By Steven Barto, B.S., Psy., M.T.S.
I have heard it said that since the cultural revolution of the 1960s the emotional and mental needs of the American people have increased dramatically. When psychiatric epidemiology emerged in the early 20th century, social scientists rather than psychiatrists determined its basic character. This practice eventually led to the unfortunate trend today in addressing mental illness: psychiatrists schedule 15 minute exams for their patients, usually a mere 4 times a year (every three months). “Talk therapy” has been bifurcated from psychiatrists and placed under the umbrella of psychologists and social workers. Because most social scientists are not trained in medicine, they had little concern for the formidable problems posed by a nosology (scientific study and classification of diseases and disorders, both mental and physical) based on symptoms rather than etiology.
Psychiatry was defined and promulgated by a group of statistically oriented social scientists concerned with problems relating to poverty, dependency, and welfare. Certainly, this is an impetus for what is now called “social science.” But it also led to the advent of social justice issues, especially along the lines of “identity politics.” Psychologists and social workers realized that institutional populations were notoriously poor sources for epidemiological inquiry. Socioeconomic and environmental factors are key components of personality formation. At a more fundamental level, psychiatric nosologies (with few exceptions) rested on symptoms (“descriptive”) rather than cause (etiological) evaluation of the mental illness.
Additionally, philosophy and theology have found their way into medical and psychological diagnosis and treatment. St. Anselm (AD 1033-1109) argued in Faith Seeking Understanding that perception and reason can and should supplement Christian faith. This represents one of the earliest major departures from Christian tradition, which emphasized faith in God as the source of salvation, wisdom, knowledge, and physical and mental illness. St. Anselm’s ontological argument for the existence of God promoted using reason within theology. Simply stated, if we think of something then something must be causing that thought. In a sense, faith preceded efforts to understand. Frankly, the believer has nothing to fear from logic, reason, or even the direct study of nature. All truth is God’s truth. William of Occam (1285-1349) believed extraneous assumptions should always be kept as simple as possible. He said, “It is futile to do with many what can be done with fewer,” and “Plurality should not be assumed without necessity.” He said all miscellaneous details must be “shaved” from explanations or arguments. This has been affectionately labeled as Occam’s Razor.
Interestingly, William of Occam changed the question concerning the nature of knowledge (epistemology) from a metaphysical to a psychological problem. He rejected sole reliance on abstract reasoning or intense “introspection.” Instead, he placed emphasis on how the mind classifies experience; he said we habitually respond to similar objects in a similar way. Sensory experience provided information about the physical world only. Occam’s views are said to be the beginning of empiricism. Turning to St. Thomas of Aquinas (1225-1274), we find a man of God furiously dedicated to Christian theology. He turned his back on family (and a life of wealth and power) to focus on theology. Aquinas, in the same vein as Aristotle, said that the senses would provide information only about particulars, not about so-called “universals.” His work in this regard made it possible to bifurcate reason and faith, making it possible to study the two separately. Plato’s Theory of Forms asserted that the physical realm is only a shadow, or image, of the true reality. Plato’s Forms are abstract, perfect, unchanging concepts or ideals that transcend time and space.
Rene Descartes’ (1596-1650) search for ultimate truth showed him that nothing in philosophy is beyond doubt. He was, of course, an empiricist, who invented analytic geometry. In fact, he concluded that the only thing of which he could be certain was the fact that he was doubting; but we know doubting is thinking, and thinking necessitates a thinker. This is how Descartes arrived at his much-celebrated conclusion, “Cogito, ergo sum” (“I think, therefore I am”). He included among the innate ideas those of unity, infinity, perfection, the axioms of geometry, and God. His methodology consisted of intuition and deduction. Intuition is the process by which observation leads to analysis, before becoming a “theory.” Observation should be from an unbiased and attentive mind arriving at a clear and distinct idea; an idea whose validity cannot be doubted. Deduction starts with an idea, then observation is made before it is given the identity of theory or idea. Decartes’ psychology heralded a mechanistic explanation of bodily functions and of much behavior. His mechanistic analysis of reflexive behavior can be seen as the beginning of both stimulus-response and behavioristic theories.
Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) also supported empiricism, suggesting “evidence of the senses” as the primary data of all knowledge; that knowledge cannot exist unless evidence has first been gathered; and that all subsequent intellectual processes must use this evidence and only this evidence in framing valid propositions about the real world. After visiting with Galileo in 1635, Hobbes became convinced that the universe consisted only of matter and motion and that both could be understood in terms of mechanistic principles. He saw humans as machines functioning within a larger machine (the universe). Hobbes also believed humans were naturally aggressive, selfish, and greedy. Incidentally, Hobbes thought democracy was dangerous because it gives too much latitude to man’s negative natural tendencies. He said fear of death is what motivates humans to create social order. Civilization is created as a matter of self-defense; each of us must be discouraged from committing crimes against the other.
Alexander Bain (1818-1903) has been referred to at the first true psychologist. He published two seminal works: The Senses and the Intellect (1855) and Emotions and the Will (1859). These books are heralded by some as the first systematic textbooks on psychology. He followed with Mind and Body (1873). Bain was the first in his field to attempt relating real psychological processes to psychological phenomena. For Bain, the mind had three components (or “functions”): feeling, volition, and intellect. Many Christian theologians and pastors believe man is made of three components: body, soul, and spirit. The soul is said to be comprised of mind, will, and emotions. Yet, to say that humans are morally superior to non-human animals is to overlook (at least to some degree) the seamier human activities like cannibalism, infanticide, and wars. The mere aspect of “religion” has certainly not improved the human condition. Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) rejected Descartes’ contention that God, matter, and mind were separate entities. Instead, Spinoza proposed that all three were simply aspects of the same substance, which formed the basis of his theory on life that was both ethically correct and personally satisfying. He believed God, nature, and the mind were inseparable. Spinoza said God was not relegated to the realm of monotheists; rather, He was in everything. This is pantheism.
The practice of establishing categories of thought was proffered by Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). He disagreed with Hume by demonstrating that some truths were certain, not based on subjective experience alone. He did not deny the importance of sensory data, but he believed the mind must add something to that data before knowledge could be attained. He said that “something” was provided by a priori (innate) categories of thought. He listed the following in his breakdown of pure concepts or categories of thought: unity, totality, time, space, cause and effect, reality, quantity, quality, negation, possibility/impossibility, and existence/nonexistence. For Kant, a mind without concepts would have no real capacity to think; however, it can also be said that a mind loaded with concepts, but with no sensory data to which they could be applied, would have nothing to think about!
Philosophers began to argue that humans consist of more than an intellect and ideas derived from experience. We possess a wide variety of irrational feelings (emotions) that cloud meaning and tantalize or betray us. We also operate on an intuitive and instinctual platform. Romanticism was a predictable challenge to empiricism. After all, empiricism reduced people to unfeeling machines. Theologians talk of us possessing the imago Dei (the image of God). This seems to be contrary to the believe that emotions are found on the pleasure/pain continuum. Spinoza taught that emotional experience is often destructive if not controlled by rational processes. Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) said, “Man is born free and yet we see him everywhere in chains.” Christian theology benefited, however, from Rousseau’s feelings vs. reason tenet because it supported the idea that God’s existence could be defended on the basis of individual feeling and did not depend on the dictates of the church.
I have decided to break this topic into a series. There is simply too much to cover in one blog post. Part One is designed to give you fairly deep background on how Christian theology interacted with philosophy. A great deal of psychology is built on the shoulders of early philosophers. Part Two will move a little faster, starting with David Entwistle’s thoughts on integrative approaches to Psychology and Christianity. Also, I will present the theology, philosophy, and worldview of David Sire, John Stonestreet, Nancy Pearcey, and Lee Strobel.