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Colin McGinn

  • 1. What does McGinn mean by cognitive closure? How does his view of the possibilities of a science of consciousness depend on this notion?
  • 2. Suppose a neuroscientist working on consciousness said, “McGinn’s argument about the cognitive closure of the human mind made me realize that we will never succeed in understanding consciousness. We should give up.” How might McGinn respond?
  • 3. Both McGinn and Nagel point to different ways in which we are cognitively closed off from understanding consciousness. How might someone argue that their arguments are similar? How might someone argue that they are very different?
  • 4. How might McGinn respond to someone who claims that since we are not cognitively closed off from formulating scientific questions about consciousness, we have no reason to believe we should be cognitively closed off from answering them. If we were really cognitively closed off from understanding consciousness, would we even acknowledge there was a problem? Dogs are cognitively closed off from understanding quantum mechanics, but as far as we know, they don’t ponder its mysteries. If they did, perhaps they too could come to understand them.
  • 5. Why does McGinn find the notion of physical matter problematic?
  • 6. What is McGinn’s view of property pluralism? How does this view strike you? How does it fit in with our scientific understanding of reality? Is it compatible with it? Why, or why not?
  • 7. Is consciousness a nonspatial phenomenon? How might McGinn respond to someone who claimed that consciousness is spatially located in the brain, along with all mental states? Why could it not be the case, for example, that a particular conscious experience, such as a headache, has a brain topology? Why could not the experiential field of consciousness have a brain topology? How might McGinn respond?
  • 8. Would it be possible for a creature X that was not cognitively closed off from the problem of consciousness, to introduce a physical change—perhaps a mutation—in a creature Y that was closed off, so that Y could understand the problem of consciousness? How might McGinn respond?
  • 9. What is McGinn’s principle of homogeneity? How does he use it to argue that consciousness has a nonspatial cause?
  • 10. Suppose someone argued that, on McGinn’s account, gravity should be as mysterious as consciousness. We have laws describing how objects with mass attract each other, but it is unclear how gravity is caused. It just seems to be wherever there is mass, just as consciousness seems to be wherever there is adequate brain substance. So gravity must also have a nonspatial explanation, and we will never be able to understand gravity, because we are nonspatial creatures. Is this a good argument against McGinn? Why, or why not?
  • 11. McGinn builds his argument on Kantian foundations—in particular, notions of space and time—arguing that we are spatiotemporal beings incapable of cognitively stepping out of space and time. But have we not already stepped out of the Kantian notions of space and time with Einstein, who saw clearly that the nature of space and time is a matter of scientific investigation? Einstein’s space is radically different from Kant’s, dependent on gravity fields that curve space, slow down clocks, and so on; nevertheless, we can understand the picture of space and time that emerges with Einstein’s revolution. There are, moreover, events in quantum mechanics that occur instantaneously; this does not happen in our everyday world, but all the same, we can understand that the quantum world is different—the laws are different, that’s all. Could it not be the same with consciousness—that we will simply discover new laws that explain consciousness? How might McGinn respond?
  • 12. Newton was a mystic about gravity, but we no longer find gravity mysterious even though—as with consciousness—we neither observe gravity nor trace it to a chain of causal events. We know that gravity is a causal force associated with mass, and we can make precise enough gravitational field calculations to land a rocket on the moon, and that is sufficient for a scientific account. Would not an account of consciousness with appropriate theoretical models for prediction and control be analogously sufficient for a scientific account of consciousness? Why might McGinn find this reasoning unsatisfying?
  • 13. McGinn’s mysterian property pluralism is about reality as having indefinitely many properties—some that we can come to understand and others that will forever elude us. Could consciousness be such a mysteriously elusive property? Could McGinn’s thesis be proven false? Could it be proven right?
  • 14. What are the pros and cons of accepting McGinn’s mysterianism? Supposing McGinn is right, what difference could his mysterianism make to neuroscience? Should neuroscience stop looking for causal explanations of consciousness? How might McGinn reason about the project of finding neural correlates of consciousness? Is his mysterianism helpful in guiding neuroscience? Why, or why not?
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