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Colin McGinn


Conscious minds in a material world

Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

Not only do we not know how the mind and the brain are related, we don't even know how to begin thinking about the problem. Colin McGinn is a leading representative of the so-called Mysterians, who take the view that the question is so difficult that we are simply unable to answer it. In this book he presents his arguments for a non-professional audience.

In his first chapter McGinn looks at the main solutions that have been offered. Materialism says that the mind is the brain, so there is really no problem to be solved. McGinn finds that this is just plain false; the mind is not the brain. Then there is dualism, which is more or less what common sense thinks: there is a separate mind which interacts with the brain. There are two main difficulties with this.

One is that it seems possible, as a thought experiment, to remove the mind while leaving the brain intact, thus producing what philosophers call a zombie. But in that case the mind really has no function; it can't affect the brain since the brain apparently gets on fine without it.

The second problem is the converse of this: the mind might be able to function without the brain, in other words as a ghost. But there are many difficulties with this idea, at least from a scientific standpoint.

Since neither of these approaches works, McGinn concludes, we need a fresh and radically different way of thinking if we are to solve the mind--brain problem. Unfortunately, we are unable to think in this way. The rest of the book explains why he holds this opinion.

McGinn has an interesting discussion of the place of consciousness in evolution. Some people see it as the ultimate achievement of the Darwinian process but McGinn thinks that it is biologically primitive and simple. He is even willing to accept that many insects may have it to some degree. "Consciousness is as common as bone and blood." If this seeems a surprising statement, we have to remember that, by consciousness, McGinn understands a basic kind of awareness or sensation; self-consciousness is something else.

If consciousness is so simple, why is it hard to understand? The reason, McGinn says, is the way our minds are constructed. There must be something about the brain that we are blind to. Unfortunately he cannot tell us what this is, otherwise he would have done what he says it is impossible for us to do. But he can tell us what a solution would look like if it were possible.

It would have to approach what McGinn calls the hidden structure of consciousness and it would require a revision in our idea of the nature of space. There are chapters on both of these matters. It would also have to show that there is a necessary reason why consciousness arises from the brain. To find a solution of this kind we would need enhanced mental capacity; McGinn speculates that this might be achievable by genetic engineering. (But I suppose that if these super-intelligent philosophers gave us the solution we would be unable to understand it.)

This is a stimulating book and reading the writings of some of those who claim to have solved the problem I sometimes suspect that McGinn and those who think like him may be right.

15 November 2007

%T The Mysterious Flame
%S Conscious minds in a material world
%A McGinn, Colin
%I Basic Books
%C New York
%D 1999
%G ISBN 0-465-01423-2
%P xiii + 242pp
%K philosophy

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