What is “Spiritual Intelligence” Anyway?

September 7, 2017

What are the underlying components of spiritual intelligence?

In the first part of this article, I introduced the concept of “spiritual intelligence” as proposed by Robert Emmons. I noted that although Emmons considers spiritual intelligence an extension of Gardner’s concept of multiple intelligences, there is actually a lack of evidence for different kinds of intelligence that operate separately from general intelligence.

Hence, if spiritual intelligence is to be considered a valid concept, it might be more useful to explore how it might fit into evidence-based concepts. Hence, although the term “spiritual intelligence” might be something of a misnomer, it is possible that the concept maps onto genuine areas of human functioning. In this part, I will consider what psychological components might underlie Emmons’ proposed concept of “spiritual intelligence.”

Emmons (2000) argues that the aim of spiritual intelligence is to bring about intrapersonal integration, the “transformation of the person from fragmentation to integration.” What Emmons seems to be talking about is something that can provide a unifying framework for one’s whole life, especially one’s inner life.

In particular, the aim seems to be to bring about a state of functioning characterised by harmony as opposed to conflict, presumably where all a person’s strivings and impulses are coordinated in a way that is perceived as meaningful. The idea seems to be having a framework for ordering one’s life based on a vision of one’s ultimate strivings. Emmons implies that this vision derives from being “sensitive to transcendent realities.” However, this also sounds a lot like having a philosophy of life that guides one’s values.

What does this proposed “intelligence” consist of that would enable intrapersonal integration? Perhaps, part of this “spiritual intelligence” consists of forming an all-encompassing narrative that provides an overarching purpose for one’s life that allows a person to attribute meaning to everyday activities.

The ability to understand how one’s everyday concerns fit into an overarching framework implies a high level of abstract thinking, i.e., the ability to understand how everyday concerns relate to more abstract concepts. This seems like an application of ordinary intelligence to a specific domain, i.e. thinking intelligently about how to organise one’s life. Having a masterplan and being able to follow it also implies an ability to regulate one’s strivings so that they harmonize rather than conflict with each other.

This seems like the concept of self-regulation, i.e. the ability to control one’s behaviour in service to one’s goals. Such self-regulation is related to well-known personality traits, such as conscientiousness – the ability to control one’s impulses and work toward goals, agreeableness – the ability to regulate one’s interpersonal behaviour to maintain good relationships, and emotional stability – the ability to regulate negative emotions in response to adversity to maintain emotional well-being.

Hence, spiritual intelligence, much like “emotional intelligence,” seems to involve a combination of already recognised features of general intelligence and non-cognitive personality traits, rather than a distinct new kind of intellectual ability.

However, an intriguing addition to intelligence and self-regulatory personality traits, is the capacity to experience altered states of consciousness. Reports of people who have experiences described as “mystical” and “spiritual” suggest that these can sometimes have a pretty amazing effect on a person’s life. Reasons for this are hard to explain, but such experiences are often accompanied by the conviction that one has experienced something deeply important, which may prompt a person to reconsider their priorities in life.

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