Psychology as a science of the inner domain

Matthijs Cornelissen
last revision: 25 September 2023

section 1
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 physical outside world, and they cannot be studied objectively. They appear to exist inside ourselves, in our consciousness, and our present science does not really know how to deal with consciousness and what happens "inside of us". 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".

The rise of behaviourism

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, we still take the physical world as primary and we are still not as good in dealing with the inner side of reality as we are with the outer one.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 Nasruddin who sees a man who is feverishly looking for something on the street. Nasruddin 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 while 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 limiting oneself to what can be studied objectively in the outside world hasn’t worked for psychology so far and will not work in the future, for what psychology needs to study is not to be found outside in the physical world; it does not exist outside of ourselves, it exists purely in the eye of the beholder, or even behind it as the Chandogya Upanishad says, "in consciousness",3 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 almost always the verbal reports people give about their inner states and processes, and such reports tend to be based on naive introspection which is good enough for ordinary life, but not good enough for science.4

It may be useful to stand still a little longer at Nasruddin's story and how it was used 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 here? 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?

Why behaviourism is not good enough

This problem is more serious and urgent than those who could do something about it seem to realise. Though this may sound exaggerated, a better understanding of ourselves and our inner life may well be crucial for the survival of our global civilisation. It is not only that in spite all the wealth and technical know-how at humanity's disposal we still have people who die from hunger, violence, or perfectly preventable diseases, who live in abject poverty or have serious mental problems. In many countries democracy is under threat. We have disastrous technology and weapons of mass-destruction in the hands of corrupt politicians and ruthless dictatorships. The gap between rich and poor is increasing. There is an ever growing list of technology, economy and climate related threats that can turn into acute catastrophes any time. Some of these issues can, perhaps, be resolved by some quick technical fix, but in the end, the underlying cause of almost all these problems is psychological in the simple sense that they are man-made: if we had been wiser they would not have existed. Theoretically, one could blame all this on incurable defects in human nature, but given given the role education, which is a direct offshoot of science, plays in the way children grow up,5 we cannot leave science off the hook. Our global civilisation is too one-sided in what it understands and what it doesn't, and in spite of all the good-will and intelligence that goes into it, our physicalist science looks increasingly like the proverbial student magician who uses his new-found powers to invite calamities for everyone around. It is rather plausible that if science would not only get better and better at the study of physical nature but would also develop a better understanding of human nature, we would be doing better overall.

section 2
How science as a whole became more and more physicalist

Over the last few hundred years, humanity has developed an incredibly effective method for the study of the physical domain and put a massive collective energy into using it to satisfy our every true and imagined physical, emotional and intellectual need. But unfortunately, it appears that we have done this so successfully that we got trapped in our own success. We have come to believe, at least within the academic community, that objective knowledge is the only type of knowledge that can be made reliable and that as such is worth pursuing, that there is a one-way causation from physical to psychological processes, and, though we may hesitate to say it out loud, that the physical reality may well be the only one that is fully real. As far as there is research on spirituality and religion, what is actually studied consists almost always of texts, physical artefacts and practices. Depending on the discipline, they are then either looked at as cultural expressions or they are studied for their emotional, biological or medical effects by modern science's own objective methods. Neither involves an active, progressive enquiry into the underlying reality that spirituality and religion are supposed to deal with.

The problem of limiting oneself to the study of mental opinions and the outwardly visible gets aggravated by a strong tendency amongst academics to study people in other cultures as "others". The vast majority of psychological research is about a tiny portion of humanity,6 and people in other cultures tend to be studied out of curiosity about their culture rather than about the underlying reality people in all cultures deal with. While there is at least some research on how people in other cultures deal with life's problems, there appears to be remarkably little openness within the academic community to consider whether what these "others" think about reality might actually be true, or, even more important, whether the methods they use to study the inner domain might be more precise and trustworthy than those which mainstream science uses.

How did we get here?

On a simple technical level, it is clear enough how we got here. Reality as experienced by us appears to consist of two very different domains: the first is the domain of physical things and forces; the second is the world of thoughts, feelings, sensations, and so on.7 These two domains have been distinguished throughout history though in different ways and for different purposes.8 When in the beginning of the seventeenth century, the Roman Catholic Church took offence at Galileo's ideas on astronomy, Galileo suggested to make a distinction between the Book of God which could remain within the jurisdiction of the Church, and the Book of Nature which science could be free to study in its own way. Descartes seems to have distinguished for a similar purpose the res cogitans, the stuff of thought, from the res extensa, the measurable stuff of the physical world. The net outcome of this bifurcation was that science limited its radically new way of studying reality from the beginning to the study of the physical domain. And the results are with us to this day.

Upto roughly 400 years ago, the physical domain was limited to what we can perceive with our own biological senses, so it appeared small and relatively simple. Since then an army of highly specialised researchers have used whatever knowledge was available to make ever more sophisticated instruments to study it further. This led to more knowledge, and this led in turn to more sophisticated instruments, creating a self-reinforcing loop of ever faster progress. These physical instruments expanded the range of what our senses can perceive, and this made us realise that the physical universe is far larger than we used to think, as well as far more complex, especially in the fine detail of our own human bodies. But all this gave us not only knowledge. It also gave us the power to make things we can use. And this created three more elements that reinforced the self-reinforcing loop: demand which produced money and other resources to do more research, as well as questions to stimulate and direct that research, and finally, at least as important, ever more powerful means to spread new knowledge to ever more people at an ever faster speed: after our organically developed speech, we invented writing, then printing, faster physical transport, telegraphy, telephone, radio and tv, internet, mobiles... And, as is strikingly obvious, the timespan in which each new technology is adopted gets shorter and shorter.

With the other half of reality, the world of thoughts, feelings and sensations, the opposite happened. This domain appears to exist inside, since the most typical way to connect with it is not by using our outer senses, but by feeling, looking or even going inside. But what this "inside" means has changed dramatically. Before the scientific revolution, the vast majority of thinkers, even in the West, took it for granted that the inner domain was not only vaster than the outer one, but also primary: Plato saw the physical world as a shadow or projection from a world of ideas; theistic religions thought of it as created by a personal God; more abstract philosophical ones like the Vedic tradition saw it as manifested by Brahman, the divine consciousness, within its own vastness. We ourselves were thought of as eternal souls temporarily embodied on earthly soil, and not only us, but everything was supposed to have an "inside", a consciousness, perhaps even a being supporting it. The strange, but apt image arose of man as a house that from the outside looks small and clearly circumscribed. However, when you enter, there is a corridor which leads to a courtyard that opens out into extensive gardens that stretch into endless fields as far as the eye reaches. There are villages and towns spread out between the fields. Further down are foothills. Rows and rows of high mountains dot the horizon. And all the houses, in all those villages and towns, have short corridors that lead to courtyards that open out into what is at the far end some kind of Infinite. Infinite...

After 1500, the study of the inner domain did not make the same progress as the hard sciences made in theirs. Initially our inner life (the realm of Descartes' res cogitans) was left to religion which was too history and doctrine bound to allow much progress. Psychology became an independent academic discipline only at the end of the 19th century, and after a short period of attempts at professionalsing introspection and hypnosis, it gave up on the inner domain and limited itself to the study of behaviour and what representative samples of the general public report about it. As a result, the self-reinforcing loop of specialists creating and using specialist tools to improve perception never took place in psychology. Since it did in the hard sciences, the hard sciences became increasingly dominant in terms of funding, status and attracting talent, and within academics it became increasingly normal to think of reality and even ourselves as primarily physical. And to the extent we do that, the inner half of reality becomes the inside of the physical body, or even the inside of the brain. B. F. Skinner, who was — and perhaps even is — considered by many one of the greatest psychologists of the 20th century, wrote in 1953 that our entire inner life was "functionally irrelevant"9. And if you think that 1953 is long ago and science has moved on, the introduction to psychology recommended at Harvard in 2023 does not do much better: it describes prayer as one of nine "mind-body techniques" and mentions "spirituality" only once in a lurid description of the brainwashing techniques used by cults.10 In short, while the physical domain expanded, the inner domain shrunk, and in spite of the heroic efforts by a small minority, the higher ranges of reality have all but disappeared from the academic mainstream. The corridors opening into the courtyards and the gardens have all been closed, and we have become like the geologist who looks at Michelangelo's hauntingly beautiful Piéta, and only sees a nice piece of marble.

Why it happened

Why all this happened is somewhat complex. I mentioned in the Introduction that the best antidote against the one-sidedness of modern science can probably be found in the Indian knowledge systems since they made the same kind of progress in the psychological and spiritual domains as Europe made in the physical domain. Interestingly this may not be by chance. The knowledge systems that developed in Europe and India have an influential common ancestor. Not only many of the foundational myths and stories are strikingly similar, but the very languages in which these stories were told are close cousins. The scientists that started the scientific revolution in Europe wrote in Latin, and Latin as well as Greek belong to the same linguistic family as the Sanskrit and Tamil of the Indian sages. They share much of their vocabulary, grammar, the basic structure of their alphabets and the way they developed over time. What is more, the ancient Indo-European civilisation that gave rise to this common family of languages was itself more integral in its understanding of reality than its descendants. As we already saw, in Greece, Plato's idealism came much closer to idealist classical Indian thought than to the modern binary of Positivism and Constructionism. In India, the older Vedic texts were more life-affirming than the later schools of Buddhism and Advaita Vedanta.11 Sri Aurobindo suggests that the Indian and European civilisations moved apart in the direction of the opposite poles of exclusive spirituality and physicalism, because intellectually, for the mind, these extremes are easier to follow and more attractive than the emotional, relational and social realities in between. He wrote a little over hundred years ago:

In Europe and in India, respectively, the negation of the materialist and the refusal of the ascetic have sought to assert themselves as the sole truth and to dominate the conception of Life. In India, if the result has been a great heaping up of the treasures of the Spirit, — or of some of them, — it has also been a great bankruptcy of Life; in Europe, the fullness of riches and the triumphant mastery of this world's powers and possessions have progressed towards an equal bankruptcy in the things of the Spirit.
— Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, p.11

The split is, obviously, not absolute. Europe has had its mystics, and India its physical luxury, but still, the genius and central focus have definitely been different and its shows in what they achieved. While Europe made fantastic progress in the physical domain, the Indian knowledge systems did the same in the inner domain, and one could well argue that the intensity of unconditional delight, the quality of its psychological insights and the sense of immortality that yoga can give are at least as far beyond our ordinary, ego-based happiness, knowledge and sense of self as our mobile phones are beyond our biological capacity to talk to our neighbours.

Why restoring a balance will be hard

Unfortunately, as many people have found out before us, bringing these two complex knowledge systems together again is more complex than it may look at first sight. Over time, they have developed not only very different ideas about the basic nature of reality but even very different ways of thinking and expanding their knowledge. So to bring all this together, we have to develop a third way which goes beyond both. This requires from both sides to learn how to think in a new way, a way that is not restricted to the way one has learned to trust, but that accepts certain elements of the other, as well as elements of an older system that both sides seem to have forgotten, and all this not blindly, but critically, since all human knowledge is a mix of eternal truths and forms that are time and culture bound. As we will see, this is not easy.

Especially for someone with a well-trained mind, to think about new content is easy, but to change one's very method of thinking and the largely subconscious ideas that support one's thinking is a different issue.

So, before we dive into the nitty-gritty of how to go about doing this, it may be good to get fully clear on why — and whether — we actually need a science that can tackle the inner domain directly.


1For an excellent article on how consciousness disappeared from academics in the beginning of the 20th century, one could consult Guzeldere, G. (1995). Consciousness, what it is, how to study it, what to learn from its history. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 2(1), 30–51.

2During a conference in Oxford in 2004, 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?

3The Chandogya Upanishad contains a story in which two students ask their guru about the Self. The guru answers that the Self is what is behind the eye. When they don't get it, he tells them to take the first selfie in recorded history. The full story is here.

4The situation is similar to what happened in astronomy. It still makes sense to speak of "sunrise" when you discuss what happened during your morning walk, but thinking that the sun moves around the earth is not good enough when you want to launch satellites. Similarly, ordinary introspection is good enough for ordinary life, but not good enough to take psychology further as a science. We will come back to the difference between ordinary introspection and "expert", puruṣa-based self-observation in the chapters on knowledge.

5For the effects of behaviourist psychology on education, one could have a look at "Is schooling injurious to health?"

6 96% of psychological samples come from countries with only 12% of the world’s population (Henrich & Norenzayan, 2010, quoted in Whoolery & Grant, 2023)

7One could argue that there is now a third domain, that of the data-sciences, but that field gets enough attention as it is. The real problem for humanity at present is its neglect of the inner domain which in its very own and rather peculiar way contains the — seemingly much vaster — outer one. It is this domain that this text is about.

8We will discuss how the location of the border, and the valuation of the two sides vary widely between different cultures and knowledge systems in the chapter on the structure of the personality.

9The Appendix contains a short chapter on the shocking history of Behaviorism as a philosophical and methodological doctrine.

10Harvard recommends two textbooks which embody the behaviourist ethos at its most extreme. The title of the first (Kosslyn, 2020) looks as if intended to indicate right up-front what causes what in psychology. It reads: "Introducing Psychology: Brain, Person, Group". When it comes to applied psychology, it lists prayer, meditation and hathayoga as "body-mind interventions" which alter "heart and breathing rates, hormone secretion, and brain activity" and lead to "improved mood and immune system functioning", though they "do not guarantee health or stave of death" (literal quotes, p. 406). The more subtle, inner and spiritual aspects of reality for which people engage in these activities have clearly been lost out of sight. The word “spirituality” occurs only once, and that in the title of an article quoted as part of a lurid description of the brainwashing techniques used by cults. (Richmond, L.J., 2004).

The MIT based author of the second textbook (Strangor, 2010) writes in the Preface, "Piaget’s findings [about the way children learn to think in a series of distinct stages] matter because they help us understand the child’s behavior (not just his or her thinking)" (p. 2). In other words, what a child only thinks (or feels) is irrelevant as long as he or she behaves properly. Spirituality is explained here as part of "the desire to avoid thinking about the self” and as an "escape from consciousness" (p.247). The article quoted to support this rather remarkable view (Baumeister, R. F., 1991) has as title "Escaping the self: Alcoholism, spirituality, masochism, and other flights from the burden of selfhood".

It may be noted that when the students at these institutions, the future leaders of society, don't take this kind of psychology seriously, the situation does not improve. They may well feel that when psychological factors (such as what a child feels or the human cost of their actions) can not be studied in a sensible manner, sensible people like them cannot be expected to take them into account either.

11Older texts like the Asatoma still aimed at immortality and it is only the later ones that formulated the ultimate aim as moksha (liberation), nirvana (stillness), and "not to be reborn".