Category Archives: consciousness

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, 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

What If Dogs Had Human Intelligence?

Here’s a recent post on my blog, The Mystery of Consciousness, and Why It Matters,

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

Conference Plans

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.

Six Persistent Enigmas about Consciousness

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 —

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