July 11, 1999
Little Gray Cells 
A philosopher examines human consciousness and argues that the mind is too ill equipped to understand it.

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  • First Chapter: 'The Mysterious Flame' 

    Conscious Minds in a Material World. 
    By Colin McGinn. 
    242 pp. New York: 
    Basic Books. $24. 

     There is no more interesting and inventive British philosopher writing today than Colin McGinn, who is currently teaching at Rutgers University. Recently he has begun to acquire a reputation for intellectual raffishness, and some philosophers, having learned a great deal from him on a very wide range of subjects for over 20 years, now like to put him down as too careless, too breezy, too coarse. But they keep up with his views, if they have any sense. He has a remarkable gift for developing new holds on old problems by shifting arguments and thought-experiments familiar in one area to another where nobody has thought of applying them.

    His new book on consciousness, ''The Mysterious Flame,'' seems in places designed to annoy professional philosophers. But it was not written for them. It is an introductory, popular work, and its looseness and dash are excellent teachers, constantly provoking questions and objections. It is a fast, straight route into the ''mind-body problem'' for beginners -- while also containing a number of original ideas.

    McGinn's central thesis is that the existence of consciousness in a material world is a deep mystery that we will never unravel. Consciousness, he says, is an entirely natural phenomenon; it is wholly based or ''rooted'' in the physical brain from which it ''emerges.'' The trouble is that we are incapable of understanding how this can be so, given the senses and the intellect with which evolution has equipped us.

    It's not just that we don't understand it at present. McGinn argues that we never will. How can conscious experience -- sensation, emotion, thought -- arise from or subsist in ''mere'' matter, even brain matter? We know what it's like to have conscious experience; we have it all the time, and the having is the knowing. We also know a lot about brains. We have many techniques, such as magnetic resonance imaging (M.R.I.) and magnetoencephalography (MEG), for inspecting them, and neurosurgeons routinely see conscious brains with their own eyes (brain surgery does not require a general anesthetic). You could see your own brain through a craniotomy, given a suitably angled set of mirrors. You could sit in on your own operation and experience the problem of consciousness directly: How can this warm, soft, wet, pulsing, whitish-gray stuff be the locus of my consciousness -- of me -- of the very being of my mind? It's just ''a hunk of meat,'' as McGinn puts it.

    The intuitive puzzle is clear, and McGinn presents it with multilayered intensity. He is right that we can never hope to understand how consciousness as we know it in everyday life relates to the brain considered as a lump of matter. But it doesn't follow that consciousness is a mystery -- except insofar as everything is. This move rests on a large assumption that is almost universally held, although it is certainly false.

    This is the assumption that we have a pretty good understanding of the nature of matter -- of matter in space -- of the physical in general. It is only relative to this assumption that the existence of consciousness in a material world seems mystifying. For what exactly is puzzling about consciousness, once we put the assumption aside? We know just what it is like. Suppose you have an experience of redness, or pain, and consider it just as such. There doesn't seem to be any room for anything that could be called failure to understand what it is. You know what it is.

    It is not consciousness that is puzzling, then, but matter. What the existence of consciousness shows is that we have a profoundly inadequate grasp on the nature of matter. McGinn agrees with this last point, in fact: with considerable speculative panache, he develops the idea that there must be something deficient in our idea of space, as well as in our idea of matter. But he still wants to stress the mysteriousness of consciousness; to which the reply, once again, is that we find consciousness mysterious only because we have a bad picture of matter.

    Can anything be done? I think physics can help, by undermining features of our picture of matter that make it appear so totally different from consciousness. The first step is very simple: to begin with, perhaps, one takes it that matter is simply solid stuff, uniform, non-particulate (the ultimate Norwegian cheese). Then one learns that it is composed of distinct atoms -- solid particles that cohere closely together to make up objects, but that have empty space (roughly speaking) between them. Then one learns that these atoms are themselves made up of tiny, separate particles, and full of empty space themselves. One learns that matter is not at all what one thought.

    Now one may accept this while retaining the idea that matter is at root solid, dense lumpen stuff, utterly different from consciousness. For so far this picture preserves the idea that there are true particles of matter: tiny grainy bits of ultimate stuff that are in themselves truly solid. And one may say that only these, strictly speaking, are matter -- matter as such. But it's been a long time since the 18th-century philosopher-chemist Joseph Priestley pointed out that there are no scientific grounds for supposing that the fundamental constituents of matter have any truly solid central part, and the picture of grainy, inert particles has effectively disappeared in the strangenesses of modern quantum theory and superstring theory.

    Current physics, then, thinks of matter as a thing of forces, energy, fields. And it can also seem natural to think of consciousness as a form or manifestation of energy, as a kind of force, and even, perhaps, as a kind of field. You may still feel the two things are deeply heterogeneous, but you really have no good reason to believe this. You just don't know enough about matter. When McGinn speaks of the ''squishy'' brain, he vividly expresses part of our ordinary idea of matter. But when physics inspects the volume of space-time occupied by a brain, what does it find? It finds a vibrant play of energy, an astonishingly insubstantial, radiant form.

    All this being so, do we have any good reason to think that we know anything about the physical that legitimates surprise at the thought that consciousness is itself wholly physical? We do not. And that is the first, crucial step that one must take when facing up to the problem of consciousness.

    I'm not sure how much further we can go -- McGinn is right about the limits on our understanding -- but the main problem lies in our understanding of matter. We have a lot of mathematical equations describing the behavior of matter, but we don't really know anything more about its intrinsic nature. The only other clue that we have about its intrinsic nature, in fact, is that when you arrange it in the way that it is arranged in things like brains, you get consciousness. Perhaps Bertrand Russell was right when he conjectured, more than 70 years ago, that ''we know nothing about the intrinsic quality of physical events except when these are mental events that we directly experience.''

    It is not easy to hold onto this line of thought (it requires a kind of meditative effort), but it's the way to go, and all the elements needed to take it further are available in ''The Mysterious Flame.'' It shows that there is nothing to be surprised about when it comes to consciousness, although there is a very great deal we don't understand. It deepens one's feeling for the material world -- the only world there is.

    McGinn makes a few errors. He locates David Hume in the wrong century, and credits him with a dictum that Aquinas got from Aristotle. He falls 2,000 years short when citing the view that ''God created the physical universe some 4,000 years ago,'' and is tripped from behind by Steven Pinker, who praises him for an ''explanation of consciousness that is . . . endlessly thought-provoking'' on the dust jacket of a book devoted to showing that we cannot explain consciousness. I think his central notion of explanation is mistaken, and disagree with his claim that the problems posed by the notions of self, death and free will are as intractable as the problem of understanding the relation between consciousness and matter. But I do not think that there is any better introduction to the problem of consciousness than this.

    Galen Strawson is a fellow of Jesus College, Oxford. His most recent book is ''Mental Reality.''


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