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Misunderstanding – Philosophy of Science
Karl Popper and The Philosophy of Science
The Bobgans appeal to Karl Popper in chapter 11 of Prophets of Psychoheresy I, a chapter that attempts to discuss Dr Crabb’s doctrine of the unconscious. 1 Popper’s name appears there in a section entitled “The Unconscious: Scientific Fact or Fiction?”, which begins with a doubly questionable assertion:
In the first place, it is not true that Crabb’s theory is “Freudian-based.” (The Bobgans believe they established that point back in chapter 9, but their argument there fails. However, the material I want to cover right now about Karl Popper will make it easier to understand what is wrong in chapter 9, so we will return to that issue later). And, secondly, Crabb does not speak of his theory as though it were a scientifically established fact. Rather, he speaks of it as based on the Bible; he does not make the claim that the Bobgans say he does. On the contrary, in his very first book Basic Principles of Biblical Counselling he says:
However, the Bobgans seem to have overlooked this, and so, believing they are refuting Crabb, they quote Sir Karl Popper in support of their own statement that,
These words of the Bobgans show two things: (1) they accept Karl Popper as an authority on what is and isn’t scientific, and (2) they do not understand Karl Popper.
The first point is evident just from reading the Bobgans’ own words; the second needs explanation. The question that was the concern of Karl Popper in his great work The Logic of Scientific Discovery6 is, “What marks a theory as scientific? Why are some theories worthy of that name, and others not?” 7
His answer was radical. He contended that a theory can only be considered scientific if it makes predictions of events which, if they do not occur, will show that the theory is false. Before Popper, people had tended to think that a theory was scientific because it had been verified – that is, a scientist had proposed a theory, then conducted an experiment based on the theory, and the experiment had turned out as predicted. People clung to that view of science even though as early as the 1700’s the philosopher David Hume has shown that no theory ever could be said to be proven true by one successful experiment, or a hundred, or a million. 8
No, as Popper says, “Theories are … never empirically verifiable.” 9 Instead, “A theory that is not refutable by any conceivable event is nonscientific. Irrefutability is not a virtue of a theory (as people often think) but a vice.” 10
The reason that Popper says that psychiatric theories are not scientific is that (he believes) they are not falsifiable. However, the Bobgans use him to support their statement that no one has scientifically verified the contents of the unconscious. Reading the Bobgans, you would be led to believe that Popper thought that there were some theories that had been scientifically verified, though psychiatry was not one of them. However, according to Popper, no theory has ever been scientifically verified – not even Newton’s laws, or Einstein’s.
So, then, we find the Bobgans making muddled use of Karl Popper to prove Larry Crabb wrong in saying something he didn’t say and doesn’t believe. However, there is a useful lesson to be learned from the way that the Bobgans appeal to Karl Popper in support of their case.
First, Popper’s philosophy is adamantly anti-biblical, yet the Bobgans have valued some of his words so highly that they use them in a book in defence (so they imagine) of a part of the Christian faith. The anti-biblical roots of his thinking can be seen in a statement early in Logic of Scientific Discovery:
Now, epistemology is the study of how we know what we know (and whether we know anything at all for sure). For a Christian, knowledge is based first and foremost on God’s revelation; but for Popper, epistemology and the theory of scientific method are one and the same thing. There is no room for revelation in his system, which takes for granted Satan’s lie human beings are able to be “like God, knowing good and evil.” (Genesis 3:5).
The Bobgans say of Crabb’s willingness to learn from secular psychologists,
If that criticism were justified, we could with equal force say of the Bobgans in their use of Popper, “It is amazing that Christians choose to drink from such antichristian epistemological belief systems.” However, as I will explain further, the Bobgans are not wrong to make discerning use of Popper, just as Crabb is not wrong to make discerning, biblically-informed use of Freud.
Second, Popper does not have the field to himself. There are competing philosophers of science and some of them disagree strongly with Popper. Another science philosopher, Alan Chalmers, describes the situation like this:
I agree with Chalmers that Popper despite his flaws, comes much nearer the truth than those who put forward thoroughly different theories about the scientific method. Evidently the Bobgans agree too. They must therefore agree that it is possible for a Christian to look at various non-Christian theoretical systems and discern that one is nearer the truth than the other. And they must also agree that it is possible for a Christian to discern where the non-Christian systems most nearly approach the truth, and where they are furthest from it.
Their own example shows that the Bobgans have no grounds for finding fault with Crabb for his willingness to read and learn from secular sources. Though they might choose to disagree with him on details, they have no grounds to complain about the method itself.
The Bobgans are inconsistent when they criticise Crabb. However, someone might say, “Indeed, they are inconsistent, but the solution is for them to repent and give up their appeal to Popper, not for them to abandon their criticism of Crabb.” Therefore we must now consider just why it is that a person whose motives are antichristian can nevertheless discover and publish what – in Christian hands – is true and right and good.
Cornelius Van Til14 has many times pointed out that though the non-Christian hates God and always reasons from presuppositions that deny God, as a matter of fact he is God’s creature and lives in a world created by God. If he is to live at all successfully, he must live as though Christianity is true. He builds his physical house from bricks created by God, even though on his non-Christian presuppositions he cannot so much as prove that the bricks exist or that the laws of physics which up until now have enabled houses to be built and hold together will still be true tomorrow. Likewise, he must build his intellectual house from materials provided by God. All that the unbeliever builds he builds with the goal of proving that he is god, and God is not. Nevertheless, if his system of thought is to have any practical connection with the world in which the unbeliever actually lives – a world created and controlled by God – it must in many key respects tell the truth about that world. 15
In Van Til’s words,
There is no need, therefore, to view with horror (as the Bobgans do) everything that comes from the pen of a non-Christian psychologist, and to expect that nothing true will be found there. 19 In fact, to have the Bobgans’ attitude is to concede to the non-Christian mind a power of creativity – independent of God – which the Bible testifies it does not have.
In his syllabus Psychology of Religion, Van Til traces the steps by which secular psychology this century has deepened its rebellion against God, but as he does so he also identifies insights in it which are true, or would be true if turned to godly purposes in Christian hands. 20 If we follow what he says there, we can see illustrated just what he means about the way non-Christian thought can be true in its substance, even while it is false in its motives.
In step 1, “…the intellect lost its place of high authority. This might have been done in the interest of a Christian type of thought. Christianity has always sought to equalize all the aspects of man’s personality. However the dethroning of the intellect was not done in the interest of Christian theism but in the interest of Irrationalism.”
In step 2, “…the new psychology reacted against the separation of the soul from the body. This too might have been in the interest of Christian theism. ….The Christian position has never been guilty of abstract separation of the soul and the body. Accordingly, insofar as the new psychology seeks to bring soul and body into close harmony with one another, we can only rejoice. However, we should again observe that this bringing of soul and body together by modern psychology is in the interest of wiping out the distinction between them.”
In step 3, “…the new psychology reacted against the old in that it laid more emphasis upon child psychology…. With respect to this third step we observe again that it too might have been taken in the interest of Christian theism. Individuality is a concept that is embedded in the very foundations of theism. As Christianity does justice to the emotional and volitional, so it also does justice to the individuality of each person….” [but] “…modern psychology thinks of personality as being exclusively a self-accomplishment on the part of man. At this point it is directly opposed to Christianity which holds that personality is created by God.”
Step 4 was the emphasis on the unconscious, and Van Til says, “Even this fourth step of modern psychology has ‘good elements’ in it… [We] … also believe that man was part conscious and in part unconscious in his activity… Scripture is full of the idea of the subconscious. David prays that he may be forgiven for sins of which he is unaware. We say that we are born and conceived in sin which does not merely refer to the activity of the parents but means that we are sinners when we come into the world even though we are not self-conscious.”
Step 5 is the study of abnormal psychology. Van Til’s comment is, “The study of abnormal psychology is a good thing. It has undoubtedly thrown light not only on the behaviour of the abnormal but also on the behaviour of the normal…. It is not the fact that men turned to the study of the abnormal psychology that is important, but the reason why they did it. This reason was the assumption that the normal and the abnormal are both normal in the sense that they are both naturally to be expected in human life.”
Even the sixth step, the study of the soul of “primitive man,” has its Christian correlation. Only the seventh step (the elevation of the animal as a principle of explanation for man) has no element of truth in it.
Near the conclusion of a book whose subject is biblical psychology, Rousas Rushdoony (who well understands Van Til) observes,
On the last page of the same book he says:
What if Larry Crabb’s doctrines of psychology and counselling are in fact built upon that kind of foundation? What if the kind of use he makes of Freud and Adler and Jung is precisely and only the kind of use that Van Til says a Christian should be able to make of them? I believe that is just about what Crabb has achieved, though there is undoubtedly room for further development and correction. However, the Bobgans give no evidence that they understand that these questions exist to be asked, let alone what their answers are.
We have reached this point as a result of a discussion of Karl Popper’s doctrine of the scientific method: a discussion which led in turn to a consideration of what Cornelius Van Til had to say about the validity of non-Christian research. There is one more topic that needs to be touched upon before we leave Popper behind.
Popper’s doctrine is not the final word. Apart from the hostile criticism that Popper received from the philosophers whom Alan Chalmers mentions, even Popper’s disciple Imre Lakatos recognised problems with Popper’s doctrine. He attempted to correct them, but there are problems with his theory, too, which Alan Chalmers in his turn has attempted to correct. 25 And Chalmers also fails, I believe. All of these men – Popper, Lakatos, Chalmers – fall foul of a problem that Van Til shows is generic to all non-Christian thought:
Popper’s basic idea remains a good one. After all, why do we want to know which theories to call “scientific”? Surely it is so we can know which ones are most likely to help us make our way successfully through this world. It seems right, therefore, when Popper says that such a theory will be one that is falsifiable. What Lakatos and Chalmers have shown, though, is that it is impossible, if you start with secular presuppositions, to come up with a definition of “falsifiable” that actually works in the world of science as it is actually practised. 27
What this means is that you cannot even arrive at a practical definition of what is scientific unless you start with God’s revelation of Himself to us His creatures. The Bobgans wrongly accuse Crabb of going to a court of appeal outside the Scriptures for justification for his psychological doctrines. He does not – but the Bobgans set up just such a court of appeal in support of their own doctrine of the scientific method. Their court of appeal is Karl Popper, and Popper is wrong.
Where that takes us, is that Popper’s judgement about what is and isn’t scientific is not reliable. Biblical thinking has to be brought to bear to make a sound judgement on any such question. Therefore, in conclusion to this section we can observe:
(1) Contrary to Popper, psychological theories are not necessarily unscientific;
(2) Contrary to the Bobgans, even the most rabidly non-Christian presuppositions do not mean that secular theories contain no insights that are of value to Christians;
(3) Crabb begins with the scriptures, not secular psychology. However, his understanding of what the scriptures are saying is honed and deepened by psychologists’ published observations and theories of patterns of human behaviour, and ( cf. Van Til) there is nothing unbiblical about his doing just that
(4) Even in the days when law was explicitly Christian, judges did not go solely to the scriptures when deciding a case. They also went to records of other similar cases, for help in thinking through the issues. They went outside the scriptures, but that did not in the least bit reduce their practical commitment to them. In a similar way, a Christian counsellor can go to extra-biblical material for assistance without compromising his stand on the scriptures themselves.
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