The Pastor Strikes Back

My recent posts are based on a presentation I sometime make in which “Pastor Chris” debates “Dr. Schriner” about whether God exists. (I take both sides, wearing an ecclesiastical stole when Pastor Chris speaks.) So here is the pastor once again:

How sad that such a smart fellow as Dr. Schriner has to fall back on such outdated atheistic ideas. It is so “Twentieth Century” to proclaim that the grand march of science is closing every gap in our knowledge. Today new discoveries are opening up astonishing new mysteries! At one time we had no idea that the laws of nature are fine-tuned for the existence of life. Not all scientists have realized this is so, but it is revolutionary to hear brilliant physicists say the cosmos seems precisely designed to make our existence possible. Schriner quotes Bradley Monton to dispute this idea, but Monton himself is an atheist, so he’s hardly unbiased! Continue reading

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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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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.” (http://web.media.mit.edu/~minsky/eb4.html)

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

To subscribe to Theists & Atheists: Communication & Common Ground, click the “Follow” link on the upper left.