^z 20th December 2023 at 9:29am

An early edition of the fantasy-role-playing card game Magic: The Gathering included an amusing character, the Grey Ogre who "... believed the purpose of life was to live as high on the food chain as possible. She refused to eat vegetarians preferring to live entirely on creatures that preyed on sentient beings."

Colin McGinn is, however, a vegetarian. He's also a recovering video-game addict, a surf kayaker, a science-fiction fan, and a professor of philosophy. In The Mysterious Flame: Conscious Minds in a Material World McGinn aims a blowtorch at his fellow thinkers who try to explain how brains work. CMcG is a Mysterian who contends that (for humans) mind is by nature incomprehensible, and always will be.

Of course, I disagree with almost every major thesis in McGinn's book. Nonetheless I found Mysterious Flame delightful to read, uniformly well-written, and chock-a-block full of fallacious arguments which led me to think through and sharpen many of my own too-fuzzy beliefs. A few of the neural firing patterns that arose in my hypermaterialistic brain circuitry:

  • Universality: It takes a certain level of complexity to produce a universal Turing Machine, one which can emulate any other. Might not the sudden jump in mindpower that seems to happen at the human level be a consequence of suddenly achieving such universality?
  • Skepticism: Introspection is a notoriously blunt instrument. Hypotheses derived from it must be examined with extreme caution. Likewise, beware of seductive arguments based upon scenarios that are orders-of-magnitude removed from actuality — e.g., Chinese-Room-ism and other sleight-of-mind philosophical just-so stories.
  • Constraint: To solve arbitrarily complex problems, computing machinery requires unlimited memory and unlimited time. Human minds have neither. Finiteness of resources should not be mistaken for proof that something subtle is forever unknowable.
  • Parochialism: Just because something is unconventional or non-obvious doesn't mean that it's impossible or irrelevant. All numbers can be defined in terms of sets of (sets of (...)) empty sets, for instance: (), (()), (()()), ((()())()), etc. All of mathematics can be done via set-theoretic manipulations. There's no magic in the material building blocks. Rather, meaning materializes from the relationships among those blocks.
  • Boundlessness: There's nothing the matter with an infinite series, and similarly no reason to flinch from an infinite regression when dealing with a transcendent issue.
  • Simplicity: How much consciousness is there in a simple system? Why draw arbitrary lines between "higher" animals and "lower" ones? Might not all of them be conscious, to greater and lesser degrees? And continue on down to systems like sea slugs or computer programs, where the entire wiring diagram fits on a single sheet of paper: what kind of a mind does such a configuration have? What does it feel like to be a thermostat?

My bottom line: minds arise from objects and the reliable patterns of (patterns of (...)) their interactions. Nowadays, brains are the most obvious hosts for minds because brains support more complex yet reliable interactions per unit of time than do other substrates. Different hosts for minds can (and do, and will) exist.

(see also MeanMeaners (3 Jul 1999), TheMysterians (2 Aug 1999), BitsOfConsciousness (21 Jan 2000), MostImportant (16 May 2002), FreedomEvolves (3 Jul 2003), ColinMcGinn (30 Oct 2003), DiaryBenefits (29 Feb 2004), ... )

TopicMind - TopicPhilosophy - TopicLiterature - 2004-08-12

(correlates: CounterBeanCounters, Comments on WorthRemembering1, HardyLittlewoodRules, ...)