In these last newsletters I've been talking about prayer as a conversation with God. I've kind of skirted around the question of what you're actually talking to.
In "Talking to God" I wrote:
The framework of a conversation doesn't demand this kind total knowledge upfront though. Your conception of the other entity will change as you talk to them. And so your understanding with God can change as well. What's important is that the foundation of the conversation is towards understanding, and not separation. Perhaps this is why the idea of the love of God is so central to Christianity.
The big open question here is how does your conception of God change? Perhaps we can explore this by looking at the general case: how does your conception of anyone change?
Okay, here's some armchair neuroscience. If you know more about this stuff and I"m wildly off base, please tell me.
When you're interacting with someone you have an internal set of predictions about them. These combine with the sensory information you're actually receiving, their speech, body language, etc, to create meaning in your mind. Neither your mind, and the predictions it contains, or your senses are the source of truth for "reality".
This rough model is an application of the predictive processing model of the mind which is one of the most important ideas I've learned in the last couple years.
A key detail of it is that both predictions and sensory inputs are weighted by uncertainty. If you have a really strong prediction that something will behave a certain way and ambiguous sensor input, your experience will be that it does regardless of what your senses are telling you.
An example of this is the experiment where people given white wine dyed red will describe it as tasting like red wine.
A crucial next phase here is that we can update our predictions, their uncertainties and the uncertainties of our sensory inputs, when we reconcile the two. So if you expect the wine to be red, but then someone tells you it's white, your prediction of the current state of the world changes, but also, perhaps, your long term model of how wine tastes changes. This is how your conception of things change.
Conversation with another person is a really rich information environment with high uncertainty. Language is hard. However, we have all sorts of social systems to help us arrive at a mutual understanding, to get our mental models of each other to align.
Asking questions, combining body language, in short, responding to each other, all help drive us towards consensus, of a sort.
So, how does this happen when we're talking to God?
So to restate the problem: If we're talking to God, as we talk to all people, based on a predictive model in our head, where are the "sensory inputs" we combine to create meaning, and, update our model?
I have two guesses.
The first is that your brain isn't a finalized computation, it's an always running computational system. When you're praying and generating words emotions based on some parts of your internal state, you can combine those with other parts and create new information. In this view, by conversing with God, and listening for God's responses, we're processing previously unprocessed experiences with God.
The second is the flip side of this. We can look for responses to our prayers in the world around us. This means prayers are a kind of lens we view our experience through, predictions by which shift our attention of the world, looking for sensations that then change our idea of God.
You can imagine this getting disconnected from reality, but there's no reason that fundamentally is the case.
Interestingly, how both of these work filter through our higher level concepts of what, and where, God is. If the religion you grew up with tells you God is "inside you" then perhaps the first interpretation makes a lot more sense. If instead you beleive that God is distributed throughout the world, perhaps the latter resonates more. The Christian conception of the Trinity is really interesting through this lens, expanding the locations God can meaningfully be.
It's important to note, that I think both of these are extremely "real" conversations. You could interpret them as you just "talking to yourself" but I don't think that's the case. There's concrete external inputs that you're combining with youself, which is the same way you interact with everything in the world.