Psychologising Our Souls

“Christian thinkers, and properly modest researchers, have been warning of such reductionism for decades – that is, warning that psychology does not live up to its own hype.”

The lecture room started with lots of interested faces. By the time I had finished delivering my twenty-minute paper, at least half of those present had crossed their arms and allowed various forms of scowls to appear on their faces. It seems my suggestion was not going to be readily received, no matter how reasoned I tried to be.

What was the topic that had such a mixed reception? It was proposing that psychology in Australia adopt a new name to communicate more clearly what the profession was about. I had outlined, using analysis of the journal articles in our Australian publications, that we should stop using the word ‘psychology.’ Why? Because it is based on “psyche,” which means the soul, or whole of life. We find it regularly in the ancient philosophers and the Bible. It is normally not presented in the New Testament as competitively against the body, but often “carries the implication of the human self that lives before God and must give account to Him.” [i] Some contemporary philosophers use the phrase ‘embodied souls’ to capture this wondrous idea.

Back to the psychologists in the room. Can you imagine them agreeing to the ‘psyche’ in psychology living up to this concept of life before God? I could not. So, I suggested that we in the Australian profession simply did not try to ponder, research or practice within the understanding of such embodied soulness, and asked the question whether we should change our name, professionally. Because the great majority of papers that we were publishing lived or died on the basis of the numbers used to support their ideas, and that those numbers were generated by observations of behaviour, I suggested the term “Behaviourology.” That is when note folders and arms started closing.

To be fair, Australian psychology has moved past the stricter behaviourism of the 1970’s (when I was trained) to cognitive-behaviourism. However, if one asks a group of psychologists, ‘From where do our thoughts come?’ the room again goes quiet. They have no understanding of the reason for our self-consciousness, beyond some enthusiastic but misplaced ideas from social-evolutionary theory.  Some do have a philosophical bent and are ready to debate monism (we are nothing but matter in time and chance) versus some form of dualism (our reality has physical and non-physical aspects to it). But, in my experience, they are few and far between here in Australia.

Quantification still has the prime place of privilege in the profession. However, as many have noted across the decades, reducing our understanding of people to counting their behaviours is so reductionist to be almost, or completely, meaningless. This is particularly so when discussing causality (what ‘makes us’ do what we do), given that the great majority of research with humans is correlational (which are patterns that we can see happening at the same time, without knowing if they are linked in any way). As Stuart Ritchie pointed out in his Science Fictions, a lot of applied scientific method is poorly undertaken and reported anyway.

Yet, we have continually reduced human character to personality tests, and have given up on discerning the heart of matters that are important. Instead, we seek techniques to guarantee outcomes, rather than walking by faith to do good before God.

Two recent authors have reminded us that in order to grow acceptance of the need for psychotherapy, there is ‘concept creep’ amongst those who wish to make our thinking more ‘therapeutised’. Jonathan Haidt and associates have noted it in their work on anxiety. They have coined the term ‘safteyism’ to explain that frame of mind that says, ‘My child (or I) must always be made to feel safe, not just physically, but emotionally.’ The claim is that they will be traumatised if they do not have these kinds of no-risk contexts, even in their thinking. [ii]

Bonanno found a similar trend when reviewing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). He also noted that ‘trauma’ became meaninglessly broad in its scope, and that this prevented researchers from being more realistic about the actual norm, which is that the majority of people do not have long-term symptoms after significant physical trauma, such a battle, 9/11 or spinal injury. He quotes another researcher (Reswick) who reminded others that “Strong emotions do not equal psychopathology.” [iii] As Bonanno summarised, “Resilience was the norm. … the average prevalence rate for the resilience trajectory was around the two-thirds mark.” [iv]

Christian thinkers, and properly modest researchers, have been warning of such reductionism for decades – that is, warning that psychology does not live up to its own hype. The foundational reason is as the prophet Jeremiah noted: the human heart is a mystery to all but God. [v] The philosopher Swinburne summarised this anthropological conundrum of understanding who we are – human beings who have physical and non-physical aspects of reality – as follows:

I argue that each human is a pure mental substance, having a soul as their one essential part and a body as a non-essential part… I claim that the arguments in favour of this view, called ‘substance dualism’, that we are essentially pure mental substances, are – despite its current extreme unpopularity – compelling. … Substance dualism is a doctrine about what is necessary for our existence, not about what makes for a full and worthwhile life. [vi]

Later in his book, Swinburne explains that one of the important implications of understanding who we are as embodied souls, is that it gives us a basis for discussing personal moral responsibility:

Because we are agent-causes who act intentionally without being fully caused by anything else to do with what we do, we are morally responsible for our action. And because we are in essence exactly the same person as the person who had the same body during all that body’s life, the mere passage of time cannot remove our moral responsibility for action which we did earlier in our lives. [vii]

Ignoring such realities of who we are breeds inaccurate and at times destructive psychology. A recent explanation of this is Abigail Shrier’s book, Bad Therapy. [viii]She explains that her focus is “about the worriers, the fearful, the lonely, the lost and sad. We rush to remedy a misdiagnosed condition with the wrong sort of cure.”

Another author who explains the nature of these ‘wrong sorts of cure’ is Theordore Dalrymple (a pseudonym). Here is one of his insightful summaries:

But the overall effect of psychological thought on human culture and society, I contend, has been overwhelmingly negative because it gives the false impression of greatly increased human self-understanding where it not has been achieved, it encourages the evasion of responsibility by turning subjects into objects where it supposedly takes account of or interests itself in subjective experiences, and it makes shallow the human character because it discourages genuine self-examination and self-knowledge.  It is ultimately sentimental and promotes the grossest self-pity, for it makes everyone (apart from scapegoats) victims of their own behaviour… [ix]

Such authors unpack that when we have a misunderstanding of our natures as human beings, our helping behaviour becomes confused and sometimes harmful because we do not know what is right. Thus, justice and mercy, like in the days of Micah and Jesus, become distorted. [x]

But yet we persist in pretending we can observe and then design sure-fire strategies to fix the ills of our times. The outcome of that, as Chesterton, Lewis and others of their time warned, is always us being controlled by deep-fake saviours.

My suggestion? Next time you hear someone say, “This is what the psychology says,” say a prayer for their soul.

[i] G. W. Bromily, The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. William B Eerdmans, 1985, p. 1347.

[ii] See Haidt’s work with others in The Coddling of the American Mind, and more recently, The Anxious Generation.

[iii] George A Bonanno The End of Trauma: How the New Science of Resilience is Changing how we think about PTSD. New York: Basic Books, 2021, p. 54

[iv] Ibid, p. 96

[v] Jeremiah 17:9-10

[vi] Richard Swinburne (2013) Mind, Brain and Free Will. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, p. 2. For an excellent theological exploration of the inherent soulness of humanity, see Cooper, JW (2000) Body, Soul, and Life Everlasting: Biblical Anthropology and the Monism – Dualism Debate. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B Eerdmans Publishing Company

[vii] Ibid. p. 229

[viii] Abigail Shrier, Bad Therapy: Why the kids aren’t growing up. USA: Sentinel Books, 2024, p.xi.

[ix] Theordore Dalrymple, Admirable Evasions: how psychology undermines morality. Encounter Books, 2015, p. 112.

[x] See Micah 6:6-8 and Matthew 23:23

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