“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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