Brain, Consciousness, and God
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Brain, Consciousness, and God

A Lonerganian Integration

Daniel A. Helminiak

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eBook - ePub

Brain, Consciousness, and God

A Lonerganian Integration

Daniel A. Helminiak

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Brain, Consciousness, and God is a constructive critique of neuroscientific research on human consciousness and religious experience. An adequate epistemology—a theory of knowledge—is needed to address this topic, but today there exists no consensus on what human knowing means, especially regarding nonmaterial realities. Daniel A. Helminiak turns to twentieth-century theologian and philosopher Bernard Lonergan's breakthrough analysis of human consciousness and its implications for epistemology and philosophy of science. Lucidly summarizing Lonergan's key ideas, Helminiak applies them to questions about science, psychology, and religion. Along with Lonergan, eminent theorists in consciousness studies and neuroscience get deserved, detailed attention. Helminiak demonstrates the reality of the immaterial mind and, addressing the Cartesian "mind-body problem, " explains how body and mind could make up one being, a person. Human consciousness is presented not only as awareness of objects, but also as self-presence, the self-conscious experience of human subjectivity, a spiritual reality. Lonergan's analyses allow us to say exactly what "spiritual" means, and it need have nothing to do with God.

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Editore
SUNY Press
Anno
2015
ISBN
9781438457161
CHAPTER 1

INTRODUCTION

A little learning is a dang’rous Thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian Spring:
There shallow Draughts intoxicate the Brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.
—Alexander Pope
Ever-expanding research in neuroscience now engages religious topics. As liberally as the popular press (Aaen-Stockdale, 2012; Hagerty, 2009), professional discussion links brain function to supposed experiences of God Almighty Himself—or Herself? Itself? Godself? The very uncertainty in even knowing how to accurately refer to God—and traditions that forbid naming G-d at all—should give one pause. Still, 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 Helmet” (Persinger, n.d.), the “God” part of the brain (Alper, 2001, 2006), the “God spot in the brain” (Crutcher, 2003), “neurotheology” (Ashbrook, 1984; Bekoff, 2002, p. xvii; d’Aquili & Newberg, 1999; Joseph, 2003), “entheogens” (Forte, 1997b; Richards, 2003, 2005), “theobiology” (Rayburn & Richard, 2002), “theistic psychology” (Helminiak, 2010, 2013a), and the like has become commonplace across academic disciplines. To bring some clarification to this discussion is my ambitious goal.

1.1. Mystical, Religious—or Transcendent—Experiences

The focus of this neuroscientific research is what is called mystical or religious experiences (Belzen & Geels, 2003; 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 (“enlightenment” in the East). And they refer to occasional moments of overwhelming intensity in which the epitome is the ineffable experience of the unity of all things and a loss of a sense of self: 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 and mystical. These latter terms, themselves often equated, can have importantly different meanings (e.g., Roy, 2003, pp. xix–xxi). Likewise, the term transcendental is also sometimes used to name meditative and psychedelic experiences (e.g., Aaen-Stockdale, 2012; Szalavitz, 2011) and carries similar ambiguities and vagueness, usually implying something other-worldly or, perhaps, mysterious. I would avoid prejudicing the discussion from the outset. Accordingly, with a neutral term, transcendent, 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 (Helminiak, 1987b, pp. 23–24). 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 and defining 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 “Sacred,” or the work of some supernatural force (e.g., Beauregard & O’Leary, 2007; Engels, 2001; Hill et al., 2000, p, 64; Larson, Swyers, & McCullough, 1998; Pargament, 1997, p. 31; Pargament & Maloney, 2002; Reber, 2002, 2006b, p. 199; Richards & Bergin, 2005, pp. 101, 114; Richardson, 2006, p. 242, n. 12; Slife & Whoolery, 2006, pp. 225, 226)—this is a greater supposition than I am willing to make. It is the very supposition that is in question.

1.2. Consciousness of Consciousness, Not Experience of God

Of course, I do have my own interpretation and explanation of transcendent experience, as 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, nous, 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; Lonergan, 1957/1992, pp. 372, 394, 538–543, 640–642, 670–671, 696–697, 711; 1968/2006, tracks 46, 48, 51; 1972, pp. 13, 210, 302, 352; 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 through appeal to a self-transcending dimension of the human mind. If so, by application of Occam’s razor or Morgan’s canon, no added reference to God is needed, nor to the Hindu Brahman. These are experiences of the outward-oriented, open-ended, dynamic human spirit, namely, at its epitome, pure consciousness of consciousness. They pertain to human spirituality, not to some direct or immediate (i.e., non-mediated) divine encounter or uncovered divine identity. 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 (cf. Helminiak, 2010, 2013a; Helminiak, Hoffman, & Dodson, 2012). In the first instance, transcendent experience is a possibility or occurrence that is fully human. It expresses a marvelous capacity due to 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 the primary question. They are but possible, subsequent considerations when scientific explanation—not yet theology or, above all, not devotional rhetoric or controlling religious lore—is the prime concern (Helminiak, 1987b).
Abraham Maslow (1954/1970) made something of the same point when describing his “self-actualizers,” those rare, highly developed specimens of humanity. With a blatant spiritual allusion, Maslow reports that these individuals view things “sub specie aeternitatis [in light of eternity]” (p. 160). Moreover, he says, they are particularly prone to mystical experience. But Maslow incisively adds, “It is quite important to dissociate this experience from any theological or supernatural reference, even though for thousands of years they have been linked. Because this experience is a natural experience, well within the jurisdiction of science, I call it the peak experience” (p. 164; see also Maslow, 1964/1970).
Similarly, Roberto Assagioli’s (1965/1976) rich treatment of spiritual growth, under the name of psychosynthesis, is a completely psychological proposition. Granted, Assagioli does obscurely relate the human “higher Self,” the focus of spiritual psychosynthesis, to the “Supreme Spirit” and the “universal Self” of Vedantic philosophy (the divine Brahman, which is supposedly identical to the human Atman: see 6.3.5, i.e, Chapter 6, section 3, subsection 5 of this book), but he has no real investment in this connection (pp. 20, 44–45, 194–195). He insists that psychosynthesis is a “scientific conception.” It “does not aim nor attempt to give a metaphysical nor a theological explanation of the great Mystery—it leads to the door, but stops there” (pp. 6–7; see Helminiak, 1987b, pp. 12–19).
To extricate 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). This problem entails the challenge of accounting for the nature of the human spirit and its relationship to 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 4, on the mind, and Chapter 5, 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, as in the Hindu formula “Atman is Brahman.” Thus, any extraordinary mental occurrences—except, inconsistently and tellingly, psychoses and temporal lobe epilepsy (Brown, 2002; Crutcher, 2002; Helminiak, 1984b; Persinger, 2001, 2002; but see 3.1.2)—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. 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 mean exactly, half technical in terminology and half popular. From a critical perspective, the problem of the meaning of spiritual and divine might 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 that might 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 entities are in question.
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. Once again, not God’s role in human experience but rather the mind–body problem and the nature of consciousness emerge as the true psychological challenge: how does organic matter relate to mental and even spiritual—transcendent—experience?

1.3. An Interdisciplinary Study

I elaborate on my argument by treating, in turn, neuroscience, psychology, spiritualogy, and theology. In passing, with gratitude to Philip McShane, 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). Most people, at least in the West, associate this particular process of growth with religion or some notion of God and describe it in religious terms. Currently, however—in English translation from the French in the mid-20th century, replacing the Roman Catholic terms ascetic or mystical theology (Principe, 1983; e.g., Tanquerey, 1930)—the term spirituality also names the study of that lived commitment. 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 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 overall. Without an understanding of knowledge adequate to non-palpable realities—such as emotions, thoughts, the mind, consciousness, and God, not to mention quarks, leptons, black holes, and dark matter—the topic of this book cannot be treated coherently. Thus my first chapter treats epistemology.

1.4. Reliance on a Coherent and Consistent Epistemology: Lonergan

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. 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., Alper, 2001/2006; Beauregard & O’Leary, 2007; d’Aquili & Newberg, 1999; McNamara, 2009; Murphy, 2006). 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 just becoming a mainline philosophical position and novel, too, in that his position actually promises a coherent treatment of the difficult questions before us. Lonergan took up the traditional philosophical question, dating from the pre-Socratics, about the possibility, nature, and limits of accurate human knowing and presented a core understanding of knowledge that applies to all fields of intellectual endeavor. As such, his position qualifies as a kind of “foundationalism” (Braman, 2008, pp. 80–81, 86–91), that is, 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. However, Lonergan’s proposal appears unique. His foundation is the inherent and unavoidable processes of human consciousness itself. Overlooking insight and restricted merely to logic, most other foundationalist theories propose a set of basic beliefs, some suggested first principles, which via deduction and inference would ground all other beliefs (Poston, 2014)—an ultimately unworkable solution (4.16). Digging deeper, Lonergan claims to have elucidated the primordial engine that generates all beliefs, all knowledge. His analyses offer a strikingly new approach to foundationalism (2.7.1). Chapter 2 relates parts of that story of despair over ever explaining the essence of human knowing (2.2.67; see McCarthy, 1990). As Lawrence Cahoone (2010) reports, over the course of the 20th century, Western 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 opp...

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