THE MYSTERIOUS FLAME: CONSCIOUS MINDS IN A MATERIAL WORLD By Colin McGinn Basic Books 242 pp., $24
If all philosophy books were as clear and enjoyable as this one, more people would read them. After all, philosophers like author Colin McGinn do tackle a lot of subjects that really interest us.
In "The Mysterious Flame," the topic is consciousness, that special quality of experience that we have, rocks don't, and frogs might or might not have.
Opposing the theory put forth most by recently by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson in another book from Basic Books called "Philosophy in the Flesh," McGinn rejects the idea that consciousness is the working of the brain. He accepts a connection of consciousness with the brain but not a reduction of one to the other. He also rejects the idea that consciousness and brain are totally separate.
If McGinn is right, this leaves us with a difficult question: How can a brain, which is material, produce a nonmaterial effect like thought? "The problem," McGinn writes, "is how any collection of cells, no matter how large and intricately related, could generate consciousness."
After respectfully demolishing a number of traditional answers, including the idea that God made some matter conscious, McGinn turns his attention to the difficulty of the question itself.
Why is there so little progress, he asks, on questions like consciousness when we can send a man to the moon and solve the most difficult problems in physics and biology?
McGinn's answer is that mortals evolved with brains that are good at some things and not so good at others. Our brains, he proposes, are good at physics and biology but not so good at what we call "philosophical" questions such as the nature of consciousness.
One solution, McGinn proposes a bit tongue in cheek, might be to genetically engineer a new breed of people with brains that are good at the kind of philosophical problems that seem to stump even our best thinkers. Given a different kind of brain, some of our descendants might actually solve the problem of consciousness. McGinn, however, has serious reservations about the wisdom of this kind of genetic tinkering.
The joy of this book is not where it ends up but the fun of getting there. How else would most of us get to interact so closely with a first-rate philosopher like McGinn? How else would most of us get to join in this kind of philosophical discussion?
*David K. Nartonis is a writer for the history department of The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society