Psychology as a science of the inner domain

Matthijs Cornelissen
last revision: 25 September 2023

section 3
Why we need a science of the inner domain

Before we begin with our exploration of the different approaches science could employ to develop a deeper understanding in the domain of psychology, it may be useful to have quick look at the wide range of reasons why we actually need a more solid science of the inner domain. Here are some of the main ones, grouped under four main headings.

Reasons to study the inner domain

Honouring reality as it is

The first reason to look inside might simply be that science should honour reality as it is, and for psychology this is a bigger problem than most people seem to realise. Given the physicalist bias of our civilisation, we tend to think of "inside" as inside our physical body, or even inside our brain, but there are far too many "anomalous phenomena" that contradict this view. The more we study the inner, non-physical half of reality, the more it becomes clear that the inner domain is also a world, or even a series of worlds that are as shared and as (semi-)independent of our individual existence as the "outside" physical world.

We have already mentioned that Plato and most pre-modern Western and Eastern philosophers took it that the non-physical, inner reality is not only real, but primary. Astronomy shows, of course, that the ancients were not always right, but in this case they may well have been. There are two simple — and I think completely convincing — reasons to think so.

The first is that it is perfectly possible to imagine a world of ideas that has no material component. Such a world could function quite happily on its own, without any need of matter to "substantiate" it. In contrast, it is impossible to imagine a purely physical world. Not only because in a purely physical world, there would be nobody to "imagine" it, but also because the material stuff needs laws to organise its behaviour and laws are not physical; they are closer to ideas than to things.1 In other words, what we normally call the physical world is actually a mixed world, in which physical stuff is shaped by non-physical laws and ideas. Without the latter, matter would be at most an amorphous plasma, if anything at all.

The second reason why the inner worlds may well be more important to us than the outer one is that in the end what really matters to us is not what happens to us, but what we do with what happens to us.

Meaning, values and ethicss

A second reason to study consciousness and the inner worlds directly; 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 either 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.2 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.

A related issue is that 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 a very small step between studying people "objectively" and treating them as such. Even in democracies which are otherwise respectful towards the individual, this happens for example in psychiatry and on a much larger scale 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.3


A third 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 so, even if all we want is to understand and control our outer behaviour, these inner processes still need to be taken into account.

These pragmatic issues matter of course especially for the various areas of 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.

It may be noted that the lack of understanding and subsequent lack of respect for the inner and subjective domains 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 the present system of education produces with its multitude of objective tests on at most a handful of performance related criteria and its incomplete understanding of human nature. There are two sides to this. The first is that it leads, by design, to a situation where half the children are branded "below standard", and that is a tough condition to deal with when growing up. If you're not valued by the teachers you look upto, it is hard not to leave the educational system distrustful of yourself, authorities, "the system" and the science that it is supposed to be based on.

As a result, there is a second tier rider to this issue. When people realise that there is more to reality than the objective physical and social domains science knows how to deal with, there are two very different ways they can deal with this.

Those who feel confident of their own ability to think things out — whether due to family support or success in school — may not be effected too badly by this incompleteness. They will understand that science is useful and trustworthy within its limits, and find other sources for other domains.

But those with less confidence in their own competence or less capacity to hold different knowledge systems simultaneously in their mind, may feel that they have to find one single external authority to rely on, and given that science — as represented to them by the educational system — did not treat them well and was clearly incomplete, they are likely to choose for some other one. The alternative authorities which society offers, whether from traditional social structures like religion or from modern social media, will then be followed even in the domains in which science is actually better. There are plenty of examples in modern society that show how harmful this can be.4

Possibilities for future development, our present science is unlikely to discover

A final reason to study the inner domain may take us too far into the future, but it is really at the heart of the matter. While the way mainstream science deals with the world is in many respects better than our raw instincts and emotions, its analytical, mental way of dealing with reality is not good enough for a comprehensive understanding. It is not only misleading because the world is not just physical, but also because it approach is solidly dualistic, while reality is not. There is more to the world, there is more to knowledge, there is more to us, and a proper science of the inner domain my show us how to develop the secret extra that will open the way to a far more beautiful and harmonious future.

Can it be done? Can we have a science of the inner domain?

It may be clear then, that there is a genuine need for a science that tackles the inner domain directly and that is as rigorous, self-critical, effective, detailed, comprehensive, open-minded and quickly progressive as the sciences we already have for the outer 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, as well as effective methods and tools to make inner enquiry more precise, reliable and shareable.

Within science, there are relatively small sidestreams that already have done good work in this direction. One could think of Phenomenology, Transpersonal and Experiential Psychology, and so on. But, as mentioned earlier, far more knowledge and know-how is available outside the scientific tradition. To start with the obvious, there is considerable know-how amongst professionals who need sophisticated inner knowledge for their work and who have somehow managed to develop it with the help of whatever sources they had access to. There are also well-established knowledge systems that for one reason or another have not been absorbed within modern science. There are for example impressive indications of sophisticated self-enquiry in the Chinese traditions, and in the writings of Christian and Islamic mystics. 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 domain can be found in the Indian civilisation. So that is what we will have a look at in the next chapter.

To conclude

To study and master our own human nature, we cannot simply ignore the secret "extra" that makes us human. We need to make our inner, psychological knowledge precise, reliable and quickly progressive, and to do that, we need a more complex and subtle understanding of the basic nature of reality; we also need to understand and master the different types of knowledge that are at our disposal; but most of all, we need to build reliable "instruments of knowledge" inside our own nature. And finally we must find appropriate ways of sharing this knowledge.

All this is difficult, but that is no reason not to do it, and the good news is that how to do it is to quite an extent already known to humanity. The only hitch is that within the mainstream global civilisation it is used and developed either on the small scale of individuals and relatively small groups, or in different cultural settings for different purposes. In other words, it has no presence in the circles that science is used to rely upon, and where it is available, it needs to be presented in a different manner to become useful for science.

However, once we find an effective way of bringing all the relevant knowledge and know-how together in a mutually constructive manner, and if enough collective energy goes into it, there seems little reason why we should not be capable of developing the inner, human and social sciences as quickly and effectively as the outer physical ones. Though hard to be certain before we have taken it up on a sufficient scale, my guess is that human nature is not really more difficult to study than inorganic, physical nature, and definitely not more difficult to change. If anything, it is the other way around: it is actually easier. The one thing that is clear is that a far better knowledge and mastery over over our own nature is urgently needed.

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Fortunately, there is something that might help to make the transition easier and bring the two systems together again. It is the realisation that if we look at them from a sufficient distance, it becomes clear that they have actually a few essential ingredients in common. There are common factors that have helped both knowledge systems to make the quick progress they made. These aids look different because the two domains are so different, but in their essence, in the way they function, they are actually the same. The similarity is most easily visible when we go back to the very early days of modern science, since things were at that time so charmingly simple. When we look from the right angle at what happened at that time in the hard sciences, and more specifically in astronomy, we'll see what it is that modern psychology should have learnt from them, and what it can learn now, much faster and easier, from the Indian tradition which discovered, several millenia earlier, exactly the same elements for the inner domain.

So, before we move on to the next chapter which offers a short overview of the main insights and practices which the Indian knowledge tradition can contribute to psychology, we'll have a quick look at what psychology could have learned — and still can learn — from how the period of quick cumulative progress began in the hard sciences. It is an inspiring story and shows in a simple way what science should look for in the Indian tradition.



1Philosophically it may be complex to distinguish thoughts from things, but in practice it is simple. If I give you a physical thing, I don't have it any longer, while if I give you an idea, I don't lose it at all: the idea may actually become stronger in me when you accept and acknowledge it. In other words, physical things can have identical instances of themselves that are sharply divided from each other and a such can be counted, measured and located while mental entities are at the same time unique as well as universal.

2In 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 Nazi 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?

3For more on the unhealthy effects of schooling, one could read the appendix entitled, "Is schooling injurious to health?

4I have no proof for this, but I'm inclined to think that the emotionally negative effect of schooling on those who "don't do well in school" may be the main reason that they tend to vote for right-wing politicians who are actually harming their cause. Psychologically, it would be perfectly understandable if they would blame the intellectuals more than the rich. After all, in their own personal lives, they have suffered more from those who do well in school, teach, and seem to run virtually all positions of power they ever encounter, than from the rich whom they rarely encounter. While the intellectuals have given them nothing but disdain, if they manage to get a job, the rich give them at least something. And they are not wrong in their sense of being ill-treated. Amongst intellectuals it is rare to find any real understanding of the "others" at the bottom of the intellectual hierarchy; a total lack of interest and open disgust about those who read the "populist" newspapers and vote for the far-right is more common. So what is better than a rich man who shares their dislike for intellectuals? That's an ideal to look up to!

It seems rather likely that if the intellectual climate in our schools would become more inclusive and respectful for everybody's inner life, more people would come out of school happy and socially constructive.