Prayer: A Challenge for Science

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

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

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-Localized Mind

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.

Nested Sets of Morphic Fields

Morphic fields are organized in nested hierarchies (see below) . For example, there are
morphic fields surrounding the atoms in our bodies, which are within the higher level morphic
fields of molecules, organelles, cells, organs and limbs, all of which exist within the morphic
field associated with the entire body. The body field, in turn, would be within the field of
relationships that constitute a family, within a larger social group. Societies, in turn, are
embedded within ecosystems, and ecosystems within the planetary system, “Gaia”. And by
extrapolation, we could extend the series of nested morphic fields until we reach out beyond
planetary, solar system and galactic limits to encompass the entire universe.

Even Einstein’s space-time field of gravitation is a universal, cosmic field holding everything
together and linking the entire universe, in fact, making it a uni-verse. It does the same thing
as the World Soul or Anima Mundi of neo-Platonic philosophy. It embraces the whole cosmos.
There are levels upon levels of morphic fields within fields, within which we are embedded.
Human life is embedded in vastly larger fields of organization. To what degree they are
conscious still remains in the realm of speculation. But I would assume that higher-level fields
are not less, and probably more, conscious than we are. I would think they are more conscious
than we are not simply because they are larger in size, but because they are more inclusive,
contain more complexity, and encompass more possibilities.

I think that is one way of interpreting traditional doctrines about super-human intelligences, or
cosmic intelligences, usually thought of in Christianity as the hierarchy of the angels. The word
“angel” normally conveys the image of a good-looking youth with wings; but that’s simply a
pictorial representation. The traditional doctrine behind that image, however, is of a superhuman intelligence.
And if the solar system and galaxy have intelligence, then one might be an
angel and the other an archangel. In some traditional Christian doctrines there are, for
instance, nine hierarchies of angels or levels of intelligence. And I would see these as
equivalent to intelligences, minds or organizing fields at different levels of complexity. The
galactic angels, for instance, would embrace or include those of solar systems, which in turn
would include those of planets.

This is a description of a cosmos which has intelligence at every level, not a view that sees
consciousness as something that emerged from unconscious matter. Conscious intelligence
was there to start with. The place to look for it is not going to be in atoms or quanta (although
there may be some kind of consciousness there), but in solar systems and galaxies and in the
whole cosmos. There may be all these different levels of imagination, intelligence, and mind
throughout the whole of the cosmic organization. All traditional doctrines that I know of have
recognized something of that kind.

Notes & References

1. For an extended discussion of these theories, see R. Sheldrake, A New Science of Life: The
Hypothesis of Formative Causation (Tarcher, 1981), and The Presence of the Past: Morphic
Resonance and the Habits of Nature (Vintage, 1988).

Opening Up To The Numinous

As a scientist I wasn’t always interested in prayer. In fact, in earlier days I believed it was all
nonsense. I was an atheist; God had no room in my scientific education. After graduating from
Cambridge, I thought I had outgrown childish belief structures like religion, and that rational
science was the way forward. I had a typical secular-humanist atheistic worldview for a long
time, well into my thirties. And this, of course, is the worldview that most of my scientific
colleagues still have. They regard religion as a relic from a superstitious age. In that context,
prayer is completely meaningless, except insofar as people believe in it they may derive some
psychological benefit–a kind of “placebo effect”.

Then in 1968 I visited India, and all the materialist assumptions I took for granted just didn’t
seem to work any more. What struck me most was the experience of being immersed in a
culture that worked in an entirely different way to what I had been accustomed. In this exotic
culture, the idea of what we might call “other realms”–the supernatural or spiritual–was simply
taken for granted by practically everybody. There was a palpable sense of another dimension
to life, everywhere you looked, and everywhere you went.

As an atheist, of course, my initial reaction was to think they were deluded in their beliefs. Yet
on the other hand, these beliefs produced a fascinating culture. Even people living in the
extremes of poverty seemed to have more joy in their lives than most people I knew who lived
in the lap of plenty. I was touched deeply by the natural human warmth, and the quality of the
people and of their way of life. According to the materialist beliefs I had, poverty equaled
misery; wealth and good medical attention meant, if not happiness, then at least a much
better quality of life. In India I saw it wasn’t as simple as that. The people there were poor
beyond the comprehension of most Westerners, yet everywhere they walked about with the
most radiant smiles. Walk along a street in London, Paris or New York and you see mostly
harried, worried faces. That difference impressed me very deeply.

The contrast between the sense of inner joy and peace I experienced all around me in India
compared with the tense way of life in the West was so striking that I decided to investigate
meditation. For about four years I did various forms of Hindu practice. This didn’t conflict with
my scientific attitude because meditation didn’t challenge my whole scientific worldview. On
the contrary, I could approach my study of meditation in a truly scientific spirit. Its appeal is
that you do it and see if it works. It’s empirical. You sit, you calm your breath and you observe
what happens. I started with Transcendental Meditation which sounded scientific in that it was
supposed to lower lactose levels in the blood, have beneficial effects on the circulation, and
calm brain activity. I found that meditation did indeed work. I experienced within myself that
calm I was seeing all around me in India.

As a scientist I wasn’t troubled. I could understand meditation by explaining to myself that it
wasn’t opening me up to other realms of consciousness, but that it was simply changing the
physiological state of my brain. To say that breathing in a particular way and doing a particular
kind of mental activity could affect my mental and physical state did not challenge my

Nevertheless, although I could follow Hindu practices, India was such a completely different
civilization and culture that there was no way I’d ever be an Indian. I began to have a sense
that I would need to recover my own tradition if I were to share in the deep perceptions and
peace that I saw in the people around me.

Furthermore, after living there a while, I also saw the shadow side of the Hindu tradition,
which I hadn’t seen in my earlier brief visit. There is a fatalistic lack of concern for other
people that was alien to me. That view was at variance with my more optimistic, progressivist
Christian culture.

In India I came face to face with the realization that rooted in the Christian tradition is the
sense that you can, and should, help other people; we can aim for some better state of affairs
on Earth, for the whole of society. When I talked with my Indian friends and colleagues, it
became very clear that I had this view deep within me. I realized that this sense didn’t come
from Hindu philosophy, nor from my atheistic outlook. Instead, I saw it came from a deeply
embedded Christian view of the world that I carried with me unwittingly. In fact, I realized this
partly because in conversation with my Indian friends they would frequently point out that so
much of what I was expressing was a Christian view. The repeated revelation of this, even to
an avowed atheist, was difficult to ignore.

I spent some time living in Father Bede Griffith’s ashram, and I found that coming back to a
Christian path made sense to me. I began praying and discovered that it was more helpful to
me than meditating. I would say that meditation involves a kind of separation between the
practice and the rest of one’s life; it is going into another space altogether. You could say that
contemplative prayer would have the same effect. But for me, ordinary petitionary and
intercessory prayer, such as the “Lord’s Prayer”, links the events of my daily life directly with
my practice. I pray about what I’ve done that day and what’s coming up the next day. It’s a
matter of bringing the very fabric of one’s life–relationships, work, and personal concerns–into
the context of the spiritual life.

How Do Mental Fields Work?

My hypothesis of morphic resonance and morphic fields has grown out of the notion in
developmental biology of “morphogenic fields”. This idea dates back to the 1920s in the work
of biologists A. Gurwitsch and Paul Weiss. In modern developmental biology these fields are
usually regarded as heuristic devices, or as mathematical abstractions with no causal effect. By
contrast, I interpret them to be causal fields with an inherent memory given by morphic
resonance; in other words I regard them as one kind of morphic field. Other kinds of morphic
fields include behavioral fields, responsible for coordinating instinctive or learned behavior,
mental fields, responsible for organizing mental activity, and social fields, responsible for
organizing social groups.

If fields are the medium of mind then what you have in the brain is an interface between one
kind of field and another kind of field. All organization in the body has morphic fields
underlying it. Morphic fields in the brain interact with electromagnetic (EM) fields in the brain.
However, the nature of this interaction is indirect. Rather than morphic fields working directly
through the electromagnetic field, they interact through both affecting the same thing–in this
case, physical activity within the brain.

I am not saying that there is a linear-type causal relationship between brain-electromagneticmorphic fields. I regard mental fields as one kind of morphic field that affects the brain,
shaping its activity, and this affects the EM field associated with the brain.

Here you’ve got fields acting on fields: morphic fields surrounding all the cells, tissues and
organs of the body, as well as in molecules and cell membranes, and indeed in quantummatter fields. This is contrasted with the more usual view of the spirit-matter dichotomy–
where mechanical matter and ineffable spirit interact in some kind of quasi-miraculous way. If
you say that the spirit acts on the EM field, you’ve got a problem of miraculous intervention.

On the other hand, if everything in nature is organized by fields, and if mental fields are a
more subtle kind of field, you’ve got no sharp dichotomy–you’ve got fields acting through fields
at all levels of reality. So the mind-body problem ceases to be a sharp dichotomy.

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