Thinking About Consciousness or Being Conscious About Thinking

“The now is that unexpected, unanticipated place where the mind and the body and the emotions all meet in a proper season, destroying identity, leaving only an intensity of pleasure that celebrates all parts of that triad: body, mind, and spirit.” -Travis McGee, in Free Fall in Crimson by John D. MacDonald

Are you ever aware of being aware, able to stand outside of yourself and watch yourself think? Have you ever experienced a transcendent level of consciousness that makes you feel connected to the universe? Such conscious reflection is a very human “self appropriation,” according to Bernard Lonergan, a famous theologian at Boston College (called by some a “modern Aquinas”). As part of his work on the philosophy of science, Lonergan (1904-1984) advocated generalizing the empirical methods of the natural sciences beyond exterior sensory-perceptual data to the internal data of consciousness.

One of his students, Daniel A. Helminiak (Professor of Psychology at the University of West Georgia, Atlanta), has set himself the task of introducing Lonergan’s philosophy to a wider audience in his latest book, Brain, Consciousness, and God: A Lonerganian Integration. This ambitious work takes us on a journey through the dark woods of consciousness, with Lonergan playing Virgil to our Dante.

If you are human, you have consciousness, and that capacity for reflection and exploration of your mental life can be a gateway to spirituality. If you prefer your spirituality “lite,” then visit the PBS program The Future of God, where Deepak Chopra tries to add a layer of scientific respectability to his popular musings by claiming that there are neuro-biological correlates of meditation, mindfulness, and conscious awareness.

If you prefer a full bodied pint of wisdom, Helminiak’s book offers a more scientific, scholarly, and well researched approach to understanding the nature of consciousness. He tackles the perennial psycho-biological challenge of relating organic matter (brain) to non-organic mental experience (mind), asking how we account for spiritual or transcendent experience. To find out, and to lay out Lonergan’s epistemology in the process, Helminiak devotes early chapters to assessing which disciplines might be best suited to the study of uniquely human consciousness — neuroscience? psychology? theology?


Brain, Consciousness, and God would make a worthwhile contribution to the field just for its comparative exegesis of the contributions of these different disciplines to the study of mind. But, dissatisfied with their limitations and theoretical contradictions, Helminiak invents another ‘ology’ to deal with the ‘non-physical’ component of mental experience — “Spiritualogy” — to study human spirituality both in its everyday forms and in its higher evolution as “self transcendence,” the expansion of our awareness and understanding. Helminiak thinks that our interest in and commitment to enhancing our spiritual sensitivities is a built-in and defining facet of humanity — part of our natural drive as it were. So (despite the misleading “God” in the book’s title) there is no need to call higher consciousness a divine encounter: while the divine can be spiritual, not everything spiritual is divine. Transcendent experience, as articulated through Spiritualogy, is fully human.

Yet, if physicists can talk fluently about invisible quarks and particles, how does Spiritualogy propose to talk respectably about equally invisible subjective mental experiences?

First, Helminiak offers the basic justifications for Lonergan’s thesis, followed by an elaboration of the theoretical principles.

Basic Assumptions

The first basic assumption is that self-knowledge (consciousness) is a composite of experience, understanding, and judgment, which are legitimate objects of study. While the data may come from subjective experience, they are still amenable to rigorous scientific study, argues Lonergan. Analyzing the data of consciousness requires attention to our experience of inner mental life. Just as natural science attends to physical realities, the study of consciousness permits us to know our own, non-physical minds by attending to them. Because of self-consciousness, we have the ability to reflect back on ourselves and turn even our insights into objects of awareness and thought.

The science of human knowing thus becomes isomorphic with the pattern of knowing built into the human mind. We are both the knower and the known, but that should not make our study of consciousness any less rigorous or respectable vis-a-vis the other sciences.

The Lonergan Solution

How does Heminiak respond to predictable challenges from the hard sciences whose data are objective, observable, measureable, while the messy study of consciousness is subjective, introspective, with self-reported data rather than numbers, readings, measurements, etc.?

Shouldn’t we just treat transcendent experiences as biological processes, so that even higher consciousness experiences of God and the universe are ultimately reducible to neural function?

In response, Helminiak claims that Lonergan epistemology provides a rationale and a methodology for the systematic study of non-physical realities, such as emotions, ideas, thoughts, decisions, reflections, and insights. Certainly (as Chopra might claim) there may be a neural substrate contributing to many of these phenomena; that may create an interdependency between the physical and the mental, but does not nullify the latter’s existence as an independent reality.

Consciousness and Human Knowing

In order to to put the study of consciousness on a sound, empirical footing,Helminiak needs a taxonomy, a set of descriptors for non-physical realities. He turns to the Lonergan lexicon to describe the scientific study of human knowing.

Lonergan begins with a fundamental question: “What am I doing when I am knowing? His answer is that the data of human consciousness fall into universal categories called “Levels of Knowing,” represented by three cognitive “levels of consciousness”:

1) first there is Experience, empirical knowing, which provides the data that understanding attempts to explain. At this level we become aware that there is something to be understood;

2) then comes Understanding, an intellectual knowing experience which discerns intelligibility in, or explains, data;

3) finally there is Judgment, or rational knowing, which evaluates or truth-tests the validity of what is presented by the first two levels.

How do we acquire these universal habits of consciousness? Helminiak argues that this process of knowing is spontaneous and built into the human mind. Yet, paradoxically, real life experience is a necessary pre-condition for knowing, providing the initial input that triggers “meaning making”: “Before learning language and entering the world mediated by meaning, infants live in a realm of sensate immediacy.”

But if the infant path to knowing is still dependent on plenty of experiential learning, how much is innate? Just how spontaneous is this operation of knowing? If life experience is necessary for the development of consciousness, then how does an allegedly built-in apparatus mature and evolve into the levels and kinds of intellectual knowing that Lonergan posits?

Nature vs. Nurture

The book is raising a nature vs. nurture controversy here with claims for an innate origin of conscious knowing which still needs an experiential trigger — claims which Helminiak fails to substantiate, leaving Lonergan theory to stand on its own without the benefit of other available supportive evidence. For example, he could have appealed to the distinction between “innate structure” and “innate process” that is readily available in modern cognitive psychology, where “process” is less deterministic than “structure,” and may need some experiential triggers to jumpstart its preconstructed functions. The nativist cognitive-linguistic explanations of mental development provided in Chomskyan philosophies of language and mind could also have furnished supporting evidence here. In particular, when Lonergan posits the acquisition and operation of conscious knowing as a universal feature of human nature, it almost sounds like consciousness is an innate “faculty” akin to Chomsky’s Moral Faculty, or Language Faculty, or especially his Science-Forming Faculty — which, in fact, sounds curiously close to what Lonergan is offering, namely, a Consciousness-Forming Faculty.

Sadly, there is no mention of Chomsky’s work anywhere in this book, nor apparently in Lonergan theory either.


The most exciting, but also the most controversial, proposition in Brain, Consciousness, and God is the conception and role of “Transcendence” as a higher level of consciousness. It does not help that Helminiak seems to use the term with different meanings at different times.

First, there is the use of Transcendence to denote a universal human capacity comprising three inherent requirements of human knowing — “be attentive, be intelligent, be reasonable.” Lonergan labels these as “Transcendental Precepts” or principles which apply across the board to any and every human endeavor, wherever human consciousness is operating.

The Transcendental Precepts describe the minimal operations prerequisite for the development and use of the tools of consciousness. Using Transcendental Precepts to exercise consciousness becomes the “Transcendental Method,” which captures all the key operations in Lonergan’s three levels of human knowing, via:

1) Appeal to the relevant evidence (experience)

2) Proposal of alternative interpretations (understanding)

3) Confirmation via revision that one interpretation better accounts for the relevant evidence (judgment)

The result is the spontaneous functioning of human consciousness on its three interrelated levels: “this functioning is a built-in method of knowing within us.” So, at the very least, the Transcendental Method is universal and innate, but Helminiak goes further to claim that it is normative also: when you follow the discipline of exploring consciousness the Lonergan way, it will lead you to “authentic, correct knowing.” Transcendental Precepts “elucidate the essential ideal nature of the human being; they anticipate the goal and present the guiding principles of authentic human development.”

Therefore, with an implicit nod to Natural Law theory (as elaborated in Catholic theology), Helminiak claims that if you obey Lonergan’s Transcendental Precepts while investigating consciousness, you cannot help but find the real, the truth, the good. Thus, Lonergan’s cognitive theory is both empirical (process experience through the Transcendental Method) and normative (by allowing the Transcendental Precepts to operate honestly, our knowing becomes virtuous). Put most simply: there is a right way of thinking and knowing — if you follow Transcendental Precepts faithfully you will be rewarded with the highest level of consciousness honesty can buy.

The next meaning of Transcendence is encountered later in the book where Helminiak examines the arguments for and against treating Mind as separate from Brain. Here we encounter the more traditional notion of Transcendence as higher-order consciousness, or expansion of our awareness, or what Chopra and others in the personal growth movement might call “enlightenment.”

The Mind-Brain chapter makes this a big, bold, brave book, as Helminiak challenges the establishment in both natural science and social science, taking on all comers, from the naysayers (like the professional atheist Dennet) who deny the existence of a separate faculty of consciousness, to the reductionists (like Churchland and Tanzi) who think that consciousness can be reduced to organismic neurological functioning. Helminiak is at his most erudite in this dense, complex chapter, dealing with the diverse array of points of view on consciousness, but always circling back to Lonergan theory and methodology for a proper humanistic, naturalistic treatment of consciousness as a legitimate object of study in its own right. For the non-specialist, many of Helminiak’s common sense rebuttals of non-sequitur theorizing by neurologists, neurobiologists, and neuropsychologists will seem compelling, while graduate students in these fields should profit from Helminiak ‘s comparative synopses of competing views.

Mind and Brain

If Mind is the seat of consciousness, how does it relate to Brain? While current consciousness studies use the terms mind and brain virtually interchangeably, the Lonergan vision is much more highly structured and differentiated. If the mind is a non-physical reality in its own right, conscious transcendent experiences could well be just the mind’s experience of itself. Then, without invoking God or other entities, transcendence would be a natural human phenomenon. So while mind emerges from brain, and has an organic interaction with it, it is still a distinct entity.

The Lonergan “mind” has non-physical structures and functions which Helminiak identifies as psyche and spirit (or consciousness). Psyche provides data (emotions, imagery, memory) at a first sensate, perceptual level of consciousness derived from experience. This creates input for a second level of intentional consciousness — Spirit — where inquiry and insight operate to create a transcendent experience of self-consciousness. This is Helminiak’s Spiritualogy at work, where psyche and spirit combine to facilitate natural human growth towards enlightenment. Helminiak insists that this experience is fully human, an aspect of psychology, not theology. Lest we get lost in fragmentation of functions, he also stresses that it is the person, composed of body and mind, who acts; mind may be a real, separate, immaterial, spiritual entity, but it is the whole person who acts. Thanks to the built-in Transcendental Precepts, the mind is endowed with its own particular self-intelligibility; this makes the person capable of spiritual acts, such as insight, which transcend space and time.

This holistic emphasis on the person rather than on a substrate of neural activity is intentionally anti-reductionist, reflecting the Catholic philosophy of both Lonergan and Helminiak (a trained theologian and ex-priest): “It is mistaken for the study of humanity and its distinctive feature, intellectual consciousness, to focus on neurons, transmitters, nuclei, tracts, brain networks, and their computer modeling and not first and foremost on the person as a functioning whole. Such an approach ignores the data on consciousness and then finds itself unable to account for consciousness.”

In short, if you want to understand consciousness don’t start with the brain, start with the person! Thus, while modern neuroscience and psychology both continue to speak of the mind as one undifferentiated whole, this book offers an alternate, very differentiated model, with multiple levels of consciousness and multiple faculties of mind. If consciousness equals psyche plus spirit, then human spiritual enhancement can be cultivated and grown; Lonergan’s “self appropriation” — thinking about thinking — can be taken to the highest levels of consciousness, where we become capable of unbounded, infinite, transcendent thought.

Helminiak champions a Psychology that attends to the spiritual dimension of mind, capable of accounting for transcendental experience, without any need to invoke God-in-the-brain (despite the book’s title). The thesis that mind is non-physical and distinct allows him to treat spirituality as a fully psychological phenomenon — humanistic, naturalistic, non-religious, non-theological, and non-other-worldly. In sum, a proper object of scientific study, motivated by Lonergan theory.

Brain, Consciousness and God makes an erudite, honest attempt to consider and critique both the contributions and limitations of neuroscience and psychology for constructing an adequate foundation for a science of consciousness. It is a very rewarding introduction to Lonergan’s rationalist, humanist theory of consciousness.

However, theologian-psychologist Helminak shortchanges his own discipline by manufacturing too stark a contrast between the richness of Lonergan epistemology and the impoverishment of a modern Psychology preoccupied with only sensate-perceptual phenomena. This is too simplistic and anachronistic. While it lets him present Lonergan’s as the only fully developed, more “cognitive” theory of immaterial mind and consciousness, the only “cognitive” psychologist he invokes for historical support is 19th century’s William James.

The validation of Lonergan’s theory would have been greatly enhanced by allying him with more modern, compatible cognitive theorists (like Chomsky), instead of presenting him as a solo performer on the stage of consciousness.