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on January 16, 2014
First off, I am a theist, but my negative review is NOT rooted in the fact that I believe in God and Mcginn does not. I've read many other works defending naturalism that left me feeling a bit more satisfied (despite disagreement) than "The Mysterious Flame."
I mainly would not recommend this book because Mcginn puts forth a weak argument for consciousness in naturalistic framework. Of course, he provides an accessible summary of some of the issues surrounding naturalism. These are much appreciated. But ultimately, it seems as though Mcginn is too quick to adopt mysterianism when it comes to explaining consciousness. I wish he would actually engage in this issue rather than pull the "mystery" card to the phenomenon. For this reason, I would be critical of Mcginn even if I were an atheist. I would have felt as though he gave up too quickly and didn't really put up a fight.
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on March 10, 2017
Good pop book.
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on March 7, 2000
McGinn gets right to the heart of the matter; er, make that right to the brains of the matter: consciousness is a hard nut to crack. Why? As McGinn clearly articulates the problem, modern philosophers and neuroscientists have mistaken consciousness for a very bad case of hiccups. Everything else follows. The frequent reference to Star Trek shows that McGinn takes none of this seriously and would rather be skiing in the Alps than trying to present one more guess about how the brain can be aware of the world. In fact, McGinn slams the lid down on the whole project, asserting that the answer will never be known. Not now. Not nowhere. And why? Digging from his obvious psychedelic past, McGinn says it is a problem of space...and not the sort of space in your living room where you arrange sofas, chairs, and coffee tables, but n-dimensional space that no human being can enter without whopping doses of Ketalar. So where does this leave the mind-body problem as we enter the 21st century? If McGinn is correct, and I think he is, it was left in a coffee can at local church social by a pious elderly woman who had trouble with her hearing aids through the whole affair.
Good book!
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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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on April 1, 2000
McGill states that there is something fundamentally different in the matter of consciousness as an object of scientific investigation, but he fails to state the problem in a way that will appear sensible to a scientist. Rather, in a big chunk of his book he indulges in scientific speculation about the properties that nature must have in order to bring forth consciousness, most ludicrously when positing structure in the "universe before the big-bang". In fact there may be a good question to be asked about consciousness but this book fails to rub it in.
To me the most disturbing facet of the book is its sloppiness and downright errors:
1. About understanding. He states that we shall never understand the mind and it appears that he thinks that science is about grasping some deep truth about nature. In fact science is not about understanding nature, it is about finding ways to describe (and therefore predict) nature. When Schroedinger discovered the wave function of matter he did not write down an equation that expressed what he "understood" about the nature of matter. Rather he wrote down an equation that seemed to correctly compute experimental results. In fact, many years later there is still discussion going on about how to "interpret" i.e. understand quantum mechanics, a theory full of apparent paradoxes. The fact that nobody really understands quantum mechanics may show some limitation of our intelligence but does not prove that matter has a "mysterious" nature. In the same way, even if we should never understand consciousness, it won't by itself mean that consciousness is "mysterious". True understanding is goal of philosophy not of science. Scientists grow confident working with successful theories and that is all there is.
2. About complexity. He claims that computers cannot have a mind, because even if programmed to speak Italian fluently and in an intelligent manner, they will never "really" understand Italian. The reason is that computers are merely machines that manipulate symbols - they don't really understand what they are doing (a rehash of the old "Chinese Room" argument). This is like saying that a painting is merely a agglomeration of colourful molecules. In fact, the value and meaning of the painting lies in its higher level structure: the complex arrangement of the colourful molecules set in relation to human psychology and culture. If a thinker concentrates exclusively on the low level structure then he or she will fail to perceive the meaning of complex objects. Most scientists today believe that the higher functions of our brain can be represented only on higher levels of organization (read the excellent "Goedel Escher Bach" about this matter). McGinn fails to see that complexity has the power to transform. He states that "a roomful" of interconnected calculators cannot be "any nearer" to consciousness than one calculator. In the same vein one can argue that a "skullful" of brain cells cannot be any nearer to consciousness than one single brain cell. (Actually, McGill may believe that just one brain cell is somehow conscious but then we may be excused for claiming that one calculator too is somehow a little conscious.)
3. About being. He states that "acting in a certain way is not sufficient for being in a certain way". To science, if something looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it is a duck by definition. This is especially clear with information processing systems. We do not yet have computers that display general intelligence - when we do have them it will be silly to claim that these computers do not "really" have any understanding even though they compose great music or make scientific discoveries. Today we do have computers that play good chess and there are some people who claim that these computers do not "really" play good chess, because they do not "really" understand the game - after all they only push symbols around, which is a task a human could in principle emulate with equal success without having any notion about chess. If in the future a scientist finds a way to operate on our consciousness, expanding our mind (repairing injury in our brains or connecting our consciousness to that of other human beings) or even transforming our minds (including a fourth basic colour in our visual perception), it would then be silly to claim that, for some philosophical reason, this scientist does not "really" understand human minds. In many cases what seems, is.
4. Intelligence versus consciousness. He seems to confuse these two very distinct concepts. Intelligence is not identical to consciousness - after all we can imagine a being that is intelligent but not conscious as well as a being that is conscious but not intelligent. He dedicates a whole chapter to "the Turing Test", which is a test designed to measure general intelligence, as if it were a test to measure consciousness. He states that this test "does not provide a necessary condition for consciousness" because a cat would not pass it. Of course, a cat does not pass the test, simply because a cat does not have general (humanlike) intelligence. This confusion is best seen in his use of the word "mind": sometimes it is used as meaning "consciousness" but other times as "intelligence". For example, when trying to show that consciousness is produced by the brain he criticizes dualism (a philosophical theory that states that consciousness and matter operate in different realms) and asks "Why does brain damage obliterate mental faculties?". From the context of the chapter (the discussion of dualism) one must assume that by "mental" he means conscious. On the other hand the sentence itself makes sense only when "mental faculty" is understood as "intelligence". Undoubtedly, the brain is the mechanism that produces intelligence, but McGinn does not really explain why he thinks that the "brain produces consciousness", even though almost his entire book is based on that assumption.
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VINE VOICEon August 18, 2002
As the dualism/materialism debate has raged on in philosophy and philosophers gloat privately that they've solved the problem, it is rare to see one willing to throw their hands in the air. Mcginn, although having written what in the end is a repetitive and self-defeating book, has made an admirable and somewhat enjoyable attempt to explain his partial surrender to hope of ultimate answers in philosophy of mind.
Mcginns theory, in an nutshell is that, while we can view the brain only from outside, we, at least so far, have only been able to see the mind from the inside. From this, he concludes that we can not connect the two views i.e., even if we know that certain neural patterns cause certain sensations, this only explains THAT there is a particular connection, not HOW those neurons create the sensation. The middle ground needed to transition the two views, Mcginn argues, is inaccessable to human consciousness.
It is here that Mcginn takes it too far, even though he is correct to remind us that we've no reason to expect that every concievable question has an answer accessable to human consciousness. He even reminds us that, as evolutionary creatures, our minds, like every other organ, were evolved to solve our ancestors problems. Why, from that standpoint, should we then expect that the human mind is capable of understanding itself? My answer would be that just as we have no reason to suspect that we can successfully answer the problem, we have no reason to suspect that we can't.
To make matters worse, explaining the theory the first time is not good enough. With slight variation, every chapter restates his theory with equal vigor. Even the discussions of the sections dispelling pansychism and dualism (with and without god) are given short treatment in favor of correspondingly lengthy explanations of why Mcginns theory is to be favored.
What good I can say is that this book is probably one of the best intros to tht philosophy of mind outside of Pinkers "How the Mind Works" and Dennett and Hofstadter's "The Minds I." For the more experienced, Read Mcginns (and for counterpoint, John Searle's) academic work.
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on August 6, 2015
Interesting that Mcginn, while saying that consciousness is unknowable, presents no information fom spiritual traditions that have studied the issue for thousands of years.
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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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on September 10, 2005
A Bargain, On Time and As Ordered - what more could I ask for?

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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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