Visions of Daniel

Brain, Consciousness, and God
A Lonerganian Integration


Papers link

This is my latest major project, released by State University of New York Press in hard cover in July, 2015, and in paperback in July, 2016. It is also available in electronic format. Go to SUNYPress for further information, including the Table of Contents of the book, and for ordering. What follows is an abridged Introduction to the book. For a brief overview of the whole, see the short paper "'God' in the Brain," which provided the inspiration and outline for this book.


Ever-expanding research in neuroscience now engages religious topics. Professional discussion, as liberally as the popular press (e.g., Hagerty, 2009), links brain function to supposed experiences of God Almighty Himself—or Herself or Itself or Godself? The very uncertainty in even knowing how to accurately refer to God should give one pause, but the complexity of the neurological findings and the subtlety of the philosophical issues open a space for the free run of popular religiosity, esoteric beliefs, impatient curiosity, creative imagination, and marketing opportunities and sales. Thus, whether well conceived or not, talk of "the God gene" (Hamer, 2004), the "God" part of the brain (Alpern, 2001, 2006), the "God spot in the brain" (Crutcher, 2003), "neurotheology" (Ashbrook, 1984; d'Aquili & Newberg, 1999; Joseph, 2003), "entheogens" (Forte, 1997b; Richards, 2003, 2005), "theobiology" (Rayburn & Richmond, 2002), and the like has become commonplace across academic disciplines (Helminiak, 2010b). To bring some clarification to this discussion is my ambitious goal.

Mystical, Religious—or Transcendent Experiences

The focus of that neuroscientific research is what is called mystical or religious experiences (Carmody & Carmody, 1996). These terms refer to a range of personal occurrences of varying intensity. They include a pervasive sense of wonder and awe within everyday living: mysticism as a way of life. And they refer to occasional moments of overwhelming intensity whose epitome is the ineffable experience of the loss of a sense of self and the unity of all things: mysticism as an extraordinary experience. Fred Hanna (2000) provides an intimate account of such experiences, and, instructively, he does so apart from the more common context of religious belief and reference to God. To refer to such phenomena, I will speak of transcendent experience. I use transcendent as a loosely defined term to replace the also loosely defined terms religious or mystical. I would avoid prejudicing the discussion from the outset. With a neutral term and a lower-case t, I indicate a particular kind of experience without implying a priori any specific interpretation of it.

In the broadest sense, by transcendent I mean simply whatever is, or takes one, beyond one's present state in a positive, non-self-destructive way. Simply to pose a question, for example, opens one to a broader perspective. Or to realize a new fact expands or even reconfigures one's way of thinking and acting. Or to love another person or to admire a thing of beauty or to marvel at the stars and the ocean moves one out of oneself and into a broader and shared universe. Any activity, even getting off to work in the morning, can be self-transcending—indeed, just waking up qualifies—insofar as it invites us to new experiences and the possibility for personal growth, that is, the expansion of our awareness, understandings, abilities, and commitments. Understood in this way, self-transcendence appears to be a built-in facet of humanity; it is what contemporary movements of “personal growth” intend. In contrast, that this process entails, rather, a connection with some non-human entity such as God or the work of some supernatural force—this supposition is more than I am willing to make; it is the very supposition that is in question.

Consciousness of Consciousness, not Experience of God

Of course, I do have my own interpretation and explanation of transcendent experience as even the previous paragraph betrays. I argue that we can account for transcendent experiences by appeal to a self-transcending dimension of the human mind—referred to variously as consciousness, Atman, Buddha Nature, true soul, higher self, and the like. In accord with long-standing aspects of the Western philosophical tradition, I prefer the term human spirit (Helminiak, 1996a, pp. 50-56; Peters & Mace, 1967). I take all these terms to be roughly synonymous. This supposition is surely open to debate, but profitable debate would presume the very clarification toward which I aim. So I freely state my position at the outset, further suggesting, of course, that I believe I am on target: we can account for transcendent experiences by appeal to a self-transcending dimension of the human mind. Then, by application of Occam's razor, no reference to God is needed. These are experiences of the open-ended, outward-oriented dynamism of the human spirit, namely, at its epitome, pure awareness of awareness or consciousness of consciousness; they pertain to human spirituality, not to some direct or immediate (i.e., non-mediated) divine encounter. In my understanding, although the divine is spiritual, not everything spiritual is, therefore, divine. And although, by definition in standard Western theology, God is somehow involved whenever anything exists or happens, immediate and unnuanced appeal to God to explain these instances is theologically and scientifically naïve (Helminiak, 2010b). In the first instance, transcendent experience is a possibility or occurrence that is fully human. It expresses the marvelous capacity of one dimension of the human mind. Questions about God's role in such experience are, indeed, appropriate. However, the theological questions are secondary. They are further questions, not to be confounded with, nor to confound, the primary question; they are but possible, subsequent considerations when scientific explanation—not theology or, above all, not devotional rhetoric or controlling religious lore—is the prime concern.

To separate God from the scientific explanation of transcendent experiences focuses the true, contemporary, scientific question: the so-called “mind-body problem” or the “mind/brain” problem (Searle, 1998; Shafer, 1967)—that is, the challenge of accounting for the nature of, and the relationship between, the human spirit and the human "brain" (i.e., the human organism). To be sure, then, my proposed explanation of transcendent experience will address this challenge head-on. Indeed, its treatment fills the long, central chapters in this book, Chapter Three on the mind and Four on consciousness. In contrast, actually, the theological questions are comparatively simple. Long-standing theological discussion about the relationship of the Creator to creation provides readily available answers. The empirically constrained puzzle of the mind-body problem remains the pivotal challenge in this discussion and demands its own clarification. The lack of this clarification is today's nemesis.

The supposed identification of the human spirit and Divinity is a pervasive bugaboo. By reverting to classical Greek usage, consonant with much Eastern philosophy (Helminiak, 2008a, pp. 167-168; Muesse, 2003), some theorists use the terms God or divine simply as alternative words for the spiritual dimension of the human mind. The unspoken assumption is that the human spirit and Divinity are somehow one and the same. Thus, any extraordinary mental occurrences—except, inconsistently and tellingly, psychoses and temporal lobe epilepsy (Brown, 2002; Crutcher, 2002; Helminiak, 1984b; Persinger, 2001, 2002)—might still be taken today to be encounters with God. This ambiguous usage might be unwitting, resulting from casual theological and philosophical thinking. Or it might be deliberate, expressing an attempt to reject distance between the human spirit and the divine. Albert Hofmann (2000), famous for the discovery of LSD, for example, uses the terms spiritual and divine seemingly interchangeably, and he speaks of the need to transcend "the division between humankind and nature" or, phrased supposedly otherwise, to abolish "the separation of creator and creation" or "the duality of creator/creation" (p. 37). As is typical of this topic, it is difficult to know what such statements actually mean, half technical in terminology and half popular. From a critical perspective, the problem of the meaning of spiritual and divine may be simple equivocation: different terms are applied to the same reality, or different realities are subsumed under the same term.

However, in the West there does exist a long-standing distinction between Creator and creature, the Uncreated and the created, necessary being and contingent being. In light of this distinction, whether one believes in God or not, the term Creator-God must be taken to denote a distinct reality or being, which may actually exist (as some religions insist), and the Uncreated and the created must not be taken to be one and the same (as mere logic requires). Two different terms, Uncreated and created or Creator and creature, defined by a mutual negative relationship, imply that two different proposed realities are at stake.

If so, to appeal to God to explain transcendent experiences would require an account of the nature of God in addition to the nature of the human mind (Delio, 2003). Under these conditions, God's role in transcendent experiences can, indeed, be explained—or, more exactly, as in all science, a credible hypothesis can, indeed, be proposed. But such explanation is theology, not psychology; and, as such, it exceeds the content-matter and the competence of neuroscience and psychology (Helminiak, 2005a, 2006, 2008a, 2008c, 2010b). Once again, not God's role in human experience, but the mind-body problem emerges as the true psychological challenge: how does organic matter relate to mental and even spiritual—transcendent—experience?

An Interdisciplinary Study

I elaborate my argument by treating, in turn, neuroscience, psychology, spiritualogy, and theology. In passing, I propose a much-needed neologism: spiritualogy. I take spirituality to mean a person's lived commitment to enhancement of his or her spiritual sensitivities (Helminiak, 1996a, chapter 2), and most people associate this particular process of growth with religion and/or some notion of God and describe it in religious terms. Currently, however, the term spirituality also names the study of this phenomenon, so confusion often results. I offer the term spiritualogy to name the academic study or research discipline pertinent to the lived commitment (Helminiak, 1996a, pp. 31-39; 2009). Spiritualogy is the study of spirituality.

Now, in this book, chapter by chapter, I both differentiate and interrelate neuroscience, psychology, spiritualogy, and theology, and I specify their respective contributions to a comprehensive explanation of transcendent experiences. However, this central task requires a substantive prolegomenon to treat epistemology. Etymologically "the study of knowledge," epistemology is an account of the human ability to know; it is an explanation of what knowing means and of what validity human knowledge can enjoy. Epistemology is the controlling yet ignored specter that haunts the discussion of “God” in the brain and current consciousness studies. Without an understanding of knowledge adequate to non-physical realities—such as emotions, thoughts, the mind, and God—the topic of this book cannot be treated coherently. Therefore, my first chapter treats epistemology.

Reliance on a Coherent and Consistent Epistemology

Echoing Bernard J. F. Lonergan (1957/1992, 1972, 1980/1990), I maintain that human knowledge is a composite of experience, understanding, and judgment; so accurate explanation must be attentive, intelligent, and reasonable—hence, the subtitle of this book. I consider my summary and application of Lonergan's epistemology to be the major contribution of this book. Amidst the jungle of theological, philosophical, spiritual, religious, devotional, evaluative, cognitive, emotional, psychological, neuroanatomical, neurophysiological, and neurochemical considerations that impinge on our topic, I propose a framework in which these relevant matters can be ordered and given their due. My purpose, though quite bold, is rather restricted. On a philosophically cluttered playing field, others have taken on whole swaths of religiosity and speculated about their relationships to brain function (e.g., Alpern, 2001/2006; d'Aquili & Newberg, 1999; McNamara, 2009). My humble yet daunting goal is merely to order the field.

My reliance on Bernard Lonergan offers a novel approach, novel in that Lonergan's is not yet a mainline philosophical position and novel, too, nonetheless, as I will argue, in that it actually allows coherent treatment of the difficult questions before us. Lonergan took up the traditional philosophical question, dating from the pre-Socratics, about the possibility, limits, and nature of human knowing, and he presented a core understanding of knowledge that applies to all fields of intellectual endeavor. As such, his emphasis qualifies as what is called “foundationalism,” the proposal of a common basis, the discovery of an Archimedean point, from which one could supposedly deal coherently with all matters of knowing. Among philosophers today foundationalism is mostly a shattered dream. Chapter One chronicles that story of despair over ever explaining the essence of human knowing. As Lawrence Cahoone (2010) reports, in the course of the twentieth century, philosophy fragmented into basically three incompatible schools: continental phenomenology, Anglo-American linguistic analysis, and American pragmatism. These schools of philosophy

rarely spoke across party lines. Rather than opposing each other like three different baseball teams—as in much of the history of philosophy, schools of thought opposed each other—they became more like a baseball, football, and a soccer team, each playing its own game, addressing its philosophical questions in its own particular language, to which the other teams had nothing to say because they were playing a different game. (p. 47)

This breakdown of intellectual consensus, even as to what are the important questions, underlies the discombobulating pluralism that more and more characterizes the postmodern world gone global. My bet is that Lonergan offers a solution to this human dilemma of our times. Staying with the traditional question, he has provided a new answer. In light of the intellectual chaos that reigns in academic circles today, in the very least this answer deserves a hearing. So in this book I summarize Lonergan's position, foundational though it be, and apply it in a telling and most challenging case to the mind-body problem, the relationship of the “hard” and “soft” sciences, and the notion of “God” in the brain.

Attention to Major Thinkers in Neuroscience and Consciousness Studies

Now and again I will clarify my argument by contrasting it with others. My references to other positions are selective because my goal is restricted. My intention is neither to summarize the field (see Blackmore, 2004) nor, far less, to try and discern what the multitudinous confounded statements in this subtle discussion might actually mean in each case. Rather, my limited intention is to highlight and clarify the underlying theoretical issues, and they are pervasive, intricate, and recurrent. When I focus on individual positions, sometimes in considerable detail, my goal is not comprehensive criticism, but revealing exemplification. Mostly I want to illustrate how confusion in epistemology is behind many of the problems in these discussions and how the problems can be resolved if the epistemology is cleaned up.

This book is a bold, perhaps even a fatuous, attempt to address major methodological questions in relatively short compass. The presentation even presumes a way of thinking that is foreign to most people. Perhaps this application of Lonergan's thought even qualifies for what Patricia Churchland (1996) derisively called a "real humdinger of a solution" (p 405) to the mind-body problem, "some fundamental new understanding," a "rethink of the nature of the universe" (Blackmore, 2012, pp. 29-30). Nonetheless, granted the novelty—I would call it a breakthrough—the relevant contributions of the various sciences and disciplines fall rather easily into place. Unfortunately, however, this place might not always be congenial. Given a coherent and consistent epistemology, the requirements of our own minds force us into positions we might prefer not to have to take—especially when our topic has existential and even religious implications. But the chips must fall where they will. Despite the far-reaching implications of my position, I believe this book presents the necessary detail that, given careful reading, clinches my argument or, at least, credibly expounds it. The audacity of this presentation does have the advantage of offering a relatively brief overview of fundamental philosophical issues, which most people could not explore in tomes of hundreds of pages and on which there exists only an array of differing opinions but, as far as I know after 35 years of comparison, no coherent position other than Lonergan's is available (cf. McCarthy, 1997; Willis, 2007, pp. 8-23). If I can convey only a main idea and open a potential new perspective, I will have achieved my purpose of pointing to a brighter horizon.

Attention to Intelligence, not Merely to Logic

My argument is to be coherent and consistent from beginning to end. As a result, it cannot be grasped in part or by selective reading. It would, of course, be useful to read the Conclusion at the outset just to get some idea of where I am going, but one might read my Conclusion and state that Helminiak holds such and such and even affirm or dismiss a summary statement, all without understanding what I actually mean. In these matters the same terms mean different things to different people working within different philosophical perspectives, so, apart from their broad contexts, summary statements are easily misunderstood. The commonplace terms mind, person, nature, and substance, and in mathematics even the terms point and line, offer instructive examples because they mean different things to different people in different contexts. One needs to be sure one understands what an author means by this and that term before judging the statement.

Besides, in my case, the argument is not a matter of deductive logic, which produces a necessary conclusion on the basis of easily stated premises. Rather, as already intimated, the argument turns on explicit attention to intelligence, which demands prolonged effort to achieve understanding and to which we seldom attend explicitly. Not logic, but understanding is at stake. The difference is that intelligence makes leaps, transcending or dismantling prior systems and setting up new one in which, only then, logic again can make its demands (Lonergan, 1957/1992, pp. 301-302, 595-600).

Thus, the whole of my argument holds together only through a grasp of the parts, and the grasp of the parts depends on the meaning of the whole. Such is the case with any fully systematic statement such as a new mathematics or the equation that expresses a scientific breakthrough: the elements co-define one another; they lock one another together in a pattern of relationships that make one another be what they are. At stake is “implicit definition,” as mathematician David Hilbert (1902/1971) named the matter in absolute generality (4.6.5). A rather concrete example would be the relationship d = rt (distance = rate of speed x time traveled). This relationship fixes the value of the terms so that, given any one of them, the other two are already limited in what they could be; and given two of them, the third is absolutely limited to only one possible value.

My presentation aims at such refined scientific articulation, which expresses its meaning through the interrelationship of terms—such as experience, understanding, and judgment—whose mutually defined meanings are grounded in an insight into what is being affirmed. Intended meaning depends on insight. The statements need to be understood, not merely noted, reported, and “parroted” back.

An Interrelated and Unfolding Presentation

Said otherwise, at stake is the proverbial hermeneutic circle—as when a sentence makes sense only given the meanings of the words, but the meanings of the words depend on the sense of the sentence. For example, consider the word sense in the previous sentence: the word does not regard sensations, vague impressions, a discerning awareness, or—if heard, not read—American coins of the smallest denomination. This situation does, indeed, constitute a vicious circle, but only logically. If logic were our only intellectual tool, we would be at an impasse. But we also have intelligence, and it breaks the vicious circle. Intelligence grapples back and forth with the
meaning of the words and of the sentence and eventually transcends them both in a moment of insight, usually unnoticed (as in the simple case of sense just described), which provides an interpretation that determines the one, consistent, interlocking meaning of both the words and the sentence. Similarly, the parts of this book mutually clarify one another. For this reason, throughout the text I have included cross-references to chapter, section, and subsections within this book (e.g., 4.6.5 equals Chapter 4, section 6, subsection 5).

Moreover, as the book unfolds, I introduce only the epistemological
ideas that seem necessary at each point along the way and later expand and clarify the exposition as further questions demand further elaboration. As we move from brain to mind to consciousness to God, the questions do become more subtle. Chapter 4, in particular, on the mind–body problem, offers telling examples of the difference between a sensate-modeled and an intellectual epistemology, important clarification about the notion of causality, specification of the unity of a “thing” in contrast to its constitutive “parts,” and an account of emergence within cosmic and evolutionary process. Chapter
5, on spiritualogy, requires a difficult elaboration about the nature of
consciousness or human spirit, not only intentional (that is, directed toward some object), as is commonly held, but also conscious (that is, unmediatedly“self-present”). These two chapters—Chapters 4 and 5—address the most difficult questions in this discussion and present what I think is a coherent resolution of them. From this point of view, this book could well have been entitled The Nature of Consciousness or The Mind-Body Problem or something similar. However, as the actual title of this book witnesses—for no good reason except the confusion in question over mind, consciousness, spirit, and Divinity—neuroscientists and psychologists have entangled God in this discussion. So, finally, Chapter 6, applying the same epistemology, presents an understanding of God—absolutely standard in the Western theological tradition—that far outstrips the pious notions controlling current discussion and that accounts for the role of God in human biological, mental, and conscious or spiritual functioning. So be forewarned: the argument is not complete until the book reaches its conclusion. Chapter 3, on neuroscience, turns out to be the least significant in this book—not because the topic is irrelevant to a comprehensive scientific account of the human, but because that field already enjoys a consensual methodology and elaborated technologies, and its current offerings, nonetheless, remain tentative, still highly speculative, and merely indicative of the robust understanding that will someday be achieved. Still, whatever the final understanding, the relationship between brain and mind can be clarified in principle.

Finally, the challenging subject matter of this book provides occasions to concretely apply and pointedly exemplify the breakthrough ideas summarized only generically in the critical chapter on epistemology—Chapter 2. To engage the multidimensionality of this book’s subtle topic is to encounter a particularly fruitful opportunity. Can any epistemology deal consistently and coherently with that whole array of issues? I believe so, and I offer my exemplification. Then, my point here is, again, that the reader is unlikely to appreciate the argument without working through the unfolding topics along the way in order to understand both each different concrete issue in question and the one methodology guiding every resolution and projecting the coherence of them all.

The Centrality of Consciousness

Given that human consciousness or spirit is central to this discussion—for both its content and its method—the reflexivity I have been highlighting should not be unexpected (Helminiak, 1998, p. xii). After all, the essence of human consciousness is a peculiar self-consciousness, an unmediated selfpresence, which is non-objectifying, which does not turn the subject into an object to her- or himself but is experienced as subjectivity per se (5.3.1). Because of self-consciousness, the very condition for the possibility of subsequent cognitive reflexivity, we have the ability to reflect back on ourselves and to turn even our insights into objects of awareness and thought. Thus, an adequate understanding of consciousness entails also an understanding of human knowing. Moreover, at its core, my argument is that transcendent experience is such consciousness of consciousness—or “awareness of awareness” (Lonergan 1957/1992, p. 346), as many would alternatively say, making little distinction between the English terms consciousness and awareness. Following the very helpful suggestion of Louis Roy (2003, pp. 27, 29), as best I can, I reserve the term aware to refer to intentionality, that is, a subject’s relationship to some object; and I use the term conscious to refer to that uniquely human, non-objectified self-presence that constitutes subjectivity (5.1.2; 5.5.1). Yet even apart from these distinctions, consciousness and knowing easily appear as two academically distinguished sides of the same coin.

On many fronts, then, the subtle matter of consciousness is central to this study. I therefore beg the reader to bear these considerations in mind, to give this book a fair and repeated reading, and to reject its conclusions only if they prove incoherent on the basis of their own presuppositions. Chapter 2 begins this intellectual project by laying out these presuppositions.