Scientific Thinking and the Inner Journey

8 min read
Geralt / Pixabay

Source: Geralt / Pixabay

The Path From Philosophy to Science

Early psychology was considered a branch of philosophy that focused on understanding the human soul. In Western philosophy, the word “psychology” is derived from the Greek word “psyche,” meaning spirit or soul, and “logos,” meaning study.

In ancient Greece, philosophers such as Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle developed theories about human perception, memory, and reasoning to study the relationship between the mind and body. For example, Plato’s dualism regarded body and mind as two independent and antagonistic principles, which made the world as we see it as a poor reflection of the world as it is. In his famous allegory of the cave, Plato laid the foundation for cognitive psychology by describing intrapsychic conflict and concluding that because our senses can deceive us, reasoning is our only path to knowledge (Louise, 2014).

Despite Plato’s philosophical leanings toward objective reasoning, up until the late 19th century, the prevailing view was that psychology might never become a “real” science because many believed that internal or experiential phenomena could not be quantified. Modern psychology emerged when scientists began to apply the scientific methods used in physics and chemistry to take the path of reasoning to knowledge when studying mind and behavior.

In 1879, Wilhelm Wundt set up the first laboratory dedicated to experimental psychology and sought to apply methods used in chemistry and physics to study human perception with “objective” measurements and controls (Reiber, 2001). His aim was to understand the structure of the mind by recording thoughts and sensations in ways that could eliminate “interpretation” and counter the argument that there is no way to know whether an individual’s consciousness is accurately reporting experiences.

Wundt used experimental techniques for studying aspects of “internal perception,” or introspection, with repetitive external stimuli and observation (Reiber, 2001). The repetitions allowed the participants to be more attentive to their own internal experiences, while the observer recorded their reactions to stimuli.

These techniques established psychology as a valid experimental science, and encouraged other researchers, such as behaviorists and cognitive scientists, to follow. Throughout the 21st century, the dualism that characterized much of ancient philosophy shifted to a growing focus on how different facets of the mind, body, and environment interact to shape human behavior.

Subjective Factors and Research Bias

Wundt’s success using the scientific method to study the human mind and behavior has vastly expanded our knowledge and placed psychology as a core academic discipline. However, although our knowledge has grown enormously, analyzing various components of our inner experiences has not simplified them—instead, it revealed their complexity.

In trying to objectively understand this intrinsic complexity, psychology has been challenged with myriad unplanned or uncontrolled subjective factors that can confound researchers’ interpretations and conclusions. These factors (variables) are not negligible, as they can occur in any facet of research from the literature reviewed to study samples, analysis methods, and outcome representations. This means that subjective factors may endanger the validity and reliability of any study by affecting the act of observing and the phenomenon being observed.

Researchers and participants are human, each with unique identities and experiences through which their own values, beliefs, assumptions, and other subjective biases were formed. These subjectivities can affect a study where a researcher subconsciously communicates an expected outcome, which then causes participants to alter their behavior based on that perceived expectation.

For example, when conducting interviews with the descendants of Nazis and Holocaust survivors at the Harvard Medical School, I sometimes reacted with judgments and subtle facial expressions that may have influenced the participants’ responses. These types of interactions can skew the data by unintentionally impacting a participant’s reaction to a researcher’s perceived emotional cue.

Similarly, researchers can influence studies when their prior beliefs or values may have already predicted an outcome in their minds. As they choose a topic, review literature, formulate the methodology, and collect data, subconscious bias may influence their interpretations of previous works or cause them to perceive experimental data as more congruent with their research hypothesis.

For example, in a study of an attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder drug, if the researcher knows which subjects received the drug, they may perceive and report that the experimental group seems more focused because that’s what they expected. This effect can often be mitigated by using a double-blind study to ensure neither the researcher nor the participant has any information that may influence their perception and behavior.

This phenomenon is called the “confirmation bias” because expecting and predicting an outcome in advance may affect the study from conception to how the results are represented. Although often unintentional, this bias can still make studies invalid and unreliable.

As researchers, it is our responsibility to be aware of these variables and try to understand them such that—where possible—they can be isolated, measured, or eliminated.

Study Ourselves Studying Ourselves

Given that all scientific research is prone to subjective bias and error, we must be aware that they may be hidden in our findings. To minimize the influence of our subjective biases, we can foster self-awareness by using scientific thinking to study ourselves studying ourselves. This type of meta-learning allows us to examine our conscious experiences as objectively as possible and to build a bridge between objective and subjective factors in research and everyday life.

There are five steps we can use to encourage applying scientific reasoning to ourselves:

  1. Pause
  2. Self-inquire
  3. State the opposite
  4. Adopt nonbinary thinking
  5. Assume you are wrong

These steps can reveal our internal subjectivities to preserve as much objectivity as possible.

In practice, these steps mean the following:

  • Step one avoids jumping to conclusions. In research, this involves reviewing relevant past literature to formulate a research question. In everyday life, this involves adopting a decision-making mode based on logic and impersonal facts. For example, reading conflicting perspectives on a topic helps us make decisions with more clarity and objectivity.
  • Step two considers why a topic is important to study. This is pivotal in understanding how our subjectivities and biases can become confounding factors. In research, you may find that internal biases and emotions are driving your inquiry and the interpretation of the data. In everyday life, this involves looking inward and asking questions such as the following: What is my opinion and feeling about this? Why do I believe this? Based on what evidence I collected from both sides, how true is my initial opinion?
  • Step three turns the question into a statement of a testable relationship. To remain objective, state the opposite of your prediction. In research, this involves crafting a research hypothesis and a null hypothesis. In everyday life, this involves challenging your personal beliefs by thinking about the opposite beliefs.
  • Step four assumes that reality is not binary. In research, this means suspending categorical thinking and the assumption that either the hypothesis or the null describes complete “truth.” Instead, we include moderator variables to better understand reality. This involves replacing either-or predictions with an assumption that they may be two multifaceted sides of the same coin—rather than predicting heads or tails, we would use if-then logic to think about how the coin was flipped and why that could affect the way it lands. In everyday life, this means considering more than two possible opinions or perspectives in an argument and accepting gray areas in addition to either-or thinking. Here, we embrace both-and thinking.
  • Step five requires assuming your predictions may be wrong. In research, this means accepting that your hypothesis may not be confirmed or replicated in future studies. Assume that there is more than one answer, and reconsider what you have learned throughout the process. In everyday life, this means to embrace honesty and humility and accept that other peoples’ beliefs may be as valid as, or even more valid and reasonable than, yours. And accept that all knowledge is limited.

Using scientific reasoning to journey inward hinges on our willingness to learn and unlearn through a continuing open-ended process of systematically questioning our values, beliefs, and assumptions. These steps of scientific thinking encourage us to observe ourselves without becoming so emotionally attached to our convictions that we cannot see other sides.

One of the most renowned researchers in the 13th century, al-Hasan ibn Al-Haytham, in reference to seeking truth, states that one must “make himself an enemy of all that he reads, and, applying his mind to the core and margins of its content, attack it from every side. He should also suspect himself as he performs his critical examination of it, so that he may avoid falling into either prejudice or leniency” (Sabra, 2003).

We cannot hope to minimize these subjective factors without attempting to understand the workings of our own minds. Through self-observation, we can use scientific reasoning as a valuable tool for self-awareness as we go through the veil of illusion into advancing our knowledge. Studying ourselves as we study how our minds work lies at the heart of scientific thinking.

Copyright 2023 Mona Sue Weissmark All Rights Reserved

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