The second chapter from Psychology Through the Eyes of Faith by David Myers and Malcolm Jeeves is titled “Levels of Explanation.” The essential argument here is that there are many “levels” or “modes” of explanation that simply reflect different “levels of analysis.” The example the supply is that of memory:
neuropsycholgists study the neural networks that store information and the function of particular brain regions for particular kinds of memory. Cognitive psychologists study memory in nonphysical terms, as a partly automatic and partly effortful process of encoding, storing, and retrieving informatoin. Social psychologists study the effects of our moods and social experiences upon our recall. [p. 7]
No one level sufficiently explains all of what we can know about memory or whatever topic we are studying in psychology. Myers and Jeeves share a “partial hierarchy of disciplines” (see Figure 2 on p. 10) that ranges from physics (elemental explanation) to theology (integrative explanation). I appreciate what they say here: “For convenience, we necessarily view it is multilayered, but it is actually a seamless unity” [p. 10]. There is something artificial about separating out explanations by discipline if one affirms the unity of truth. However, it can be helpful to do so if we recognize the limits of the discipline we use to discuss a topic.
Their conclusion? “Different levels of explanation can be complementary” [p. 11]. They acknowledge, too, that the fact that there can be complementarity “does not mean there is never conflict or that any unsupported idea is to be welcomed as truth.”
Also, as was mentioned above, this levels of explanation approach reminds us to be humble about what psychology can do: it can provide a psychological account of a particular topic, but that account is neither the final word nor the most authoritative account of that topic.
Finally, we are beginning to hint at a challenge we will want to consider. What makes a meaningful dialogue between theology (or Christianity?) and psychology so difficult may be tied to the question of how one determines the relative weight one gives to one ‘level’ or another if one is committed to a levels of explanation approach.