Question: I wonder if humankind hasn’t limited God by our insistence (for the past 100 years or so) on the scientific method and our negating as real anything that could not be repeated in a controlled test. I am wondering whether, if we gave more credence to psi phenomena, this might result in more “miracles” or “answers to prayer.” I am also wondering if the development of psi abilities might not characterize an evolutionary step for human beings and for God. Do these speculations fit with process theology?
Publication Month: February 2000
Dr. Cobb’s Response
Process theologians generally strongly agree that Westerners have impoverished themselves by their narrow view of reality. Against the still dominant dualistic and mechanistic understanding, we insist on a holistic and organic one. Whereas relations play a secondary role in most Western thinking, we emphasize that they are constitutive of all actuality.
We are divided on the specific issue of parapsychology. Some think the evidence is insufficient and that we are eccentric enough, especially in the academy, without taking on that issue. Others strongly agree with the questioner. The Center for Process Studies has held conferences on this subject, and David Griffin has done extensive and intensive research. He has published an extremely important book on the subject: Parapsychology, Philosophy, and Spirituality: A Postmodern Exploration, SUNY Press, 1997. He thinks the evidence for parapsychology is important because it definitively proves the inadequacy, or even the outright error, of the dominant worldview.
Whitehead is explicitly open to extrasensory perception. Indeed, for him the fundamental mode of perception is nonsensory. Our senses are specialized developments out of this more fundamental relationaliy. In one sense, therefore, those who follow Whitehead are committed to the importance of modes of experience that have been neglected and even denied in the academy as a whole.
Usually, however, extrasensory perception is defined in terms of nonmediated communication at a distance. That is, mental event A is affected by mental event B without the involvement of anything lying spatially in-between. Most moderns have insisted that contact is necessary to any causal relation. Whitehead saw no reason why this is necessary. For him it was a factual question. In terms of the physics of his time, he thought that it seemed likely that physical relations depended on contiguity, but he saw no reason that this would apply to mental relations. He thought the evidence for extrasensory perception was sufficient to hypothesize its occurrence.
Today Bell’s theorem is often cited to indicate that noncontiguous events have physical relations as well. Some interpretations of quantum physics suggest that direct relations among noncontiguous events are very important. Meanwhile those who approach parapsychology with an open mind are often impressed by the weight of evidence not only for e.s.p. but also for much more astonishing phenomena as well.
To part of the question, therefore, my answer is that process thought is in principle open to a wide range of possibilities in this field. What actually occurs and what does not is to be decided by the evidence rather than by imposition of a worldview. Incidentally, some of the evidence is repeatable to a statistically significant extent.
Now as to the importance of this. Here I can speak only for myself. I believe that the view that we are in direct communication with God is exceedingly important for Christians. Most Christians have believed this even when their worldviews did not give much support. Whitehead writes extensively of God’s working in every occasion and every occasion’s affect on God.
Is it important to believe that we have immediate effects on one another? I think so. These days in popular language we talk about vibes. This talk makes excellent sense for a Whiteheadian. It is important that we send out good vibes. Bad vibes can be very destructive. For Christians love is very important not only for its consequences in action but for both the lover and the loved one quite directly. Doing good deeds without love does not do the trick.
Is it important to believe that faith heals? I think so. We have more and more medical evidence that this is so. The evidence is that it is not only the faith of the individual but also the faith of others that is efficacious. If we believe that, we will pray more for one another. Our faith will grow. Our prayers for God’s guidance and healing will go beyond medical matters to social ones. They will make a difference there too.
Are there other parapsychological matters that are important? I am not so sure. Would it be good if we could read one another’s minds better? That might have disadvantages as well as advantages. Would it be good if we could affect the weather or control the movement of physical objects by mental concentration? That might lead to as many problems as it would solve.
Among my personal priorities, cultivating capacities of this kind is quite low on the list. That their wide cultivation would advance human beings to a new level seems to me doubtful. Everything would depend on whether their use was shaped by the love of God and neighbor. Without them such love could transform the world. How much would they add?
There is not doubt that many events reported in the Bible and in other scriptures are best understood parapsychologically. The acceptance of this range of possibilities can remove some of our remoteness from the texts.
That is good. But the biblical authors do not measure achievement primarily in terms of this sort of gift. It is only one of many. Indian thought is especially valuable here, since the performance of remarkable miracles has been more widely practiced there down to the present. This is by no means despised, but to attain the highest states one must not become attached to this sort of thing.