Consciousness Demystified






Consciousness Demystified



In Nabokov’s political dystopia Bend Sinister (1947) the philosopher Adam Krug reflects on his eight-year-old son: “And what agony, thought Krug the thinker, to love so madly a little creature, formed in some mysterious fashion (even more mysterious to us than it had been to the very first thinkers in their pale olive groves) by the fusion of two mysteries, or rather two sets of a trillion of mysteries each; formed by a fusion which is, at the same time a matter of choice and a matter of chance and a matter of pure enchantment; thus formed and then permitted to accumulate trillions of its own mysteries; the whole suffused with consciousness, which is the only real thing in the world and the greatest mystery of all.” (188-9) It seems safe to say, in the light of this passage, that Nabokov was a mysterian (Krug is described as a great philosopher) as well as a realist about consciousness (“the only real thing”).  [1]

What if this position had been common during the twentieth century? What if it had been orthodox for millenniums? Philosophers and scientists all believe that consciousness is real and the great mystery of the universe. They reject all the theories that have been concocted as pathetically inadequate (materialism, in particular, is regarded with derision). Some view the mystery of consciousness with enthusiasm, holding that it fits in with a generally supernatural view of the world; others view it with despair, since they reject such supernatural ideas, but they see no way to defuse the mystery. Everyone agrees that consciousness is a totally mysterious phenomenon, variously described as magical, miraculous, enigmatic, arcane, alchemical, astrological, mystical, necromantic, transcendental, and just plain weird. There is nothing natural about it: it is inherently opposed to the rest of nature, a thing apart, on its own plane of existence. A conscious being is a peculiar amalgam of the natural and the non-natural, of body and mind, with nothing to join the two, no bridge leading from one to the other.

            What would my counterpart have to say about this orthodoxy? He would say that the Zeitgeist has missed an important distinction: between the ontological sense of “mystery” and the epistemological sense. He would insist that the mystery is purely epistemological, reflecting merely our own skewed and limited perspective on things; nothing follows from this about the nature of consciousness considered intrinsically. Consciousness is a subjective mystery not an objective mystery: it is a mystery to us but not in itself. People are confusing their own bafflement with a rift in the world, projecting their ignorance onto reality. We need not contemplate, willingly or unwillingly, a queer ontology to back up our sense of mystery; we can hold onto the hope that everything makes sense somehow. From a different epistemic perspective consciousness is just another aspect of nature, no more mysterious than other aspects—a biological fact among other biological facts. The thinkers in our imaginary world will disagree with that verdict: they will regard it as far too deflationary, far too naturalistic. The frankly super-naturalist among them will find in it the negation of their entire metaphysical outlook, while the reluctant mystery-mongers are likely to regard it as simply not credible—for how could consciousness be only subjectively mysterious? The latter can imagine no point of view from which consciousness loses its mysterious edge—even God would find consciousness a mystery. My counterpart’s position will thus be regarded as heretical and implausible—far too dismissive and reductive. The limited degree of mystery that he accepts is viewed as paltry by them, not real mystery at all. It’s like saying that the stars are mysterious to dogs: of course dogs can’t grasp astronomy and find the night sky mysterious, but that is not our position with respect to consciousness–we are not reifying our ignorance. The mystery is not a matter of our contingent limitations but of the objective nature of consciousness. My counterpart will accordingly be reviled for his blinkered superficiality.

I actually sympathize with this response: I don’t think my position is at all obvious—I find it difficult to believe myself. The position says that we are seriously confused about the origin of the problem. This would not go down well with people generally convinced that consciousness is the ultimate mystery. How could this mystery be entirely relative? In my hypothetical intellectual history, my counterpart will be viewed as an anti-mysterian—a sham mysterian. It will be said that he regards the mystery as a fake mystery, with people muttering disapprovingly, “That McGinn is no real mysterian but an impostor”. And he will partially agree: he is not a hard-core heavy-duty mysterian like them; he is a naturalist, a biological monist, an opponent of all things “queer”. He takes himself to have demystified consciousness—compared to those who find it deeply mysterious in its essence. He is like someone who insists that biological reproduction is not fundamentally mysterious, even though they have no idea about DNA, embryogenesis, and all the rest. In an intellectual environment that finds reproduction an indication of divinity, such a thinker will be branded an anti-mysterian about reproduction—for him there is no “divine spark” or “supernatural elixir”. It’s all just chemistry, though he admits he doesn’t know what kind of chemistry. My counterpart might likewise even assert that consciousness is all just neurons, though admittedly he has no idea what kind of property of neurons might lie behind consciousness (it’s certainly not like the kinds we know about). He is no defender of the alchemical and astrological.  [2] He will have no truck with occult psychic energies, subtle animal spirits, or vibrations in the astral field of the élan vital. For him the apparent mystery of consciousness reduces (yes, reduces) to a cognitive limit on the human brain. He is not welcome in philosophy departments stocked with traditional mysterians: “Here comes that tiresome mechanist of the spiritual world again!”

                Still he garners some supporters; a movement germinates. They are a threat to the established mysterian order and are regarded with suspicion (some whispering darkly that we are materialists in disguise). No one would call them “mysterians” (an honorific term in that society) even though they accept that consciousness eludes human understanding. Opponents will point out that belief in the limits of canine knowledge is no form of mysterianism, just an obvious biological fact. They may defiantly refer to themselves as “reductive mysterians” or even “eliminative mysterians”, but the labels will be resented by the establishment. The substantive debate concerns the origin of the agreed sense of mystery, and hence the nature of the mystery: does it stem from our own limitations or does it reflect the objective reality of consciousness? Some will maintain that we can just see that consciousness is an objective mystery, while others will argue that appearances may be deceptive, here as elsewhere. It will be assumed that full-blooded ontological mysterianism is the default position, with the epistemic kind needing to do all the argumentative work. And indeed it is not easy to refute the ontological version—it is not clearly groundless by any means. The epistemic version is the one that flies in the face of common sense—the one that boggles the mind. How can consciousness not be mysterious? How could mere brains generate it?

            I suspect Adam Krug would find me an anti-mysterian of the first order, and I would not disagree with his opinion. For me the mystery is profoundly superficial, if I may put it so, even if deep and permanent. There can be insoluble (by humans) problems that are laughably easy for other kinds of mind to solve. Consciousness has evolved with the greatest of ease on planet Earth many times over, so it should be possible to figure out how. It can’t be that mysterious, despite appearances.  [3]


Colin McGinn



  [1] I was pleased to discover this passage, Nabokov being my favorite novelist. But the book in which it occurs is the most terrifying and disturbing I have ever read—absolutely unbearable in places.

  [2] My counterpart is a reductionist about the sense of mystery, though not about consciousness itself. He has never seen a mystery he can’t reduce to a limitation. Miracles and the supernatural are so much hot air as far as he in concerned.

  [3] It isn’t that I don’t think consciousness is special—I think that it is. It is just that its specialness is no mark of ontological eccentricity—it doesn’t bring the world closer to the alchemical and astrological. Magic has no part in it.

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