Psychology Through the Eyes of Faith
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Psychology Through the Eyes of Faith

David G. Myers, PhD, Malcolm A. Jeeves, Nicholas Wolterstorff

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eBook - ePub

Psychology Through the Eyes of Faith

David G. Myers, PhD, Malcolm A. Jeeves, Nicholas Wolterstorff

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About This Book

Identifies the major ideas that college and university students will encounter in a basic psychology course and explores connections with Christian belief.

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PART 1 / Introduction

Chapter 1


I am free, I am bound to nobody’s word, except to those inspired by God; if I oppose these in the least degree, I beseech God to forgive me my audacity of judgment, as I have been moved not so much by longing for some opinion of my own as by love for the freedom of science.
Reality is a nuisance to those who want to make it up as they go along.
Over the last century—psychology’s first full century—definitions of the field have varied. For its first forty years psychology was, as William James declared in his pioneering 1890 text, The Principles of Psychology, “the science of mental life.” During the next forty years, from the 1920s into the 1960s, it was the science of behavior. Today’s textbooks commonly synthesize this history by defining psychology as the science of behavior and mental processes. Note what all these definitions have in common: that psychology aspires to being a science.
Toward the end of the twentieth century, the Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner cautioned that “psychology has not added up to an integrated science, and is unlikely ever to achieve that status.” Yet he noted that it was important to recognize “insights achieved by psychologists; to identify the contribution which contemporary psychology can make to disciplines which may some day achieve a firmer scientific status; and finally to determine whether at least parts of psychology might survive as participants in a conversation which obtains across major disciplines.”
Psychology’s claims to be a science are justified today by its solid achievements in both pure and applied research. Claiming the status of a science implies also acknowledging the limits of science. These limits are not imposed by Christian belief but are shared by humanists and scientists alike. There has, however, been a trend in recent years for some—notably, postmodernists—to argue that scientific knowledge is subjective. Some Christians, mistakenly believing that by weakening the objectivity of scientific knowledge they might strengthen the claims of religious knowledge, have at times succumbed to the temptation to endorse such views. Max Perutz, a Nobel laureate in molecular biology and himself a Christian concerned about the postmodern challenge to the future of science, notes: “This is a caricature of modern science…the bulk of scientific knowledge is final. If it were not, jet planes could not fly, computers would not work and atomic bombs would fail to explode.”
As part of that conversation, this book asks, “What is the relationship between Christian faith and psychology?” To answer that we must take a brief look at the history of relations between faith and science.
When they are asked, “What is the relationship between faith and science?” many people—Christians and non-Christians alike—answer, “Conflict.” They think of Galileo, condemned for questioning the church’s conviction that the sun revolves around a stationary earth. They think of the reaction against Darwin’s ideas at the Scopes trial and among today’s anti-evolutionists. They think of the encroachment of natural explanations of disease, of earthquakes and storms, and of human behavior—realms once reserved for supernatural explanation. If religious and scientific explanations occupy opposite ends of a teeter-totter, then as one goes up the other must come down.
Contrary to this popular view that religion and science are antagonistic, many intellectual historians argue that the seventeenth-century development of modern science was supported by Christian ideas. If, as had often been supposed, nature is sacred, then we ought not tamper or experiment with it. If, however, nature is not an aspect of God, but rather is God’s intelligible creation—a work to be enjoyed and managed—then by all means let us explore this handiwork. If we wish to discover its order, let us observe and experiment, believing that whatever God found worth creating we can find worth studying. Moreover, let us do so freely, knowing that our ultimate allegiance is not to any human authority or doctrine, but to God alone.
It was this biblical view of God and nature that in part motivated the participation in the scientific enterprise of several of the founders of modern science (among them Blaise Pascal, Francis Bacon, Isaac Newton, and even Galileo) and many of the founders of American colleges, 90 percent of which were church-founded at the time of the Civil War. Whether searching for truth in the book of God’s word or the book of God’s creative works, these scientific pioneers viewed themselves in God’s service. Believing that humans, too, were finite creatures of God, not extensions of God, they did not depend solely on intuition and reason but also on observation. They assumed that we cannot find the whole truth merely by searching our minds—for there is not enough there—or merely by guessing or making up stories.
For Bacon and others the aim was humbly to submit their ideas to the test, knowing that if nature did not conform to them then so much the worse for their ideas. Having dominion over nature meant not to force nature into their own doctrinal categories, but rather first to understand it, then to adapt their conceptions to what their observations and experiments revealed. For example, “Bacon learned the lesson that we should seek for the sciences not arrogantly in the little cells of human wit, but with reverence in the greater world,” noted the historian of science R. Hooykaas. Bacon expected the restoration of science to come by “true humiliation of the spirit.” If scientists’ data told them that the earth was not stationary, then they must abandon the notion that heavenly bodies circled the earth. Reason, they believed, must be aided by observation and experiment in matters of science, and by spiritual revelation in matters of faith.
This Hebraic-Christian foundation for scientific pursuits applies also to the scientific study of human nature, because humans, too, are part of the created order. This can be both a humbling and an uplifting thought. In the Hebrew Scriptures, humans are created by God “from the dust of the ground.” Thus after gazing at the heavens the psalmist could wonder, “What are human beings that you are mindful of them?” Yet this human creature was a special creation, a majestic summit of God’s creative activity of whom the psalmist could in the next breath rhapsodize, “Thou hast made him little less than God, and dost crown him with glory and honor. Thou hast given him dominion over the works of thy hands.”
St. Augustine echoed some of these views when he wrote: “…men go out and gaze in astonishment at high mountains, the huge waves of the sea, the broad reaches of rivers,…the stars in their courses. But they pay no attention to themselves.” “Oh, Lord…the field of my labours is my own self. I am investigating myself, my memory, my mind.” “What is my nature?” While views about the earth and the sun would change fairly quickly, opinion about soul, mind, and body would prove resistant to rapid revision. For example, the anatomist Andreas Vesalius published On the Fabric of the Human Body in 1543, the same year Copernicus published On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres. Both were an affront to the revered views of Aristotle. Yet it took four more centuries before Vesalius’s revolutionary views, tracing the nerves to the brain, would begin to displace the mind and soul from the heart to the brain, while the views of Copernicus and Galileo at once began a successful revolution in our views of the cosmos.
So what is the relationship between science and faith? The historian John Hedley Brooke identified three distinctive themes recurring in the relationships between science and religion:
  1. inevitable conflict, a view undermined by historians of science in recent decades;
  2. complementarity, the view that if only scientists and theologians would formulate their statements more clearly, they would realize they were complementary; and
  3. complexity: to quote Brooke, “Serious scholarship in the history of science has revealed so extraordinarily rich and complex a relationship between science and religion in the past that general theses are difficult to maintain. The real lesson turns out to be the complexity.”
Two things are clear. First, the birth of science in the seventeenth century was significantly and profoundly influenced by theological concerns. Second, there is an ever-present danger of seeking to use the history of science selectively, so that it is hijacked for apologetic purposes. We humans are firmly placed within the natural order. As God’s creatures, we are dependent upon God’s sustaining power, moment by moment. Our dependence upon and allegiance to God frees us from bondage to anybody’s word, except to what we find in God’s books. We are freed even to investigate that most marvelous wonder of nature—human nature. To paraphrase R. Hooykaas, what the Bible urges upon us is a complete transformation in our relations to God and our fellow creatures, and to the world that God has made. This transformation means a liberation from old superstitious bonds and from any kind of idolatry, including the idols of common opinion and official doctrine. We who have been touched by the Spirit may respect human authorities in church, state, or science, but we will not be so deeply impressed by them that we give up our independence. Our liberation implies also a new obedience by which we must be willing to submit all our prejudices and all our prior criteria of reasonableness to the test of divine revelation, including the reality of the universe around us.

Chapter 2


Reality is a multi-layered unity. I can perceive another person as an aggregation of atoms, an open biochemical system in interaction with the environment, a specimen of Homo sapiens, an object of beauty, someone whose needs deserve my respect and compassion, a brother for whom Christ died. All are true and all mysteriously coinhere in that one person.
Scan any textbook of psychology and immediately you will be struck by an incredible variety of approaches. At the back of the book one typically reads of social-psychological investigations of how people are influenced by their groups. Near the middle of the book, one finds the work of those who study learning, thinking, and memory. But these topics can also be analyzed in terms of their biological components. Thus near the beginning of the book one is introduced to neuropsychological principles of brain organization and nerve transmission, and to the chemical messenger system by which nerve cells communicate. And as the researches of evolutionary psychologists enlarge and enrich our understanding of human nature we are alerted to the possibility of discovering the evolutionary origins of some complex and remarkable human traits
You might say that each of us is a complex system that is part of a larger social system, but also that each of us is composed of smaller systems, such as our nervous system and body organs, which are composed of still smaller and smaller systems—cells, biochemicals, atoms, and so forth. Any given phenomenon, such as thinking, can be viewed from the perspective of almost any one of these systems—from social influences on thinking to biochemical influences. The variety of possible perspectives—or levels of analysis, as they are also called—requires that we choose which level we wish to operate from. Each level entails its own questions and its own methods. Each provides a valuable way of looking at behavior, yet each by itself is incomplete. Thus each level complements the others; with all the perspectives we have a more complete view of our subject than any one perspective can provide.
Take memory: neuropsychologists study the neural networks that store information and the function of particular brain regions for particular kinds of memory. Cognitive psychologists study memory in nonphysical terms, as a partly automatic and partly effortful process of encoding, storing, and retrieving information. Social psychologists study the effects of our moods and social experiences upon our recall.
Psychologists working at each of these levels accept that even if their explanations were to become complete in their own terms, this would not invalidate or preempt the other levels of explanation. The neuropsychological perspective, for example, is extremely valuable for certain purposes, but is not so valuable for understanding, say, social relations.
With so much of contemporary psychology being concerned with biological issues, we should also note that it is not at all uncommon within biology to find different kinds of explanations grouped in terms of “modes” of explanation rather than “levels” of explanation. One well-known scientist, G. G. Simpson, distinguished three modes of explanation commonly used by biologists: the first consists of answers to “how?” questions in terms of the mechanism involved, often labeled as reductionist explanations; the second, of answers to “what for?” questions where one is looking for an answer in terms of function, referred to as compositional explanations; and the third, of answers to “how did this come about?” questions—that is to say, answers in terms of the formational history of the organism.
Whether one chooses to speak in terms of “levels” or “modes” of explanation, the key point is to recognize that an explanation that may be exhaustive at any one level cannot claim to be a full and exclusive explanation of what is being studied. This is an important point, since it has implications when we seek to relate scientific explanations to religious ones. No scientist has a logical basis for insisting that scientific explanations provide grounds for denying the activity of God in sustaining his creation, or for disproving God’s existence.
It’s like viewing a masterpiece painting. If you stand right up against it you will understand better how the paint was applied, but you will miss completely the subject and impact of the painting as a whole. To say the painting is “nothing but” or “reducible to” blobs of paint may at one level be true, but it misses the beauty and meaning that can be seen if one steps back and views the painting as a whole. To consider a phone caller’s voice as reducible to electrical impulses on the phone line is extremely useful for some scientific purposes. But if you view it as nothing more, you will miss its message. For the electrical engineer’s purposes, the message is irrelevant, much as God’s activity is, in one sense, superfluous to a scientific account of the mechanisms by which God’s creation operates. Yet for the sorts of questions that Leo Tolstoy agonized over—“Why should I live? Why should I do anything? Is there in life any purpose which the inevitable death which awaits me does not undo and destroy?”—we find the “God hypothesis,” the perspective of faith, helpful.
What is true of psychology is also true of the other academic disciplines, each of which provides a perspective from which we can study nature and our place in it. These range from the scientific fields that study the most elementary building blocks of nature up to philosophy and theology, which address some of life’s global questions.
Which perspective is pertinent depends on what you want to talk about. Take romantic love, for example. A physiologist might describe love as a state of arousal. A social psychologist would examine how various characteristics and conditions—good looks, similarity of the partners, sheer repeated exposure to one another—enhance the emotion of love. A poet would express the sublime experience that love can sometimes be. A theologian might describe love as the God-given goal of human relationships. Since love can often be described simultaneously at various levels, we need not assume that one level is causing the other—by supposing, for example, that a brain state is causing the emotion of love or that the emotion is causing the brain state. The emotional and physiological views are simply two complementary perspectives.
Figure 1. Levels of Analysis. What do you see? On close inspection, this image appears to be “nothing but” its computer-produced blocks. Viewed from a different level of analysis—from ten feet or more away—we gain a more holistic perspective and see what it truly is: a photo of ten-year-old Laura Myers. Note that each perspective is valid. Look only close up and you will miss the whole picture. (Portrait courtesy of Cecil W. Thomas, Ph.D., Department of Biomedical Engineering, and Grove C. Gilmore, Ph.D., and Fred L. Royer, Ph.D., Department of ...

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