Science in Christian Perspective



The Impact of Psychology's Philosophy of
Continual Change on Evangelical Christianity

Department of Psychology
Virginia Commonwealth University
Richmond, Virginia 23284

From: JASA 36 (March 1984): 3-8

Hegel proposed that the content of truth was always changing. Only the dialectic process of change was permanent. This philosophy has been adopted, often uncritically, by scientists-including psychologists. Psychologists emphasize "processes" in their research, practice and public communication. Because psychologists use "objective" methods-even though their methods are directly influenced by Hegelian philosophy-and because they address subjects of great concern, psychologists risk undermining the Christian faith by assuming that nothing is unchanging except processes of change. I suggest that scientists who are Christians take the lead in restoring a balanced scientific methodology that supports eternal truths of Scripture.

Modern psychology has become a study of the processes of change in living animals including humans. The lexicon of psychology is replete with explicated "processes" and with concern over "development," yet thirty-five years ago these words were rarely used. This current state represents large scale acceptance of a philosophy that could have detrimental consequences for evangelical Christianity.

This paper examines the historical development of this emphasis on change, especially within psychotherapy. Some of the dangers of this emphasis are explored, and Christians who are scientists are urged to exert leadership in restoring a balanced view of human existence.

Historical Conflict

Leahey (1980), in an authoritative history of psychology, identified an important intellectual polarity in the history of western thought. He called this the tension between being and becoming. Proponents of a philosophy of being argue that essential truths and values exist changelessly apart from the changing nature of the physical world. Proponents of becoming, on the other hand, argue that only the principle of change itself is immutable. Things never are; they always are becoming. Leahey traces the roots of these positions to two great spokesmen of the pre-Socratic period-Parmenides of Elea (11. 475 B.C.) and Heraclitus of Ephesus (11. 500 B.C.).

Parmenides, the champion of being, believed that Truth was eternal and unchanging. Stability was reality. The appearance of change, he believed, was an illusion based on our faulty senses. Because the senses were suspect, Truth has to be apprehended through reason and logical argument. Parmenides, thus, founded rationalism. Heraclitus, to the contrary, suggested that ever-changing fire made up the elementary nature of the universe. Stability was thus an illusion. A river looks the same today as yesterday, but in fact the river is continually composed of different water molecules. Heraclitus proclaimed that no person ever steps into the same river twice. This conflict between being and becoming is at the center of western thought, and the ebb and flow of emphasis on one pole or the other has molded science into what it is today.

The main assumption of science today is that the universe is constantly changing and relativistic.

Plato (427-347 B.C.) agreed with portions of Parmenides' arguments and with portions of Heraclitus' arguments (Durant, 1953). He agreed that within the physical universe objects continually changed; thus, he argued, objects are not to be the object of knowledge. Rather, unchanging Forms (or Ideals) must be the Truth. For example, a cat grows older daily. It might become sick, diseased, or it might lose its leg, yet it remains a cat. Its "catness" must therefore transcend individual physical cats and depend on some transcendent Form of the cat. With Plato came an emphasis on being--on unchangeable Forms.

Aristotle (384-322 B.C.), Plato's student, did not distinguish between the physical universe and the realm of Forms as widely as Plato. For Aristotle, universals existed to be discovered. Although he believed that universals needed to be apprehended through the mind, he did not believe that they were created through the mind. Aristotle linked universals with particulars by creating intermediate steps-classes or species. He identified four types of causality and made possible a natural science (of sorts) by emphasizing the physical universe, physical causes, and a science of being that allowed people to investigate what existed.

The influence of Plato and Aristotle carried that day for a science of being. If Truth existed and was unchanging, then people could investigate and understand Truth. (Of course, opponents of a philosophy of being always existed, though they had little impact given its widespread acceptance.) In Europe the philosophy of being was solidified by the influx of the Israelites after the dispersion of 70 A.D. and by the spread of Christianity into Europe. Both Judaism and Christianity assumed a philosophy of stability and eternality to be at the core of existence. Thus, by the beginning of the sixteenth century, a rational-deductive science of being, which trusted mainly in logic and deduction from presuppositions rather than in observation, had been forged.

Still lacking was a formal, empirically-based framework on which the flesh of science could be draped, thereby building a materialistic philosophy of being. In 1687, Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727) published Principia Mathematica. Newton's laws of motion legitimized the philosophy of being because they proposed that the physical universe was in essence unchanging-bodies at rest tended to stay at rest and bodies in motion tended to remain in constant motion. As philosophies of being had always assumed, deviation from (normal) stability required the intervention of an external agent (force, in Newton's system). Forces introduced instability. They needed explaining. Constancy of motion was assumed normal and consequently did not need explaining. Newton's laws, of course, formalized a philosophy of being and legitimized it as a materialistic explanation for the nature of the world.

Almost immediately, however, anomalies (findings inconsistent with Newton's theories) were discovered. These were ushered in on the arm of the "methodological revolution" (Rossi, 1975, p. 249). Inventions of the microscope and telescope, experiments on the vacuum, and the discovery of the circulation of blood suggested a science in which motion and change were normative and bodies at rest needed explanation. Yet, for years Newton's ideas continued to nurture growth of physical knowledge.

This changed in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries with the articulation of a philosophy of becoming by Kant (1724-1804) and Hegel (1770-1831). Kant asserted what Koch (1981) calls four "antinomies of pure reason" (p. 262)-that human existence is concerned with questions that are meaningful but rationally undecidable in principle. This undermined rationalism, though it was not until years later that the structure collapsed. Hegel replaced the idea of absolute truth with the concept of the dialectic.

Because the idea of change and development was so central to this thought, Hegel was forced to conclude that the traditional, formal and (as he called it in derogation) static logic of Aristotle was hopelessly inadequate, and that it had to be replaced by what he called a dialectical logic more adequate to deal with the Absolute. Aristotle had said that a thing must either have an attribute or its opposite at a given time but Hegel disagreed, usually calling attention to intermediate or twilight zones when, he said, a thing appears to possess neither. (White, 1955, p. 41)

Hegel's philosophy did not do away with all absolutes (as Schaeffer, 1968, has argued); rather, it proposed that content was ephemeral and always "becoming" while the process of change was universal or absolute. The process always involved the dialectic-thesis-antithesis-synthesis. Hegel thus delivered an apparently mortal wound to Plato (though it takes time to die). The philosophy of becoming slipped like a razor-sharp stiletto between the ribs of science.

In political science, Karl Marx (1818-1883) applied Hegel's dialectical reasoning process to a materialistic conception of nature. This dialectical materialism was the first truly acceptable application of "becoming" philosophy to a naturalistic science. Then, "becoming" entered biology. Although theories of evolution had been extant for years (Lamarck, 1744 1829), evolutionary theory was only widely accepted  after Hegel and Marx. In 1859, Darwin (1809-1882) published Origin of Species. Strangely, he had written down his ideas in 1842 but did not publish them for 17 years because the ideas were philosophically repugnant to him (Leahey, 1980).

By the 1900's even physics was reconceptualized by Einstein (1879-1955) and others (see Barnett, 1948 for a review of the remaking of physics). The nature of the universe was seen as relativistic and ever-changing. By 1927, with the influence of Heisenberg, the universe was conceptualized as probabilistic at base.

In general, the main assumption of science today is that the universe is constantly changing and relativistic. Scientific laws are concerned either with probability or with describing the process of an assumed change. For example, in a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Roark (1981) summarized the major questions in biology as "How fast do plants and animals evolve? By what means do they change? Through what processes do new species emerge?" (p. 3). No longer are assumptions of change debated. The basic questions involve describing the nature of the assumed change process.

The most widely accepted philosophy of science (Kuhn, 1970, 1977) reflects the view of science as ever-changing. Kuhn (1970) presents science as a collective cognitive map, or paradigm, of the phenomenal world. This paradigm is subject to periodic extensive reorganizations-collective perceptual shifts-called scientific revolutions. When a scientific revolution is imminent, proponents of the extant paradigm are unable to solve significant problems (anomalies) within the paradigm, which because of focused attention on the paradigm's failure, induces a crisis. Proponents of different paradigms propose solutions. When scientists must choose between a new paradigm, which is supported by little research but which solves the anomalies, and the established paradigm, which is in crisis, then what Kuhn (1977) calls the "essential tension" occurs.

Kuhn has been criticized by other philosophers of science, notably Lakatos (1970), as proposing an irrational view of science in which "progress" is meaningless except from within a paradigm. Lakatos argues that scientific revolutions are not progress, but merely set science on new pathways. Toulmin (1972) has proposed a more rational philosophy of science based on evolution rather than revolution. Concepts are thought to survive or perish through natural selection. Concepts that make sense survive; those that don't make sense, perish. Both Kuhn's and Toulmin's philosophies embody the assumption of continual change.

The Evolution of Experimental Psychology

Within this philosophical climate, experimental psychology was born. Contrary to the emerging emphasis on change, at its inception psychology investigated content rather than change processes. Wundt investigated the content of consciousness; Freud, the content of the unconscious mind. Within the United States, however, a school of psychology arose from James' (1842-1910), and Dewey's (1859-1952)

philosophizing. To these pragmatists, truth was a process of adaptation. James and Dewey lauded the "stream of consciousness, 11 or the "functions" of consciousness. Their psychology was called functionalism. They abandoned the study of the content of consciousness to study the process by which consciousness operates. That influence is still prevalent in the United States today. For example, Zick Rubin (1981) described the state of modern psychology as follows:

The rallying cry of the 1970's has been people's virtually limitless capacity for change-not only in childhood but through the span of life.... The view that personality keeps changing throughout life has picked up so many adherents recently that it has practically become the new dogma. (p. 18)

The study of morals and values provides an example of modern experimental (social) psychology. In contrast to a traditional Christian approach to morals, which emphasizes the content of God's laws and the demands those moral laws make on humans, psychologists have researched the process of moral development, irrespective of the content of morals. Two of the leading researchers in this area are Lawrence Kohlberg (1973) and William Perry (1970). Kohlberg has identified six stages of moral development. The notion of developmental states presupposes that reasoning processes change. Likewise, Perry has identified nine stages of iritellectual and ethical development during the college years. Both of these scientists use longitudinal research to support their theories. Such research looks for, and finds, changes with time. Thus, their methods emphasize change. In a sense this creates the conception among consumers of research that change is the essence of human existence. Not all researchers on values employ methods that focus attention on value change. Milton Rokeach (1968) assesses the value structures of individuals. He has people rank order values in each of two lists-terminal values (desired end states) and instrumental values (desired ways of behaving). Rokeach, through this methodology, treats the content of value structures as important in predicting human behavior. Yet, among researchers in values, Rokeach is in the minority. The majority of researchers investigate the process of value clarification, the process of value development, or the process of influencing people to change values.

Modern Counseling and Clinical Psychology

Counseling and clinical psychology were spawned by Freud and are only recently (in their Oedipal stage) seeking to "kill" the father. Freud was largely a pre-Hegelian thinker. He investigated universals-universal structures of the mind and universal developmental stages. Prior to World War II the dominant theories of psychotherapy focused on stability of personality and on universal truths about human nature. Clinical psychology was formed and nurtured through personality and intelligence assessment, which assumed that individuals maintained stable traits. Counseling psychology also was originated through assessing traits and factors in vocational counseling. There were advocates of becoming, to be sure (e.g., behaviorism), but counseling and clinical psychology were largely based on assumptions of being rather than becoming.

In the early 1950's, Carl Rogers (1951) proposed client centered therapy. He not only propounded a counseling theory that focused on the process of counseling, but he also introduced a philosophy of continual growth and change and "becoming." Rogers' 1951 model of personality remained largely content-oriented, paralleling Piaget's cognitive theory by using constructs like the real self (experience) and the ideal self (a cognitive map of one's experience). He also borrowed heavily from Freud, by using such concepts as introjection of values and psychic defenses (denial and distortion), and by emphasizing the emotions. By 1957, Rogers had deemphasized these remnants from the age of being. He had begun to concentrate on the "necessary and sufficient conditions of change in psychotherapy," and thus on the process of counseling.

Each of these, [the modern theories of counseling and clinical psychology shows enormous concern for processes and little concern for content.

At about the same time, Harry Stack Sullivan (1954) proposed an interpersonal approach to psychodynamic counseling. He attended to the interpersonal process of counseling and deemphasized the content of the patient's problem. Sullivan was a harbinger of modern interpersonal process theories of counseling, including more recent theorizing by Kiesler (1979). In general, these theories view the content of conversations during therapy as merely the veneer over an interpersonal fencing match between therapist and client. The thrust, parry, and riposte of interpersonal influence is termed the "process" of counseling.

With Rogers and Sullivan, therapies of being were swept relentlessly aside and replaced by a hoard of therapies of becoming. Notable among these were the existentialists (May, 1958), gestalt therapy (Perls, 1969), and behavior therapy (Bandura, 1969). The theories of Rogers and Sullivan introduced "counseling process" into the vocabularies of clinicians though few consider the philosophical underpinnings of attending primarily to "counseling process."

In recent years, theories of psychotherapy have touted therapy processes. The degree to which theorists attend to content of thoughts and to "universals" varies from somewhat to not-at-all. For example, three major approaches to psychotherapy currently dominate the field-cognitive-behavior modification, psychodynamic therapy, and family therapy. Each of these shows enormous concern for processes and little concern for content.

First, let us consider cognitive-behavior modification. One might expect that cognitive therapies would examine contents of consciousness. This is rarely the case. Albert Ellis (1962) proposed rational-emotive therapy (RET). At the core of RET is uncovering people's "universal" irrational ideas. Ellis views these "universal" ideals as culture-specific but, nonetheless, he shows some concern with content of cognitions. Ellis certainly does not espouse a modern psychology of being, however, for A New Guide to Rational Living (Ellis & Harper, 1975) is written in a language called E-prime. The primary characteristic of E-prime is that it uses no form of the verb to be. Ellis is not concerned with being, but with action (e.g., with becoming). Attention to the possibility of universal thoughts contrasts with other cognitive theorists. Aaron Beck (1975) also modifies clients' dysfunctional automatic thinking and faulty cognitive processes, regardless of their content. Donald Meichenbaum (1977) modifies self-instructions and faulty cognitive processes. Behavior therapy in the form of its founders (Eysenck, 1959; Wolpe, 1958) has all but been abandoned.

Freudian psychodynamic therapies have also become process-oriented. Currently, there are two major thrusts of psychodynamic psychology. Some therapists analyze ego processes and ego development. Others analyze interpersonal processes. Having begun with Sullivan (1954), this approach advocates an almost content free analysis of what happens between therapist and client in the counseling session.

Individual psychotherapy is rapidly declining in popularity-tbough it will probably never die-and more therapists are becoming attracted to family systems approaches (Bowen, 1978; Haley, 1976; Minuchin, 1974). Generally, family approaches are process-oriented rather than contentoriented. They do not assume linear causality. They are epitomes of relativistic theories, and thus they embrace the zeitgeist of secular psychology in the 1980's.

Consequences of Philosophies of Becoming and Being in Light of Scripture

Thus far we have traced the historical roots of a philosophy of becoming and suggested its prevalence in modern experimental as well as counseling and clinical psychology. This paper is based on the assumption that science in general and psychology in particular are among the primary molds through which modern thought is shaped. Psychologists, whether they are theorists, researchers or both, influence many people. 

Psychologists influence researchers and theorists in training. Most psychology-trainees enter graduate school with little knowledge of the theories of psychology (though all have "implicit" theories). Throughout graduate school, trainees are exposed to (usually) an eclectic sampling of psychological approaches. The implicit norm is that students will learn what is taught; thus, a social pressure is applied for students to adopt or adapt the current secular theories of psychology. This is done through training students practically in research methods and/or in methods of counseling. Values inherent in research or counseling methods are often not specifically addressed because they are assumed. Psychologists-in-training are inculturated. Values are caught more than taught, and because of the small prior information base of most students, their graduate school experiences are very influential. It is not uncommon for a Christian to enter graduate training and adopt methods that are philosophically inconsistent with Christianity. The values of secular psychology may, consequently, be transmitted unwittingly by the trainee (and even by the professor, too).

Psychological researchers and theoreticians only occasionally influence other practicing therapists and researchers' According to Kuhn (1970), established scientists are less susceptible to influence than are trainees. Perhaps they rarely read current research or books. Or perhaps they have a psychological commitment or resource commitment to an established treatment or research program. Or perhaps their information base is large enough to require a great "shock" to dislodge established beliefs. For whatever reason, established scientists or practitioners are not very susceptible to influence. Yet, through repeated exposure to philosophic assumptions or through personal crises, which open individuals' eyes to previously unconsidered beliefs, some established psychologists are influenced.

The philosophy of scientists determines scientific methods, which influence scientific findings, which confirm the philosophy.

Psychologists greatly influence the lay public. Consumers of psychotherapy are often affected. In successful counseling, clients often change their values to be more similar to the values of their counselors (King, 1978; Welkowitz, Cohen, & Ortmeyer, 1967). A philosophy implicit in counseling is sometimes embraced by clients without their awareness of the influence.

Consumers of psychological information are strongly affected by the assumptions inherent in the science. As C. S. Lewis (1970) wrote,

Our faith is not very likely to be shaken by any book on Hinduism. But if whenever we read an elementary book on Biology, Botany, Politics, or Astronomy, we found that its implications were Hindu, that would shake us. It is not the books written in direct defense of Materialism that make the modern man a materialist; it is the materialistic assumption in all other books. (p. 93)

In the same way it is implicit assumptions inherent in the methodology of science that are later adopted by the lay public. Furthermore, psychology is assumed to be even more influential than institutionalized Christianity at transmitting values and beliefs to the public, for almost everyone is exposed to psychology through schools and through the media, whereas only a minority is exposed to institutional Christianity.

For the evangelical Christian, this means that science should promote values consistent with Scripture. Polanyi (1946) has argued forcefully that science is by nature valueladen. Recently this idea has been cogently applied to psychology by Sigmund Koch (1981) in the American Psy chologist, psychology's most prestigious journal. He criticizes psychology, and science in general, for being slavishly wed to thought that "regards knowledge as the result of 'processing' rather than discovery" (Koch, 1981, p. 259). Koch clearly explicated the certain link between the methods of psychology and the assumptions of philosophy.

Psychology is necessarily the most philosophy-sensitive discipline in the entire gamut of disciplines that claim empirical status. We can not discriminate a so-called variable, pose a research question, choose or invent a method, project a theory, stipulate a psychotechnology, without making strong presumptions of philosophical cast about the value of our human subject matter-presumptions that can be ordered to age-old contexts of philosophical discussion. (p. 267).

Given that Christians who are scientists want to behave consistently with Scripture, what does Scripture teach in this area? God is unchanging (Mal. 3:6). Jesus is unchanging (Heb 13:8), God's attitudes are unchanging (Ps. 118:2) his promises are unchanging (Gen 17:7), his kingdom is unchanging (Ps. 145:13), his way is everlasting (Ps. 139:24), and in our

Everett L. Worthington, Jr. is an Associate Professor of Psychology and Director of the MidLife Counseling Service at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. He obtained a B.S. and an M.S. degree in Nuclear Engineering at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville and M.I. T., respectively. After four years as a Naval Officer, he entered graduate school, receiving an M.A. and a Ph.D. degree in Psychology (Counseling) at the University of Missouri-Columbia in 1978. He has published research on the cognitive-behavioral control of pain, supervision Of counseling, and Christian counseling. He currently has an active research program in the effects of life transitions on marriage relationships and how to help couples cope with those changes.

lifetimes the law is eternal (Matt 5:18). There is clear evidence from Scripture that God is an Absolute Being, with unchangeable attributes. Acts by humans that are contrary to those attributes were, are, and always will be wrong. There is a strong case for assuming a permanence of divine and human attributes. On the other hand, there is a small amount of evidence of dialectical logic within Scripture, and there are some universal processes of human existence identified within Scripture (e.g., sanctification is a universal process by which Christians learn to rely more closely on God). It appears that stability, eternality, and "being" are extremely important to the traditional Christian world-view.

Furthermore, God saw fit to create and canonize the Bible within the Judaic culture, which clearly reflected a philosophy of being rather than of becoming. Since philosophies of becoming existed at least as early as 500 B.C. (Heraclitus of Ephesus), one would assume that God could have established Judaism and Christianity as embodying a philosophy of becoming if He had so desired. Yet, God called His people apart from the standards and philosophies which were " popular" or "accepted" within larger culture.

Thus, within psychology, a self-strengthening loop has been established. Most psychologists have adopted a philosophy that deemphasized the content of thoughts and behaviors and emphasized psychological processes. The philosophy of scientists determines scientific methods, which influence scientific findings, which confirm the philosophy. This "evidence" contributes to cultural acceptance of the philosophy, because scientists have objectively discovered the nature of .. reality."

Therefore, although Scripture does not directly prescribe what the nature of scientific research is to be, we conclude. that a Scripture-consistent position for psychologists to take would include general adherence to a philosophy of being. This suggests that psychologists concern themselves with universals-both universal contents of thoughts, motives, emotions, and behaviors and universal processes of interaction and development. Because of the prevailing emphasis on processes and on change, taking a position that affirms examining content in addition to processes can seem foolish. In the face of modern "reality" of empirical science that .. proves" (by presuming) the all pervasive nature of change, it takes either foolishness or courage (depending on one , s assumptions) to adopt a contrary position, especially with the possibility of rejection by peers-not to mention rejection by promotion and tenure committees. Unless Christian psychologists develop powerful new methods to assess content, we risk being seen as intellectually stagnant, as remnants of an epoch past.  

Clearly, I believe that psychologists overemphasize assumptions of continual change in their research and practice and that this overemphasis undermines the foundation of the Christian faith by assuming that nothing is unchanging except the principle of eternal change. As scientists we need to be aware of the effect that our research and practice have on beliefs in our culture. We need to question our scientific assumptions and examine our consciences concerning whether we believe the current emphasis on change reflects the heavenly and earthly reality. I believe that as Christians who are scientists, we must attempt to refocus the attention of the scientific community through developing new methods that will lead to new findings and theories that will in turn restore a balanced view of nature. These new methods must be consistent with a philosophy of science that is checked against Christian standards (the Scripture, the witness of the Holy Spirit, and the wisdom of the ages).


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