All Machine and No Ghost — Mystery is quite pervasive, even in the hardest of sciences.

People sometimes ask me if I am still a mysterian, as if perhaps the growth of neuroscience has given me pause; they fail to grasp the depth of mystery I sense in the problem. The more we know of the brain, 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…

I have come to think that mystery is quite pervasive, even in the hardest of sciences. Physics is a hotbed of mystery: space, time, matter and motion – none of it is free of mysterious elements.

The puzzles of quantum theory are just a symptom of this widespread lack of understanding (I discuss this in my latest book, Basic Structures of Reality). The human intellect grasps the natural world obliquely and glancingly, using mathematics to construct abstract representations of concrete phenomena, but what the ultimate nature of things really is remains obscure and hidden.

How everything fits together is particularly elusive, perhaps reflecting the disparate cognitive faculties we bring to bear on the world (the senses, introspection, mathematical description). We are far from obtaining a unified theory of all being and there is no guarantee that such a theory is accessible by finite human intelligence…

The “mysterianism” I advocate is really nothing more than the acknowledgment that 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 no one would regard as faintly omniscient. The current state of the philosophy of mind, from my point of view, is just a reflection of one evolutionary time-slice of a particular bipedal species on a particular humid planet at this fleeting moment in cosmic history – as is everything else about the human animal. There is more ignorance in it than knowledge.

Colin McGinn


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