Tuesday, February 19, 2008

A Definition of Prayer

What is prayer? Simone Weil's definition is one of the more intriguing ones I've come across. I'll put it in a philosophical format. I'll call her definition the "Attention Thesis" (AT).

(AT) A subject S is praying if and only if S's attention is oriented toward God.
Is this an adequate definition? First let's get clear on an important term: attention. First, attention refers to an intentional mental state in which a person chooses to make some particular thing the object of his thought. When I choose to watch the second hand of my clock move, my attention is on the movement of the second hand. I am attending to the movement of the second hand. When I choose to imagine a cube in my mind, I am attending to the image of the cube. When I choose to think about the concept of humility, I am attending to that concept. If a thought pops into my head involuntarily, or if an insect flies across my visual field, I may notice or see it, but I am not attending to it.

Second, attenting is an action, it is something we choose to do. I cannot give my attention to something without doing so on purpose. In the case of the insect, once I have noticed it I may then choose to direct my attention to it.

Now there is an important difference between attending a thing and attending to my concept of a thing. To attend to a thing is not merely to think about it, put to pay attention to it. I cannot pay attention to the Mona Lisa if I am not in the Louvre. I can attend to my memory of it, or my concept of it, but not the thing itself. Thus, in the case of persons, I do not think we can pay attention to someone who is not present or engaged in communication with us. And even if the person is present, attention is more than merely looking at them or hearing them. We see this phenomenologically with human communication. It is possible to hear what a person says with out paying attention to them. We all know the difference, and we consider ourselves slighted when our interlocutor fails to pay attention to us in an important conversation.

So given this understanding of attention, how does AT hold up? Well, let's break it into two pieces.
(AT1) S is praying only if S's attention is oriented toward God.
(AT2) S's attention is oriented toward God only if S is praying.

To refute AT, we must show that either AT1 or AT2 is false by way of a counter-example. Can we think of a counter-example for AT1? Is there a scenario where someone is praying (to God), and yet their attention is not oriented toward God? Consdier the following: Smith is reciting the daily prayers prescribed by his church, and yet he is thinking about a report he must give at the office on Monday. Smith's attention is on his report. Is Smith praying? Intuitively, no.

Now, one might object by claiming that God's hearing a person's prayer-like words is sufficient for prayer to occur. I.e., a person can perform an utterance of certain prayer-like words ("deliver me O, Lord") without any thought of God whatsoever, and God will count that as a legitimate request. But consider the following case. Brown is watching a football game on TV. Black, who has recently committed an egregious wrong against Brown, enters the room, sits down and begins to watch the game. Brown says, "Aren't you going to apologize?" A few minutes later, Black utters the phrase, "I'm sorry," all the while gazing intently at the TV. Does this count as an apology? If not, then neither does a mere prayer-like utterance count as prayer. If someone would defend this as a legitimate apology, then I don't know what to say to them.

So then, it seems that AT1 stands up to our brief inquiry. But what of AT2? Can we imagine a counter-example where someone is focusing their thought upon God, and yet is not praying? this seems less clear. In fact, this is the key to Weil's view of prayer. She thinks any such attention would count as an act of prayer.

One objection to AT2 might go like this: I can think about God without praying in the same way that I can think of my wife without talking to her. But as I have already pointed out, thinking about a person is not necessarily the same as paying attention to them. If my wife is in Rome, and I am in Kansas City, and we are not communicating in any way, then thinking about her amounts to thinking about my memory of her or my idea of her (I am pining for her). If my wife is before me, and I am thinking of her while looking at her intently, then I am attending to her. Can I do this without any communication whatsoever? That seems unlikely, given the significance of body language, facial expression, etc. Just the mere fact that I am paying attention to her so intently communicates something, e.g., adoration or anger. I am bound to give away my thoughts by looking at her in a certain way, or being silent.

So if attending to a human being in this manner makes it extrememly likely that communication is occurring, then attending to God in this manner entails that prayer is occurring. This is because God can know my very thoughts. And if, ex hypothesi, I am thinking about him, his knowing my thoughts amounts to communication, i.e., prayer. So AT2 seems true.

Given the truth of AT1 and AT2, it follows that AT itself is true. Thus, Weil's definition stands. This is only my first pass at a philosophical treatment of prayer, so comments are appreciated.

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Anonymous Josh said...

I don't think I've ever seen prayer philosophically analyzed like this before. Very interesting. I agree that God's omniscience would necessitate our communicating with him whenever we are attending to him. This really changes one's concept about prayer and Paul's command to 'pray without ceasing'.

12:31 PM  
Anonymous Andrew Moon said...

Very nice analysis, and I think that this is good philosophical work. Very systematic and thorough, and you make nice distinctions. (All in a day's work for an analytic philosopher!)

HOWEVER, here's a counterexample. Suppose Nicodemus sees Jesus from afar, and Nicodemus looks at Jesus quizzically. Nicodemus thinks to himself, "hmm... is that that guy they were talking about? Maybe I'll visit him tonight on a roof!"

Now it's quite clear that, in this moment, Nicodemus is not praying. However, on the supposition that Jesus is God, Nicodemus's attention is oriented towards God. This is a counterexample to AT2. QED.

You may need to add something about the person's having the belief that the object attended to is God; I'm not sure.

3:02 PM  
Blogger chris said...

Josh, I think you're right -- Paul's command actually makes more sense to me on this account.

Andrew -- That is an excellent point. I need to think on that. AT should work for Jesus as well. Thanks for the encouragement, too. It means a lot coming from you.

5:40 PM  

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