Redeeming psychology means developing an apologetic edge

Only the Christian worldview can do justice to the ultimate questions of psychology.

Appears in Summer 2009 Issue: Responding
June 1 st 2009

In the introduction to this symposium, I argued that Christians can work toward the redemption of psychology in two main ways. First, they can have a powerful effect on the discipline even while playing by the rules of the mainstream academic game. Second, those within the freer walls of the Christian university can make additional contributions if they are willing to bend those rules a little bit.

One of the ways I have been bending the rules in my own teaching of psychological science has been to introduce an apologetical element to my teaching, suggesting to my students that the Christian worldview, far from being a merely tolerable intellectual option, is actually the only worldview that can make ultimate sense of the science of psychology itself, and of its findings. Before I can share the basic structure of the argument, however, I need to lay some groundwork.

Psychological science and ultimate questions

If you think about it, much of psychological science proceeds on the implicit assumption that one can have an adequate understanding of the human mind and behaviour without Christianity, without the Bible.

Is that assumption a problem?

Many Christians would say "no." Reason and science are thought to have a kind of autonomous competence. They can take us up to a point. After that, faith must fill in the gaps. Let's call this interpretation the "separate spheres" approach.

There is of course a kind of plausibility to this assumption. Would we after all want to deny the accomplishments of psychological science? And, as several of the invited papers have expressed, Christians in psychology can do (and learn) quite a bit when they play by the rules of the mainstream academic game.

There is also a certain comfort in this way of thinking. Psychological science, we are told, only deals with empirical questions, i.e., those questions that can be put to the test. Ultimate (or "why") questions, however, questions about the meaning of our lives, about the existence of God, are outside of its competence. These questions are addressed by different disciplines, like philosophy and theology. The comfort of such a position is that it minimizes the likelihood of any real conflict between psychological science and the Christian faith. The problem with this position is that it is not sufficiently attentive to the ways in which ultimate questions have already been answered by the discipline. For example, pay close attention to the different ways that psychological scientists make sense of their research findings. On the lowest level, scientists propose what we might call "micro-theories" which lead to specific testable predictions and—if successful—help to explain a given phenomenon.

In almost any Introduction to Psychology course, students encounter, for example, the opponent-process and the trichromatic theories of colour vision. These theories successfully deal with proximate matters, explaining "how it works." But you'll notice that very often psychological scientists don't stop there. Again and again, almost instinctively, they will make statements about the ultimate purposes of the phenomenon in question. Almost without exception such statements go like this: "we can see how phenomenon x (e.g., colour vision) would have helped our forebears survive in an ancestral environment." Or, "presumably, phenomenon x has an evolutionary basis." The point is that scientific practice in psychology, which is said to focus exclusively on strictly empirical, testable questions, frequently goes beyond the merely empirical as it attempts to give an "ultimate" accounting for its findings, and usually that accounting is given in terms of evolutionary theory.

My intent here is not to contest the reality of evolution per se (even theologically conservative Christians differ on this question). Nor is it to doubt that massive amounts of human functioning do at least in part serve the ends of survival and reproduction (because they do). Least of all do I think that psychologists should (or could) cease to engage in higher-order ultimate-level meaning-making. At this stage, all I want to do is ask an ultimate ("why") question of my own: why do psychological scientists on a regular basis seem to violate the canons of the pure empiricism they claim to value in this particular way?

My answer to this complicated question will be simple: psychologists are people, and people cannot live on the bread of proximate explanations alone. We need to know more than how things work; we need to know why we are here. And, of course, the way we go about answering ultimate questions is to fall back on ultimate assumptions, or worldviews.

So, yes, psychological scientists put their ideas to the test, and do so magnificently. But that is not all they do. Many psychological scientists also interpret their tested ideas according to a widely shared naturalistic, evolutionary worldview. So it turns out that in the actual interpretive practices of scientific psychologists, faith (worldview) and science are after all not truly separate spheres.

Implications for apologetics

Now all of this may seem a long-winded introduction to the topic of apologetics in psychology, but we needed to get the lay of the landscape before we could formulate (or—more realistically—sketch out) our apologetical strategy.

The integrality of faith and science would seem to rule out one historically popular approach to apologetics—"evidentialism." We might categorize the contemporary "Intelligent Design" (ID) movement as a kind of evidential apologetics. As the ID proponents like to say, if we just allow the data to speak for themselves, we'll see evidence of design in nature. One problem with such an approach is that scientists are human beings whose worldview-level beliefs are not easily revisable. As atheist scientist Richard Dawkins recently put it, despite the best efforts of the Intelligent Design theorists, he still fails to see any evidence whatsoever for the Judeo-Christian God.

An alternative approach to apologetics is called "presuppositional." Presuppositional arguments for the truth of Christianity take many forms, but they all seek to be responsive to the fact that worldview-level beliefs (such as belief in the truth or non-truth of Christianity) are highly resistant to revision. Simply "presenting the facts" is never enough.

Apologist Cornelius Van Til proposed a simple but powerful two-step presuppositional approach which I have found useful in my own teaching of psychological science and which my students seem to appreciate. The entire discussion focuses on the level of higher-order meaning-making, as if to say, "Well, 'scientific psychology,' you like to engage in ultimate explanation. We would like to do some ultimate explanation of our own." In our dialogue we first for the sake of argument assume that the naturalistic, evolutionary worldview is true; that is, we put on naturalistic, evolutionary eyeglasses, so to speak. We then attempt to give a full accounting of the facts and successful (micro-) theories of psychology from this perspective—we ask, "Does the naturalistic, evolutionary worldview—particularly its theory of natural selection building upon unguided but fortuitous genetic mutations—make sense of phenomenon or theory x?" Does human language, for example, or our capacity to discriminate approximately one million shades of color, or our tendency to self-justify, or our disproportionally enormous brain size relative to other species make sense given this worldview and its chosen mechanism of explanation? We also ask, do the assumptions of science itself (such as the reliability of human reason and the regularity and lawfulness of nature) make sense given this worldview? Do things come into focus when we wear these eyeglasses? (While ID arguments for design are often less than convincing, their arguments exposing the limitations of natural selection can be extremely useful here). Then, we ask our "empiricist" interlocutors "for the sake or argument" to assume the truth of Christianity, to put on Scriptural eyeglasses. We ask the same question. Does human language, or our tendency to self-justify, and so on, make sense given the Christian worldview? Do the assumptions of science itself fit within this worldview?

An article of this length can only get the conversation started. Most of what needs to be said remains unsaid. But, in its essence, the argument for Christianity is simple—psychological science regularly offers ultimate explanations of its hard-won findings. But it frequently does so less than persuasively, because of the inadequacies and inconsistencies of the naturalistic worldview that it presumes. The same hard-won findings can be better explained within the framework of a Christian worldview. Or, as Van Til might have put it—Christianity is shown to be true because it alone can do justice to the ultimate questions being asked in psychology.


Dr. Russ Kosits is an associate professor of psychology at Redeemer University College in Ancaster, ON.