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Running head: Philosophy of Science
Towards a Philosophy of Science for Christian Psychology
Eric L. Johnson
Southern Baptist Theological Seminary
Eric L. Johnson, Associate Professor of Pastoral Theology and Personality, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 2825 Lexington Rd, Louisville, KY 40280, firstname.lastname@example.org. Readers familiar with Alvin Plantinga’s (1984) ―Advice to Christian Philosophers‖ will no doubt recognize its inspiration.
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Most contemporary psychologists, including many Christians, assume that psychology is necessarily a secular discipline — one that must avoid taking any metaphysical or
religious positions with reference to their studies — such has been the success of modern
psychology in defining the field according to its own metaphysical and epistemological assumptions. Modern psychologists, of course, are entitled to define the field as they wish. However, the philosophical resources of the Christian tradition—particularly the
contributions of Augustine and Thomas Aquinas — point towards a very different
understanding of psychology. The following is a very preliminary outline of a philosophy of science, generally derived from their epistemology, for a psychology that takes the triune God and his revelation in the Christian Scriptures seriously with reference to a science of individual human beings — a psychology defined according to Christian
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Towards a Philosophy of Science for Christian Psychology
We are living in the aftermath of the greatest intellectual conflict in Western
rdthculture since the turn of the West to Christianity during the 3 to 5 centuries after Christ:
the conflict between Christianity and modernism, an intellectual battle, however, that is all but over. There are Christians who continue to act as if there was still a genuine war to be won, people who attempt to resist modernism by mere legislation and polemics –
looking a little like Don Quixote in his battle with the windmill – but their efforts
evidence a sad underestimation of just how deeply modernism has permeated contemporary thought in the West, including the thinking of the Church.
Is there evidence for such pessimism? Let us consider the dominant evangelical understandings of counseling. It is well known that the formation of psychology as a discipline distinct from philosophy was in part the result of the application of natural
thscience methods to psychology that occurred in the 19 century. Less well understood is
the coincident influence of secularism. Modernism is essentially a secular intellectual
movement (Chadwick, 1975; Hitchcock, 1982; Luckmann, 1967). Modern psychology,
the version of psychology that pervasively dominated the study of individual human
thbeings in the West during the 20 century, is the offspring of the application of natural science methods to psychology and secularism. So thorough has been modernism’s
conquest of the field of psychology that most everyone in psychology and counseling –
not merely naturalists or humanists, but also most Christians – are convinced that
psychology is necessarily a secular discipline.
At the same time, there can be no question about the enormous contributions of
thmodern psychology. Indeed, research in the 20 century in areas like neuroscience,
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human development, cognition, psychopathology, and social processes, for example, has discovered countless aspects of the human soul, and rendered to all of those interested in human beings an incomparable service. But relishing the valid contributions of modern psychology does not require that Christians should accept all of its assumptions. From a Christian standpoint, far too great a cost was paid in the way modernism has gone about
its work, including most importantly the exclusion of considerations about God, his relation to human beings, and his salvation, from the science of psychology. Today, the Christian psychological community needs to learn all it can from modern psychology, while simultaneously re-appropriating its own historic and more holistic vision of human nature, and then develop a wiser and more complex psychology that flows from Christian assumptions about human beings and how best to understand them, that can do better justice to the unique features of human beings, and that can aid in the reformation of humans into Christ’s image.
What Would an Augustinian-Thomist Philosophy of Science Look Like?
As a sophisticated and distinct field of study, philosophy of science is of recent origin, so the question above is conjectural. However, Augustine and Aquinas both wrote enough on epistemological issues, that the basic direction of such an enterprise can be surmised (and has been developed to a small extent; see Jaki, 2000; McGrath, 2001; MacIntyre, 1988, 1990; Milbank, 1993; Moreland & Craig, 2003; Plantinga, 1993b, 2000; Poythress, 2006; Ratzsch, 1986; Stoker, 1973; Torrance, 1989). To begin with, in his approach to knowledge Augustine recognized that everything is fundamentally related to God. For him, faith and reason were deeply interdependent: faith seeks rational explication and leads to the proper understanding of everything else. Some have argued
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that Aquinas departed significantly from the Augustinian tradition, but as MacIntyre (1988, 1990; among others, e.g., de Lubac, 1998) has demonstrated, Aquinas has been largely misinterpreted by Catholics (and Protestants), from the Counter-Reformation on. Aquinas was genuinely committed to a faith-based theistic epistemology, but attempted to extend Augustine’s model, by allowing for a somewhat greater role for rational
analysis in the description of reality. Living during the time that Aristotle’s works were being reintroduced to the West, Aquinas recognized the value of this massive infusion of knowledge composed by a non-Christian, but he sought to translate the truth in that literature into genuinely Christian discourse, so that it would be thoroughly consistent
with the Christian faith (as a good Augustinian would!). Aquinas may have been somewhat less suspicious of pagan thought than Augustine, but not so different that one can say they were working on different projects. Later Christians must critique the guiding principles and work of both saints, but together they provide some important stones for the foundation of a theistic philosophy of science.
Indeed, the project of a Christian psychology could be construed as analogous to Aquinas’ extension of an Augustinian epistemology, by its incorporation of a more
empirical research agenda and the valid findings of modern psychology into Christian discourse, with the result that, according to an Augustinian-Thomist philosophy of science, everything in our Christian science of human beings – whether derived from a
reading of Christian sources (particularly the Bible) or from reinterpreted secular empirical investigation, as well as philosophical analysis, personal experience, or (eventually) distinctly Christian research and theory-building – is understood in relation
to our triune Creator and Redeemer and his agenda for humanity.
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In addition, in stark contrast to modern psychology, an Augustinian-Thomist approach would posit that a proper understanding of human beings aims at wisdom (sapientia) more than mere factual knowledge (scientia). Some kinds of knowledge are
better than others, and the best kind is that which is virtuous and especially conforms one to the image of Christ. Consequently, the general goal of a Christian psychology –
according to an Augustinian-Thomist orientation – would be the cultivation of humans
who more fully resemble God (Charry, 1997). If psychology is to be re-envisioned along the Christian lines suggested by Augustine and Aquinas, what is needed is a broader and less restrictive epistemology and philosophy of psychology than has been acceptable over the past 125 hundred years.
Some Themes of a Modern Philosophy of Psychology
Of those interested in contemporary psychology, a minority – composed mostly of
philosophers, historians of psychology, theoretical psychologists, and sociologists of knowledge – recognize that mainstream psychology continues to be built upon a rather narrow neo-positivist epistemology. At an implicit philosophical level, modern psychologists aim at a universal science of human beings, composed of empirically gathered knowledge using procedures that all rational persons can agree on and that deliver the same knowledge outcomes, regardless of the researcher’s assumptions (e.g., if the original study was replicated by anyone, the original results and interpretations should be confirmed). Therefore, psychologists may not take towards the object of their studies positions involving metaphysical or religious assumptions that themselves cannot be proven to the satisfaction of all rational parties. In addition, modern psychologists typically hold to methodological naturalism and a corresponding empiricism that require
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the science be restricted to describing humans beings solely in terms of natural processes. Within such commitments, knowledge about human beings is obtained through careful research using inductive and hypothetico-deductive methods and quantitative measurement, the results of which are evaluated with statistical procedures.
Just as modern foundationalism has been roundly criticized in philosophical circles in recent decades for positing too narrow a foundation for knowledge (Audi, 1995; Pollock, 1986), so too, from a Christian standpoint, is the epistemological foundation of modern psychology too narrow. Such an approach itself is built upon assumptions that cannot be proven (e.g., that all knowledge about humans is solely accessible by means of empirical research procedures applied to human subjects), and it has led to rules for scientific research and discourse that do not permit straying from such restrictions (e.g., certain claims about human beings that involve explicit metaphysical positions—like
humans are free agents—cannot be considered psychological knowledge, but
determinism can be, see Wegner, 2003). As long as these assumptions and rules go unchallenged by Christian psychologists, they will be prevented from moving beyond empirical research based on methodological naturalism, and exploring human beings in accordance with Christian assumptions.
Two False Positives
How Christians bring the essential information of their faith into psychology is a central problem. One stumbling block to its resolution is the long-standing dualistic assumption that the study of humans and the study of the Bible constitute two separate, fundamentally different disciplines (psychology and theology). This has led to the contemporary assumption—common among evangelicals—that the task of Christians in
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psychology is to somehow integrate these two disciplines as they are presently conceived. There is not space to address adequately the difficulties here (see Johnson, 2007, for a lengthy discussion), but the limitations of both assumptions are demonstrated in the current lack of a scientifically complex understanding of psychology and counseling that is distinctively Christian.
Given the above assumptions, integrationists have tended to take modern psychology as the definitive version and attempted to integrate their faith into that. To
their credit, they have helped to modify the modern version of psychology in certain ways, for example, revitalizing the psychology of religion (e..g, Spilka, Hood, Hunsberger, & Gorsuch, 2003), putting horizontal forgiveness on the map as a counseling tool (e.g., Worthington, 1998), raising awareness about religious values in counseling and psychotherapy (e.g., Worthington, 1988), and addressing some community-generic virtues in the positive psychology movement (e.g., Emmons & Shelton, 2002) . These are significant accomplishments, but they are still merely adjustments in a version of psychology that is defined according to secular, neo-positivist rules.
All truth is God’s truth, to be sure, but not all texts are equally truth-bearing. By
beginning their integrative work with a belief in a division in human knowledge between ―general and special revelation‖ – which must then be overcome – but then accepting
modern psychology (and its usually implicit secular assumptions) as that general
threvelation, well-meaning 20 century proponents of integration did not realize that
certain Christian lines of understanding human beings were thereby rendered untenable, leading to a final psychology product largely shorn of Christian distinctives. Christian psychological thinking has been decidedly enriched by careful, thoughtful integrationist
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openness to modern research (e.g., see McMinn & Campbell, 2007), but the paradigm may also be unwittingly responsible for hampering of the identity formation of Christian psychology and counseling communities and stifling their own unique intellectual development and creativity.
In contrast, a Christian psychology based on an Augustinian-Thomist
epistemology is more holistic, since it defines itself as a single discipline with a single object of inquiry – human beings – and open to a variety of sources of relevant
information about it, that together provide the most comprehensive understanding of that object possible for humans. According to this approach, psychology should not be defined according to neo-positivism and methodological naturalism, but redefined simply
whatever the legitimate source of the as the science of individual human beings –
information – and for Christians unified methodologically by a Christian hermeneutics, as
its pervasive, fundamental research framework. Such a hermeneutics would involve the interpretation of human subjects (of course), using a wide range of empirical and philosophical research procedures, but it would also entail the interpretation of the Bible and relevant Christian literature, as well as secular psychology texts. In this understanding of the science of psychology, the Christian community’s interpretive task
consists of discerning the underlying unity of the field that already exists in the mind and heart of God, by bringing together all available, relevant psychological knowledge into the singular study of individual human beings. If this really is a better way of posing our scientific challenge, the actual greatest problem facing the Christian psychological community is communal, rather than interdisciplinary. ―Which psychology are we talking
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about?‖ becomes the main question, rather than ―How do I integrate (secular) psychology and the Christian faith?‖ (see MacIntyre, 1988).
Likewise assuming a fundamental division between psychology and theology, biblical counselors have responded very differently, and developed their own unique, small, but growing literature for counseling that is reflective of the Bible’s (and its theology’s) redemptive agenda. Written mostly for pastors and laypersons, there is not much interest in developing a scientifically based literature that might seriously challenge the current field of psychology. Consequently, a Christian philosophy of science for psychology would likely be deemed superfluous for many in such circles, though this does not necessarily characterize the progressive wing of the biblical counseling movement (see e.g., Kelleman, 2005; Powlison, 2005; Welch, 2004). Many of those in the biblical counseling movement appear to have concluded that they need not take seriously contemporary psychology (or even Christian research on human beings themselves), except to criticize it.
A Bible-oriented approach to counseling has played a useful role in the Christian counseling community – by warning prophetically of the possibility of syncretism with secularism and by underscoring the pivotal role the Bible should play in Christian thinking about humans and soul care. However, the biblical counseling movement has generally tended to be either resistant to or simply not that interested in the development of a distinctly Christian science of human beings, preferring to work on what might be
called a lay psychology of the Bible, that does not stray far from the express statements of Scripture. Because of the Bible’s pivotal role in Christian thought, such a psychology is foundational to a Christian psychology, but there is more territory to explore.