Colin Mc Ginn's The Mysterious Flame Essay

1483 words - 6 pages

Early in The Mysterious Flame, (1)., philosopher Colin McGinn's breezy but provocative discussion of the relationship between consciousness and the brain, McGinn presents a telling vignette from a science fiction story in which aliens are discussing their observations of humans:

"These creatures are the only sentient race in the sector and they're made out of meat. . . .They're meat all the way through."
"No brain?"
"Oh, there is a brain all right. It's just that the brain is made out of meat."
"So . . .what does the thinking?"
"You're not understanding, are you? The brain does the thinking. The meat."
"Thinking meat! You're asking me to believe in thinking meat!"
"Yes, thinking meat! Conscious meat! Loving meat. Dreaming meat. The meat is the whole deal. Are you getting the picture?" (1).

It is this apparent contradiction, that initially insensate organic material can create consciousness, a phenomenon without apparent material content or spatial location, which McGinn sets out to explain. Many philosophers and scientists have undertaken this journey before him, but McGinn contends that this long road of philosophical inquiry is actually a blind alley. While McGinn believes that the mind is indeed a product of the material qualities of the brain, he argues that the mind (or brain) does not itself possess the ability solve what philosophers denominate "the mind-body problem," (although "mind-brain problem" might be more accurate).

McGinn begins by rejecting both traditional materialism and dualism. Materialists propose that the brain and consciousness are one and the same: thus, brain waves not only correlate with consciousness, they are consciousness. McGinn faults this position for ignoring the very nature of conscious experience. The experience of consciousness, he argues, does not directly correlate with brain waves or the activity on a PET scan. Studying these physical phenomena alone will tell the observer nothing about the experience of consciousness, while endless introspective inspection of one's conscious state would not lead to any description of the brain's anatomy or physiology, let alone that neurons within it were firing as one thought.

Likewise, McGinn rejects dualism, the proposition that consciousness exists completely independent of the brain, because its proponents also ignore empirical observations. Were consciousness completely disconnected from the brain, a fully functioning brain could exist without consciousness, and consciousness could exist independent of the brain, thereby producing what McGinn terms ghosts (disembodied minds) and zombies (organisms with mindless brains, beings who can act but who do not perceive). Dualism thus does not account for empirical observations of conscious organisms, in which the consciousness's existence appears to depend on the brain's activity, and vice-versus. Yet neither science nor philosophy has yet offered a satisfactory explanation of this interdependence.


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