Comments on Papers by Nelson, Slife, Reber, and Richardson

Published in Journal of Psychology and Theology, Vol 34, Fall 2006.



I have only tried to deepen our understanding of the issues surrounding the secular assumptions of much current psychology by doing four things: One, pointing out how the drive toward secularism or naturalism in psychological method is supported upon much broader assumptions about cognitive authority in our intellectual culture; Two, explaining a concept of knowledge that does not start from biases about possible subject matters or methods; Three, discussing some ways in which a "hermeneutical" approach in psychological method needs to be strengthened; Four, clarifying some ways in which misunderstandings and ambiguities of "objective" and "subjective" can lead to confusions about the possibilities of a psychological method that does not assume secularism. My intent is to be supportive of the intellectual thrusts developed in the papers.

I am glad to have had the opportunity to study and comment on these papers. I think they constitute a genuine contribution to an important discussion. After studying them I have concluded that I could not contribute very much to the details of research and exposition which they present. But I will try to cast some light upon a number of underlying issues which seem to me to require emphasis.

The question of how far a strictly secular approach to Psychology can do justice—or indeed injustice—to the subject matter of the field, is certainly an important one that immediately opens up fundamental issues about methodology and the exact nature of the subject matter. This puts great pressure on practitioners who have convictions about God, or at least religion, and about God’s relationships to the life of the individual. It is hard to imagine that human life and experience could be understood or directed to any significant degree from a secular viewpoint if the human being is built to live in relationship to God. But, on the other hand, if that is how human life and experience is, how could psychology be a field of inquiry open to people in general, and especially those who reject or do not believe in the existence of God. (Other issues like freedom of will and the reality of objective values poses similar problems.) So there is a distinctive problem here for the field of psychology.

But far from being focused upon a topic confined to a field of specialization, these papers are actually dealing with an issue that reaches across almost all academic and professional fields today and out into political and social life. That is the issue of cognitive authority: the issue of who has the right to claim to know and to exercise power based upon that claim. Knowledge confers the right and even the responsibility to act, to direct, and to set policy. That is just how it is and always has been in human affairs. So, who can successfully claim to know has vast implications for life generally, and for who leads or is supported in their actions. Within the learned professions this takes on special emphasis. For there it becomes a matter of standing in the field: Who is, supposedly qualified and who is not. It also impacts adequacy of treatment of the relevant subject matter. If those who hold cognitive authority in an area have adopted a methodological stance that does not actually come to grips with important aspects of the subject matter, that will hinder a proper understanding of that subject matter, and will make practice in fields dependent upon it unsuccessful or even harmful. Remember the Bishop who refused to look through Galileo’s telescope because he already knew Jupiter had no moons? Or the extensive use of bloodletting and "physic" in treating all kinds of health problems?

The papers in this set raise the fundamental question of whether the dominant methodologies of contemporary psychology are adequate to the subject matter of the field. They strongly suggest that they are not adequate, and that they are not adequate because the naturalistic/secular assumptions of the methods omit vital factors in the lives of clients and of practitioners, having to do with morality, spirituality and God. How these methodologies inventory human nature and try to influence it simply omit such factors or, in many cases, are hostile to them. Quite independently of this, however, an outside observer of the field might easily think that the field as a whole doesn’t do very well with its subject matter, either theoretically or practically. A leading psychologist, James Hillman, publish a book some years ago titled: We’ve Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy—And the World’s Getting Worse. This situation also calls into question the adequacy of the dominant secular methodologies. Why then do they have such a grip on the field?

It is because, I suggest, that the secular methodologies have "cognitive authority" in the culture generally, and the academic culture in particular. This has come about through a historical development that has as one main element the struggle of the intellectual class to be free from intervention into their inquiries by people "outside their field." This makes for the operationally self-contained administrative units that make up our "uni""versities," which are all "versity" and, in most cases, no substantive "uni" whatsoever. People in the academic world talk a lot about "interdisciplinary" work, but if you are making your career there you would be a fool to get seriously involved with it, until you become so well-known that you can afford to thumb your nose at you colleagues. Now expand the need to have a self-contained unit for a subject matter to the whole intellectual operation represented by the academic world, and you get secularism. For you certainly can’t have God messing with your subject matter, or at least you had better not talk about it. How could you have the regularities required for anything like a safe generalization so long as God (or for that matter freedom or values) might intervene. And without safe generalizations how can you speak of knowledge, or how can you pretend to reliably guide practice.

So we get the axiom that is often called "The Causal Closure of the Physical." This widely accepted "axiom" means that any physical event has only physical causes and effects, only physical antecedents and consequents. Thus secularism leads to naturalism, or, more precisely, physicalism or physicsism. Then, no matter what your field of study, if it is to yield "safe generalizations" and all that goes with them it must be reducible to the physical. And if, as in the case of most fields in the humanities and social sciences, no such "reduction" is remotely plausible, then you just have to swallow it and accept the fact that your "results" do not constitute knowledge, and that you do not have cognitive authority. Of course there is still a politics left to the academic or intellectual, and one can make a pretty good career with that. And—also "of course"—you can’t do anything of significance in most fields of human inquiry and practice by applying physics and chemistry. They won’t even get you to work or down the block. So, to put it mildly, a tension remains.

Now this outlook on what is "real" knowledge and what is not is precisely what these four papers contest. They are battling a model of knowledge that, for all its good results, was in large part purposefully constructed for political ends. The need was to claim cognitive authority for a certain method that would free people engaged in intellectual work from intervention in its affairs. (Recall Laplace, who, when asked by Napoleon where God was in his system of Celestial Mechanics, replied: "Sir, I have no need of such an hypothesis!") And, of course, the historical fact was that this intervention came, and was most likely to come, from individuals and institutions that also claimed cognitive authority—but on the basis of a different methodology based upon a different subject matter, the Divine. Hence, secularism in psychology, as in all areas of inquiry, is a massive presence that defines the fields of inquiry and practice as we now know them. To question it is profoundly threatening. And if it distorts the subject matter, or simply omits major portions of it, that just has to be. To not be secular in intellect is widely viewed as to be deficient in intellect.

At a recent scientific conference at City College in New York city, a student in the audience asked: "Can you be a good scientist and believe in God?" The panelists were all Nobel laureates. One of them, Herbert Hauptman, answered with a quick and emphatic "No!"The Wall Street Journal (8/23/05) went on to report: "Belief in the supernatural, especially belief in God, is not only incompatible with good science, Dr. Hauptmann declared, ‘this kind of belief is damaging to the well-being of the human race.’"

This type of statement is not uncommon. But you can be sure that Hauptmann did not arrive at his views about religious beliefs by scientific study. You can be sure that he has never felt the need to do so, for he is just like Laplace: He has purposefully limited the range of the questions that he is willing to seriously consider. So he can make assertions of all kinds, fortified by his assumption that secularism must be true, and that anyone who believes anything else will be reasoning from a false premise and must be drawing all sorts of false conclusions.

Now of course secularism (naturalism) is not something any one has discovered. It is something that people decided to adopt so that they could "get on with their work." If you think about what would be involved in proving secularism or naturalism to be true, you will see that they have not been proven or even rendered plausible. It certainly has not been proved by any of the sciences or any group of them. The sciences do not deal with reality as a whole, but with some particular part of it at best. And as to "science" which is no particular science, it simply does not exist and hence it has proven nothing. Defensive individual scientists often undertake to speak for "science," but what they say when they do so is never within their genuine "cognitive authority." They are doing something else when they so speak. Usually, like Hauptmann, it is something clearly moral or political. ("This kind of belief is damaging to the well-being of the human race.")

I hope that these remarks help a little to put the battle over secularism in psychology in its proper perspective. No one can cogently claim that secularism in psychology is required by the nature of the subject matter. It is "required" only by a model of knowledge that has come to dominate the intellectual professions generally, for various, largely extraneous, reasons. Again, no one discovered that that model is what knowledge is. And if it is that, then it could never be known that it is that. What knowledge is is not a subject that the sciences deal with. It’s that simple.

Now of course it is not enough just to understand what has happened to bring about our present situation in psychology and in most fields of human inquiry today. Once you do understand that, you see clearly that there is work to be done and positive understanding to be gained. I want to make a few further suggestions that may aid the positive project of the four papers.

The main thing that needs to be done is to articulate an understanding of knowledge itself that captures actual knowledge practice in human life as well as in the sciences. We need one that does not take sides in the political battles of the past and present over cognitive authority. The four papers are striving toward this with their discussions of "hermeneutical" methods and of the need to go beyond individualism or atomism (the "punctual" self) in understanding human life. I suggest that we would best think of knowledge as the capacity to represent a subject matter as it actually is on an appropriate basis of thought and experience. One can try this out on the simple cases such as knowing the English alphabet, knowing a poem by heart, or knowing the mechanism of the internal combustion engine.

Now this view of knowledge has a number of distinct advantages in addition to fitting the obvious cases. First, it incorporates the idea of truth ( "…represent a subject matter as it actually is…"), as well as the idea of standards of evidence (If you are just guessing you don’t know even if your are right). These are both clearly essential to knowledge as it is practiced at all levels. But, unlike secular and other "methodologies," this view of knowledge does not restrict truth (or ‘fact’) to any particular subject matter or method. That is left entirely open at the start, to be settled case by case through examination of the details of any given field. Thus, the ancient principle (Aristotle and on) of requiring the subject matter in any area to determine the precise method—certain general principles of logic are always applicable—of its own investigation is honored, and truth is not thought to be restricted to following the "right" method, or to automatically be there if the "right" method is followed. Truth is always greater than method. Cognitive authority, rightly understood, requires faithfulness to the subject matter, not just methodological rectitude.

This understanding of knowledge also does not require that you know that you know in order to know, a point of confusion for many people. This also reflects the actual knowledge-practices of life. People generally know most of what they do know without any idea of whether they know it or not. Of course there are cases where the issue of whether someone (possibly oneself) knows comes up. But these are rare, and usually though not always can be settled, again, by attention to the details of the case. There is no general specification of what amounts to "an adequate basis in thought and experience," or to "enough evidence." This is because subject matters vary widely in their natures and in how they must and can be cognitively approached. But experienced, thoughtful people in a given area routinely (though not always and not infallibly) determine when there is knowledge and when there is not.

The attempt to require that, in order to know, one must know that one knows, is partly based on the mistake of thinking that, if you know, then you could not be wrong. Of course if you are wrong, you do not know. But knowledge requires truth, not infallibility. Most of the things we actually do know we still could be wrong about. We just aren’t wrong about them. In any case, if you must know that you know in order to know, you are immediately involved in an infinite regress of knowings that you know, and therefore can know nothing at all. Such a regress cannot be completed. But completing it is not necessary anyway. We do know many things every day, and hence knowing that you know is not required in order to know—though in some cases it is possible. Taking the burden of infallibility or absolute certainty off of knowledge is one of the things we have to do if we are to open up the many subject matters of inquiry, including most prominently the human self, to knowledge.

We cannot afford to be impatient with "philosophical" clarifications such as these, for they are indispensable in doing justice to knowing as a human achievement and practice. They can help us appreciate the viewpoint of "Hermeneutics" on knowing, and the works of individuals such as Charles Taylor, and, in general, what is valid and important in so-called "Postmodernism." These form a more or less unified movement of thought that does much to loosen the methodological strangle-hold of what is commonly, but misleadingly, thought to be "science" or "scientific." But in my opinion, one needs, at least in one’s own mind as a researcher, to adopt something close to the above understanding of knowledge in order to deal with some objections that arise toward a "hermeneutical" approach to inquiry.

One such objection to hermeneutical inquiry with its "hermeneutical circle," moving back and forth from a kind of whole of subject matter to its parts, and then back from the parts to the whole, and so on, is that one never gets out of the circle and never "completes" the process to arrive at a truth of the matter. Some leading hermeneuticists actually embrace this outcome—or, rather, lack of outcome—and celebrate it. Their intention is to hold that all inquiry, most significantly that called "scientific," is exactly in the same boat, and thus none occupies a privileged epistemic position vis-à-vis other types of inquiry. But this seems to me an empty victory at best. Hermeneutics originates from the process of interpretation of texts and, historically, has been more concerned with meaning than with truth. It’s expansion into a general methodology for all inquiry, especially inquiry into the human world and human action, rests upon an assimilation of reality to texts. I cannot but think that a text is a radically different kind of thing from realities generally, and from human practices and actions in particular. With reference to these latter we often need to inquire into meaning, but our ultimate interest is in truth. And truth always transcends meaning, as it does method. Truth opens us to reality, and opens reality to us. Mere meaning and method may not do so, but leave us spinning our intellectual wheels in the air.

For those who accept and celebrate the hermeneutical circle, the process does not, for most, achieve openness to and a comprehension of a subject matter that exists in its own right and is what it is regardless of whether and how it might be approached in inquiry. Hermeneutics thus understood has a built-in anti-realist bias. That is one reason why those on the other side of the discussion here frequently reject it out of hand, and favor what they would call "a hard nosed scientific approach." This bias is partly due to hermeneuticist sympathies with a kind of holism or organicism that opposes atomism in reality and atomistic individualism in human existence. But this unfortunately leads many into the view that things are what they are only as they stand in the relations they have, including their relations to consciousness or to "humanity" or "history" or language. Now one certainly does not have to adopt such a sweeping view in order to avoid atomistic individualism. But it tends to be adopted by those opposing naturalistic secularism, many of whom are cited by these authors. And when that is done one tends to come out with a version of pragmatism that overcomes "objectivism" by surrendering the possibility of knowing how things actually are. I do not think that these four papers want to go in that direction, but what they are attempting can be taken in that way. But it also can be avoided.

Some 20th Century authors that clearly have done this are Edmund Husserl (1931 & 1970) and Hans-Georg Gadamer (1992). I believe that both John Dewey and Martin Heidegger tried to do it, but for various reasons were unable to and resorted to Pragmatism. For Husserl in particular every situation of consciousness is embedded in a "horizon" of further possibilities of cohering experiences (conceptual as well as empirical), and among these are some possibilities of finding objects (including subjects and their mental conditions) to be as we thought them to be. That is what he calls "fulfillment," and it is the main form of knowledge on his account of the matter. (1970, pp. 667-772) It, like knowledge as we have described above, is open to all possible kinds of subject matters, and admits of methods suited to and developed from those subject matters. Husserl has, I think, the most adequate understanding of knowledge of the human self that has been developed. Both he and Gadamer manage to retain the openness of thought to a world not of its own making—including the subject matter of psychology—while doing full justice to the concreteness of the inquirer and his or her existential situation. They both also see the necessity of understanding exactly what the sciences do and their limitations; and they recognize that knowledge is something that assigns an indispensable role to the sciences—but also applies to our world as a whole and our life in it, which the sciences do not do. Indeed, the understanding of the sciences as fields of knowledge is a task for which no science, as we now count them, is suited.

In working out a view of knowledge that will prevent psychology from forcing its subject matter into a preconceived mold, and especially that of secular naturalism, it will help us to have certain meanings of "objective" and "subjective" clearly before us. The writings of Husserl are especially helpful in achieving the required clarity. There are two important meanings for each term, and their confusion makes understanding of knowledge of the human self simply impossible.

  1. Objective1 refers to the world of objects as opposed to subjects. To be objective1 is to have the nature of ordinary physical things and their parts and properties, thought to be exhaustively covered by the laws of physics and chemistry. This is a matter of the nature of something.
  2. Objective2 refers to how a subject matter is taken by an inquirer. This is a matter of attitude or perception. It is not a matter of the nature of the subject matter, which can be thing-like, or mental/personal, or…whatever. A posture toward a subject matter is objective2 if it does not cloud or distort what the subject matter actually is by its inner conditions, but instead allows it to be presented truthfully.
  3. Subjective1 refers to a realm of minds or persons, as opposed to physical objects. To be subjective1 is to be "mental" in the familiar sense in which perception, memory, emotion, choice and thought are mental and make up a mental life. This too is a matter of the nature of something.
  4. Subjective2 applies to attitudes and perceptions etc. toward a subject matter that prevent comprehension of it as it actually is and presents it in a way that is determined by the preferences or circumstances of the person involved.


Now if we hold these distinctions before us it is possible to get a clear statement of several positions that have an important bearing upon psychological understanding of the human self. Begin with #4. Many people are misled by the fact that all inquiry consists in states that are subjective1 into believing that all inquiry is subjective2 . Of course this does not follow. One would have to make the assumption that all subjective1 states are essentially distortive, and in a way that cannot be corrected for, to get that conclusion. Another mistake is to think that if a subject matter is subjective1 it cannot be objective2. But again, there is no necessity in this at all. The subjective1 is a definite sort of subject matter, and each subject matter poses its own difficulties and opportunities for knowledge. The subjective1 is not sense-perceptible and quantifiable in the manner of objective1, but why should it be? Everything is what it is and has to be taken as such if you want to deal with it and not something else. This second mistake is related to the final mistaken inference we will consider here. It is often assumed that objective2 is possible only for objective1. Once again, however, there is absolutely no reason whatsoever to believe this. If subjective1 causes special difficulties for objective2, there is no essential reason why these cannot be identified and dealt with. We do in fact identify and deal with distortions of consciousness of all kinds, and there is no plausible grounds for believing that subjective1 is essentially distortive, in such a way that corrections are themselves always distortive and do not allow us to grasp subjective1 as it really is.

I believe that having careful regard for these four points about subjectivity and objectivity can do much to clear up the possibilities of knowledge, and psychological knowledge in particular. I believe one can with confidence do justice to every serious dimension of ordinary human experience, including that, if any, involving the divine, without stretching them upon the Procrustean bed of "science falsely so called."


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