Mysterianism: Rational Pessimism in the Metaphysics of Consciousness

What is consciousness? This intractable question, it’s often said, is a great mystery that philosophers and scientists will struggle to decipher for ages to come.

There’s a sense in which this is clearly wrong. You know what consciousness is simply by virtue of being a conscious creature. Of course, the inner life of a subject does not immediately reveal how to explain consciousness, (i.e. which metaphysical or scientific account of consciousness is correct), but it does immediately answer the opening question of “What is consciousness?” When it comes to subjective experience, the having is the knowing: you know what consciousness is by virtue of undergoing conscious experiences. In fact, that’s the only way you could know.

Every day, it seems, some verifiably intelligent person tells us that we don’t know what consciousness is. The nature of consciousness, they say, is an awesome mystery. . . . I find this odd because we know exactly what consciousness is — where by “consciousness” I mean what most people mean in this debate: experience of any kind whatever. It’s the most familiar thing there is, whether it’s experience of emotion, pain, understanding what someone is saying, seeing, hearing, touching, tasting or feeling. It is in fact the only thing in the universe whose ultimate intrinsic nature we can claim to know. It is utterly unmysterious.

Galen Strawson

Not only do we know what consciousness is, all we know is consciousness. Everything – everything – comes to us through consciousness. As far as we’re concerned, there’s nothing but a world of consciousness.

The problem is that the question “What is consciousness?” is ambiguous. As outlined a moment ago, there are at least two senses in which it’s profoundly mistaken to think that we don’t know what consciousness is. (It’s even a little strange to pose the question in the first place, since consciousness is just…this.) But there’s a sense in which it’s not at all unreasonable to say that the nature of consciousness is mysterious: we don’t know which account of consciousness is true. Of course, in that case, there are better ways to present the question. “What is consciousness?” is not a clear formulation of the question of whether substance dualism, epiphenomenal property dualism, reductive materialism, Russellian panpsychism, or any of our other metaphysical theories of consciousness are close to the mark. This is the area in which pessimism about “the mystery of consciousness” is an eminently reasonable position to defend. The name for this pessimistic view is mysterianism.

Mysterianism: An Opinionated Introduction

Mysterians believe that we will probably never know how conscious experience and the physical world fit together. Human beings are incapable of resolving the hard problem of consciousness. In other words, the true explanation of subjective experience – whatever it is – is not something we could appreciate. As Colin McGinn put it, “Consciousness indubitably exists, and it is connected to the brain in some intelligible way, but the nature of this connection necessarily eludes us.” There’s also a weaker form of mysterianism, which we’ll get into a bit later. (Both are reasonable, in my view, but the more uncompromising version is the one I find attractive.)

Mysterianism seems a bit defeatist, but it nonetheless may be true. There are times when our minds bump up against their cognitive ceiling, and explaining consciousness could be one of those times. We may never get an intuitively satisfying answer to this question, just like I’ll never have an intuitively satisfying answer to whether the universe is infinite or finite. To me, both possibilities seem equally hard to concretely imagine. Maybe I’m asking the wrong question, or maybe I’m like a golden retriever trying to grasp the concept of a prime number. Either way, I’m not going to get a really satisfying answer.

[T]he bond between the mind and the brain is a deep mystery. Moreover, it is an ultimate mystery, a mystery that human intelligence will never unravel.

Colin McGinn

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No doubt, there are truths that simply cannot be grasped by the human mind. Given who we are and how we got here, why would we expect anything else? Our intuitions evolved to help us survive and reproduce as social animals in our environment. They’re mostly trustworthy within their domains. But that’s just it – they have domains. Our minds are not unlimited and did not evolve so we could understand everything. In fact, you might have been selected against had you been walking on the savannah contemplating the nature of the universe rather than paying attention to the more immediate goings-on in your environment. 

The brain is a product of evolution, and just as animal brains have their limitations, we have ours. Our brains can’t hold a hundred numbers in memory, can’t visualize seven-dimensional space and perhaps can’t intuitively grasp why neural information processing observed from the outside should give rise to subjective experience on the inside. This is where I place my bet, though I admit that the theory could be demolished when an unborn genius—a Darwin or Einstein of consciousness—comes up with a flabbergasting new idea that suddenly makes it all clear to us.

Steven Pinker

The “weak mysterian” or “temporary mysterian” position holds out hope that some future revolution will show how to close the explanatory gap. One who holds this moderate view says that what may look unbridgeable in principle is really just an impermanent roadblock. We may not have anything approaching a satisfying explanation of subjective experience now, but we could in the future. We should keep trying. This is optimism of a sort, but it shouldn’t be misinterpreted as validation of any of the existing options, which any mysterian will regard as inadequate. What we need is a paradigm shift:

Such massive conceptual reordering is certainly possible, given the history of science.  And, indeed, if one accepts the Kuhnian idea of shifts between incommensurate paradigms, it might seem unsurprising that we, pre-paradigm-shift, cannot grasp what things will be like after the revolution.  But at present we have no idea how the hard problem might be solved.

Josh Weisberg

The stronger form of mysterianism – the kind associated with Noam Chomsky, for instance – is far more pessimistic about gaining anything like a complete understanding of consciousness, as well as other mysteries that fall beyond our cognitive purview:

The “new mysterianism,” I believe, is misnamed. It should be called “truism” — at least, for anyone who accepts the major findings of modern biology, which regards humans as part of the organic world. If so, then they will be like all other organisms in having a genetic endowment that enables them to grow and develop to their mature form. . . . The endowment that yields scope also establishes limits.

Noam Chomsky

According to Chomsky, there’s a conceptual distinction between problems and mysteries. There are many problems which fall within our cognitive capacities which may be difficult, but are solvable. On the other hand, there are mysteries, which fall beyond the finite domain of our cognitive capacities. Problems are things we could solve, but mysteries are insoluble – inexplicable to the minds of human beings, just as general relativity is inexplicable to the mind of a raccoon. (Mysteries are species-relative: what’s a mystery to a Martian might not be a mystery to us.)

It should be noted that for something to rise to the level of mystery, it does not need to be inexplicable in principle to all hypothetical beings. It wouldn’t have to be inexplicable even to God, for instance. Whether there are any mysteries in this superlative sense is an interesting question. But a belief in the rationality of the universe leads me to think that any apparent in-principle mysteries are really the product of badly-formed questions or going beyond our limitations. For our purposes, we need not take a position on whether there are in-principle mysteries in nature – only whether there are mysteries as far as human beings are concerned.

Since we’re organisms produced by evolution, we have a cognitive structure that has a scope and limits, just as our physical structure has a scope and limits. We can run, but we can’t fly. We can solve some mathematical problems, but we can’t solve the hard problem or establish a satisfactory theory of consciousness. Or so the mysterian argues.

Self-fulfilling prophecy? 

One caveat worth noting: even if one accepts Chomsky’s conceptual distinction between problems and mysteries, given the difficulty of figuring out which questions are which – problems or mysteries – it may be best to methodologically pretend there are no mysteries. We could mistake a problem for a mystery, and fail to pursue what could have been a fruitful line of inquiry. Talk about insoluble mysteries may discourage exploration that could be useful in ways we couldn’t have predicted beforehand. If we took the mysterian attitude in other areas, some things would never have gotten done. In practice, the question of how to identify mysteries is about as vexing as the mysteries themselves.

Of course, this practical demarcation problem doesn’t change the fact that there are mysteries (as far as we human beings are concerned) and that we are biological organisms with a certain cognitive and physical structure – structures which have domains of applicability and inapplicability. After all, what’s the alternative? That we have infinite, Godlike intellects with literally no limitations?

In practice, it may be difficult to identify mysteries. We’ll never know for certain if our “mystery” is a false positive. This, however, does nothing to undermine the claim that there are mysteries. Nor does it support the contrary claim that we have limitless, Godlike intellects whose domain of applicability is the entirety of nature. That, as Chomsky argues, is a straightforwardly anti-evolutionary claim.

Accept the Mystery

Unlike mysterians, I think there are plausible options on the table. I rank some kind of dual-aspect monism first (e.g. panpsychism, though I think some consciousness-only monisms can also be squeezed into this category); second, some version of dualism; and strong mysterianism third. So to be clear, I’m not defending mysterianism as my first choice. Nonetheless, I think it’s a far more plausible idea than flat-footed reductive materialism.

Assuming we’re playing the “metaphysics of consciousness” game at all, I think we have three broad options: (1) unifying mind and matter in some kind of intelligible and satisfying way (2) separating mind and matter in some kind of intelligible and satisfying way (3) recognizing that there will never be an intelligible and satisfying resolution to this problem. I spend the most time exploring option (1), defending my preferred way of unifying mind and matter and criticizing the more mainstream ways of doing so. Trailing far behind in second is option (2), dualism. But what about option (3)? Mysterianism, I think, has a lot going for it. There certainly are mysteries (as far as humans are concerned), and accounting for consciousness may be one of those mysteries. But why think we’ve stumbled on a genuine mystery here? It could be the case, but why think it is the case? Let’s take a brief look at several different arguments that have been offered.

One motivation for mysterianism stems from a dissatisfaction with existing theories of consciousness, and perhaps glimpsing what seem to be in-principle reasons that certain problems cannot be resolved. After being left thoroughly unimpressed with each option in the metaphysics of consciousness, one might reasonably conclude that the entire enterprise was doomed to begin with. As explained by Chomsky earlier, our minds have limited domains, and there’s no great reason to expect “understanding the metaphysics of consciousness” to fall within our domain of understanding.

So, if you’ve ever found yourself thinking “These are all terrible options,” then mysterianism might be for you. But it doesn’t need to be framed negatively. We could just as easily reframe it positively: everyone makes really convincing arguments against opposing views. When materialists level objections to dualism, they’re right! They’re offering good arguments. When non-physicalists level objections to physicalism, they’re right! They’re offering good arguments. Rather than thinking “All these options suck,” you could just as well think that everyone is making cogent points all around. There are good arguments against materialism, dualism, panpsychism, and so on; there are really compelling reasons to reject each of these options. Maybe there are deep, in principle reasons we can’t come up with a satisfying explanation of consciousness.

Of course, if you are satisfied with some option, then don’t let me rain on your parade. I’m only explaining what the motivation for mysterianism might be. If you find yourself in the state of mind, as I sometimes do, that there are no good options on the table, then mysterianism begins to seem very attractive. (I remember when I first started talking about panpsychism, I described it as “the worst option except for all the other ones,” echoing the adage about democracy. So this isn’t a change of pace for me.)

What are some other reasons one might be a mysterian? I’ve heard it suggested that there may be a catch-22 at work here — our brains could never evolve to be sophisticated enough to understand themselves. We can understand simpler creatures, but we can’t turn our own cognitive capacities inward and gain a comprehensive understanding. In order to understand our minds as they currently exist, we’d have to become significantly more advanced minds. And at that point, we’d still not be able to understand ourselves! That may or may not bear on the hard problem of consciousness, whether consciousness is physical or non-physical, and so on. The aim of mysterianism is to establish that there are some limitations to our inquiry that cannot be overcome by human minds. For one reason or another, we aren’t in a good position to affirm theories of consciousness with a high degree of confidence.

Though, truth be told, I’m not totally convinced we have a genuine mystery on our hands. That’s why I’m actively exploring panpsychist and dualist accounts of mind and matter instead of doing something else. But here’s one reason I’m attracted to mysterianism: (A) we know there are mysteries, and (B) we have arguably not made a ton of progress on deciding which metaphysical theory of consciousness, if any, is actually true. If consciousness and its place in nature is a genuine mystery, then the lack of concrete progress is to be expected. Mysterianism would cleanly explain why we’ve moved past vitalism, but haven’t been able to move past the same materialist vs. dualist vs. panpsychist vs. idealist debates that were taking place centuries ago. So I’m making what could be considered two distinct arguments here: pessimistic induction and inference to the best explanation. As for the latter, we can safely say that mysterianism would predict the gargantuan fray of conflicting theories that never seem to resolve into a stable consensus. There are ephemeral trends, but any survey of the history of the metaphysics of consciousness will reveal an ebb and flow of opinion that never seems to find equilibrium. This is to be expected on a mysterian view. So, one might inductively infer from this history that no stable answer will be reached; and they might add that this failure of significant progress is better predicted by the mysterian hypothesis.

Eric Schwitzgebel argues that the reason we haven’t made the kind of progress one might have hoped for is that we have no reliable guide. No matter which side you take, it’s impossible to avoid doing violence to common sense at some point. Furthermore, science isn’t as helpful as usual, and abstract reasoning can’t seem to lead to convergence.

Certain fundamental questions about the metaphysics of mind can’t, it seems, be settled by science, in anything like its current state, or by abstract reasoning. To address these questions we must turn to common sense. If we then have good reason to think that common sense, too, is no reliable guide, we are unmoored. Without common sense as a constraint, the possibilities open up, bizarre and beautiful in their different ways; and once open they refuse to shut.

In a review of Luke Roelofs’ book on panpsychism, Combining Minds, Schwitzgebel commented

If there’s one thing we know about the metaphysics of consciousness, it is that something bizarre must be true. Among the reasons to think so: Every well-developed theory of consciousness in the entire history of written philosophy on Earth has either been radically bizarre on its face or had radically bizarre consequences.

Many of these theories, he adds, “seem to leave common sense farther behind the more specific they become,” leading him to the conclusion that “no non-bizarre general theory of consciousness is available,” and, he suspects, not even constructable in principle. He argues that the truth in the metaphysics of mind is bound to be contrary to common sense; and that we would not feel compelled to believe the right answer if it was staring us in the face. Something “crazy . . . must be among the core truths about . . . the metaphysics of mind.”

From Agnosticism to Mysterianism

Here’s one final reason one might be attracted to mysterianism. A version of the view can rest on a foundation of agnosticism. Many theories of consciousness, as Philip Goff explains,

are empirically equivalent: there is no experiment that can decide between them. That’s not really a surprise, as this is not a purely empirical question. It’s rather a question of why something that is publicly observable (brain activity) always goes together with something that is not publicly observable (subjective experience). This isn’t the kind of question an experiment can answer, just as questions about the fundamental character of ethics can’t be answered experimentally. One option is agnosticism. If we can’t decide between these views experimentally, then maybe we should simply say that we don’t know which is true.

It seems as if there’s no objective way of settling this debate, and it’s unclear whether the non-empirical resources we do have at our disposal are adequate to establish a significant credence in any metaphysical theory of consciousness. It’s not that Theory A can’t be significantly more probable than Theory B. Our credence is Theory A can be high relative to some competitor, but not high in an absolute sense. There’s just not much to work from. If no publicly-available data can settle the issue, and no philosophical method seems able to yield any degree of intersubjective agreement, then maybe we should consider the idea that we are unable to solve the problem, or just asking bad questions.

Echoes of this can be found in Schwitzgebel’s case discussed earlier, but Goff is far more optimistic about the possibility of using reason to resolve the problem and reach an intelligible and satisfying theory of consciousness. I tentatively share Goff’s optimism, as I’m not ready to give up and embrace the mystery quite yet. Nevertheless, we should heed the words of biologist J.B.S. Haldane, who said in 1927,

Now, my own suspicion is that the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose. I have read and heard many attempts at a systematic account of it, from materialism and theosophy to the Christian system or that of Kant, and I have always felt that they were much too simple. I suspect that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of, or can be dreamed of, in any philosophy.

As I mentioned earlier, I worry about this kind of sentiment. On the one hand, Haldane and Chomsky are undeniably correct. But the issue of identifying mysteries in practice is what worries me. What if mysterianism is a self-fulfilling prophecy? What if we’re discouraging people from seeking answers when there are answers out there to be found?

For now, I’ll keep pursuing my various non-physicalist interests. If those lead me to the same dead end that physicalism led me to, then I’ll add this to the list of things Noam Chomsky was right about.

Mysterianism: Rational Pessimism in the Metaphysics of Consciousness


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