New mysterianism

Last updated

New mysterianism—or commonly just mysterianism—is a philosophical position proposing that the hard problem of consciousness cannot be resolved by humans. The unresolvable problem is how to explain the existence of qualia (individual instances of subjective, conscious experience). In terms of the various schools of philosophy of mind, mysterianism is a form of nonreductive physicalism. Some "mysterians" state their case uncompromisingly (Colin McGinn has said that consciousness is "a mystery that human intelligence will never unravel"); others believe merely that consciousness is not within the grasp of present human understanding, but may be comprehensible to future advances of science and technology.



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. [1] "But the new mysterianism is a postmodern position designed to drive a railroad spike through the heart of scientism". [2] The term "new mysterianism" 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.[ citation needed ] 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. Thomas Huxley wrote, "[H]ow 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." [3]

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. [2]

Thomas Huxley, "On the Hypothesis that Animals are Automata, and its History", 1874


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.


Idealists would counter the mysterian view by pointing out that it is unscientific to use phrases such as "we may never know", or to try to limit the possibilities of a reflective consciousness, for example in gaining a knowledge of the underlying, pervading principle of consciousness. The apparent paradox that consciousness is "out there" and yet subjective to each individual cannot be solved unless the observer is the subject of the study, i.e. the scientist looks within.[ citation needed ]







  1. Flanagan, Owen (1991). The Science of the Mind. MIT Press. p. 313. ISBN   0-262-56056-9.
  2. 1 2 Flanagan, O.J. (1992). Consciousness Reconsidered. Bradford Books. MIT Press. pp. 10, 131. ISBN   978-0-262-56077-1. LCCN   lc92010057.
  3. The Elements of Physiology and Hygiene: A Text-book for Educational Institutions. D. Appleton, 1869, p. 178
  4. William James "Is Life Worth Living" (1896)
  5. Colin McGinn (20 February 2012). "All machine and no ghost?". New Statesman . Retrieved 27 March 2012.
  9. "The Mystery of Consciousness II", 19 October 2011.
  10. Dennett, Daniel C. (May 10, 1991). "The Brain and Its Boundaries". Times Literary Supplement (London). Archived from the original on 2018-02-02. Retrieved 2 February 2018. (Corrected by erratum notice, 24 May, pg 29.)