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The Problem of Consciousness.

Unconsciousness might seem to most people a more genuinely problematic state than consciousness, but McGinn's title alludes to a problem posed to Descartes, and thereby bequeathed to philosophy, by Princess Elizabeth of Bohemia. She wondered how a thinking substance, the soul of a man, could determine his bodily spirits to perform voluntary actions. McGinn is concerned with some more contemporary, less obviously Cartesian variants of this mind-body problem--for example, "How is it possible for conscious states to depend on brain states?" and "How could the aggregation of millions of insentient neurons generate subjective awareness?" (p. 1). He suggests that such queries about "the psychophysical link" are in fact what Chomsky calls mysteries, that they are fated to elude our understanding. Using an idea of "cognitive closure" derived more from the notion of a closed mind than from that of a closed system or set, McGinn contends that our cognitive equipment is unequal to the task of apprehending a mysterious property, P, that would, if grasped, render the mental-physical link intelligible to us. His confidence that there is such a property seems inspired by a naturalistic belief that there are no miracles which could be presumed to account for consciousness as a magically emergent entity discontinuous with physical reality.

McGinn characterizes his position as a sort of (Kantian) noumenalism (p. 82). This seems reasonable insofar as he rejects the posibility of any phenomenal awareness of P, but it seems implausible to the extent that he insists that some (in principle inaccessible) science affords a "natural and prosaic" theory that explains the psycho-physical connection (p. 17). McGinn's hypothetical conception of a science beyond our ken, a science of things-in-themselves, is a way of trying to make sense of what he regards as the unintelligible intelligibility of the connection. No mean feat, to be sure. But is (even nontranscedent) science ever really in the business of fathoming rationally intelligible connections? McGinn here seems to presuppose an almost pre-Humean conception of causal relations.

P, that which "makes consciousness an intelligible product of brain activity" and which "constitutes embodiment or emergence," is said to be a property of some hidden structure of consciousness. Overlooking what the classical pragmatists had to say about the mediating role of habits in consciousness, McGinn says that the idea of any hidden structure in consciousness is absent from the intellectual landscape. According to him, consciousness is not so fully revealed to inner sense as we think, and it is the incapacity of introspection to discern the structure of consciousness that makes us unable to solve the mind-body problem.

Readers who doubt that meanings are wholly "in the head" may be disinclined to accept McGinn's comparison between the hidden structure of consciousness and the underlying logical form of propositions; for while logical analysis may in some sense clarify what one believes when one believes that p, this is more a matter of reformulating p in a way that indicates what follows from p--what is true if p is--than it is some sort of (introspective?) assay of p's inner nature within the mind of the believer. McGinn suggests that unless propositions actually have logical form they cannot stand in logical relations to one another. This way of thinking may explain why he thinks that consciousness must have some sort of intelligible structure if it is to be related to the brain. (Yet if I am someone's brother, must I be possessed of some sort of abstract brotherness?)

For empirical support of hidden structure McGinn appeals to cases of blindsight, in which, for example, a cortically damaged subject claims not to "see in a certain portion of her visual field," and yet, on the basis of alleged guessing, "can reliably tell you what kind of thing lies in the 'blind' part" (p. 110). But whether blindsight is evidence for some sort of hidden structure seems irrelevant to whether there also exists some other sort of hidden structure capable of rendering the mind-body link intelligible to better minds than ours. By what effects is this sort of structure known (or even suspected) to exist?

The second set of four papers in this collection was published before the first four and is said to involve "thinking along different lines." In these final chapters, anomolous monism is defended on non-Davidsonian grounds; functionalism is adjudged to be no more plausible than phenomenalism, which is said to be analogous to but incompatible with functionalism; and machine consciousness is said to require the selfsame unknown property that makes the brain--itself a machine--conscious. McGinn's later thinking, recorded earlier in the book, has it that this unknown is an unknowable property of consciousness, an enigma in which the mystery of consciousness remains shrouded.
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Author:Senchuk, Dennis M.
Publication:The Review of Metaphysics
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 1993
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