Monthly Archives: September 2013

Thinking and Thoughtfulness: Thoughtlessness Part 5


We can best grasp the concept of thoughtlessness by contrasting it to the idea of thoughtfulness developed in Part 4 of this series. We are thoughtless when we don’t think about our involvement with the object of experience. One falls into thoughtless by becoming absorbed in the process of observation, common sense, scientific thought or introspection…or in any other activity in which something displaces our self-awareness with itself. Thoughtlessness is the absence of awareness of the self and the character of its relations with other things.

Thoughtless people immerse themselves in work or objective thought or the search for pleasure or attention to the point that they do not question, do not become aware of themselves as distinct from their activities. They don’t ask ethical, existential or religious questions of themselves. They don’t ask about their identity, the meaning of their activities, and the morality of their actions. They don’t see the deeper dimensions of things or people and their relationships to them.

In chapter four of my recent book, God, Freedom & Dignity, I examine three images of thoughtlessness: the esthete, the conformist and the celebrity. The esthete seeks only pleasure while the conformist seeks only success as measured by what other people consider success; and the celebrity seeks only attention and lives only in the minds of others. They have no time for self-examination and no space for awareness of God.

It’s like they don’t really exist as selves, as self-aware subjects. They observe their lives but don’t live them as their own free action; they are whatever they are doing…without any awareness of the meaning of what they are doing! They may wake up one day and realize that they have not been consciously living their lives. They’ve been on automatic pilot, asleep at the wheel, while their lives pass before them like a dream. Other things determine what they feel, love and do. They move through life unaware of whole dimensions of what is happening around them and within them. They can’t see through the reflective surfaces into the real substance of things and the meaning of the relations among them.

Most disturbing of all, thoughtless people have no awareness of God as really present and active as their Creator, Lord, Judge and Savior. And in my view, lack of awareness of God and our relation to God is the root of all thoughtlessness. If people were aware of God they would also be aware of themselves as dependent, responsible, unworthy and yet loved. Awareness of God, who is the absolute ground of our existence, opens our minds to depths of ourselves we could not know otherwise.  And if we gain deeper self-awareness before God we will also become aware of the God-relatedness and interrelatedness of all things; that is, we will become thoughtful.

I conclude this series with Søren Kierkegaard’s observations about the lives of the thoughtless:

[The thoughtless person is] “a sort of marionette, very deceptively imitating everything human—even to the extent of having children by his wife. At the end of his life, one would have to say that one thing had escaped him: his consciousness had taken no note of God” (Concluding Unscientific Postscript).

“By seeing the multitude of men about it, by getting engaged in all sorts of worldly affairs, by becoming wise about how things go in this world, such a man forgets himself, forgets what his name is (in the divine understanding of it), does not dare to believe in himself, finds it too venturesome a thing to be himself, far easier to be like others, to become an imitation, a number, a cipher in the crowd… spiritually understood, they have no self, no self for whose sake they could venture everything, no self before God—however selfish they may be for all that” (Sickness Unto Death).


Please share this five-part series with others.


Until next week…

Thinking and Thoughtfulness: Part 4 Thoughtfulness


At the beginning of this series I mentioned a distinction Bernard Lonergan made between common sense and scientific thought. As far as I remember, Lonergan did not address the idea of thoughtfulness. But this concept cries out for analysis as a matter of logical development and even more so for its cultural relevance; in my view thoughtlessness is a central feature of contemporary culture.

Now that we have before us the concepts of observation, common sense, scientific thought and introspection we may be able grasp the subtler concept of thoughtfulness and understand how it relates to theology and the religious life.

Unlike observation, thoughtfulness is not intense concentration on something. It’s not perception of the relationship of things to our needs and wants. This is common sense. Nor is it acute insight into the relationships among things considered apart from us. Here we are speaking of scientific thought. And thoughtfulness is not merely the inward gaze that distinguishes idea from idea, mood from mood and feeling from feeling. Introspection is at work here.

Consider how we use word “thoughtful” in everyday speech. Sometimes we designate an act as “thoughtful” and at other times we speak of a person as “thoughtful”. A thoughtful act manifests insight into the need and desires of another person coupled with forethought and goodwill. Thoughtful people are likely to perform thoughtful acts because they possess awareness, sensitivity, anticipation and empathy toward others. Thoughtfulness is heightened awareness of what is hidden from external observation joined with caring involvement with people. In the common use we see clearly the ethical dimension of thoughtfulness. Thoughtfulness in the wider sense I want to explore includes this kind of awareness but is more comprehensive.

By thoughtfulness in this wider sense, I mean “thought-FULL-ness,” that is, comprehensive awareness. Observation, common sense, scientific thought and introspection are one-directional and focal. In observation and scientific thought you sometimes forget your entanglement with the object of focus, that is, how it affects you and you affect it. In common sense you can lose sight of the object’s existence in and for itself because you are concerned only with its effect on you. In none of these modes of thought are you aware of yourself in the act of relating to the object or of how your or the object’s relation to God affects the total situation.

Ideally, then, thoughtfulness is simultaneous awareness of every dimension of your environment and your relation to it; it is awareness of yourself, your relationship to other things and of the relationships of other things to each other at the same time. In thoughtfulness we do more than observe and think about something; we also become aware of our observations, thoughts, feelings and judgments. We do more than interrogate the objects we think about. We also question the relationship between us and the object of our attention, taking into account all aspects of our relationship to it—causal, ethical, religious and esthetic.

Thoughtfulness challenges every automatic and habitual way of relating to things, ideas, people, God and ourselves. Thoughtfulness insists that we bring our every act and relation into the light of rational deliberation, freedom, moral judgment and awareness of God. Thoughtfulness takes nothing for granted. It interrogates every act, feeling, thought and every appearance. It raises not only narrow scientific and common sense questions but reflexive questions, questions that question the questioner.  “What am I doing?” “Why am I doing this?” “Why do I want to do this?” “Should I do this?” “What does my action reveal about me?”

Most important of all, thoughtfulness is awareness of God in all these relationships and dimensions. For a Christian, our relationship with God must be the decisive factor in all relationships, feelings and acts. Everything possesses a relationship to God, a relation of dependence, meaning and direction; and a thing’s God-relation is the most fundamental relation it can possess. It is the central component in its identity. No one is truly thoughtful who is not mindful of the presence and relevance of God to all things.

For a Christian, every relationship and every activity is a matter of conscience. Conscientiousness is habitual thoughtfulness in relation to God. It is awareness of God as the third factor in every relationship, every activity and every decision. It is constant awareness of God as our Creator, Guide, Judge and Savior. A conscientious person does not forget God in the daily routines of life and views forgetfulness of God as a serious fault. Conscientiousness sanctifies every aspect of life. All of it is lived before God and directed to God.

I will omit examples of thoughtfulness because I hope that every post I make on this blog illustrates and embodies thoughtfulness. To be continued…

Coming soon: the nature, forms and consequences of thoughtlessness.

Thinking and Thoughtfulness: Part 3 Introspection


Introspection is also an important operation of reason and a necessary prelude to thoughtfulness. It attempts to look within our inner consciousness to see it apart from our relationship to external objects. Introspection works to isolate, observe and relate distinct feelings, moods, memories, ideas and values in the mind or soul. Perhaps Augustine’s Confessions does not conform exactly to my definition of introspection–which I admit is rather radical and “pure”–but it does provide an excellent example of the inward-turned eye that sorts and sifts motive from motive and feeling from feeling seeking deeper self-knowledge. Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The Reveries of a Solitary Walker, though narcissistic and dripping with self-pity, also displays an astounding inward awareness that is quite instructive about what we can learn from introspection.

Without introspection our consciousness would be engulfed by wave after wave of sensation or lost in abstractions of thought. Socrates’ observation that “the unexamined life is not worth living” comes to mind here. Apart from some introspection there is no self-knowledge and without self-knowledge we could not distinguish between the life we freely enact and events that merely happen in, to or through us.

Notice how introspection relates to common sense and scientific thought.  In distinction from common sense, introspection isolates the self from external relations by ignoring the external causes of internal experience. In analogy to science, it treats relations within the self like science treats relations among things external to the self. It wants to see its feelings and moods, beliefs and ideas and their interrelationships undistorted by their external relations. Whereas science wants to escape the distorting influence of internal subjectivity on our knowledge of external things, introspection wants to escape the clouding influence of external things on awareness of our internal condition. If science risks self-deception by ignoring the influence of the subjective on our knowledge of the external world, introspection risks self-deception by thinking it can isolate our internal subjectivity from the external world.

Introspection alone cannot lead to complete self-understanding because the self exists only in relation to the not-self, to the external world of people, nature and things. Nonetheless, introspection is valuable because we cannot think everything at once. We cannot think about the self in itself and its relation to external objects and the characteristics of the objects in themselves in one thought at one time. To achieve greater understanding we must move back and forth between part and whole, inside and outside, self and other to grasp all dimensions of something…even if that something is us.

To be continued…

Next time we will think about thoughtfulness itself…I promise.

Thinking and Thoughtfulness: Part 2 Scientific or Critical Thought

Scientific or Critical Thought

In Part 1 of this series we considered observation and common sense as activities of reason. Now we will examine critical or scientific thought. Critical thought takes up where observation and common sense end. Whereas common sense keeps the focus on things in relation to us, scientific thought aims to understand things in relation to other things. Critical thinkers stand outside the relations they are considering and look at the world objectively, as if they did not exist as bodies or subjects but as pure thought. The goal of scientific thinking is to see things as they really are in themselves, undistorted by our perspectives, needs and desires. (This way of viewing things has been examined critically by Thomas Nagel in his book The View from Nowhere.)

Critical reason grasps logical, causal, mathematical, temporal, spatial and other relationships among things. Logic is the study of the different types of relationships possible among concepts or propositions. Natural science studies causal relationships among existing things in nature whereby one thing provides a partial explanation for the coming into being or functioning of another. Hermeneutics studies the internal relationships among the meaning units in texts to discover their meaning. And, of course, there are many other sciences and critical studies.

In performing its task scientific or critical reason engages in three types of operation: analysis, synthesis and criticism. In analysis we break apart a complex thing (a plant, an atom, a written text) into lesser and lesser systems until we are satisfied or until it is impractical to go further. By grasping how these systems are constructed from smaller systems and finally how each contributes to the existence, qualities and functioning of the object of study, we gain insight into the complex whole.

We also engage in synthesis. As reasoning beings, we are not limited to analyzing what is given in nature or history. We can imagine other systems of relationships that do not exist at present. By taking the principles of how things relate to other things in nature we can reconfigure them into things useful to us: houses, cars, spaceships, lasers, and many more.

Criticism does not apply to natural objects. We bring criticism to bear on human artifacts—texts, theories, machines, art. Effective criticism presupposes observation, analysis and understanding. It evaluates a product in light of normative principles, such as logical consistency, communally accepted beliefs, esthetic or ethical norms or practical values such as efficiency and cost effectiveness. It is important to differentiate rational criticism from objections based on distaste, bias, self-interest or unacknowledged theories or ideologies. Rational criticism is disciplined, honest and clear about the norms by which it judges; it adheres to the rules of logic, causality and fairness.

Most people believe that the world continues to exist even when we are not observing or using it. A human being in thinking scientifically or critically attempts to understand the interrelationships among things in the world as they would be even if no human beings existed. You can see why some writers (e.g. Kierkegaard and Nagel) accuse scientific thinkers—especially those who contend that scientific thought is the only avenue to knowledge—of self-deception and self-contradiction. On the one hand, scientific/critical thinkers recognize that inserting the human relationship to our account of things, as common sense does, distorts our knowledge of the object of study. On the other hand, they think they can devise methods of observation and structures of thought that bypass or compensate for the human factor. But such a project is completely impossible; we cannot escape from our existence into pure thought or from our relatedness to the things into absolute knowledge. To be continued…

Part 3 will consider introspection.

Thinking and Thoughtfulness (Part 1)

Since a major theme of my blog is “thoughtfulness in religion,” I owe it to you to explain what I mean by thoughtfulness and why I believe it is so important. Today I begin a short series on thinking and thoughtfulness. So, think with me for a while about thinking.


To understand a concept thoroughly it is not enough merely to define it. We must grasp its relationships to other concepts in the neighborhood. Only by bringing to light how it differs and resembles to those nearby ideas can we locate it on a conceptual map. The larger the scope of our vision, the more precise will be our sense of its location. Hence I plan to consider thoughtfulness in relation to such concepts as intelligence, reason, observation, common sense, critical thought, introspection and thoughtlessness.


A few years ago I read Bernard Lonergan’s huge book Insight: A Study of Human Understanding (1957). This book stands in the long tradition of books with similar titles: John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690) and David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748). Lonergan surveys the map of concepts and activities that orient us to the human act of insight, which is the act of understanding. I will not attempt to summarize his study here. But I want to acknowledge that my thinking about thinking and thoughtfulness has been influenced by this profound book. Specifically, the distinction I make below between common sense and critical (or scientific) thought comes directly from Lonergan (p. 181).


Intelligence and Reason

Intelligence is a more encompassing concept than reason. Intelligence is the power of a living being to perceive and respond appropriately to the information it receives from its environment. Billiard balls and hydrogen atoms do not possess intelligence even though they respond to physical contact by other things. Intelligence involves interpretation or processing of information by internal systems capable of such activity. Many intriguing questions arise at this point. What is information? Is information always the product of intelligence? Is it possible to construct an intelligent machine? But I won’t pursue them here. Human beings are not the only living creatures to possess intelligence. Horses, rabbits, mice and even one-cell creatures are marked by intelligent behavior.

But human beings possess a higher form of intelligence we call reason. Reason is not simply more intelligence; it is a qualitatively different kind of intelligence. In brief, reason is intelligence combined with freedom. Human beings not only respond intelligently to information in the automatic ways animals and plants do, they are conscious of their intelligence and partly in control of its application. We can initiate the processes of thinking and imagining apart from external contact with information bearing systems. We can resist being determined by the information pressing in on our senses, and we can anticipate several steps ahead to future states of our world. Reason is the power to see, understand or comprehend relationships— spatial, temporal, mathematical but especially causal and logical relationships. Information is always encoded in a system of relationships, and reason can see the relationships and read the information written therein. Only reasoning beings can attain insight or understanding.


All intelligent beings can receive information from their environment but only reasoning creatures observe the world. Observation is an intentional act designed to raise mere perception to a higher level by giving the object the kind of attention that will allow it to show itself in its fullness. In ordinary life it usually suffices to see things as images in their wholeness. To avoid hitting the car in front of us, it is enough to see the image as a car. We need not observe it in detail. In that situation, observing would be a foolish thing to do. Observation is the skill of focusing intently on the appearance of something. It is taking note of the details of its parts and shades and activities. If you don’t notice something you can’t think about it or take into account how it might affect you. So, observation precedes serious thought and analysis. To become a good observer you have to train your mind to notice things that we ordinarily overlook. Description is the way we communicate the results of observation.

Common Sense

As I said above, reason is the power to see all sorts of relationships. Common sense is reason’s power to grasp relationships between things and us; that is, common sense enables us to anticipate how things will affect us in practical ways. It learns from personal experience and the experience of other people how things work, how to adjust to them and use them for our benefit. It also works to avoid danger, to make a living or to achieve success in our activities.

It reasons like this: when you do this, that happens; or when that happens, it affects us like this. It is the form of reason used in learning a skill: auto mechanics, bricklaying, getting along with difficult people, or playing basketball. It is not directly interested in theoretical explanations. It gets impatient with any line of thought where the practical relevance is not evident.

Clearly, common sense is very important for daily life. We are related to everything in our environment, and to act wisely we need to anticipate how our actions will affect other things and how those things may affect us. Common sense conforms to the general pattern of reason; it sees connections, analogies and relationships of all kinds. It is especially sensitive to causal relationships. It can use this knowledge very creatively to solve problems. To be continued…

Next: critical thought, introspection and thoughtfulness