What is psychology?
Matthijs Cornelissen
last revision: 04 November 2021

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 these things 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. 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.1

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". When science tries to deal with any of these inner states and processes, it has first to objectify and flatten them, and what it then processes are their tokens and reflections, or when that leads nowhere, it shifts its focus and starts studying their physical correlates. As a result, its physicalist, reductionist assumptions and processes are for the human sciences not only inadequate, but in many fields, like education, governance and economics, actually harmful.2

Psychology as the science of consciousness

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 tokens and physical correlates.3

  1. The first of them 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.4 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. 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 subjective self-observations, which leaves the real problem unresolved.
  3. Asking members of the public what they think and feel is useful if such opinions are all one wants to know, but it is not the best way to gain new insights into how the human mind actually works. The whole reason psychology tried to become an objective science was that it is so difficult to make self-observation reliable and the only real solution to that problem is to develop better methods to study the inner, psychological realm, methods that are as rigorous and reliable as those that physicists use for the outer, physical realm. The question is whether this can be done, 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 can not 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, there are centres of consciousness that are silent and that do not identify with the activities of the mind and it is from these centres that one can study what happens in one's mind with the same objectivity that the scientific mind uses to study what happens in the physical world. Once psychologists begin to understand their own consciousness and develop a sufficient mastery over what happens inside of it, they can learn how to use their own nature as a reliable "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 physical instruments. It may be clear that to operate in a reliable manner from these centers, one needs a sophisticated understanding and considerable mastery over one's consciousness and the workings of one's mind. But this is not that different from the hard sciences, where one needs a good understanding of mathematics, physics and engineering to make instruments with which one can study the physical reality.5

  6. A fourth reason is ethical. A physicalist, objective science looks at human beings as objects, and there is something fundamentally wrong about this. Nobody likes to be treated as an object; if we are, we feel manipulated, and rightly so. This is, moreover, 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. It is good to realise that this doesn't happen only under totalitarian regimes. 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.6
  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.7 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 also we'll come back in the chapter on the ongoing evolution of consciousness.

Can we have a science of consciousness?

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, Phenomenology has made a fresh, secular attempt. But to the best of my — admittedly limited — knowledge, by far the richest storehouse of sophisticated knowledge and know-how about consciousness can be found in the Indian civilisation.

Turning Eastward

Studying the Indian tradition is however, not that simple. The Indian civilisation is extremely complex and so, if one wants to go beyond the usual platitudes, one has to choose between a selection and a synthesis. For one's own individual growth, a selection may well be the most efficient way to proceed, but since each Indian system has specialised in a different aspect of human nature, if we want to develop a comprehensive framework for the whole of psychology, what we need is a synthesis. Instead of attempting to make my own, for which I am ill-equipped, I've used for this text, the synthesis Sri Aurobindo made in the first half of the last century.8

Sri Aurobindo's synthesis

There are several things that make Sri Aurobindo's work uniquely suitable for the development of a new foundation of psychology. One of them is that he realised early on that what works in the enormous variety of Indian efforts at developing knowledge and mastery in the inner domain is a specialised use of in itself common psychological processes. As he wrote in the introduction to The Synthesis of Yoga, "yoga is nothing but practical psychology" (p.44). And so, for the synthesis he made of the various schools of yoga and philosophy, he left their outer — often culturally determined, religious and ritualistic — forms aside and concentrated instead on the underlying psychology. The result of that effort is an exceptionally comprehensive understanding not only of those aspects of human nature that are important for spiritual growth, but of the whole of psychology, right from our dealings with our everyday physical and social circumstances, to the most lofty, light and harmonious regions that only spiritual practice can make accessible. As may be clear, one can fully, experientially, know such a synthesis only from an inner height and wideness of consciousness that most of us are not capable of — and perhaps not even need — but even a simple mental understanding of it helps, just like a good map helps to find your way in an unknown country.

One of the first things that strike us in Sri Aurobindo's synthesis is how many broad avenues and narrow byways there actually are from the limitations, conflicts, pain and suffering of the ordinary consciousness to the perfect love, joy and understanding we crave for. Though this may look confusing at first sight, it actually means that there is always a road, from wherever one happens to be, to the centre. For the individual, all that is needed is to take the first step on any of those roads, and to admit that what really matters to human beings — love, truth, harmony, beauty, meaning, values, the list is long — deserves to be pursued with all the energy, rigour and precision we can muster, however difficult that might be. But for our collective life, for the development of a science of the subjective domain, that is not enough. There we need a map not only of the local detail in the particular spot in which we happen to find ourselves, but also of the terrain as a whole, together with methods for making our maps more precise, reliable and serviceable, and even though for each individual his or her individual growth is the most important, there is a place for more abstract insights about what we are, how we work, and how change actually happens, and this is what we'll try to give an indication of in the rest of this text.

To conclude

The scientific discipline that is most in need of a new foundation is psychology. Its very name indicates that psychology is supposed to be the science of the psyche, the Greek word for soul, and in this text we will take this seriously. We will look at psychology in first instance as the science of our innermost essence, and it is from that understanding, that we will look at our more humble thoughts and feelings, our desires and fears, our outer action and inner agency, and the myriad ways all these interact in shaping our lives. Above all else, we will focus on 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, for that is the central contribution our souls make to our lives.

Before we get to all this, we need, however, to get a deeper and wider understanding of reality and of the different types of knowledge we humans have at our disposal to study that reality. To understand consciousness, the soul, and the "inner domain" in general, the physicalist ontology and the positivist and constructivist epistemologies on which mainstream science presently relies, are not good enough. We need more, and it is for this extension of science into the rigorous study of the subjective domain that the Indian civilisation can make its greatest contributions to humanity.

So, in the next chapter we will give a quick overview of four specific areas in which the Indian civilisation can make a major contribution to science in general and to psychology in particular.

 

Endnotes

1.    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?

2.    A short description of the pit into which psychology fell when it tried to avoid the direct study of consciousness can be found here.

3.    For much of the twentieth century consciousness was almost entirely ignored in science and even in philosophy. At present there is an interdisciplinary field of Consciousness Studies and a colossal amount of meditation research has been done, but all these efforts are still 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 from the inside.

4.    In a way, this is the crux of the matter, since science is not defensive about it findings, but about its methods, and it appears that Psychology has managed to copy from the hard sciences an inappropriate subset of its methods. For a slightly more detailed discussion of this issue, see this section of the Appendix.

5.    The main reason this inner "technology of consciousness" has not been used so far seems to be that it did not develop in the USA but in the Indian tradition and that it is based on an essentially different philosophy -- to be more precise, a different ontology, epistemology and axiology -- than the one on which our present science is based. That the early American psychologists did not know enough about the quality and the potential of the Indian knowledge systems is to some extent understandable, but that even now, almost 75 years after India's political independence and over 30 years after the internet became available, the social sciences are still as mono-cultural and stubbornly ignorant as they are, is really hard to swallow.

6.    For more on the unhealthy effects of schooling, one could read the appendix entitled, "Is schooling injurious to health?".

7.    In 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?

8.    Interestingly, it was roughly in the same period that Freud created Psychoanalysis in Europe, and that Watson lay the foundation of Behaviourism in the USA, that Sri Aurobindo began to test — and expand — India's ancient inner knowledge with impeccable intellectual rectitude in a remote French corner of colonial India. 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, more than a century later, the quality and extent of his work are still hardly known. 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.