Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Theology and Psychology

Believe it or not, my previous rambling topic on free will represented the result of effort on my part to bring some focus and organization to my thoughts on the matter. At several points I had about three different and mostly unrelated directions I wanted to go with the ideas. Eventually I thought I had said as much as a reasonable person would read so I quit writing.

One thing I left out that I'd like to go back for now is the relationship between theology of free will and modern psychology. Now I don't think psychology can responsibly claim to have solved the problem of free will, but it does have some interesting things to say on the subject.

When I was a freshman in college I had to read a selection from B.F. Skinner's Beyond Freedom and Dignity. I was absolutely horrified. It was my first hint that maybe I wasn't as free as I thought I was. I took comfort in hearing that Skinner's assessment wasn't universally accepted, but the world was changed. Gradually I became indoctrinated with the view that most of our decisions are heavily conditioned by our past experiences, if not completely determined, and today I still accept this as a basic fact.

It seems to me that there is a natural application of this idea to the theology of free will, yet I don't think I've seen anything written bringing the two together.

Christians tend to have a reflexive revulsion to the idea of behaviorism. Christianity would seem to be completely invalidated if it turns out that human beings are basically just machines. And yet we have Calvinism.

Constantly lurking in Christian tradition is the idea that God is present in the world, not just where we have performed religious acts to "make" God present, not even just in the places where God has promised to meet us, but everywhere. And if we could but grasp it, there must be a connection here between the theology of free will, grace and providence on the one hand and behavioral psychology on the other.


cranmer said...

I'm sure there is a connection, but doubt if we could demonstrate it scientifically as to do so would be to bring the transcendent into our hands. If we couldn't do this, then I suspect the results of our investigation would be of limited interest to the scientific community.

About a year ago I read Austin Farrer's A Science of God. An intriguing book which I couldn't agree with in the end. Thinking about it now, I guess it lacked a doctrine of the Fall, or perhaps just a strong sense of God's otherness from creation. We cannot simply look at creation and draw conclusions about God. The reasons for this might be in the nature of fallen creation itself or in our inability to correctly interpret what is before our eyes.

There is a parallel between, on the one hand, a belief in history as the cause and effect of natural processes and the idea of a free consciousness which is not purely determined by those processes and, on the other hand, human freedom and responsiblity (presumably including Christ's) and divine providence. I don't know what we can do with this parallel though.

Consciousness and the self, existing above the purely physical, appears to be something which most non-religious people have no wish to do without and yet it cannot be subsumed into physics and retain all the characteristics we daily assume. It appears to be impossible and yet necessary!

I think that when we come to Behavioral Psychology we want some form of freedom as a basis for responsibility. We have to resort to another semantic level than the purely empirical. We could insist that the physical world is ultimately all there is, and that all semantic levels above this are merely illusion. I have heard Ricky Gervais saying similar things recently - 'consciousness is just an illusion'. Perhaps such an approach would accept a belief in freedom for the good of society and the need for freedom for ethics. A pragmatic approach.

The Christian is no more able to identify and describe free will as an object existing by the tools and materials of scientific cause and effect, etc. than anyone else. But the Christian can believe in freedom for more than merely pragmatic reasons. Christ has renewed humanity and in so doing released it from its temporal shackles. We are free - and perhaps will be more so - because He is.

How about a couple of gnomic statements to conclude? :)

True freedom exists as established by God. True freedom persists in a recognition of its origin and limitations.

Andy said...

Let me be clear that I have no interest here in a scientific result. Theology and science tend not to mix. My interest in this limited case is to take the scientific data of behavior and apply a theological interpretation to try to see meaning.

That is, psychology (only a science in the loose sense of the word) has demonstrated that human choices are heavily influenced, if not determined, by past experience. Now psychology has to stop there. If it goes further it can't even pretend to be a science.

But theology can step in at this point and say, "Interesting.... Now here's what we have learned...." And in this way the theology of grace and providence can be made to dance with the data of behavioral psychology.

Of course the scientific community wouldn't be interested in the result, but we didn't do it for them.

You mentioned "Consciousness and the self, existing above the purely physical...." This piqued my interest. The irony is that theology may very well wish to reject the existence of a consciousness and self strictly separated from the physical. Otherwise, we're flirting with gnosticism.

Finally, "consciousness is just an illusion." -- It's a really convincing illusion. :-)

And who is it that is being decieved? Oops. Maybe Descartes was on to something. I think consciousness is the single biggest piece of data going against a purely mechanistic view of the world.

Mata H said...

It seems to me that theology is what we use to ascribe meaning to behavioral data, whether consciously or unconsciously. Regarding free will -- I see God as being involved (to borrow a phrase) "in, with, and under" the direction of my life, but more in the sense that I have an intimate God to turn to during decisions, that I am not abandoned to make these decisons without company or consolation.

Alisa said...

Your statement...

"Christianity would seem to be completely invalidated if it turns out that human beings are basically just machines."

is what caused me to take the time to stop & write.

I believe that it be more than just a samantics game to say that God, the Father, is the only one with completely "free will". I believe what we have here is volition. We are free to choose from an already reduced number of options. For instance, are you free to "will it" to rain at this moment? He is. What we think is free will is really us choosing one of the options available to us. I can pursue my job or quit my job.

As far as being robots or machines, just because the Father knows the beginning from the end doesn't mean we stop living and choosing. Each of our days were ordained by Him. He knew us so completely even before we were woven together in our mothers womb. That is why we ought say (pray) I will make my plans Lord, but You direct my steps.

Check out my blog and proboard here. I think we could have some cool discussions.

Blessings, Alisa


Weekend Fisher said...

I studied behavioral psychology and the variety of determinism sometimes implied. I'll have to say that I think "determinism" is an unhelpful and needlessly paranoid way of interpreting "things working according to their natures." Also that "free will", as far as I can tell, generally does not support the weight placed on it or the confidence given to its reality (esp. the most common constructions of it).

Christian theology was (and still is) far, far ahead of psychology in this regard. According to our natures, we make "rational" choices: e.g. to avoid God and/or deny God because we perceive him as a threat. That experience and perception of reality can alter the equation. That our perception of the reality of Christ fundamentally alters the equation to the extent of altering our wills and natures.