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What is mysterianism?

Mysterianism is the view that it is impossible for us to explain consciousness. This perspective, sometimes held by philosophers, is now called “the new mysterianism” and is based on the writings of Colin McGinn (1950–), such as The Problem of Consciousness (1991), The Mysterious Flame (1999), and Consciousness and Its Objects (2004).

The name “new mysterians” was bestowed by Owen Flanagan (1949–) in his Science of the Mind (1991), and it was based on the rock group Question Mark and the Mysterians. Past philosophers such as Gottfried Leibniz (1646–1716) similarly believed that the emergence of consciousness could not be fully understood by conscious beings.

What is striking about the new mysterianism, though, is that it cropped up after almost a century of rigorous philosophical attempts to provide theories of consciousness and cognition. It is different from claiming, as Jerry Fodor (1935–) does, that we do not now know how the mind is connected to the body because it claims that we can’t ever know that, or even what the mind itself is. Some aspects of this thought are reminiscent of skepticism in the ancient world and in the sixteenth century.



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