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The Mysterious Flame: Conscious Minds In A Material World Hardcover – April 29, 1999

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books (April 29, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0465014224
  • ISBN-13: 978-0465014224
  • Product Dimensions: 0.8 x 6 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (28 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #456,829 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

You have a piece of meat in your head called a brain. You also have perceptions, feelings, thoughts, and ideas, which scientists assert are related in some fashion to that piece of meat. How can this be? Philosopher Colin McGinn looks at this question in depth in The Mysterious Flame: Conscious Minds in a Material World, a slim, accessible book that presents a novel answer: we'll never know. We can look at the brain from outside, and look at our consciousness from within, but never the twain shall meet.

Not at all defeatist in tone, The Mysterious Flame rejects strict materialism and dualism, which seek to solve the mind-body problem in fairly unsatisfactory ways, and claims instead that our intelligence is not an appropriate tool to use for understanding the interface between subjective experience and material reality. (And, unfortunately, we don't have anything better.) Instead of bemoaning our fate, McGinn turns the traditional questions around and asks "What can we know about ourselves?" This is just as interesting as any question being asked by philosophers of the mind, and in fact seems to merit a higher priority. Whether McGinn's arguments will succeed in the marketplace of ideas is an open question, but they certainly deserve the attention of anyone interested in the nature of human thought. --Rob Lightner

From Publishers Weekly

Although its roots reach back to ancient Greece, the mind-body problem has bedeviled Western philosophers particularly since the time of the rationalist suppositions of Descartes in the 17th century. As knowledge of neurophysiology and brain function increase, questions about the nature of human consciousness also multiply. McGinn (Ethics, Evil and Fiction), a philosophy professor at Rutgers University, explores the relationship between the brain and the mind in a witty style. The authors analysis of the classical philosophical answers and conundrums emanating from this problem (dualism, epiphenomenalism, materialism, supernaturalism) are made easy to understand for the lay reader. Pushing reason, logic and experience to their limits, McGinn concludes that, ultimately, the essence of mind and the meaning of consciousness lie beyond the capability of the minds trying to define and comprehend them. Yet, he says, in accepting the limitations of thought about thought, we may find unlikely intellectual solace in inexplicable mystery. This is no pessimistic tract. McGinn asserts that acknowledging the frustrating boundaries of reason about reason frees the thinker to explore those areas of human intelligence that are open to our understanding. Except for his distracting habit of defaulting the third-person personal pronoun to the feminine, McGinn makes his case eloquently, with literary examples drawn from areas as diverse as biology, astrophysics and science fiction. Susan Rabiner Literary Agency.
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Customer Reviews

Now there are grounds for argument in some of those proposals, but mysterianism (McGinn's position) is not one of them.
Carlos Camara
In the same vein one can argue that a "skullful" of brain cells cannot be any nearer to consciousness than one single brain cell.
Dianelos Georgoudis
From my experience of reading many other philosophical books, this one stood out because of its unique style of getting the point across.
Tigran Palyan

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

68 of 72 people found the following review helpful By David H Miller on January 12, 2004
Format: Paperback
Colin McGinn's central claim in this brilliant and fascinating book is that the "question of the relationship of mind and body is perfectly genuine, but our minds are not equipped to solve it, rather as the cat's mind is not up to discovering relativity theory..." On that central claim, McGinn fails to make his case.
The fundamental problem is that McGinn's concept of an adequate solution is simply too demanding: "The solution would also, I think, have to take the form of a statement of what consciousness is, and that statement would have to be conceptually necessary...It would have to be as obvious that consciousness could arise from the brain as it is obvious that bachelors are unmarried males."
That is too high a demand to place on scientific theories: even our best theories in physics (relativity, quantum field theory, etc.) come nowhere near reaching such an elevated bar.
And yet, in explaining lucidly and in detail why it is so hard to come up with any sort of reasonable speculation as to how the mind and brain are related, McGinn does shed a great deal of light on the basic issue.
McGinn explains the fundamental problem: "Suppose I know everything about your brain of a neural kind: I know its anatomy, its chemical ingredients, the pattern of electrical activity in its various segments. I even know the position of every atom and its subatomic structure. I know everything that the materialist says your mind is. Do I thereby know everything about your mind? It certainly seems not. On the contrary I know nothing about your mind. I know nothing about which conscious states you are in -- whether you are morose or manic, for example -- and what these states feel like to you.
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27 of 30 people found the following review helpful By B. Bronczyk on October 20, 1999
Format: Hardcover
Nearly all of the texts I've read concerning the subject of consciousness are marred by their overtones of scientific hubris; they invoke symbol manipulation and algorithmic, multi-track neurochemical processes as the ultimate explanations for the hidden substrate of our introspective awareness. Now, along comes Colin McGinn with a carefully reasoned, head-clearing breath of philosophic fresh air. His analyses of "cognitive closure" (namely, that evolution has not furnished our minds with the faculties necessary to solve the mind-body problem) and the non-spatial character of spatial awareness are both incisive and humbling. McGinn takes a firm stand in declaring consciousness to be grounded in the material world. Yet, as can be seen in his discussions of free will and death, he refuses to interpret this fact in a reductionistic or fatalistic fashion: we simply do not - and never will - have the capacity to understand how "meat" can be conscious. In reading "The Mysterious Flame," I was struck particularly by McGinn's brevity, clarity, and persuasiveness in presenting his arguments as well as his sparing use of jargon (although his text does tend to be repetitive at times). The reader also comes away with a sense of McGinn's intriguing personality and foibles (he's obviously a fan of science fiction). Of all the books I've read on this subject, and I have read many - including one with the rather pompous title "Consciousness Explained", this one was easily the best.
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10 of 12 people found the following review helpful By Jon Steiger on August 18, 2000
Format: Hardcover
This book stands alongside of John Searle's The Mystery of Consciousness as one of the very best written about the subject of consciousness. Consciousness: What is it? How does it work? Where does it come from? These questions have been debated for several millennia. This book, as Searle's, struggles with these questions from a philosophical and scientific point of view, putting aside (as opposed to throwing away) the theistic lid put on the subject since antiquity. Searle approaches the subject of consciousness as an unwavering materialist. McGinn is a dualist. Dualism and materialism are to consciousness what the Creation Theory and Darwinism are to the origin of the species.
Materialism says there is nothing more to the mind than the brain as currently conceived. The mind is made of meat. Materialists start from the assumption that consciousness is an ordinary biological phenomenon comparable with growth, digestion, or the secretion of bile and the mystery about the origin and functioning of consciousness exists because we have not yet learned enough about the brain which causes consciousness. Materialism might be called the "scientific" view of the mind.
Dualism, Professor Searle instructs us, is a historical mistake arising from the seventeenth century when Descartes and Galileo made a distinction between physical reality measurable by science and the unmeasurable mental reality of the soul. (Searle notes there was some utility in the mistake as it kept religious authorities off the scientists' backs.) McGinn recognizes that dualism comes in different forms (he identifies "theistic dualism" as one such form and reserves judgment as to its validity).
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11 of 14 people found the following review helpful By Ashtar Command on July 3, 2009
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Colin McGinn is a British philosopher who specializes in the question of consciousness. He is also a great fan of science fiction, which occasionally shines through even in his philosophical writings. In "The Mysterious Flame", he mentions space aliens on every other page, and turns out to have a bad crush on the Star Trek character Seven of Nine (Colin, really!). In another text, he is kidnapped by aliens who turn out to be Platonists!

"The Mysterious Flame" is a popularized and surprisingly easy read. I say surprisingly easy, since philosophy texts on the question of consciousness are often extremely technical, difficult and down-right boring. This is the only exception I've seen so far. The New York Times probably had a point when they said that McGinn's text is the best introduction to the problem of consciousness. Yet, it should be noted that the book isn't neutral. It's fiercely partisan towards McGinn's own perspective on the matter. In many ways, his views resemble those of John Searle. The major difference is that McGinn doesn't believe the question of consciousness will ever be conclusively solved. He therefore calls his position "mysterian".

What makes consciousness such a vexing issue is obvious: thoughts and feelings aren't material objects. They have no extension in space, and can't be pinpointed to a specific location. Also, they are intensely subjective. You can't probe somebody else's consciousness (or know how it feels to be a bat). Despite its non-material character, consciousness is nevertheless connected to a material object: the brain. How is this even possible? How can a lump of material tissue give rise to non-material thoughts, feelings and meanings? This is the mind-body problem, also known as "the hard problem".
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