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Download The Mysterious Flame: Conscious Minds in a Material World epub

by Colin Mcginn

In recent years the nature of consciousness—our immediately known experiences—has taken its place as the most profound problem that science faces. Now in this brilliant and thoroughly accessible new book Colin McGinn takes a provocative position on this perplexing problem. Arguing that we can never truly "know" consciousness—that the human intellect is simply not equipped to unravel this mystery—he demonstrates that accepting this limitation in fact opens up a whole new field of investigation. In elegant prose, McGinn explores the implications of this Mysterian position—such as the new value it gives to the power of dreams and introspection—and challenges the reader with intriguing questions about the very nature of our minds and brains.
Download The Mysterious Flame: Conscious Minds in a Material World epub
ISBN: 0465014232
ISBN13: 978-0465014231
Category: Science
Subcategory: Biological Sciences
Author: Colin Mcginn
Language: English
Publisher: Basic Books; First Paperback Edition edition (April 26, 2000)
Pages: 256 pages
ePUB size: 1962 kb
FB2 size: 1786 kb
Rating: 4.9
Votes: 277
Other Formats: lrf doc txt mbr

I am neither a neuroscientist not a philosopher, but Colin McGinn's clear and fascinating account of the issues surrounding the emergence of consciousness (human and otherwise) from a material world was a wonderful introduction for lay readers on this difficult topic. In this relatively short book McGinn addresses the mind-body problem and classifies himself as a "mysterian" or one who believes humans may never understand the mind-body relationship. The brain has "space" but the mind does not have any spatial elements, so how does the mind emerge from, and interact with, the brain? The two standard responses, which McGinn finds wanting, are materialism and dualism. Materialism simply denies that consciousness is non-spatial. As McGinn writes: "according to materialism, the mind is the brain, and since the brain is a three-dimension solid....then the mind is also a three-dimensional solid." In contrast, dualism states that the mind has no spatial dimensions; that it is, in McGinn's words, an "unextended substance" and totally distinct from the brain. McGinn rejects dualism because, as the vast majority of neuroscientists maintain, there has to be "some kind of" generative relation between mind and brain. McGinn doubts that mankind has the "cognitive capacity" to fully understand the mind-body mystery. He asserts that the selection pressures that built our brain over evolutionary time did not build a brain that could solve this problem. He adds, however, that we do mathematics and philosophy without any obvious selection pressures encouraging their development.

I've read several neuroscientists who have identified neural patterns and locations in brain imaging studies using fMRI with selected conscious states. From these correlations the scientists express enthusiasm for eventually solving the mind-body problem. McGinn would observe that simply identifying the part of the brain that's getting a greater flow of energy and oxygen when the person being imaged is, say, looking at various objects gets us no further to identifying how energy and matter embedded in our skulls generate mental aspects such as subjective thoughts and introspection. McGinn proposes that conscious states have a "hidden nature" that allows them to arise from neural states. He states (p. 155): "The unknown properties of the brain that allow consciousness to emerge from it thus overlap with the hidden aspects of consciousness that allow it to be embodied in the brain. The principle of emergence coincides with the principle of embodiment." To me, this was a wonderful way of expressing the potential impenetrability of the mind-body problem.

I've rated this book 5 stars, and although I'm a theist and not particularly amenable to materialism, and found parts of the book where I disagreed with the author, I'm not inclined to knock down the rating of such a well-written and lucid book, and one leavened with wry humor, just because I'm not onboard with the author. He definitely made me want to explore these issues further.
First off, I am a theist, but my negative review is NOT rooted in the fact that I believe in God and Mcginn does not. I've read many other works defending naturalism that left me feeling a bit more satisfied (despite disagreement) than "The Mysterious Flame."
I mainly would not recommend this book because Mcginn puts forth a weak argument for consciousness in naturalistic framework. Of course, he provides an accessible summary of some of the issues surrounding naturalism. These are much appreciated. But ultimately, it seems as though Mcginn is too quick to adopt mysterianism when it comes to explaining consciousness. I wish he would actually engage in this issue rather than pull the "mystery" card to the phenomenon. For this reason, I would be critical of Mcginn even if I were an atheist. I would have felt as though he gave up too quickly and didn't really put up a fight.
Good pop book.
McGill states that there is something fundamentally different in the matter of consciousness as an object of scientific investigation, but he fails to state the problem in a way that will appear sensible to a scientist. Rather, in a big chunk of his book he indulges in scientific speculation about the properties that nature must have in order to bring forth consciousness, most ludicrously when positing structure in the "universe before the big-bang". In fact there may be a good question to be asked about consciousness but this book fails to rub it in.
To me the most disturbing facet of the book is its sloppiness and downright errors:
1. About understanding. He states that we shall never understand the mind and it appears that he thinks that science is about grasping some deep truth about nature. In fact science is not about understanding nature, it is about finding ways to describe (and therefore predict) nature. When Schroedinger discovered the wave function of matter he did not write down an equation that expressed what he "understood" about the nature of matter. Rather he wrote down an equation that seemed to correctly compute experimental results. In fact, many years later there is still discussion going on about how to "interpret" i.e. understand quantum mechanics, a theory full of apparent paradoxes. The fact that nobody really understands quantum mechanics may show some limitation of our intelligence but does not prove that matter has a "mysterious" nature. In the same way, even if we should never understand consciousness, it won't by itself mean that consciousness is "mysterious". True understanding is goal of philosophy not of science. Scientists grow confident working with successful theories and that is all there is.
2. About complexity. He claims that computers cannot have a mind, because even if programmed to speak Italian fluently and in an intelligent manner, they will never "really" understand Italian. The reason is that computers are merely machines that manipulate symbols - they don't really understand what they are doing (a rehash of the old "Chinese Room" argument). This is like saying that a painting is merely a agglomeration of colourful molecules. In fact, the value and meaning of the painting lies in its higher level structure: the complex arrangement of the colourful molecules set in relation to human psychology and culture. If a thinker concentrates exclusively on the low level structure then he or she will fail to perceive the meaning of complex objects. Most scientists today believe that the higher functions of our brain can be represented only on higher levels of organization (read the excellent "Goedel Escher Bach" about this matter). McGinn fails to see that complexity has the power to transform. He states that "a roomful" of interconnected calculators cannot be "any nearer" to consciousness than one calculator. In the same vein one can argue that a "skullful" of brain cells cannot be any nearer to consciousness than one single brain cell. (Actually, McGill may believe that just one brain cell is somehow conscious but then we may be excused for claiming that one calculator too is somehow a little conscious.)
3. About being. He states that "acting in a certain way is not sufficient for being in a certain way". To science, if something looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it is a duck by definition. This is especially clear with information processing systems. We do not yet have computers that display general intelligence - when we do have them it will be silly to claim that these computers do not "really" have any understanding even though they compose great music or make scientific discoveries. Today we do have computers that play good chess and there are some people who claim that these computers do not "really" play good chess, because they do not "really" understand the game - after all they only push symbols around, which is a task a human could in principle emulate with equal success without having any notion about chess. If in the future a scientist finds a way to operate on our consciousness, expanding our mind (repairing injury in our brains or connecting our consciousness to that of other human beings) or even transforming our minds (including a fourth basic colour in our visual perception), it would then be silly to claim that, for some philosophical reason, this scientist does not "really" understand human minds. In many cases what seems, is.
4. Intelligence versus consciousness. He seems to confuse these two very distinct concepts. Intelligence is not identical to consciousness - after all we can imagine a being that is intelligent but not conscious as well as a being that is conscious but not intelligent. He dedicates a whole chapter to "the Turing Test", which is a test designed to measure general intelligence, as if it were a test to measure consciousness. He states that this test "does not provide a necessary condition for consciousness" because a cat would not pass it. Of course, a cat does not pass the test, simply because a cat does not have general (humanlike) intelligence. This confusion is best seen in his use of the word "mind": sometimes it is used as meaning "consciousness" but other times as "intelligence". For example, when trying to show that consciousness is produced by the brain he criticizes dualism (a philosophical theory that states that consciousness and matter operate in different realms) and asks "Why does brain damage obliterate mental faculties?". From the context of the chapter (the discussion of dualism) one must assume that by "mental" he means conscious. On the other hand the sentence itself makes sense only when "mental faculty" is understood as "intelligence". Undoubtedly, the brain is the mechanism that produces intelligence, but McGinn does not really explain why he thinks that the "brain produces consciousness", even though almost his entire book is based on that assumption.