Paul P. Mealing

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Saturday, 17 December 2011

Consciousness Unexplained

The Mysterious Flame by Colin McGinn, subtitled Conscious Minds in a Material World, was recommended to my by The Atheist Missionary (aka TAM) almost 2 years ago, and it’s taken me all this time to get around to reading it.

But it was well worth the effort, and I can only endorse the recommendation given by The New York Times, as quoted on the cover: “There is no better introduction to the problem of consciousness than this.” McGinn is Professor of Philosophy at Rutgers University, with a handful of other books credited to him. Mysterious Flame was written in 1999, yet it’s not dated by other books I’ve read on this subject, and I would go so far as to say that anyone with an interest in the mind-body problem should read this book. Even if you don’t agree with him, I’m sure he has something to offer that you didn’t consider previously. At the end of the book, he also has something to say about the discipline of philosophy in general: its history and its unique position in human thought.

Most significantly, McGinn calls himself a ‘mysterian’, who is someone, like myself, as it turns out, who believes that consciousness is a mystery which we may never solve. Right from the start he addresses the two most common philosophical positions on this subject: materialism and dualism; demonstrating how they both fail. They are effectively polar opposite positions: materialism arguing that consciousness is neuronal activity full stop; and dualism arguing that consciousness is separate to the brain, albeit connected, and therefore can exist independently of the brain.

Materialism is the default position taken by scientists and dualism is the default position taken by most people even if they’re not aware of it. Most people think that ‘I’ is an entity that exists inside their head, dependent on their brain yet separate from it somehow. Many people, who have had out-of-body experiences, argue this confirms their belief. On the other hand, scientists have demonstrated how we can fool the ‘mind’ into thinking it is outside the body. I have argued elsewhere (Subjectivity, June 2009) that ‘I think’ is a tautology, because ‘I’ is your thoughts and nothing else.

McGinn acknowledges that consciousness is completely dependent on the brain but this alone doesn’t explain it. He points out that consciousness evolved relatively early in evolution and is not dependent on intelligence per se. Being more intelligent doesn’t make us more sentient than other species who also ‘feel’. He attacks the commonly held belief in the scientific community that consciousness just arises from this ‘meat’ we call a brain, and to create consciousness we merely have to duplicate this biological machine. I agree with him on this point. Not so recently (April 2011), I challenged an editorial and an article written in New Scientist inferring that sentience is an axiomatic consequence of artificial intelligence (AI): 'it’s just a matter of time before we will be forced to acknowledge it'. However, the biological evidence suggests that making AI more intelligent won’t create sentience, yet that’s exactly what most AI exponents believe. As McGinn says: ‘…sentience in general does not involve symbolic manipulation’, which is what a computer algorithm does.

McGinn argues that the problem with consciousness is that it’s non-spatial and therefore could exist in another dimension. This is not as daft as it sounds, because, as he points out, an additional dimension could exist without us knowing it and he references Edwin A. Abbott’s famous book, Flatland, to make his point. I’ve similarly argued that quantum mechanics could be explained by imagining a hidden dimension, so I’m not dismissive of this hypothesis.

The most important point that McGinn makes, in my opinion, is a fundamental one of epistemology. We humans tend to think that there is nothing that exists that is beyond our ultimate comprehension, yet there is no legitimate cognitive reason to assume that. To quote: ‘We should have the humility, and plain good sense, to admit that some things may exist without being knowable by us.’

This came up recently in an online discussion I had with Emanuel Rutten (Trying to define God, Nov. 11) who argued the opposite based on an ‘all possible worlds’ scenario. And if there were an infinite number of worlds, then Rutten’s argument would be valid. However, projecting what is possibly knowable in an infinite number of worlds to our specific world is epistemological nonsense.

As McGinn points out, most species on our planet can’t comprehend gravity or how the stars stay up in the sky or that the Earth goes around the sun – it’s beyond their cognitive abilities. Likewise there could be phenomena that are beyond our cognitive abilities, and consciousness may be one.

Roger Penrose addresses this epistemological point in Chapter 1 of Road to Reality, where he admits a ‘personal prejudice’ that everything in the natural world is within our cognitive grasp, whilst acknowledging that others don’t share his prejudice. In particular, Penrose contends that there is a Platonic mathematical realm, which is theoretically available to us without constraint (except the time to explore it), and that this Platonic realm can explain the entire physical universe. Interestingly, McGinn makes no reference to the significance of mathematics in determining the epistemological limit of our knowledge, yet I contend that this is a true limit.

Therefore, I would argue, based on this hypothetical mathematically cognitive limit, that if consciousness can’t be determined mathematically then it will remain a mystery.

Even though McGinn discusses amnesia in reference to the ‘self’, he doesn’t specifically address the fact that, without memory, there would be no ‘self’. Which is why none of us have a sense of self in our early infancy because we create no memories of it. It is memory that specifically gives us a sense of continuity of self and allows us to believe that the ‘I’ we perceive ourselves to be as an adult is the same ‘I’ we were as children.

I’ve skipped over quite a lot of McGinn’s book, obviously, but he does give arguably the best description of John Searle’s famous Chinese Room thought experiment I’ve read, without telling the reader that it is John Searle’s Chinese Room thought experiment.

At the end of the book, he devotes a short chapter to ‘The Unbearable Heaviness of Philosophy’ where he explains how ‘natural philosophy’ diverged from science yet they are more complementary than dichotomous. To quote McGinn again:

‘Science asks answerable questions… eliminating false theories, reducing the area of human ignorance, while philosophy seems mired in controversy, perpetually worrying at the same questions, not making the kind of progress characteristic of science.’

Many people perceive and present philosophy as the poor orphan of science in the modern age, yet I’m unsure if they will ever be completely separated or become independent. Science reveals that nature’s mysteries are endless and whilst those mysteries persist then philosophy will continue to play its role.

Right at the end of the book, McGinn makes a pertinent observation: that our DNA code contains the answer to our mystery, because consciousness is a consequence of the genetic instructions that make every sentient creature. So our genes have the information to create consciousness that consciousness itself is unable to comprehend.


The Atheist Missionary said...

Paul, I'm glad you found this a worthwhile read. I've been smitten with McGinn ever since I olistened to his audiobook Discovering the Philospher in You.

You wrote: We humans tend to think that there is nothing that exists that is beyond our ultimate comprehension. I find that interesting - it may be true but I find the converse to be almost axiomatic.

Paul P. Mealing said...


Yes, I'm impressed by McGinn, very much.

And yes, I think that we will never know everything if that's what you mean by: 'I find the converse to be almost axiomatic.'

Even if you go back to the Ancient Greeks, people have always believed that we almost know everything and that's true today. String theory is the latest contender for the TOE (Theory of Everything) yet even if that's true it is patently not true.

The problem with science is that we always try and explain everything including the things we don't know, like speciation in evolution, for example, just to plug up the God of the Gaps, when we should admit our ignorance. Consciousness is a case in point.

Regards, Paul.

Eli Horowitz said...

I'm a bit confused by this, Paul:

"McGinn argues that the problem with consciousness is that it’s non-spatial"

Does this mean that consciousness doesn't exist in space, like, as a solid object? If so, I agree, but I'm not sure why that's a problem or a unique mystery or anything like that.

Paul P. Mealing said...

Hi Eli,

I thought you might be interested in this.

McGinn spends an entire chapter on this specific topic so I can’t really do him justice here, but maybe if I drop in some quotes it will help to clarify his position.

‘The mind thus depends on the spatial world, in the form of the brain, and it represents a spatial world, yet it steadfastly refuses to set foot in space.’

‘But it makes no sense to say that conscious states compete for space. For them to do that they would have to be solid, and it is a category mistake to ascribe solidity to a conscious experience.’

‘…consciousness is necessarily not perceptible. We cannot even conceive of a type of sense organ that would enable us to perceive consciousness.’ (Italics in the original)

‘I cannot see your mind for the same reason I cannot lasso it: it is without bulk or texture, size or form. It is even spatially amorphous, like a cloud of gas or spray of water or a field of force. It is not a creature of space at all.’

I’m sure you wouldn’t disagree with any of these statements. At one point he compares consciousness to numbers. In the way that different numbers can give a sense of space, different experiences can give a sense of space, but neither the numbers themselves nor the experiences take up any space.

So you can’t give consciousness a location in space and you can’t measure it. If we, each and everyone of us, didn’t experience it, we wouldn’t even know it existed.

It might exist as a field but there is no evidence of that to date. I suspect you might say it’s an attribute in the way that velocity can be an attribute, as I’ve heard others say.

From the perspective of our experiences we might say it’s an inner space but that’s an illusion.

McGinn goes on to say: ‘This lack of spatiality of the mind poses a massive and daunting problem: if the brain is spatial, being a hunk of matter in space, and the mind is nonspatial, how on earth could the mind arise from the brain? ...How, in short, do we derive the nonspatial from the spatial?’ (Italics in the original)

What is interesting about all this, I believe, is that consciousness has causal effects, yet it has no substance whatsoever. Now, the default position is that it has no causal properties and is merely a by-product of other physical activity going on in the brain. But, if this is the case, why did it evolve? And it evolved very early as McGinn points out.

Regards, Paul.

Eli Horowitz said...

"Now, the default position is that it has no causal properties and is merely a by-product of other physical activity going on in the brain."

Hm - is that so? I find that implausible, though I've not read the points in favor of it.

At any rate, though, the analogy that I want to draw is between consciousness and life. You've read Watchmen, so you know that the matter difference between a living body and a dead body is minuscule if it exists at all; at any rate, nobody believes that the matter that goes away when a person becomes a corpse is life. I'm not sure, then, why we would want to say that the mere physical substance of the brain is the mind.

The nice thing about this analogy, for me, is that most people are very confident that life is not something mysterious but something that has a normal scientific explanation just like all the other stuff we see. Well, in that case, we should probably have the same confidence about the mind.

Paul P. Mealing said...

Hi Eli,

Well, I may have it wrong, but I would have thought that that’s the default position amongst materialists. Most scientists seemed to think that there’s no free will. Personally, I agree with you.

But where we possibly disagree is that I think that there is something mysterious. McGinn acknowledges that his idea regarding non-spatial consciousness in another dimension is purely speculative, but his argument is not easily dismissed. But where I agree with him is that we tend to think we know more than we do and we tend to think that everything is within our cognitive grasp when it may not be. I, for one, think that both consciousness and life, for that matter, are bigger mysteries than we credit.

Regards, Paul.

Paul P. Mealing said...

You may remember that I wrote this last year on the same topic.

I would say that it's the best insight we have to date.

Regards, Paul.