Opening a Window into Philosophy of Mind

No doubt there are still cocktail-party conversations about Descartes, Nietzsche, and Sartre, but I wonder how many Bordeaux-sipping intellectuals discuss Dretske, Nagel, and Kripke. The relationship between academic philosophy and the general public is nearly non-existent. Professors mostly speak to each other, in a technical language full of confusing terms with multiple definitions – “qualia,” “intentionality,” “representationalism,” “epiphenomenalism,” and so on. A few, such as Daniel Dennett and Nicholas Humphrey, have written for a wider audience, but most seem comfortable remaining within their own ivory towers.

I have been a member of the American Philosophical Association for nearly 25 years, reading books and professional journals and regularly attending conferences and colloquia. So I have spent years as the proverbial fly on the wall, listening to professorial interchanges within these lofty retreats. I am impressed with the need for competent philosophical analysis, and one of my life goals is to open a window into contemporary philosophy of mind for interested non-philosophers.

But I have sincerely wondered whether this is possible. When I tell people about my book, Your Living Mind: The Mystery of Consciousness and Why It Matters to You, I cannot sum it up in a sound bite. In the book itself, it takes the Introduction and the first five chapters just to explain the key problems.

Last Sunday, however, I had a very encouraging experience. I presented Part One of a workshop called Your Mysterious Mind: New Insights into Baffling Enigmas at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto. The program concludes with Part Two on February 15. About 35 showed up, an excellent turnout for an early Sunday afternoon program, and participants seemed interested and engaged.

It was especially heartening to see that some attendees had an intuitive feel for the problem of consciousness and its possible solutions. One person (“K”) dealt with Frank Jackson’s Mary-scenario by proposing what academicians call the ability hypothesis – after seeing colors for the first time, Mary acquires new abilities but does not acquire new facts. “M” suggested that sensory experiences are memories, perhaps implying that they involve cognitive responses to recent (not current) perceptual inputs. And “E,” who has a strong science background, wondered whether some consciousness-conundrums are merely pseudo-problems. I could imagine Daniel Dennett cheering her on: “Right! There isn’t any special Problem of Consciousness. There just seems to be.”

I’m under no illusions that conveying contemporary philosophy of mind will be easy, but I am now more hopeful that my project will make a positive difference.

Roger Christan Schriner

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3 thoughts on “Opening a Window into Philosophy of Mind

  1. Hi Roger,

    This is Martin. And thank you again for a thoroughly enjoyable, informative and inspiring Sunday afternoon last week. I believe many of the problems in discussing Philosophy of mind come from us not establishing nor often even being aware of and accepting the foundational axioms (beliefs) of the reality of the subject (ie what mind is, what self is, and where they are in reality), and many of these probably derive from the fact that we have no nerve endings in the brain and therefore no objective/sensed experience of ourselves and our world in mind, in reality.

    I believe then if we start with and accept the belief/axiom that we are a living process within our living brain (ie part of the 100 billion living neurons and 100 trillion living connections of our brain), within a world which is a growing integration of conscious and sub-conscious memories systems (also in reality part of our living brain), and that the most important of these memories are our past experienced memories, and that these memories continuously grow while we are conscious (eg you now and me when i wrote this, and maybe now if I am awake now) from our continuously changing 5 senses of reality; then we can begin to have a rational discussion about ourselves and our mind; this mind. Because we are now placing the subjects under discussion (ie placing ourselves and our world in mind and our memories and experiences) in a reality based on sound science.

    This axiom, however, if one accepts it, does then have some further fundamental self evident truths, I believe, which we must further accept
    – we are conscious of and know of only past experiences “of” reality, that is, reflections of reality (growing and integrated past experiences forming our objective/sensed world in mind largely subconsciously within this brain here).
    – All knowledge and science and measurement systems therefore derive from these reflections, and these worlds they form, within our human brains
    – all abstracted languages and words (yes each and every one of these you are reading now), imagined, and associated with meanings of information within our world in mind, are formed within the brain and are associated with this reflective world (of truths), and not with reality directly.
    – In truth all then that is truth and that we can know and can communicate, is a growing integration of growing past reflections of reality, and not actually reality itself.
    – so we, our past experiences, knowledge, science and all words and languages (including mathematics and music) are realized and formed and held within these minds which are reflective of reality, and are in reality actually part of 100 billion living neurons (although until recently and progress in the field of neuroscience we had no way to know this and so no way to be aware of it and so to be aware of ourselves as we exist, here and now, in reality).

    I think if we can each start with these axioms of belief regarding the reality of our self, our mind and its contents ie if we turn ourselves outside in, and put this “genie of mind and self” back firmly in the “bottle of brain”, here where it really is and where it really belongs according to all the neuroscience I have read (and where furthermore all experience and truth and knowledge and science and measurements must therefore exist in reality too), then discussion of “self” and “mind” and “truth” and “world” and “knowledge” and, in fact “reality” as a whole, becomes so much easier. ie if we accept the truth of our reflective nature, and that we are in truth part of a reality which is part of billions of living neurons which we cannot ever experience because our nerve endings look beyond us, and not within us) – with the extremely important exception of emotions, which I reference briefly at the end.

    The question then however becomes (speaking as a process within these 100 neurons I have never experienced, contained within a complex living and changing conscious and sub-conscious world I have never experienced the reality of either) not just “what is consciousness and what is this world I live in”, but also what on Earth might the rest of reality be like also, if I wasn’t trapped within experiencing only reflections of it within a brain I have no direct experience of, as the reality it truly is ?

    And the two subjects I have not touched on to any degree above, but which are very important and deserve a mention, are
    – our emotions (I believe we arguably DO experience directly (ie not reflectively) the reality of our emotions, as they form in reality in here with us and we experience them in here, unlike our objective experienced (sensed) and reflective world).
    – the future and how I believe it exists as projected possibilities from our past experience and past languaged world.
    Because I think we first need to agree on the fundamental axioms above and the consequences of accepting these axioms, from the position of our sensed and objective experienced world in mind, before trying to tackle intellectually the subjects of emotion and future within this world in mind – for they are much more subjective – both literally and conceptually 🙂

    Cheers,
    Martin.

  2. PS I didn’t even get to consciousness did I ? I think, based on my reading of understanding of human memory and neuroscience, we have 3 main memory systems, and so three categories of past memories, future possibilities, and knowledge.
    – procedural memory – muscle/motor memory – speaking, walking, driving, playing instruments, typing etc etc – subconscious
    – Conscious memory- experience – sensed and emotional – knowing where I live, and work, and that I find women attractive, like strawberries and don’t like olives.
    – symbolic memory – knowledge I hold that is gained through language – eg the earth is 5 billion years old, my parents are planning to come in April. April follows March. Corporations. Government etc etc (we could call symbolic memory “super conscious” memory in a way, as it is built upon conscious memory but can also be fictional, fantastic, and just plain false – as to some extent can our conscious memory of course).

    I think all three come in the form of past (based on experience and evidence), knowledge (past experience/evidene integrated into common truth) and future possibilities (derived from knowledge in turn derived from experienced and/or evidenced past).

    I am not quite sure where to place memory we acquire from audio and video recordings of reality. This is like a “virtual experience” stored on tape or in a hard drive, and then downloaded into “real living experience” when we watch or hear them. I think it is a brand new form of conscious memory. Not sure though if we should give it a separate category – I think we probably should as we do recognize the difference in here – ie I saw the demonstration on TV versus a was in the demonstration. Brian Williams has got into a lot of trouble recently by confusing (or did he conflate) the two within his mind – but did he really or is he not telling the whole truth regarding what he truly remembers 🙂

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