Chris Cooper PhD

Reflection on Science and Art

No place is the reflection upon the nature of science and art and the validity of different methods of inquiry more relevant than in the field of psychology. Psychology is, after all, focused on who we are as individuals. That effort to discover who we are is one of the most difficult tasks any of us will undertake. One of the difficulties, I believe, is in trying to figure out what methods of inquiry are sound – which data to use. When I was in graduate school I was taught that science was the way to go. That my thinking about my psychological functioning and that of others must be “evidence-based.” True. But what does that term mean? It must be empirical, they said. Yes. But what exactly does that mean?

Empirical, according to the Cambridge University Press, means: based on what is experienced or seen rather than on theory. (http://dictionary.cambridge.org)

It doesn’t say anything about how we must experience. Observation? Introspection? In the case of psychology, must one use surveys which are then reduced to numbers for statistical analysis? Or can we observe individuals in our consultation rooms and in our lives? In my university program – and in many medical offices – one will be told that one must observe individual variables, measure them, and subject them to large statistical analyses before we can draw any conclusions. We must use the methods of science, not art – of reason, not intuition.

I love what Albert Camus observed about this:

And here are trees and I know their gnarled surface, water and I feel its taste. These scents of grass and stars at night, certain evenings when the heart relaxes— How shall I negate this world whose power and strength I feel? Yet all the knowledge on Earth will give me nothing to assure me that this world is mine. You describe it to me and you teach me to classify it. You enumerate its laws and in my thirst for knowledge I admit that they are true. You take apart its mechanism and my hope increases, At the final stage you teach me that this wondrous and multi-colored universe can be reduced to the atom and that the atom itself can be reduced to the electron. All this is good and I wait for you to continue. But you tell me of an invisible planetary system in which electrons gravitate around a nucleus. You explain this world to me with an image. I realize then that you have been reduced to poetry: I shall never know. Have I the time to become indignant? You have already changed theories. So that science that was to teach me everything ends up in a hypothesis. That lucidity founders in metaphor, that uncertainty is resolved in a work of art.

Albert Camus, 1942, The Myth of Sisyphus

copyright Chris D. Cooper, PhD – 2008