Science in Christian Perspective



Instrumentalism in Psychology: 
Some Implications

Trinity Western University 
Langley, B.C.

From: PSCF 39 (December 1987): 198-202.

Instrumentalism, as discussed by Byl (Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation, March 1985), is addressed in relationship to psychology. It is suggested that acceptance of the Instrumentalist approach gives greater freedom in theorizing, as well as justification for a far-ranging eclecticism in the realm of counseling technique. Some possible problems are identified, both for Instrumentalism and for unexamined eclecticism in psychology.

Christians working in the contemporary field of psychology have adopted a wide variety of solutions to the problem of integrating psychology and Christianity. At a theoretical level there have been many helpful proposals for different perspectives on, approaches to, and levels of integration (e.g., Carter and Narramore, 1979; Evans, 1977; Farnsworth, 1985; Kotesky, 1980; Philipchalk, 1987). Each of these, in one way or another, attempts to provide guidelines for the task of bringing together Divine revelation in Scripture and scientific observations of human thought and behavior.

At the level of basic psychological research and theorizing, there appears to be little difference in the approaches of Christians and non-Christians. Although some have questioned the basic assumptions involved (e.g., Van Leeuwen, 1982), most Christians operating on the basis of "all truth is God's truth" conduct their research and construct their theories in pretty much the same way as their secular counterparts.

At the practical level of counseling, most Christians are eclectic in their approach to counseling theories. They accept what they feel they can from secular approaches, sometimes after a process of careful evaluation of assumptions and implications, and sometimes with more of an eye towards the success rate of the particular approach and its techniques.

The present paper suggests some important considerations for Christians involved in research and theorizing in psychology, and in doing so presents a possible justification for an expanded form of eclecticism in counseling psychology.

An Old "New Approach"

Science, psychology's model since its inception, has been undergoing an upheaval in recent years, to the extent that Kuhn (1970) has called the present period one of "extraordinary science." Van Leeuwen (1982) has furthermore suggested that psychology need not follow science any longer, but search out a new paradigm for its own purposes. One approach which may be beneficial is really an old one which has fallen into disuse-the concept of Instrumentalism.

Instrumentalism is a concept which has resurfaced from time to time since the days of Plato (427-347 B.C.). It is a view of scientific enquiry which is based upon a clear distinction between data and theory. The data are the factual bases upon which all observers agree. Theories, on the other hand, are attempts to explain, extend, and integrate various sets of data. Whereas "realists" assume that theory is in some sense, however tentative, a description of what actually exists, "Instrumentalists" make no such assumption. For Instrumentalists, a theory is nothing more than a "useful fiction." Its propositions should be internally consistent and empirically verifiable, leading to increasing accuracy in prediction; but no matter how accurate, its status as theory is preserved and it is never taken to be a description of reality.

For centuries, this approach has protected favorite views of reality from the attack of opposing scientific theory. It allowed Aristotelians to preserve their more aesthetically pleasing view of celestial motions, while at the same time rnaking use of the opposing Ptolemic theories to actually predict these motions. It permitted religious astronomers at the time of Copernicus to make use of his theories without disturbing their geocentric view of the cosmos. Todav, Instrumentalism enables physicists to use wave-theory to predict the behavior of light in one situation, and particle-theory to predict its behavior in another. In each case, a view of reality (aesthetic, religious, Newtonian, unknowable, et cetera) is maintained, while a theory (which if accorded the status of actual description would destroy the original view) is employed in a purely utilitarian way1.

The Christian mathematician and astronomer John Byl has presented a clear argument for the application of Instrumentalism by contemporary Christian scientists. Not only does Instrumentalism have obvious practical rewards in enabling Christians to make use of secular theory, but it rests upon a basic unwillingness to endorse the trustworthiness of human speculation insofar as that speculation makes a claim to understand what "really is." This is not all bad. As Professor Byl says: "If modern man has now finally come to the realization that the human intellect has severe limitations in its ability to attain objective truth, then this should be a cause for rejoicing rather than concern" (p. 17).

Instrumentalism in Psychology

But what of Instrumentalism in psychology? Let's consider the role of Instrumentalism in psychology generally, and then look at some specifically Christian concerns.

First, Instrumentalism is already used in a variety of areas, although often without being recognized.

1.) Contemporary experimental psychologists are often described as "methodological behaviorists" (as opposed to "radical behaviorists") because they operate, at least in the laboratory, as if the strict behaviorist assumption of complete determinism were true, even though they may not believe it is in every situation (especially in their personal lives).

2.) The fields of computer modeling and artificial intelligence attempt to simulate human thought with computers (a useful theoretical endeavor), although no one really believes that human thought is based on a simple binary code.

3.) Phenomenology, wherever it is found, recognizes that the individual often acts as if certain things were true, whether or not they are (e.g., Freud's controversial shift in emphasis from real to imagined childhood seduction is a phenomenological instrumentalist step).

Ronald Philipchalk is Associate Professor and Chair of the Department Of Psychology at Trinity Western University, Langley, British Columbia. He received his B.A. at the University of Victoria, his M.A. at the University Of British Columbia, and his Ph.D. at the University of Western Ontario. He is the author of Psychology and Christianity: An Introduction to Controversial Issues (a companion text for Introductory Psychology, published by University Press Of America).

In each of these situations, a useful theoretical framework is developed without necessarily accepting any part of it as a strictly literal description of reality.

For Instrumentalists, a theory is nothing more than a "useful fiction.

However, while the idea of theory as "useful fiction" may be readily accepted, its tentative nature is all too often forgotten and the fiction assumes the status of reality. This is especially likely as a theory is refined to yield better and better predictions. In many areas of psychology, the consequences of this leap in logic may be relatively harmless; they may even be beneficent. For example, the assumption that the "three-stage" model of memory has a basis in reality may lead to the discovery of important neurophysiological structures underlying the various functionally distinct "stages. " In this way, a theory may provide helpful clues in the search for physiological bases for theoretical constructs. However, in the confusion of theory with reality there is always a danger of either assuming the physical existence of something because it parallels a useful theoretical concept (e.g., searching endlessly for a point of interaction between mind and body-pineal gland? left hemisphere? frontal lobes? reticular activating system?), or doubting the validity of a useful concept, such as mind, because its physical existence cannot be demonstrated.

Instrumentalism may provide justification for some of the unexamined eclecticism which now exists in Christian psychological practice.

In a more obvious way, psychologists have all too often forgotten the "fictitious" nature of the theory of evolution, or the deterministic theories of environment (Skinner), or heredity (Freud), or even of materialistic science itself.' Each of these is a "useful fiction" which has proven valuable. But their value in one domain (theory) is insufficient to warrant extending their dominion to another (reality).

The primary danger is that the Instrumentalist assumption is often not made clear or tends to be forgotten, if not by the originators of the theory, then by those who adopt it. Thus, experimental psychologists come to accept complete determinism, computer modelers see humans as machines, phenomenologists trust the distorted perceptions of their clients, and any number of psychologists reify the "useful fictions" of materialism, scientism, evolutionism, et cetera.

Similar advantages and dangers exist for Christian psychologists. On the one hand, Instrumentalism may provide justification for some of the unexamined eclecticism which now exists in Christian psychological practice. It may also form a healthy basis for an expanded eclecticism. When speculative knowledge (theory) is seen merely as a "useful fiction," the Christian psychologist has much greater freedom to explore its utilities. On the other hand, there are at least three important warnings that the instrumentalist Christian psychologist must heed:

1.) It is important to differentiate between when an Instrumentalist position is being adopted, and when a Realist position is assumed.

There is a constant pressure to believe that one's theories represent truth.

2.) The reflexivity and reactivity of human subjects cannot be ignored, especially when a broader instrumentalist eclecticism is employed.

3.) Whereas Instrumentalism may be a useful approach or means to an end, the end is objective and real, and therefore must conform to scriptural standards and insights on the nature of persons.

The first warning applies to Instrumentalism wherever it is employed-in the natural or the social sciences. There is a constant pressure to believe that one's theories represent truth. The dangers of ignoring the Instrumentalist assumption, once it has been made, are noted above.

The second warning applies particularly to psychology, although modern physics has also recognized the inevitability of an interaction between observer and observed. Inasmuch as a client or experimental subject can always reflect upon and react to clinical or experimental manipulation, the role of theoretical assumptions needs to be clarified. If, for example, a clinical theory is employed which focuses on the sexual basis of service of Christian ends), the present paper may force either case, a step will have been taken towards a more
them to justify or reject some of their own methods. In honest eclecticism.


1. For a more thorough examination of the role of instrumentalism in the natural sciences, to which the present author is greatly indebted, see Byl (1985).

2. The total scientific enterprise upon which psychology has modeled itself rests squarely on: (a) the theoretical primacy of a material world, and (b) faith in the scientific method as the only way to discover that world. Both of these useful theoretical fictions are so widely used as to be accepted as fact. We need to remember William James' warning: "Science, however, must be constantly reminded that her purposes are not the only purposes, and that the order of uniform causation which she has use for, and is therefore right in postulating, may be enveloped in a wider order, on which she has no claim at all." (1890, p. 576)

3. Daniel N. Robinson, The Wonder of Being Human (New York: Free Press, 1984), p. 4 ff.

4. For a rebuttal of the charge that an instrumental epistemology of science assumes an instrumental epistemology of Christian faith and life, see Byl (1985, p. 16).

5. See Karl R. Popper, Conjectures and Refutations (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1963), p. 98.


Byl, J. 1983. "Instrumentalism: A Third Option." Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation, 35(l):11-18.

Carter, J.D. and B. Narramore 1979. The Integration of Psychology and Theology. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

Eccles, Sir John and Daniel N. Robinson 1984. The Wonder of Being Human: Our Brain and Our Mind. New York: Free Press.

Evans, C. 1977. Preserving the Person: A Look at the Human Sciences. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press,

Farnsworth, K. 1985. Wholehearted Integration. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.

James, William 1890. The Principles of Psychology. New York; Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.

Kotesky, Ronald L. 1980. Psychology from a Christian Perspective. Nashville: Abingdon.

Kuhn, T.S. 1970. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (2nd ed.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Lewis, C.S. [194811984. Fernseeds and Elephants. London: Fontana.

Philipchalk, Ronald P. 1987. Psychology and Christianity: An Introduction to Controversial Issues. Washington, D.C.: University Press of America.

Popper, K.R. 1963. Conjectures and Refutations. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Van Leeuwen, M.S_ 1982. The Sorcerer's Apprentice: A Christian Looks at the Changing Face of Psychology. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.