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The Noetic Effects of the Fall in Psychology

Truth in Love 326

We shouldn't be shocked to find biases in secular literature. If this battle against bias can be found within us, as believers, it will surely be found within the secularist who is not anchored in the truth of God.

Aug 30, 2021

Dale Johnson: Today on the podcast I have with me Dr. Jenn Chen. Jenn has been with us before, but I’m very delighted for her to be with us this time to talk about this particular topic. Let me introduce you to her. If you don’t know Jenn she is well educated. Thank the Lord for that. We love education. She has a master’s degree in Marriage and Family Therapy. Practiced, actually, for 17 years in the inner city in LA and also received a Master’s and a Doctoral degree in Clinical Psychology and actually taught Clinical Psychology as an instructor for UCLA as well. And Jenn, I’m delighted that you’re here. You also received an MABC from the Master’s University and you now currently teach there as an adjunct professor in their online program with Dr. Ernie Baker. And so listen, I’m grateful that you’re here.

Recently, we were together for our ACBC colloquium. It’s where we gather, 35 or 40 leaders in the biblical counseling movement, and this year we considered the myths of modern psychiatry. You presented a paper that I think was just so intriguing. I wanted us to be able to do a podcast on some of those subjects. I think it would be really important for so many of our people, or pastors even, to hear and listen to some of the research that you are able to do. Here’s the title, and it is academic so we’re going to break that down in in the podcast today. It was on research, neuroscience, modern psychotherapies and the noetic effects of the fall. I love the way that you presented this paper. And by the way, the paper will come out in a volume of ACBC essays at our conference in October. I’ll talk more about that later, but the paper is really well done. And you present some of the fallacies that we see and some of the difficulties in understanding and even interpreting some of the research that’s out there that’s utilized.

You have an interesting story. I want us to break this down maybe in a couple of podcast, because there’s so much information for us to discuss. But I want to start with a little bit about your story. Anytime that we talk about psychology or psychiatry even, you know, people get a little nervous but the ideas are—we’re not bashing the people who are associated, right? I mean, you are one of those folks. I actually have a bachelor’s degree in Psychology and I went into psychology as a believer. And I wanted to help people. That was the goal. And I would say, and I want to hear you describe this, but I would say that people who go into this area, they see human suffering and they really want to help, and they see it as a common way to go and study something that’s rigorous to help people. Tell me a little bit about your experience there.

Jenn Chen: Yeah, absolutely. I wanted to be able to minister to people and thought that that was one of the best ways to do that. And I have appreciated colleagues on the way that—these are folks who are day by day sitting in front of people, hour after hour, listening and walking with people through immense suffering. And sometimes, you know, they’re more aware of what’s going on and being there in the presence of suffering than some of us in the church.

Dale Johnson: I think that’s true. Yeah, I mean, they spend hours and hours listening and talk therapy or whatever the case might be, and certainly on the whole I would say maybe give more attention than the church does to these types of problems of care. Now, in your journey as you’re traveling in your education, and you had a lot of it in that realm, you started to make a change in some of your thinking, but I want you to sort of get into the nitty-gritty. Obviously, you went to some of the highest levels of study and education, receiving your Psy.D. and so this was not a side gig or hobby that you were interested in. This was something you were pursuing with your life. So talk about that journey and the things that were intriguing and that really caught your attention. And then I want you to contrast that when we move along a little bit to just some of the things that you began to question along the way.

Jenn Chen: Theologically, I just had this theology of presence and thought about how Christ, He left the right hand of the Father to come down to us to enter our suffering, and thought this was a wonderful way to do that. And another part of my beliefs was that I wanted to put myself in the best way possible to honor the Lord. But as I studied these different things, the more I studied the less I thought I knew, or there was times where things were helpful and yet led to less morality at times. I still think of a gentleman. I helped him overcome panic disorder and then he left his wife and child, and I just asked myself, what am I doing? So that was more on the practical, you know, face-to-face side, but also in the studies—both in doing the studies, taking statistics, recognizing how much of this, in some way, seemed arbitrary or ivory tower, as well as just being exposed to people doing research and just understanding things. I talk in my paper about something called questionable research practices. I also talk about biases and even seeing things like fraud and negligence. And ironically too, as an Asian-American, also seeing how some of the therapies and thoughts about what “mental health” was didn’t fit my particular experience and how I would be pathologized. So, that was another thing that kind of made me question—not question psychology entirely, but just see it as a very perspective-based world view versus this objective science.

Dale Johnson: That is so insightful and I wish we could go down that train of how it does, in many ways, the discipline of psychology, stereotypes certain categories and has predictive scales, if you will, of different types of people. And we do see a lot of it being culturally interpreted which, man, I think that’s critical and I think that’s so helpful to hear from your perspective there. In this process a lot of people have studied, like me, psychology and at some point they see themselves transition away. Mine happened to be by reading biblical counseling books. As you and I have talked, your story is not quite like that. Some people may assume, oh well she went to some, you know, Bible-thumping understanding of Scripture and so she radically changed. Well, your story is a little bit different in that as you were studying at these high levels of psychology. Talk a little bit about how your mind began to shift in the direction toward biblical counseling. 

Jenn Chen: It was more of this, God was undermining what I believed was helpful and I think making that space for biblical counseling. I think the other thing is, working in the inner city and these tools I had been given, and even in neuropsych—so the norms, meaning what we actually use to measure things, were for a very middle class educated white people. So how do I apply that to somebody who has very limited education, totally different culture? So at some point it just became uninterpretable. And just also knowing how the tests and measures, how they were designed. And how would it be that that is what measure self-esteem? Or even in clinical practice of, okay, if I’m going to measure depression with this person I’m going to use this scale because I’m considering, oh they’re older, they’re going to have a lot more physical issues so I need to weed out those things. And then I think just practically of things not necessarily working and then some of it I thought, well maybe it’s my skill level, or maybe I just don’t have enough education or I just don’t have enough experience. I’ve just poured out my life into just trying to learn more, thinking that was the answer. And then what happened? Well personally, after I’d been equipped with what was the best in the field, as well as just having had the opportunity to study from different theoretical orientation models—both from a kind of academic and then, what does it look like in the room—and then having my own trial trying all those things and finding all of them lacking which put me in the place of—well, yes in my intro to integration class they pooh-poohed biblical counseling but here it is. I can learn from that too. And it just blew my world open, but God had already laid the groundwork of, Jenn you’ve tried that, that, and that. And same with other things, in my life of, that idol didn’t work, that idol didn’t work. So, He let my Idols fall as preparation for Him and His Word, and His Spirit. 

Dale Johnson: That’s such an interesting story, and then you pursued an MABC at the Masters as we talked about. Jenn, if you can for just a moment, so much of what goes on in psychology today is questioned, honestly, among secularists, but neuroscience has grown as the primary science that we can trust and that many of our, even psychotherapies, are trying to utilize to say, yes there’s valid change that happens. See, look at the neuroscience, right? So, as you were studying psychology, and you were thinking about this as some completely valid scientific approach, although very subjective in nature, you begin to see that not as sturdy and strong as what most people would assume. And then we get to this issue of neuroscience. And it is a fascinating world of study and I think there’s a lot that we can still learn. We know so little, honestly, about the human brain. We have to approach this humbly. That is certainly true. But there are so many things that are propagated under the guise of neuroscience that I think we should be cautious about.

Jenn Chen: I love science. I am a curious individual and it moves incredibly slowly already, but then when you add so many variables into the human mind, it’s just—so I did have a professor, a neuropsych professor, and he just specialized in one tiny area of the brain and the slowness of having to build those studies. So that was one thing I learned. And then back to the—when I took classes in neuropsych, it was so fascinating and it was exciting, and it just seems so cutting edge. But then to practice it and then to see how much interpretation needed to be done, how much messiness there was, and then practicing it in the inner city. It’s just so much more complicated than is kind of put in sometimes studies that are placed in the news. In fact, I do use the term hype in my paper. A lot of science is hyped so it will be clickbait. And again, I am so excited about science and what it’s done, and at the same time, it can be used to sell things and used improperly to sell things. 

Dale Johnson: Yeah, that’s right. And in our second podcast, I want us to go a lot deeper when we talk about neuroscience, but I want us to close out. We talked about the noetic effects of the fall and some of this has to do—first of all, I want us to define noetic, what that means for our listeners. So, can you give us a quick understanding of these noetic effects that we’re talking about?

Jenn Chen: So when we’re talking about noetic effects of the fall, I’m saying the fall, that’s distorted and negatively affected and undermines our mind and our intellect, our ability to truly see things clearly. So that distortion. And it’s prominent in all studies, and it can be even prominent in our study of the Bible. 

Dale Johnson: Yeah, that’s right. The root of the Word has to do with the mind. And we’re talking about the effects of the fall on the mind of an individual. 1 Corinthians 2:14, “the natural man cannot discern the things of the spirit.” That a person is spiritually dead, the Bible says, that doesn’t mean that they’re walking around and as if they’re dead, right? They are dead spiritually, but they’re alive as a person. They’re animated. They can interpret things. But the Bible makes clear that they’re blinded, right? That’s the idea of the noetic effects of sin that, yes they can observe things and pay attention,  but are they seeing the full reality that we’re describing here? So, a lot of confusion comes about with psychology, particularly as it relates to descriptions and prescriptions. When we look at Psychology, which you studied at length, we do see, even some of the effects, the noetic effects of the fall, in psychology, even relative to its description of things. Can you talk for a little bit about that idea? 

Jenn Chen: Yes, this idea that there’s data or research and somehow that this is this objective place, and we do know from Cornelius Van Til and many others, but there are no brute facts, is his statement. And part of research—I talk about the stages of different research and many places where the noetic effects of the fall could happen. So something I think about is confirmation bias. And this is a log that we should all look for in our own eye first. And what it is is our tendency to gather evidence that confirms our pre-existing expectations and usually we’ll do this by emphasizing or pursuing supporting evidence while dismissing or failing to seek contradictory evidence. So all of us, we tend to see things from our own worldview. And the problem with this is, it doesn’t allow for disconfirmation of untruths or new perspectives, and it does play a role in the other biases that I speak to in the paper. 

Dale Johnson: Yeah, and as you mentioned earlier, a lot of these things are designed for clickbait, right? And we have to be very cautious. And again, we’re not saying that there aren’t some true statements that are made, but we do have to be more cautious than I think we’ve been in the past as the church, where we’re hungry to adopt science. We want to adopt legitimate science. But as you talked about in the paper, psychology is wrought with a history of subjectivity. It’s wrought with a history of bias and publication, right? For the sake of research grants and studies, and that sort of thing that we just have to be very, very cautious about when we think through some of these ideas. Now, so when we talk about the subjectivity, for example, of psychology, it might be easy for us to think that there are probably guys in some sort of ivory tower somewhere who are twiddling their thumbs and thinking of some sort of evil plan to conquer the world. That’s not what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about, you know, these biases happen just the same way that you and I, as Christians, our hearts are deceived about things. And we don’t always see things rightly. So talk about some of those other biases that help us to understand that these aren’t people who are trying to intentionally deceive someone or send someone down the wrong path, but these biases certainly are present and founded in the literature of psychology. 

Jenn Chen: Yes, one of the authors that I referred to, he coined the term “meaning-well bias” and he wrote that scientists really want their study to provide strong results because it would mean progress in fighting a disease, or a social or environmental ill, or some other important problem. It’s simply that the scientist means well and wants to feel like their research is beneficial. These are men and women who are pouring their lives into fighting these social ills, the suffering. And they are really seeking to make their work meaningful. And that’s the majority of them. There is this pressure for obtaining and keeping an academic career. I’m guessing most of us have heard the term publish or perish, and for those that haven’t, there is this pressure that if you’re not pumping out articles and results, then why should we keep you on as a faculty? Finances in the secular world, finances, economics, it makes the world go round. They need money for grants. They need money for equipment. It’s amazing how much some of this equipment costs. Study, researchers, and then sometimes too, reputational concerns that they want this career based on their scientific results, that they can get renowned, they can have a TED Talk, they can be known as someone that’s helped in the world. 

Dale Johnson: Yeah. I mean, that’s right and there’s so much to this and when we think through the psychology that we hear, we often have an immediate reaction. What I want to caution our folks about, whether that be a positive or a negative reaction, I want to caution our folks that when we read technology—and it’s okay that we do—that we just do it with an eye toward the Scripture and a lens of discernment from the Scripture to think about biblical wisdom and to know these things are very helpful. And this shouldn’t be a shock to us to think about biases that happen in secular literature, again, because we have the same struggles in our own human heart where our hearts can be deceptive. We sometimes see the things we want to see. So, that’s not out of bounds even for us or certainly a secularist who doesn’t know the truth of God and who’s not anchored into the truth of God. Jenn, thank you for sharing your story and giving us some insight, and the Lord redeeming so much of your education and the truth of God’s Word that has really helped you to be a great discerner. And you’ve been very very helpful to so many and I’m so thankful.