This article and other similar articles can be found in Beyond Trauma: Conversations on Traumatic Incident Reduction, 2nd Edition available from our bookstore at www.TIRbook.com
Richard Gist writes:
Science is about the veracity of opinions, not merely their articulation. “Ownership” of a position is a dangerous business, in that intuition is, as often than not, a misguiding beacon…. [T]he process of science stands, at least in principle, transcendent of the foibles of its mortal practitioners as an epistemological frame designed specifically to bite the hands which deed it.
So much has been said about science absent a good definition of the term that I thought I would essay one. Since my predilection is toward things person-centered for reasons that will become apparent, I would like to offer a person-centered definition of science. I would welcome comments or improvements on the definition.
First, of all, I think it is useful to distinguish between “a science” and science as an activity
Science, as an activity, is the art of non-coercive persuasion.
“Non-coercive persuasion” is the person-centered definition of “proof”, since proving something to another person is simply the activity of persuading that person by legitimate means, i.e., without the use of any kind of force. Scientific activity, in fact, is any method of obtaining a consensus amongst a large number of individuals that does not use force: emotional, financial, or physical. It involves experiential demonstration and logical interpretation of what is demonstrated rather than threats, appeal to emotion, etc. Part of the activity of science is making hypotheses and trying to falsify or verify them by experiments, but science may proceed in other ways as well. Certain sciences, for instance, cannot use experiments to any significant degree to verify or falsify their findings. Astronomy and geography come to mind, in this respect, since the objects being studied in these fields cannot effectively be experimented upon. In this case, careful observation and reasoning are the persuasive elements. Every subdivision of the creative activity known as science is best served by its own set of means of proof (non-coercive persuasion). No one method or existing set of methods, therefore, can serve as a criterion for deciding what is, or is not, scientific activity. It depends on what one is studying. The inventiveness of the human mind is boundless, and undoubtedly new methods of engaging in the art of non-coercive persuasion will be added to our current repertoire.
A particular science is a body of data that follows a pattern that has been widely agreed upon, based on scientific activity.
As Kuhn pointed out, a science does not exist until a considerable consensus has been achieved, what he called a paradigm. Up to that point, there is merely a proto-science, in which there may yet be a great deal of scientific activity. While at the leading edge of sciences like physics and chemistry, there may be controversies about points of theory and methodology, these sciences, like all sciences, have a considerable body of data that is so widely agreed upon that it can safely be written into textbooks. There is no disagreement, for instance, that the sodium ion has a valence of 1 or that force = mass times acceleration.
The field of psychology, on the other hand, falls into the category of a proto-science, not a science because, although a great deal of scientific activity has taken and is taking place, such activity has not managed to forge any major consensus on fundamental beliefs about the nature of the mind or human behavior. In Kuhnian terms, the field is still “pre-paradigmatic”. No theory of the mind and behavior has emerged that is so appealing and of such strong explanatory power that virtually everyone agrees on it.
Psychology is worthwhile as a form of scientific activity, even if it isn’t a science. However, since we have been going along in this field for quite some time now without forging a consensus, perhaps it is time to look to see if we are thinking about the subject in the right way and using a kind of reasoning that can lead to a consensus.
A problem arises right at the outset, because there is no consensus about the definition of the activity called “psychology”. It used to be considered the study of the mind, but with the advent of Gilbert Ryle and the behaviorist/logical positivist revolution, the concept of mind fell into disrepute. With the decline of behaviorism came the idea that mind and brain are one, and psychology and neurology have recently tended to become confused with each other. Neurology buffs tend to reduce the concept of mind to that of the brain and nervous system, whilst New Age buffs tend to regard the brain and the rest of the physical universe as a kind of mental entity.
What happened to the idea of studying human experience in its own right? After all, if there are any universals in human experience, they ought to be the most accessible of data and the easiest to examine, and claims about them should be the easiest to verify or falsify. If I make a claim that certain elements or patterns of elements of human experience are universal to all humans, regardless of age, gender, or culture, then each individual can look to his or her own experience to test my assertions. Moreover, human experience is the raw material from which we build our entire world-view, including any notions we may have about the physical world and causal and structural elements and relationships within it. Epistemologically, experience is always prior. We arrive at our concepts about the brain and neurology from our experience (largely from our education rather than from direct experience); we don’t arrive at knowledge of what we are experiencing from studying our brains. Husserl and other phenomenologists therefore sought to create a “strict science” of human experience that would serve as a basis for all other sciences, but the descriptions they have offered are (in my experience at least) very difficult to understand and curiously abstract for something that is meant to be experiential.
Since the original meaning of psychology as the study of the human mind and human experience has changed, largely, to the study of neurology and behavior, in my own work I have proposed a new name for the study of experience: “metapsychology“. Freud used this term in the late 19th century to describe the theory that lay behind the practice of psychoanalysis. In my usage, it describes the careful study, classification, and description of direct human experience that should underlie psychological theory. From such an experiential base could arise a consensus that could lead to a kind of psychology that could be a real science, in the Kuhnian sense.
One of the big problems in forging a consensus has been lack of an agreed-upon terminology. Suppose, however, that we could describe our experience clearly enough and with terminology sufficiently clearly defined that everyone would know exactly what we were talking about when we used terms like “mind”, “concept”, “phenomenon”, “intention”? In my experience, many disagreements that don’t resolve in a short period of discussion boil down to terminological problems and resolve when terminology is agreed upon.
Wittgenstein described philosophy as “a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of words”. When we clearly define the words we use to describe experience, and when those words describe elements of human experience that everyone can experience for him- or herself, and if we avoid ill-defined and highly theory-laden terms, it then becomes possible to have a firm consensus from which to start talking about human nature and experience. Absent such clear definitions, we have the “Tower of Babel” with which the field of psychology is currently confronted.
With verbal and conceptual clarity about experiential entities, moreover, certain patterns in human experience become obvious which were muddy before, and all this careful definition of terms begins to pay off. The technique of Traumatic Incident Reduction (TIR), for instance, is based entirely on metapsychology, i.e., on carefully defined, experientially based concepts. The result is a technique that is simple, completely person-centered, and which makes a lot of sense intuitively, both to a therapist and to a client, and clients can understand completely what is going on in the procedure without having any kind of theoretical superstructure or interpretations of experience imposed on them. Many other useful helping techniques can be and have been derived from the metapsychological “infrastructure” that we have developed over the past ten years.
I am hoping that metapsychology, i.e., a clear and careful examination of common experience, can lead to the consensus that the field of psychology needs in order to become a true science.
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