Thursday, August 14, 2008

Scientific Psychology in the 21st Century


Since the late 19th century, Science in general has operated from a 'materialistic' perspective. This made sense in the Mechanical Age, when the entire world apparently could be modeled as a complex yet determinant machinery. This 'macro' view of the world and all that happened within it found favor with materialists of the period and was embraced by most physical scientists of the day. As the 20th century dawned, little had changed to cause anyone in the scientific mainstream at the time to believe that a one hundred diversion was about to begin.

During this same period, the late 19th century, modern scientific Psychology was beginning to establish its roots. Prior beliefs regarding the Mind had given way to a more expansive approach, initially and credibly due to the genius of one man: Frederic W. H. Myers. Myers' name is relatively unknown today, even in among many psychologists. If you ask a clinical or research psychologist who the 'father' or founder of modern psychology that person will most likely respond 'William James' if they are trained in the Western schools of thought.

In fact, James was a contemporary of Myers. And James himself credited Myers as the foundational thinker that in turn inspired and motivated some of James' own best known ideas as expressed in his most well-known early text "Principles of Psychology" (known to most psychologists today simply as the "Princples"). Few modern psychologists have even heard of the greater work which inspired the likes of James, Bernet and McDougall, which was Myers' "Human Personality and its Survival of Bodily Death", published posthumously in 1901.

At Myers' funeral, James delivered the obituary. James said at that time and in later lectures, that Myers was as great a mental giant as Darwin, and likened the future import of Myers' work to anything of Darwin's creation.

How then is it the case that so few know of Myers? And even more important, what has been the impact on 20th science and even more to the point, 20th century psychology? Where are we now at the dawn of the 21st century? Is there change in the wind; does it suggest any recognition of this groundbreaking work of a 19th century investigator? These heady questions demand clear answers. I shall endeavor to give a brief survey that attempts to concisely answer these questions and, in the process, answer the most important question of all: What is the full impact of all of this on science in the 21st century?

Rise of Materialism

Materialism made sense in the late 19th and early 20th century. In physics, as the 20th century progressed, more developments and discoveries in macrophysics and in the disciplines of engineering, mathematics, chemistry, and other 'hard' sciences reinforced the correctness of this approach. Scientists became convinced that everything either had been explained or certainly would be explained in a few short decades.

This was in direct contradiction to the urgings of Myers and those who were of a similar mind, including William James and many early Quantum physicists. While there was a general belief that quantum mechanics should fit into a materialist, objectivist and reductionist view of Science, as time progressed this became increasingly difficult. In retrospect it is now clear that many of the early errors in logic, especially in the field of quantum mechanics, are traceable to an initial lack of belief that mechanical principles could not be adapted to problems involing not the macrophysical world which classical physics in general so well described but instead the 'world of the very small' - the microphysical world, which quantum physics attempted to describe.

By the middle of the 20th century, it was becoming clear although not often openly discussed in scientific circles, that quantum mechanics and quantum physics were stretching mechanistic concepts beyond all reasonable limits. Clearly a new direction was called for. Mainstream physicists in the main turned a blind eye, preferring to return to the relative safety of classical experiments hoping desparately that somehow this 'quantum madness' would simply go away. This was not to be. And the challenges faced by quantum physicists were soon to be echoed from a quite unexpected camp, the field of research Parapsychology.

Ignorance of Mental Functions

In the early decades of the 20th century, the research world F.W.H. Myers, and his colleagues Edmund Gurney, Price and others - the 'pioneers' of psychical research - was already changing. Psychical researchers had focused primarily on anecdotal case studies, applying rigorous logic to their problems that is admirable even to this day. They successfully sorted the 'wheat from the chaff', ensuring that they discriminate for those case studies that were most likely to have merit without being concerned it the cases themselves fit into a model of physical reality.

It became clear that the world of classical physics would not be capable of explaining what these early pioneers were continuing to discover. As the body of evidence grew, objections from the classical science community likewise began to be heard. In a very real way, these objections have not - to this day - yet silenced. What was it that so concerned mainstream classical scientists, espousing this physical world view?

The primary concern was that the psychologists in describing classical mental functions had, in the main, acquiesced that mental functions might be explicable in terms of physical processes. In other words, they had agreed at least in principle, that 'mind' was the product of the human brain. This was a necessary, albeit unfortunate, requirement from the scientific community if psychology was to be accepted as a 'science' at the turn of the 20th century.

However, when psychical research came forth and began describing even more anomalous phenomena that classical physics and materialism had no way to explain, there was only one response. The data or the analysis had to be, in some way wrong. It was unthinkable something could be accepted as scientific fact which had no foundation in physical laws. And yet this is precisely what the careful work of the psychical researchers of the late 19th century, like Myers and Gurney, were demonstrating clearly, concisely and evocatively.

When the final confrontation occurred, the matter came down to whether psychology wanted to be taken seriously. Psychical researchers, such as Myers - who had a significant stake in the future of modern psychology - could have simply acquiesced en masse. And in fact, most of Myers' colleagues reluctantly did so. However, Myers and to a degree James, were not so easily moved from a position they knew to be correct. Myers proposed a compromise. Myers suggested that perhaps science should expand to consider the psychical research as peer to all the physical research that had gone before. This was heresey from the majority viewpoint, and Myers was soundly rejected. Not until almost a century had passsed, into the final quarter of the 20th century, would a groundswell occur in the scientific community that would finally signal significant change and ultimlately lead to the beginnings of what today can only be called the most significant paradigm shift in science since the introduction of the Modern Age.

An Integrated Science

One key goal of 21st century science will be the integration of more traditional materialistic concepts that have served science so well in the past, with the newer elightenment that is coming from the research and methods described here. The traditional material, reductionist approach to macro physics will remain viable and intact in the short term at least. More likely during the next decade, we will begin to see the evolution of advanced physics based on premises founded in quantum dynamics and realizations of the need for a marriage of the material and the conscious worlds. It is highly probable that such a paradigm shift, for that is precisely what it is, will be required to advance 21st century science.