Why we need a radically different approach to psychology
Matthijs Cornelissen
last revision: 24 November 2022

Psychology as a science is unique: it is about ourselves

Psychology occupies a unique position amongst 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 our thoughts and feelings, our desires and fears, our love, sorrow, joy and pain, our will, friendship and loneliness, freedom and agency, respect and commitment, and none of these are "things". They don't exist in the outside world, and cannot be studied objectively. They exist inside ourselves, in our consciousness, and our present science does not really know how to deal with consciousness and what happens inside of it. For science, studying them in a rigorous and reliable fashion is not as straightforward as studying what exists 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 consciousness and redefined psychology as the science of behaviour.1 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 mind or even 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.2

Looking for one's keys

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 sees a man who is feverishly looking for something on the street. Nazruddin 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 it knows how to research. The physical sciences have worked out their methods for centuries and they have achieved amazing successes with it, so it was 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 needs to study is not to be found in the physical world; it does not exist outside of ourselves, it exists purely in the eye of the beholder, "in consciousness", and all that mainstream science can study objectively is at least one step removed from that inner reality. Even where psychology claims to study experience, what it actually studies are the verbal reports people give about their inner states and processes, and such reports are in the end based on introspection which is notoriously unreliable.3

Before we look in some more detail at why we actually need a science of the subjective domain itself, it may be good to stand still a little longer at Nazruddin's story and how it was used it in this chapter. The story pokes fun at an obvious "village idiot", and it makes us as readers feel good about ourselves because we are in on the secret: in contrast to the idiot, we all know that happiness and wisdom are found inside rather than outside. But here is the hitch: in this chapter the joke is not on the village idiot, but on the most highly respected knowledge system humanity has at present. In traditional societies, education was entrusted to religious institutions which were supposed to pass the knowledge and values of previous generations on to the future ones. But in our present, increasingly global and future-oriented civilisation, this is no longer the case: even where educational institutions are nominally still part of religious organisations, the content is increasingly provided by science. And science prides itself, like the village idiot, on being objective, on looking for its keys in the clear daylight of the outside reality. So how did we get there? And how is it that even when we have gone to solidly secular schools, we still understand the story in the way it was meant?

The need for a science of the subjective domain

Our consciousness belongs to the very essence of what we are: without consciousness there would be no experience and we would not even know whether we existed or not. And so, the science of psychology has to be primarily a science of consciousness, a science of what we are "on the inside", a science of the subjective domain. There are several reasons why humanity needs such an "inner science" and go beyond the study of verbal tokens and physical correlates.

  1. The first reason to look inside might simply be that psychology should honour who we are. What happens inside of us is important to us. We are subjects, and a real science of psychology should not be afraid of studying everything that this entails.
  2. A second reason to pay attention to what happens inside ourselves is pragmatic. Our outer behaviour is the end-result not only of outer influences, but also of an enormously complex series of inner processes, and even if all we want to understand and control is our outer human behaviour, these inner processes still need to be taken into account.
  3. Mainstream psychology accepts this, at least to some extent, and psychologists routinely ask their subjects to report on what they think and feel. This allows the psychologists to remain objective, since they deal in an objective manner with the self-reports of their subjects, but these self-reports are still based on naive forms of introspection, which leaves the real problem unresolved. Asking members of the public what they think and feel is useful if such opinions are all one wants to know, but outsourcing the data-collection to members of the public — which is what it boils down to — is not the best way to gain new insights in the fine detail of how the human mind actually works. It will definitely not help psychology to become the effective, quickly progressive science of the subjective domain which humanity needs, and this brings us to the third issue.

  4. The third reason to take consciousness seriously is methodological, and this may well be the crux of the matter. The only way to study what happens inside ourselves, is by going inside, and then to find ways to study what happens there in a rigorous and reliable manner. One could argue that our mind can study the physical world because it can look at it as if from above, or as Nagel put it "from nowhere". The reason we cannot look at our own thoughts and feelings in the same way is, that in ordinary introspection we look with one part of the mind at another part. We are then like a judge hearing a case in which his own family is involved.
  5. Fortunately, this problem is not unsurmountable. As we will see later in more detail, there are silent, non-egoïc centres of consciousness in which there is no identification with the activities of the mind. It is from these inner centres, that one can study, as a silent, impersonal witness, what happens in one's mind with the same objectivity that the scientific mind uses to study what happens in the physical world. It may be clear that to operate in a reliable manner from these centres, one needs a sophisticated understanding and considerable mastery over one's own consciousness and the workings of one's own mind. But once psychologists begin to develop these, they can learn how to use their own nature as an increasingly accurate and effective "inner instrument of knowledge" with which they can look directly at psychological processes in a manner that is not that different from the way physicists use their knowledge of physics to create physical instruments to study the physical domain. In the hard sciences one uses one's understanding of mathematics, physics and engineering to make instruments with which one can study the physical reality; the newly found knowledge is then used to make even better instruments, leading to a self-reinforcing, quickly cumulative progress. The same is possible in psychology, with as only difference that psychologists have to construct their instruments in their own minds, but as said, the Indian tradition has found ways to do that. Once psychology has found efficient ways to use these methods, progress in psychology may progress as fast as in the hard sciences. It may in fact go faster since mind is intrinsically more flexible than matter and no capital-intensive heavy industry is needed. 4

  6. A fourth reason, which perhaps should be shifted to the first position, is ethical. A physicalist, objective science looks at human beings as objects, and there is something fundamentally wrong about this. Except in extreme medical emergencies, nobody likes to be treated as an object and if we are, we feel manipulated, and rightly so. There is only very small step between studying people "objectively" and treating them as such. And this is not only an individual problem. For the general health and happiness of a society, it is a total disaster if too large a number of people feel unrecognised and unfairly treated, and this is what modern society does. In democracies it happens for example in psychiatry and in mainstream education, which, in spite of all the goodwill of individual therapists and teachers, are still in their basic structure based on an objectifying understanding of human nature. The disastrous effects of an educational system that objectifies children during the most decisive years of their lives, is seriously underestimated and I ardently hope there will come a time when we will wonder how we could ever have been that barbaric. Both therapy and education should be based on a deep, soul-based respect for each individual, and it is rather shameful that this needs saying.5
  7. A fifth reason to study consciousness directly, closely related to the previous one, is the issue of meaning and values. A physicalist, objective science has nothing meaningful to say about values since there is no place for values and meaning in a positivist study of the physical reality. Social constructionism cannot help since its yardstick for values is ultimately only a matter of consensus, and if history can teach us anything then it is that consensus is an extremely dangerous path to follow when it comes to values.6 Meaning and values exist primarily in consciousness and we will see how a genuine science of consciousness can actually lead to their naturalisation. We'll come back to this issue throughout this text; a beginning will be made in the chapter on the evolution of consciousness.
  8. A sixth reason is closely related to the second and has to do with applied psychology. The physicalist and social constructivist approaches to science take the outer physical and social reality as primary and as a result they have a too superficial understanding of human nature, a disproportionate outside-in bias in their view of psychological causation, a serious underestimation of the extent to which we humans can change, and a general incomprehension regarding the possibilities we humans have for further development. If collectively we would begin to understand what we are made of and to what extent we can develop beyond what we are now, our collective progress would go far beyond what people at present can even envisage.
  9. A final reason, which takes us perhaps too far into the future, is really at the heart of the matter. It is that our entire analytical, mental way of dealing with life is actually not good enough for a comprehensive understanding of all aspects of reality. The reason is that our human mind is solidly dualistic, while reality is not. The way mainstream science deals with the world, is not only misleading because the world is not just physical, but also because the mind itself is not the best way for knowing reality. There is more to the world, there is more to knowledge, and there is more to us. And to understand that extra, the first condition is to get a better understanding of consciousness and its role in the world. To this too, we'll come back in the chapter on the ongoing evolution of consciousness.

Can we have a science of the subjective domain?

It may be clear then, that there is a genuine need for a science that tackles the subjective domain directly and that is as rigorous, self-critical, effective, detailed, comprehensive, open-minded and quickly progressive as the sciences we already have in the objective domain. It may also be clear that to develop such a science will not be easy, and that it will require a new philosophical foundation, a better understanding of what knowledge actually is, effective methods to make subjective enquiry more precise, reliable and shareable, and behind all of that, a willingness amongst psychologists to work on themselves and turn their own nature into better instruments of knowledge and action. As mentioned earlier, the groundwork for all this is already available outside the scientific tradition. There are, for example, impressive indications of sophisticated self-enquiry in the writings of the Christian mystics and in more recent times, amongst individual therapists and self-development guides. Within science, there are relatively small sidestreams like Phenomenology and Transpersonal Psychology. But to the best of my — admittedly limited — knowledge, by far the richest storehouse of sophisticated knowledge and know-how about consciousness and the inner recesses of human nature can be found in the Indian civilisation. So in the next chapter, we'll have a look at what the Indian civilization can contribute to psychology.




1There are two insightful articles about this transition by Guzaldere in the Journal of Consciousness Studies (1995).
2During 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?
3A short description of the pit into which psychology fell when it tried to avoid the direct study of consciousness can be found here.
4For much of the twentieth century consciousness was almost entirely ignored in science and even in philosophy. Even now, what happens inside consciousness tends to be studied only indirectly: When Psychology attempts to study subjective feelings, perceptions, experiences, intents etc, what it actually studies are either statements people have made about those inner states and processes, or the physical events that precede, go together with or follow after these inner events. This is true even for so-called qualitative research which often ends with the quantitative analysis of the statements which their subjects have spoken, written or tick-marked. The interdisciplinary field of Consciousness Studies and the ever-increasing amount of meditation research are similarly hampered by the demand of objectivity, which leads to a focus on its physical correlates, the social and physical processes that influence it, and the behaviour that follows from it, while what we argue for here is a rigorous science of consciousness itself, what it is and what it does, as seen, directly, from the inside.
5For more on the unhealthy effects of schooling, one could read the appendix entitled, "Is schooling injurious to health?".
6In case of doubt, it is good to remember that Hitler was voted into power and for several years supported by the majority of ordinary people in Germany. If Germany had won World War II, would an extreme form of racism, the systematic murder of political opponents, socialists, invalids, mentally ill, Gypsies and Jews have been morally right?