As a graduate student at the University of Colorado Boulder, I took two classes which I enjoyed more than all the rest: Cognitive Neuroscience and Philosophy of Mind. These classes presented many studies that challenged what I thought I knew about perception, free will, unity of mind, and so on. I was sure that my religion had it right, but I wondered how these studies and the evidence they presented fit into it all.
One of these studies involved individuals that had had their corpus callosum (the nerve fibers that connect the two brain hemispheres) severed. In this study, the patients exhibited a phenomenon that is now called alien hand syndrome which is where one hand, typically the left, seems to act on its own, independent of conscious control. One example of this could be where an individual goes to the closet to pick out a shirt, reaches for the one they want with their right hand, and their left hand slaps or pushes their right hand away and tries to grab a different shirt. There have been several theories presented for why this might happen, but none have been proven, as far as I know. I don’t know what is actually happening here, but it certainly leads one to imagine that consciousness may not be so neatly unified as we tend to think.
In our day to day lives, we seem to have one, and only one, consciousness that makes decisions and directs our actions. But what if there were more than one consciousness within us that shared our perceptions and experiences? Perhaps, consciousness isn’t even something that can be counted at all, but flows and ebbs like water. I have no idea what the reality is, but I think it’s an interesting idea.
If such were the case that our minds are not a single unified entity, a lot could be explained. For example, the other day, I was waiting for a student that often skips class. A part of me really wanted him to come so that we could do the work that needed to be done. At the same time, I also hoped he wouldn’t come so that I could relax and not have to stress over him. I know there are other explanations for being two-minded about things, but the idea that I could literally be “two” minded at times is interesting. What if every time I have mixed feelings about something, my mind is actually divided in the moment.
In the past, I have often talked about the various “voices” that speak to us, enticing us to go one way or another. In religion, this is often depicted as a demon and angel over each shoulder, whispering into our ears. Indeed, I used to believe that these voices came from without. These voices came from the Holy Ghost, angels, servants of Satan, spirits of the deceased, and so on.
But what if all of these voices were just me all along? When I pray and calm my soul, what if the feeling of peace that can come is just all of my internal voices coalescing into one? Or what if that peace I feel is just another part of me, telling myself that what I want to believe is good to believe. A part of myself wants something to be true, and I can feel that when I pray or meditate. I sense this feeling as if it comes from the outside, but does it have to be?
In our day to day lives, we hear and see much more than that which we are consciously aware of. For example, each day, I drive to work. My mind is often busy thinking about various things, but somehow, I always arrive at my destination without issue. I see all of the other cars, and I carefully avoid hitting any of them. I don’t run over any pedestrians. I know when the light is red or green, and I go when I’m supposed to. But I feel like I do much of this at a subconscious level. Or perhaps “other-conscious” level? I’m not actively thinking about all of the things that I see and hear, but they still enter my brain and have an effect on my actions.
To give more examples, I could see thousands of faces in a crowd, but not be able to consciously focus on any of them. But I still saw them, and much of that information made it into my brain. I could hear 10 or more conversations happening at once and only be able to focus on one of them, if that. But I still heard them all. Much of that information also worked its way into my brain. In a later moment, I may even be able to recall some of what I saw or heard and make connections that I couldn’t make at the time. What this all means to me is that I, at some level, know considerably more than what I can consciously bring to mind.
So, if there is so much more knowledge in my head than what I am consciously aware of, and I have some important issue that I’m trying to figure out, wouldn’t it make some amount of sense to want to access that hidden information if it were relevant to the issue I was facing? This is what I think may often happen when a person prays for answers to questions they may have. The answers don’t have to come from outside themselves. They simply need to quiet their mind and allow their subconscious or “other-conscious” to make the relevant connections and allow the information to surface.
I don’t know if this is how consciousness actually works, but it seems to fit the facts as I see them. People often get warm peaceful feelings when they pray or meditate on something they want to believe. People can also receive knowledge that they didn’t know they had or suddenly remember something that they had forgotten.
What makes me think this is all just the subconscious or another side of our own consciousness and not an omniscient god is that although listening to these voices is generally beneficial, people get things wrong all the time. People are told to go right when they should go left. They have warm peaceful feelings that they believe come from the Holy Spirit, but then discover that what they thought was right was actually wrong. The story I usually hear from these individuals is that they misinterpreted their own feelings as being the Holy Spirit, or that God had some other plan and needed them to go in what only seemed to be the wrong direction for His own purposes. It makes a lot more sense to me that these feelings did not come from an omniscient god at all. It was all them all along, doing the best they could with what was available to their own inner selves.
In short, I believe it is beneficial to pray or meditate and listen for answers. I don’t understand the process (unconscious, subconscious, multiple consciousnesses, fluid consciousness, etc.), but I believe that the answers that may come are generally right and benefit the supplicant. However, because these answers are human in origin, they can be wrong, and people who enjoy this process should be aware of this possibility. No matter how “right” something may feel, there is always the possibility of error. In consequence, people should be open to changing their minds when they are presented with new information or contrasting views.