Science in Christian Perspective




Christian- Thinking on Philosophical Foundations for the Science of Psychology
Charlotte M. Rosenak
The Christian Counseling Center of Lawrence- Inc
Lawrence. Kansas 66044

From: JASA 36 (March 1984): 39-42.

Establishing a "Christian psychology" or practicing psychology "Christianly" has been previously posited by this author (Rosenak, 1983) to be dependent upon the issue of science in general as a Christian or a non-Christian activity. The "integration" question for Christianity and psychology, or for theology and psychology, is really a more basic philosophy of science question. Since the whole enterprise of psychology still struggles to maintain a position within science, it is not at all surprising that Christian psychologists also find the issues perplexing. Is psychology a science? Can a psychologist obtain objectivity to any degree when the object and the subject are one and the same (self-reflexivity problem)? If to study only behavior is insufficient, can psychology study consciousness and other abstract human constructs and still be scientific? What makes psychology scientific or not scientific? What makes science "scientific"?

These questions have not yet been sufficiently answered to establish an adequate paradigm for the psychological enterprise. Yet there are two general ways Christians have attempted to "think Christianly" about philosophy of psychology questions. These two Christian viewpoints are mirrored in the secular world by others who are thinking about philosophy of psychology issues.

The Christian world-view provided a fertile soil for the growth of science and technology (Klaaren, 1978; Jaki, 1978). Because Western Christians are proud of this contribution of the faith, to find "objective Truth" versus succumbing to the monster of "relativism " has been valued and is judged to be a Christian activity. Generall~, Christians who are scientists in this category have believed that the more scientific psychology can be, the more "Christian" psychology will be. An objective search will allow the researcher to come closer and closer to Truth.

Unfortunately, this line of thinking can lead to making scientific truth itself a deity. A host of other seemingly non-Christian assumptions closely follow. The search for objective truths can lead to a reduction of the person. From a desire to understand the "objective" functioning of the person, only part-processes are sufficiently examined and the whole person is lost. Construing the world as structured in an absolute way must also lead to deterministic assumptions. If all parts of the man or woman can be reduced to understandable segments from an objective standpoint, then the hope remains that eventually total knowledge will be obtained. Prediction and control then seem to be within the realm of possibilities. The Christian psychologist in this realm of thought is an empiricist who considers objectivity and absolutism to be biblical concepts. Out to preserve psychology as a legitimate science and with a loyalty to absolutes in reality, these Christians understandably cling to values of naive realism and empiricism as bases from which to think Christianly about a philosophy of psychology. Scientists in this category operate from the "parallels" model for integration, based on the schema developed by Carter and Narramore (1979).

Other Christians who attempt to think Christianly about philosophy of psychology issues proceed in quite an opposite direction. Believing that total objectivity and "absolutism" are not necessarily biblical values in the realm of science, these thinkers posit that in order to qualify as "scientific," psychology in general is being defined too narrowly. Psychologists must not be content to understand only the minute parts of humans that are predictable. Psychology should study the whole person. Psychologists must not ignore issues of values, morality, and spirituality. If in an attempt to retain objectivity man's spiritual nature is eschewed, or at best rendered unavailable for study, then objectivity as an ultimate value must be reconsidered. Truth (with a capitol "T") as an ultimate value, if viewed as necessary to construe all parts of reality, must also be reconsidered.

Christians who think Christianly in the former manner are in line with those scientists today who ultimately value empirical findings, the behaviorist and neo-behaviorist schools. Christians who think Christianly in the latter manner are similar to the "third force" psychologists who have insisted that "man is more than the sum of his parts" and that the science of psychology must begin to rethink its self-imposed limitations (Schultz, 1970).

The problem for the Christian who sees the latter direction as thinking Christianly is the possible implication for Truth. Does questioning objectivity mean questioning that we can know true Truth? (Schaeffer, 1968). The thesis of this article is that a limited view of the structure of reality is not only at the root of the quandary for the Christian, but is also the major reason psychologists have experienced difficulty in their claim for psychology as essentially scientific in nature.

In the attempt to achieve scientific status, psychologists have traditionally shied away from philosophy. Paradoxically, the answer to questions such as "what makes science scientific" and, more specifically, "what makes psychology scientific" can be addressed only from the philosophical realm.

A philosophy of psychology is important in the same way that a philosophy of science is important. Polanyi (1962) and Kuhn (1970) have shown the crucial importance of philosophy of science to the progress and direction of the scientific enterprise. Ludwig von Bertalariffy (1975, p. 10) noted that we "turn to philosophy not as an escape from rigor and detail, but as a means of assessing the meaning and significance of what we have done and are trying to do." What an investigator believes is possible or impossible and how he or she views the structure of reality will help to define what he or she can discover. Psychologists should not be embarrassed about a direct dependency upon philosophy. Other sciences have a like-relationship to philosophical assumptions.

Maslow (1966, p. 5) wrote that psychology from a behavioristic philosophy is "too narrow and limited to serve as a general or comprehensive philosophy." An adequate philosophy of psychology must serve as an adequate foundation for scientific investigation and in doing so should allow for methodologies that are broad enough to investigate the entire scope of reality and humankind.

In the attempt to expand their discipline to be broad and relevant, psychologists can make a unique contribution to the discipline of philosophy of science. Physicists have made a similar contribution through their postulates concerning the nature of reality that come from an examination of the smallest "particles" of the material world. Scientists of every discipline should be challenged to look at the scope of their own discipline and its breadth.

How is a misunderstanding of the nature of reality at the root of the philosophy of psychology problem? When the whole of reality is viewed as being totally independent and absolute, a false framework for science and a deification of objectivity is created.

For the sake of communication, reality can be considered a continuum. At the left end, there is a reality totally dependent upon the knower. In between are realities which depend upon the knower and upon the known.

The first type of reality is termed dependent reality because it is totally or predominantly dependent upon the knower or the perceiver. The poet, the creative writer, and the imaginative child can create their own "realities." In this area of reality, relativity has legitimate existence. What is true for you may not be true for me. What a poem means to one reader may be absolutely different from its meaning for another reader. In psychology, psychological interpretations of a person's behavior can in varying degrees be a dependent type of reality-i.e., a reality that largely depends upon the activity of the human mind.

           Dependent <---------------> Interdependent <--------------->1ndependent

[dependent upon perceiver]                                     [independent of perceiver]

Dependent reality is often labelled as "subjective" and is often discounted as "real." This is a mistake. One's interpretation of a situation, a story, a poem, or a comment, is not less real because of its dependence on the perceiver. It is "objectively" present and valid.

At the other end of the continuum, there are realities existing that are totally independent of the knower or perceiver. Even though many philosophers agree that reality is greater than human knowledge, that such a reality exists is still a type of a "faith" statement. This assumption is made on the basis of a consensus of human reasoning. There probably are structures and objects in existence without human perception of them. Earl (1955) argues for independence of objects from a phenomenological perspective.

What are these independent realities? That reality has independent aspects is an operative type of assumption; it is necessary to carry on every day activity. "I will still have to take a test tomorrow even if I dream that it is cancelled. I will still run into a tree even if I pretend it is not there. I have bills to pay, a plane to catch." These are realities that have independence. Independent reality also includes any structure in the universe that is inherent. The perceiver can only make intelligent guesses as to what these realities are. Structures that appear to be inherent may actually be a part of the construing process. The Creator of the universe is posited as an independent reality, as are spiritual realities that exist outside of human perception.

The final "type" of reality is "interdependent." Human realities are closest to this category-part of reality being dependent upon the perceiver and another part being independent, or determined by the inherent structure of reality. A wife interprets a comment made by her husband through her own perceptive framework but her interpretation depends to an extent also upon what her spouse actually sai d. Interdependent reality exists as interplay between dependent and independent realities. This is why the three types of reality are placed on a continuum: realities, and human knowledge and perception of realities can fall at any point on this continuum. Most of reality is not at either of the extreme ends.

What are the implications of these abstract concepts for a philosophy of psychology? Is the domain of independent reality the only legitimate domain of science? The writer posits that all types of realities are not only legitimate, but also imperative domains for science. Therefore, to have a firm epistemological foundation, psychologists must be aware that all three types of realities exist in varying degrees and identify which reality is being studied. Scientists traditionally have believed that they are studying independent realities. The world is "out there" and the scientist's task is to figure out what it is and how it works. While scientists may be still striving to work in this realm, they are actually investigating interdependent reality. Physicists know that how they construe reality determines what they can discover. Faulty human perception has always been known to be somewhat problematic. How much does the scientist's expectations and desires also help to determine findings? To what extent does one's point of view define discovery? Scientists work with interdependent realities.

Psychologists have been trying needlessly and vainly to work primarily in the realm of independent reality. By nature of the subject matter, psychology more than any other science needs to be open to all three types of knowledge. The subject of psychology is the person, the perceiver, and most of the realities which psychologists must pursue will be totally dependent types of realities. Though they must be aware of realities that are dependent, other scientists may be able to work primarily within interdependent knowledge realms, with a striving toward the independent. Psychology is no less qualified as a "science" because it needs to look at all three types of reality, even if it operates primarily in the dependent reality realm.

The terms "objectivity" and "subjectivity" purposely have not been used as descriptors because they carry unfortunate evaluative baggage. Traditionally, scientists want to pursue the "objective" and value it more highly than the "subjective." If dependent knowledge is equated with subjectivity and independent knowledge is equated with objectivity, that both have validity and that both are valuable must be realized. There is no reason to disdain subjectivity. Of course, either the objective or the subjective can be inappropriate when they are out of place: to try to label dependent knowledge as independent is to set up a false God; to try to label independent knowledge as dependent is to dethrone God. God has been posited, by logic and faith, as an independent Reality.

Rather than accept that all types of realities can be valid material for the scientific enterprise, psychologists traditionally have used the tactic of refining their empirical methods in hopes of finally seeing the independent truth about humans. Although there is something to be said for honing empirical techniques to their ultimate sophistication, that psychology should exclusively pursue this direction is questionable. This assumes that only independent truth is "valid" or "objective" and therefore valuable for pursuit. Stephenson (1953) and his attempt to operationalize subjectivity recognized the realm of dependent reatity but mistakenly tried to treat it as an independent realm.

The oft-quoted psychological dictum that "the research question determines the design" is another fallacy based upon the assumption that the realities psychologists are out to discover can be independently correct, that these realities will dictate an appropriate research design. Lewin (1951, p. ix) wrote that metaphysical and epistemological assumptions "shape inevitably the nature of the descriptive concepts" the psychologist uses, "the phenomenon he observes, and the way he collects his data." There is no particular research design that is inevitably appropriate for a particular psychological question, given that different researchers operate from different assumptive systems that give them guidance as to how to find the answers to their questions. For example, Stephenson's proposed methods for investigating intelligence differ substantially from C. Berts' (Stephenson, 1981) because of their differing philosophical presuppositions.

The problem of reductionism versus wholism in science is also directly related to the scope of reality. Reductionism posits that the investigator can find independent realities, that if the object of study can be dissected in a sufficiently minute manner, surely it will be understood. The wholistic view takes other realities into consideration. The whole is equal to more than the sum of the parts because the investigator's part in the reflection is also real and because there are always relationships between the parts to be considered. Reductionism has its place, but it is only a part of science, not its entire philosophical foundation.

Based upon this model for reality, can science be qualitative as well as quantitative? An admission to a need for qualitative judgment does not disqualify a discipline as scientific. The physicist, the chemist, and the biologist use both modes of understanding because they operate primarily with interdependent realities. Anthropologists, sociologists and psychologists may need to make their sciences more qualitative than quantitative because their realities will tend to be more dependent as well as interdependent. Depending upon where the particular scientific discipline operates on the continuum of differing realities, its ratio of dependence upon the quantitative versus the qualitative means of expressing its subject matter will be different. Both must always be present because science cannot operate with the assumption that all of reality is independent.

The previous philosophical assumptions about the nature of reality broaden the possibilities for psychological research. Psychologists should have permission to go beyond mere hypothesis testing as structure for their research design. Testing a null hypothesis and desperately clinging to "statistical significance at the 0.05 level" are unnecessary attempts to preserve the view of psychology as scientific. Psychologists should have permission to let go of scientific lingo when they conduct research, write journal articles or assess client situations. Psychology's status as a science need not be endangered. 

Given the presence of dependent reality, to investigate more than overt behavior is a worthy endeavor. The realms of emotion, thinking, values, and spiritual concerns can be considered scientific territory for the psychologist. Behavioristic psychology must be viewed as only a part of the larger scientific enterprise of psychology.

Psychologists need not shy away from making qualitative assumptions in research. (This "unassumingly" occurs regardless of whether researchers realize or admit to their qualitative judging ) Quantitative data should not be used as evidence for psychology's scientific nature; rather, it should be used when appropriate based on a qualitative judgment. This means that psychological research may rely less on statistically significant quantitative declarations, and more upon qualitatively-oriented types of research.

While a denial of God as an independent reality has occurred, the avoidance of dependent reality has been a predominant factor in steering psychology as a whole away from topics involving morality and religion. Claim to "value-free" psychotherapy which has predominated clinical practice exemplifies this avoidance. Psychologists should have permission to investigate religious/ spiritual aspects of humans without apology. Bergin (1980, p. 103) noted that "religion is at the fringe of clinical psychology when it should be at the center." He gives supportive evidence for a trend beginning within psychology to deal more with religious and value issues. It is hoped that this trend will be allowed to become a part of the mainstream of psychological work without psychologists feeling that they are no longer being "scientific."

In summary, the more philosophers of science work toward an understanding of all parts of reality that need to be investigated, the more psychology will have permission to branch out in creative ways and still be considered a legitimate scientific enterprise.

As initially posited, the above analysis of the scope of reality also speaks to the Christian psychologist who fears the loss of the absolute and relativistic framework from which psychology seemingly must operate if and when it expands its boundaries. The absolute is not lost; rather, it is at the opposite end of the continuum from which the psychologist must spend the majority of his/her time in operation. To think Christianly, Christians in psychology must support a world view that realizes the importance of the whole spectrum of reality.

Christians often disagree with one another as to the "correct" solution to a moral dilemma. That there is more than one solution to a problem, that there is more than one interpretation of a clinical situation, or even of a scriptural passage, is not a blasphemous position. Ultimate Truth, by faith, is viewed as existing on the right side of the continuum. A new and expanded psychology is only a reflection of the complexity of realities that God has given us permission to recreate and that He Himself has created.


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