"Meat all the Way Down": Colin McGinn's The Mysterious Flame

This paper reflects the research and thoughts of a student at the time the paper was written for a course at Bryn Mawr College. Like other materials on Serendip, it is not intended to be "authoritative" but rather to help others further develop their own explorations. Web links were active as of the time the paper was posted but are not updated.

Contribute Thoughts | Search Serendip for Other Papers | Serendip Home Page

Biology 202
2002 First Paper
On Serendip

"Meat all the Way Down": Colin McGinn's The Mysterious Flame

Hilary Hochman

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.

McGinn offers a third way out of the mind-brain problem: pessimism and acceptance of failure. McGinn agrees with materialists that it is properties of the brain, and the brain alone, which produce consciousness. These properties, however, are unknowable, emerging in their turn from properties of space and matter that the human brain cannot perceive. He postulates a theory he dubs "mysterianism," a respectable way of saying the world will never know. McGinn argues that, in contemplating the origin and nature of consciousness, the human mind has come to the edge of its conceptual capacity: the mind peers over the cliff, but can see nothing but an endless abyss below. While human intelligence can perceive the problem, it cannot understand the answer.

McGinn relies primarily on the concept of cognitive closure to support this argument. Human intelligence, he argues, evolved in response to the environment in which humans had to survive. Thus, certain human capacities are well developed, including the ability to navigate in three-dimensional space and to predict the effect of actions in a three-dimensional world. The imperatives of survival, however, have left other capacities undeveloped or nonexistent: for example, the human brain cannot perceive radar or infrared, or understand whale song. The ability to understand consciousness is simply not, McGinn argues, one of the human brain's talents. Specifically, because consciousness is a nonspatial phenomenon, which affects and is affected by objects that occupy space, McGinn argues that consciousness must have spatial characteristics not perceptible to the human brain. Similarly, while consciousness appears to be immaterial, it is created by and in turn affects matter. Therefore, McGinn reasons, consciousness must depend upon properties of matter imperceptible to the human brain and inaccessible to the mind. McGinn acknowledges that the key to consciousness is located in every sentient organism's genes, because genes code for the construction of all biological phenomena, including consciousness. Yet McGinn maintains that human intelligence as it is currently constructed will never unlock this code.

McGinn's exposition of the mind-brain problem is an intelligent and readable summary of centuries of philosophic debate. Explicitly addressing the layperson, he does not fall into the trap of spewing jargon, although he often belabors his points with one too many repetitious analogies. His straightforward and informal style effectively establishes a dialogue with the reader, although his bursts of self-revelation can become distracting. (Perhaps no one really needs to know about his infatuation with Seven of Nine on television's Starship Voyager.)

As interesting as his argument is, however, McGinn never quite proves his point. The concept of cognitive closure is intuitively appealing and supported by empirical observation: there are in fact various physical phenomena the brain cannot perceive or interpret. It is likely, then, that the brain's limitations similarly constrain the conscious mind. However, McGinn cannot provide a satisfactory account of why humans would experience cognitive closure with regard to consciousness, rather than any other mystery of the natural universe. His supposition that there are properties of space and matter that the human brain cannot perceive and that human intelligence has not yet deduced appears eminently reasonable. However, McGinn does not explain why the properties of space and matter that underpin the structure and formation of consciousness from its origin in the brain will always remain beyond human understanding.

McGinn's examples of human misconceptions about space, for example, undermine the very point he is trying to make. As he points out, contrary to what the brain perceives, humans have deduced that the Earth is not flat, nor does the sun revolve around it, and that matter is not solid. His examples support the idea that humans have been wrong about the natural and biological world, often because their own brains deceive them. Yet human intelligence can deduce, from empirical observations and analysis, physical properties not readily apparent to the brain; McGinn likens humans studying consciousness to pre-Einsteinian physicists, but never makes clear why this analogy presupposes failure rather than success.

Accepting McGinn's proposition of cognitive closure, then, does not necessarily lead to McGinn's ultimate conclusion. Indeed, if cognitive closure can be found anywhere, perhaps it is not in knowing what it is we do not know, but rather in recognizing what we cannot know. How can we know that we cannot know something? If human intelligence is cognitively closed to understanding consciousness, how can human intelligence ever deduce this?

McGinn rests his conviction that the problem of consciousness cannot be solved in part on his misunderstanding of the nature of scientific inquiry. He views science as a collection of disciplines which "ask answerable questions and moves steadily forward," while philosophers wrestle with the insoluble questions at the frontiers of cognitive closure. (1). Were McGinn convinced that scientific inquiry produces as much uncertainty as it dispels, he would find the distinction between science and philosophy less clear cut . Perhaps counterintuitively, his view of science as simple and unambiguous causes McGinn to demand more of science than it can deliver. Like philosophers, scientists often theorize well beyond their empirical observations, altering or abandoning theories as new observations undermine them, but never arriving at one single, immutable truth. As a philosopher, McGinn has assumed a level of certainty in science that is available nowhere in human inquiry and scholarship, be it scientific or philosophic (and his assumption that there is a clear line between these two fields bespeaks unfamiliarity with one or both of them). Seeing uncertainty before him, McGinn announces that the path is cognitively closed and turns back before the journey has truly begun.



(1) McGinn, Colin. The Mysterious Flame: Conscious Minds in a Material World. New York: Basic Books, 1999.

Related Web and JStor Resources:

By Colin McGinn:

The following papers and reviews by Colin McGinn are more detailed and technical discussions of aspects of the argument set forth in The Mysterious Flame:

"Can We Solve the Mind--Body Problem?" Colin McGinn. Mind, New Series, Vol. 98, No. 391. (Jul., 1989), pp. 349-366. Stable URL: The answer is no.

This paper discusses the limits of human knowledge, with an emphasis on Chomsky's theories.

This paper discusses the need to discover new properties of space to better understand consciousness, and impossibility of doing so

A review of Steven Pinker's How the Mind Works, in which McGinn elaborates on his theory of the mind.

Reviews of The Mysterious Flame





| Forums | Serendip Home |

Send us your comments at Serendip

© by Serendip 1994- - Last Modified: Wednesday, 02-May-2018 10:53:09 CDT