of a spiritual
of a spiritual
Despite its roots in shamanism, and later in classical philosophy, the field of psychology today perceives itself as a science. A social science that strives to be taken seriously by the cool club of hard sciences. So how did we get from shamanism, introspection and philosophizing to playing scientists and pretending that human nature can be objectively analyzed, controlled and experimented with in the same way as, say, the speed of sound can?
As much respect as I have for the field of psychology - which I do - I cannot help but find this strive for objectivity and materialism contraproductive when it comes to human nature. The mind, emotions and behaviours of humans simply aren’t objective. They don’t always make biological or neurochemical sense. They might follow certain patterns and probabilities at times or particular cause-effect trajectories, however, these are not as measurable, tangible or predictable as our biological characteristics are. For one, the human mind - unlike the speed of sound or the cells of the body - operates with a degree of free will. To pretend that humans are as objectifiable as machines or even biological nature is to deny an essential aspect of human nature: consciousness.
To pretend that humans are as objectifiable as machines or even biological nature is to deny an essential aspect of human nature: consciousness.
Yet that is precisely what happened in the early 20th Century as the “new” field of psychology fought for its place in the academic and scientific world: The human soul, along with everything not directly reflected in human behaviour, was cast out of the field. While the term ‘psychology’ is derived from the Greek words ‘psyche’ (soul) and logos (to study), mainstream psychology continues to deny, ignore and neglect the soul. Perhaps the soul was not seen as sufficiently useful at a time when all resources went to fighting wars. And what use would it be to study something that cannot be proven anyway, at least not in the same way as behaviour can be tested, demonstrated and validated? After all, who would pay for research that doesn't lead to any tangible, controllable results?
And so psychology transformed from the introspective study of the soul to a scientific study of behaviour. If one seeks a definition of psychology today, one is likely to find the following explanation: “the scientific study of the mind and behaviour” (as defined by the American Psychological Association).
Interestingly, psychology’s obsession with materialism is not new. In fact, H.P. Blavatsky wrote the following in 1896:
“The twin sciences of psychology and metaphysics have fared worse than any other science, and have been so separated in Europe as to have become in their ignorance mortal enemies. . . What Mr. Huxley said of Positivism, namely that it was Roman Catholicism minus Christianity, ought to be paraphrased and applied to our modern psychological philosophy. It is psychology, minus soul; psyche being dragged down to mere sensation; a solar system minus a sun; Hamlet with the Prince of Denmark not entirely cast out of the play, but in some vague way suspected of being probably somewhere behind the scenes. . . For the modern psychologist, dealing as he does only with the superficial brain- consciousness, is in truth more hopelessly materialistic than all-denying materialism itself…”
(First published in Lucifer, Vol. XIX, No. 110, October 1896, pp. 97-102)
Some might interpret this as a sign of the slowness with which this field embraces change (ironic, considering the amount of studies conducted by psychologists on the dynamics of change). From the sound of it, we have not progressed much since 1896. Sure, we have fancier tools with which to study brain activity, but how far has that led us, really, to alleviate psychological suffering? We have psychotropic medication that is about as effective as placebo medication. It seems to me that the cost of holding on to the materialistic approach is very high compared to the meagre benefits we might gain from it.
Oh yes, there are benefits. For one, materialism is practical and easy: much more practical to study things that can be observed (such as behaviours) than something as nebulous and difficult to operationalize as ‘expanded awareness’. But should we accept psychology’s materialism just because it’s a more practical approach or because it’s cool to be regarded as a scientific discipline?
It’s not like this materialistic approach has led to amazing results in psychotherapy. The truth is that we, as a field, have not progressed anywhere near as much as, for example, the medical field has in the past 50 years. And my hypothesis is that, to a large extent, this lack of breakthroughs is due to the field’s insistence of studying the mind and human behaviour while denying our deeper essence. Frankly, that is as mad as (to borrow Blavatsky’s analogy) studying the solar system while ignoring the sun and claiming that you’re a real scientist because you use the scientific method to study it. Of course you can do it, but what's the point?
The problem is that as a field we have taken this approach for granted. Only rarely do I come across a psychologist who shares my perspective that psychology could and ought to expand its definition. Indeed, there are many psychologists who actively defend this materialistic position (for example, see G. Paxinos’ article: Why psychology lost its soul: everything comes from the brain).
Some scientists argue that there is no need to study the soul, for the brain is the key to understanding thoughts, emotions and behaviours. While this may be the case, my question is: what about the awareness within us that is not emotional, mental or dualistic? The non-dualistic awareness that doesn’t have any function that could be explained in biological terms such as evolution or survival. An awareness that is not determined by biology but could nevertheless alleviate suffering…
Take, for example, the near-death experiences that countless individuals have experienced; these individuals reported being aware despite their body and brain being medically pronounced ‘dead’. Most scientists, unable to place such evidence into their materialistic perspective, simply ignore such reports, or label them as un-scientific data on the account of not being able to measure and control such data. Well, yes, it’s more comfortable to ignore the data than to re-examine and alter one’s scientific framework and entire definition of reality. I get it - I just don't see that as a valid argument.
A new definition of psychology: 'The scientific, clinical, introspective or experiential study of the internal dynamics of being human'
It is my intention to draw the reader’s attention to the possibility of expanding our current, materialistic definition of psychology. Imagine that the definition of psychology was expanded to mean: “The study of human nature”. Or: “The scientific, clinical, introspective or experiential study of the internal dynamics of being human”. Or: “The study of mental, emotional, social and spiritual wellbeing”.
After all, can you really study mental wellbeing without studying emotional, social and spiritual wellbeing? And what is the point of studying human behaviour without looking at the mental, emotional, social and spiritual dynamics behind the behaviour? And if you were to look at all these aspects, would mere empirical methods suffice to provide an accurate and useful reflection of the truth?
At least to me it is obvious that humans are more than merely biological machines; I might be inhabiting this biological machine we call a body, but I am, first and foremost, a conscious being with free will. Even if many parts of my brain and my mind operate outside of my conscious will, there is also an awareness in the background that transcends the biology and even the brain. Call it soul, spirit or consciousness, it is part of me and yet it is not confined to the boundaries of my biological body. And if we allow even the possibility of such a part existing, might it not be useful to give it some consideration when designing practices to improve our psychological well-being? I believe it would be immensely beneficial.
As complex as computers may be, as sophistically designed as our bodies may be, I guarantee that my inner world with its thoughts, emotions and awaress is considerably more complex and more subtle than the function of computers or even my physiology. And I sincerely hope that if any scientist were to study my psyche, he or she would use more sophisticated and subtle tools than those currently used for studying psychology - and I don’t give a damn if those tools classify as scientific or not as long as they serve my psychological well-being.
Now I don’t expect the field of psychology to give up its obsession with materialism any time soon, but I will share openly that I at least am a psychologist with a soul, practising a psychology with soul.
What does it mean to acknowledge the existence of soul as a clinical psychologist, you might ask? Well, that’s a topic for my next essay.