The Mysterian Manifesto: Shakespeare, McGinn and Me

I have a confession to make. A discovery I’ve recently made about myself, or at least the name for a condition, a syndrome: I am a Mysterian. This does not mean that I consider myself a visitor from the Mysterian star system, nor that I played bass in Question Mark and the Mysterians, a group once famous for the influential flat-affect one-hit wonder “96 Tears” (although I would have loved to).

No, it means I recognize in myself-in a long-held intellectual predisposition of mine-a philosophical stance given the name “Mysterian” by the British philosopher Colin McGinn in his brilliant and illuminating recent book on the long-vexed, still unresolved “mind-body problem.” It’s a book I urge all members of The Edgy Alliance* to rush out and read, a book with the somewhat misleadingly lurid title, The Mysterious Flame .

It might better have been called The Mysterian Manifesto , although once you’ve read the book the title does make sense in the context of the lamp and flame metaphors with which thinkers have sought to illustrate the mind-body problem, the meat-and-mentality problem-the problem of explaining how something as apparently immaterial as consciousness arises from the piece of meat in our skulls, an organ that, physically, differs little from the liver or the kidney. Yes, there are electrical currents produced in the brain, but there is an electric current in a light bulb and no one calls it conscious or explains how electric currents invent the music of Mozart or the plays of Chekhov.

Colin McGinn, who was trained at Oxford and writes on philosophic issues for The New York Review of Books , Lingua Franca and elsewhere, cites the Victorian thinker Thomas Huxley’s metaphor for the mind-body problem: “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.” Mr. McGinn leaps from lamp to flame in his metaphor for the problem: “When wood burns it turns into fire, and this transformation seems almost miraculous until we understand the underlying chemistry and physics. But once we do understand, we see how wood can become fire given the process of oxygenation and the energetic properties of carbon. But this is exactly the kind of understanding that eludes us when the wood of the brain ignites into the flame of consciousness.… Consciousness is like a mysterious flame.… The brain has the raw materials with which to ignite consciousness … but we lack the kind of theoretical understanding that could render this occurrence predictable and natural.”

Mr. McGinn restores to this ancient disputation a fresh sense of wonder and mystery by clearly and briskly subverting the pretensions to certainty of the chief contending schools of thought: the materialist all-is-meat school and the dualist consciousness-is-the-ghost-in-the-meat-machine school. I’m someone who’s always had an abiding, obsessive, perhaps some might say even unhealthy interest in the philosophical problem of consciousness, rivaled only by my obsession with theodicy (the problem of evil). But my problem is that I suffer from the philosophical equivalent of math anxiety when I try to read the technical literature on the question of consciousness. I trace this back to a traumatic attempt to force myself to read Kant’s entire Critique of Pure Reason as a freshman at college, an attempt that left me scarred for life.

But I do love to read skilled interpreters of primary philosophic literature, love the kind of thing W.V. Quine used to do in The New York Review of Books and Jim Holt does there and in other venues. I’m not alone in thinking Colin McGinn accomplishes this with thrilling clarity and without sacrificing philosophic rigor. More credentialed types, such as Steven Pinker (“McGinn is an ingenious philosopher who thinks like a laser and writes like a dream”), have attested to it.

I was particularly grateful for Mr. McGinn’s lucid and telling dismissal of the claims of the recently fashionable materialist school that the mind is the brain, or as he puts it: “the mind is … meat neither more nor less … [the feeling of] pain for example is nothing more than a firing of certain fibers in the brain. The feeling of pain simply reduces to such physical processes. The two are not merely correlated. They are identical!”

To the materialist, Mr. McGinn continues, “the mind is the brain in disguise. The djinn is the lamp … the natural response to that is that if materialism is true, then I am not conscious after all-hence the old joke that a materialist has to feign anesthesia. We are all zombies, deluded into believing we are conscious.”

He goes on to point out that “if one could know everything about your brain of a neural kind … its anatomy, its chemical ingredients, the pattern of electrical activity in its various segments … the position of every atom and its subatomic structure … everything that that materialist says your mind is, do I thereby know everything about your mind? It certainly seems not. On the contrary, I know nothing about your mind, I know nothing about which conscious states you are in … and what those states feel like to you … knowledge of the brain does not give me knowledge of your mind. How then can the two be said to be identical?”

I was somewhat less satisfied by his dismissal of dualism-the belief that brain and mind are different categories, the former completely explained by biophysics, the latter in some way not-because I think he tends to caricature dualism either as supernaturalism (the ghost in the machine) or epiphenomenalism (a ghost not causally connected to the machine). He seems to argue that dualism implies the mind cannot affect the brain or interact with it, that the mind is utterly determined by the brain, when in fact this neglects the notion of feedback loops and other forms of interactivity. And if one believes in even the most limited definition of free will, the mind can affect the brain, can worry, for instance, and thus generate the neurochemical cascade in the brain that causes alertness or paranoia.

Still, that doesn’t solve but only deepens the mystery of how the brain gives rise to such a mind, and Mr. McGinn makes the case that this failure is not an accident. Which is where his Mysterious Solution to the mind-body problem comes in-well, maybe not a solution, but rather a contention that the solution is beyond the reach of either the mind or the brain.

Some might see this as a great big begging of the question, but Mr. McGinn argues that we-our brains, our minds, as well as the kind of intelligence, the kind of knowledge, we’re equipped to discover and process-are terminally inadequate, at least as presently constituted, to discover the nature of the relationship between the brain and the mind. It will always be a mystery beyond our reach, in the way that a color-blind person will never be able to apprehend or describe the nature of the color red. Our brain is not equipped to discover its relationship to the mind, and our mind is not equipped to discover its relationship to the brain.

Not for mystical reasons: The Mysterian position doesn’t argue that the relationship will forever be beyond understanding (human beings may evolve to the point where we are better suited to understand it). Mr. McGinn believes there’s a natural as opposed to supernatural explanation, a scientific explanation, but one that’s beyond our nature to apprehend. Our consciousness is always likely to be a mystery to our consciousness.

I’m not doing justice to the subtlety and complexity and clarity of his argument. Both materialists and dualists may carp. And I did find myself wondering whether the Mysterian position isn’t a form of materialism under another name. Because Mr. McGinn seems to imply that the solution must necessarily come from natural science. It’s like saying that if ghosts exist, they’re not really supernatural, there’s a scientific explanation-so then they’re not really ghosts in any interesting sense.

Setting aside these few cavils, The Mysterious Flame is a thrilling intellectual adventure, and I have to say I find the Mysterian position appealing, both for its intellectual daring and for its intellectual humility. I’m always glad to see skeptical subversions of the overweening confidence of those who think they’ve got everything All Figured Out. I think, in fact, I’ve been a Mysterian avant la lettre, as they say, before I even knew to call myself one. It would explain my recurrent citation in many disparate contexts of Keats’ notion of “negative capability”: the ability to tolerate uncertainty without an “irritable reaching” for some half-baked certainty to make oneself feel that one has things under control. (A tendency some women call “Male Answer Syndrome.”)

I found an analog of the Mysterian position in the work of Yehuda Bauer, the Hebrew University scholar widely regarded as the foremost historian of the Holocaust. In an influential attack on what he called “mystification” that first appeared in Holocaust and Genocide Studies (one entitled “Is the Holocaust Explicable?”), Bauer responded to what might be called a False Mysterian position in the literature of the subject-that is, the “increasing number of commentators [who] argue that ultimately the Holocaust is a mystery, an inexplicable event.”

In fact, Yehuda Bauer told me in an interview in Jerusalem for my book ( Explaining Hitler ), the fact that it hasn’t been explained doesn’t mean that it can’t or couldn’t be explained. When it comes to Hitler, for instance, there are just too many gaps in the record, missing pieces of evidence, “lost years” and lost witnesses. Hitler is “explicable in principle,” Bauer told me, but that doesn’t mean he has been or ever will be adequately explained in practice. This is the true Mysterian principle, the analog to Colin McGinn’s belief about the mind-body problem.

The Mysterian position is frustrating and disturbing to some: Certainties are more comforting and consoling to the intellectually insecure. But to be able to say “I don’t know” or “we can’t know” is often a sign of wisdom rather than ignorance.

And the Mysterian position has some distinguished adherents, perhaps including Shakespeare. I was struck by that thought recently when re-reading Richard II and Julius Caesar before seeing the Ralph Fiennes production at B.A.M. and the New York Shakespeare Festival production at the Delacorte.

One could look at Richard II and Julius Caesar as expressing an underlying Mysterian position toward the past and the future, respectively. Consider the peculiar quality of the opening sequence of Richard II , the long build-up of charge and countercharge, claim and counterclaim, challenge and counterchallenge that Thomas Mowbray and Henry Bolingbroke engage in at great length before their sovereign, King Richard II.

After all this wrangling about who’s a traitor, who’s a liar and who killed Thomas of Woodstock, the Duke of Gloucester- after things finally reach the point where it seems as if the dispute will be resolved, or at least settled, in a trial by combat between the two-Richard suddenly and inexplicably aborts the combat and, without resolving their claims, sends the two challengers into exile.

For centuries, commentators have singled out Richard’s apparently capricious disruption of the ancient trial-by-combat ritual as a sign of his unfitness for sovereignty, or as an act that undermines the authority of the kingship, or as an indication of his tragic flaw. It may be any or all of these, but it occurred to me that the source of Richard’s act may stem from something deeper-from the fact that Richard is, at some level, a Mysterian.

In a recent examination of the historical basis for the incident in Richard II , Cedric Watts finds that the chronicle histories Shakespeare drew on all contend that Mowbray killed Woodstock with Richard’s complicity. But none of them seem to have any solid evidence other than partisanship. And in the play , Shakespeare gives us no basis for determining the truth of the competing claims-the rhetoric of each claimant is just as impassioned and persuasive as that of the other. It seems that this is no accident: that Shakespeare hasn’t neglected to draw the same conclusion as the chronicles, but has deliberately crafted a scene in which the truth cannot be discerned from the available evidence-a Mysterian moment.

This is not to say that Shakespeare believes there is no such thing as historical truth. He’s getting at something else: the fact that history-life-is filled with many more moments in which we can’t be sure of the truth but have to act in its absence. His other history plays are filled with similar scenes of charge and countercharge without necessary resolution, scenes which force us to confront our Mysterian human condition, the fact that we’re frequently forced to make momentous decisions on the basis of a tragically flawed knowledge of the truth. “Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurled” is the way Alexander Pope, another Mysterian poet, put it in his Essay on Man , “the glory, jest and riddle of the world.”

The prospective trial by combat between the counterclaimants that Richard disrupts can be seen as a ritualized method for establishing truth whose decisiveness has no foundation in reality. And so perhaps in halting the false truth-telling ritual (false in the sense that we can never know if the winner is more truthful or just stronger), Richard may not be acting capriciously but in a principled (if dangerous) fashion, disrupting the meretricious ritual without offering any adequate substitute. Because there is no adequate substitute; Richard is, at heart, a Mysterian-heroic but tragic in adhering to that position.

If some of the history plays take a Mysterian position in regard to the past, others manifest one in relation to the future. One could look at Julius Caesar , for instance, as a play absolutely obsessed by the question of portents, prophecies and auguries-by the hidden Mysterian connection between the present and the future.

“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves,” Cassius the cynical rationalist insists. But everything else in the play seems to subvert this materialist view of self-determination. Those who fail to listen to the soothsayers or neglect to pay attention to auguries in dreams are condemned to die for their failure. But even dreams and auguries can be misinterpreted. The future emerges from the past in a way as mysterious as the way the mind emerges from the brain in the mind-body problem, and we may never be able to interpret the connection.

Even the soothsayer doesn’t quite know for sure the truth of the sooth she says, so to speak. When Brutus’ wife Portia asks her “know’st thou any harm’s intended toward” Brutus, the soothsayer tells her, “None that I know will be, much that I fear may chance.”

Certainty, then, is beyond the reach of both seers and rationalists. Julius Caesar seems the work of a thoroughly Mysterian playwright, one who returned again and again to the ironies and impossibilities of deciphering the Mysterian pattern woven into the unfolding tapestry of time. After all, when Keats coined the phrase “negative capability,” he was, in fact, minting it to describe a quality he found-where else?-in the Mysterian mind of William Shakespeare.

The Mysterian Manifesto: Shakespeare, McGinn and Me