Your Living Mind

I apologize for neglecting this blog. Ironically, the thing that has prevented me from continuing it was the fact that I have been writing a book about consciousness! I’ve now finished my sixth and most challenging book project, Your Living Mind: The Mystery of Consciousness and Why It Matters to You. 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 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 Amazon.com:
http://www.amazon.com/Your-Living-Mind-Mystery-Consciousness/dp/0984584013/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1412313451&sr=1-1&keywords=your+living+mind+schriner

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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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Right-there! The “Presence” of Conscious Experience

In my previous post I mentioned that some experiences seem present in a way that’s hard to explain or even articulate. This is especially true of perceptions and sensations. One way to grasp this slippery notion is to realize that a great deal of the time we are noticing what’s passing through our minds in a way that seems like a discovery of something tangible. We do this continually while we are awake and even when we’re dreaming.

Obviously many of our beliefs are not based on noticing anything tangible. At any moment during daylight hours I have good grounds for believing that somewhere in Chicago a family is having a nasty argument. Out of a population of over a million people, the odds of that are overwhelming, even though I am not now actually observing a family squabble. Similarly, I have various opinions about what is happening in my own unconscious mind, and the conscious minds of others, although I do not notice, detect, or monitor these mental states. On the other hand, I notice my own sensory experiences as they occur. They seem right-here-now. It also seems as if I can examine them, in a way that’s a bit like examining a physical object. I can think about Paris while I’m in Madrid, but when I’m actually experiencing Paris I see, hear, smell, feel, and taste that city.

Manifest experiences seem to be obviously real. It would be strange to say, “I am conscious of a searing pain in my left side, but I’m not sure if I am now in a pain-state.” Normally the manifest presence of pain tells you this pain is real – real in your mind regardless of whether any pain-signals are coming from your body. It is as if all sensuous experiences contain an added message. “I’m here, I’m real, pay attention to me!” they insist, and we have little choice but to obey.

The manifest presence of experience seems to be one of the key differences between conscious and unconscious entities. We do not think paper clips or hot dogs have states in which something is manifest to an experiencing self. But try to figure out how the brain – or any information-processing system whatsoever – could constitute a state that is manifestly present. Chronic insomnia is a possible side effect of actually attempting to solve this conundrum. But it’s extremely important, and many puzzles about the nature of consciousness are satellites of this basic enigma.

Notice that when philosophers and scientists write about consciousness, they are often talking a about mental states that seem present to an experiencing self. But we are also conscious of our own thoughts, and many scholars say that thoughts are not manifestly present, at least not in the same way as sensations and perceptions. More about that on another day.

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

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