Methodological Naturalism

Psychology, as a science, is built upon methodological naturalism. Challenge the naturalism, and you can’t be a psychologist. At least, not in the Academy. Methodological naturalism means that only empirical data is admissible to support a scientific hypothesis, and that only naturalistic (sensory, visible, testable) conclusions are viable science. No supernatural allowed. And no untestable hypotheses, unfalsifiable ideas.

In practice, this sounds good. Nobody wants the study of human beings, individuals, our behavior, to be fraught with superstition and pseudoscience. Nobody wants Gary Zukav to qualify as a scientific professional. However, methodological naturalism does more than just keep phonies out. It is a cage which locks scientists in.

Scientific psychologists, by embracing naturalism, get into hot water quickly because their conclusions will only be true IF naturalism is truly the case. If naturalism is not truly the case — human beings have a soul, for instance –then methodological naturalism is unable to lead them to the right conclusions. Instead, it will nullify true hypotheses and explain away (badly) any suspicious evidence. This is precisely what we see in various areas of psychological study. While not ALL psychology is flawed — there is some really great stuff to be learned out there –the methodology is not able to lead us to the answers to big-picture questions. And psychology naturally gravitates to the big questions: Do we have free will? Do we have a soul? Does consciousness exist? Do innate ideas? Why do people commit evil acts?  These types of questions are gemstones for psychologists but clearly overlap with religion, or metaphysics. But metaphysical questions cannot be answered correctly by the scientific establishment.  Not because scientific answers would necessarily be wrong—they would be, if naturalism were correct—but because naturalism is not actually the case.

Most secular psychologists understand this today. I mean, they understand that their questions are religious and are essentially trying to answer them without appeal to religion, the supernatural, or metaphysics. Some psychologists even dismiss the possibility of metaphysics altogether—no consciousness, no mental realm, no world of ideas, no morality, no principles which tie existence together. While these psychologists would probably be the minority, if specifically interviewed, in reality they are only being consistent methodological naturalists. They think they are getting rid of God, sin, evil, souls, afterlives, destiny, tarot cards… and they are. But they are also, by definition, getting rid of the mind, the will, the emotions, conscience, morality, history, consciousness, and shared existence.  They have to eliminate all these things because they all point to a metanarrative or metaphysical realm–an “upper story” existence where there is no rational way to explain, test, or verify.

Of course most secular psychologists will tell you they believe in at least some of these things, such as the mind and emotions. But when they get down to it, their philosophy will not allow them to. “Clearly people have thoughts and emotions,” they will say, but the real value in these thoughts and emotions is whether they will lead to some observable, predictable behavior.  If they don’t, they can be discarded. Or maybe they don’t even exist! So went the behaviorist philosophy of Watson and Skinner. Cognitive psychologists today defend thoughts and emotions, but when it gets down to philosophical questions about whether computers could have consciousness or emotions, the line between human and machine gets blurry. If thoughts, emotions, and values are reducible to digits in a line of computer code, then they are not innate or “real” in any objective sense. They are just vestigial or practical, at best.  Biological psychologists get in trouble, similarly, when you probe the mind-body connection. In their view, thoughts and emotions are just afterthoughts of neurological processing… basically controlled by biology. If that is the case, then they are determined and not free, so we cannot be accountable for our actions or wise in building our lives upon what we think. When it gets down to it, every field within psychology ends up philosophizing away the humanity of humanity. Usually it is only a radical fringe who are seen as extreme within each specialty—the Dennet’s, Chomsky’s, and Skinner’s—but even an undergraduate can see that the extremes are the logical outcomes of the position. If what they are saying is true, there is no human being, group dynamics, or personality. Nor is there morality, free will, or soul. We think there is, or we feel there must be, but we are told that those things are deceptions. Everyday experience or emotion is not telling us the truth. This is a very dangerous position for a scientist, who is supposed to be operating on evidence, to take.

Christians who therefore want to be psychologists need to recognize this battle. They know that science should be the pursuit of truth, and if experiments point to metaphysics or something beyond what can be tested through the senses, then it should be worthwhile to consider it. But methodological naturalism ensures that we are not free to explore where the evidence leads. We are only free to explore it as the means and ends bend to “the rules.” If the rules keep us in the cage, we must stay in the cage.  They assure us that outside the cage is only lies anyway.  This leads to a schizophrenic Truman-show condition where we are told to be happy playing in our room but are always wondering what is outside that room. If there is nothing really outside, why are we always wondering, feeling that there must be so?

That is the dilemma of being a psychologist, which is why many Christians become counselors instead—where there is more freedom to explore those questions, give metaphysical answers, and affect people’s lives for real (who are normally suffering because of metaphysical questions anyway). This of course leaves the scientific psychologist establishment and the APA to grow darker and darker, but it is very difficult to live in a world where experiments are designed and data are manipulated, again and again, to work against core beliefs and moral convictions that are so dear to people of faith.

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