“Illusionism” – Is Consciousness Real? My Upcoming Talk in Shanghai

I’ve just been notified that my proposal for a presentation on consciousness has been accepted by organizers of The Science of Consciousness, Shanghai, China, June 5-10. As I begin to draft my paper, I’ll share some passages on this site. Here’s the abstract of my paper, Dueling Skepticisms: Strong Fallibilism Versus Illusionism:

Are conscious experiences real or illusory? In particular, are sensations and perceptions such as pains and visual phenomena actual or fictional? Daniel Dennett and other eliminativists argue that these “qualitative” sensory experiences simply do not exist. Dennett’s eliminative materialism, along with several related approaches, has now been re-christened illusionism. A recent issue of Journal of Consciousness Studies was entirely devoted to this topic, featuring a lead article by Keith Frankish.

Frankish distinguishes strong illusionism, weak illusionism, radical realism, and conservative realism. I will support a version of realism that is radically skeptical and ontologically conservative – strong fallibilist realism. Although fallibilist realism maintains that qualitative sensory experiences are introspectively accessible, it also contends that we make important errors in thinking about such phenomena. Some of these errors may generate seemingly insoluble conundrums, such as the hard problem of consciousness and various explanatory gaps.

In advocating fallibilism I will show how this approach can close two particularly challenging explanatory gaps: (1) explaining how qualitative differences among our experiences could be constituted by differences among neural states and (2) explaining how neural states could constitute any sort of sensory experience whatsoever. In dealing with the second gap, I will consider some intriguing possibilities that involve the conscious interpretation of language. I will specifically consider the conscious cognitive states within an English speaker and a Mandarin speaker when they hear, respectively, the English sentence, “Welcome to Shanghai” and the similar Mandarin greeting, “Huānyíng guānglín Shànghai.” Surprisingly, reflecting upon language-interpretation sheds light on some of the deepest puzzles about the nature of consciousness.

Roger Christan Schriner

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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

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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