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The Mysterious Flame by Colin McGinn


If non-flesh conscious creatures in the universe exist, they may be surprised that “conscious meat” exists. How could meat end up producing consciousness? Colin McGinn writes that it is like finding a ball that accelerates without any force on it or a flame that has nothing to do with thermal energy. “How did the water of biological tissue turn into the wine of consciousness?” Chairs have no conscious. Neither do toes. Even brain parts that regulate basic functions have no more consciousness than a kidney.


McGinn is awed by the phenomenon of consciousness. We constantly experience consciousness, yet we know little about it. Could we exist without it? Could a species of zombie create our culture? Can creativity exist without consciousness? How many behaviors and mental functions depend on consciousness? Is earth the only place consciousness exists? What are the odds of consciousness arising on another planet? Would we mistake robots that simulate consciousness for real consciousness?


McGinn gives many reasons why computers will never be conscious. Brains do not operate via algorithms. Simulation is not replication. Robots that pretend to be conscious are simply high-tech puppets. Many conscious activities—feeling pain—do not arise from crunching symbols. Combining computers, making them more powerful, does not add up to consciousness any more than a trillion grains of salt add up to a tomato. A trillion grains of salt is no closer to being a tomato than a single grain.  Nor will rhetorical definitions create consciousness. Defining consciousness as internal combustion does not make cars conscious. If a computer behind a screen can answer questions in a way indistinguishable from a human, that does not make it conscious. Children are conscious, and they would do terrible at such a test. Consciousness cannot be reduced to actions. Feeling pain differs from blood flowing through an artery. We can act as if we are in pain when we are not.


Computers currently have chess "consciousness" that exceeds humans, yet no consciousness. A computer chess champion is no more conscious than a flashlight. We don’t know what makes humans conscious, which makes it hard to know what would make a computer conscious. There are things about the universe or beyond the universe that we are clueless about to the point of not even knowing what it is we are clueless about—or whether we could understand if we had a clue. Many do not know anything about rugby strategy, but at least we know what rugby is and we are capable of learning rugby strategy.


The mind and brain are intertwined with causal relationships, yet exist in different realms. Knowing every biological fact about a bat’s brain tells us nothing about the experience of echolocation. Mindless zombies and brainless ghosts are seemingly preposterous. How could something like a puff of smoke be conscious? McGinn reminds us that philosophy is hard. It is not as if all the smart people went into other professions, leaving the dregs for philosophy. When superstars in other professions try philosophy, their writings are atrocious. Recommended. Book review by J.T. Fournier, last updated June 28, 2009.


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