The Problem of Consciousness 
by Colin McGinn.
Blackwell, 216 pp., £30, December 1990, 0 631 17698 5
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Whatever, you may be wondering, became of the mind-body problem? This new collection of Colin McGinn’s philosophical papers is as good a place to find out as any I know of. Published over a period of more than a decade, and drawn together from the usual motley of largely inaccessible academic journals, these essays provide a vivid introduction to current views in the philosophy of mind and to their immediate precursors. Professionals will find, in the earlier publications (which, confusingly, come last in the book), a fascinating record of what happened to the philosophy of mind in England when Davidson and Kripke hit town. Professionals and laity alike will find, in the later publications, an up-to-date, sophisticated and enjoyably tendentious account of the present state of the art.

Mental phenomena present three embarrassing questions to any world view that purports to be even vaguely materialist: ‘How could anything material be conscious (in the way that, for example, pains and after-images are)?’ ‘How could anything material be rational (in the way that, for example, thoughts and inferences are)?’ ‘How could anything material be about anything (in the way that, for example, ideas and beliefs are)?’ Taken together, the second and third questions constitute what is called the problem of intentionality: ideas and beliefs purport to represent an extra-mental reality, in respect of which they are evaluable as true or false. The rationality of mental processes (thinking, inferring and the like) arguably consists of their being truth-preserving; in a properly conducted mental life ‘one true inference invariably suggests others,’ as Sherlock Holmes somewhere remarks. If you are a materialist, you will wonder how any of this can be true of mere stuff and matter – of mere brains, as it might be. And even if you are not a materialist, you might reasonably wonder how it can be true of anything at all. It is, after all, no clearer how souls could think or feel than how brains could.

It used to be universally taken for granted that the problem about consciousness and the problem about intentionality are intrinsically linked: that thought is ipso facto conscious, and that consciousness is ipso facto consciousness of some or other intentional object. In consequence, although the mind-body problem was generally conceded to be quite hard enough, thank you, at least there was supposed only to be one of it. Solve the consciousness-brain problem and you’ll get the intentionality-brain problem for free: or vice versa. So it was assumed.

Freud changed all that. He made it seem plausible that explaining behaviour might require the postulation of intentional but unconscious states. Over the last century, and most especially in Chomskian linguistics and in cognitive psychology, Freud’s idea appears to have been amply vindicated. ‘Unconscious mental process’ has come to sound decreasingly oxymoronic. The experimental investigation of unintrospectible thoughts is now the bread and butter of cognitive scientists, among whom the prevailing view is that mental processes are rational because they are computational.

If this is right, then to understand how a mechanism could be computational is to understand how it could be rational. And we do understand how a mechanism could be computational; if we didn’t, we couldn’t build computers.

This is breathtaking if correct; it is, perhaps, the first real insight anyone has had into how minds could be part of the natural order. The implications for philosophy are only just coming to be digested. One problem – the one McGinn’s book highlights – is that the more we understand about how brain processes could be rational, the less we see how their rationality is connected to their consciousness. As McGinn rightly says, ‘a proper theory of consciousness in terms of properties of the brain should make it intelligible that the brain is the basis of consciousness, but the computational properties of the brain do not furnish such a theory: it remains a mystery how cerebral computations could give rise to consciousness, as much a mystery as how mere matter could form itself into the organ of consciousness.’

The result is a situation that many philosophers find simply scandalous: the people who know most about how brains manage to be smart care least about how brains manage to be sentient. Cognitive scientists mostly think that consciousness is a damned nuisance: a pathological condition that some neural/computational circuits are prone to. Or they don’t think about consciousness at all. Dividing and conquering – concentrating on intentionality and ignoring consciousness – has proved a remarkably successful research strategy so far. But, it is, of course, doomed in the long run if the link between the two should turn out, after all, to be intrinsic. John Searle has recently been dining out on this line of thought.

That, then, is the background for the most interesting of McGinn’s papers, which are, fortunately, also the ones that philosophy buffs will find most accessible. As I read him, McGinn has four main claims on offer. First, the problem of consciousness isn’t a philosophical illusion. It isn’t going to be cured by Wittgensteinian therapy, or bypassed by eliminative materialism, or reduced away by conceptual analysis; it won’t in short, succumb to any of the tricks that philosophers use when they want to make their problems ‘dissolve’. Second, though the problem of consciousness is reals and pressing, it’s not going to be solved, because it’s just too hard. Either we’re not smart enough for the mind-body problem, or – what maybe comes to the same thing – we’re smart in the wrong way. Consciousness is (in Chomskian terminology that McGinn appropriates) not a problem but a mystery; and the mystery is intractable. Third, cognitive science notwithstanding, the mind-body problem for consciousness infects the mind-body problem for intentionality, so if we’re not going to get a solution for the one, we also aren’t going to get a solution for the other – not, at least, a ‘full’ or ‘complete’ solution. And fourth, although we aren’t going to figure out how mere matter can be conscious, this ought not shake us in our materialism:

the more you think about consciousness the more puzzling it comes to seem. It is comforting to reflect that from God’s point of view, i.e. the point of view of Nature, there is no inherent mystery about consciousness at all. The impression of mystery derives from our own incurable cognitive poverty, not from the objective world in which consciousness exists. There is no real magic in the link between mind and matter, however incapable we are of seeing how the trick is performed.

I am, I guess, variously moved by these four theses. It seems to me that McGinn is very likely right about the first. Heaven knows, we’re confused enough about consciousness: but I don’t think it’s the ‘I wonder what time it is on the Sun when it’s three o’clock in Omaha’ kind of confusion – the kind of confusion that goes away when you get your concepts under control. There is, to quote a resonant phrase of Tom Nagel’s that McGinn approves of, ‘something it’s like’ to be in a conscious state, and we do not understand how there could be anything that it’s like to be in a material condition. The perplexity about how anything material could be conscious is even worse than the perplexity about how anything material could be alive (an analogy to which McGinn instructively draws our attention). To be alive is to have certain capacities. There are all sorts of things that living people can do but dead people can’t: eat, drink, sing, heal their wounds, propagate their kind, and so on. A materialist theory of life would be an explanation of how something material could do those sorts of things. We can therefore give an account of what a theory life has to explain without having to invoke the concept of a living thing. We can say, in non-question-begging terms, what a theory of life is a theory about.

But the situation seems not to be like this in the case of the theory of consciousness; it’s not clear that there are capacities that depend on consciousness as such. That is, it’s not clear that there are capacities you have only if you are in a state that there is something that it’s like to be in. Consciousness, it would seem, is just the capacity to be in states that are, well, conscious. The problem of consciousness seems therefore to be completely isolated from the rest of what psychologists work on. That’s the gloomy side of the cheerful news that the cognitive science strategy of bypassing the problem apparently works. There seems to be no way out of the problem of consciousness because there seems to be no way into it.

Is the solution of the mind-body problem beyond us; is it just too hard for our kind of mind? Pessimism draws the inductive conclusion from a history of unremitting failure. Optimism remarks that problems that seem utterly intractable have been known to turn inside out when somebody has a good idea. The issue seems academic even by academic standards; what’s clear is that nobody has had any good ideas about consciousness yet.

The third claim, that the connection between consciousness and intentionality is intrinsic (the ‘attempted extrusion of the subjective from the semantic just does not work’), is the one that will worry cognitive scientists most; I admit to its worrying me. This issue, though pregnant, is technical and I can’t do more than give the flavour of it here.

McGinn’s basic idea is that, for at least some conscious states – viz. perceptual sensations – the connection between intentional properties and conscious (‘qualitative’) properties is ‘anything but contingent’, so a ‘full’ or ‘complete’ explanation of the former must willy nilly invoke the latter. (McGinn rests a lot, in my view too much, on the claim that a theory of intentionality without a theory of consciousness couldn’t be ‘complete’. What, exactly, is a complete explanation, one wonders? And are there any examples of the kind?) ‘The content of an experience simply does contribute to what it is like to have it, and indeed it is not at all clear that anything else does. A visual experience, for example, presents the world to the subject in specific ways, as containing spatially-disposed objects of various shapes and colours, and this kind of “presentation-to” is constitutive of what it is like to have visual experience.’

I’m not convinced that this is right; I certainly hope that it isn’t. For one thing, somebody who is as thoroughgoing a Realist about qualitative properties as McGinn surely ought to take inverted spectra to be conceptually possible. (This is the conceptual possibility that what looks to you the way that red things do to me might look to me the way green things do to you.) But if spectrum inversion is conceptually possible, then it presumably follows that the connection between qualitative content and intentional content isn’t internal. Not, at least, if ‘intentional content’ means something like ‘truth conditions’. For if, in the case imagined, we both look at the same tomato, we have qualitatively different visual experiences that are nevertheless caused by, and true of, the very same thing. Or again: it appears that after-images, memory images and the like can exhibit figural ambiguities. Retinally-stabilised after-images of the Necker cube reverse, just like the drawings in a Psychology text. This suggests that their qualitative character doesn’t, after all, determine the satisfaction conditions of mental images – no more than a line drawing of a Necker cube determines its spatial orientations.

These matters are, however, far from settled. McGinn may be right about the limitations of divide and conquer. But it is surely remarkable – it is itself a fact in need of explanation – that divide and conquer has worked so well so far. Descartes wouldn’t have given tuppence for its chances.

Finally, suppose that the problems about consciousness really are intractable: how much is our materialism prejudiced? McGinn tells us again and again that consciousness can’t really be miraculous; that, even though we don’t know how consciousness could ‘arise’ from a material substrate, we do know that it does; that the problem of consciousness probably isn’t intrinsically hard (it’s only hard for us). And so on. He also tells us, however, that all of this is perhaps cold comfort, and I do think that is so.

The notion of a miracle is self-cancelling. If miracles did happen, they would be part of the natural order too, there being no place else for them to happen in. Conversely, to say something isn’t miraculous – that it isn’t intrinsically inexplicable – is, I suppose, just to say that it happens. The only substantive notion of explanation we have is, after all, extrinsic: it’s the notion of explanation for us. What, then, is the difference between there being no explanation of consciousness and there being one that only God can understand? I’m not consoled by the news that consciousness looks okay to God; miracles would too.

In this respect, it seems to me, McGinn is, uncharacteristically, inadequately depressed. If, as McGinn supposes, the problem about consciousness really isn’t just a muddle, then there is something going on that we deeply do not understand, something that our best science gives no hint of accommodating. Perhaps there is some sense in which that might be true and materialism still be vindicated: but it looks to me like what’s left of materialism if consciousness eludes it as a matter of principle is hardly going to be worth defending. Materialism is supposed to be an ontological thesis, but mostly it’s epistemology in disguise. What we imagine to be compatible with our materialism is, I think, just about the same as what we can imagine ourselves being able to explain. That consciousness might be the one but not the other strikes me as a wan doctrine and an empty hope.

The trick in the philosophy of consciousness would be to find a middle way between Chicken Little and the ostrich. I don’t think McGinn has managed this; I don’t think that anybody has. But, unlike many philosophers who discuss the issue, McGinn has the good sense to err largely on the Chicken Little side. The wise bird always assumes that the sky is falling unless it is quite certain that it’s not. If you want to read somebody clever worrying about a problem that’s worth somebody clever’s worrying about, read The Problem of Consciousness.

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Vol. 13 No. 14 · 25 July 1991

The concept of consciousness is certain to remain intractable for as long as philosophers persist in regarding its solution in terms of providing answers to any variant of Thomas Nagel’s question ‘What’s it like to be a bar?’ Just think, to begin with, how hard pressed we would be to answer what it’s like to be us. There may be something it’s like to be me, and I may be able, more or less, to put this into words, enabling others to know, through understanding those words, what it’s like to be A.C.D. Or there may be something untransferable to words, in which case others will never know. But either way, the problem is one of epistemology, of a piece with the old Lockian questions about such things as the taste of pineapples for those who have never tasted them. There are further complications, one might think, of counter-identity: any of us might hope to taste pineapple one day, but I alone can be me. But that presupposes that there is, in each of our cases, an ineffable isness that floods consciousness, when there may be no such thing. I can begin to communicate what it’s like to be me with lists of things I believe, fear, want, remember, hope, crave, am turned on by. Some of the beliefs at least will be shared with others, but how much of this whole complex of propositional attitudes comes into consciousness at any one time? In any case, I would have much the same task of reconstructing the picture of myself as I would have for constructing pictures of others. So there is an initial disadvantage in supposing there has to be some phenomenological given, which consists in the being of me, and to which I alone have access. Whatever the case. Nagel’s question leads into the familiar morasses of epistemology and phenomenology – the Problem of Other Consciousness, perhaps, but not the problem of consciousness construed as a natural product.

As for bats, there probably isn’t anything it’s like to be them, though I conjecture Nagel was led to his essentially Lockian formulation by pondering the mechanisms of ecolocation. But if bats are conscious of anything, it will almost certainly not be this feature of their relationship to the world, the processing of which is too essential to the bat’s survival for anything like conscious computation to occur: if it were up to consciousness, bats would long since have dashed their brains out against cavern walls, and perished as a species.

Jerry Fodor (LRB, 27 June) quite properly marks progress in the philosophy of mind as due in part to the loosening of consciousness as the criterion of the mental, beginning with Freud’s postulation of the UCS system, and proceeding to computational processes taking place without their hosts being conscious of their happening (otherwise, they could hardly have been discovered). It was Nietzsche who first observed that most of mental life can take place without any conscious registration of its going on, which led him to the question of what the use could be of something so demonstrably useless for most purposes minds are supposed to serve. Since it is fairly certain that the whole of the bat’s mental life takes place without the dubious benefits of consciousness, there is nothing in the case of the bat we fail to know about through our alleged incapacity to say what it’s like to be one. But Fodor seems rather too ready to identify consciousness with sentience, and perhaps the next stage in the progress will be to acknowledge that a great deal gets sensed without there being any conscious awareness of the content of the sensations. When an oyster contracts under the stimulus of lemon juice, it may sense without feeling, or, if that sounds awkward, feel without being conscious of what it feels, and the entire process can be understood as an unbroken chain of electrochemical events. There is certainly nothing mysterious about sentience, which is what activates the computational systems Fodor makes so central to his own writings on psychology. Which signals to respond to will be determined by evolution and inheritance, and none of it need obtrude into conscious awareness. Consciousness would in any case be the next step up, and in its lowest form, i.e. the awareness of sensory contents, so that creatures may be motivated by largely aesthetic considerations, preferring certain tastes to others.

Nagel’s question, in any case, begins to have application here: namely, what it’s like to be conscious of certain sensations – what it’s like to taste pineapple or, in case this seems to matter, what it would be like to taste pineapple if one were a member of another species conscious of such tastes, but not merely sentient of them, as flies attracted to pineapples might be. But we are, with this question, on familiar philosophical turf: it is the turf of Other Consciousnesses, and a suburb of the capital of Philosophical Scepticism.

To believe consciousness a mystery is to have allowed the problem of mind to have been usurped by the Problem of Other Minds. Fodor may or may not be right that this latter is immune to the various strategies of dissolution philosophers have generated in order to deal with one another’s puzzles, but he is perfectly right in thinking that these strategies will not dent the problem of consciousness, which is scientific, after all, and not philosophical. As a simple mental experiment, think only of what will have happened to the Problem of Other Consciousnesses when the scientific problem of consciousness is solved. Well, what happened to the paradoxes of Zeno when we demonstrated the possibility of space travel by going to the Moon?

Arthur C. Danto
Johnsonian Professor of Philosophy,

The friendliness and fairness of Jerry Fodor’s thoughtful review of my book The Problem of Consciousness, despite its variance with some of his own doctrines, makes me dither at the doors of dissent, but there are one or two points it might be helpful for me to comment on, if only for the real enthusiasts out there.

First let me correct a slight inaccuracy in his description of the book: it doesn’t consist solely of previously published articles, but contains two new pieces (the best ones!) that together add up to about two-fifths of the book: ‘Consciousness and the Natural Order’ and ‘The Hidden Structure of Consciousness’.

More substantively, Fodor makes three philosophical points with which I disagree – though, as he says, the issues here are hardly settled. First, he suggests that someone with my realist views about the qualitative properties of experience ought to allow for the possibility of inverted spectra, thus pulling apart content and qualia. I think myself, in opposition to this, that inverted spectrum cases are precisely cases in which representational content is changed, so that it fits qualitative character; it thus follows, for me, that the (semantic) content of experience is not fixed simply by causal relations to environmental objects – a consequence I welcome because of the special status of secondary qualities.

Second, I don’t think it’s quite correct to describe my position as materialist, except in the mildest sense – indeed, this would rather go against my claim that the problem of consciousness is epistemically closed to us. My view is that consciousness arises from the brain, which is a material object all right, but the properties of the brain that enable it so to arise are not going to be physical properties in any non-trivial sense: they will belong to a science radically discontinuous with any science we have available.

Third, Fodor says, I think rightly, that the notion of a miracle is ‘self-cancelling’, so that it is conceptually impossible for consciousness to be miraculous. Fine, that’s my position too, but it doesn’t follow that the notion of the miraculous exerts no hold over the philosophical imagination, making it seem like a real alternative to the transcendental naturalism I favour. It can’t be the case that consciousness is an objective miracle, but it can seem as if we are driven to this impossible position, unless we recognise that what is inexplicable by us can still be perfectly natural.

Colin McGinn
New York

Mental phenomena present embarrassing questions. Or do they? Maybe it is philosophers who make such questions appear so impossible. Take Jerry Fodor’s first question: ‘How could anything material be conscious?’ Is it so intractable? It depends how you ask the question. Consider this thought trail. Science has showns that, like ancient Cretans, the brain is a notorious liar – particularly about bodily experience and the outside world. Take your hands. Do they exist? The brain is economical with the truth. It persuades us that they are as material as the things they touch and grasp. But this experience of ‘reality’ is an intricate illusion. (A good illusion, since it makes the cognitive problem of experiencing what and where we are neuro-computationally tractable – which is why it evolved.) The illusion reveals itself in odd ways: sever your arm, and, as Descartes and modern neurologists (such as Oliver Sacks) have observed, the arm is still felt to exist – what we take to be our material extension is a phantom superposed on a material reality, a virtual reality moving normally in step with reality which can become out of step with it. The illusion shapes the world we experience. Perception is full of illusions, and not just visual ones – they touch our very sense of materiality. For instance, if a person feels a coin with their hands while seeing it through a distorting lens which makes it appear oval, their hands will feel it to be oval, not round. What the brain thinks it sees dominates what it thinks it feels. The scientists of the mind have something to tell philosophers: the brain does not experience the actual world – it experiences its own invented one. But it is an illusion and our intellectual questioning should respect this: there is not so much a mind-body problem as a mind/virtual body/actual body one. The pessimists will observe that we now have to account not only for how anything material can be conscious, but for how anything material can create a virtual and illusory sense of material existence. The optimists will observe that the second problem looks more tractable: crack it, and we will be in a good position to answer the first.

John Skoyles
Department of Psychology,

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