Are you or have you ever been a Mysterian?

Or The Invasion of the Mysterians. A discussion about the limits of the human brain in understanding the universe – and itself.

I’ve read with interest some segments from the writings of one of the leaders of this alien species – the Mysterians – one Colin McGinn, influential philosopher (who I think coined the term). He’s certainly interesting – and at times charmingly unaggressive in his approach – but I am not a Mysterian and see things very differently.

Mysterians believe there are some things – for example subjective consciousness and free will – that we will simply never understand because of the limits of our brain’s capacity.

It’s clear then that McGinn is a pessimist about the human capacity to acquire knowledge, along with Chomsky, who not surprisingly has endorsed McGinn’s work, from what I read.

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Colin McGinn

I, on the other hand, am an optimist about our capacities. And perhaps that is really the fundamental difference – no one can in any way absolutely prove their case on this and perhaps we should acknowledge it and leave it there. Of course McGinn could be right and I could be wrong – and we can’t currently settle the argument.

But it’s much too interesting to leave alone.

These are McGinn’s claims in a nutshell. In 1993 he described his approach as ‘Transcendental Naturalism’: (note: he argues that this approach applies to a range of problems, not just consciousness, but this is a subject he’s returned to often)

“Transcendental Naturalism with respect to consciousness is this claim: the natural principles which mediate between brain processes and conscious states are inaccessible to human reason. …My general thesis, in these terms, is that philosophical bafflement results from the lack of an ‘intellectual organ’ suitable to the subject.” Problems in Philosophy, 1993.

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In other words there are some problems – like the mind-body problem – that we are intrinsically unable to solve, since our brains don’t have the capacity to do so. He speculates that there may be various modules in the brain for doing different things and that the one for cognition may just not be able to understand what another part of the brain is doing – ie consciousness itself. He says this should not necessarily be a surprise and it would be a good idea to accept – thus saving ourselves from a lot of unnecessary bafflement. In particular, he has focused in on the problem of consciousness – and also the unconscious – which he says are two examples of a whole range of things that are impermeable to our understanding.

Here’s another extract from a recent book of his, talking about unconscious memories, which he describes as an allied problem to the issue of consciousness:

“We are a bit like the blind man with regard to color perception: he can refer to it demonstratively and make true statements about it, but he doesn’t really know what he is talking about. Why? Because he is not conscious of such states—he has no acquaintance with them. They are a blank to him. Likewise, our own memories are alien to our comprehension—for they are presented to us neither perceptually nor introspectively. We know they are there but we don’t really grasp their nature, their mode of being. They are conceived as just “the residue of experience and the cause of recollection.” Our mode of referring to them is not cognitively penetrating—not revelatory. Thus we find ourselves conceptually uncomfortable with the unconscious; we can’t quite believe in it, though we are convinced it must exist. ” (Philosophical Provocations, 2018)

He talks a lot about our bafflement and puzzlement on issues of this kind:

“We have no conception of what a unifying theory of consciousness and matter would look like. The resulting logical gulf presents us with a deep mystery: how does the world contrive to do what we cannot conceive of it as doing? ”

Ok so my thoughts.

Well, first of all his scepticism about scientific knowledge and our ongoing exploration of how the “world contrives to do what we cannot conceive of it as doing”, seems to me a bit strange. I think there’s plenty of evidence that we can conceive of what the world is doing in these areas. We’ve made enormous advances in our understanding of consciousness, using the usual scientific approaches.

Here, for example, is Steven Pinker on current research into consciousness and how it interfaces with the world. And yes, while this is on the so-called “easy problem” of the physical explanation of how consciousness works, as opposed to the conceptual problem of how there is first-person subjective experience going on in my head in the first place, my point is this: that the vastly increased knowledge and penetration of the easy problem informs, changes and develops the conceptual apparatus we have and gives insights into issues like the “mind-body” problem and that this knowledge enhances and changes those concepts, for instance by getting rid of the “ghost in the machine” and by tying every aspect of consciousness to the brain:

“We are well on the way to a satisfying explanation (of the “easy” scientific problem). It’s hardly a mystery why we experience a world of stable, solid, colored 3-D objects rather than the kaleidoscope of pixels on our retinas, or why we enjoy (and hence seek) food, sex, and bodily integrity while suffering from (and hence avoiding) social isolation and tissue damage: these internal states and the behavior they encourage are obvious Darwinian adaptations. With advances in evolutionary psychology, more and more of our conscious experiences are being explained in this way, including our intellectual obsessions, moral emotions, and aesthetic reactions.

Nor are the computational and neurobiological bases of consciousness obstinately befuddling. The cognitive neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene and his collaborators have argued that consciousness functions as a “global workspace” or “blackboard” representation. The blackboard metaphor refers to the way that a diverse set of computational modules can post their results in a common format that all the other modules can “see.” Those modules include perception, memory, motivation, language understanding, and action planning, and the fact that they can all access a common pool of currently relevant information (the contents of consciousness) allows us to describe, grasp, or approach what we see, to respond to what other people say or do, and to remember and plan depending on what we want and what we know.” Pinker, Steven. Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (p. 426).

So while, I think, that McGinn is overly sceptical (and to put it bluntly, wrong) about scientific advances and contributions to our understanding of consciousness, there is nevertheless, according to McGinn still a big CONCEPTUAL problem, that we can’t solve – and even Pinker agrees with this: ie how can we account for the existence of consciousness at all and our subjective experience of it?

Although distinguished thinkers such as Pinker are convinced by McGinn’s argument, I am not persuaded.

In the big scientific picture we, obviously have a way to go before we have a full explanation of how everything works and how consciousness arises and what it does – but the principles are laid out and clear. Subjective consciousness has to arise from a material base (it doesn’t rely on miracles or the supernatural) and from the neural activity in our brains; there’s clearly an information processing element in the brain which contributes to our thoughts and mental activities – and we know that information is stored and communicated by a network of firing neurons – and so on.

And in support of my argument that advances in the “easy’ question of the scientific workings of consciousness give us more and more answers on the hard question – of what consciousness actually is – here is another extract from Pinker.

One of the questions that has historically (and often in the present) caused bafflement and puzzlement is how can we be self-aware – and especially, how could machines possibly be self-aware – which seems to be like a mysterious quality that only humans and animals possess? But according to Pinker, advances in our knowledge of how things work have steadily made this question less and less mysterious:

“Self-knowledge, including the ability to use a mirror, is no more mysterious than any other topic in perception and memory. If I have a mental database for people, what’s to prevent it from containing an entry for myself? If I can learn to raise my arm and crane my neck to sight a hidden spot on my back, why couldn’t I learn to raise a mirror and look up at it to sight a hidden spot on my forehead? And access to information about the self is perfectly easy to model. Any beginning programmer can write a short piece of software that examines, reports on, and even modifies itself. A robot that could recognize itself in a mirror would not be much more difficult to build than a robot that could recognize anything at all. There are, to be sure, good questions to ask about the evolution of self-knowledge, its development in children, and its advantages (and, more interesting, disadvantages, as we shall see in Chapter 6). But self-knowledge is an everyday topic in cognitive science, not the paradox of water becoming wine.” Pinker, Steven. How the Mind Works (pp. 134-135). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.

It seems to me that regular science is accounting for more and more aspects of consciousness and that the area that remains mysterious, if there is one, is contracting. So what does that leave? What I think McGinn is getting at, in the hard problem, is that we don’t know what consciousness IS, as a subjective experience – there’s a THISness or essence of being conscious that we can’t grasp conceptually – or describe scientifically – like the blind man who can’t grasp the concept of “red”, or like we humans, in another well-known philosophical example, can’t grasp what it’s like to actually BE a bat.

I have basically two answers to that. One: actually we can have a concept of these things, maybe not an absolutely comprehensive one, but yet a pretty serviceable concept – and why should we be absolutist about it? (after all is there much in the universe around us for which we have an absolutely comprehensive and satisfying grasp of conceptually?).

And my second answer, basically is – so what?

But back to the first.

I disagree that the blind man doesn’t know what he’s talking about when he talks of red. He can have a lot of knowledge about it – of light rays, the functioning of the retina, cones, the ideas of greater and lesser intensity, difference in characteristics and so on, and how people react emotionally to different colours and that colour emerges from light reflecting from objects. Yes, something – (an essence if you like) escapes him – but he does have a serviceable concept. He DOES have an idea of what he is talking about.

The same with a bat – we know that the bat uses echolocation, has eyes, and very sensitive hearing and flies – many of these things we can have a reasonable idea of. Again we DO have a concept, albeit limited and maybe somewhat metaphorical, of what it’s like to be a bat – but we can’t get everything – an essence escapes us.

Ah, but McGinn might say, the experience of the colour red is an essentially visual experience, and therefore the blindman is uniquely blocked from having a concept of it. But in that case, what about gamma rays? They are essentially visual since they consist of photons – thus are light:

“Gamma rays, denoted by the lower-case Greek letter gamma, are penetrating electromagnetic radiation of a kind arising from the radioactive decay of atomic nuclei. It consists of photons in the highest observed range of photon energy….Gamma rays ionize atoms (they are ionizing radiation), and are thus biologically hazardous.” (wikipedia)

And here’s my point: I can’t see them – they are entirely invisible to me, just as red is to a blindman, but I have a perfectly reasonable concept of them and an understanding of what they are. I can reasonably say I know what I’m talking about when I talk about gamma rays. Yes, I do have an advantage over the blind man, since I can use the analogy of a visual ray of light to conceive of it. But a blind man is not without resources even here – since it’s surely possible for the blind man to conceive of a line joining two points in space, for example, and understand that waves of radiation emanate from the line. From there, he can analogise to rays of energy.

And this kind of predicament for humans is far from unusual. For example what about this (from wiki):

“Energy equals mass times the speed of light squared.” On the most basic level, the equation says that energy and mass (matter) are interchangeable; they are different forms of the same thing. Under the right conditions, energy can become mass, and vice versa.”

I have a definite (though slightly wobbly) concept of this – no doubt not fully mathematically informed – but I can see some of the logic, imagine how the energy represented by a piece of chalk could propel a spaceship around the universe and so on. Yes, not complete – but I DO have a concept that’s clearly not entirely false, even though I haven’t studied physics to any sort of high level. So to a sophisticated physicist I am basically a blind man – I can’t do the complicated maths, I don’t know how those formulations work and I have little stored information about complex physical theories. And at the same time it’s VERY unintuitive – I certainly can’t feel it. But despite all this I am happy to know I have some understanding of it and that this knowledge has produced extraordinary results in the world and demonstrated the predictive power of science. And I also know that I can improve my understanding and concepts considerably with more study and reading.

What about space-time curvature? Again, I have some understanding that it relates to the theory of relativity, that it causes light to bend and so on – and I can understand metaphorical models for it (a bit like imagining myself a bat) – imagining space like a fabric and a heavy billiard ball rolling on it and distorting the fabric and pulling other objects towards it. Again, I can’t really get to a fully intuitive grasp of what it REALLY is – I can’t FEEL it, but I am reasonably satisfied with the concept.

In fact, of course, there are an infinite number of things I have concepts of – but don’t have the capacity to imagine, or feel, or cognitively penetrate (as McGinn puts it). What about what it’s like to be a rock? Or a piece of wood? I can bring some metaphors towards it, imagining the feel and texture of wood, for example, and its relative immobility. But of course, I know that leaves out a lot.

So in fact, a lack of full conceptual penetration is arguably a banal commonplace for humans – perhaps there are very few things that we do have full penetration on, perhaps none at all. It’s not just “difficult” problems like consciousness and free will, it’s the routine things that we encounter every day – what is it to be like a dog or a chair? IF we ask these kinds of questions they are difficult to answer completely, but there are nevertheless reasonably satisfactory answers. And in truth, these kinds of issues don’t tend to trouble us very much.

I would suggest that the “difficult” problems actually share a great deal with banal problems. We mostly have adequate conceptual penetration with the ordinary things in our experience (when we bother to attend to this) and there’s no essential reason why we don’t or can’t have adequate penetration with so-called “difficult” subjects, since I believe that the problems are actually more similar than McGinn suggests.

In this sense, it seems to me, the problems of consciousness and free will simply fall into the category of all phenomena explored by science: we develop better and better theories and concepts, based on both experimental data and continued thinking and analysis. We move closer and closer to an accurate description of an existing state of affairs in the universe – though we can never be absolutely sure that we have fully explained everything – but we can be reasonably confident that further analysis and experiment will reveal new aspects of the subject.

So this all leads to me to my second answer: so what? – if there’s an essence I can’t completely penetrate conceptually? I can’t completely penetrate conceptually what it’s like to be another human being, or for that other being to think – but I can have a pretty good guess. Am I a bit conceptually uncomfortable about not fully grasping everything – yes, but again so what? I can live with it.

And actually I’m wondering if McGinn is conflating two things – an intuitive FEEL for what something is “like” as opposed to a concept of it. Intuitive feeling is harder no doubt – but as I’ve said it’s actually NOT that difficult to have concepts about lots of things – though not an absolutely satisfying concept – or completely comprehensive.

And a second question – does what McGinn says boil down to this – that we may have as many concepts about consciousness and free will as we like, but we’ll remain intuitively unsatisfied? If so, I think that is a rather trivial result – since in that case we may well have very satisfactory concepts that describe things that happen with great accuracy, truth and logic – but that we still remain intuitively uncomfortable – and that’s not really a massive intellectual obstacle.

But even if he does strictly mean ‘concept’ without melding it with intuitive feel, I use the idea of a dimmer switch in response: we can have better and better and fuller concepts of things on a graduating scale – and we can have rather thin and unsatisfying concepts of things. But we CAN have concepts – and those concepts can be made more fully rounded with increased knowledge. And that absolutely applies to difficult subjects like consciousness – or free will or what have you. (For example neuroscience has contributed many interesting insights into the debate about free will).

I say “so what?” semi-seriously – because I argue that we already have a pretty good idea about consciousness – as explained above. And, actually, in a major irony – we ALSO have an extremely good idea of what it IS and what if FEELS like – since I’m experiencing consciousness right now. So, amusingly, consciousness is arguably one of things we actually understand the most in the universe. Perhaps it’s one of our least baffling, least problematic issues – even if we still need to do a lot of scientific research on it.

Having said that I’m not entirely serious with my “so what?” since I, along with most of the human race, am hungry for more information on how consciousness actually works. We’ve made huge progress – will we get it all? We can’t answer that question – but my hunch is that we’ll get what is relevant and useful to know. After all, there’s a vast array of things that were complete mysteries to earlier human beings, or at least things that they failed to analyse correctly, that we now have much, much better and more plausible explanations for – from thunder and lightning, to disease, to the movement of the planets, moral behaviour, the beginning and existence of the universe and the underlying structure of matter.

McGinn is essentially making a major scientific claim – that our brains cannot understand certain things, and that different modules in the brain mean a block on cognition – without, so far as I know, any direct scientific evidence for the claim. I’m confident that further scientific research will shed a lot of light on this.

And there’s also this point. Very seldom today do humans solely rely on their own brain to do research and acquire knowledge – we’ve built a vast store of knowledge around us for a start – far more than any individual human brain can contain – but giving it immensely increased powers of understanding and cognitive penetration. And of course we have computers – which have enormous computational power and range, far beyond human capacities in many areas. So human beings have developed a formidable culture and a formidable architecture of knowledge and a formidable array of tools – that has very certainly greatly extended the reach of what is conceptually understandable to the human brain – from the telescope to the supercomputer.

It’s possibly easy to drift into contemplating a single human brain as you read McGinn’s argument – but as mentioned, in human life, a human brain never operates on its own or in isolation. There is an array of more than seven billion human brains around us – all of which store some information – and most of which have the potential to share it.

Yes, of course each individual human brain has limits – we know this well. It’s pretty much a certainty that, even assuming all the physical equipment is provided, there’s no human being who knows, single-handedly, how to build a computer and a car, perform brain surgery, explain the physics of black holes and translate the Bible from its original languages. But the knowledge of how to do all of these things is available and can be accessed through the massive trove of information the human race has stored on the internet, in books, journals and articles.

In reality, when we talk about the actual situation of human brains, we are talking about the human brain as it is embedded in a huge collective brain shared across the whole globe.

In those terms, while there are still obviously limits to our knowledge, it seems hasty to assert that with this collective knowledge and brain power we will never be able to understand either consciousness or satisfactorily explain what free will amounts to. In the latter case we already have not a few powerful and persuasive descriptions of free will – for instance Daniel Dennett’s “Elbow Room The Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting” and quite a few others.

So yes, to quote McGinn again, I am of the “domesticating” persuasion – an approach he set up, with the intention of knocking down – in his Problems in Philosophy, 1993. In contrast, I think there is a good evidence that this is indeed the way things will continue to go:

“Domesticating programmes are familiar enough – attempts to convince us that consciousness is really nothing more than suchand-such. When you analyse conscious states sufficiently the specialness dissolves. Consciousness can be reduced to facts of a metaphysically unproblematic kind. Materialism and functionalism are the most obvious D positions today: to be in a conscious state is just to be in a certain sort of physical state – a neural state or a state defined by causal role. The spookiness is an illusion, to be dispelled by acquiring more physical knowledge of the kind we already possess.”

So finally, on a personal level I don’t feel the sense of bafflement and puzzlement that McGinn frequently refers to. ARE we fundamentally baffled by the problem of consciousness? Looking at the enormous amount of confident scientific activity and the very rapid development of thinking machines and Artificial Intelligence, it certainly doesn’t look that way to me.

But then again, I’m an optimist.

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