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 "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. 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[who?] 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."
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.
— 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.
- Colin McGinn is the leading proponent of the new mysterian position among major philosophers.
- American mathematics and science writer Martin Gardner considered himself to be a mysterian.
- Steven Pinker has also come out in favour of the idea in his best-selling book How the Mind Works, and later elaborated on his position, writing "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."
- Flanagan, Owen (1991). The Science of the Mind. MIT Press. p. 313. ISBN 0-262-56056-9.
- Flanagan, O.J. (1992). Consciousness Reconsidered. Bradford Books. MIT Press. pp. 10,131. ISBN 978-0-262-56077-1. LCCN lc92010057.
- The Elements of Physiology and Hygiene: A Text-book for Educational Institutions. D. Appleton, 1869, p. 178
- Colin McGinn (20 February 2012). "All machine and no ghost?". New Statesman. Retrieved 27 March 2012.
- Blackburn, Simon (1999), Think: A Compelling Introduction to Philosophy, chapter two
- Flanagan, Owen (1991), The Science of the Mind, 2ed MIT Press, Cambridge
- Horgan, John (1999), The Undiscovered Mind, Phoenix, ISBN 0-7538-1098-0
- McGinn, Colin (1991), The Problem of Consciousness
- McGinn, Colin (1993), Problems in Philosophy: The Limits of Inquiry, Blackwell, ISBN 1-55786-475-6
- McGinn, Colin (1999), The Mysterious Flame