The Myth of Neutrality in Psychological Studies

February 23, 2010 — 3 Comments

[This post is part of the Adventures in Psychology series]

The idea that one can proceed neutrally with respect to a field of study has been very much in vogue, not just recently, but for probably as long as most of us can remember. Few if any people question the idea of neutrality in methodology, or in reasoning for that matter. But perhaps they should, for not only is neutrality in this sense unattainable; it actually constitutes a decidedly non-Christian way of approaching things.

I’ve run into this kind of thinking, mainly with respect to science, but it also rears its head in apologetics. It is more or less the idea that there is a Christian way of thinking, a non-Christian way of thinking, and then in the middle, a neutral way of thinking that both Christians and non-Christians can agree on. The problem though is that the Christian is generally unaware that the “neutral” circle, is actually still inside the non-Christian one.

In other words, there is no middle ground between Christian and non-Christian. As Christians, we all realize this in a metaphysical sense, obviously there is no one who is half-regenerate. Rather, you are either a Christian or a non-Christian, there is no halfway house.

The sticky thing is that in one’s thinking and practice, no one is consistently Christian in everything they do. Another way of thinking of this is that no one, save God, is completely righteous (acting in complete accord with their nature), but the converse of that is that no one is completely inconsistent either. No one, that I am aware of, is a completely consistent atheist. Even non-Christians sometimes act and think like Christians do.

This is actually a complete necessity for the scientific enterprise. There are some core assumptions that science needs to be true in order to actually conduct study. These assumptions though are derived from a Christian perspective on life and the universe. I’ve written about this elsewhere on this blog, just poke around a bit and I’m sure you can find it. The idea is that science, to be what it is, basically has to have a Christian foundation or it just couldn’t move forward.

Now, if you grant psychology status as a science (and that is disputed even among non-Christians, cf. Kuhn and Popper) then it is at its roots a Christian enterprise. It has to make certain assumptions that really only make sense given the existence of God and the truth of the Bible. These are assumptions like I’ve talked about here, and they are necessary to do any psychological reasoning.

So even a staunch atheistic psychologist like Albert Ellis still has to make certain Christian assumptions in his thinking, and quite frankly, his whole enterprise of Rational-Emotive Behavior Therapy is completely ridiculous in an atheistic worldview. His ideas ring true with many Christians working in psychology because he has ultimately failed to think and conduct study like an atheist. It is because of the idea of God that is graven on all men’s minds (Rom 1:21f) that keep the atheistic thinker like Albert Ellis from being completely consistent in his philosophy.

The details of Ellis’ theory are not really necessary at this point, I’m assuming you’re at least familiar with it, or you can utilize Wikipedia. The point is that for any given psychologist, even though most, if not all of the major names in the field historically are decidedly non-Christians, it is necessary to make certain Christian assumptions before even beginning to study the soul. What then is true of psychology as a field of study is even more true for counseling as a field of practice. What generally happens though is that non-Christians will borrow the foundation from a Christian worldview, but then build an atheistic house on top of it. The result is generally something that must be substantially revised and reintepreted at almost every point to be of any use to a Christian in a counseling environment.

We’ll talk more later on the nature of the counseling environment and other issues related to that, but for now, I’m hoping you can begin to see that there is no neutrality with respect to study or practice in any field, not just psychology and counseling. To further drive home the point and wrap this up, it might be helpful to describe in more detail how this plays out.

The reason there cannot be a neutral approach to psychology is because of the of the big picture questions one has to answer before beginning any study or research. One makes certain assumptions about the nature of the universe and about causality and the like and these are not just common property for everyone in a neutral sense. They are things that are only true because God exists and the Bible is true (see reference earlier), and therefore are at home in a Christian worldview. Every field of study then has a Christian foundation. From that point then, one can either build Christianly, or non-Christianly, but there is not a third category of builder.

The illusion of a third category only arises because neither the Christian nor the non-Christian is completely consistent in their study and practice. Because of the overlap, there seems to be a middle ground, but in reality it is just the edges of the Christian view that the non-Christian finds himself agreeing with, although he would not want to follow the implications of his agreement consistently. Likewise, the Christian may find himself agreeing either in theory or practice with some ideas of the non-Christian. This is either because the non-Christian happens to actually be thinking Christianly, or the Christian has accepted some non-Christian ideas and has thus compromised his thinking on the issue.

This still unfortunately might be too vague, but I will see if I can demonstrate concretely later what appears here in abstract form. It takes a healthy amount of discernment in order to sense when a non-Christian is actually offering good insight on a topic of study or whether you as a Christian are following the non-Christian in his pagan thought on the matter. This why for many, the Bible is given status as a centerpiece in approaching psychology and counseling. It is not because it is exhaustive in what it talks about on those topics, but because it is comprehensive in that it gives you everything you need to evaluate the topic.

As Calvin noted, the Bible is like a pair of glasses. Glasses are not exhaustive in that they show you everything there is to see, but they are comprehensive in that they allow you to see everything differently. And that is why it is absolutely necessary for a Christian to look at everything through the lens of Scripture and not just accept what seems reasonable. None of the modern psychologies would have gotten off the ground if they weren’t reasonable, but being reasonable doesn’t make them helpful, much less in keeping with a Christian approach to the topic. Again, it takes discernment and clear thinking that are informed by the spectacles of Scripture in order to proceed wisely in the field of psychology. Hopefully, we can continue to do so.

Nate

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I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!

3 responses to The Myth of Neutrality in Psychological Studies

  1. You continually refer to the idea that even science itself depends on Christian metaphysics, but say that your explanation of that can be found somewhere on this blog. Is that what’s discussed at http://marturo.wordpress.com/2009/11/18/an-appendix-of-sorts/ ?

    • You can find discussion there, as well as within the Philosophy 101 series. I wouldn’t limit it to metaphysics though, but would say the scientist depends on Christian epistemology and ethics as well.

      Absolute truth, which is only at home in a Christian worldview, must be presupposed as existing in order for scientific findings to be true outside of the environment that yielded them. It is then a metaphysical truth that is necessary for further knowledge and ideas that prove true ought to be believed, which evokes ethical considerations. The idea of ”is” implying ”ought” only makes sense given absolute truth.

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