Science in Christian Perspective





From: JASA 19 (September 1967): 119-122.

Recently, in response to an article by John Finch,1 the present authors expressed the viewpoint that Psychology should be defined as the scientific study of behavior and that attempts to apply an existential-philosophical orientation to psychology in the absence of a sound methodology as well as criteria for determining validity, appear to be fruitless.2 We were pleased with the response our article received both in the pages of JASA3,4 and through private correspondence. While we are particularly unimpressed with most current attempts at rapproachment between psychol ogy and Christianity, we hope that through continuing dialogue better formulations might develop. We there fore welcome Andrews' notes4 but feel that some points made by him require clarification and comment. The points to follow should be considered a brief, informal reaction to the notes by Andrews. Andrews raises too many issues and makes far too many unguarded com ments to discuss each point thoroughly.

1) Andrews assumes that the problem is basically a debate between experimentalists and clinicians with us on the side of the experimentalists. He assumes that the nature of clinical work is unknown to us, and that the kind of psychology we are espousing is a totally inadequate framework for the practicing clinician. The fact is that the issues involved do not con-

*Dr. Meeberikoff is Associate Professor of Psychology at Westmont College. Dr. Walker is an Assistant Professor, and Chairman, Division of Education and Psychology at the same institution.

 stitute a dispute based only on professional interest, nor is it true in our specific case. Dr. Walker obtained
his degree in clinical psychology from Purdue University and Dr. Mecherikoff, while basically an experimental psychologist from the University of Minnesota, has had considerable training and experience in the field of counseling. One author (CEW) is currently a part-time staff member at a large state mental hospital and has had considerable experience in a wide variety of clinics and hospitals as well as private practice. The other author (MM) has been recently employed in the same setting. It is our observation that merely being a clinical psychologist with an interest in therapy does not drive one to an existential or phenomenological framework in theorizing. Most clinicians are not existentialists.

2) Andrews interprets us as criticizing Finch for his "unguarded transition from psychology to psychotherapy, perhaps unaware of the experimentalists' tendency to pounce on such transfer as illegitimate and unscientific." We do not feel that there is a basic split between psychology and psychotherapy, and we certainly do not regard any discussion of psychotherapy as intrinsically illegitimate or unscientific. It simply seems to us that psychotherapy is best considered as an area of applied scientific psychology. This is not to say that all psychotherapy practiced must be thoroughly underpinned by scientific research. Scientific research in this area is currently not that far advanced.

Meanwhile, people are suffering from emotional and behavioral disturbances, and we need to do the best we can with whatever means we have at hand. We are grateful for the therapeutic efforts and successes of all therapists, existential or otherwise, but this does not mean that we need to accept their theoretical formulations. Further, Andrews' statement that it has become a comical anomaly in most universities to pursue research in psychotherapy outside the limits of counter-conditioning or other learning theory paradigms appears rather puzzling, because while learning theory models are becoming increasingly popular and useful in psychotherapy, there is a great deal of work done from other theoretical points of view. To a graduate student at heavily phenomenologically oriented Duquesne University it might seem that learning theory therapy is taking over the field, but such is far from the truth. Learning theory therapies are proving very fruitful and will undoubtedly be an important part of the therapists' armamentarium, for some time, but other therapies have much to offer also. Thus, to us, psychotherapy is of legitimate concern to the psychologist but it should be based on empirical research as much as possible and it is expected that a number of different approaches will be included.

3) Andrews questions whether the methods of physics and natural science are sufficient to deal with the data base of psychology and indicates that attempts to limit one's endeavors to these realms will lead to a truncated view of human nature. He questions whether psychology should be thought of as a natural or a social science. The problem involved here concerns the basic definition of psychology. The prevailing majority opinion in the field of psychology is that the discipline should be considered an empirical, experimental, natural science devoted to the study of human and animal behavior, Any brief survey of journals and texts published in the field will confirm this. It is our contention that this strategy has had a good pay-off and there is no reason to change it. One must consider the fact that whereas natural science has a moderately well-defined methodology and criterion for truth, social science, if considered distinct from natural science, seems not to. To consider psychology as a social science, then, divorces it from the very procedures which have made it efficient and communicable. It is worth pointing out, also, that psychologists have long since given up attempts to copy slavishly the other natural sciences. Recognizing that most of the techniques and theories of physics, chemistry, and biology are not suited to the behavioral sciences, psychologists have developed methods uniquely suited for their own subject matter. These methods have proved exceedingly fruitful and useful to psychologists in the study of behavior. By contrast, the more speculative and philosophical approaches have generally failed to demonstrate an equal amount of productivity. It is for this reason, that psychologists by and large have chosen to define their field as the scientific study of behavior. This, of course, is the distinction made originally by William James involving the contrast between the tender-minded and the tough-minded. We find ourselves squarely on the side of the tough-minded in the definition and development of the field of psychology. To accuse psychology of having a truncated view of human nature because it fails to take into account other aspects of man than those which can be studied scientifically is to adopt a different definition of psychology and to attempt to include within the realm of psychology areas which psychology as a science is not equipped to deal with. If Andrews wishes to make the point that many psychologists have failed to show interest in these other areas (for example, values, moral behavior, purposiveness in life, etc.) his criticism is well taken for the non-Christian behavioristic psychologist. However, it is our proposal that Christian psychologists make more of an effort to relate these issues to a behavioristic, tough-minded psychology. We believe that this will result in the most progress and be the most fruitful approach in the long run. While the existentialist and tender-minded approaches to the study of human nature superficially appear to be more easily compatible with Christian belief, we feel that the wedding of these two will, in the long run, prove to be less productive than a combination of tough-minded psychology with Christian revelation. We wrote our original article in effort to stir up some interest in this direction. It has been our feeling that the existentialists and phenomenologists have held the field too long with respect to a Christian approach to psychology.

4) Andrews seems confused about the issue of subjectivity and objectivity, which is not surprising, because it is a confusing, unresolved issue. Questions Andrews raises in this connection are puzzling to us, and we suspect that a much longer explanation both on his part and on ours than is possible here would be required to reach any clarity on the matter. For example, there has never been any doubt that scientists arrive at their theories speculatively. Science is clearly a deductive and intuitive, as well as inductive, enterprise. This does not mean, however, that the behavior involved is beyond analysis and understanding. The scientist is a behaving organism, whose functioning is subject to the very laws he is investigating-physical, chemical, biological, and behavioral laws. Whatever "objectivity" means, it does not mean that the investigator (the "knower") leaves the universe or becomes a different order of being when he makes observations, constructs verbal interpretations, or communicates results. This is as much true of the physicist as of the psychologist. It is unclear to us why the kind of so-called "subjectivity" found in relativity theory or the microcosmic indeterminacy of quantum theory gives so much comfort to Finch and Andrews. Physics has not thereby become "existential," else why would we be warned not to model psychology after physics!

5) It is not true that the experimental, behavioristically oriented psychologist eliminates man in his "loving, dreaming, hoping, creativity, bating, fearing, dying, and his praying." Insofar as all of these things are behavior, they are potentially interesting to the behavioral researcher, although the behaviors are so complex that at present practically nothing can be said about them scientifically. In this circumstance the scientist prefers to say practically nothing, rather than to risk speaking utter nonsense. To the extent that they fall outside of the realm of observable behavior, they become matters of theology and philosophy, not psychology. At this point the atheistic psychologist may quit, but the Christian psychologist need not. It is only crucial that he realize that he is outside the realm of his science at that point. What we do deny is that any man as observer can get inside the skin of another man and know his experiences directly. We have profound difficulty understanding what "subject-subject" research is all about, what its explicit methods are, and how one determines if one's verbal formulations (hypotheses, theories, "understandings") are anywhere near the truth. This is the reason for our "objectivity."

To counter that this request for information about methodology is part of some "natural science fallacy," and is therefore an unfair question, makes little sense to us. If each "researcher" is to be his own arbiter in these matters, only idiosyncracy and lack of communication can result. The matter of methodology simply cannot be escaped.

6) Andrews' desire to define science as any "systematic discipline" is obviously inadequate. Music, accounting, literature, plumbing, farming, and other areas ad infinitum are all systematic disciplines, but do not necessarily employ the methods of scientific inquiry and are, therefore, not considered basic sciences. That Andrews finds it necessary to use this type of definition of science in order to include the existentialists, only illustrates our point that this is no science at all.

7) Andrews' discussion of Wolpe's methods as a "strongly manipulative procedure" indicates a misunderstanding of the methods of learning theory therapy. Learning theory therapists have repeatedly pointed out that their techniques involve a cooperative effort on the part of the patient and therapist in which the therapist helps the patient achieve certain ends via scientific principles of habit change. Wolpe5 has also pointed out that the general rapport and interpersonal qualities of the patient-therapist relationship are an important part of his therapy. It is also worth noting that careful examination of the supposedly non-directive and nonmanipulative therapies reveals that these are often manipulative but in more subtle ways.6

8) Andrews' comment that a world of objective, impersonal, mathematical, and precise facts, "simply does not exist for the clinician and his human subjects," is strange. Does he think that Wolpe and those who employ learning theory therapeutic techniques are not clinicians, or is it that their patients are not human? As has been pointed out, both of the present authors are interested in therapy and counseling. The clinician author spends many hours doing psychoptberapy every week and people are helped by his efforts, but be is not an existentialist. It is all right to be an existentialist, but one should be careful about asserting that this method is the only method.

9) Andrews, toward the end of his article, notes that he is all for the insights that can be obtained by science but feels that this is not enough. We agree that the Christian is often interested in things that are beyond the scope of psychological research (such as God, spiritual reality, etc.), but let us admit this instead of defining psychology in such a way that it includes everything and specifies nothing.

10) In the midst of these objections two of Andrews' points deserve positive comment. First, he points out a bit of carelessness on our part, when we say that "psychology as a natural science cannot (nor does it attempt to) comprehend the full stature of man." The context of this statement is the assumption that there is a spiritual dimension to man which by definition is beyond the reach of natural science. In this sense science does not even attempt to comprehend man's full stature. But there are, of course, psychologists who do not believe in such a spiritual dimension; for them all of man is potentially comprehended in a thorough analysis of his behavior and the biological and environmental factors of which it is a function. The present authors do not fall into this category.

Secondly, he correctly summarizes the present debate as a difference of opinion as to bow psychology ought to be defined: "Finch believes the existential approach looks more promising for the Christian, while Mecherikoff and Walker see in psychology as a natural science the more profitable path to follow." Our feeling is that this issue will be resolved by history. "Natural science" psychologists will eventually have to come to grips with the more complex functioning of man, while those already dealing with such functions at a practical level will have to clarify their criteria for distinguishing knowledge from false belief. It is not our intention to dogmatize, but rather to present an alternative viewpoint to an existentialist revision-a viewpoint which we feel is much closer to the mainstream of American psychology.

11) In summary, we would like to re-state our basic position, since some seemed to misunderstand it. We feel that tough-minded research as exemplified in functionalism and behaviorism has proved exceedingly fruitful in psychology and currently constitutes the mainstream of the field. We would like to see a serious attempt to integrate a Christian position with this orientation. While this appears intrinsically more difficult than integrating Christian ideas with those of the existentialists, we feel it offers more promise of value in the long run. The Christian psychologist should not deny the existence or importance of things beyond his science, but neither should he feel that it must encompass everything in the universe. Psychologists and theologians may fruitfully combine and compare their information about man via frequent dialog, but neither should (at least at this stage of intellectual history) take over the field of the other.


1. John Finch, "The Need for a New Approach in Psychology," JASA, 16, 4, Dec. 1964, p. 97-102.
2. Michael Mecherikoff & C. Eugene Walker, "The Need for a Better Understanding of Current Psychology: A Reply to Dr. Finch," JASA, 17, 2, June 1965, p. 56-59.
3. Daniel K. Stewart, "Psychology by Dr. Finch," JASA, 17, 4, Dec. 1965, p. 128.
4. AlIan R. Andrews, "Some Notes on the Debate in PsychoIogy," JASA, 19, 2, June 1967, p. 50-52.
5. Joseph Wolpe, Psythotherapy by Reciprocal Inhibition, Stanford, California, Stanford University Press, 1958.

6. See, for example, the comments of Edith Weisskopf-Joelson, "Some Suggestions Concerning Weltanschauung & Psychotherapy," J. Abn. & Soc. Psychol., 48, 4, 1953, p. 601-604. Dr. Weisskopf-Joelson is, herself, a noted existential therapist.