“Empiricism is the doctrine that all knowledge is derived from the senses—what we see, hear, hold, weigh, and measure. Obviously, moral truth cannot be stuffed into a test tube or studied under a microscope. As a result, moral statements were no longer considered truths at all, but merely expressions of emotion” (Nancy Pearcey, Saving Leonardo, p. 24). Truth, in non-scientific areas, is turned into “whatever is true for you, is true for you.”
Popularized by David Hume, empiricism has become the societal view of morality and ethics in our country. In every area of American culture you can see the results of empirical thinking: Evolutionary thought with all its ramifications; the abortion industry; politics in general; and for our purposes here, the world of psychology. Psychology is simply applied philosophy, so it makes sense that the thought du jour would be reflected in the practices of this upstart discipline.
Before the 19th century, psychology was the study of the soul (psuche). Puritan preachers and writers referred to themselves as physicians and doctors of the soul. They wrote books on soul care. These scholars and pastors understood the soul to be more akin to the heart than the physical organ called the brain. They knew that actions didn’t always make sense, and thus human thoughts, feelings, and behavior came from somewhere other than the brain, somewhere deeper inside the person. The study of behavior, cognition, emotions, and epistemology was all done in the realm of religion and the Scriptures.
With the rise of the philosophy of empiricism and German liberal “scholarship” near the end of the 18th century, there was a shift from belief in the objective God to a more internal understanding that man is the center of his own individual universe. Consequently, our understanding of the soul needed to change. If God didn’t exist, or if he did exist he didn’t care about us and we didn’t need him, then to talk about the soul as being our connection to the eternal made no sense. And so, one online source defined the soul as, “The anatomical seat of cognitive, motor and sensory functions, and the origin of neural diseases…” In our day the shift is almost complete. No longer do we study the soul meaning the source of all that we think do, say and feel. But we study the brain, the part of the body that directs what we think, do, say, and feel. In accord with empiricism, we have gone from studying the deeper, non-measurable and less observable soul, to studying the electronic, chemical, and measurable brain.