My New Blog: The Mystery of Consciousness, and Why It Matters

I’ve just begun a new blog dealing with deep puzzles about the nature of consciousness. Here’s the first posting:

This is the first entry of a new blog dealing with deep puzzles about the nature of consciousness. I will be exploring issues that will be addressed in more detail in my forthcoming book, Your Living Mind: The Mystery of Consciousness and Why It Matters to You. My main focus will be the question of whether it is possible that conscious experiences are brain events.

If you are already convinced that the mind is wedged in between our ears, don’t be too sure that this is obvious. The puzzles involved are far more profound than I realized when I first immersed myself in this issue in the early 1990’s. How could a sensuous experience – the tingle of a caress, the scent of lilacs, the sight of day-glo orange – occur within a brain? Some brilliant scholars have concluded that we can never answer this question satisfactorily.

The basis of their skepticism varies according to their theoretical orientation. But they all agree that it is extremely difficult to show that sensory experiences are brain activities in a way that makes this understandable. Their pessimism involves more than just the worry that consciousness and neural dynamics are too complicated for us to grasp at this time. They believe that understanding how perceptual experiences occur within the brain is virtually impossible in principle, either because experiences do not occur within the brain or because we can never understand how they could.

This blog will wrestle with the remarkable issues associated with this conundrum, trying to show how the conscious mind could, in principle, exist within the brain.

I would appreciate candid feedback about my ideas, partly because I realize that communicating clearly about consciousness is remarkably difficult. Whenever you read something in this blog that seems muddled or confusing, please let me know. I hope you will find value in The Mystery of Consciousness, and Why It Matters.

Roger Christan Schriner

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Physicalism’s Ugly-Contest, Round Two

In Bridging the God Gap I contend that intelligent and well-informed theism and intelligent/well-informed atheism are both legitimate viewpoints. Atheism typically maintains that the universe is entirely physical, and some people think this reduces human beings to the status of “mere” machines. In my previous post I embedded two blankly robotic images from the covers of books about physicalism, and asked, “Who would want to be like that?”

I’ve just received the latest edition of The Philosopher’s Magazine, an excellent publication that opens a window into the world of contemporary philosophy. The cover theme is “Building better humans,” so presumably the cover attempts to depict an improved version of homo sapiens. Check this image and ask yourself, “Does this look like an improvement?”

(This URL will probably bring up a list of sites. Click on “Exact Editions – The Philosophers’ Magazine.”)

Is this a positive image? It does look rather formidable. But it falls into a long tradition of sci-fi imagery, portraying future humans as robotlike. Notice that the eyes are blank, as if devoid of emotion or motivation. I’m reminded of lines about another robotlike fellow, from W.H. Auden’s poem, “The Unknown Citizen.”

“Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd:
Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.”

The Philosophers’ Magazine certainly has no reason to make physicalism look ugly. Perhaps without knowing it, cover illustrators use the “scare ‘em to make ‘em look” strategy.

Have any of you seen highly positive images of humans-conceived-as-physical or humans-of-the-high-tech-future? Is so, I’d love to see them.

Roger Christan Schriner

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Whacking on Materialism, with the Ugly Stick

I’ve posted a few entries lately about materialism – not the love of owning material goods, but rather the physicalist idea that every entity is made out of matter. Many people react quite negatively to this notion. To them, the claim that the mind is the brain, or even the idea that mind and brain are intimately connected, seems to undermine our dignity, reducing us to the status of “mere” machines.

Perhaps that’s why some books about mind and brain display morose, robot-like creatures on their front covers. Consider the dust jackets of Jean-Pierre Changeux’s Neuronal Man and Michael Tye’s Consciousness Revisited, amazingly similar even though they were published a quarter of a century apart. Both depict a human head with the brain exposed. Both faces seem passive and morose. Both are rendered in gloomy grays and purples. Tye’s robotic fellow is lying face-up, his bright red eye staring blankly, his visible brain filled with sequences of ones and zeroes. Who would want to be like that?

Here’s Tye’s book:

The cover to Neuronal Man has changed since I bought it years ago. To me the face on the older edition seems empty and sad, whereas the newer countenance seems grim and depressed. Neither one is appealing. Here’s the current edition:

These robotic images could serve as Exhibit A for Harold Morowitz, who warns us that “the way we respond to our fellow human beings is dependent on the way we conceptualize them in our theoretical formulations. If we envision our fellows solely as animals or machines, we drain our interactions of humanistic richness.” (See “Rediscovering the Mind,” in Douglas Hofstadter and Daniel C. Dennett, eds., The Mind’s I, p. 41.)

But not everyone thinks that machine analogies are degrading. Douglas Hofstadter asks, “Why don’t you let the word ‘machine’ conjure up images of dancing patterns of light rather than of giant steam shovels?” (See “A Coffeehouse Conversation,” in The Mind’s I, p. 86.)

Beware of depressing art and poetry, disguised as philosophy.

Roger Christan Schriner

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Is Physicalism on the Ropes?

What is mind? Never matter. What is matter? Never mind! – attributed to Eighteenth Century philosopher George Berkeley

Is reality wholly material, or are some real things non-material? Theists and atheists tend to answer this question rather differently. This issue also ties into the mind-body problem. Is the mind part of the brain? Is it separate from the body, perhaps some sort of immaterial soul? Or is it both material and non-material, and if that’s true how do these two components interact with each other?

For several decades most philosophers have found it rather obvious that all realities are physical. One way to think of physicalism is to imagine an all-powerful creator “laying out all the microphysical phenomena throughout the universe. Having done so, and having settled all the microphysical properties of those phenomena along with the basic microphysical laws, God did not then have to ask Himself ‘Shall I make lightning flashes or caterpillars or mountains or human beings?’ No further work was needed on His part.” (Michael Tye, Consciousness Revisited: Materialism without Phenomenal Concepts, pp. 25-26)

Tye is not advocating theism in this passage. It is fairly common for philosophers to invoke the concept of God in a metaphorical sense, to highlight some conceptual issue, and Tye is using the God-concept to clarify what physicalism is all about. By making all the particles of the cosmos and deciding how they would interact, a Creator would have ensured that lightning flashes, caterpillars, etc. would also exist.

But we aren’t so sure when it comes to consciousness. Some would suggest that: “Even if God had no further work to do in determining whether there would be a tree in place p or a river in place q or a neuron-firing in place r, say, having settled all the microphysical facts,” if God wanted to make sure that humans had conscious experiences, “God did have more work to do” (p. 31).

This issue has been hotly debated in academic circles, especially since the 1970s. Thomas Nagel, Frank Jackson, David Chalmers, Joseph Levine and many others have offered arguments suggesting that it seems odd or even impossible for consciousness to be physically constituted.

Most of those who question the coherence of physicalism still think all of reality is material. We just aren’t sure how to make sense of this fact when it comes to mental processes. Jerry Fodor puts it bluntly: “Nobody has the slightest idea how anything material could be conscious. Nobody even knows what it would be like to have the slightest idea about how anything material could be conscious. So much for the philosophy of consciousness.” (

This tide of criticism seems to be rising. In 2010 Oxford University Press published The Waning of Materialism, edited by Robert Koons and George Bealer. Some of the 23 contributors advocate substance dualism: mind and matter are two very different kinds of stuff.

I’m sharing this information because atheists and agnostics sometimes assume that anyone who questions physicalism is an idiot. But there are sophisticated reasons for challenging the materialist paradigm. I’m exploring this issue in my current book-in-progress. More about that later.

Roger Christan Schriner

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Physicalism and the Puzzle of Qualia

In my previous posting I discussed Julian Baggini’s “articles of 21st-century faith,” an attempt to find common ground among many atheists and progressive theists. It seems to me that these articles require an agreement that nothing exists except physical reality, and I see this as overly restrictive.

Let’s be clear: I’m not just talking about the fact that some things are hard to describe in physical terms. For instance, I have heard people object to physicalism on the grounds that it excludes love, beauty, and humor. How could physics ever describe the thrill of a kiss or the experience of seeing the Mona Lisa? But in principle, such phenomena could be described in terms of the behavior of elementary particles, if we knew absolutely everything there is to know about such particles. We do not, so we are not remotely close to expressing love as an equation, but ultimately it might be possible.

And it might not be. I’ll mention two problems with the physicalist viewpoint. In both cases I will state my opinion, and also admit that I may be wrong.

First, scientists have not figured out how to deal with paranormal phenomena such as extrasensory perception, precognition (predicting the future in certain peculiar ways), and telekinesis (moving objects with one’s mind). I am a longstanding skeptic about such matters, but I admit that there is some evidence for paranormal events. I am not persuaded, but my skeptical stance may turn out to be mistaken.

If such events actually occur, a completed physics would probably explain them naturalistically. But this is not certain. Paranormal processes might involve mysterious entities that could never be understood by the scientific method. That seems unlikely, but it is might be the case.

Second, scientists and philosophers are not sure how even in principle we could ever have a physical explanation of conscious experiences. That’s part of the reason it seems odd to imagine explaining love, humor, etc. in terms of quarks and quanta.

Why do philosophers think it’s so hard to know how experiences could be brain events? Is it because the brain is so complicated that we don’t know where to find consciousness in its tangled circuitry? Is it because conscious and unconscious processes are so tightly intertwined that we aren’t sure how a brain scanner could ever tell which is which? Those are indeed difficult problems, but academicians seldom lie awake at night wondering about them. In fact, philosopher David Chalmers calls these the “easy problems” of consciousness, not to make light of them but to contrast them with what he calls The Hard Problem.

The hard problem of consciousness is ‘hard’ in the sense that once we understand the issue we have no idea how to even begin addressing it! We are perpetually stuck at square one.

There are actually several understandings of the hard problem and several ways of expressing it. But in brief, even though there is a lot of evidence that conscious experiences are brain activities, it seems difficult or impossible to see how this could be true of so-called qualia, sensory qualities such as our experiences of colors, sounds, tastes, touches, tingles, pains and pleasures.

As Colin McGinn writes in The Problem of Consciousness, “Neural transmissions just seem like the wrong kind of materials with which to bring consciousness into the world.” “What has matter in motion got to do with the way a rose smells? What is it that converts brain ‘gook’ into visual experience?”

I think we will be able to solve the hard problem. In fact, my current book project addresses this very issue. But having wrestled with this conundrum for twenty years, I am keenly aware that it might permanently elude physical explanation.

Those who think this problem is insoluble have two alternatives. (1) Conscious experiences are physical, but we cannot know how this is so. (2) Conscious experiences are non-physical.

Each of these options will be endorsed by highly intelligent and well-informed individuals. This is another reason the Articles of Twenty-First Century Faith should not require the acceptance of physicalism.

Roger Schriner

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