If you’d like to understand what philosophers of mind are vigorously, and sometimes heatedly, discussing, it’s important to understand qualia. Qualia rhymes with Somalia and the singular is quale, pronounced qua-lay or qua-lee. Although it may be an unfamiliar word, it’s a fairly simple idea. Qualia are the qualities of sensory experience. Here’s a list of examples from my book, Your Living Mind: The Mystery of Consciousness and Why It Matters to You (p. 73):

❁ Color experiences – pale pinks, bilious greens, the electric blue of a peacock’s feathers

❁ Auditory phenomena – frog chirps, fingernails on a chalkboard, the rumble of thunder

❁ Smells – garlic, cigar smoke, sizzling fajitas

❁ Tastes – popcorn, overripe bananas, kung pao chicken

❁ Tactile qualia – paper cuts, rib-tickles, foot rubs with warm lotion

❁ Internal sensations – spine-tinglings, mal de mer, the overwhelming rush of an orgasm

Think about your own vivid sensory perceptions – the snap of firecrackers on July 4th, the scent of oranges, the flavor of peppermint ice cream. Each of these perceptions is experienced as a quale, a special quality that is difficult or impossible to describe. How would you explain the smell of rotten eggs, for instance, to someone who has never been able to smell anything? “Well, umm … it’s just … like that. It has a certain quality that I can’t put into words.”

Unfortunately, discussions about qualia are confusing and contentious, and part of the problem is the crazy-quilt complexity of scholarly terminology. “It is hard to find a description of qualia with which two (let alone all) philosophers would agree …”* In any case, it’s hard to explain how sensory qualia such as pains, tastes, and color experiences could exist within a brain.

We describe some aspects of experience quantitatively. I am now visually experiencing two drinking glasses on my desk and three books. The bigger glass seems about 25% larger than the smaller one, and one book looks twice as far away as the other two. But we wouldn’t say red is twice as low as pink or that blue is a little faster than green. We can compare colors in terms of lightness and darkness, but the quality of the color itself is just its own quality, period. Similarly, the sound of a flute has a special quality, and we aren’t sure how to speak of it quantitatively. A musical tone vibrates at a certain number of cycles per second, so we can talk about a sound wave in quantitative terms, but that’s not a sound-experience. To understand what all the fuss is about, we need to understand that qualia are the qualities of our experiences. If experiences are brain events, we need to understand how the qualities that we experience relate to the quantities that science investigates.

Make sense? If not, send me a question or comment and I’ll reply.

Roger Christan Schriner

* Fred Dretske 1995, p. 73.


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

Consciousness and Freedom, on schrinerbooksandblogs.com

In my new book, Your Living Mind, there’s a chapter on Consciousness and Freedom. I’ve now posted that on my web site, Schrinerbooksandblogs.com. See:


I’ll soon be adding a lot more content to that web site page. Stay tuned.

Roger Christan Schriner

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:

Returning to Consciousness

I’m returning to this blog after taking several weeks off. Ironically, I stopped writing posts because I was too busy working on a book about consciousness, Your Living Mind: The Mystery of Consciousness and Why It Matters to You. The book should be out this summer.

In my last post I talked about the debate between externalists and internalists. When we speak of conscious experiences, are we talking about our own states of mind or are we talking about things in the outside world that we’re consciously perceiving?

And could it be both? Could one and the same experience tell us about both the outside world and our own minds? Obviously it’s possible to detect two or more things by focusing on the same item. Think about a TV newscast. By watching it, you are monitoring (1) its content (what it’s telling you about world affairs), (2) the screen images which help convey this content, and (3) with old low-resolution TVs, the dotty little pixels that make up these images.

So a single stream of stimuli can tell us about several different things. Could it be that a multiple-detection process of some sort is occurring in consciousness? Perhaps sensory experiences are in some sense both inner and outer states (or processes). Even so, we run into trouble if we use this approach to answer the basic question, what are conscious experiences made of? Contrast these two claims:

❁ Seeing a giraffe gives me information about both what’s happening inside of my head and what’s happening in the outside world. I can tell that I am perceiving this animal in a certain way (seeing it clearly or fuzzily, for example), and I can also tell that there’s a giraffe in front of me.
❁ The stuff that I detect when I pay attention to the experience of seeing a giraffe is both the giraffe itself and a visual experience of that beast.

The second claim, which says what this experience is, just sounds silly. Tall spotted creatures and mental events in human heads are very different kinds of things. How could one thing actually be both of these? Compare: “I now see a red shape on my TV screen. This shape is both a screen image of a fire truck and the fire truck itself.” It seems more fitting to say that I’m seeing a screen image which I imaginatively experience as a fire truck.

If this tall creature I see IS both a visual state and a humongous mammal, we must be dealing with two different senses of “is.” So in what ways could this experience be something inside of the experiencer, and in what ways could it be something out there in the world? What do you think?

Roger Christan Schriner

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What This Blog is About

“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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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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