home | philosophers

Galen Strawson

Strawson is a Brit, born in 1952, with an article that appeared in the on 20 May '16 New York Times titled "Consciousness Isn't a Mystery. It's Matter."

His article begins:

Every day, it seems, some verifiably intelligent person tells us that we don't know what consciousness is. The nature of consciousness, they say, is an awesome mystery. It's the ultimate hard problem. The current Wikipedia entry is typical: Consciousness "is the most mysterious aspect of our lives"; philosophers "have struggled to comprehend the nature of consciousness."

I find this odd because we know exactly what consciousness is — where by "consciousness" I mean what most people mean in this debate: experience of any kind whatever. It's the most familiar thing there is, whether it's experience of emotion, pain, understanding what someone is saying, seeing, hearing, touching, tasting or feeling. It is in fact the only thing in the universe whose ultimate intrinsic nature we can claim to know. It is utterly unmysterious.

This coincides with my recent annoyance with the verifiably intelligent David Christian of Big History fame, who has written:

One of the trickiest problems concerns time. Was there a "time" when there was no time? Is time a product of our imagination?

I don't think I'm being simplistic in dismissing the suggestions of mystery regarding time: Time is something we measure regarding matter and motion. Time is matter in motion. No matter, no motion, no time. Time measured concerning the same object by people on separate rocketships going at different speeds does get complex, but it does put time in the category of riddles liked by people who also like the fun of paradox.

Back to Galen Strawson and his lack of the mysterious. Wikipedia describes him as an analytic philosopher (like Wittgenstein) – philosophy concerned with argumentative clarity and precision and a tendency to use mathematics and the natural sciences. It's the kind of philosophy according to Wikipedia with which "the great majority of university philosophy departments identify themselves."

Strawson is the son of an Oxford University philosopher. He left school at sixteen, after completing his A-levels and winning a place at the University of Cambridge. At the University of Oxford he received his his doctorate in philosophy in 1983. He also spent a year as an auditeur libre at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris and at the Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne as a French Government Scholar (1977–78). He taught at the University of Oxford from 1979 to 2000. He has had a lot of experience cutting through wordy confusions.

On the question of Free Will he is described as follows:

Getting back to Strawson's article in the New York Times, after describing consciousness as clearly understandable he writes:

The nature of physical stuff, by contrast, is deeply mysterious, and physics grows stranger by the hour.

This put him with John Searle, and with me: we don't pretend to know the essence of matter or the essence of whatever it is that constitutes the universe. Searle stays clear of the old materialism-idealism conflict. He doesn't claim to know that reality is essencially conciousness of some kind, or idea, and he doesn't describe himself as a materialist. He recognizes that it's beyond his ability to know that in this area he is agnostic – a great word in the realm of science.

Copyright © 2016 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.