My personal fascination with the mind-body problem

I have always been interested in the big questions of life (philosophy, theology, ethics), and in why people think, feel, and act as they do (psychology, sociology, political science). Not surprisingly, introspection has been a hobby of mine. I recall that at one point during college I was wondering whether to take up a musical instrument. I decided I would rather focus my energies on a project in which I could be at the “keyboard” all day long, the project of noticing my thoughts, feelings, beliefs, desires, memories, daydreams, and anticipations.

In college I majored in religion, philosophy, and psychology, and then earned a doctorate in religion and an M.S. in family therapy. I had planned to be a minister, but after studying theology I drifted away from traditional religion. I became a Unitarian Universalist minister after learning that Unitarian Universalism welcomes people of all positive faiths and philosophies. I served congregations in Costa Mesa, Laguna Beach and Fremont, California, and my speculations about mind and brain found their way into sermons and classes in these settings.

Because many Unitarian Universalists are interested in science, no one is shocked when I suggest that the mind might be part of the brain. In fact many UUs are secular humanists (atheists or agnostics) who assume that all reality is ultimately physical. Others accept traditional theologies, and they have critiqued my ideas in helpful ways.

I also practiced psychotherapy for 25 years and in the 1980s I wrote some books about psychological issues. I love to study complicated and confusing topics, looking for ways to discuss them in clear and practical terms. I have loved reading about neuroscience and philosophy of mind, but I reached a turning point in 1992 when I read Consciousness Explained by Daniel Dennett. Dennett is an insightful thinker and a fine writer, but I found his book shocking. Like many others, I felt it should have been called Consciousness Explained Away.

I was especially irked by the way Dennett rejected the “theater of the mind” metaphor for consciousness. Ever since I attended Gestalt Therapy groups in the 1970s, I have felt that focusing on exactly what I am experiencing in this very moment, particularly my emotions and body sensations, is a gateway to self-understanding.

After grappling with Conscious Explained I joined the American Philosophical Association and immersed myself in contemporary philosophy of mind. I subscribed to journals, read many articles and books, and regularly attended conferences and colloquia.

Over time I have gained confidence in my work as an independent scholar, partly because my criticisms of Dennett have been similar to those of many scientists and philosophers. Even so, I must sheepishly admit that some of Dan’s key ideas now seem more plausible than they did at first. If I have made any progress toward solving the mind-body problem, I will have done so only by learning from those who have gone before me, including Daniel Dennett.

Roger Christan Schriner

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