Intelligence Abandoned

by David King on August 13, 2012

Six years ago, while searching for a topic of research for my Master’s thesis (in the area of psychology and multivariate statistics), I stumbled across an ad in a magazine that offered occupational training in the area of spiritual intelligence. Although I had been previously educated on the topic of emotional intelligence, I had not heard of this particular construct. I was intrigued – so much so that it became the topic of my Master’s thesis and two subsequent publications in academic journals.

My supervisor and I were both aware of the risk I was taking. Topics like spiritual intelligence are not subjects of mainstream psychology (or science, for that matter). It is not what successful psychologists do, plainly stated, despite William James’ very successful and poignant 1902 publication, The Varieties of Religious Experience. I was explicitly warned by multiple mentors that I may be ending my career prematurely.

Nevertheless, I endured. After a successful honours thesis on the topic of dreams and health, I naively believed that a thesis on spiritual intelligence would find its own niche in psychology. In the end, I was right, but I also learned an important lesson – psychology has abandoned the study of intelligence, never mind topics like spirituality.

It’s true. You might think that a topic like intelligence would continue to be of interest, particularly when you’re a scientist studying human behaviour. But the topic of human intelligence has been so wrought with debate, confusion, and misguided methodology, that psychologists have pretty much silenced the intelligence discourse. That’s not to say that no one is studying intelligence, but it has become one of psychology’s bad apples (and there are many of them). The problem is, no one can agree on what intelligence really is. Is it a score on a test of memory, mathematical ability, and cultural knowledge? Or is it a set of skills and abilities that facilitate adaptation to one’s environment? Believe it or not, the major topic of discord is whether human intelligence is a single construct or a collection of multiple constructs. That’s right, the study of this key component of human consciousness has been stunted by discrepancies in statistical manifestations and definitions of a construct – a word, an idea that represents only a tip of something we can’t see, touch, or directly measure.

What’s more ridiculous, of course, is that topics like spirituality – or even worse, topics that merge traditional science with what the traditional scientists would call “airy fairy” – are taken with a grain of salt, simply because they are not well understood. Throughout my thesis, I reinforced a definition of spirituality which differentiated it from religiosity. The differences are well understood by some, but unfortunately not by many. It would seem that not studying spirituality and religiosity to the same extent that psychologists study more concrete things like empathy and pride has led to a lack of understanding of these topics. Shocking! And disappointing. But as a grad student, I’ve learned that science is always partly guided by politics and personal interests, making it at times quite unscientific. The following passage is taken from my thesis:

Rational opposition to a spiritual intelligence is more likely the result of the successful severance of science and spirituality (or more specifically, religiosity) by the scientific community, perhaps to a degree that has sacrificed critical exploration of particular aspects of the human mind. As Nasel (2004) stated, “the prevalence of negative or indifferent attitudes within psychology in general toward religion and spirituality have been reflected in the underrepresentation of religion and spirituality as research variables in mainstream [psychology]” (p. 11). It may be that our conception of human intellect now needs to be reformulated and widened to more accurately reflect that which has long been abandoned by mainstream science. Much of the disdain for a spiritual intelligence may also arise from a lack of personal context and/or experience by those offering the criticisms. Individuals with poorly developed or suppressed spiritual capacities would likely have a difficult time grasping them as viable psychological entities, whether they are of the scientist persuasion or otherwise. Yet as James (1902/2002) noted, “nothing can be more stupid than to bar out phenomena from our notice, merely because we are incapable of taking part in anything like them ourselves” (p. 124). Furthermore, “they are not the exclusive possession of organized churches” nor do they “need supernatural concepts to validate them” (Maslow, 1964, p. 4).

In the end, I followed Howard Gardner’s path of multiple intelligences and proposed a model of spiritual intelligence that was universally applicable and free of religious lingo. I did and still do consider myself a non-religious spiritual person. I did and still do believe strongly in the idea of a spiritual intelligence. Although the study of human intelligence may have been (temporarily?) abandoned by psychology, I would suggest that we are abandoning our own intelligence every time we dismiss an idea or theory just because it seems complicated, strange, or unfitting with our own attitudes and beliefs. Most PhDs in psychology spend their lives producing the same (or nearly the same) research in new populations again and again and again, all the while overlooking things that move us, motivate us, and make us who we are. Intelligence has been abandoned, both literally and figuratively.

Since the publication of my Master’s thesis in 2008, I have received emails from hundreds of students, researchers, medical doctors, and scientists in over 50 countries around the world, including Iran, Chile, Australia, The Philippines, South Africa, Turkey, The United States, Vietnam, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, and India, to name a few. All have had the same goal – to research and to better understand the concept of spiritual intelligence. While I don’t understand the construct of human intelligence any better than the next person, I know not to abandon that which I do not understand simply because it eludes me. Indeed, science was designed to take a similar approach.

What follows are the last few passages of my Master’s thesis…

As clearly demonstrated, the proposed spiritual capacities of critical existential thinking, personal meaning production, transcendental awareness, and conscious state expansion are highly adaptive and serve as critical tools in the everyday lives of average human beings. This alone speaks to the viability of spiritual intelligence as a psychological construct. As previously indicated, however, issues arise regarding the use of the word intelligence. Sternberg (1988) had suggested that most of Gardner’s (1983) intelligences were nothing more than talents, an argument that might be extended to spiritual intelligence as well. It is the current contention, however, that human mental functioning is incomplete if it cannot turn inward and allow for contemplation of existence; that human adaptability is largely insufficient if it does not address meaning and purpose; that “normal” functioning is inferior without an awareness of nonmaterial aspects of life, which both James (1902/2002) and Maslow (1964) considered important dimensions of reality; and that the picture of human consciousness is inadequate without the consideration of higher, spiritual states and their mastery.

Nevertheless, if future research ultimately demonstrates that the word intelligence is inappropriate, then so be it, for it says nothing of the presence of a spiritual ability set (and therefore does not negate the current model). As suggested earlier, semantics cannot hinder the exploration and identification of potential psychological constructs, particularly when they prove so viable. Not only does spiritual intelligence help to resolve many of the confounded complexities of the spirituality literature, but it also accounts for a vast array of human behaviours, experiences, and attitudes.

Spiritual intelligence validates a universal characteristic of the human psyche which has long been dismissed by science as nothing more than irrational nonsense founded on a fear of the unknown. This is by far the construct’s greatest implication. The current model suggests that the spiritual condition of humankind is not entirely irrational; that underlying human spirituality (and perhaps even aspects of religiosity), there exists a set of adaptive, cognitive capacities unique from other manifestations of human intelligence; and that these capacities constitute a spiritual intelligence. At present, the construct’s greatest limitation is its lack of scientific exploration.

For more information on the topic of spiritual intelligence, or to read the rest of my Master’s thesis on the topic, please visit

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drei August 14, 2012 at 6:17 am

“Critical existential thinking, personal meaning production, transcendental awareness, and conscious state expansion (!!!!) are highly adaptive and serve as critical tools in the everyday lives of average human beings.This alone speaks to the viability of spiritual intelligence as a psychological construct”… You would think that would be enough. Yet, as you explain, to find mentors, funders or even motivators (however conspicuous they may be) is a difficult task.


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