What This Blog is About

“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science.” – Albert Einstein

Even in the hurried pace of everyday life, we sometimes find ourselves stunned by fundamental mysteries. Three of these basic enigmas are especially astounding. The first mind-boggler is that anything exists at all. The second wonder is the appearance of living creatures. And the third jaw-dropper is that some living creatures have conscious experiences.

The second mystery, of course, is closely related to the third. When people speak of the wonder of life, they are often thinking of the wonder of being conscious. Daisies and dandelions are amazing even if they lack a single shred of sentience, but adding consciousness to living matter is the slickest trick of all.

Consciousness is such a familiar miracle that we usually ignore it, but the flow of our own experiences is at the core of our sense of self. We seem to be intimately entangled in this complex stream of consciousness, in every waking moment and even in our dreams. It seems as if conscious awareness is the very essence of our existence. As Christof Koch puts it, “Without consciousness there is nothing” (Conscious Experience, p. 23).

Consciousness is also at the heart of our sense of value. We value conscious beings in a way that is radically different from the way we value other things. Many of us would agree that it is wrong to needlessly destroy a conscious creature. By contrast, when I drink a glass of water I assume that nothing morally reprehensible happens to this liquid when it plunges into an acid bath in my stomach. Since most of us would say that the water is not conscious, we do not think it suffers in being consumed. Presumably then, the difference in value between me and the glass of water involves the fact that I am conscious and it is not.

So what is this stuff?

This blog will be especially concerned with vivid and sensuous aspects of experience – pleasures, pains, sounds, smells, tastes, touch-sensations, and the rich array of colors and shapes that make up what we see. We would not enjoy these perceptions if we were rocks, baseballs, or Deep Blue, the chess-playing computer. We will consider a question that curious minds of all ages have contemplated: “What is this strange stuff that’s inside of my head?” (And as we will see, some philosophers maintain that “this stuff” is not inside of us after all.)

Roger Christan Schriner

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The Mystery of Consciousness, and Why It Matters

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. Thanks for your interest in The Mystery of Consciousness, and Why It Matters.

Roger Christan Schriner

To subscribe to this blog, click the “Follow” link which is typically located on the upper left.