New Mysterianism and the Riddle of Consciousness


The brain summons mind, summons enigma. iStock
The brain summons mind, summons enigma. iStock

Is human consciousness simply impossible for us to ever understand? That's what the New Mysterians are telling us.

Let's refresh. You have an organic brain, which neuroscientist Christof Koch calls the most complex object in the known universe. That brain manifests what we call the mind. We study the brain. We study the mind. And then we struggle to comprehend the psycho-physical nexus. And this is where we get the mind body problem.

Neuroscientists, psychologists, philosophers and theologians all struggle to understand consciousness within their respective disciplines. They work toward an answer, but the New Mysterian philosophers argue we might simply be incapable of solving the riddle.

The most prominent of the New Mysteirans is Colin McGinn, who recently outlined this philosophy in an excellent panel (watch it here) at the 2013 World Science Festival. The brain itself cannot conceive the natural coexistence of mind and brain. It's not that we're dumb, but we only evolved to carry out certain cognitive feats: navigating a changing world, hunting, surviving within a society, etc. What's the evolutionary advantage of understanding the nature of consciousness?

This all involves some of the same concepts as Cognitive Closure: the philosophic idea that humans can only hope to understand certain aspects of universe and simply lack the brains to understand everything.

The exception to this, of course, is the steady accumulation and preservation of scientific data over the course of human history. So we kind of cheat a bit with science, this god-of-ideas that stands outside of us. Yet all of this external accumulation can't overcome inner cognitive limits.

So what do you think? Do you buy New Mysteiranism and Cognitive Closure or do you think we can solve the mind body problem?


About the Author: Robert Lamb spent his childhood reading books and staring into the woods — first in Newfoundland, Canada and then in rural Tennessee. There was also a long stretch in which he was terrified of alien abduction. He earned a degree in creative writing. He taught high school and then attended journalism school. He wrote for the smallest of small-town newspapers before finally becoming a full-time science writer and podcaster. He’s currently a senior writer at HowStuffWorks and has co-hosted the science podcast Stuff to Blow Your Mind since its inception in 2010. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling with his wife Bonnie, discussing dinosaurs with his son Bastian and crafting the occasional work of fiction.