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68 of 72 people found the following review helpful
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. So knowledge of your brain does not give me knowledge of your mind."
As a Ph.D. in theoretical physics myself, I will attest that McGinn is absolutely right. It is not just that physics has not yet succeeded in elucidating the nature of consciousness; rather, it is that, in constructing all of our theories in physics to date, we physicists have intentionally chosen to eschew any whiff of the "interior" perspective provided by consciousness and have only allowed the exterior perspective of materialism to enter into the structure of our theories. We've done this for very good reasons, of course -- it has worked wonderfully in explaining the physical world, and we've figured that the issue of consciousness and its interior perspective is someone else's problem.
McGinn argues that to understand consciousness this perspective of physics simply must be widened (and he doubts we humans have the mental power to do the widening): in his words, "My thesis is that consciousness depends upon an unknowable natural property of the brain...It follows that physics, construed as the general science of matter, is incomplete, because the general properties of matter that the brain exploits to produce consciousness are currently unknown." He even speculates that there is some humanly unfathomable dimensional structure to space-time and matter that leads to consciousness.
Maybe.
But I think McGinn underestimates how well we physicists understand the structure of molecules, atoms, and the electrons, protons, and neutrons of which they are comprised. We know how these things work to an almost unbelievable level of accuracy in a wide variety of situations. Physically, the brain is just a straightforward aqueous solution, no more complex at the level of elementary particles than a can of chicken soup.
It's hard to believe there is important missing physics there.
Indeed, we physicists have for several decades actually been following McGinn's advice to explore extra trans-dimensional space-time structures of all sorts (e.g., the currently popular ten and eleven-dimensional superstring and super-p-brane theories). We still see no hint of the "interior" perspective provided by consciousness.
McGinn is right that physics does not explain consciousness; there is no sign that his own ideas or any other ideas can expand physics so as to encompass consciousness. What is missing must therefore be something non-physical: to put it provocatively, we must have souls (not necessarily immortal ones, sad to say).
The conclusion seems obvious from McGinn's argument, but McGinn rejects it, mainly by pointing out that it raises some questions to which he has no good answers. And yet, the best defense of this "dualist" thesis I have seen is by...Colin McGinn! In a brilliant essay, "Consciousness and Cosmology," published in 1993 in Davies" and Humphreys' "Consciousness: Psychological and Philosophical Essays," McGinn offers a breathtakingly convincing case for a mental realm distinct from the realm of matter. In that essay, he explains that he is simply offering a picture of what a mind-body dualism would be like if it were really true, but that he himself does not really accept that it is in fact correct.
Yet, the speculative dualism of his 1993 essay seems more solid, more akin to normal scientific theories, that the airy trans-dimensional pseudo-physical speculations offered in "The Mysterious Flame." I am tempted to believe that McGinn himself knows this but found it more professionally prudent to present the obvious conclusions of his arguments as mere speculations in the 1993 essay.
Space prevents discussion of the other brilliant and provocative ideas McGinn tosses out in this book. Although I think his central thesis that humans can never understand the nature of consciousness is mistaken, any scientist who wishes to prove McGinn wrong by actually producing such an explanation of consciousness would do well to familiarize himself with McGinn's work.

"The Mysterious Flame" should surely be read together with McGinn's 1993 essay, "Consciousness and Cosmology." The two together comprise the most readable, insightful discussion of the mind-body problem which I have yet had the pleasure to read.
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27 of 30 people found the following review helpful
on October 20, 1999
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
on August 18, 2000
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). Dualism is interpreted by McGinn as "the belief that there is no logical relation between brain and mind. There is no possibility of reducing the mind to the brain, because they are separate realms. There are indeed empirical and contingent relations between the two---correlations between mental and physical processes have been discovered---but there is no necessary link between consciousness and the brain. Mind and brain run in parallel, like skis, but we cannot collapse the one into the other. They are distinct existences. The reason we cannot explain the mind by reference to the brain is simply that it is not essentially dependent upon the brain. Consciousness is an extra feature of the universe, as basic as space and time and matter themselves."
Both McGinn's work and Searle's may be boiled down to the same essential statement: "I have no solution, but I do admire the problem." Neither throws their hands up in despair and each progresses, albeit from different points of view, to explore the nature of the consciousness-conundrum with exquisite clarity. Searle's book is a compilation of New York Times Book Review articles and therefore written for a somewhat sophisticated but non-technical audience. McGinn accurately describes his own style in the preface to his book by announcing that he has "relaxed his habitually cautious mode of academic exposition and goes straight to the heart of the big issues in plain, open language. . . . having written the book with the absolute minimum of jargon and technicality." The subject matter is complex, but neither book is difficult to read.
There is a theory in theology, with which philologists agree, that the term "mystery" is concerned with that which "is revealed to us," as distinguished from problems which we "solve". Searle ultimately sees the mystery of consciousness as a problem to be solved. (Hence the title of his concluding chapter: "How to Transform the Mystery of Consciousness into the Problem of Consciousness.") McGinn argues, literally, "that the bond between mind and the brain is a deep mystery. It is an ultimate mystery, a mystery that human intelligence will never unravel. Consciousness indubitably exists, and it is connected to the brain in some intelligible way, but the nature of this connection necessarily eludes us."
McGinn dismisses other protagonists in the field with whom he might have some disagreement in a lighthearted playful manner. This is particularly refreshing pause from the style of several other respected authors on the subject who often accuse those with whom they disagree as holding "absurd" views (Searle is among the guilty in this regard). Early in the book there is one broad swipe at the materialist in general, borrowed from another author's science fiction writing, that will bring any dinner table audience to hysterical laughter. (It involves intelligent aliens from outer space who travel to earth and discover -- to their astonishment and disgust -- that intelligent life exists here, but it's meat! "Thinking meat! You're asking me to believe in thinking meat!" [Explorer to bewildered commander to whom he has just reported]: "Yes, thinking meat! Conscious meat! Loving meat. Dreaming meat. The meat is the whole deal! Are you getting the picture?")
I finished this book with the sense of elation that one gets when new avenues of the mind are opened or horizons are suddenly broadened. I am somehow left with a tingling sensation that -- just perhaps -- a prophetic clue to a powerful mystery has been revealed.
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12 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on July 3, 2009
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".

McGinn rejects the two standard answers to the problem: materialism and dualism. "Materialism" as defined by McGinn is a reductionist form of materialism, which attempts to show that consciousness really isn't non-material. The mental is identical to the material. Thoughts and feelings are brain states. That they feel non-material is an illusion. Dualism takes the opposite tack: the mental and the material look so different, because they *are* different. The mental comes from another dimension of reality, and isn't necessarily connected to the brain at all. Dualism is most common in religious forms, and connected to ideas about humans having an immortal soul that leaves the body at death, but one can imagine a purely secular form of dualism as well. McGinn spends several chapters debating dualism and other seemingly outlandish philosophies (panpsychism, "total mentalism"), while his discussion of reductionist materialism is very brief. Somehow, McGinn seems fascinated by the notion that the mental, or consciousness itself, is independent of our physical existence. In the end, however, he rejects it together with reductionism.

McGinn's preferred position is that consciousness is rooted in the brain, and that our thoughts, feelings and desires are caused by material processes in the brain. Consciousness cannot be reduced to brain states in the sense of being identical with them, but it nevertheless emerges from brain states. (I always considered this to be a trivial position, but apparently it's controversial among philosophers!) However, McGinn also believes that we will never know exactly how the brain produces consciousness. Our minds aren't properly equipped to grasp their own inner nature. Consciousness is of necessity first person: we can see other people's brains, but we can't see other people's consciousness. Conversely, we can introspectively probe our own consciousness, but nothing in it tells us what material process gave rise to it. We are, in McGinn's phrase, cognitively closed.

McGinn further argues that we can't even know everything there is to know about our own consciousness. Not even introspection will reveal its deep structure, the essence of our own minds. We can't even explain what it means to have a self! And since we can't do this, we will never be able to guess what biological processes gave rise to consciousness.

The main problem with McGinn's position is, of course, that if we can't know the cause of the mind, the cause might very well be materialist or even dualist! How are we to tell? Dualism in its strong form cannot explain why mind and matter are correlated at all. In its weaker form, however, dualism is more difficult to argue against. A "weak" dualist could argue that a brain is necessary to create consciousness by bringing together material and mental elements. This would explain the correlation between mind and matter in the brain, while still considering them to be fundamentally different properties of the world. The argument against such a dualism would simply be that it doesn't really explain anything, since we still don't know *how* the brain makes consciousness out of mental and material properties. But then, dualism and "mysterianism" are equally mysterian! McGinn's main argument against dualism is that mental and material states in the brain are just too perfectly correlated. Dualism in any form is therefore unlikely. But if we are cognitively closed, how can we know for sure? There is a certain tension in the book between "mysterianism" (which should be strictly agnostic) and the emergent materialism I take is McGinn's "real" position.

McGinn also discusses whether robots can be conscious. He reaches the conclusion that they cannot be. Consciousness isn't simply a computer program. A computational program can only simulate intelligence. Actually, it's unintelligent. A robot who speaks Italian just because its been programmed that way, doesn't really understand Italian. (Think of a parrot that mimics human speech!) It's a mindless zombie, even if it says all the right things. For a robot to be really conscious, it would have to have a brain with the right properties for consciousness, but its precisely these properties we don't know about, and probably never will know about. Besides, whatever property makes us conscious, it's probably organic. Consciousness arising from a metallic brain is, while not intrinsically impossible, at least highly improbable.

"The Mysterious Flame" might strike readers new to the subject as defeatist. Shouldn't scientists and philosophers attempt to find a solution to these and other problems? Shouldn't we, to quote Star Trek, boldly go where no man (or Andorian) has ever gone before? Such people might be surprised to hear that philosophy at least since the time of Hume and Kant, have been as much preoccupied with telling us what we *can't* know. Knowing the limits of our knowledge might, after all, do us some good!

And if Colin McGinn is right, we will never solve the problem of the mysterious flame...
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13 of 18 people found the following review helpful
on January 9, 2000
Colin McGinn's The Mysterious Flame inspired me in both a scientific and philosophical view of the world. From my experience of reading many other philosophical books, this one stood out because of its unique style of getting the point across. The book is written so everyone can enjoy it, even though it addresses a complex idea. McGinn attempts to explicate the idea of consciousness within a world of materialism by using many examples and similes. He views the concept from a scientific view as well as a hypothetical perspective. By the end of each chapter, the reader grasps of one's own view and is left eternally thinking. McGinn's well organized and constituted form approaches the reader gently with the idea, so it doesn't seem very confusing or disturbing at first. Then as the reader is well developed about the objective, McGinn progresses to more in depth. This book disputes the very perplexing notion between consciousness (something we can't see) and our brain, a peace of meat (something visible). He mentions how if a human brain were placed in a monkey's environment, it would come out with a monkey's mind. This is the basic concept of how the mind is adopted by the brain's atmosphere. The relationship between the mind and the brain is a very extensive sentiment, and it is remarkable how McGinn successfully establishes the argument. Astonishingly never was I confused about anything in any of McGinn's chapters. Since he took time to explain each factor of consciousness independently, there were no mix-ups with other aspects of consciousness. McGinn rather accomplished his goal of seeking the reader to continue reading. It is very possible-especially for philosophical books such as this-to become tedious and the reader to simply discontinue reading. McGinn writes this book for people who just enjoy reading and not for special scientists or high league philosophers. That is what makes this book so special, that the average person could read it, and understand a concept not so average. Just the title alone attracts the common book shopper. The Mysterious Flame represents how it is impossible to find the truth about the relationship between the brain and the mind. This is why it is so mysterious, and we can only argue about it. In fact McGinn does mention our intelligence is not enough and we are incapable to unravel the mystery. McGinn discusses possibilities of consciousness in machines to illustrate how if mindfulness could exist in a meat matter, it is conceivable that it may also exist in springs, gears, and pulleys to assist us in various tasks. He doesn't leave out anything that would ever concern consciousness, it's what makes this book so complete. There is a limit of how much realism and imagination a philosophical book such as this should contain. Another aspect of what creates this book such a success is how McGinn well balanced the amount of realistically versus the imaginative fantastical things. Just because a book is theoretical, it doesn't mean there is no limit of how much sense it has to make. Even though McGinn discusses issues that are never possible or unrealistic, it makes sense. All and all, McGinn's accomplishment of The Mysterious Flame was a success. Like two different sides of the same coin, are the brain and the mind. McGinn analyzes the relationship of consciousness and materialism from every perspective, a chapter for each angle of view. This book is for the average Joe as well as it is for a philosophy professor. Satisfaction and enjoyment is guaranteed.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on October 17, 1999
Winding up this readable book on a light and fascinating note, Colin McGinn manages to state clearly the mind-body problem and to make it even more clear that given current scientific and philosophical progress, the problem is without a solution. Progress, however, from McGinn's point of view is entirely Western. His analysis ignores the Eastern tradition which, of course, would agree that the human mind structurally is unfit to solve the problem. A Buddhist, though, would say that the mind IS the problem, and the solution is to put the mind in its proper place. Being stuck in the West is Descartes' heel, all over again.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on April 10, 2012
That a brain is required for consciousness (as we commonly understand it) to be the case (this inescapable fact of brute awareness) is surely beyond dispute these days. There are religious, spiritual and some philosophical positions that might disagree, but these can be seen to depend on forms of muddled or magical thinking. Yet the materialist conception of consciousness as nothing more than the firing of fibers in the brain is woefully inadequate. Something is missing from this reductive view - the phenomenology of consciousness itself! Equally (or more) inadequate is the dualist view that matter and (so called) spirit are distinct, independent types of phenomena - they exist as separate realms yet somehow still manage to interact.

This book explores these age old concerns of philosophy of mind and finds the options available to current understanding to be lacking in one way or another. And here lies the crux of The Mysterious Flame; our current understandings and comprehensions are insufficient because we lack access to the full picture - our picture is limited by the restraints of our biology, by the shortcomings of our cognitive capabilities.

This mysterian perspective invites us to give up our certainties about the big questions of philosophy and spirituality - problems such as consciousness, first cause, the nature of the self, meaning, purpose, death and so on. It's not that there is anything mystical about these issues, it's simply that human organisms are ultimately cognitively closed to them - we cannot in principle comprehend their hidden nature. Just as the human body will never match the pace of a speeding bullet, we have to acknowledge the fact that human cognitive ability has its limitations.

The Mysterious Flame is well written, highly readable, inventive and lively - you can sense the author's enthusiasm for his subject. You might not agree with everything written here - there is a lot of content and some of it amounts to (acknowledged) creative speculation. But unless there is an unreasonable clinging to a narrow anthropocentric outlook, it must become clear that to some degree or other this mysterian perspective (the idea that cognitive capabilities are limited by biology) is unassailable - it amounts to plain old common sense.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on January 9, 2000
Colin McGinn's The Mysterious Flame inspired me in both a scientific and philosophical view of the world. From my experience of reading many other philosophical books, this one stood out because of its unique style of getting the point across. The book is written so everyone can enjoy it, even though it addresses a complex idea. McGinn attempts to explicate the idea of consciousness within a world of materialism by using many examples and similes. He views the concept from a scientific view as well as a hypothetical perspective. By the end of each chapter, the reader grasps of one's own view and is left eternally thinking. McGinn's well organized and constituted form approaches the reader gently with the idea, so it doesn't seem very confusing or disturbing at first. Then as the reader is well developed about the objective, McGinn progresses to more in depth. This book disputes the very perplexing notion between consciousness (something we can't see) and our brain, a peace of meat (something visible). He mentions how if a human brain were placed in a monkey's environment, it would come out with a monkey's mind. This is the basic concept of how the mind is adopted by the brain's atmosphere. The relationship between the mind and the brain is a very extensive sentiment, and it is remarkable how McGinn successfully establishes the argument. Astonishingly never was I confused about anything in any of McGinn's chapters. Since he took time to explain each factor of consciousness independently, there were no mix-ups with other aspects of consciousness. McGinn rather accomplished his goal of seeking the reader to continue reading. It is very possible-especially for philosophical books such as this-to become tedious and the reader to simply discontinue reading. McGinn writes this book for people who just enjoy reading and not for special scientists or high league philosophers. That is what makes this book so special, that the average person could read it, and understand a concept not so average. Just the title alone attracts the common book shopper. The Mysterious Flame represents how it is impossible to find the truth about the relationship between the brain and the mind. This is why it is so mysterious, and we can only argue about it. In fact McGinn does mention our intelligence is not enough and we are incapable to unravel the mystery. McGinn discusses possibilities of consciousness in machines to illustrate how if mindfulness could exist in a meat matter, it is conceivable that it may also exist in springs, gears, and pulleys to assist us in various tasks. He doesn't leave out anything that would ever concern consciousness, it's what makes this book so complete. There is a limit of how much realism and imagination a philosophical book such as this should contain. Another aspect of what creates this book such a success is how McGinn well balanced the amount of realistically versus the imaginative fantastical things. Just because a book is theoretical, it doesn't mean there is no limit of how much sense it has to make. Even though McGinn discusses issues that are never possible or unrealistic, it makes sense. All and all, McGinn's accomplishment of The Mysterious Flame was a success. Like two different sides of the same coin, are the brain and the mind. McGinn analyzes the relationship of consciousness and materialism from every perspective, a chapter for each angle of view. This book is for the average Joe as well as it is for a philosophy professor. Satisfaction and enjoyment is guaranteed.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on March 13, 2012
Some Consciousness thinkers believe that consciousness is the function of brain and it is just the matter of time that we will be able to explain consciousness through the workings of brain. Others believe that consciousness can never be explained by understanding the brain because it is metaphysical. Colin McGinn's approach is unique in this regard as he believes that consciousness is the function of brain but at the same time claims that we will not be able to understand that how brain produces consciousness. The reason is that we are cognitively closed to understand this process.Mcginn's coined the term `cognitive closure' for this restriction from nature. According to him consciousness is not a complicated phenomenon but we don't have the proper instrument in our minds to understand it. His thesis is good but he over generalized it to other concepts such as death, self etc.
it would be unfair to regard consciousness forever unknowable. It would be fair to say that at present we are cognitively close to understand consciousness but for future one should remain agnostic. As a whole Colin's book is an interesting read because it is simple and informative.
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43 of 64 people found the following review helpful
on November 8, 2001
The problem with Colin McGinn is that, although his arguments may be convincing to the layman or the novice, for anyone who has done serious philosophy of any sort it is easy to see through his so-called 'proofs'. McGinn employs two general techniques in backing up his claims: (1) restating them ad nauseam and asserting that they are undeniable; and (2) presenting a counterargument against his view in such a laughably simplistic way that it must be rejected, and then tricking the reader into thinking that since arguments against McGinn fail, then McGinn's own arguments must succeed.
The second of these techniques, in particular, shows the major shortcoming of The Mysterious Flame. It should be a sort of introductory text to the mind-body problem, since it is written on a level that anyone can understand. But McGinn's treatment of topics like the Teleological Argument (at the beginning of Ch. 3) gives incredibly naive statements of important and complex philosophical topics, rejects them on their face, and makes no hint that there is anything more to be said about the issue. In teleology, McGinn gives about a one-paragraph overview of Paley's version of the argument from design, says that it is "undercut," and has done with the matter, completely ignoring all work in the area done in the last two hundred years. McGinn 'disproves' the existence of God a few pages later with the observation that, if everything complex was created, then God himself must have been created by "a super-God. But wait, this super-God himself exhibits design, and hence requires a super-super-God to create him. And so it goes on...." What about the contingent/necessary distnction? What about the idea that God exists outside of time? McGinn gives no consideration to even the most basic discussions on this topic.
If you are a layman and read this book, please keep in mind that for every topic McGinn rejects out of hand, there is a vast literature and there are many respectable philosophers who take it seriously. He waves away broad swaths of the philosophy that has been done since Plato with observations like, "but it is hard to see how this could be true at all." I am tempted to think that McGinn is right in his ultimate argument: that humans will never be able, on principle, to find out how consciousness arises from the physical brain. But his 'arguments' and his 'investigations' of crucial philosophical topics along the way are more akin to demagoguery, persuasive writing for the masses, than to any serious well-read philosophy. Feel free to take McGinn seriously about the narrow issue of our cognitive closure to the mind-brain link, but I urge you to disregard all his discussions of metaphysics, theology, and epistemology.
[With regard to the issue of cognitive closure to the mind-brain link, I also urge you to read Thomas Nagel's very famous article "What is it like to be a bat?" if you can find it in an anthology or something. Nagel's views on the topic are fairly similar, but ultimately less pessimistic.]
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