Checking In

I’ve finally completed the book that has consumed an astonishing amount of my time for the past three years – Your Living Mind: The Mystery of Consciousness and Why It Matters to You. It’s about contemporary philosophy rather than theology, but I suspect that many who have been interested in Theists & Atheists: Communication & Common Ground have also wondered about the amazing phenomenon of conscious experience. I’ll paste text from the book’s back cover below my signature line.

It may be a few weeks before I catch up enough with mundane matters to get back to blogging, but I look forward to resuming this blog and my other two:

Did God Really Say THAT!? A Blog about the Bible
The Mystery of Consciousness, and Why It Matters

Roger Christan Schriner

Your Living Mind was written for several kinds of readers.

Do any of these statements fit for you?

❁ You want to develop a well-crafted personal philosophy of life. Understanding consciousness is part of that quest.
❁ You want to learn about yourself, to know who and what you are.
❁ You have been interested in the “big questions” of philosophy and psychology, and you’d like to revisit this sort of reflection.
❁ You find it fascinating to learn about the mind and the brain.
❁ You have already explored contemporary consciousness studies, and you enjoy playing with new ideas about “philosophical zombies” and other enigmas.

This book confronts the most bewildering puzzles in philosophy of mind. You will find out how dedicated scholars have struggled with these riddles, apparently without success. You will also have opportunities to reflect and experiment yourself, and to evaluate the author’s proposed solutions. Your Living Mind explains subtle ideas in straightforward language, minimizing technical jargon. Issues are clarified with illustrations, diagrams, and specific examples.

Available on

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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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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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

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