Colin McGinn is probably the most prominent of the New Mysterians – people who basically offer a counsel of despair about consciousness. Look, he says, we’ve been at this long enough – isn’t it time to confess that we’re never going to solve the problem? Not that there’s anything magic or insoluble about it really: it’s just that our minds aren’t up to it. Everything has its limitations, and not being able to understand consciousness just happens to be one of ours. Once we realise this, however, the philosophical worry basically goes away.
McGinn doesn’t exactly mean that human beings are just too stupid; nor is he offering the popular but mistaken argument that the human brain cannot understand itself because containers cannot contain themselves (so that we can never absorb enough data to grasp our own workings). No: instead he introduces the idea of cognitive closure. This means that the operations the human mind can carry out are incapable in principle of taking us to a proper appreciation of what consciousness is and how it works. It’s as if, on a chess board, you were limited to diagonal moves: you could go all over the board but never link the black and white squares. That wouldn’t mean that one colour was magic, or immaterial. Equally, from God’s point of view, there’s probably no mystery about consciousness at all – it may well be a pretty simple affair when you understand it – but we can no more take the God’s-eye point of view than a dog could adopt a human understanding of physics.
Isn’t all this a bit impatient? Philosophers have been chewing over problems like this quite happily for thousands of years. Suddenly, McGinn’s got to have the answer right now, or he’s giving up?
Anyway, it’s the worst possible time to wave the white flag. The real reason these problems haven’t been solved before is not because the philosophy’s difficult – it’s because the science hasn’t been done. Brain science is difficult: you’re not allowed to do many kinds of experiment on human brains (and until fairly recently the tools to do anything interesting weren’t available anyway). But now things are changing rapidly, and we’re learning more and more about how the brain actually works every year. McGinn might well find he’s thrown the towel in just before the big breakthrough comes. A much better strategy would be to wait and see how the science develops. Once the scientists have described how the thing actually works, the philosophers can make some progress with their issues (if it matters).
There’s more than just impatience behind this. McGinn points out that there are really only two ways of getting at consciousness: by directly considering one’s own consciousness through introspection, or through investigating the brain as a physical object. On either side we can construct new ideas along the same kind of lines, but what we need are ideas that bridge the two realms: about the best we can do in practice is some crude correlations of time and space.
McGinn acknowledges a debt to Nagel , and you can see how these ideas might have developed out of Nagel’s views about the ineffability of bat experience. According to Nagel, we can never really grasp what it’s like to be a bat; some aspects of bathood are, as McGinn might put it, perceptually closed to us. Now if all our ideas stemmed directly from our perceptions (as is the case for a ‘Humean’ mind), this would mean that we suffered cognitive closure in respect of some ideas (‘batty’ ones, we could say). Of course, we’re not in fact limited to ideas that stem directly from perceptions; we can infer the existence of entities we can’t directly perceive. But McGinn says this doesn’t help. In explaining physical events, you never need to infer non-physical entities, and in analysing phenomenal experience you never need anything except phenomenal entities. So we’re stuck.
It seems to me that if there were things we couldn’t perceive or infer, we wouldn’t be worried about them in the first place – what difference would they make to us? If the answers on consciousness are completely beyond us, surely the questions ought to be beyond us too. Dogs can’t understand Pythagoras, but that’s because they can’t grasp that there’s anything there to understand in the first place.
Any entity which makes a difference to the world must have some observable effects, and unless the Universe turns out to be deeply inexplicable in some way, these effects must follow some lawlike pattern. Once we’ve abserved the effects and identified the pattern, we understand the entities as far as they can be understood. If philosophers want to speculate about things that make no difference to the world, I can’t stop them – but it’s a waste of time.
I’m afraid it’s perfectly possible that we might be capable of understanding questions to which we cannot understand the answers. Think of the chess board again (my analogy, I should say, not McGinn’s). A bishop only understands diagonal moves. He can see knights moving all over the board and at every step they move from the white realm to the black realm or vice versa. He can see spatial and chronological correlations (a bit fuzzy, but at least he knows knights never move from one side of the board to the other), and both the white and black realms are quite comprehensible to him in themselves. He can see definite causal relations operating between black and white squares (though he can’t predict very reliably which squares are available to any given knight). He just can’t grasp how the knights move from one to the other. It looks to him as if they pop out of nowhere, or rather, as if they have some strange faculty of Free Wheel.
Yeah, yeah. It could be like that. But it isn’t. As a matter of fact, we can infer mental states from physical data – we do it all the time, whenever we work out someone’s attitude or intentions from what they’re doing or the way they look. McGinn should know this better than most, given his background in psychology. Or did he and his fellow psychologists rely entirely on people’s own reports of their direct phenomenal experience?
It still seems like defeatism to me, anyway. It’s one thing to admit we don’t understand something yet, but there is really no need to jump to the conclusion that we never will. Even if I thought McGinn were right, I think I should still prefer the stance of continuing the struggle to understand.
The point you’re not grasping is that in a way, showing that the answer is unattainable is itself also an answer. There’s nothing shameful about acknowledging our limitations – on the contrary. It is deplorably anthropocentric to insist that reality be constrained by what the human mind can conceive!