Towards a new foundation for psychology
author: Matthijs Cornelissen
last revision: July 2019
What is psychology, and how should it be studied?
Psychology is a special science: it is about ourselves
The psychology I'll try to describe in this book is the science of the soul, the psyche, of what we are in our innermost essence. It is of course also the science of our more humble thoughts and feelings, our desires and fears, our doubts and our faith, our impulses and our will, our pain and our joy, our love and our loneliness, our outer action and inner agency, and the myriad ways all these interact in shaping our lives. But above all else, it is the science of our urge for progress, our search for a greater love and a more beautiful life, our aspiration for a wider consciousness, a deeper meaning and a higher truth.
Mainstream psychology is not like this. The reason is that psychology occupies a unique position amongst all the different branches of science. While all other sciences are about things that exist in the physical, outside world, psychology is — or rather should be — about what happens inside ourselves. The natural territory of psychology consists of things and processes that exist subjectively in our consciousness, and science does not really know how to deal with consciousness and what happens inside of it. For science, studying these things in a rigorous and reliable fashion is not as straightforward as studying what exist "out there" in the physical world, "for everyone to see".
And so, while psychology at the end of the nineteenth century started off as the science of consciousness, in the beginning of last century American psychologists gave up on it and redefined psychology as the science of behaviour. Since behaviour can be observed and measured objectively, psychology suddenly turned into a real, objective science like all the others.
Over time, mainstream psychology realised this did not work as well as it had hoped, and psychology is now routinely defined as the science of behaviour and experience, but, as we will see, the shift has not gone far enough and we are still not as good in dealing with the subjective side of reality as we are with the objective side.
The problem with subjectivity is of course not a new one. There is a cute Sufi story that explains the predicament of mainstream psychology rather well. It is about Nazruddin who is feverishly looking for something under a streetlight. A puzzled onlooker asks him,
“What are you looking for?”
“I’m looking for my keys!”
“Where did you lose them?”
“Over there, in my house.”
“Then why are you looking here, outside your house?”
“Because inside the house it is dark.
Here at least I can see what I’m doing!”
A simple story, and perhaps over-used, but it contains a deep truth. As one of the Upanishads tells us, the house of our body is made with its windows (the senses) opening outside. So we tend to look outside of ourselves for the solution of our problems. But that’s not where the key to their solution is to be found. Though meant as a warning for "the common man", the Sufi story describes quite accurately what academic psychology has been doing so far. It has been looking at external behaviour simply because that is what we know how to research. The physical sciences have worked out their methods for centuries and they have achieved amazing successes with it, so it is tempting for psychology to follow their lead. But the methods of the physical sciences haven’t worked for psychology so far and they will not work in the future, for what psychology is looking for is not to be found in the physical world outside of ourselves. It is not even to be found, or at least not in its entirety, in our social surroundings. Culture is important, but it is not the full story either. The core of our own being is our consciousness. Consciousness is what we are, subjectively, in our own personal experience. And so a science of psychology has to be primarily a science of consciousness. The question then is whether we can develop a real, rigorous and progressive science and technology of consciousness. Mainstream science did not believe so, and before proceeding it may be good to have a quick look at how this effected psychology.
Can we have a science of consciousness?
In itself, it is quite understandable that science is weary of subjectivity, but the result has been that all those things that exist only subjectively, "inside of us" disappeared from its purview. In fact, for most of the 20th century, consciousness itself was seriously taboo in science (Güzeldere, 1995). Even psychology, which tried to model itself on the physical sciences, kept it at a distance. Classical behaviourism, which went furthest in this direction, limited psychology strictly to what is immediately, objectively observable and banned all reference to consciousness, thoughts and feelings. For a while, it tried to predict human behaviour solely on the basis of externally visible stimulus-response loops. This may have worked, at least to some extent, for the rats they studied, but of course this didn’t work for humans.1 Human beings are far too complex, and the same outer behaviour can have completely different psychological causes and meanings. Even more serious is that almost everything that really matters to people went missing in the behaviourist's universe, because without consciousness there can be no love, no beauty, no meaning, no agency, no knowledge even, for all these things exist primarily in our consciousness.2 As a result, over the years, reference to inner mental states and processes was gradually allowed back in; new, post-reductionist approaches developed; some attempts at integrating spirituality and science were made; and by the end of the twentieth century even “consciousness” was rehabilitated as a valid subject of scientific enquiry.
But the shadow of physicalist behaviourism has not been lifted yet. The shift from "behaviour" to "behaviour and experience" has been only half-hearted, and it is still not the subjective reality itself that is explored by mainstream psychology. What is studied instead, even in so-called qualitative research, are people's statements about what they experience, and this is far more strange than psychologist seem to realise. It is as if one would try to study astronomy by asking ordinary people about what they see in the evening sky or do chemistry by interviewing representative samples of the lay public about the experiments they do in their kitchens. Astronomers use advanced maths that few can understand and telescopes of which there are only a few in the world. Chemistry makes progress because highly-trained chemists do their experiments in sophisticated, well-equipped labs. Both report on their own experiments and colleagues check their processes and outcomes. The rest of us simply believe the experts. Strangely enough, in modern psychology this is not how things go. It is not part of standard research procedures for psychologists to "go inside" and study directly what happens in their own consciousness. What psychologists have relied on instead is what other people say about their experience. In other words, there is in psychology no consciousness-equivalent for advanced mathematics, telescopes or sophisticated, and highly specialised chemistry labs.
It might be objected that neurology fills the gap but this is a category error. While the hard sciences know how to study the objective, physical correlates of mental processes, psychology has left what this means in terms of experience to members of the general public. Virtually everything modern psychology knows is based on the sophisticated statistical analysis of naive self-observations by members of the general public. As a result it rarely if ever goes beyond common sense.3
The good news is that there actually are effective and reliable methods to explore the subjective domain. The only hitch is that they are not to be found within the Euro-American scientific tradition. There are indications of it in the writings of the Christian mystics, and in more recent times, Phenomenology has made a fresh, secular attempt, but by far the richest collection of them is to be found in the various Indian knowledge traditions. The reason is that consciousness and inner exploration have been the central focus of the Indian civilization for millennia.
The Indian tradition is, however, extremely complex and so one has to choose between a selection and a synthesis. If we want to develop a single framework for the whole of science, we need a synthesis, but instead of attempting to make my own, for which I am ill-equipped, I'm making use of the synthesis Sri Aurobindo made in the first half of the last century.4 Interestingly, it was roughly in the same period that Freud created Psychoanalysis in Europe and Watson Behaviourism in the USA, that Sri Aurobindo began to test — and expand — India's ancient inner knowledge with impeccable intellectual rectitude. While Freud and Watson started large movements within the academic world, Sri Aurobindo worked quietly on his own and though he published the first version of almost all his major prose works between 1914 and 1920, even now, almost a century later, the quality and extent of his work are still hardly known.
Summary of what has been discussed so far
As we have seen, mainstream science has limited itself to studying behaviour, what ordinary people can tell about themselves and the physical correlates of consciousness. But this is not good enough.
There are at least three reasons why science must learn to go inside and study the things and processes that take place in our consciousness directly.
- honouring who we are
- the value of values
The first reason to pay attention to what happens inside ourselves is purely pragmatic. Our human behaviour is the end-result of an enormously complex series of processes, and to understand, predict and improve human action, these inner processes do require a detailed, direct examination.
The second reason we should look at consciousness and inner states is that what happens inside of us is important in its own right. One could in fact argue that it is the only thing that really matters to us as human beings. We are not objects and nobody wants to be treated as an object. We are subjects, and a real science of psychology should not be afraid of studying everything that this entails, for in the end, that is what we are in our innermost being and our highest consciousness.
The third reason is that a physicalist, objective science cannot say anything meaningful about values as the physical reality by itself has no place for values or meaning. Social constructionism cannot help either as social values are ultimately only a matter of consensus.[FN] Things like meaning and values exist in consciousness and only a science of consciousness can lead to their naturalisation.
Even if difficult, there is no acceptable excuse for not trying to achieve this. It is true that to succeed we need a new philosophical foundation for science and a better understanding of human knowledge, and to develop these will not be easy. But it must be done, and as I hope to show, the most promising avenue for getting there is to seek help from the Indian tradition.
In the next chapter we will have a closer look at what it is exactly that the Indian civilization can contribute to modern psychology.
1. In fact, classical behaviourism did not work that well for rats either. Sheldrake relates of an experiment in which the amount of time taken for rats to find food in a maze was taken as a measure for their intelligence. After a while it became clear that the rats who had found the food in the minimum time where not good at other tasks that required intelligence. A closer scrutiny of what happened in the maze showed that the most intelligent rats found the food quickly, but then left it behind to explore the rest fo the maze (possibly to find a way out of the maze). They went back to the food only after they had satisfied themselves that the maze had nothing else to offer.[REF]
2. For a short description of what the four main schools of psychology have contributed and what they have missed in terms of basic epistemological territory, see Appendix 1-1-1. For a slightly more detailed assessment of Classical Behaviourism one could have a look at Appendix 1-1-2.
3. During a conference in Oxford, a highly respected elderly British psychologist remarked once that whatever psychology had found was either trivial or dubious. I expected the younger psychologists surrounding him to protest, but they didn't. They solemnly nodded. It might be tempting to dismiss his observation as exaggerated cynicism, but can one even imagine a senior physicist saying such a thing about physics?
4. Those who don't know his work may wonder why I have put so much faith in one single author, but I hope that as we proceed, whatever initial scepsis the reader may have will be dispelled by the sheer quality of Sri Aurobindo's work. There is a short biography of Sri Aurobindo in the Appendix.