Brief Encounter with the Mysterian


Richard Marshall interviews Colin McGinn in 3:AM Magazine:

3:AM: You are a famous exponent of mysterianism, ‘a philosophy proposing that certain problems will never be explained or at the least cannot be explained by the human mind at its current evolutionary stage. The problem most often referred to is the hard problem of consciousness.’ I remember reading your book The Mysterious Flame when it was published in 1999 and being impressed by a really smart philosopher ‘fessing up to the futilitarian idea that something was just too hard to solve. But I wonder whether you still think that we’ll never understand the nature of consciousness. Do you think there’ll never be a time when we get machines smarter than us? So I gues my general question is about philosophers changing their minds. Is there anything that could make you change your mind?

CM: I think we know the nature of consciousness better than anything else. What we don’t know is how it springs bright-eyed from the heaving of matter. Many machines are already smarter than us—at dumb things. My mind could easily be changed: by seeing consciousness leaking from the atomic nucleus, say. I also think physics is a hotbed of mystery (see my book Basic Structures of Reality).

3:AM: One of the cool things in your autobiography was the detail about you playing endless games of pushball. Your approach to philosophy seems very enamored with an American, hip sense of style. Philosophy in the UK seemed drab by contrast. Is that right?

CM: I don’t know what pushball is and have never knowingly played it. I have played quite a good deal of pinball, as well as old video games like Galaga and Defender. My sense of style is not American-inspired: it is a combination of Steve Marriott and Vladimir Nabokov. I never found philosophy in the UK drab, just underpaid.