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.