What if we never figure out mind?

One issue raised in the last article was how much it matters whether or not we can ever understand human consciousness fully.

British philosopher and founding “mysterian” Colin McGinn continues to believe that we can’t.

In “All machine and no ghost?” (New Statesman, Feb 20, 2012) McGinn challenges his readers to try to imagine a world without consciousness. “Now add consciousness to it.”

What difference do you make to things, what is the point of the addition and how can you add consciousness to a world without it? Do you somehow reassemble the material particles? I predict it will seem to you that you have made an enormous difference to your imagined world but you will not understand how the unconscious world and the conscious world fit intelligibly together. It will seem to you that you have performed a miracle (contrast adding planets to a world containing only gaseous clouds). But does our world really consist of miracles?

When McGinn first argued that while consciousness clearly evolved from matter we have no material (i.e., non-metaphysical) means of understanding it fully, he was labelled a “mysterian,” a word that has come to describe an entire epistemological stance with regard to the study of consciousness.

In his current article, McGinn writes that “I am not against the label, understood correctly, but like all labels it suggests an overly simple view of a complex position.” He writes that the main attraction of his position is ” the lack of appeal of all the other options, to which supporters of those options are curiously oblivious.”

And McGinn is not daunted by recent advances in neuroscience. To him, “the more we know of the brain, the less it looks like a device for creating consciousness: it’s just a big collection of biological cells and a blur of electrical activity – all machine and no ghost.”

Similarly to a point that I briefly introduced in the last article here, McGinn likens the search for the meaning of consciousness to the problems physicists encounter when they face the complexities of quantum theory. While physical scientists can use mathematics “to construct abstract representations of concrete phenomena,” the “ultimate nature of things” remains “obscure and hidden.”

How everything fits together is particularly elusive, perhaps reflecting the disparate cognitive faculties we bring to bear on the world (the senses, introspection, mathematical description). We are far from obtaining a unified theory of all being and there is no guarantee that such a theory is accessible by finite human intelligence.

McGinn asks, “What chance is there that an intelligence geared to making stone tools and grounded in the contingent peculiarities of the human hand can aspire to uncover all the mysteries of the universe? Can omniscience spring from an opposable thumb?”

McGinn writes with admirable clarity. He presents his positions without self-indulgent clutter. There’s an attractive directness to his prose. And what is more, he eschews the cant and bluster that are too common in the “competition” to explain consciousness. His relaxed and even-handed tone is a refreshing change from the aggressive way that some others I’ve reviewed here approach the subject.

But is he right?

Of course, we don’t know. Until or unless we reach a total understanding of human consciousness, we can’t be sure if he is right or wrong. His declaration that we are incapable of fully understanding consciousness can be disproved only by our achieving the goal. No matter how long that takes, while we’re on the chase McGinn’s position is an unsettled proposition.

Most readers will agree with McGinn that the physical study of the material brain is not alone sufficient to the task.

But not everyone is quite convinced — as we will see next time, when we examine Henry Markham’s controversial Human Brain Project, a proposal to spend more than a  billion Euros on a definitive computer model of the circuitry of the human brain.

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