Ask Dr. Cobb

December 2007 Question

In prayer, Dr. Cobb said our thoughts can impact another's body—often times these healings are called miracles, although they are not supernatural. Can this effect positive and negative? Did the imprecatory psalms affect the bodies of others? Does this validate the possibility of magic, telekinesis, Criss Angel, and voodoo, among other things? Furthermore, can a human influence the nonthinking physical world? According to process thought, could Jesus have walked on the water. Could Peter?

Dr. Cobb's Response

This question raises the question of the limits of possibility. This is a good question for process theology, because this theology rejects the limits on possibility established by the mechanistic, materialist world view. In that world view, still largely adopted by scientists, the sphere of subjectivity can have no effect on what happens in the objective world. This is, of course, contrary to common sense, and extremely few people really believe it. But it has a great influence still on the explanations scientists seek and prefer.

For example, in the field of physiological psychology, scientists study the brain to explain what happens subjectively. Very few study what happens subjectively to explain what happens in the brain. Years ago the Center for Process Studies held several conferences with Roger Sperry, who won a Nobel Prize for his work on the split brain. Sperry came to the conclusion that conscious experience was required as an explanatory factor for his data. He became quite excited by this, thinking this would bring in a new day in reflection about the status of values. Regrettably, from my point of view, this part of his theory was simply ignored by the scientific community. The assumption remains intact that eventually the study of the brain as an objective phenomenon will explain all subjective experience.

Process thought, on the contrary, takes subjective experience very seriously and sees it as causally efficacious. Ontologically it is primary. Objects are objects for subjects. The actual entities that are objects for subjects were, in the moment of their occurrence subjects. All past subjects have some effect on all future ones. Clearly the objects studied by science are affected by what happens subjectively. Clearly, also, this expands the sphere of what is possible. But how far?

Most of us would start with the influence of our personal experience on our bodies. We process folk do not doubt that when one decides to type a word, and then does so, that the decision plays a causal role in relation to the movements of our fingers. But can our decisions or our emotions affect the flow of blood through the body? I am not one who has engaged in much experimentation along lines like these, but I did once learn to raise the temperature of my fingers by concentrating attention. On a wider scale, no medicine can be approved today without taking account of the placebo effect. The evidence that mental attitudes and expectations affect general bodily conditions seems indisputable. Even though scientific theory has not been adjusted to take account of any of this, and even though most philosophers ignore it, the public accepts it, and those involved professionally in health care assume it.

One more step is hardly controversial with the general public. People are affected by the feelings and attitudes of other people in their environment. Some would argue that this influence results from the interpretation of sensory queues. Process thinkers are open to the view that we can quite directly feel the anger or joy of others. This can affect our own mood, and through that our bodily condition. A hypnotist has a great effect on her or his subject, and can get the subject to do things that seem physically impossible when one is not hypnotized. It is not a long step from phenomena such as these to the influence of intercessory prayer by persons who are present.

The questioner points out that this opens the door to negative influences. There is no doubt of this. To be surrounded by angry, threatening people certainly has a negative effect on one’s feelings and even on the functioning of one’s body.

But many people place the limits somewhere around this point. They do not believe that persons who are not in close contact can affect one another’s subjective states. For process thinkers, this is an empirical question. Metaphysically, the assumption is that every event in the past has some effect on what happens now. But most of the content of the vast majority of past events has no effect. We cannot deduce from the metaphysics that any particular type of past event can have any particular effect in the present.

The metaphysics is open to the view that events are causally efficacious in other events only through the mediation of contiguous events. This would exclude mental telepathy; for the events lying spatially between the sender and the receiver cannot be thought to contain the messages attributed to telepathy. The limitation of influence to direct or mediated contact would set rather narrow limits of possibility. Some process folk take that view.

Whitehead himself did not. His metaphysics allowed action at a distance. His judgment was that the most likely situation was that there is no action at a distance in purely physical relations, such as the transmission of energy, but that there is action at a distance where mentality (in his highly generalized senses) is involved. Since his day, the evidence for action at a distance in the realm of quanta has increased. This opens the door to both positive and negative influences at a distance.

The main point to be made from the side of process thought, however, is not that paranormal events occur or do not occur, but that evidence for and against their occurrence should be examined without prejudice. In my view, when this is done, mental telepathy must be accepted as probable.

Thus far I have stayed close to Whitehead. The question is also about psychokinesis, a topic Whitehead did not address. Can subjective states affect physical conditions outside of one’s own body. First, can they directly affect the bodies of other people? Second, can they affect inanimate objects?

In technical terms, Whitehead’s view is that “hybrid feelings” are the ones that feel the mental elements in other subjects. Hybrid feelings are prominent in human subjects; so both positive and negative influence is not hard to understand. We may assume that hybrid feelings are significant elements in cellular experiences. So that subjective states of one person may have an effect on living things, including human bodies, is not implausible. I believe the evidence for this is considerable.

What is hardest to believe is that subjective states influence inanimate bodies. We are inclined to think that hybrid feelings play a very small role in the constituents of such bodies. I myself would guess that they do not influence these sufficiently to cause significant changes. However, this, too, is an empirical question. Stories of bending spoons and teleportation should be examined with an open mind. Theory should conform to fact and not refuse evidence because of prior expectations. Quanta may be highly sensitive to human feelings, for all we know.

The questioner asks specifically about Jesus or Peter walking on water. I doubt that these are factually reliable stories. However, if the question is about possibility, I do not want to take a wholly negative view. There are better evidenced accounts of persons floating in the air than these. Some Hindu yogis are reported to be able to do this. I find it hard to believe and do not know how well occurrences of this sort are attested. But I keep an open mind..

Our ignorance in these matters is vast. A major contribution to this ignorance is the strong bias among scientists against even studying these questions. Those who have done so despite the strong prejudice incurred have had their data and conclusions largely ignored, and often ridiculed, by their colleagues. I feel strongly that the commitment of so many scientists to an outdated metaphysics is a serious social and intellectual problem, one that we should directly confront and challenge. Meanwhile we have a gullible public ready to believe almost anything about such matters, a media that increasingly panders to their interest, and an academic community that will not even investigate these matters except from a hostile perspective.

By far the most thorough study of all of this has been done by David Griffin. Approaching matters open-mindedly as a process thinker, he was convinced by evidence for many of the claims of parapsychologists. His book is Parapsychology, Philosophy, and Spirituality: A Postmodern Explanation. I commend it to all who have serious interest.

If you found this article helpful, please consider contributing to Process & Faith by making a donation or becoming a member.