This post is based on a talk I gave recently at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Los Gatos: Learning from Our Losses, to Better Love Our World:
Kermit the frog was right. “It’s not easy being green.” Not on Earth Day, 2018, after all the setbacks suffered by the interdependent web of existence. And on this Earth Day I’m going to focus on the overall political and human context within which Unitarian Universalists try to better love our world. I want to talk about politics because environmental concerns have been swept away in an astonishing political hurricane. And all of this directly ties into our great human journey.
I myself tend to be politically progressive, but I also appreciate moderates and conservatives who support humanitarian values. Sometimes our country has made good progress from a creative tension between liberals and conservatives, as when liberals suggest new programs for helping disadvantaged Americans and conservatives warn us about ways that these programs are poorly designed or even counterproductive. But instead of a creative tension today, we have “my way or the highway.”
And even though I’ll be talking about party politics, I don’t presume to say how you should vote. For one thing, someone I criticize quite sharply might run against someone you think is even worse. But before we turn to that pleasant topic, let’s reflect upon the very big picture, our unique and challenging human condition.
In April of 2013 I preached a sermon here called Graduates of Eden, and it was about human nature. I stated that our mental and physical nature fitted us well for living in small bands of hunter-gatherers. When food was plentiful this was at times a sort of Eden. And we didn’t get kicked out of this Garden of Eden because we were naughty. We did so well in our prehistoric “Eden” that we graduated. We grew into larger, more complicated societies. Our human accomplishments transformed the human world, but human nature is still fitted to the old world that we lost. And I mentioned three crucial mismatches between human nature and the new world we have created. First, we are easily confused by complexity, and our lives are more and more complex. Second, we are tribal creatures, who love those who are on “our team,” but often ignore or attack outsiders. And third, we are generally oblivious to problems that develop slowly – such as climate change.
Today I’ll add one more item to this list: our obsession with dominance. One day while reading about dominance hierarchies among monkeys I had one of those AHA moments like a lightbulb over my head. I suddenly realized that a huge amount of human behavior is strongly shaped by our love of dominance. Dominance involves who wins and who loses, who’s “right” and who’s “wrong,” who’s “good” and who’s “bad.” Have you noticed how often people argue about issues that could be resolved without acrimony? But without an argument, how are we going to jockey for position on the ladder of domination?
So we try to oversimplify complexity, we divide ourselves into tribes, we ignore problems that develop slowly, and we make domination a great big deal. In all of these ways, we are being faithful to inner biological imperatives. We humans are not evil or stupid, by and large. But we are dangerously successful.
No wonder it’s not easy being green. No wonder, in 2018, we’re such a long way from Eden. But many of us are trying to correct the mismatch between our biological programming and today’s planetary crises. And we can carry out this good work with positive attitudes, so we don’t get discouraged and give up.
My first suggestion is that we should just assume that humans have huge challenges that we’re not good at solving. Let’s stop being so shocked that people are often clueless and destructive – sometimes including ourselves. OF COURSE we have big troubles. The modern world is too complicated for us. Of course we love it when our leaders feed us solutions that are charmingly simple and ridiculously wrong. And some leaders actually believe there are simple solutions. As one of them said in dismay, “Nobody knew health care could be so complicated.”
Recently I received an email mentioning a web site that advocates action to reduce global warming and climate change (https://skepticalscience.com/argument.php). The site lists 197 arguments by those who deny that the climate is changing catastrophically, and refutes each of them with factual information. I appreciate this information, but let’s be careful here. Getting into detailed discussions of issues like whether cosmic rays are warming the Earth may be the wrong approach – because most people either cannot or will not deal with complicated details.
It’s often possible to tell the truth by saying something that’s simple but significant. For example, if you were driving and came to a blind intersection, where buildings blocked your view to the right and to the left, would you zip through at 30 mph or would you slow down and look both ways? Obviously you’d slow down, even if you thought there wasn’t much cross traffic. Even if it’s a small risk, the cost of being wrong is too high. And with issues like global warming and rising sea levels, it takes a long time to “put on the brakes” and stop putting so massive amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. So even if there was only a small chance of disastrous warming, we should reduce these emissions just in case. And since most climate scientists say it is very likely that the Earth is warming, we’d be as foolish to ignore them as we would be to zoom through a blind intersection without slowing down.
By the way, people on both sides of the debate still argue with each other about whether climate change is mainly caused by human activity. That seems completely irrelevant. It’s another example of the way we frame things in terms of dominance. If we caused global warming that implies that we are bad. That brings up feelings we had when we were naughty children and some grownup scolded us. That makes us feel as if our status has gone down a few notches. That sets off our dominance alarms. Therefore we don’t want to face the possibility that we are to blame for climate change – so we deny that it’s happening. But I don’t much care if humans are the main cause. I mostly care about whether we can do something about it, whether human action can make a positive difference. And I’m sure it can.
I also want to suggest that we could stop being shocked that humans are so tribal. They are, they will always tend to be, and we will always have to help our children cope with this natural but often-counterproductive biological programming. Conservative columnist David Brooks recently reported a remarkable example: “As late as 2015, Republican voters overwhelmingly supported free trade.” Just three years later “they overwhelmingly oppose it. The shift didn’t happen because of some mass reappraisal of the evidence; it’s just that tribal orthodoxy shifted and everyone followed.” And no doubt this happens with Democrats too.
Cartoonist Dan Piraro lampooned our tribal tendencies in a Bizarro comic strip, in which a pollster asks: “OK last question: If you disagreed with all of your candidate’s positions, he spoke no known language, and he set fire to everything he touched, would you still vote for him?” Well, if he or she is on “our side,” maybe so.
So we can help ourselves stay positive by just assuming that people in general do not deal well with complicated modern problems, and stop being shocked at their ineptitude. I also want to explain how we can stay positive by welcoming painful truths that we have been avoiding. I want to explain how to do that, but I’m not sure I can. It’s tough to welcome disturbing realities, difficult to embrace disillusionment. It may help if we remember that we’ve all had to do that with various life issues, and we became stronger after losing illusions. And in politics, in the past couple of years, some veils of illusion have been ripped away. Certainly anyone who thought we have mostly overcome racism should lose that illusion now that we have elected a chief executive who makes statements that many people interpret as bigoted.
We have also become dis-illusioned about human gullibility. Political leaders have long known that they can get away with lying to the public, but now we see that a brash, confident candidate can lie a hundred times as much as we once thought possible and get away with it. Aleister Crowley:
Test the average man by asking him to listen to a simple sentence which contains one word with associations to excite his prejudices, fears or passions – he will fail to understand what you have said and reply by expressing his emotional reaction to the critical word.” I think this is also true of people who are far above “average.”
But here’s something hopeful. When the veil of illusion is ripped away so violently, people wake up and mobilize. Think of those bright, passionate, resourceful young people who led the March for Our Lives. Yes, humanitarian and environmental causes have suffered alarming losses, but that can be our alarm clock. It’s time to wake up, and “stay woke.”
We human beings are not inherently evil, but we are perilously successful. We are so good at creating complexity and so clueless about taming ancient tribal impulses and the drive toward domination. It’s not easy being green, but step by step we can become more skillful in loving Mother Earth. After all, there is no Planet B. I have no doubt that we have what it takes to move forward. Whether we will depends on each of us.
Secretary of State Tillerson reportedly called the President a moron, but he recently passed a cognitive exam with flying colors. So why does he keep making what a sportscaster would call “unforced errors?”
I am frankly surprised to hear that his frequent signs of stupidity are not due to cognitive decline. It certainly seems as if his blunders are getting worse. But by comparison, it may seem as if a pain I’m having now is worse than the pain I had yesterday – because I’m having it, not remembering it.
Trump’s recent insults to Haiti and Africa seemed like a new low, but he has a longstanding reputation for crude gutter language. And of course insulting people, and groups of people, is one of his personal hobbies. Even so, it was clearly stupid to speak of “shithole” or “shithouse” countries when Dick Durbin, a Democrat, was in the room. Did he forget who Durbin was, or not realize the consequences of someone reporting his vicious remarks?
As far as I know Trump has not had his head examined, with an X-ray or MRI. So he could have a brain tumor. But it may just be that deeply rooted personality defects distort his thinking – impulsiveness, arrogance, hostility, cruelty, a short attention span, and a love of risk-taking. Something is clouding his judgment. Continue Reading . . .
I recently read a wonderful column by the Rev. Amy Zucker Morgenstern, pastor of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto CA. She compares the behavior of DT, age 71, to the way her daughter acted at age 8. At 10, she’s outgrown it, but it seems very unlikely that DT ever will:
Roger Christan Schriner
I have recently posted a four-part series on the “fine-tuning” controversy on my theological blog, Theists & Atheists: Communication & Common Ground. Some scientists claim that if the basic physical laws of the universe had been just slightly different, intelligent life could never have existed. Is this true? And if it is, does that show that the universe was designed by God as a home for humans?
The series includes some comments from the Closet Atheist blog and some passages from my book, Bridging the God Gap: Finding Common Ground Among Believers, Atheist and Agnostics. Click here if you’d like to check it out.
Roger Christan Schriner
One of my web sites deals with “Biblical inerrancy,” the idea that a supernatural being essentially dictated the entire Christian Bible so that every word is true. To some of you this may seem like a silly idea. But at least in the United States, Biblical inerrancy or literalism has a big impact on the way people live, think, feel, and vote. Continue Reading . . .
I’ve recently run across a poignant communication from a college-age atheist to her Christian mother. It’s well-expressed and heartfelt, and it ties in with my blog on Theists & Atheists: Communication & Common Ground. See:
Roger Christan Schriner
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, 2017. [Update: The conference has been moved to San Diego, California.]
Here’s the abstract of my paper, Dueling Skepticisms: Strong Fallibilism Versus Illusionism. Continue Reading . . .
My reaction to the election of Donald Trump is intensely negative, but some people I respect did vote for him. I want to explain to Trump voters why many of us are appalled by this fellow, and I hope these comments will also be helpful to those who voted against him. Please forward this post if you find it valuable.
I don’t expect to convince people that I am right. I just want to explain why I feel so strongly.
Some of what I’ll say will be blunt, but if you voted for Trump you probably feel OK about blunt language. I’ll start with a short list of issues, followed by more details in the “footnotes.”
- Donald Trump loves to brutally humiliate people. “She had blood coming out of her wherever.” “Look at that face.”*1
Here’s a recent post on my blog, The Mystery of Consciousness, and Why It Matters, https://mysteryofconsciousness.wordpress.com/
I’ve recently read a fascinating book called Fifteen Dogs, by André Alexis. In this fanciful, rather sobering tale, two Greek gods make a bet with each other about what dogs would experience if they were given human intelligence.
Although this story doesn’t focus on the issues I’ve addressed in this blog, it does highlight the fact that every mind shapes reality in its own way. Their new brain power radically alters their world-view, and this is quite disturbing to some of these canines. In fact one dominant dog named Atticus insists that those in his pack mostly suppress their new intellectual gifts. Continue Reading . . .
I won’t be adding much to this site for a few weeks, due to a busy schedule of writing and attending conferences. I’ll be at an American Philosophical Assn conference in San Francisco 3/30-4/3, and I’m preparing a paper for The Science of Consciousness in Tucson AZ, 4/25-30.
On January 3 I gave a talk at our local Unitarian Universalist congregation. My theme was, roughly, the human condition, so I was painting with a very broad brush. Although this sort of essay inevitably oversimplifies, a big-picture sketch can be useful. I preceded the talk with some centering words:
This day is precious to us, and to all living creatures. This is a day to open ourselves to fulfillment. This is a day to soften the boundaries between ourselves and others, To touch what is real and see through our illusions.
This is a day to welcome life’s gifts, especially those that surprise us. It is a time to extend love and create value. This day will never come again. We can only know this day. It is the day when we live.
And here is the text of my talk:
The Trap, and the Quest
January 3, 2016
The new year is a good time to look at the big picture, and one way to do that is by asking – what are we and where are we?
Well, we are intelligent conscious beings in a vast cosmos that is evidently the home of other intelligent conscious beings. Just in our own galaxy we now estimate that there are at least 50 billion planets and at least 500 million of those planets are in the Goldilocks zone – not too hot, not too cold, just right for life. There are at least 100 billion galaxies in the universe, so if our galaxy is typical and if my math is correct, the number of potentially habitable planets might be not a billion, not a trillion, not even a quadrillion, but 50 quintillion! With 50 quintillion possibilities I have no doubt that there are intelligent beings out there. These unknown aliens are kindred to us – in an achingly poignant way – because they are probably struggling with the same issues that trouble homo sapiens. Another way of saying this is that each of these intelligent life-forms needs a Buddha.
“The Buddha” is a title given to someone who seems enlightened, and it’s often associated with a man named Gautama, who described our situation 2500 years ago in starkly simple terms. He proclaimed “the Noble Truth of Suffering: Birth is suffering; [he said] decay is suffering; illness is suffering; death is suffering.” (Just about everything is suffering!) He then traced the problem of suffering back to tanha, a Sanskrit word translated as thirst or craving. He said that if you get rid of this craving, you get rid of suffering, and he presented a program for doing just that. So Gautama realized that we are caught in a trap, and offered a way to be free.
The Buddha’s ideas about our human predicament seem more helpful to me than those of the Middle Eastern religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Now I have a lot of respect for these religions and they have a great deal to offer, but they give us the wrong diagnosis of our basic problem. They say we are trapped in suffering because of sin. Christian theology says Adam and Eve disobeyed God in the Garden of Eden and their mistake somehow embroiled the whole human species in a vast smoldering cauldron of collective guilt. But today most people reject the idea that someone’s sin infects that person’s descendants with guilt. I think inherited guilt is a confused and misguided notion, and mainstream Christianity is based on that idea. Now obviously there are many versions of Middle Eastern religion with many different views about inherited guilt, but they do usually emphasize that we suffer because we are sinners. But babies suffer and animals suffer. They do not sin, but they are also caught in the spider-web of craving, frustration, and distress.
Today science helps us see why this is so. Science shows that evolution has been driven by competition between predators and their prey. In a world where animals eat each other, developing higher levels of intelligence is rather helpful. Smarter critters survive. But evolution also injects craving and suffering into animal minds. Creatures are more likely to survive if they strive desperately to have lunch rather than to become lunch. Which reminds me of a story about religion and survival needs: A fellow was being chased by a bear through the woods, and he cried out, “Please God, make this beast into a Christian!” Whereupon the bear fell to its knees in front of the man, clasped its great paws in prayer, and spoke! “Oh Lord, please bless this food I am about to receive.”
Religion is one thing, but we all need to eat. Some philosophers and neuroscientists now believe that the struggle for survival has shaped consciousness itself. What it feels like to be human has been shaped by craving and suffering, attraction and repulsion, approach and avoidance. We are driven forward by rewards and punishments. Desire is the honey and suffering is the whip.
So the battle over teaching evolution in school involves our fundamental understanding of the human condition. And I believe that in our universe the only way that consciousness spontaneously appears is through evolutionary competition, through struggle, driven by craving. If that is true, then intelligent space aliens are just as much trapped by desire as we are.
In the big picture, we are part of an unfolding cosmic journey. The journey begins with unthinking, unfeeling matter. Through the struggle for survival, some of this mindless stuff turns into conscious organisms, caught in the push and pull of pain and pleasure. Some of these animals then become intelligent enough to notice that they are in a trap, and to imagine the possibility of liberation. This leads some of them to rebel against their own biological programming. And this act of rebellion against blind nature turns what had been a mindless journey into a mindful quest.
You and I are creatures of the quest. And we are situated at an awkward spot in our pilgrimage. Even fairly insightful humans are still enslaved by craving much of the time. There are moments of clarity when we slip out of our prison. But when we are enmeshed in an endless series of desires fulfilled and desires frustrated, these obsessions distract us from enjoying our blessings. We have only so much mental bandwidth, and if our heads are full of cravings, we don’t have much space to be free. We can get stuck in mindless melodramas, preoccupied with a dreary laundry list of obsessions that have little to do with anything real and lasting.
Many are obsessed with whether they’re OK, whether they are worthy, lovable, or attractive, whether they have high or low status. And we are so fascinated by conflict. I consider it a tiny step toward freedom that nowadays I find most action movies to be just nauseatingly tedious. Pow, pow, ow, ow, wow, wow, what now? And I hate the way the media focuses on the conflict dimension of politics. I found common ground with Ted Cruz during a debate among Republican presidential candidates when he scolded a CNBC interviewer, and said: “This is not a cage match … How about talking about the substantive issues people care about?” But the media thinks people are more interested in watching a good fight than in thinking hard about hard issues – and they’re probably right.
When our eagerness to fight each other is combined with our cleverness in constructing weapons, then we’ve really got trouble! Just as children cannot be trusted playing with matches, many grownups can’t be trusted with guns – much less with nuclear weapons. Right now the US and Russia still have intercontinental missiles tipped with hydrogen bombs pointed toward each other on hair-trigger alert. That is absolute madness. If any of us need proof that the human race is out of touch with reality, this is it! And if any of you are concerned about this bizarre situation, I’d love to talk with you.
So here we are, singing with Joni Mitchell, “it’s life’s illusions I recall. I really don’t know life at all.” But realizing that we are caught in illusion is a huge step forward. And we are looking for a way out, here on Earth and elsewhere. Perhaps right this minute, in some distant constellation, in some far-off hidden corner of the sky, other self-reflective beings are also asking, “How do we get out of this pickle?”
Now I don’t want to exaggerate how dreadful it is to be trapped in an endless cycle of craving and frustration. Humans have been smart enough to improve our situation through labor-saving devices, comfortable housing, modern medicine, health insurance, and chocolate-covered almonds. And we do get to enjoy magnificent experiences of meaning, wonder, and fulfillment. When we stop taking our cravings so seriously and loosen the grip of our own melodramas, we can savor these amazing human realities. One way to become more conscious of life’s gifts is to ask what we value in itself. What do we cherish for its own sake? It’s so easy to focus on things we do for the sake of other things. Yes, we want financial security, but for what? We want to save time, but what good do we get from the time we save?
The morning prayer I shared earlier reminds me to welcome life’s gifts, to see through my illusions, and to focus on what I treasure for its own sake.
So what do we value in itself? Love, of course. Romantic love, the love of lifetime partners, love for parents, children, family, friends. Love is useful as a means to other ends, but it’s also precious for its own sake. And what else? Music is another mind-boggling human reality we are so privileged to enjoy. Singing, playing an instrument – and dancing to music can put us into Paradise. There is also art and poetry. Enjoying what it’s like to have a physical body. Feeling a sense of accomplishment – fixing things, solving problems, completing projects. Being absorbed in a story, in a book or a movie. There is beauty – painting, sculpture, dance. Playing games. And what about humor? If I wanted to make a case that human consciousness is utterly miraculous and inexplicable I would start with the miracle of laughter, especially shared laughter with those we love. And let’s not forget the quiet, gentle times that can be so dear, like driving around at night looking at holiday lights.
There are many ways to find enough mental freedom to appreciate our blessings. Psychotherapy can help. If our brains have gone off-kilter, medications can be life-saving. And spiritual teachers have said we can find freedom by just observing our own mental machinery. Watch all of that mental stuff cranking repetitiously till we see that it’s just machinery. Nothing to get hung up about. The spiritual teacher Ram Dass suggested that we observe the mind by tuning in to an inner witness, a calm inner observer who watches what’s happening with total objectivity. The witness is a part of us that sees us clearly and does not judge us or get caught up in the drama. It’s like a selfie-stick that shows us from a distance, but that photographs us for accuracy rather than for vanity.
By seeing through the useless distractions of our own illusions, we can focus on what’s meaningful and lasting. For a few minutes now, let’s explore these themes in a meditation, and after the meditation I’ll resume the sermon. So I invite you to close your eyes, take a few deep breaths, and relax your body. Think about the anti-illusion strategies that work for you. Do spiritual disciplines help you? Counseling? Classes and workshops? Reading good books? Coming to Mission Peak? What helps you set aside distracting frustrations? And for you, what life-experiences are most precious and meaningful? Think back to the experiences I listed earlier, and others as well. What do you treasure for its own sake? If you could become more conscious of one kind of human experience, which one would you choose? And now take a few breaths to bring yourself back to this room, and open your eyes when you’re ready.
And now back to the sermon, but at coffee hour I would love to hear about your strategies for letting go of needless frustrations and focusing on what you value for its own sake. And I want to mention something new that I’ve been doing to set aside what distracts me so as to savor what really matters. I just say three simple words to myself: “Don’t miss this.” Don’t miss this moment of face-to-face communication. Don’t miss the sky on this wonderful winter day. Don’t miss the satisfaction of finishing a difficult project. These three words are brightening my life: Don’t miss this!
I’ve been speaking of the quality of our individual lives, but these ideas are also related to our common human endeavors. If we practice looking at ourselves objectively, using that spiritual selfie-stick, we can become more objective about our own political opinions, and our opinions about religion, culture, and morality – the basic building blocks of human community. Mostly I’m still trapped in my opinions about religion and politics but I have moments of lucidity when I see that my opinions are just … my opinions. No doubt I’m mistaken in some ways and I can learn a lot by being more open-minded. Then I can say, “I disagree with most everything that politician stands for, but she just said something brilliant! Or, “I often criticize Middle Eastern religion, but there is something beautiful in the Jewish faith, that is a fine insight of Christianity, those are helpful teachings from Islam.”
Even at this early stage of our quest, we are already starting to free ourselves from illusion, in both our inner lives and in the larger world. And importantly, the value of life is not determined by comparing the number of moments we feel good with the number of moments we feel bad, the amount of time we’re trapped versus the time we are free. It’s a matter of quality, not quantity. The wonderful times we treasure most dearly can outweigh many boring or unpleasant moments. During these little bits of heaven, we can agree with Robert Frost that “Happiness makes up in height what it lacks in length.”
And don’t just practice these principles yourself. Tell others, and especially teach your children. If the stories of the Buddha’s early life are true, I can see why he saw that suffering is a fundamental problem. As a child he was shielded from unhappiness, pampered and protected, and when his illusions were ripped away, it was shattering. I wonder what he would have thought of these words of the poet William Blake: “Joy and woe are woven fine, clothing for the soul divine. … And when this we rightly know, safely through the world we go.” Today we can show our children how to safely move through joys and woes, rolling along with life’s ups and downs. We can do this in our homes and through religious education. Perhaps some day all children will learn these principles in school, and that could change the world.
So that’s how I see the big picture. You and I are minds shaped from matter, speaking our truth from our particular point in a very long journey. Other good minds in other galaxies are on the same great quest. Their skin may be green and their feet may be webbed like ducks. But their deepest challenge is basically the same. We’re all trying to spend less time in the prison of craving and frustration, and more time treasuring life’s gifts. May 2016 be a year when all of us find much more freedom and joy!
On my web site, Theists & Atheists: Communication & Common Ground, I am presenting a series of talks in which I debate with myself about whether God exists. It’s called, Is God Real? Pastor Chris Debates Dr. Schriner.
Roger Christan Schriner
Note: This web site provides information about several of my books, my blogs, and other writings. Each book-page includes most of the first chapter or the Introduction. For more information click the About tab, above.
Here is a new entry from my blog, The Mystery of Consciousness, and Why It Matters — http://mysteryofconsciousness.wordpress.com
It seems obvious that consciousness is remarkable and mysterious, but we struggle to say just why it’s so special. In recent decades, however, several philosophers have managed to articulate some of the key features that make consciousness extraordinary. These new insights are intriguing, but they also make it hard to understand how consciousness could occur within a brain. In fact, some of them make it hard to understand how consciousness could occur at all, in any conceivable medium.
In the next few weeks I will explore some of these insights and conundrums. So here is the first of six persistent enigmas about consciousness:
In 1974 Thomas Nagel challenged behaviorism with an essay called “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” (Philosophical Review, October, 1984, pp. 435-50). According to behaviorists, if we want to learn about bats, we study the way bats behave. But what about knowing how it is to be the bat itself?
Nagel used bats as his example because they use an exotic navigation system called echolocation. They send out high-frequency shrieks and monitor the way these sounds are echoed back. Since we do not typically navigate in this way, we have a hard time guessing what it is like to have this sensory ability.
But Nagel wasn’t really talking about bats. He was using echolocation as a dramatic example. His real point is that for every conscious organism there is something it is like to be that organism. It is this what-it’s-like aspect of experience that is left out by behaviorism – and, some would say, by science itself.
If I knew everything that could possibly be known about you except what it’s like to be you, would my knowledge of you be complete?
Nagel drove home his point by writing that “to form a conception of what it is like to be a bat … one must take up the bat’s point of view” (p. 442). But if we can only understand an organism’s experience from its special vantage point, how can science ever understand consciousness? Science strives for objectivity, and Nagel declares that “any shift to greater objectivity – that is, less attachment to a specific viewpoint – does not take us nearer to the real nature of the phenomenon: it takes us farther away from it” (p. 445).
Nagel’s essay was only 15 pages long, but it has had an enormous impact. The phrase “what it’s like” now permeates consciousness literature. Some think this is an unfortunate development, and in my next entry I’ll consider the strengths and weaknesses of this revolutionary piece of scholarship.
Roger Christan Schriner
I am attempting to explain why philosophers find consciousness puzzling, dealing with this issue in ways that non-philosophers can understand. Last Sunday I tried again:
The Mystery of Consciousness Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Redwood City, August 9, 2015 © Dr. Chris Schriner 2015
“Is there any connection we could imagine to exist between certain movements of certain atoms in my brain on the one hand and, on the other hand, those facts that are basic, indefinable, and undeniable for me: ‘I feel pain, pleasure, I taste something sweet . . .’” – E. Du Bois-Reymond, 1872
“Nobody has the slightest idea how anything material could be conscious. Nobody even knows what it would be like to have the slightest idea about how anything material could be conscious. So much for the philosophy of consciousness.” – philosopher Jerry Fodor, 1992
Albert Einstein once said, “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science.” And of course one of the most mind-boggling mysteries of all is the fact that you and I have conscious experiences, experiences such as thoughts, perceptions, physical sensations, moods, emotions, dreams, and fantasies.
Today we’ll focus mainly on the qualities of sensory experience – the way coffee smells to you, the riveting pain of a toothache, the unique taste of butterscotch, the cool feeling of an ice cube against your skin, the quality of your experience of redness when you look at a ripe strawberry, and so on. Many of those who study consciousness find it very strange that the qualities of experiences would be states of a brain, and for over 20 years I have been obsessed with trying to solve this puzzle. I’ve read hundreds of articles and dozens of books on the subject, I’ve attended numerous conferences and colloquia and sometimes presented papers there, such as the Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness just last month. So this morning I want to take you on a sensory and conceptual adventure about mind and body, focusing on the question of whether the qualities of sensory experience could exist within a brain. To prepare for these reflections we can meditate on one kind of sensory quality, the experience of sound. So I invite you to close your eyes, take a few deep breaths, and begin focusing on the sounds that you are experiencing, the sound of my voice and anything else that you hear. Notice the quality of each sound just as “a sound.” I’ll make some different noises while you focus on what your mind is doing with the air-waves that are bouncing off of your eardrums. [Rattle, bells, rainstick.]
Now ask yourself, “could these sounds, as I experience them, occur within my brain?” Could they be patterns of neural activity? And now take a few deep breaths and open your eyes when you’re ready.
Woody Allen once remarked, “What a wonderful thing, to be conscious! I wonder what the people in New Jersey do.” But regardless of whether you’re from Manhattan, New Jersey, or anywhere else, it is wonderful to be conscious! Being conscious makes us quite different from teacups, snowflakes, lawnmowers, and those who disagree with us politically – but we struggle to say just what it is that makes consciousness special. What do you and I have that the average rock does not, and how would the rock have to change in order to wake up and have experiences?
This is important because the value of human life involves consciousness. 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 don’t think anything morally reprehensible happens to this liquid when it plunges into an acid bath in my stomach. I do not think the water is conscious, so I do not imagine it silently screaming, “Ahhhh!” – SSSSS! The difference in value between me and a glass of water involves the fact that I am conscious of pain and pleasure and it is not. Even pan-experientialists, people who believe that everything is conscious, often admit that human beings and other complex animals are conscious in a special way that gives us special value.
It has been maddeningly difficult to reconcile our understanding of consciousness with the way science thinks about the brain, and this has stirred up the old debate about how the mind relates to the body. There are several hotly-debated philosophical arguments that seems to show that consciousness cannot occur within the brain. Today I’m going to share some of these arguments against the idea that the conscious mind is in the brain, and one of them involves the story of Mary.
Imagine that we can peer into the distant future, hundreds of millions of years from now. Science, which today is only a few centuries old, has advanced so far in those millions of years that many fields of study are essentially complete. And biotechnology has expanded our memory and intelligence so that a single individual can understand everything there is to know about some complicated topic. One of these people is Mary, a neuroscientist who knows all that can ever be known about color experiences by studying their physical aspects. Mary has soaked up everything about the physical aspects of color perception that books, teachers, and computers can possibly tell her – but Mary has never seen a color. She grew up in a black-and white room, she was prevented from looking at her own skin, etc. Then one day she is released from her colorless home, free to see the whole range of hues for the very first time.
The story of Mary is a thought experiment proposed by a philosopher named Frank Jackson in 1982. Let’s say that the first colorful thing Mary sees is a garden full of dazzling red roses. So here is the crucial question: When she sees a red rose for the first time, does Mary gain new knowledge? Jackson claimed that she does, and he cooked up the Mary scenario because at that time he was a dualist. Dualists believe that mind and matter are two very different sorts of stuff, and Mary helped Jackson argue that mind is not matter. He claimed that after her release Mary gains new knowledge over and above the complete physical knowledge she already possessed. She learns what colors are as we experience them. So here is Jackson’s argument: If all things are physical, including our visual experiences, and Mary already knew everything about the physical aspects of color perception, then she would not have learned anything new when she walked into that garden. But if she did learn something new when she actually experienced color, then our experiences of color are not physical. They are not made of matter, and do not occur within the brain. And it does seem to many that when Mary saw those roses, she learned something new about the nature of color. In the past 30 years philosophers have responded to Jackson’s provocative one-page thought experiment with over one thousand scholarly papers and several books. Jackson himself eventually decided that his argument was flawed, but many believe he was right the first time and should never have recanted.
About the same time Jackson wrote about Mary, Joseph Levine proposed a puzzle called “The Explanatory Gap.” How could learning about the brain ever explain sensory qualities? They seem so different from patterns of neural activity. And how could we explain the fact that some brain event is one quality of experience instead of another? For instance, how could we ever know why a certain pattern of brain activity would turn out to be a reddish experience instead of a blueish experience? Or the experience of a bell-sound, or the distinctive fragrance of an agitated skunk? So even though Levine thinks experiences do occur within the brain, he doubts that we can ever explain how this is so. That’s the explanatory gap.
It seems as if neural activities and sensory experiences are two entirely different sorts of things, as if they belong in two different universes. Trying to use neuroscience to explain what colors, sounds, and pains are like when we experience them seems like trying to show how you could add up a column of numbers and get letters of the alphabet as your answer.
One more issue I’ll mention is what David Chalmers calls the Hard Problem of consciousness. David claims that even if we completely explained every function related to consciousness, everything that consciousness does, we would still fail to understand why the performance of these functions involves conscious experience. He even says it is conceivable that our brains could carry out all of their functions without having any experiences, and he highlights this problem by talking about an imaginary being that he calls a “philosophical zombie.” A philosophical zombie has a brain that is exactly like a human brain, and it acts just like we do, but the zombie has no experiences. If it screams due to touching fire, it is not actually feeling pain. If it says “yum” while eating ice cream, it does so without any taste-sensations. Even though this creature looks just like a normal human, inside the poor zombie’s brain all is dark, and all is silent. So if a zombie could, hypothetically, do everything we do without having experiences, why are we conscious? What’s the point? Was consciousness merely evolved so we could watch Dancing with the Stars?
So we have the Mary scenario, the explanatory gap, the Hard Problem, and philosophical zombies. After wrestling these problems for over 20 years I’ve come up with answers that give me some satisfaction, ideas about how consciousness could exist within the brain. Today I’ll suggest a way to deal with Mary in the rose garden, and the solution I’ll propose to that mystery also has implications for the other conundrums.
My basic approach is to say that we misjudge some aspects of our own experiences, and some of these misjudgments make us doubt that consciousness could live inside our heads. Because we are so intimately connected to our own sensory experiences, it may seem as if they are the things we know best. But the brain was not primarily evolved to inform us about our own minds. It’s mainly good at telling us what’s happening in the outside world and in our bodies. We do have some ability to detect our own emotions and moods, to know what we are thinking, and to reflect on the qualities of our experiences, but these are recently-evolved abilities and they’re not that well-developed.
I think we need to re-evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of introspection, and by introspection I just mean paying careful attention to one’s own stream of consciousness. So what is introspection good at, and what does it do badly? Well, we usually do pretty well at detecting sensory perceptions such as the experience of redness and noticing when those perceptions change. We are naturally skillful at monitoring these kinds of things by introspection, by looking within. But many scholars have thought that introspection also reveals the true nature of experiences, how they really are. They speak of having introspective access to the “metaphysical essence” of the color red, or the “ultimate ontology” of a toothache sensation.
I think this is a huge mistake. In fact I think that our own subjective judgments about the ultimate nature of experiences are almost worthless. For example, one might be good at knowing precisely when one’s experience of a toothache intensifies but utterly confused about the fundamental nature of this pain. Is pain a pattern of neural activities? Is it something that happens within an immortal soul? Is it spirit-energy or ectoplasm or who-the-heck-knows-what? Is it just an illusion? I don’t think introspection tells us much about this issue.
Here’s an example of a mistake about the ultimate nature of our own experiences. Based upon introspection, many people have claimed that intense pain always includes unpleasantness, meaning that there is something about the nature of agony that makes us want it to stop. But there’s a rare syndrome caused by strokes called pain asymbolia. “When burnt or pinpricked, asymbolics deny that their experience is unpleasant . . .” They show no sign of wanting to withdraw or cry out, but they say they are experiencing pain. They “experience a sensation which they identify as pain even though it is not intrinsically unpleasant . . .”
One woman had a lobotomy as a treatment for extreme chronic pain. When the surgeon followed up with her, years later, she said that the pain was still the same as before, but after the surgery it did not bother her. “In fact, it’s still agonizing” she said, “But I don’t mind.” “Similar experiences of pain without unpleasantness have been also reported by meditators and those in a hypnotic trance, e.g. during dentistry …” It is, of course, difficult to know whether the quality of the pain they experienced after treatment is the same as it was previously. What is clear is that these patients testify that they are experiencing states with a painful quality that is the same as or similar to pain states they have had before, and that these current pain states do not bother them.
(The above quotes are from Bain, D. “The Imperative View of Pain,” Journal of Consciousness Studies, September/October, 2011, Vol. 18, No. 9-10, pp. 164-85; and Fink, S. B. “Independence and Connections of Pain and Suffering,” Journal of Consciousness Studies, September/October, 2011, Vol. 18, No. 9-10, pp. 45-66.)
So introspection may seem to tell us that unpleasantness is obviously part of what pain is, but it is possible to have severe pain without having any impulse to avoid the pain. We thought introspection showed us something obvious about the essential nature of pain, and we were wrong.
Actually, looking within at our own experiences presents very ambiguous evidence about their true nature. Sensory phenomena do not wear little name tags that announce what kind of entity they really are. And it is just pitiful to see brilliant scholars flatly contradict each other about the “obvious” nature of experiences. Based on introspection, people have confidently said that conscious experiences are: non-physical, not located within space, constituted by a spiritual substance, part of a cosmic mind, part of the mind of God, or not divisible into smaller components. But for every scholar who asserts one of these ideas, there’s another who says, “That’s nonsense!” This crazy cacophony of conflicting opinions suggests that evidence from introspection about the nature of consciousness is ambiguous and unreliable.
This is one way to understand the puzzle of Mary. When Mary exclaims, “Aha! That’s what this red color is like,” it may seem as if she has encountered a new kind of reality that books could never have taught her. She experiences what redness IS. But if Mary cannot detect the ultimate nature of experiences by just focusing her mind on them, then she does not know that she has encountered some weird new something-or-other that science can never comprehend. All she can say is that she is now having an experience she has not had before. Her seeing red for the first time is no more discombobulating than if she were still locked in her color-free room and saw some particular shade of gray for the first time. Ho hum.
Perhaps you can see how this idea also applies to the explanatory gap. If we ask why some pattern of neural activity would constitute redness instead of blueness, people tend to think this question means: How can we explain why a certain brain event would be a strange and special something that is an experience of red instead of a strange and special something that is an experience of blue? If we aren’t good at knowing the true nature of our own perceptions, then we do not know that they are strange and special. We just know, “Oh, here’s that experience that I call, ‘seeing red.’ This experience tells me things about what I’m looking at. The traffic light looks red, so I’ll stop.” Since there’s nothing special and mysterious to explain, there was never an explanatory gap to begin with.
I admit that when I see red, hear a harp, or feel a throbbing headache, it sometimes seems as if I know the true nature of these experiences just by having them, but our personal intuitions about the nature of experiences have a miserable track record. One key lesson here is that in some ways we are too close to ourselves to know ourselves well. Trying to understand our own consciousness is like trying to see one’s own eye without using a mirror.
The philosophical puzzles of mind and brain can be solved with a big dose of humility, a willingness to say that how things seem to us may not be the way they really are. Careful reflection and analysis helps me realize this, but I admit that using logic is not always enough. If I want to open up to the possibility that the living human mind is actually embedded in the brain, it can also be helpful to use metaphor and poetry. So after all this philosophizing, I’ll close with some poetic imagery about the possible unity of mind and brain.
Metaphorically speaking, we could think of color experiences as neural narratives about the secrets of surfaces.
Experiences of sound constantly partition the vast vibratory silence that surrounds us.
Tastes and tactile sensations are experiential wizards, conjuring the unity of tongue and tabasco sauce, fusing our skin with the texture of silk.
Scents invisibly decorate the chemistry of air.
And what about light? If we have the gift of sight, we have light in our minds, and those poor philosophical zombies do not. But how can there be light within the darkness of our skulls? Again, poetically speaking, as you and I experience it – light is the brain’s brand of legible darkness – a luminous darkness that guides us through the night.
Note: This web site provides information about several of my books, my blogs, and other writings. Each book-page includes most of the first chapter or the Introduction. For more information click the About tab, above.
I’ve just revised the About page, so here’s the new version.
About this Web Site
This site provides information about several of my books, my blogs, and other writings. It includes pages about four books:
Your Living Mind: The Mystery of Consciousness and Why It Matters to You
Bridging the God Gap: Finding Common Ground Among Believers, Atheists and Agnostics
Feel Better Now: 30 Ways to Handle Frustration in 3 Minutes or Less
Do Think Twice: Provocative Reflections on Age-Old Questions.
Each of these four book-pages includes most of the first chapter or the Introduction. I’ve also created pages describing my blogs, with sample posts from each.
I have always been fascinated by the Big Issues that puzzle everyone from school-age children to eminent scholars – how we can tell right from wrong, how we can know anything at all, the search for core values, moral rules vs. moral relativism, free will vs. determinism, theism vs. atheism, the mystery of consciousness, puzzles about selfhood, and how to deal with death. These are not just academic issues. They have a subtle but profound impact on the quality of our lives.
I am incredibly fortunate to have had the opportunity to consider these questions in depth for several decades. Being an early reader gave me a head start, so that by the time I entered college I was ready to jump into the deep end. I majored in philosophy, religion, and psychology, and went on to earn a doctorate in religion from Claremont School of Theology, a respected seminary in southern California. I became a psychotherapist and a Unitarian Universalist minister. I’ve taken several sabbaticals for further study, and since 2008 I’ve been writing, speaking, and leading workshops about my books, full-time.
After grappling with the Big Questions, do I have any Big Answers? I am far too emotionally involved with my work to be objective about that. But I have been willing to bet my life that if enough of us dive deeply into exploring these perennial enigmas, we will find new insights that move us closer to the truth – insights that help us become both more rational and more humane. I’m doing what I can. It’s up to others to decide whether I’ve had any success.
I would love to know how you respond to what I’ve written.
Roger Christan Schriner
Educational and professional background:
Dr. Roger “Chris” Schriner is a writer, psychotherapist, and Unitarian Universalist minister. He earned a B.A. from the University of Redlands summa cum laude in religion, philosophy, and psychology, a Doctorate in Religion from Claremont School of Theology, and an M.S. in Family Counseling from the University of LaVerne. His Honors Thesis at Redlands examined the ethical thought of theologian Paul Tillich and his dissertation at Claremont School of Theology dealt with nuclear weapons policy. He worked for 25 years as a psychotherapist and he is Minister Emeritus of Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Fremont.
He is the author of six books, the most recent of which are:
Bridging the God Gap: Finding Common Ground Among Believers, Atheists and Agnostics, http://www.amazon.com/Bridging-God-Gap-Believers-Agnostics/dp/0984584005/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1312308771&sr=1-1
Your Living Mind: The Mystery of Consciousness and Why It Matters to You,
The Mystery of Consciousness, and Why It Matters
Did God Really Say THAT!? A Blog about the Bible
Theists & Atheists: Communication & Common Ground
Note: This web site provides information about several of my books, my blogs, and other writings. When I post a new entry in one of my blogs I will typically include it in this space. Here’s the latest example, from https://theistsandatheists.wordpress.com:
Oversimplifying Theism: An Example from Daniel Dennett
Daniel Dennett, author of Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, has suggested one reason it’s so hard for theists and atheists to talk with each other: “There’s simply no polite way to tell people they’ve dedicated their lives to an illusion.”
I have a lot of respect for Dennett. As I wrote in Your Living Mind, I have “sheepishly” come to realize that some of his radical ideas about consciousness are more insightful than they seemed at first. And in Bridging the God Gap I give him credit for being more open-minded about religion than many prominent freethinkers. I think he’s on to something very important in his comment about telling people they’ve lived for an illusion, but I would put the point somewhat differently:
“IF you assume that belief in God is all there is to someone’s religion, then questioning that belief means challenging their whole way of life.”
But that’s a false assumption. Religion is far more than a list of theological doctrines. It involves an incredibly complex array of spoken and written statements and countless hours of worship and fellowship, as well as art and music, moral principles, spiritual practices, spiritual experiences, personal relationships, and involvement with religious institutions.
One can revise or reject theological tenets without invalidating everything else. Atheist Sam Harris, for example, follows many Buddhist teachings without accepting the Buddha’s 2500-year-old worldview. And there are who atheists belong to religious organizations because they value the fellowship, the rituals, and/or their congregation’s ethical commitments (Bridging the God Gap, p. 160).
Because we are drawn to simple stereotypes, we often speak as if we could summarize entire worldviews in a word or a phrase. That makes it very hard to critique someone’s life-stance without seeming to insult and invalidate that person. Our simplistic minds make nuanced dialogue difficult.
Life is strange and our minds are limited. It may be that both religious and secular worldviews are partially right but radically incomplete. I may be correct in claiming that someone is in the grip of illusions. But perhaps my own follies are just as foolish.
Roger Christan Schriner
This site provides information about several of my books, my blogs, and other writings. Each book-page includes most of the first chapter or the Introduction. I’ve also created pages describing my blogs, with sample posts from each. For more information click the About tab, above.
Roger Christan Schriner