and Hegel, to whom he devotes special attention, were both philosophers, and not by any stretch of the imagination scientific psychologists or empirical scientists of any sort. Even to say that contemporary philosophy of science (including logical positivism) is closely tied to either Descartes or Hegel would be a dubious assertion. Evidently what Dr. Finch would have us believe is that the scientific mwthod is a rationalistic system, and that by destroying a comple of other such systems, science will by analogy be shown to be similarly destructible.

It is certainly true that much of the early growth of science took place in a rationalistic intellectual atmosphere, and that scientists as late as the end of the lad century held simple concepts of physical mechanism and causality. In a footnote Dr. Finch mentions that around the turn of the century, as a result of the development of relativity theory and quantum theory, scientists were beginning to question the simplicity of their concept of physical reality. Unfortunately Dr. Finch chose to level his critique at pre-nineteenth century philosophy rather than to evaluate the developments in scientific conceptualization in the twentieth century. The scientists he mentions, including Eddington and Einstein, did not give up scientific methodology in changing their conceptions of the world. The scientific method was not only flexible enough to accommodate the changed conceptions, but itself made these changes necessary. These scientists did not embrace existential philosophy to find answers to difficult physical questions.

Scientific method is not a static set of restrictive rules presented to the world by Descartes or Hegel or Comte, to be blindly followed by the Freuds and the Watsons, but is rather an approach for understanding the physical world which itself developed and changed and is changing, and which itself needs to be studied and understood.13 The most intensive analysis of the methods of science was made since the 1920's (a period of history Dr. Finch neglects completely) as a result of the philosophical movement called logical positivism or scientific empiricism (a movement, incidentally, which differed from the early positivism of Comte in several basic, important ways).14

This is not the place to attempt to summarize contemporary philosophy of science.15,16,17 It is a highly technical subject, and there are differences of viewpoint. With respect to the practicing scientist, however, it should be noted that for the most part the usefulness of logical positivism as a philosophy of science has been descriptive of rather than prescriptive for his scientific work. Scientific methodology has taken root in our civilization not because it is or is not underpinned by any particular philosophical (metaphysical or epistemological) viewpoint, but because it has turned out to be a profitable strategy for understanding, explaining, predicting, and controlling phenomena in this universe. Past philosophical attempts to construct a complete rationalism or a complete empiricism have been beside the point as far as scientific endeavor is concerned. Modern science is both empirical and rational, consisting of an elaborate interaction between observational data and logical symbolic systems.18


The presentation of contemporary psychology by Dr. Finch is accomplished by citing the positions of two men: Watson and Freud. In neither case is justice done to the position of the man, and in neither ease does the position of the man represent contemporary psychology. Freud's major work was done around the turn of the century, and Watson's between 1913 and 1930. Psychology as a science has progressed considerably since then, just as other sciences have progressed, both in observational and in theoretical sophistication.

It is important to recognize that Watson was the first behaviorist, reacting vigorously against the problem of trying to infer sensory experience in animals, and against an established psychology which lacked objectivity due to the exclusive use of introspection in studying conscious experience. Recent behaviorists are considerably less inclined to reject mental processes, consciousness, and other topics abhorrent to Watson, provided that these inferred processes are anchored to observations. This is in no way different from the treatment of inferred or theoretical entities or processes in other sciences. A psychology of muscle twitches is no longer the goal of behaviorists, and in fact behaviorism scarcely exists today as a separate viewpoint. Behavioristic methodology has been absorbed into psychology as a whole.19

Without warning Dr. Finch suddenly begins talking about anxiety and dammed up libido. Eventually Freud's name is mentioned, but the impression is left that Freud and Watson held virtually identical positions. Nothing could be less true. About the only proposition they held in common was that psychology was to be viewed as natural science, and even at this point they had radically divergent ideas about the nature, scope, and methodology of psychology. Although Freud profoundly influenced psychological thinking, his system and his goals do not represent modern psychology today20 and further discussion of him here is pointless.

One more point concerning the history of psychology bears mentioning. In saying that "the dimension of the spirit burst through the methods of scientific naturalism to create a new discipline in phenomenology"21 Dr. Finch gives the impression that this event took place as a result of the recognized failure of the scientific method. In actual fact, phenomenological approaches were being proposed long before behaviorism appeared, and can be traced back to the earliest days of scientific psychology nearly a century ago.22 Certainly Gestalt psychology and even Tolman's behaviorism have a flavor of phenomenology. But these were scientific approaches, basing ultimately their inferences of perceptual or cognitive states on observable consequences. This kind of phenomenology does not burst through scientific methodology-it uses and profits by it.22 But if we are talking about mental life that in principle is beyond the inferential procedures of natural science, then we are again back to the problem of stating an acceptable criterion for truth. We are not saying that such a.criterion does not exist, or that it may not be found: we are saying that until we can distinguish between the meaningful and the meaningless, the true and the false, in phenomenological propositions, we cannot see the value of such an approach and see no reason for extending the definition of science to include it.

Having suggested that phenomenology has already taken psychology beyond the limitations of science, Dr. Finch raises the question of whether a Christian understanding of man may create a new approach (beyond phenomenology) to psychotherapy. This is the first time the word psychotherapy has appeared, and it is near the end of the article. One wonders, from the nature of his previous discussion, if psychotherapy rather than psychology is what Dr. Finch had in mind all the while. Perhaps what he is really suggesting might be more clearly stated as follows: ITsychotherapy needs to be viewed as an inevitable mixture of the aplication of the principles of scientific psychology and existential philosophy." This may be so, although we see no a priori reason why it should be so, since the interaction between a patient and his therapist is behavior and should therefore be amenable to scientific analysis, including an analysis of inferred mental states. We are at present nowhere near this goal. Current psychotherapeutic practice does include a considerable amount of non-scientific theorizing and philosophizing. The practice of medicine was also once in this state. The kind of impact scientific methodology has had in engineering and in medicine is what we look forward to in applied psychology as well.

Contemporary American psychology, even such complex fields as social psychology, clinical psychology, and personality theory, is becoming increasingly objective, precise, and experimental. The results of the researcher and theorizer are becoming directly applicable in the clinic and the classroom, and in countless other settings as well. Already behavioristic principles derived from thousands of hours of laboratory study are being fruitfully applied to psychotherapeutic situations.23,24 It is far too early to tell what future contributions will be in this area. As stimulus-response analysis becomes more refined and precise, it is conceivable that all psychotherapy may eventually be a special case of "behavioral engineering."

The implications of this view of psychology for the Christian cannot be explicated in detail here.25 However, the authors are of the opinion that there is no intrinsic incompatability between behavioristic psychology and Christianity when both are understood in proper perspective. Fuller discussion of this subject will be taken up in future articles.


The "new approach" for which Dr. Finch argues is not a new approach at all. It is rather an old approach that was historically found to be fruitless when psychology was considered the province of philosophy. It was the adoption of the scientific method in psychology some 80 or 90 years ago which resulted in the founding and growth of the field, so that today psychology is prepared to take its place among the other natural sciences. The scientific method, far from being a "procrustean bed," has been the tool which produced the modern science of psychology. Science is essentially a method of obtaining and verifying information; psychology as a science must be the application of this method to the behavior of living organisms.

By contrast, in proposals to adopt a transcendental understanding of man and the universe, no tools or methods are supplied the reader to use in searching out these new frontiers. No objective criteria for authenticity of statements are supplied. If one wants to say that there are other types of epistemologies or other sources of knowledge, then at this point we begin to discuss philosophy or theology, not psychology. Contemporary psychology is committed to the methods of natural science. Philosophy is not. Most psychologists would prefer that there be no confusion about this point.


1. John Finch, "The Need for a New Approach In Psychology," JASA, Dec. 1964, 16 (4), p. 97.

2. Finch, p. 97. 3. Finch, p. 101. 4. In the same issue of JASA with Dr. Finch's paper Is an article by V. Elving Amderson called "Modes of Explanation in Biology." He denies that faith supplies better explanations In biology than science Is able to provide. Our answer to Dr. Finch is closely in line with Dr. Anderson's comments. We recommend a careful perusal of his discussion.

5. Philip Frank, Philosophy of Science, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1957. 6. Edwin G. Boring, "Psychology," in What is Science?, James R. Newman (ed.), Simon & Schuster, Inc., 1955, pp. 291-314. Brief summary of psychological history, showing philosophical trends.

7. Finch, p. 99.

8. Finch, p. 99, quoting S. R. Hopper, The Crisis of Faith, p. 43. 9. Finch, p. 97.

10. Finch, p. 98. 11. Finch, p. 99. 12. Finch, p. 99. 13. For many examples see Herbert Feigl & May Brodbeck, Readings in the Philosophy of Science, Appleton-CenturyCrofts, 1953.

14. Victor Kraft, Vienna Circle: The Origin of Neo-Positivism, Philosophical Library, 1953.

15. Several good presentations are available. See for example, Ernest Nagel, The Structure of Science, Harcourt, Brace & world, 1961.

16. A classic article on the philosophy of science as applied to psychology is S. S. Stevens, "Operationism and Logical Positivism," in Melvin H. Marx, Theories in Contemporary Psychology, Macmillan, 1963, pp. 47-76.

17. Herbert Feigl & others (eds.), Minnesota Studies in the Philosophy of Science, University of Minnesota Press. Volume 1 (1956) and Volume 2 (1957) are devoted to psychology.

18. Ernest Nagel, Logic Without Metaphysics, Free Press, 1956, p. 152.

19. Melvin H. Marx & William A. Hillix, Systems & Theories in Psychology, McGraw-HUI Book Co., 1963, pp. 169-170.

20. Calvin Hall & Gardner Lindzey, Theories of Personality, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1957, pp. 64-72.

21. Finch, p. 101.

22, See for example Donald Snygg, "The Need for a Phenomenological System," in Alfred E. Kuenzll (ed.), The Phenomenological Problem, Harper & Brothers, 1959, pp. 11-14.

23. Joseph Wolpe, Psychotherapy by Reciprocal Inhibition, Stanford University Press, 1958.

24. H. J. Eyseck (ed.), Behaviour Therapy and the Neuroses, Pergamon Press, 1960.

25. See What, Then, is Man? A Symposium of Theology, Psychology, and Psychiatry, Concordia Press, 1958, for a sophisticated analysis of the general relationships between pyschology and Christian faith.