Science in Christian Perspective




From: JASA 19 (June 1967): 50-52.

The recent debate concerning the criticism of contemporary psychology and the proposal of a new approach carried on in JASA by Finch1 and Mecherikoff  and Walker2 is unfortunate, yet necessary.

It is necessary because it reflects the tenor of contemporary theorizing and the so-called clash between experimentalists" and "clinicians". It is unfortunate because, on both sides, it reflects a lack of understanding and awareness of the opposing point of view; an attitude that also characterized much of the contemporary psychological scene. 

Several points can be noted affirmatively in a quick survey of the Mecherikoff and Walker article. The authors are correct in criticizing Finch for his misplaced emphasis on Descartes and Hegel in the light of what "logical positivism" means to the contemporary experimental psychologist. John Locke or Rudolf Carnap would better represent the experimentalist's precursors. They further point out that Finch does indeed make a straw man attack on Behavior theory via Watson and Freud, neither of whom are staunchly defended by either Behaviorist or current psychoanalysts. Both, to be sure, are strongly revered in their respective camps, but both are heavily modified in the formulations of contemporary theorists. It is true also that Finch makes an unguarded transition from psychology to psychotherapy, perhaps unaware of the experimentalist's tendency to pounce on such transfer as "illegitimate" and "unscientific". Any graduate student in Psychology could have served warning about this attempt, for it has become a comical anomaly, in most universities, to pursue research in psychotherapy outside the limits of counter-conditioning or other learning theoretical paradigms.

On the other hand, several points should be made in defense of Finch. While I do not wish to engage in thinking another man's thoughts and errantly defending his intentions, I believe a careful reading of Finch makes it clear that he does not reduce the issue to "...a choice which psychology must make",3 but rather he suggests very succinctly that "a more comprehensive approach seems necessary".4 The misunderstanding comes because Finch believes the existential approach looks more promising for the Christian, while

*Allan R. Andrews is a Graduate assistant in the Department of Psychology, Duquesne University, Pittsburgh, Pa.

Mecherikoff and Walker see in psychology as a natural science the more profitable path to follow. 

In this paper I hope to present a few valid reasons  for agreeing with the temperament expressed by Finch while showing that the path of Mecherikoff and Walker, though perhaps not a "Procrustean bed", and assuredly of great value to the study of man, is committed, by definition, to a truncated view of human nature. In this effort I shall repeatedly direct attention to a very readable recent publication entitled, Humanistic Viewpoints in Psychology, edited by Frank T. Severin5, which does the great service of collecting the  disjointed viewpoints that have been heretofore making sporadic appearances in the psychological literature.

 The basic presupposition of Mecherikoff and Walker is that psychology is a natural science. They are careful to emphasize this point, though they are careful also to skirt the serious debate that centers on this very point. It is traditional to include psychology in the social sciences, but in actual academic procedure the  discipline is modeled after physics and treated as a natural science. It is this very basic issue which needs to be clarified, for it is not at all clear that the scientific method as applied in physics is applicable to the social sciences. Mecherikoff and Walker make the point that "other natural sciences may also be so crit icized (i.e., as Finch has done)
",6 but the very word "other" which they employ does not square with the basic issue, namely, is the data-base of psychology  amenable to the methods of natural science?

It is at this juncture that Finch's discussion of Descartes and Hegel may have relevance, though he would better have mentioned Skinner, Spence or Hull,  for the problem of the experimenters involvement in  his experiment (i.e., what Finch calls eliminating the very subject data under study, viz., the knower himself) is a real problem. It amounts to giving a precise definition of psychology, the usual one being, the science of behavior. Is the experimenter, in his laboratory performing an experiment, a unit of behavior, and as such a valid unit of study for psychology? Is the experimenter eliminated from consideration when he is observing the operant behavior of a pigeon? The answer to this question will help define psychology. Carl Rogers, framing the question as "Persons or Science?",7 says of the experimenter, if he is to be a good scientist, he immerses himself in the relevant experience, . . ." We might ask, does psychology study man in his uniqueness, his individuality, his human being-ness, his personal reality, or does it limit itself to the study of man in vitro? The phenomenological approach to the data ordinarily considered to be the data of psychology; what Finch calls a "logos of the human psyche"; is much more encompassing than the discipline modeled after physics. in physics, man, by definition, is objectified from the data of his discipline, but can this be true in psychology?

Considering the humanness of physicists, Severin points out that "Einstein, Heisenberg, and other twentieth century physicists . . . have been forced to the realization that a scientist arrives at his theory speculatively".9 Rogers concurs with the generalization that ". . . throughout the use of such rigorous and impersonal methods, the important choices are all made subjectively by the scientist".10 This then is also the bulk of Finch's plea to "Recognize the limitations of the scientific method, derive from it all the information possible, but under no circumstances limit the subject of knowledge to its methodology".11

It is significant that Mecberikoff and Walker do not address themselves to the Finch discussion of the spirit. They criticize Finch's view as "a proposition unconnected to specific procedures for testing its validity or applying it in practice",12 but this is precisely the fault of viewing psychology as a natural science and imposing the scientific method. It says, in effect, that what lies outside the verification of the senses is not real. Here is the contemporary carry-over of logical positivism and Watsonian Behaviorism; it eliminates from its data-corpus man in his loving, dreaming, hoping, creating, hating, fearing, dying and his praying. Along the lines of a more comprehensive definition of psychology, Abraham Maslow writes, "my definition of a psychologist is broad but specific ... those - and only those - who are interested in developing a truer, clearer, more empirical conception of human nature".13 He goes even further by laying down lines for the discipline to follow, "Psychology should turn more frequently to the study of philosophy, of science, of aesthetics, and especially of ethics and values".14

Mecherikoff and Walker provide (themselves) what may be the most pertinent criticism of psychology as a natural science. They emphasize that "it is important to note that psychology as a natural science cannot (nor does it attempt to) comprehend the full stature of man".15 This is the key to a definition of psychology, for in its dogmatic, mechanistic, sense-bound empincism, psychology as a natural science does indeed attempt to comprehend the full stature of man and the classic outworkings of such assumptions are found in B. F. Skinner's novel, Walden T wo.16 Granted, Skinner does not speak for all psychologists, but his narrow definition of scientific psychology is widespread. The irony of the experimentalist's rigid position is noted by Adrian van Kaam, "to declare that only those propositions of psychologists make sense which can be experimentally verified is one of the most sweeping assumptions one can think of because it contains a definite and irrevocable judgment concerning all possibilities of human knowledge and their relationship to what is knowable".17

The behavior theorists of contemporary psychology have insisted, like Mecherikoff and Walker, that psychology be defined as the science of behavior. This definition, however, needs careful examination. When considering the word "behavior" there are not only problems of inclusion of the experimenter but also the implicit assumption that one can approach specifically human behavior with the inherited subject-object model of the natural sciences. These problems are closely related, to be sure, and are the topics of a very important work by Stephan Strasser, Phenomenology and the Human Sciences.18 Strasser argues that it is of the nature of the human sciences (which includes psychology) to operate from a subject-subject model with the experimenter acting, not as a "disinterested spectator", but as an "understanding witness".19

The accepted definition also tends to delimit the definition of science by reducing it to a certain methodology. If one allows, however, for defining science as a systematic discipline there is provision for the possibility of an empirical human science; a human science which avoids the reductionistic, objectivistic approach that follows the model of the natural sciences. The growing existential emphasis in contemporary psychology, when properly understood, is not a sell-out to Sartre, but is rather a disciplined approach to the study of man.20

Finch, with interests in the applied branch of the field, is not cautious in his discussion and Mecherikoff and Walker are quick to question his alignment of psychotherapy and psychology. The attitude that would prohibit such a transition would prefer that psychotherapy be carried on in the manner of Wolpe's technique of reciprocal inhibition, which is a therapeutic extension of the subject-object approach and a strongly manipulative procedure. It is of the very warp and woof of clinical psychology to be involved in research with an n of one. Furthermore, it is this one-to-one relationship which must essentially be considered a subject-subject relationship rather than one of subjectobject. Granted, Wolpe's method effects its "cures", it is, neverthless, founded in the implicit view of man which says "to understand this world, one must be like unto it - objective, impersonal, mathematical, precise".21 Such a world simply does not exist for the clinician and his human subjects. It is from the clinic that most of the existential literature found its impetus, and there is a growing tendency to note that the clinician is more of an artist than a scientist, but such a labeling does not eliminate him from consideration as a disciplined psychologist.22

It must be affirmed that in a discipine which deals with the problems of human love, hate, creativity, anxiety, etc., one cannot dismiss clinical psychology as unscientific simply because it does not fit into a specific research paradigm. The work of Viktor Frankl and his Vienna Polyklinik, together with the phenomenological work of the Lexington, Kentucky group stand as examples of a rigorously defined scientific approach to the problems of psychotherapy, existing outside the objectivist attitude. While Finch may have made an unwary transition, the greater error lies with Mecherikoff and Walker who exhibit the widespread closedmindedness of the objectivist orientation by questioning the status of psychotherapeutic research.

While these notes are not the place for an extensive treatment of the phenomenological-existential approach, several observations are pertinent to the debate under consideration.

First, the so-called "third approach", while it is indeed heavily critical of much of traditional psychology, recognizes the value of such a differential approach and feels that many insights can be gained for the human sciences via the current research trends. Secondly, it recognizes the dangers of a pure subjectivism with which it, at times, seems closely aligned. van Kaam summarizes the matter thusly,

The assumptions of phenomenological-existential psychologists are of as great a variety as those of the positivistic psychologists. . . . They are the counterpart in psychology of the new assumptions of the quantum physicists and existential philosophers. Becoming, creativity, growth, self-actualization are terms which more or less indicate in which direction these assumptions are developing.23

The goal of the human sciences is an understanding of the human person through rigorous, disciplined study of the experiential, behavioral relations of man as apprehended by other persons.

For the Christian there is the ever present danger that such a human science will develop outside the consideration of a man's relationship to God. The current trend is one which builds its structure on the insights pertaining to human nature which are gathered from the existential philosophers. Tension for the Christian will arise when these insights are in direct opposition to the Biblical perspective to which he is committed. Nevertheless, the avenue which the trend is taking seems much more aligned in its analysis to a view that would emerge from a Biblical anthropology.

These notes seek to consider the points of contention between Finch1 and Mecherikoff and Walker2 as they reflect the situation in contemporary psychology. While not in full agreement with Finch, they seek to counter some of the criticisms made by Mecberikoff and Walker by examining the definition of psychology as the science of behavior. This examination attempts to show that Mecherikoff and Walker err in the direction of an objectivist and therefore truncated view of man. These notes further seek to defend psychotherapy as a science with a subject-subject corpus of data and points to the insights of the rising phenomenological-existential trend as a possible heuristic stimulus for a psychological theory based on a biblical anthropology.


1. John Finch, "The Need for a New Approach in Psychology", JASA, Dec. .1964, 16 (4), pp. 97-102.
2. Michael Mecherikoff and C. Eugene Walker, "The Need for a Better Understanding of Current Psychology: A Reply to Dr. Finch", JASA, June 1965, 17 (2), p. 56-59.
3. Ibid., p. 56.
4. Finch, op. cit., p. 102.
5. Frank T. Severin (ed.), Humanistic Viewpoints in Psychology. New York: McGraw-Hill. 1965.
6. Mecherikoff and Walker, loc. cit.
7. Carl Rogers, "Persons or Science?", in Severin, op. cit., p. 164.
8. Finch, loc. cit.
9. Severin, op. cit., p. 204.
10. Rogers, op. cit., p. 166.
11. Finch, op. cit, p. 101.
12. Mecherikoff and Walker, op,
cit., p. 19.
13. Abraham Maslow, "A Philosophy of Psychology: The -Need for a Mature Science of Human Nature-, in Severin, op. cit.,
P. 19.

14. Ibid., p. 22.
15. Mecherikoff and Walker, loc. cit.
16. B. F. Skinner. Walden Two. New York: MacMillan. 1948.
17. Adrian van Kaam. "Assumptions in Psychology", in Severin,
op. cit., p. 177.
18. Stephan Strasser. Phenomenology and the Human Sciences.
Pittsburgh, Pa.: Duquesne U. Press. 1963.
19. Ibid., p. 143-155.
20. For a more non-philosophical approach see Joseph Lyons.. Psychology and the Measure ot Man. New York: Free Press of Glencoe, Crowell-Collier Publ. Co. 1963.
21. Carlton W. Berenda. "Is Clinical Psychology a Science?" in Severin, op. cit., p. 219.
22. Hugh Mullan and Iris Sangiuliano. The Therapist's Contribution to the Treatment Process. Springfield, Illinois: Thomas Publ. Co. 1964.
23. van Kaam, op. cit., p. 182.