An old philosophical canard refers to ‘the ghost in the machine’—consciousness in the brain. Philosophers don’t believe in ghosts, but most sure do believe in machines.
For example, the renowned and recently disgraced academic philosopher, Colin McGinn, published an essay in the New Statesman last year entitled, “All Machine and No Ghost?” The piece begins with at once a solid and ephemeral set of questions (itself no mean trick), but then proceeds to immediately go off the rails with an unexamined assumption that nearly all philosophers take as a given.
The brain-taxing set of questions is: “What is consciousness, why does it exist, how is it related to the body and brain, and how did it come into existence?” If that sounds a bit like a Zen koan, it’s not meant to be. This question, or some variation of it, is at the core of philosophy of mind.
While the questions are quintessentially valid, and need to be addressed without any preconditions, the article goes on the frame the debate in a way that presupposes the outcome.
“Try to imagine a world with no consciousness in it, just clashing quanta in the void and clumps of dead, insensate matter (the way our universe used to be); now add consciousness to it.”
“The way our universe used to be?” That’s a classic assumption and unexamined premise. Be careful what you parenthesize, it may unwittingly emphasize.
Philosophy and science have yet to explain how “clumps of dead, insensate matter” become lumps of living, sensate flesh. The various conceptualizations of how consciousness can be and came to be—dualism, idealism, reductionism and panpsychism—fail to resolve the mystery. McGinn takes final refuge in something called ‘mysterianism,’ declaring consciousness to be an unsolvable mystery.
“The more we know of the brain,” McGinn declares, “the less it looks like a device for creating consciousness: it’s just a big collection of biological cells and a blur of electrical activity – all machine and no ghost.”
Descartes’ dualism rightly strikes our postmodern ears as begging the question: If mind and matter are separate, how did mind come into being? Are we are compelled to posit the infinite regression of a Supreme Being that breathed consciousness into us?
Idealism doesn’t cut it either, since the idea that everything is mind (a favorite theme and meme of New Age philosophy), makes a mockery of material reality. And it simply ignores or whitewashes the real-world contradiction between man and nature, and the threat that one sentient species poses to the other animals with whom it shares the planet.
Panpsychism is more interesting and enticing, but as McGinn says, it “looks a lot like preformationism in biology: we try to explain the emergence of organic life by supposing that it already exists in microscopic form in the pre-life world—as if the just-fertilized egg has a little, fully formed baby curled up in it waiting to expand during gestation.”
Even so, panpsychism points in the right direction in my view. There’s consciousness that’s epiphenomenon, and consciousness that’s phenomenon. The first is the result of physical brain processes; the second is not solely produced from brain processes. The former is what we usually know; the latter is called ‘mystical experience,’ which is denied by the idea of “clashing quanta in the void and clumps of dead, insensate matter.”
Consciousness as we usually know it–the associative, chattering mind–is a by-product of so-called higher thought. It’s inherently limited, and when primary, as it is with man, it’s inevitably destructive.
Even so, content-consciousness, as a by-product of the evolution of symbolic thought, is a partial manifestation of cosmic consciousness, which permeates the universe as a whole. The brain, having crossed the evolutionary threshold enabling symbolic thought, gave humans the capacity for cosmic consciousness; but at the same time, the symbol producing brain is also the greatest impediment to realizing full consciousness.
Whether other animals on this planet are sentient (conscious that they are conscious), I don’t know, but I doubt it. As intelligent as Orcas, bonobos and crows are, as much as they communicate with each other at high levels with complex ‘languages,’ they don’t live in symbolic worlds of their own making, separating themselves from nature and each other.
In short, the paradox is that universe evolves brains capable of awareness of Mind, but that in so doing, the separating mind gets in the way of the capacity of the brain for awareness of the immeasurable wholeness of the cosmos. That’s our riddle to resolve, philosophically and individually.
There are resolvable mysteries that continually require uncovering and explaining; and there is an irresolvable mystery that continuously requires discovering and venerating. McGinn closes out the former, while diminishing the latter.
It’s simply not good enough for philosophy to retreat into mysterianism and say: “Human intelligence is a local, contingent, temporal, practical and expendable feature of life on earth – an incremental adaptation based on earlier forms of intelligence.” That’s both false modesty, and false mystery.
It isn’t a matter of aspiring to omniscience, but finding the right balance between the pursuit of knowledge and explanation, and the prime directive of humility and stillness in the face of the infinite mystery and miracle of consciousness.