Is Psychology Science?
Psychology (“soul-study”) is great, but is it really science? I have a very divided opinion on the matter, which I explore below. I also ask why psychology is failing society, and what society really, really wants out of a satisfying future.
You can also read my follow-up post on the scientific aspects of psychology, here.
Grab a coffee and get reading!
What the Hell, Psychology
Part of me opines, it’s better for psychology to be an honest art than a dishonest science. Let’s look it over together a moment: psychology is theories upon theories, it’s detective work and puzzle solving, it’s diving into the murky depths of the psyche looking for truth. There’s a great deal of investigation and reflection, culminating in the airing of fanciful theories about how everything might fit together. Isn’t it all subjective and open to disagreement?
In this respect, psychology has a similar character to philosophy, archaeology and history, which are arts right? Wait, let me get a second opinion on, you guessed it, Wikipedia.
Oh apparently they’re all social sciences. Y’know, I just vaguely remembered a tsunami of venom being hurled at the social sciences by, well, actual scientists, so let’s take a gander at the subjects being listed for a moment: “Anthropology, Archaeology, Criminology, Demography, Economics, Geography (human), History, International Relations, Jurisprudence, Linguistics, Pedagogy, Political Science, Psychology, Science Education & Sociology.” Huh. I actually burst out laughing several times reading the list.
So, the social sciences were born out of a time when science, truth and reason were the business, so to be taken more seriously, non-scientific subjects would adopt the mantle of “science!” to increase their intellectual gravity. Hah. Let’s take a cynical look at a few of these subjects shall we?
Economics is a confidence game (that includes outright deception), and absolutely not based on any sort of objective truth. History is told by a motley crew of untrustworthy narrators. Jurisprudence-as-science makes me burst into a fit of laughter at the very thought of it: systems of law are hacked together in a horribly ad-hoc manner and don’t work especially well, perhaps well enough for nations not to completely collapse, but regardless, that joke subject isn’t science.
What else do we have here. “International Relations” is a science? Diplomacy, my friends, is most certainly an art. The only subjects that are here and jumping out with a real feel of science are anthropology, criminology and linguistics. I’m willing to see anthropology as a branch of biology, studying humans as one might study ants, criminology is a sub-category of anthropology, and linguistics is, as far as I’m aware, a pretty objective study of the methods of human communication.
So out of fifteen subjects, I’ll let three of them pass for science. The rest are arts. And what, pray tell, is wrong with being art?
What’s Wrong With Psychology-as-Art?
I love psychology! I advocate for the effective application of psychology, the vibrancy of the discipline and the spiritual well-being of society. That said, it’s not a pure science, it’s a bit dishonest and it needs to shape up.
Real science is impersonal. It’s objective and absolutely not open to any subjective interpretation. That’s the point.
Mathematics doesn’t care about anyone’s opinion. Nor does physics. Theoretical physics, by the way, isn’t science either, it’s philosophy. If a physicist has a fanciful theory and they want to call it real science, they need to prove it, and then their rivals need to verify it and grudgingly accept they’ve been beaten to the discovery.
I have a sense that if a field, such as psychology, was more truthful about its own nature then it might stand a much better chance at doing some good. The self-deception of psychologists believing the fanciful idea that they might be pure scientists just isn’t helping. They have to be authentic about their nature. They’re partly artists in the same way a detective or a philosopher is and that’s nothing to be ashamed of.
If anything, being artists would make psychologists more subjective, more personal, and less about treating human beings as problematic objects. Science is all about objects, is dehumanising by nature, and probably not the best way to approach living people. People need a personal touch. A story isn’t scientific, it’s myth, and what is a person other than a living collection of stories?
Right—people are living stories. If I asked you who you are, you would tell me a story. I bet you could tell me a lot of stories. I like stories. I enjoy paying attention to them, and I build up a grand narrative combining all the stories I listen to. I ask myself, what do these stories have in common? What’s the picture that they’re weaving?
I especially enjoy looking where people don’t look, at ordinary people who might feel a bit… invisible? Well, things could be better. Some things are cool, others disturbing. There’s a solution to a lot of problems, not to everything, but to a lot. Let’s take what we can get.
Struggling with Life
People’s mental health is so extremely important, and yet we’re in an age when I see people struggling with forces of globalism and cultural alienation. The Western mental health industry has a terrible reputation of ineptitude. There’s all sorts of craziness. Suicide among young men is a particular problem in an age, supposedly, of remarkable material comfort. What’s going on?
Mainstream Western culture has run a mile from traditional sources of deep, spiritual nourishment (what some people would cynically dismiss as “woo-woo”) in favour of material pleasures and supposedly rational things. These are good, don’t get me wrong, but they’re not enough. Spiritual pursuits are generally seen as “alternative”. Basically a bit weird.
I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty eccentric and I don’t mind the label. There’s a saying I know that goes: “Weird people are normal. It’s the “normal” people you need to look out for”. It’s those normal people who seem to be the most spiritually malnourished, because the culture neglects those needs.
To fix that there has to be attention to the needs of the psyche, and a more intuitive psychological culture to provide it. The psyche likes weird and irrational things that feel meaningful and oddly real, because, in a sense they are real.
Fed on A Diet of Stories
Remember that the psyche feeds on stories, and if we’re going to have a meaningful life we need a meaningful narrative. It’s not much fun to be a wage-slave, earning money for the banks and the landlords, being frustrated with a world going to hell. That’s not a great narrative. It’s important for people to understand that they can re-invent the narrative of their life whenever they want. It’s just a story after all, and in your case dear reader, aren’t you the one writing it? Add a plot twist.
Every good story has some perils in it, so don’t be too concerned with obstacles—those are made to be overcome. The real question is where do you want your story to go from here? The question for everyone is where do we go from here? There are so many pathways for us to explore together.
This tends to be the realm of the arts, which, unfettered even by sanity, are able to go wherever they please. Ideas find innumerable forms in film, music, food, poetry, theatre and literature and so on. And I suppose there’s also YouTube videos, martial arts, gardening, baking, cosplay, graffiti and tattoos… okay, that’s enough.
The human spirit has to find its expression or else we get a sense of madness, which can be ironic if our art is especially eccentric, since eccentric artists are often thought of as mad aren’t they? And yet there’s a stigma around anything “unscientific”, fuzzy, and immaterial, as if that was the fundamental problem.
But no, the problem is that Western culture won’t quite admit that not everything can be grounded in science, rational thought and the material realm. Western culture has a fetish for the scientific, the rational and the material and a disdain for the artful, the intuitive, and the spiritual.
This trend has spilled into disciplines that apparently feel the pressure to erroneously call themselves science, when, if scrutinised honestly by a discerning outside observer, will call those disciplines “art”. Today that observer is me by the way—and you may join me in that criticism if it pleases you.
Everything That’s Wrong with “Scientific” Psychology
Psychology is a field in which practitioners personally interpret matters of the psyche. It’s just not possible to obtain what is required in real science, which would be some sort of absolute truth as to what is going on. There’s no place for a subjective opinion in science. Remember that the point of science is to remove opinion. Science is facts, not opinions.
In the domain of psychology there is always subjective interpretation. Information is gathered and interpreted, hypothetical models or explanations are proposed, but really, these are just works of the imagination. The use of statistics and other technical methods is mere sleight of hand to mask this fact. Like-minded psychologists might go on to share a vision of how everything fits together, but group-think is not a substitute for objectivity.
This is art trying hard to be science, no matter how much some psychologists protest, and they do. It doesn’t actually get there if we’re ruthlessly honest. And of course it takes an outsider looking in to provide this honesty, because it’s simply human nature for psychologists to tell themselves what they want to hear—that they’re real scientists. Except they’re not.
Does this mean psychology is a sham? No! Just because something is art and not science doesn’t mean it’s lacking in truth or value. Artistic truths are of a different quality to those revealed by science. In arts, truths are fuzzier and there can be multiple correct answers. The veracity of a truth in art is determined by its practical results. If something works, it is “true”. Or perhaps that should be, “true enough”. The pragmatic nature of artistic truth requires a different mindset to a scientific one, which holds to a very abstract ideal that isn’t always practical.
Nothing should stop people exploring unscientific realms if it means practical truths come out of it. Science is pretty useless when a subjective approach is the way to go, when you’re doing something that requires an opinion. How do you take your coffee? How should you decorate a room? How should you cheer somebody up? These are all artistic questions. There’s no “scientific” objective answer to any of them. Sometimes, science is useless.
It’s such a shame that art hasn’t been as valued as much as science in the West. This has lead to many fields trying to pass themselves off as science to increase their legitimacy. What a shame. I say that the arts are unjustly undervalued. Arts have a lot to offer, especially to the welfare of the soul.
So what now? What’s my point? What are my conclusions? What are my action points? What would I like the field of psychology to do to redeem itself?
For too long intuitive types, such as myself, have been reticent. When it’s a person’s nature to be a good listener and reflective, it’s tempting to say nothing and simply watch where things go without interjecting. Well, things are going badly and it’s no longer the time to be silent.
It’s time to cause a fuss.
Disciplines that are not science must be ruthlessly mocked and shamed for that particular claim. Lying is not okay. Fake sciences are a joke, but psychology isn’t. It’s a very serious subject that isn’t properly aligned with itself, and if it was, it would better serve humanity.
Everyone on the outside of psychology, who sympathises with its noble aim of understanding the human soul, should pressure psychologists to adjust the way they present their discipline.
Psychology has to pursue what’s good for people, and I tell you that’s an art. My primary concern is with the mental health of the populace at large, and how they can all feel fulfilled in the future. That’s a very subjective, unscientific thing to think about isn’t it? How do we find the answers?
Why would you even turn to science for something like that? Well, that answer is perfectly clear to me: it’s wishful thinking. A reflexive habit entertaining pure childish naivety. “Science has all the answers!” Except it doesn’t. It has nothing to say about subjective choices. In this case it’s a dead end, but hey, at least we all explored it. Okay so now what?
You Can’t Always Get What You Want
We turn to the subjective arts, and ask the more pertinent question: “What do people really want?”, and I mean that on the deepest level. Deep down in their soul, what do they want? Want with a deeply buried, primal hunger. What a person needs to feel satisfied. The things their instincts command them to pursue—perhaps unconsciously, without them being truly aware, in the majority of cases. And then we sort of push that question out to the broader context, what does society need, and how does that compare to what they currently have.
I suppose I just touched on an unconscious framework that psychologists should be very familiar with, but perhaps ordinary people are unconscious of. Perhaps I need to demonstrate its existence to the sceptical reader quickly. If you think about killing yourself, there’s a mental reflex that says “You’re not allowed to do that.” Indeed, whenever you think about any forbidden behaviour, “You’re not allowed to do that.” is a mental force that takes effort to consciously override.
Where did that come from? If you’re so in control of yourself, why are there forces coming out of the back of your mind telling you what you can’t do? And of course there are also those forces compelling you to do what you must do—to take care of daily business and other necessary affairs. Is the “conscious you” really the one in control, or do you serve deeper masters? Apologies if your mind exploded, but this should become familiar territory if we’re discussing psychology. Human minds are not at all simple.
But You Might Get What You Need
So back to the question I was asking before, what does society, people at large, unconsciously need? And what are they not getting? Roughly speaking, it’s to be a valuable part in a grand story. Men in particular, hate being spare parts. There’s something truly poisonous to a man’s soul if he doesn’t have a decent purpose, whatever that is—”that” has a subjective answer. People can find their calling in all sorts of things. Women are somewhat similar.
We all seek our place, to be valued, to give love and be loved. As societies, the real conversation we need to have is “What big idea do we want to do?” What new collective story is going to give us satisfaction?
Being English myself, it always seemed that my people were off on some grand adventure, pushing back the boundaries and doing something amazing. And there were so many boundaries to push back! Scientific, geographic, engineering, inventing… the romance around the steam age, “steampunk”, still captures the imagination.
The future also captures our collective imagination, but it seems like we’re holding back a lot. Maybe we should do something crazy like colonise space? Sort out the global trash problem? Insert your pet big idea here? I really think we’d all be a lot happier if we were doing something big, collectively. Maybe all it would take, are some conversations to happen, and leaders to emerge.
Should we all go work for Elon Musk? Haha, well, I don’t know about that, but I do sense society has a lot of pent up energy yearning for constructive outlets. That’s probably why superhero movies are so popular. Everyone wants to be useful. Somehow, we need these conversations to happen and society to be mobilised into the life its secretly dreaming of.
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