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Also on this website:
Toby Johnson's books:
YOUR OWN TRUE MYTH: What I Learned
from Joseph Campbell: The
GAY SPIRITUALITY: The Role of Gay Identity in the Transformation of Human Consciousness
GAY PERSPECTIVE: Things Our Homosexuality Tells Us about the Nature of God and the Universe
LIFE IN PERSPECTIVE:
Fantastical Gay Romance set in two different time periods
THE FOURTH QUILL, a novel about attitudinal healing and the problem of evil
TWO SPIRITS: A Story of Life with the Navajo, a collaboration with Walter L. Williams
CHARMED LIVES: Spinning Straw into Gold: GaySpirit in Storytelling, a collaboration with Steve Berman and some 30 other writers
THE MYTH OF THE GREAT SECRET: An Appreciation of Joseph Campbell
IN SEARCH OF GOD IN THE SEXUAL UNDERWORLD: A Mystical Journey
Books on Gay Spirituality:
Articles and Excerpts:
Review of Samuel Avery's The Dimensional Structure of Consciousness
Funny Coincidence: "Aliens Settle in San Francisco"
EnlightenmentYou're Not A Wave
Joseph Campbell Talks about Aging
What is Enlightenment?
What is reincarnation?
How many lifetimes in an ego?
Emptiness & Religious Ideas
Experiencing experiencing experiencing
Going into the Light
Meditations for a Funeral
The way to get to heaven
Buddha's father was right
What Anatman means
Advice to Travelers to India & Nepal
The Danda Nata & goddess Kalika
Nate Berkus is a bodhisattva
John Boswell was Immanuel Kant
Cutting edge realization
The Myth of the Wanderer
Change: Source of Suffering & of Bliss
What the Vows Really Mean
Manifesting from the Subtle Realms
The Three-layer Cake & the Multiverse
The est Training and Personal Intention
Effective Dreaming in Ursula LeGuin's The Lathe of Heaven
Review: Brain, Consciousness, and God: A Lonerganian Integration
by Daniel A. Helminiak
State University of New York Press, HB, 418 pages, $95.00
Also available for kindle and ebooks.
Brain, Consciousness, and God: A Lonerganian Integration
Reviewed by Toby Johnson
Research into the workings of the human nervous system and the brain has given birth to a modern-day meme: "God in the Brain." Stories appear on TV and in magazines and newspapers, even those at the grocery check-out, reporting on "latest findings" in this search. It's a perennially interesting question because it involves both our personal experience of being embodied and having brains AND our collective experience of being immersed in a culture of religion and talk of "God": How our brains work is a mystery. What God is is a mystery. Mysterious things are fascinating. We want to know the answer. "Inquiring minds want to know."
This topic seems divided into those who argue that the fact that people are naturally religious and have experiences of God proves that God and the whole world of religion and religious thought is true AND those who argue that the fact that psychedelic drugs or stimulation of the brain in certain places results in religious experience proves God is an hallucination and merely an artifact of the nervous system.
This topic is also addressed, much more seriously, in scientific and academic circles and has resulted in a body of work that deals with brain theory. At the base of all brain theory is the mind-body question: How does the self-aware and immaterial mind arise out of the physiological operation of brain cells? How do mind and body connect? And what is the mind? What is consciousness? Does consciousness really exist? The only place anybody ever experiences consciousness is inside their own mind. We never see anybody else's consciousness, and we don't especially need them to be conscious to explain their behavior. Since science only looks at what it can see and measure and test, science doesn't need to affirm the existence of consciousness at all.
Brain, Consciousness, and God by Daniel Helminiak cuts through all those arguments by addressing what they actually mean--or don't mean. This is a challenging book. It's not easy reading, though it is generally very interesting reading. It's academically styled--with copious references in parentheses embedded within the text and with outside works identified by the author's last name as it appears in the extensive bibliography. But Helminiak's writing style is, in fact, conversational and even occasionally funny; he routinely uses the first person "I" and never contorts sentences into the more traditional impersonal third person style of academic writing and uses virtually no academic jargon.
Daniel Helminiak is a student of the Canadian, Jesuit philosopher Bernard Lonergan (1904-1984). Lonergan is regarded by many as one of the greatest thinkers of the 20th Century. Lonergan is credited with updating Aristotelian/Catholic Scholastic/Thomistic philosophy to the modern scientifically and psychologically-sophisticated world. Central to Lonergan's thought was epistemology, the branch of philosophy that deals with how human beings know: what does it mean "to know," where does "knowledge" come from? how do we know what we know and if it's true or not?
Helminiak assiduously and consistently applies Lonergan's epistemology to the brain science questions about the relation between brain and consciousness. He observes that a main reason these questions exist at all is because of confused epistemological assumptions and erroneous logic. This is heady stuff, and sometimes difficult to grasp--which is why there is so much confusion in the field--and why it is important to do this kind of rigorous analysis of what's actually being talked about.
An ongoing example in the book is the right triangle and the Pythagorian theorem. One way of thinking about a right triangle is to picture one in your mind; that is the sensate-based model. Most of us, most of the time, rely on sense experience as the basis of our knowledge, so it's almost automatic to "see" a triangle in your memory and imagination when you think of the Pythagorian theorem. Another way of thinking about a right triangle is as the relations between the lengths of the line segments, i.e., a2 + b2 = c2. This is the cerebral intellectual-based model; it's an idea; it can be thought without any picture in your mind. Helminiak observes, repeatedly, that most of the books about the brain-consciousness relation repeatedly violate the Lonerganian distinction between sensate and intellectual models. Imagining the brain as a storehouse and trying to figure out just where a particular experience is stored and in which cells is an example of confusing an intellectual concept with a sense-based image. Much of the book is spent defining terms. It may seem tedious at times and mind-stretching, but this is important foundation for the discussion.
That Helminiak comes out of Scholastic/Thomist tradition is demonstrated in his careful analysis and rigorous refutation of the other writers. This was a pattern in the writings of Thomas Aquinas: present what other people say, then present what you say, then show how the others are wrong. To his credit, Helminiak frequently points out what's right in others' ideas and is seldom argumentative in his refutations, though he is rigorous.
The book is nearly 400 pages. It's daunting here to try to describe it; there's so much in the book. I certainly can't say I understood everything in it, but it was good to try to. I can't say I agreed with everything in it; I thought Helminiak gave short-shrift to animal consciousness--he doesn't think non-human creatures are technically "conscious" at all, at least in the way humans are "conscious." He says animals live in a more sensate, perceptual, psychic world, not a thinking, intellectual one. That's probably true. (But I don't think my cat would necessarily agree.) Helminiak does apply findings from studies of animal intelligence very productively to discuss brain structure.
A central concept in Daniel Helminiak's work is that human consciousness is spiritual. He argues that spirit has nothing to do with God, supernatural entities or religion. "Spirit" is perfectly natural and an aspect of being human. Spiritual experience, transcendental experience--through religious belief and practice or through drugs or brain-stimulation--is consciousness being conscious of itself.
While carefully removing religion and piety from the whole discussion of consciousness, Helminiak derives a notion of God by application of Lonergan’s epistemology to the fact of existence and the need for an answer to the question about how it could possibly come about. But one doesn't have to be religious or "believe in God" to be a spiritually developed--and perhaps naturally mystical--human being. "In the broad picture," he writes, "transcendent experience--mysticism as a way of living--would then appear to be the ongoing experience of the common dynamism, the "finality" or "teleonomy," that runs through the successive levels of cosmogenesis and evolution toward the integration of all things in consciousness… When in humans what is intelligible becomes intelligence itself, it can experience, explicate, and know itself and, then, more deliberately and more surely--that is, attentively, intelligently, and resonably, and responsibly (it can only be hoped)--guide its own subsequent unfolding: to a large and sometimes frightening extent, the future of the universe lies in human hands. Accordingly, when transcendent experience is understood to be nothing other than wholistic, integrated, healthy human living, spirituality--apart from all entanglement with conflicting religions, beliefs in other-worldly entities, or appeal to divine interventions--becomes essential to human life, culture, society, and the budding global community."
The next sentence in the paragraph I've quoted says, "Such is the full, sweeping vision of Lonergan's analysis of human intentional consciousness." Helminiak is crediting this vision to Lonergan. As I have read this book--and learned and grown from doing so, in spite of, or because of, the effort--I'd credit this vision to Daniel Helminiak and say this book is a foundational piece of the evolution of consciousness becoming aware of itself.
I recommend this book.
Brain, Consciousness, and God: A Lonerganian Integration
Toby Johnson, PhD is author of nine books: three non-fiction books that apply the wisdom of his teacher and "wise old man," Joseph Campbell to modern-day social and religious problems, four gay genre novels that dramatize spiritual issues at the heart of gay identity, and two books on gay men's spiritualities and the mystical experience of homosexuality and editor of a collection of "myths" of gay men's consciousness.
SPIRITUALITY: The Role of Gay Identity in the Transformation of
Human Consciousness won a Lambda Literary Award in 2000.
PERSPECTIVE: Things Our [Homo]sexuality Tells Us about the Nature
of God and the Universe was nominated for a Lammy in 2003. They
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