Science in Christian Perspective


Psychology as Scientism: Alienation by Objectivity
Part I: The Growth of the Scientistic Outlook
Behavioral Science Department 
North Shore Community College 
Beverly, Massachusetts 01915

From: JASA 27 (June 1975): 55-59.

By committing psychology to a rationalist-empiricist epistemology, psychologists hoped to achieve scientific status alongside other natural sciences that have been successful in applying the scientific method generated by this epistemology. Instead, psychology as it is represented in the dominant American tradition has aided in alienating man from his lived experience. Psychology as an imperfect science has been guilty of encouraging scientism, claiming ultimate truth via a reductionistic epistemology.

Part one of this two-pan paper examines the growth of this scientistic attitude in psychology. Part two examines the effects of this attitude on the present cultural situation in America, particularly as manifested in the so-called youth culture.

Rocket Man: Marooned and Manipulated.

And all this science, 
I don't understand. 
It's just my job, five days a week, 
a rocket man. 
And I think it's gonna be a long, long time 
till touch down brings me round again to find 
I'm not the man they think I am at home. Oh, no, no, no, 
I'm a rocket man, rocket man burning out his fuse up here alone.

                       -Rocket Men Elton John and Bernie Taupin1

As contemporary popular artists, songwriters Elton John and Bernie Taopin are not expected to understand fully all the science surrounding rocketry. But the lament of their Rocket Man-the outstanding modern symbol of a technologically tuned hero-captures the expression of alienation brought about by scientific advance in the twentieth century.

The astronaut hero understands very little of the technological complex that propels him into space. An electronic nerve center on the ground calculates his every move and activity. Encapsulated in his missile or space suit, the rocket man is a fleshly cog in an enterprise that epitomizes man's development and application of the methods of science.

This depersonalized role of the rocket man is dramatically illustrated in the film Marooned. Produced amid the frenzy of American and Russian space endeavors during the late 1960s this film dramatizes the effort to rescue three astronauts whose space vehicle has malfunctioned and left them helplessly orbiting the earth with a rapidly depleting oxygen supply. Melodramatics and merits of the production aside, the film's sterile dialogue is true to the live television neweasts that brought specialized space jargon into American living rooms. At one point, that dialogue underscores the astronaut's technologically imposed narrowness and justifies the plaintive and very human lament of the songwriters' rocket man.2

The actor astronauts, frustrated by their passive helplessness in the face of the programmed death awaiting them, decide to move outside the spaceship to examine it for defects they might possibly repair. They communicate to space headquarters on the ground their intention to take "affirmative action." The project director on the ground, maintaining the cooly objective manner demanded by his scientific status, responds with a tinge of passion, "Don't do anything stupid." He calmly pleads with the crew to leave any rescue measures to ground control. He reminds the trio they are being electronically monitored and that nothing indicates they can correct the fault of the vehicle. His words are meant to remind the astronauts of their specialized role in the project, a role that prohibits any expression of autonomy. The success of the project, even its rescue from death, depends on the dehumanization of the space capsule.

No less in real life situations are these much heralded heroes of the stratosphere channeled into a similar, subtle plight. Their choice to become aircraft specialists renders them objects in the cockpits of the vital organisms of the aircraft industry. The human pilot is relegated to an ancillary role. Much as the ceremonial monarch is lavished with attention, the pilot receives the public plaudits, but the technocratic specialists revel in the sophisticated equipment and the computerized execution of scientific pursuits. The pilot is obsolete long before the equipment.

But where science and technology have provided at least token freedom and dignity to astronauts, they have systematically withheld even a modicum of autonomy from the average man. At every turn, from maternity ward to nursing home, man is reminded of his object-ness. Man, the originator and builder of machines, is today repeatedly reminded and subversively convinced his flesh is but a good simulation of the machine. Television's banal repetitions of pounding hammers for headaches, or plumbing analogies for digestive processes mixed with a ceaseless parroting of engineering terms to describe human functions and dysfunctions, points to the deep-seated problem of man's alienation from his humanness.

The thesis of this paper is that man's alienation from himself is rooted in scientific epistemology which has become scientism. Any single approach to reality that claims ultimate validity as the criterion for truth is defined as scientism. The scientific method, the most all encompassing and influential theory of knowledge in history, has as scientism effectively robbed man of his personal, existential experience. All knowledge, including self-knowledge, rests on a repository of "expert" knowledge gleaned by a rigidly defined and culturally influenced method whose aim is ultimate objectivity. This phenomenon has been described as "the myth of objective consciousness,"3 the "splendid virtue of objectivity,4" and the "rape of Mother Nature."5

While the so-called exact sciences have abetted the growth of scientific technology that has led to the mass-man mentality that hovers over non-technical man, this paper argues that the less precise science of psychology particularly deserves criticism as scientism. The logos of the soul is expected by most laymen, and advocated by a surprising number of intellectuals, to bring insight to the perplexing nature of man. Yet, the mainstream of psychology has reduced itself to studying data that can be described only by operational definitions, and in so doing has reduced man from a vital living organism to an electro-mechanical reactor. Psychology, by committing itself to a scientism of sensory empiricism, has subtly suggested flesh and bone, though admittedly complex, is only a machine with exceeding mysterious parts. The branch of knowledge most expected to cast light on the fullness of man's humanity has failed even to approach the task.
Scientism as a major contributor to modern man's despair and dehumanization could be applied to all ranges of the scientific spectrum. This paper, however, concentrates on psychology. If technology is indeed the rapist of human experience, it is psychology that has intoned the seductive voice, wooing humanity to technology's tainted tent.

The Growth of Scientific Mythology.

Contrary to a widespread notion of history, the Middle Ages had a distinctive technology that affected major social changes.6 The waterwheel, spinning wheel, armor, and a score of mechanical devices made the work of homemakers, sailors, and warriors more streamlined,

The mainstream of psychology has reduced itself to studying data that can be described only by operational definitions, and in so doing has reduced man from a vital living organism to an electro-mechanical reactor.

While the tools and devices of the Middle Ages represent a primitive technology by today's standard, they did not contribute to widespread alienation from experience. The medieval technicians could not be called scientists in the modern sense. They were more nearly craftsmen whose practical daily work led to serendipitous discoveries of more efficient means to practice their livelihood. A systematic, rigidly defined method of attacking technological problems had not yet developed.

Before the method could be systematized, several social changes and changes in man's perception of his world and himself had to occur. The authority of the church, then a kind of "sacred scientism" that held man to be a sacrosanct being on a perhaps round earth that was the center of the universe, had to be challenged. Numerous challengers rose in the sixteenth century and the scientific revolution began. But even the giants of the revolution were hardly technocrats or scientistic thinkers who believed they had uncovered the singular path to truth. So confined was their work, Alfred North Whitehead has said of the revolution they began: "Since a babe was born in a manger, it may be doubted whether so great a thing has happened with so little stir."7

It was the philosophers who planted the seeds of scientism. Francis Bacon and Rene Descartes intended to give man a key to knowledge, but their pronouncements were to become the seedlings of an epistemic worldview that has sprouted to strangle everything else in the garden and produce the bitter fruit of experiential alienation in contemporary twentieth century society.

Bacon, impressed by the results of systematic observations, insisted principles of truth could be stated only when collected particulars pointed to such prineiples.8 His "inductive" epistemology became the major ground rule of experimentation that was to dominate the rapid and astounding forward movement of the natural sciences.

Descartes, in attempting to defend man's unique cognitive characteristics, produced a dualism that provided the rationale for a mechanistic view of human nature. Psychology, as we shall see, followed the natural scientific lead and addressed itself to the res extensa (body), while neglecting the res cogitas (mind). The scientific developments and discoveries, particularly the physical laws worked out by Newton, seemed to validate Descartes' notion of a vast mechanical universe.9

Systematic observation leading to experimentation, coupled with the advent of mathematical precision and measurement, provided the keys for unlocking the physical universe. This philosophical movement was to transform the conditions of living radically by ushering in the industrial revolution. Certainly science and technology are not the only precursors to industrialization, but the production and transportation capabilities they brought are of staggering proportions. To a major degree the history of civilization from the sixteenth century to the present is a history of scientific and technological advance.

Before tracing science and technology to the present and asking how they have affected mankind, we should note the subtle mental revolution this rapidly burgeoning phenomenon wrought.

Writing on this factor with different purposes in mind, Whitehead traced the origins of modern science on the basis of the following thesis:

...this quiet growth of science has practically re-coloured our mentality so that modes of thought which in former times were exceptional are now broadly spread through the educated world. This new colouring of ways of thought had been proceeding slowly for many ages in the European peoples. . . The new mentality is more important even than the new science and the new technology. It has altered the metaphysical presuppositions and the imaginative contents of our minds . . ,10

Whitehead suggests, and the history of science supports his notion, that men were unaware of the radical mental changes taking place. Voices were raised by eighteenth century Romantics and nineteenth century Existentialists11 but until the twentieth century they were overwhelmed by the entrenched empiricist-rationalist epistemology, which insisted all experience be sensory and quantitative. Science was moving toward scientism.

The genuinely exciting growth of science and technology was aceompained by a disturbing dichotomy between what C. P. Snow has called 'two cultures,"12 the scientific culture and the artistic culture. In a provocative and telling analysis, Joseph R. Royce13 has described the results of this subtle revolution in man's awareness of his own knowledge. Royce outlines four major approaches to reality that have historically been applied by man. The four are rationalism, intuitionism, empiricism, and authoritarianism.14 Royce argues that each approach has a criterion for truth,

 but none of these approaches is looking at the truth, either individually or in combination, and further, . . . each approach is susceptible to encapsulation, that is, claiming to have the whole of troth or the meaning of life when one has only part of it.15

Science has become the filter through which modern man is urged to run his experience.

Part of Royce's thesis is that the rationalist and empiricist traditions have been joined to give contemporary culture a "specialist" syndrome. Astronauts exemplify such a specialist orientation. Future education, Royce argues, must prepare "generalists," who are equally versed in the intuitionist and ideological (i.e., authoritarian) traditions.16

Royce is strong in his indictment of the scientific attitude as an encapsulating movement. Arguing that even so-called objective and empirical science is structured on a "mythological statement concerning the nature of reality,"17 Royce calls into question the comprehensiveness of scientific knowledge. "Science," he notes, "is in danger of religiofieation, the art of turning a secular matter into a religion."18 In the hands of scientists Royce sees little danger, hot when such attitudes move outside the limiting confines of the laboratory the danger of scientism arises.

"There are strong indications that this has already occurred to a considerable extent," Royce continues.19 He sees scientism in the pervading distrust shown by academicians to non-scientific disciplines and in "the extent to which nonscientific disciplines ape the sciences ."20 The pervasiveness of this attitude is shown, Royce notes, in the prevailing view of what is currently "accepted as 'really' real."21 That is, only science, with its rationalist-empiricist epistemology, can validate what is real; only science can authenticate experience.

Royce's argument supports the thesis that science has become the filter through which modern man is urged to run his experience.22 What Royce describes as scientism is described by Roszak as the "myth of objective consciousness."
objective consciousness is emphatically not some manner of definitive, transcoltoral development whose cogency derives from the fact that it is uniquely in touch with the troth. Rather, like mythology, it is an arbitrary construct in which a given society in a given historical situation has invested its sense of meaningfulness and value.23

By investing so steeply in this scientific worldview American society has reaped the convulsions of the counter-culture, the sociological phenomenon Roszak analyzes. The "social scenery" it has painted for the individual psychologically has been critiqued by Yale psychiatrist Kenneth Keniston.24 Before examining the alienation resulting from adoption of a scientistie stance, however, note must be taken of psychology's contribution to and adoption of this mythology. Indeed, it is imperative to any claim that human experience is being systematically usurped by subtle scientific demands.

Psychology as Scientism: A Soul for a System.

By pedestrian definition psychology is the study of the soul, the logos of the psyche. But rational science took away the concept of the soul, replacing it with mind. American psychology went one step further, dropping all hints of metaphysics and defining itself empirically as the science of behavior.

While it has been said jokingly that psychology sold its soul, then lost its mind, and is now having trouble controlling its behavior, the significance of these subtle changes by definition should not he lost in humor. The danger Royce foresees in scientism has largely come to fruition in psychology, for in clarifying its definition, psychology has made quantitatively measurable phenomena its data base, and has gone through excruciating pains to "ape" the natural sciences,

For a large segment of academic psychology, sexual response is equated with love, neural brain patterns are equated with mind, and an electromechanical complex is upheld as the simulated model of life.

most notably, physics. To do so, it has traditionally committed itself to a sensory empiricism, disregarding significant events in human experience as too subjective or metaphysical.

Expressions of this attitude abound. For a large segment of academic psychology, sexual response is equated with love, neural brain patterns are equated with mind, and an electromechanical complex is upheld as the simulated model of life.

It is strange in a field that is commonly believed to study human phenomena that its own writers must plead for relevancy within their discipline. In 1961, 0. Hobart Mowrer, a distinguished learning theorist steeped in the rationalist-empiricist tradition of psychology, wrote, "There are signs that all is not well with psychology, either as science or profession, and that we may need to re-examine some of our most basic assumptions."25 Another professional psychologist, Hubert Bonner, brings serious indictments to his field, pleading that psychology he "mindful of man."26

In a humorous vein, but with earnest intentions, American existentialist Rollo May caricatures psychology as charged by St. Peter at the gate of heaven with the sin of "minis sim plicandum."

You have spent your life making molehills out of mountains-that's what you're guilty of. When man was tragic, you made him trivial. When he was picaresque, you called him picayune. When he suffered passively, you described him as simpering; and when he drummed up enough courage to act, you called it stimulus and response. Mao had passion; and when you were pompous and lecturing to your class you called it "the satisfaction of basic needs," and when you were relaxed and looking at your secretary you called it "release of tension." You made man over into the image of your childhood Erector Set or Sunday School maxims-both equally horrendous.27?

With philosophical and historical intensity, Amedeo Giorgi calls for a redefinition of psychology "conceived as a human science and not as a natural science."28

The most consistent and effective critiques of psychology from inside the profession are those of the late Abraham Maslow. Orthodox science, Maslow argued, rests on "unproved articles of faith," is overly conservative, and is unaware of its own ethnocentricity. These weaknesses are glaring in psychology, he claims, where the goal is knowledge of persons.29

Unfortunately, these challenges have not been assimilated by the field. There is at present a humanistic counter-culture within academic psychology that parallel's Roszak's youth culture. Maslow refers to this as the "Eupsychian network,"30 and Roszak picks it up in his significantly titled anthology: Sources: An Anthology of Contemporary Materials Useful for Preserving Personal Sanity While Braving the Great Technological Wilderness.31

The self-consciousness of psychology may seem overly indulgent, but such pleas for internal change express necessary correctives to the direction psychology has taken in its historic development. While denying any traces of human subjectivity in its data, psychology has affirmed a mechanomorphie view of man. Coupled with a scientific dogmatism concerning what is admissible as the proper study of man, this mecbanomorphie anthropology has been instilled in repeated generations of students who implicitly carry a reflex model of their own behavior. The resultant dehumanized man does not choose, he responds; he does not create, he makes stimulus discriminations.

That this assessment is not a straw man caricature is evidenced by the 1971 publication of B. F. Skinner's Beyond Freedom and Dignity.32 In this work, Skinner suggests society be conditioned and controlled according to the behavior-shaping principles developed in his Harvard University laboratory experiments with pigeons and rats. Skinner's hook is a popular, though contrtsversal success. His influence as a scientist is immense.33

To this development Arthur Koestler brings his pungent attack against "ratomorphie psychology." Koestler argues:

It is impossible to arrive at a diagnosis of man's predicament-and by implication at a therapy-by starting from a psychology which denies the existence of mind, and lives on specious analogies derived from barpressing activities of rats. The record of fifty years of ratomorphic psychology is comparable in its sterile pedantry to that of scholasticism its its period of decline, when it had fallen to counting angels on pinheadsalthough this sounds a more attractive pastime than counting the number of bar-pressings in the box.34

The age of psychology as a science is just less than twice Knestler's fifty-year celebration of Behaviorism. When Wilhelm Wundt carried out his systematic psychophysical investigations in Leipzig in 1879, it marked the beginning of the end for psychology as a branch of philosophy.

The empirical methods of physics, impressively successful in expanding the fields of astronomy, chemistry, geology, and biology, captured the fancy of psychologists. It was left to John B. Watson in the early 1900s to sweep mind from the psychologists' workbench to make room for behavior. But long before Watson, the metaphysical carpenter Descartes framed the jig for a naturalistic and mechanistic psychology. Wundt and Watson were merely carrying out the extension of Descartes' classifications.

Descartes provided philosophy a dualism for conceiving man. The philosophical world and the general populace inherited from Descartes the distinct anthropologic categories of mind and body. Only the body has a material extension; the mind and spirit, Descartes' res cogitas, were exempted from the laws of mechanics and motion. The philosopher was conceiving man to accord with the laws being promulgated by the new science.35

With mind and body so separated, and with the body so easily accessible to measurement, it became an easy exercise for nineteenth century philosopherpsychologists to neglect the mind in their pursuit of scientific rigor. The precursors of Wundt's laboratory launching of the new discipline are all physiologists and physicists, basing their investigations on the Philosophy of materialistic rationalism and empiricism that  triumphed in the eighteenth century.36 The body was an object for study than the mind. American Society. 

(To be concluded)


1Lyrics copyrighted 1972 by Dick James Music Co. From a recording produced by MCA Records, Inc., Universal City, Calif.
2Howard Thompson. New York Times, Dec. 19, 1969, 65:1. Review of "Marooned," (1969) Columbia Pictures. Thompson notes: "There is not a note of music in the picture, only an electronic hum or beep-beep . . . The dialogue is as blunt and honest as the acoustics.
3Theodore Roszak. The Making of a Counter Culture. New York: Doubleday, 1969. See especially Chapter seven.
4Hubert Bonner. On Being Mindful of Man. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1965.
5William Braden. The Age of Aquarius: Technology and the Cultural Revolution. Chicago: Quadrangle, 1970.
6Henry Lucas. A Short History of Civilization. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1953, p. 470.
7Alfred North Whitchcad. Science and the Modern World. New York: Macmillan, 1925, p. 10,
8Lucas, op. cit., p. 601
9Ibid., p. 603.
10Whitehead, op. cit.
11PauI Tillich. The Courage To Be. New Haven, Coon.: Yale University Press, 1952, pp. 126.138.
12C P. Snow, Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution. New York: Cambridge, 1959.
13Joseph B. Royce. The Encapsulated Man. Princeton, NJ: Van Nostrand, 1964.
l4Ibid., p. 12f.
15Ibid., p. 19, italics his.
16Ibid., p. 183f.
l7Ibid., p. 158.
19Ibid., p. 159.
21Ibid., p. 158.
22Thc technological corollary to this epistemic filtration is the growing demand for "instant replay," epitomized with televised athletic events. Indeed, television, with so-called "live tapings," represents the most extensive technological filter of human experience. This is not, however, the place for a critique of television.
Roszak, op. cit., p. 215.
24 Kenneth Kennison, Alienated Youth in American Society, New York; Hartcroft, Brace, Janovich, 1965. See especially Part one.
250. Hobart Mowrer. The Crisis in Psychiatry and Religion. Princeton, N.J.: Van Nostrand, 1961, p. 2.
26Bonncr, op. cit., Like Mowrer, Bonner does not represent a fringe element within the field of psychology, but was a known and respected member of the psychological fraternity. This could also he said of Abraham Maslow, mentioned below, who was leading the critics prior to his death.
27Rollo May. Psychology and the Human Dilemma. Princeton, N.J.: Van Nostrand, 1967, p. 4.
28Amcdeo Ciorgi. Psychology as a Human Science. New York: Harper and Row, 1970, p. 3.
29Abraham Maslow. The Psychology of Science: A Reconaissance. Chicago: Henry Rcgocry Ca., 1966, p. 1.
30Ahraham Maslosv. Toward A Psychology of Being (Rev. Ed.).
Princeton, N.J.: Van Nostrand, 1968. Eupsychian is Mat-low's word for the "good society," first proposed in 1961. It implies a movement toward psychological health as defined by humanistic ideals.
31New York: Harper and Row, 1972.
32New York: Alfred Koopf, 1971.
33Skioner, besides being the innovator of the teaching machine and the programmed textbook, both now in wide use, is the theoretician behind educational shaping techniques. The extent of his influence is traced in Kenneth Coodall, "Shapers at Work," Psychology Today, Nov. 1972, 6, (6), pp. 53.63ff.
34Arthor Koestler. The Ghost in the Machine. New York: Macmillan, 1967, p. 18. A similar assessment, equally critical, but less caustic and set a a humorous tone, is found in chapter five of Anthony Standen's Science is is Sacred Cow, published in 1950 (N.Y.: Dotton). See also Martin Malachi, "The scientist as shaman," Harper's, March, 1972, 244, (1462), 54-61, for a critique of Skinner, geneticist Jacques Monad, and ethologist Koorad Lorenz as scientians-practicioners of scientism.
35John B. Harrison and Richard E. Snllivan. A Short History of Western Civilization (3rd ed.), New York: Alfred Knopf, 1971, p. 618.
36GIbid., p. 614. Edwin Boring, the most influential historian of psychology, traces this background in his History of Experimental Psychology (2nd ed.). New York: AppletonCentoryCrofts, 1950.