What is spiritual intelligence?

By Mark Vernon , author of Spiritual Intelligence in Seven Steps

Emotional intelligence and artificial intelligence are widely discussed today. Who does not want emotional intelligence and who isn’t at least a little afraid of AI? But is there another type of intelligence that we need, spiritual intelligence? I believe there is such a capacity and, moreover, we need it. But what is it?

Spiritual intelligence is a type of perception, although unlike types of empirical perception that see, hear, touch, taste or smell, it works by spotting what is alive and implicit. It delivers the felt sense, often first glimpsed out of the corner of the mind’s eye, that our experience of things is connected to a wider vitality; that what we grasp is only a fraction of what might be understood; that there is more underpinning existence. To become alert to this presence is like becoming aware of light, which is not itself directly visible though simultaneously shines from all the objects it illuminates. 

It is a kind of intelligence to do with humble awareness rather than slick analysis and, when someone has it, you will think they are inspiring more than clever. It is a wonderful capacity, and a source of delight, comprehension and purpose. It is also basic to being human. But my fear is that it has become so overlooked and sidelined in the modern world that people are inclined to be sniffy about it and deny that it exists altogether. 

The word “spiritual” is, of course, contentious. People can spend years trying to define it. For others, it is straightforwardly a turn-off, as it evokes superstition and woo. I’ve resorted to it partly because it is useful in signalling my conviction that there are more things in the world than can be accounted for by a materialist philosophy. Also, if spiritual seems slippery, that is only in the way that defining what is good, beautiful or true seems slippery, though we know these things the instant we are in their presence. The realisation lies in the recognition, not any definition, which will inevitably be too tight.

My exploration of seven ways of engaging with spiritual intelligence, in my book Spiritual Intelligence in Seven Steps, is, in part, a product of my involvement in a research group organized by the International Society for Science and Religion that is looking into these things. I feel it has become crucial to get a felt handle on the notion of spiritual intelligence in contrast to other kinds and, in particular, artificial intelligence. 

The immediate concern is that AIs are already so pervasive that we are at risk of forgetting what it is to operate without their slick planning, cunning manipulation and tremendous capacity for problem-solving. The challenge is to ensure AIs benefit us more than they threaten us, which requires us to understand more fully what it means to be human. If we can be brightly aware of the capacities we have, which no machine does, even as the technology continues to improve, we might have a chance of staying human in the age of the machine. 

Emotional intelligence isn’t enough, I’ve concluded, partly because it looks as if AIs will increasingly be able to mimic the qualities that Daniel Goleman originally highlighted as the proficiencies of emotional intelligence. The first two competences he lists, social skills and empathy, machines can already be programmed to fake. The next two, motivation and self-regulation, machines simply don’t need, as it is in their nature to keep going without hesitancy or deviation. Goleman’s fifth characteristic, self-awareness, has so far eluded computers and my guess is it always will, though the danger is that it can be imitated so as to confuse humans, and is already doing so. 

Put it like this: if artificial intelligence is mostly about solving problems by spotting patterns, and emotional intelligence is mostly about relating to feelings by understanding them as opposed to being swept along by them, spiritual intelligence turns to the steady presence that runs through, above and under it all. 

This awareness is transformative not because it is successful at what it does, like an AI; or because it fosters flourishing, like emotional intelligence, though it might. Spiritual intelligence enables the individual and groups of individuals to become increasingly aligned with the deeper pulses of reality. It takes us to the shoreline of knowledge where learning becomes a type of listening, consideration a type of resonance, and personal change a type of expansion. With spiritual intelligence, education becomes an activity that seeks to draw out and recollect, rather than pour in and test. 

The truly deadly thing is to fail to notice you are experiencing because you have become lost in the experience. It is this self-forgetfulness and alienation that the pervasiveness of machines can bring about, not because they have woken up, but because their impressive presence has made us fall asleep. The risk is that we become like them, not that they become like us. 

What I am proposing as spiritual intelligence is related but different to the ways it has so far been defined, by the few writers who have attended to it. It has been thought of as a skill that can handle values, or as an ability to discern purpose, or as a concern for ultimate issues like life and death. Experts have turned to it as a complement to emotional intelligence, rather than as the capacity that is on to the realm in which the immanent meets the transcendent, as I am suggesting. 

There are two problems with these older approaches. One is that they commit the flaw of much modern psychology by trying to remain metaphysically agnostic. Instead of concluding, on the basis of experience and evidence, coupled to intuition and desire, that there is a ground, wellspring and sustaining energy within our existence, psychologists typically attempt to hover above reality and comment on behaviours or observations. 

But this is not metaphysically agnostic: it is to adopt the materialist assumptions of the physicist, which might work well when studying the objective world, but fragment when studying the subjective, because unlike the cosmos, the psyche cannot be inspected in a detached manner. The so-called replication crisis is the result.

Second, spiritual intelligence not a kind of know-how, but more basic. It is “know-that” – know that our plane of existence has qualities of being and consciousness and constancy and peace. That awareness will undoubtedly help with our emotional intelligence, by providing a basis from which to construe the world, pursue strivings and direct behaviours, as we will see. But spiritual intelligence as I see it is not a proficiency because it is not something to be achieved. It is a perception which you could say is born of a knack, or a grace, or a crisis, though it only appears to elude us because it is closer to us than we are to ourselves. It invites us to turn back to the ground of our being and rebuild from there. 

My sense is that now is a good moment to become aware of its awareness for another reason. Many thinkers, including my colleagues at the research network, Perspectiva, believe that we live in a time of crisis that is actually a metacrisis. They mean that the challenges of the twenty-first century, from environmental collapse to social alienation, are not problems prevailing systems can fix, for all that specific policies and decisions may be able to impede pandemics and put out some of the fires. Rather, the problems have in large part been caused by the prevailing systems themselves. 

So whilst systems will have to be re-designed, a more basic task must be attended to: remembering what it is to be human.

My seven steps are a set of reflective reorientations that turn the attention towards spiritual intelligence, deepen the understanding of it and, thereby, locate it more consciously in life. 

The first step is to retell the origin story of human beings. This is important because stories are like filters and the current crop of “big history” accounts of Homo sapiens treat the spiritual element as if it were a delusion, which whilst once useful, can be filtered out now. I present the case, emerging from research in human evolution, that what I’m called spiritual intelligence developed in significant ways with the emergence of Homo sapiens, and played the fundamental role in the development of culture and technology. We are Homo spiritualis, and need to recall that now.

The second step, or perceptual shift, continues this story into the annals of history, and explores how individuality and individual freedom emerged. This basic freedom is, again, often forgotten now. It is not freedom of choice, freedom from hindrance – or freedom of expression, freedom to speak or do, but the more basic type of freedom, to recognise what freedom for – which in a nutshell is to know ourselves. The freedom grows as spiritual intelligence becomes established. 

Step three is a type of discursive meditation on what it’s like to tune into spiritual intelligence. The upshot is a growing perception that reality is simple, not in the naïve sense of not complex, which is clearly not the case; but in the deeper sense that the myriad things arise from a spiritual commons, which spiritual intelligence can know.

Step four considers how spiritual intelligence relates to the inner life of the individual, or the soul. It explores the ways in which developmental psychology and psychotherapy have charted our interiorities, though argues that without the metaphysical ground that spiritual intelligence brings, these methods of easing suffering and promoting development have no goal, and so can leave people journeying and journaling almost indefinitely. 

A fifth step follows because when the soul settles into the being that sustains it, the tricky but transformative reality of death can be approached anew. Mortality reveals itself to be a kind of natality, an insight that can be found in any wisdom tradition of merit, with the advice to learn to die before you die.

Step six argues that spiritual intelligence precipitates a radical shift in our perception of ethics. It must move on from being understood as about morality, which tends foster guilt and shame, and is readily weaponized, and so unwittingly weds us to alienation. Instead, the older tradition of virtue commends itself, which focuses on the qualities and characteristics that not only incline us to what’s good, but enable us to embrace more and more of life, especially when hard.

Spiritual intelligence offers a radically different way of being in the world, the focus of step seven. We might come to love realization, instead of being wedded to growth and progress. We might value notions like awakening and conversion, alongside management and development, not least when thinking about education and ecology. In particular, the experience of time can be transformed.

I believe these capacities are essential now and will be increasingly in the future.

For more on Mark and his book, Spiritual Intelligence in Seven Steps, see www.markvernon.com