Colin McGinn:

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(Copyright © 2000 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions - Termini d'uso )

McGinn believes that there is nothing "magic" about consciousness: consciousness is a natural phenomenon just like many others (lightning or hurricanes or comets) and, as such, it is a consequence of the way matter is structured and functions (specifically, how the brain works). We are capable of understanding natural phenomena like lightning and hurricanes, but McGinn suspects that we are not capable of understanding "all" natural phenomena. There are natural phenomena that our mind cannot comprehend, just because our mind is not an infinitely powerful computer: it has limits. In a sense, his central thesis is that our mind has limitations. Once he gets this idea through, then it is much easier to advance the hypothesis that consciousness itself could be one of the phenomena that fall within the mind's limitations, i.e. fall outside the "cognitive closure" of the human mind. That does not mean that nobody can ever explain consciousness: a being equipped with a "better" mind could understand how consciousness works, where it comes from and what it is. But not our mind.
We can even understand how the brain works. The brain is a natural phenomenon that we can easily investigate with our science. We will learn more and more about the brain. We will eventually work out a very detailed model of the brain. We may even be able to reproduce the brain molecule by molecule. But we will never be able to figure out how emotions arise from the unconscious matter that makes up the brain.
McGinn's fundamental assumption is that the human mind is biased in its cognitive skills. This follows from a Darwinian view of life: all of our organs are biased, one way or another, towards coping with the environment. McGinn simply extends this principle to the mind. Our mind is very skilled at understanding spatial and temporal relationships, and at doing what we call Science. Our mind is probably not very skilled at doing things that would be useful on Mars but that do not exist on Earth, Thus it is reasonable to assume that the human mind has been designed by evolution to solve some problems better than others, and not to solve many problems at all.
In particular, McGinn thinks that our intelligence is not designed to understand consciousness. Science is the systematic understanding of nature by the human mind, but it is limited to what the human mind can understand. There might be many things in nature that the human mind will never understand, and maybe not even perceive. Consciousness is one of them. Our brains were not biologically designed to understand consciousness. McGinn even speculates that knowledge of ourselves is useful to a limit: maybe if we could fully understand ourselves, we would get very depressed and not willing to survive anymore. Thus natural selection may have pruned away the ones who did understand consciousness, and left only the ones who could not understand it, of whom we are the descendants.
McGinn takes issues with the most popular theories of consciousness. He admits that panpsychism (the theory that the mental is a fundamental attribute of matter) is the one that makes logical sense, although he then proceeds to ridicule it as "obvious". Most philosophers and scientists do not believe in panpsychism, so either they are all idiots or it is not so obvious that it is true.
On the other hand, he ventures to speculate that consciousness might be a very ancient invention. In fact, the fact that consciousness has no spatial dimensions leads him to speculate that consciousness may have tapped into a non-spatial property that disappeared with the Big Bang (the cosmic event that created the spatial universe we live in). This is a fascinating hypothesis: that our minds may be remnants of a dimension that does not exist anymore but that was pervasive in the pre-Big Bang universe.
He explores other possibilities, and indulges on the theme that we don't know what the "self" is, so, technically speaking, it doesn't even make much sense to be afraid of death (the cessation of the self).
He cunningly refutes the idea that computers can be conscious in virtue of being computers. McGinn explains that this idea is based on a bad theory of consciousness. We have no evidence that the property of running a program is the property that yields consciousness. This does not mean that conscious machines are impossible: the key is in finding out what is the property that yields consciousness, and then implementing that feature in a machine. McGinn points out that one such machine already exists: me. Thus it is feasible. Cogito, ergo I am feasible. McGinn changes the question to make it more interesting: can a machine made of inorganic material be conscious?
McGinn has written an original book. Most books are about aspects of human knowledge. His book is a study of human ignorance.
A masterpiece of introspection.

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