The current tangle of planetary problems calls for many prompt readjustments of human values. From material and intellectual to spiritual levels, we need an integrated vision of truth (from scientific to spiritual), beauty (from natural and artistic to spiritual) and goodness (from material [ecological, social, economic, and political], through moral and ethical character, to divine goodness).
God guides us through these perilous changes with eternal stability and divine dynamism. To stay anchored and keep pace, we need to go to the next level with our spirituality—through wiser decisions made through the power of prayer.
I addressed this problem in my blogpost of 10/19/15, the draft of my presentation at the Parliament of the World’s Religions, now revised online to represent the changes I made before giving the talk. In the discussion after the talk, a fascinating problem was discussed, and that’s what I’m going to discuss in a little greater depth now.
The questions and comments after my presentation were excellent, sincere, and much more supportive than is common in an academic setting. The surprise for me was the way one paragraph attracted the attention of at least two persons who raised questions on it. I had been setting forth my view that we need to do better at taking into account the best versions of our opponents’ positions as we think about what we as individuals ought to do regarding ecological, social, economic, and political issues. In particular, we need to open ourselves radically to God, whose will many of us profess to seek. In a thorough prayer process, we mobilize our stamina, explore possible solutions thoroughly, and then let go of our attachment to our favorite ideas and even our most cherished values about what we want to see actualized in the situation about which we are seeking wisdom.
I proposed that only such profound surrender to divine wisdom would enable us to overcome the tendency of the brain, together with the desires of the unconscious and conscious mind. Brain and unconscious mind prepare us to launch an action even before we have become conscious of making a decision.
One person made a comment which seemed to imply that there was something cool about the fact that our instinctive physical nature was taking the initiative. I responded that the spiritual life as I understand it is about achieving self-mastery in which every aspect of the self—body, mind, and soul—is subordinated to the guidance of divine spirit.
One person told me after the session that he had had a liberating spiritual experience in 1963 which revealed that every decision he would ever make was already known. He explored philosophy enough to discover that other people have believed this and that the view was called “determinism.” I responded to him by distinguishing determinism as a kind of materialist philosophy from a different kind of idea. I proposed that he might possibly re-interpret his experience as a glimpse of the eternal omniscience of God. If for God, all time–past, present, and future–is simultaneous in a way that utterly transcends human understanding, such all-knowing need not compromise our freedom. Fatalism is a distorted and very human interpretation of the implications of God’s omniscience.
A third person remarked how hard or even impossible it is for most people to surrender that deeply. I do not recall my response to that comment in the group session, but after everyone had left the room, I realized that I wanted to say more on that topic.
If we are sincere in seeking the wisdom of God, we can receive help. We are not simply alone, stuck in our body, with the mind imprisoned by our very active nervous system, whose currents flash along well-traveled paths that make us creatures of habit.
On the level of mind, God does not just throw us into this difficult evolutionary world, give us a mind, and allow us to sink or swim. There is divine help for the human mind.
The God of all creation is a loving Father who has sent his spirit to live within us, to be a source of energy, intuition, meaning, wisdom, insight, truth, joy, peace, creativity, purpose, and guidance. We sometimes struggle to master this mortal nature of flesh; as evolutionary creatures we have fears and desires that we need to nourish, reproduce, and protect ourselves. But this body and its associated perceptions, emotions, and reactions are designed to be able to integrate powerfully with our best thinking, our highest ideals, and with the spirit that our Father has given to be the nucleus of our personalities.
On the level of spirit, God acts, usually in ways that are beyond our ken. We do not know how, but our experience is uplifted. The more sincere and persistent we are in our striving to seek and find and choose and do the will of God, the more we make ourselves open to that mysterious aid. Asking for divine wisdom in trust and in humble, patient listening, opens the door of our hearts and minds to receive what he is waiting to give.
The neurological evidence on which my description is based comes from experiments whose results are not disputed, although the interpretation of these findings is debated. In the experiments of Benjamin Libet, subjects were hooked up to equipment that measured the electrical activity in the brain, and each was asked to flick his or her wrist a number of times whenever they wanted to, noting the time on a clock when they made the decision to flick their wrist. Libet found that the brain became ready to send the muscles into action 300 milliseconds before they became conscious of the decision to do so. And after the decision came the action 200 milliseconds later, thus leaving just a fraction of a second in which a human subject could intervene to stop the momentum toward action that was already building. Interpreting the data, scientists began to speak of RP, readiness potential, as a level of heightened electrical arousal in an area of the brain that is involved in initiating action. (There are two links at the end for those who want to learn more.)
I would offer a few interpretive thoughts. Neuroscience is oriented to neurons, not to the will or the spirit. Neuroscience is not in a position to have an opinion about will or spirit, no matter how some people may wish to base an entire philosophy of living on neuroscience, which functions as a trump card in much current conversation.
Nevertheless, I can imagine that researchers such as Andrew Newberg and Mark Waldman might be interested in testing some hypothesis relevant to this claim. But what would it take for a test of my claim to be real? Most people who come in as experimental subjects for psychology testing have not yet cultivated a powerful level of spirituality that can suspend the material momentum of body-and-mind. But suppose that researchers could get some advanced practitioners of one or more of the world’s great spiritual traditions. This has been done before in the lab. But what proportion of those sincere persons would be willing to go to spiritual depths in deciding when to flick her wrist? For a real test of my proposal in its fullness, a person who is advanced in prayer, meditation, or worship would need to be in the throes of a significant decision, have completed the preliminary phases in a thorough prayer process, and be ready to “go on the mountain” (as is sometimes said in China) to receive the spirit revelation of what is to be done. How many spiritual persons would be willing to complicate that culminating moment of decision by entanglement with experimental paraphernalia? It is not clear to me that neuroscience would be able to test my claim in the lab.
Whatever great decisions we make to be loyal to the will of God in key aspects of our lives will have neurological consequences. The more consistently and powerfully we sustain and repeat those decisions in recurring challenges, the more the brain will deepen its habits in those directions. We may have to work out the details more or less constantly to keep up with changing situations, but we have a solid framework that enables us to adapt flexibly. And an overall decision to stay open to the will of God helps us be adjust our approach if it turns out that we need to revise our framework decisions.
At the very least, I claim that good decisions and actions generate good habits of living— practical, moral, intellectual, and spiritual—which in turn establish good neurological patterns. Thus we do not need to regard even a high degree of neurological influence in our lives as necessarily bad.
Nevertheless, we want to gain, through God-given faith, increasing spiritual liberation from being controlled by antecedent brain habits. As others have pointed out, the very activity of deliberation, considering alternative courses of action and the pros and cons for each, is a practice that significantly reduces impulsive momentum toward a pre-chosen conclusion-and-action.
Since the spirit of God is within us, working to help us find wisdom and love well, our quest for increasing spiritual liberation in the inner life is not that of a lone combatant, surrounded by a host of enemies. It is more like being surrounded by a host of friends as we break through the material resistance to the better ways of abiding in the way of truth. As Jesus said, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”
Let us pray for one another’s openness as we seek the wisdom of liberating truth.
Links on the experiments by Benjamin Libet: