New Mysterianism

New mysterianism is a philosophical position proposing that the hard problem of consciousness (explaining how and why we have qualia or phenomenal experiences — how sensations acquire characteristics, such as colors and tastes) cannot be resolved by humans. Neurobiologist Owen Flanagan noted in his 1991 book ‘Science of the Mind’ that some modern thinkers have suggested that consciousness may never be completely explained. Flanagan called them ‘the new mysterians’ after the rock group Question Mark and the Mysterians.

But the new mysterianism is a postmodern position designed to drive a railroad spike through the heart of scientism. The term has been extended by some writers to encompass the wider philosophical position that humans do not have the intellectual ability to solve (or comprehend the answers to) many hard problems, not just the problem of consciousness, at a scientific level. This position is also known as anti-constructive naturalism.

According to Flanagan, ‘The ‘old mysterians’ were dualists who thought that consciousness cannot be understood scientifically because it operates according to nonnatural principles and possesses nonnatural properties.’ Apparently, some apply the terms to thinkers throughout history who suggested some aspect of consciousness may not be knowable or discoverable, including Gottfried Leibniz, Samuel Johnson, and Thomas Huxley. English evolutionary biologist Julian Huxley wrote, ‘How it is that anything so remarkable as a state of consciousness comes about as a result of irritating nervous tissue, is just as unaccountable as the appearance of the Djinn, when Aladdin rubbed his lamp.’

English biologist Thomas Huxley wrote: ‘The consciousness of brutes would appear to be related to the mechanism of their body simply as collateral product of its working, and to be completely without any power of modifying that working, as the steam-whistle which accompanies the work of a locomotive engine is without influence upon its machinery. Their volition, if they have any, is an emotion indicative of physical changes, not a cause of such changes… The soul stands to the body as the bell of a clock to the works, and consciousness answers to the sound which the bell gives out when it is struck… To the best of my judgment, the argumentation which applies to brutes holds good of men… We are conscious automata.’

In the view of the New mysterians, their contention that the hard problem of consciousness is unsolvable is not a presupposition, but rather a philosophical conclusion reached by thinking carefully about the issue. The standard argument is as follows: Subjective experiences by their very nature cannot be shared or compared side-by-side. Therefore it is impossible to know what subjective experiences another person is having.

Noam Chomsky distinguishes between problems, which seem solvable, at least in principle, through scientific methods, and mysteries, which do not seem solvable, even in principle. He notes that the cognitive capabilities of all organisms are limited by biology, e.g. a mouse will never speak like a human. In the same way, certain problems may be beyond our understanding.

One Comment to “New Mysterianism”

  1. The hilarious thing is that (modern, western) science does not think to understand consciousness by exploring it. Scientists will spend thousands of hours (and $billions) developing and playing with new, ahem, non-conscious machines and devices to measure brain activity but they will not spend even an hour ‘meditating’ (for want of a better word).

    This is rather like trying to understand the planet, and map the continents but while refusing to actually do any travelling – and justifying this by saying that any location except right HERE is invalid, merely a hallucination, or a delusion.

    This is how scientists (and mainstream western ‘culture’) view consciousness. And god forbid anyone suggest using consciousness altering drugs!!! Not only is that travelling (which is not valid), but it’s travelling with the aid of a form of transport to make your journey faster and further (which is doubly invalid).

    It’s almost as if ‘someone’ wanted the human race to remain stuck in this ditch which we call ‘everyday consciousness’…..

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