Noetic Sciences Review,
Vol. 30, Summer 1994 page 4-9
Rupert Sheldrake, a fellow of the Institute of Noetic Sciences, is a biologist who has spent many years exploring and developing an alternative view of evolution–one in which "formative causation", "morphogenetic" or "mental" fields play a decisive role. Sheldrake is also a scientist who devotes time regularly to the practice of prayer and exploration of its efficacy. How did a scientist come to be so interested in prayer, and how does he reconcile this with his scientific training? In December last year, IONS editor Christian de Quincey visited Sheldrake in his London home to talk about prayer and science–the following article is based on that interview.
Since ancient times, a strong and pervasive belief in the efficacy of prayer–for the living and the dead–reinforces the notion that consciousness is not limited to the physical body. Not only do traditions throughout the world share a belief that prayers may in some way help (or invoke help from) deceased ancestors, many cultures throughout history have believed that prayer can bring about changes in the physical circumstances of the living.
If prayer affects things in the physical world, its effects should be measurable, and science should be able to investigate it. There is a very scattered literature on this, but when you bring it all together as Larry Dossey has done in his recent book, Healing Words (HarperSanFrancisco, 1993), you see there is quite a large number of interesting experiments with challenging results. Out of 131 controlled experiments on prayer-based healing, more than half showed statistically significant benefits. One of the best known is a double blind study of 393 patients in the coronary unit at San Francisco General Hospital. In this experiment, 192 patients, chosen at random, were prayed for by home prayer groups, the others were not. The prayed-for patients recovered better than the controls, and fewer died.
In order to make sense of these data on the efficacy of prayer, science will have to change its underlying assumptions about the nature of causality. Currently, the standard view is still purely mechanistic–notwithstanding all the recent talk about chaos and complexity theory. When applied to the life sciences, chaos and complexity theory–even with the help of highly sophisticated computer modeling–still explain the world in terms of mechanical causes involving known physical and chemical processes.
The data from empirical studies of prayer, as well as from the large literature reporting psi research in telepathy, clairvoyance and psychokinesis, seriously challenge the mechanistic view. Some other causal agent besides the mechanics of electrochemical interactions is required to make sense of the observed phenomena.
Holistic thinkers generally divide into two main categories. The majority want to have holism on the cheap. They want a holism which doesn’t conflict with science as we know it. Instead of exploring the possibility of new causal factors, they prefer to explain holism in terms of complexity and self-organization of conventional mechanical forces, modeled with sophisticated mathematics and the latest computer techniques. Nothing essentially different from physical and chemical interactions is considered to account for the properties of living systems.
The other group of holists, a minority among which I include myself and Larry Dossey, think that there is more to it than just what we know about chemistry and physics and clever mathematical models. My view is that there are other causal factors in nature, processes that make actual differences–causes in nature which bring about new kinds of effects that we have to take into account in order to understand our experience and the world. These new causal factors are involved in things like paranormal phenomena, prayer and healing.
The whole thrust of my morphic resonance theory is to say there is more to nature than just the standard forces in physics. And what’s more these other agents are at the very heart of the way things are organized in chemistry, in life, and in consciousness.
Prayer and Mental Fields
How might prayer fit in with the scientific view of things? I shall focus on two broad categories of prayer: petitionary and intercessory. In petitionary prayer we ask for something for ourselves; in intercessory prayer we pray to a higher power for the benefit of other people (either living or dead).
In praying for other people and for ourselves we ask a higher power to bring about a particular result. For me, this is what distinguishes prayer from positive thinking. Positive thinking involves nothing more than one’s own mind, one’s own desires and wishes, but petitionary and intercessory prayer are put in the context of a higher power. For this reason positive thinking does not fit into the category of prayer–even though it is often confused with it.
Whether petitionary or intercessory, prayer clearly poses a challenge to the mechanistic view of the world. According to this view, there is no way that thoughts going on in your head, which at most create small electrochemical disturbances barely detectable a few inches from your head even by highly sensitive apparatus, could affect someone or something at a remote distance.
If you were practicing positive thinking or some of the more specifically directed forms of petitionary prayer, you could resort to explanations in terms of telepathy, or if it were a prayer affecting physical objects, you might say it was psychokinesis. But such explanations serve only to replace one set of explanations which lie outside the scope of modern mechanistic science with another set. There is nothing in mechanistic science that could allow mere thoughts inside my mind, whether cast in the form of prayer or as positive thinking, to affect things at a distance. It just can’t happen.
The key to understanding prayer as a scientific phenomenon requires, in my view, getting away from the idea of the mind as somehow inside the brain. If we think our minds are confined to our brains–the standard view–then since what goes on in our brain occurs in the privacy and isolation of our own skull it can’t affect anyone else. However, I see minds being field-like in nature (part of my general view of morphic fields), and I see mental fields as the basis for habitual patterns of thought. Mental fields go beyond, through, and interface with the electromagnetic patterns in the brain. In this way mental fields can affect our bodies through our brains. However, they are much more extensive than our brains, reaching out to great distances in some cases.
As soon as we have the idea that the mind can be extended through these mental fields, and over large distances, we have a medium of connection through which the power of prayer could work. We are no longer dealing with a purely mechanical system in the brain, with absolutely no way of connecting the brain and the observed effect–for if that were the case the phenomenon of effective prayer would have to be dismissed as delusion or coincidence. With a mental field, however, we have a medium for a whole series of connections between us and the people, animals and places we know and care about–with the rest of the world, in fact. When we pray, those extended mental fields would be the context in which prayer could work non-locally.
Clearly, this does not amount to a fully articulated scientific theory of prayer; it is highly speculative. But, I believe, it is also very clear that we need to have a much broader view of how the mind is extended beyond the brain. We need a theory of what I call the "extended mind" as opposed to the conventional scientific view of the "contracted mind" holed up inside the skull. This view of a contracted mind came from Descartes in the seventeenth century. It is a model of consciousness which separates our minds from the whole world around us into a small region in the brain–a model of the mind which plainly contradicts direct experience. For example, when you see this page in front of you, you experience it as being outside you, not inside your brain. To say that this and all your other perceptions are located in your brain is a theory, not an experience.
It is important, however, not to envisage the extended mind as some amorphous field, a kind of undifferentiated Universal Mind. I don’t think we should make a large leap from the concept of a contracted mind to a boundless universal mind. Such a jump isn’t helpful scientifically.
My idea of morphic fields is that even though they are extended and non-local in their effects, they are still part of our individual and collective mind, but not to be equated with some ultimate Universal Mind. The morphic fields are not God. They are non-local in the sense that they can spread out over immense distances (as, for instance, gravitational fields do), so that if I were praying about somebody in Australia from my home in London the morphic field would carry the information and the prayer could work. But my mental field wouldn’t usually spread out to Mars, for example, because there is nothing connecting me to someone on that planet. If someone I knew had traveled there on a spaceship, then there would be a link. For morphic fields to have a mental connection I believe there has to be something that links you to the other person. Even if you have never met the other person, I believe just knowing their name or something about them seems to be enough to establish a connection, though this connection is likely to be weaker than that between people who know each other well.
You could picture it something like this: When two people come into contact and establish some mental connection (perhaps experienced as affection, love, even hate) their morphic fields in effect become part of a larger, inclusive field. Then, if they separate from each other it is as if their particular portions of the morphic field are stretched elastically, so that there remains a "mental tension" or link between them. There has to be something like this that relates the two people.