March 20, 2014 | David F. Coppedge

Secular Psychology as Abuse

At best, psychology doesn’t know what it’s doing.  At worst, it harms people.

What to do about mental illness?  There’s no question a minority of people have serious behavioral problems; look at news of the latest homicidal maniac or psychopath.  Sufferers hear strange voices in their head.  Others act compulsively, or think irrationally.  Most of us are baffled about how to respond to these kind of situations, so we avoid these people, wondering if they are on drugs, thinking they are a danger to us as well as themselves.  Enter science.  It will explain; it will provide solutions.

With its suffix “ology,” psychology (as a word) looks like any other scientific term.  But can there really be a science of the soul?  Having abandoned belief in God’s image in man, secularists ignore the most important aspect of the human mind: the spiritual nature that cannot be reduced to a physical brain.  While theists concur that physical damage to the brain can generate bizarre behavior, they deny “mental illness” as a medical category.  Instead, there is physical illness, or there is sin.  Physical illness can be caused by trauma to the brain, genetic disorders, or pathogens, leading to irrational or hyper-emotional states.  The mind, not being physical, is not subject to physical trauma, genes or germs.  It is, however, vulnerable to false ideas.  Moreover, Biblical theists consider human spirits coming into the world in a fallen state, needing redemption.  We all find it easier to choose wrong than right.  Fallen tendencies have to be disciplined out of us all.  Unchecked, false ideas and bad choices can become habits that enslave us.  We all need self discipline throughout life to avoid the temptations, lies and selfish ambitions that plague a world in rebellion against its Creator.  The theist, therefore, refers the so-called “mentally ill” to a medical doctor (for disorders with physical causes) or to a trained Biblical counselor (for spiritual causes).

Rejecting this view, secular psychology could show its view of “mental illness” having a better track record than the spiritual view.  Some recent articles provide a way to keep score.

Put up or shut up:  The reaction of the head of the NIMH is instructive.  Sara Reardon reports in Nature:

Thomas Insel, the director of the US National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), has had enough of shooting in the dark. He thinks that if a clinical trial of a psychiatric therapy fails, scientists should at least learn something about the brain along the way.

Reardon goes on to say that psychologists and psychiatrists are shooting in the dark.  They throw drugs at patients without knowing how they work or what they do.  Insel is fed up with the money drain:

“It’s a totally new departure for us,” says Bruce Cuthbert, a clinical psychologist and director of the institute’s adult translational-research division. Insel notes that the NIMH spent about US$100 million on clinical trials in 2013, and says that more than half of recipient projects received funding without any requirement to examine the biological processes involved in a disease. In many cases, “if you get a negative result you have no idea why, and you have to try something else at random”, Cuthbert says. “It’s an incredible waste of money.

The fact that Cuthbert calls this a “totally new departure” means the status quo has been a long pattern of random shooting in the dark (i.e., lack of knowledge).  NIH head Insel knows his decision will meet with opposition, like his earlier decision that the NIH would stop using the DSM-V (see 5/18/12):

The book’s definitions tend to lump patients together by symptoms, which often do not precisely map to what is wrong with their brains, he says. With this haphazard approach to trials, even if symptoms are alleviated, researchers still may not understand what caused them. “We’ve studied drugs, not disorders — if you throw something at the wall, and P [a significance test] is less than 0.05, you win,” he says. Such thinking, he adds, wastes time and money.

As expected, some psychologists and psychiatrists strongly disagree with Insel’s initiative for “evidence-based” treatments, pointing to possible drawbacks with clinical trials and funding.  One of the critics, though, let this faux pas slip: “We have a shameful problem of neglect of existing patients and an empty promissory note to the future that science will solve everything.”  To make matters worse, he confessed that “it will be decades and decades before anyone will be helped by this research.” While intending to focus on the plight of patients, this psychiatrist admitted his field has no firm scientific evidence for its diagnoses and treatments, except perhaps what seems to alleviate symptoms for particular individuals.  Insel responds that he “wants the trials it funds to continue to ameliorate patients’ symptoms, but to probe how their brains work at the same time.”  This implies secular practice does neither very well.  In another article called “What lies beneath,” Nature explains why the NIMH had to change the status quo: psychiatry’s record is a basket case:

Part of the problem is that, for many people, the available therapies simply do not work, and that situation is unlikely to improve any time soon. By the early 1990s, the pharmaceutical industry had discovered — mostly through luck — a handful of drug classes that today account for most mental-health prescriptions. Then the pipeline ran dry. On close inspection, it was far from clear how the available drugs worked. Our understanding of mental-health disorders, the firms realized, is insufficient to inform drug development….

Critics will argue that the NIMH has exchanged a difficult problem — treating mental illness — for an even more challenging one, understanding the brain.

Back to the shrink:  After years of swinging away from talk psychology to cognitive neuroscience, the pendulum may be swinging back again.  In “Talking Back to Madness,” Michael Balter in Science Magazine reports that personal counseling is poised to come back into vogue.  “As the search for genes and new drugs for schizophrenia stalls, psychotherapies are getting new attention,” the subtitle reads.  Some practitioners are tiring of throwing pills at patients, not taking their mental states seriously.  But is it not madness by definition to keep doing the same thing over and over, expecting a different result?

Balter tells the sad story of Terry, who started hearing voices in his head at age 13 and went through years of torment till a psychotherapist gave him some relief by letting him talk out his experiences.  (Since past experiments have shown that some “mentally ill” people get better talking to computers, Terry’s experience does not necessarily lend credibility to psychotherapy; presumably any loving listener, perhaps a minister, could have helped at least as well.)  The voices did not leave, but Terry became better able to carry on his life in spite of them.  A psychiatrist at University College London once again revealed the nakedness of his “scientific” profession: “There is a strong possibility that psychological treatments are likely to be at least as effective as drugs, and they are certainly preferred by patients.”  This not only implies that the secular “experts” are shooting in the dark, but that their treatments actually cause harm in some cases.

Do no harmScience Daily reported that children are being hurt by government child-rearing policies based on questionable claims from neuroscience.  In “Neuroscience ‘used’ and ‘abused’ in child rearing policy,” the press release from the University of Kent acknowledge that flawed “science” causes actual harm to families.  One example is how the government tells mothers that their children’s brains are being “irreversibly sculpted” at ages 0 to 3 by their actions.  Is that true?

Dr Jan Macvarish, a Research Fellow at Kent’s Centre for Parenting Culture Studies, analyzed the policy literature for the study.

She said: ‘What we found was that although the claims purporting to be based on neuroscience are very questionable, they are continually repeated in policy documents and are now integrated into the professional training of health visitors and other early years workers. “Brain claims” entered a policy environment which was already convinced that parents are to blame for numerous social problems, from poverty to mental illness.

‘The idea that these entrenched problems will be solved by parents being more attentive to their children’s brains is risible. Although aimed at strengthening the parent-child relationships, these kinds of policies risk undermining parents’ self-confidence by suggesting that “science” rather than the parent knows best.’

The article goes on to state that parents don’t need “science” to tell them the obvious: that they should cuddle, sing to and talk to their babies. “Such claims also put power in the hands of ‘parenting experts’ and ultimately risk making parenting a biologically important but emotionally joyless experience.'”  Mothers are left worrying that they aren’t cuddling or singing enough, even though naturally this is what mothers do.  The ostensibly science-based policies not only take the joy out of parenting, but leaves parents depressed that they aren’t doing enough to prevent brain damage to their children.  And when problems arise, they are led to feel guilty.

Mind your matters: An Op-Ed piece on Live Science (taken from The Conversation) underscores the fact that science only has two windows into mental problems: brain scans and behavior.  Neither of these provide understanding of true mental states.

While cognitive neuroscience with functional MRI and other cutting-edge techniques has uncovered many associations between areas of the brain and behavioral responses, it can only go so far.  Catherine Loveday (U of Westminster), author of the editorial, believes that behavior promises more insight.  How, though, does the observation of behavior by scientific experts improve on the kind of natural “folk psychology” we all engage in when inferring the motivations and mental states of our peers?

Loveday likens psychology to someone trying to figure out cars who knows nothing about them.  The non-mechanic tries to organize his ignorance by comparing which cars work and which ones don’t.  Similarly, cognitive neuroscientists compare brains that work with ones that have problems.  Cognitive profiling can build on the growing knowledge with skills tests and surveys.  These help psychologists and psychiatrists improve observations of conditions like autism and Alzheimer’s disease, but does it explain underlying causes?

While we are continuing to make excellent process [sic, progress] on understanding how we think, speak and remember, and why this is different in some people, we still have a lot to learn about how the brain makes the mind. Our research with people who have had a traumatic brain injury, for example, is indicating that some people who appear to have no damage to the structure of their brain according to standard MRI scans, still show quite significant difficulties in certain tasks and in their day-to-day lives.

Brain scans clearly do not tell us everything. It is exciting that we can now “look under the bonnet” of the brain but it is important that we continue to look at how people are thinking too.

This statement implies that the mind (thinking) supervenes on the brain, but is more than the brain.  Unless secular psychology appropriates the validity of thought as a real but intangible reality irreducible to physical neurons, it will continue to shoot in the dark.  But without thought as a spiritual reality, what is it?  Live Science describes “mindfulness therapy” for treating addiction relapse or depression, but without any certainty of its effectiveness; it’s just “another possibility for people to explore“, the article says.  This not only shows that secular psychologists are shooting in the dark, but they are even willing to pretend “the mind” exists – if it works in therapy.

We don’t mean to discount the sincere concern of many psychologists, psychiatrists and social workers for the care they show to people, nor do we dissuade the suffering from getting medications that can help (e.g., see Proverbs 31:4-9).  Surely some disorders have physical causes or stem from habits; even cats and dogs can suffer from anxiety and compulsive behaviors.  We are also well aware of profound differences in individual mental faculties (compare your brain with that of Euler).  We are just questioning the belief that “science” can reduce people to physical objects and treat them as lab rats (the ratomorphic fallacy).  The sorry track record of secular psychology and psychotherapy since Freud, with its Darwin-based assumptions, waffling between talk and drugs, changing its approaches between radically different schools, finding itself in 2014 with no reliable scientific explanation for anything, should shout Caveat emptor.

By contrast, sharing the love of Christ has profoundly changed sinners into saints, cured addictions, turned drug dealers into ministers, transformed depression into joy, and brought light into the dark crevasses of the mind for thousands of years since Jesus Christ proclaimed, “Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12).  Why the stark difference in results?  The Bible, unlike science, does not ignore the spirit of mankind.  It treats the cause, not the symptoms; the whole man, not the body or brain.  Does not the Creator know the nature of man, the causes of disorders, and the appropriate treatment?  “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).

Why would any Christian counselor want to associate with the sorry lot of secularists by trying to call themselves Christian psychologists or Biblical psychiatrists?  Come out from among them, and use the Biblical pattern.  Members of the body of Christ have talents (like intelligence, skill, perception) and spiritual gifts (like knowledge, discernment, faith, healing, exhortation, mercy).  Some may apply these within the practice of medicine or counseling centers, but as we have seen, the Bible’s approach is superior to what is falsely called “science.”  Its standard goes beyond “do no harm.”  It is able to “do good” (Galatians 6:10, I Thessalonians 5:15, I Timothy 6:18, Hebrews 13:16, I Peter 3:11).   Exercise your gifts and talents for the building up of the body of Christ and healing a lost and hurting world.

Exercise: Sort various “mental disorders” into those that have physical causes and those that have spiritual causes.  Consider a wide variety of conditions like autism, dementia, compulsive behavior, addiction, hallucinations, depression, anxiety, retardation, etc.  Which are really “disorders” and which are matters of natural variation between humans, like differences in temperament?  How should a Christian counselor approach each disorder for treatment?  Which should be referred to the medical profession for help?  Note: there are Christian counseling organizations that can inform your choices.


  • mmartin says:

    I just realized how the proposed exercise at the end of your comment is similar to sorting “hominid” skulls into ape- respectively human skulls. In both cases the realization that suddenly it all makes sense is very, very liberating and faith strengthening.
    Thank you for equipping the saints for the work of ministry. I cannot adequately express my thankfulness for this site and your work.

  • John C says:

    The abuse in the name of psychology or science can also be physical. The most famous example was the Masters & Johnson report on Sexual Behaviors, that experimented on children as young as THREE! and offered no assistance to the families to help their abused children. Absolutely only the grace of God could forgive such horrors.

  • rockyway says:

    ‘One example is how the government tells mothers that their children’s brains are being “irreversibly sculpted” at ages 0 to 3 by their actions.’

    – That’s simply false (and about as dismal a prediction as one could get) but that’s the kind of simple minded claptrap you tend to get from Gov. programs.

    – This kind of claim is also a scare tactic; i.e. you better do what we social workers say or you’ll irreversibly damage your child’s brain. In other words you better follow all the guidelines put out by our professors on how to raise a child… no matter how weird, stupid or wrong they might seem to you.

    ‘Brain scans clearly do not tell us everything.’

    – Do they tell us anything? I seem to remember a scientist [James Fallon] who found out he had the brain of a psychopath.

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