This section is for readers’ reactions to Mind-Body Problems, positive or negative, specific or general. Email me at [email protected], and if your comment exceeds a minimal threshold of intelligibility and civility and isn’t too long I’ll post it here. I’ll also post links to mind-body material generated by me and others. For example, while wrapping up this book in the summer of 2018, I carried out several mind-body experiments. I took ayahuasca, quit caffeine and went on a Buddhist retreat that rocked me. See “Yes, Make Psychedelics Legally Available, But Don’t Forget the Risks,” “Kicking my Caffeine Addiction” and “A Buddhism Critic Goes on a Silent Buddhist Retreat.” Just when I think I’ve figured out the mind-body problem, shit happens. 


My buddies Robert Wright and Nikita Petrov have created an online show at, which Wright founded and Petrov helps him run. On the show, “Mind-Body Problems,” I talk about the mysteries of existence with the subjects of my book and others. You can also find these chats on YouTube and iTunes.

In the introductory show, “Mind-Body Problems and Psychedelic Tales,” I talk to Petrov, the talented Russian artist/writer who created the art for this book. I talked to him again in early 2019. See also my conversations with Deepak Chopra (who reviews my book below), Christof Koch (the subject of Chapter One), Stuart Kauffman (Chapter Four), Owen Flanagan (Chapter Six), Rebecca Goldstein (Chapter Seven), Robert Trivers (Chapter Eight) and Deirdre McCloskey (Chapter Nine).


Economist Russ Roberts and I talk about Mind-Body Problems on his podcast

Michael Kokal and I talk about Mind-Body Problems on his podcast “The End of the Road.”

Physicist Nick Herbert, after I interview him on my blog, talks about Mind-Body Problems on his blog, “Quantum Tantra.” He writes: “John’s curiosity and desire to really know what’s going on entangles himself and the reader in a sometimes embarrassingly intimate connection with some of these scientist’s personal lives. For that reason, this book is a lot more lively than your typical psychology textbook.”

Psychotherapist Jerry Alper describes a conversation with me about Mind-Body Problems and other stuff on Medium. I like the part when he describes my girlfriend “Emily” as “the moral center of [my] universe… the coyly shrouded dark lady of the narrative… at least as intriguing as any of the more inflated performative characters who form the core of this book.”

Psychologist Gregg Henriques discusses my book in an essay for Psychology Today, “Ten problems with consciousness.”

Steve Agnew, who writes the blog “Matter Time, Aethertime,” discusses my book in a post called “MindBodyResolved.”

Psychotherapist John Price and I talk about Mind-Body Problems on his podcast “The Sacred Speaks.”

See my blog posts “Why the Mind–Body Problem Can’t Have a Single, Objective Solution,” “Can Art Solve the Hard Problem?,” “Don’t Make Me One with Everything,” “Should Reality Make Us Glad or Sad?,” “Cypher’s Choice: Painful Reality or Pleasant Delusion?” and “Are Cyborg Warriors a Good Idea?” 


Karl Dahlke

Like you, I have always been captivated by the weirdness. I try to understand my mind, myself, as an emergent property of neurons, which it is, which it must be, but I don’t get very far, or if I do, I have to back away, because it feels like mental illness, perhaps what Cantor experienced.

30 years ago I read Gödel, Escher, Bach, the focus of your second chapter, and I marveled anew at the mystery and the weirdness. But I had time to marvel then, I had intellectual and emotional energy to spare. I had a good job, a nice house, and no children to care for, so I was, like Milo and Tock, free to wander off into magical lands.

I’m reading your book now, but I’m not the man I was 30 years ago; circumstances have changed. I want to enjoy it, I want to experience the weirdness in new ways, but thoughts creep in between the paragraphs, like demons that haunt my dreams. How long will the IRS wait before it garnishes my wages? Will my son, having committed no crime whatsoever, become just another black slave, a victim of mass incarceration? What will I do when my wife loses health insurance, as she probably will next year? How far will the United States descend into fascism before it reverses course?

Don’t get me wrong; we need books like yours. Please keep writing. And we need art and music and literature. But we also need security, so that we can step away from reality and revel in Mozart’s piano concerto 21, and the quadratic reciprocity theorem, and general relativity, and the magnificent enigma of consciousness. 30 years ago I had that security, no responsibilities and money in the bank. Blindness notwithstanding, I went off to Berkeley to study abstract mathematics, solely for its beauty. I’m glad I did.

Sadly, it is difficult to recapture those moments today, too often displaced by fear and anxiety. I suppose this is a comment about myself, or the human condition, rather than a comment on your book.

I’ll close by saying it’s a very nice book, and perhaps 5 years from now, when my life is more stable, and my children are in a good place, I’ll read it again, and mine from it the truths and insights that I am having trouble grasping today.

Valery Latyshev

Finished reading Mind Body Problems. Great book. One of the best books I’ve read in quite some time. I would even say, better than many books written by your interviewees themselves. Once again, thank you for dedicating part of your life to making this happen. If anything breathes meaning into life, this must surely be it. I also have huge respect for your subjects for opening up to such a degree. This intimacy opens up new perspectives on things that you won’t find in academic works or Youtube lectures. Especially if this intimacy comes from people that played an important role throughout one’s life.

For example, Doug Hofstadter’s Gödel Escher Bach was the first book on the nature of minds that I’ve read — it basically started my exploratory journey. This was many years ago and, looking back, there is no doubt that the book defined some key features of my life. In the footnotes I also stumbled on your interview with Stephen Batchelor. I did my first meditation retreat with him and the guy cleared up many misconceptions about meditation and Buddhism that I had. That was the start of my meditative practice.

Knowing so much about the work of your subjects and then encountering very personal facts that lead to formation of their views is an illuminating experience. It is like lighting up one of those things on the cover of Gödel Escher Bach from a different angle and seeing an entirely new shadow forming. The way you treated the subject of weirdness resonated very much with me as well. Few people ever speak of this experience, which I find puzzling.

I also enjoyed reading pieces from the “Science of Consciousness” conference in Tucson in 2016. Was there as well, enjoyed it very much, although I hadn’t read any of your books back then. Strange, reading about what happened there, after a number of years, in connection with so many people that influenced me. And so many other things and little details.

If I may, I would also like to offer some criticism. I felt that the end of the book was somewhat rushed and that conclusions that you arrived at don’t actually follow from previous chapters. First, you equate the hard problem with who we are and should be. I think this needs some elaboration — why is it a good idea? As I see it, the hard problem may have some bearing on who we are, it may tell us something about what we can or cannot become… or it may not. Suppose for the argument’s sake that the hard problem is solved by the integrated information theory. It sheds some light on who we are, but nothing much seems to change. Consciousness is Phi, so what? Do any new facts about what we could or should be follow from this? Not many, it seems to me. You unite three separate questions — What is the nature of consciousness? What is the nature of human being? What do we have reason to do? — into one question. These questions are related, but they certainly are different. I really felt there should have been a paragraph or two giving some motivation for the unification.

Second, I don’t see how your conclusion (that we are free to decide what we are and what life means) follows from the fact that science cannot solve the mind body problem. Am I free to decide that the grandest meaning of life comes from eating hotdogs? Am I free to decide that I am an angel made in God’s image? Or am I free to decide that I should oppress, torture and kill millions of people? Regardless of how our progress goes on the hard problem, I would firmly answer No, No and No. I hope so would you.

The analogy that I like to make when thinking about consciousness is with life. Suppose we lived in pre-Darwinian times and instead of pondering the nature of consciousness, we pondered the nature of life. It seems to me that the exact same points that you brought up with consciousness, you could also bring up with life. Allow me to paraphrase: “My book is about the central mystery of existence, the problem of life. In a narrow, technical sense, the problem of life asks how non-living matter becomes living and breathing, but it’s really about what we are, can be and should be, individually and as a species.” “The message of my new book is exhilarating, and liberating. If science can’t solve the problem of life, that means you’re free, I’m free, all of us are free to decide for ourselves who we are and what life means.”

I think it is an apt analogy. And it puts a retrospectroscope in our hands. Did solving the mystery of life tell us who we are? Partly. Did it tell us what we can be? Less so. What we should be? Only somewhat, I guess. (If anything, Darwinian revolution seems to have had shockingly little influence on human affairs.) Were we free before Darwin and then that old fool suddenly bound us in chains? The reverse, I would argue. Darwin made us more free. He connected us with reality. Reality turned out to be very humbling. And yet reality is the only firm ground that we can stand on, that we can push from, to propel ourselves forward. When we are drowning in illusions, when fictional entities and imaginary metaphysics guide our actions, we are lost in the hall of mirrors of our own imagination. Scared and awed, we were mostly guided by fictional projections of our own mind that provide no solid foundation to move ahead.

It won’t be an exaggeration to say that historically the human race has been perpetually drowning in illusions of grandeur, not much different from those of a deranged madman in a psychiatric ward. Over the aeons we (in the west at least) have proclaimed ourselves to be every possible kind of center to everything that is. Our little planet has been the center and most important part of the whole universe, around which this whole universe rotated. Our species was unlike and separate from every other; not a species at all in fact, but a creation in the image of perfection itself, possessing the divine right to do as it pleases with nature and lowly beasts. Diagnosis — severe mania, loss of touch with reality, dangerous behavior towards oneself and others.

Going from this freedom to fantasizing about ourselves to realizing that we are an upright ape with no fur was quite a downgrade. And a very traumatic one at that. But it made us more free, not less. By understanding our evolutionary past, we can understand our life so much better. Why our bodies function the way we do, why we feel certain emotions, why we crave sugar, money and social status. By understanding these biological imperatives, we can loosen their grip on us. We can choose to eat healthy foods, we can become more mindful of anger, and we can decide to become a scientist instead of a power-hungry warlord. We can also invent antibiotics, bioengineer crops to feed the whole world, and discover CRISPR gene editing. And so much more. Who knows where we will be in a hundred years. All because we discovered DNA and evolution. All of this plus evaporation of divine mythology equals more freedom, not less, in my book.

I think exact same points can be made about the hard problem. It is more blessed to know and be humbled rather than to live in a world of self-conjured constructs. And if we never solve the hard problem, this still would not give us the creative license. Just if we never solved the problem of life, that would not mean that it was ok to believe in divine origin or whatnot. I am totally with you that to be human is to change, to cross, to shape-shift. But I also think that we live in reality about which we can uncover objective facts. And that these facts constrain what we can be and what we should do. These facts by no means define what we should be — there is still plenty of room for variety — but not everything goes. Ironically, these facts also empower us, give us much needed tools to change, to shape-shift and to cross. Once again, thank you for your work. It was a fantastic read.

Colin McGinn

Schopenhauer called the mind-body problem “the world knot”, indicating the difficulty of unraveling it. He might also have called it “the world not” meaning that we are constantly affirming what the conscious mind is not: it is not the brain, it is not behavior, it is not computation, it is not DNA, it is not microtubules, it is not biology or chemistry or physics or computer science. It is what it is and not another thing. But what is it? That’s when the “not” turns into a “knot”—because it is damnably hard to say what it is and explain how it relates to all the things it is not. John Horgan appreciates all this and is not afraid to say so. Good for him, I say—a man who can face reality and not blink.

It is surely true that personality and experience can shape the way you think about things—your world-view, your intellectual posture. It can especially shape your view of yourself. Hard experience can lead to acknowledging hard problems. Yet the problem of consciousness is universal and shared by all who revel in it: here there are problem universals not merely individual difficulties. I know what my consciousness is and I know what my body is (roughly), but I don’t know how the former dovetails with the latter (and on further reflection I can admit bafflement about what anything is). And so do you. No matter where you are from or what you have been through you share with your fellow man the puzzle of existence—your own existence as an embodied awareness. For you are aware of yourself and of your hybrid nature (the fizz and throb of consciousness, the thud and squelch of body). So I applaud John’s willingness to delve into the particular, but I also want to recognize the universal. Even the happiest and healthiest individual will find herself a total enigma, a freak of nature. Blank slates are mysteries too.

Are there many mind-body problems, plural—is it a tangle of separate knots? There are certainly many psychological categories, but are there different problems about them? I rather think not: it’s all just the problem of grounding the mental in the physical—whether sensations, beliefs, emotions, or acts of will. You might think (with John) that the problem of free will is a separate mind-body problem, but in one sense it is not, because it can be raised even under dualist assumptions. We can ask how the determinism that prevails in immaterial substance can be compatible with freedom and still find ourselves confused. True, our physical nature seems to rob us of freedom, but so would our immaterial nature—even angels can’t be free. So the mind-body problem is not only universal; it is also fundamentally unitary. Does this put me at odds with my fellow mysterian? Maybe in words but not, I think, in thoughts—we both accept the singularity of the sense of universal bafflement. [See other McGinn mind-body essays on his blog.]

Steven Brazzale

It’s been some 21 years since David Chalmers wrote “Moving Forward on the Problem of Consciousness”. Reading John’s book I couldn’t help but think that we’ve gone nowhere on the problem of Consciousness. It’s like the impossibility expressed in MC Escher’s picture “Galería de Grabados”. When we understand something, we stand back and see how the interacting parts combine to produce the whole. This is not just for physical things; you may understand the French Revolution, for example, from perspectives of politics, economic, social; in each case we look from an external viewpoint and see how they interact to create the conditions ripe for revolution. But we cannot stand outside our own consciousness (the only one we have access to) and so we cannot understand how mind arises from brain. 

Bill Reagan

After reading this excellent book and thoughtful comments, there is little to contribute except some thoughts from my own story.

“Everything can and will be explained. All mysteries penetrated.” Crown Prince Leopold, The Illusionist.

Alas! How we wish this could be true of mind-body matters. But, as the Crown Prince discovered, nothing was explained and no mysteries penetrated. There is, however, an important mind-body lesson for us from the arrogant behavior of the Crown Prince, and Prince Humperdinck: Never come between True Love, because it does not end well.

Returning to the subject matter at hand, I felt this book was more like a wander through Eliade’s The Forbidden Forest, but more so. This book is a “tick-bomb” of ideas in that Forest, for once brushed against and exploded, instead of ticks, there is an explosion of stories and ideas. And like the ticks, the ideas will stick to my psyche for years to come.

Here we have a book that attempts to explain some mysteries, and does so quite well through story telling. I very much appreciate and enjoy stories about people. These stories give us insight to their thought processes and actions. After all is said and done, what do people remember about us? Stories, snapshots, of our lives, like a pieces of a puzzle once put together paint a picture of our lives.

While reviewing Advanced Directives in a Jewish nursing home, I ran across a case of a man who was on advanced life support. Why, I asked, if there is no hope of recovery, does he continue to be kept alive? The response was enlightening. Orthodox Jews believe there is no existence past this one, so life at all costs becomes important, and is why the memory of those who have died are precious.

Then, if there is no one left to remember us, we live on in the mind of God. Even for a hardened agnostic atheist like me, this is comforting. So stories such as presented in this book, though short, will continue to keep their stories alive long after their passing.

Is this God the embedded universal consciousness of some thinkers? All those memories, or data as you might wish to call them, reside there. It is some type of collection, or collective, of sorts. And because we do not know all it contains, the data is, um, unconscious to us. Perhaps we could call it an “unconscious collection?” I submit that consciousness emanates from unconsciousness.

There is an unseen gorilla in the room. Oh, yes, everyone talks about it, but seldom is it addressed as related to consciousness. The gorilla is the unconscious. Should we not ask then, “Why is there unconsciousness in addition to consciousness?” What force of evolution decided we needed a place in our brain to hide stuff from our awareness?

However, there is not an entity of either unconsciousness or consciousness. Rather, there is a flow of information along a continuum. Imagine it being somewhat along the lines of an infinite spectrum of color or sound. Consciousness does not end at a line of demarcation with unconsciousness or vice versa. So neither can not be explained without the other.

This is much like the problem of reconciling Quantum Mechanics with General Relativity. You might as well put all the equations for both on little strips of paper into a bingo ball cage, pull them out randomly, put in some math operations, and come up with a “new” physics. Which is absolutely senseless without understanding they are place holders along the spectrum of nature, and not just a reconciliation of both.

Consciousness/Unconsciousness is similar. Here, the peeling away the layers of an onion does not work, nor does circumambulating around what we think is the problem, but we continue futilely searching for understanding. This is much like the blind men attempting to describe an elephant, each giving his own perspective.

No, this is all wrong. We are not outside observing, but we are inside the elephant. We get mooshed about, pulled hither and yon hoping to find some semblance of order and meaning. We want to find an escape hatch, but there is none. Instead we begin to imagine some incredible “being,” a savior – be it a god or aliens – breaking through to save us from our misery. But, all we really need to do is use what has been given us. No salvation or redemption needed. As Leia Organa said, “We have everything we need.”

The concept of everything having a modicum of consciousness is a bastardization of the basic concept of consciousness. Let’s leave our journey at the human/animal level, and cast aside speculations meaningless to our immediate existence. To follow the line of logic of everything is conscious . . . So the cancer within me is some how conscious, and further it is eating up my consciousness? Perhaps that is why I feel tired and groggy?

Instead of a Consciousness Meter what we need is a Wacko Meter to use on those who claim to know what consciousness is or isn’t.

Free will and Liberty/Freedom. These are haughty terms, unused by every day people and not really what makes people happy. Free will is an ability to make choices, regardless if there are “unseen” forces dictating them. Liberty? Okay. But, so what? Liberties we know can be taken away one crumb at a time with people not noticing. 

Rather than free will and liberty being what makes us happy, I found something quite different in my work and studies. What people respond to best is predictability and control. Yes, you could say that control is a form of free will and freedom, but there I suppose it becomes a matter of free will in so choosing.

Let’s take a few concrete examples: 

Mildred: Age 87

Dx: Advancing Dementia

Location: Nursing home

Early morning, the nurse aide, Ms. Dingbat, walks into Mildred’s room, without knocking, flips on the light, tells Mildred it is time to get up, and starts taking off Mildred’s night gown. Mildred starts yelling and scratching at the aide who struggles with Mildred and the night gown, promptly giving up, then telling the nurse about Mildred’s behavior, who then gives Mildred an injection of Haldol Decanoate. Mildred is now identified as having behavior issues.

But, let’s rewind this to see the effects of offering a client predictability and control: Nurse aide, Ms. Angel, knocks before entering Mildred’s room, saying, “Good Morning, Mildred, it’s Ms. Angel. Time to start the day.” The aide does not turn on the light yet, and helps Mildred to sit up, and says, “Let’s get dressed.” She then goes to the closet and pulls out two dresses. She asks Mildred if she would like the blue dress or the yellow dress. Mildred points to the blue dress, and her morning proceeds peacefully.

These are not the ravings of an old lunatic, but something experienced for a number years working in nursing homes. If you need people’s cooperation, then let them know what to expect, and even if the choice is narrow, one or the other, it is still a choice, and few behavior issues ensue.

Recently, during reading a book a friend self-published, I clicked the next chapter button and surprisingly a message popped up telling me the web site was suspended because the bill had not been paid. When notified, my friend became rather put out, OK, pissed. He paid the asshole to get the web site back online. What a different response my friend might have had if given notice of impending doom, and a chance to make things right – regardless of the greedy capitalist attitude – before shutting down his website.

Free will and freedom might work as concepts on the societal level, but falls apart in the reality of every day living. Let us all give each other the respect they deserve by letting them know what’s ahead and give them some control. What truly makes people happy? Doing an informal survey from complete strangers, it might be “I’m alive,” “Family,” or “Being a barista.” No mention of liberty from anyone.

With all this new found knowledge from the book’s stories, will it help me brew a better cup of coffee? Absolutely not. However, each gulp of coffee consciousness might fill my being with increased awareness making it a more satisfying cup of coffee.

Evgenii Rudnyi 

Thank you for your book. It is well designed and well written. It is just right – to follow a life of a scientist and see what a mind-body problem means for his/her personal life. This is indeed the best way to test an idea of the Supreme Story.

I am a former computational chemist. At that times I was an inveterate reductionist. I am working now for a company and I have got finally enough time to think this idea over. Actually in academia there is no time for something like this as there are endless projects, proposals, deadlines to deliver papers, etc.

I believe that your position is pretty close to that of Paul Feyerabend (see for example his short paper “How To Defend Society Against Science,” 1975). Supreme Stories of science could be quite harmful – this is my current position as well.

Let me describe what has played the biggest role in my rejection of reductionism. It happens that this question is hardly discussed in neuroscience even though it seems quite evident. Imagine that you watch yourself in the mirror. Your image that you observe in the mirror is an  example of visual experience.

Where the image is located? If we take a conventional way of thinking, that is,

1) photons are reflected by the mirror
2) neurons in retina are excited
3) natural neural nets start information processing

then the answer should be that this image should be in your brain. It seems to be logical as, after all, we know that there is nothing after the mirror. However, it immediately follows that not only your image in the mirror is in your brain but rather everything that your see is also in your brain. Hence the question would be, is the brain in the world or the world in the brain?

Well, actually there is a bunch of people discussing this problem. A good starting point is Steven Lehar’s A Cartoon Epistemology: [See also Evgenii Rudnyi’s review, in Russian, of Mind-Body Problems.]

David Kordahl

I had a lot of fun reading Mind-Body Problems over the past week. I know everyone gets different things out of a book, but it gave me a lot of unexpected connections. I was especially surprised to find out about Freeman Dyson’s sympathies for the paranormal, and that Rebecca Goldstein was once married to Sheldon Goldstein (whose book on Bohmian mechanics I once read). I was grateful to be introduced to the idea of “cognitive homelessness” in one of your footnotes. And I thought the chapters on Stuart Kauffman and Owen Flanagan were amazing, vivid enough as character sketches that it didn’t really matter whether or not you found much to admire in their points of view. Also, I liked all the memoir-ish stuff, which usually gets left out in science writing.

If I were writing a review, though, I’d probably focus on the dissonance between your attitudes throughout the book and your expressed antipathy for Kuhn and the postmodernists in the intro. (Fair warning: I wrote a long negative review earlier this year of Errol Morris’s book on Kuhn, in which I quoted one of your blog posts on the subject.) Throughout the book, you’re broad-minded in your insistence that there is not one answer to the mind-body problem, and that there can be many helpful descriptions of the world. But this to me sounds exactly like what Richard Rorty, that famous post-Kuhnian, might have said. There are many mental tools, and we continue to use the helpful ones. But, to quote Rorty, just because Newton’s laws work doesn’t mean that the world speaks Newtonian.

This vision of “truth as use” doesn’t contradict the possibility of objectivity within a given way of talking about things, although it does muddy the waters if you’re bullish on there being a bright line between scientific vs. non-scientific ways of talking about the world. I feel like this has been a productive confusion for you (after all, one needs a certain amount of confusion to feel the need to write without being boring), but I also feel that it wouldn’t take that much extra to smooth out some of the contradictions. If you’d accept, for instance, that all scientists are doing when they claim “truth” for various theories is that they’re saying “this seems to work for the purposes we need it for,” then the projects many of the subjects of your book are carrying out could be brought together a bit better.

Anyway, given that you have friends who also are on my side of this debate, I suspect that I’m not saying anything you haven’t already considered. I don’t mean to tear down your book with the last two paragraphs, since, to reiterate, I basically support this sort of pluralism. I suspect, in life, that you might too.

Michael Kazanjian

You note that maybe science and philosophy cannot solve he mind body problem, but rock n roll can. Reminds me of a story. Marcel or someone is answering questions at a philosophy conference. For one question, try as the thinker does, the questioner does not get it. Answers Marcel, well, I cannot seem to verbalize the answer, maybe I will try to play the answer on the piano.

Also, we look at body and ask, as does Ryle, where is mind?  This could lead to the infinite regress. Given A or body, we look for B or mind. We cannot find it in B, so look for B in C. And on and on. But I propose the Finite or even Non-Regress. When you look at A, you see something of B. Aristotle talks here of hylomorphism, the form is in the object. So we are back to Ricoeur, reintroducing mind into body. Mind is the way the body is organized. But remember body is not “just” organized. It can be organized and disorganized.

The mind-body problem might be mislabeled. Instead of a problem to solve, it may be a mystery to be lived. Husserl, the former mathematician, speaks of the lifeworld. Wittgenstein comes very close to this, by saying we can speak and speak, and whereof we cannot speak, we need to be silent. Theoreticians, specialists in homological and isomorphic approaches to interdisciplinarity, can support Horgan. Given applications, derivations, and specifics, the homologies or isomorphs such as from general system theory cannot be quantified. We do not see, hear, or touch the homologies or isomorphies, but they exist. Some things are not problems to solve, but mysteries to appreciate or live. To rephrase Ricoeur, we must reintroduce problem of mind and body into mystery.

Horgan’s references to scholars in various fields is commendable.  Unlike most philosophers, and unlike most who are unfortunately chained to Continental or analytic jurisdictions, Horgan reaches across the isle and borders to seek helpful insights for the mind and body issue. Like my book, Unified Philosophy, his unique and deep thinking work has a bibliographic background that is a welcome integrative perspective from many disciplines.  Descartes, who contributed much to creating the mind-body problem, ignored something. He was or is not a thinking thing (mind). He is a Frenchman, European male who thinks. He is an embodied thinker, not thinker. He ignores his priorities.

Human factors engineers design user friendly environments. They would support Horgan toward a mystery, music friendly “problem” of the mind and body. I generalize human factors as part of the limit factors engineering; there is a human limit to the technical or problem issue. Game theory says you do not just make moves, but moves relative to and limited by the most beneficial.

There is strong argument for your view, which approximates my view in a sense. This is from fuzzy set theory and the notions of validity of argumentation for the existence of God. Fuzzy sets are different, “fuzzy,” from crisp sets. A problem for solving is you either solve it or do not. A mystery is deeper. A war is something you win or lose. Guerilla war or counter terrorism is not either/or. We make progress against the “enemy” instead of physically destroying them. Kierkegaard wrongly stated Either/Or. But Hegel correctly said both/and.  Thus, Crisp Sets say that something is “settled.” Fuzzy sets says something is somewhere between. Some is not black and white, but gray. Fuzzy sets are unsettled, and can be Limited or Gray Sets. The mind/body problem is not so much a problem, but also a living or mystery. Where Ryle eliminates mind, Ricoeur integrates them into tension.

Richard Bellman, mathematician, talks of the metaphysical as context for the quantitative. A technical writer, J. L. Massey, in information theory argues that quantitative reasoning is fine, but we ought never ignore the nonquantitative.  As Epic poetry such as Dante, Milton, Odyssey say, we are always in medias res or in the middle of things. Life is nonlinear, nonsequential as the context for the probing and sequential.  Producing Products in Half the Time is an excellent book about simultaneous management teams, as against merely serial management. Simultaneously, epic poetry argues that we are always amid, not always objectifying, reality. If amid reality, mystery and wonder are the foundations from which emerge problems…..pseudo problems.

Tom Clark of

Hi John, Some comments on Chapter One: “Given our unbounded ignorance, we should be free to invent mind-body stories that console and exalt us, that mirror our fears and desires. Here’s the catch. We should not insist that integrated information theory or any other story is the final, definitive solution to the mind-body problem. There can be no final solution, because science cannot eradicate subjectivity from its accounts of consciousness.”

Two points: 1) The desire for freedom is fine, but that and our current (not unbounded) ignorance don’t license us to make up any mind-body story that happens to be consoling or exalting, although I enjoy your wide angle approach in this book. We need to be constrained by the evidence, otherwise we’re not being particularly scientific, part of your remit as a science writer, no?  2) I’d say the point of scientific investigation is to explain subjectivity, not eradicate it. The solution, should it come to pass, will show why and how subjectivity (that experience only exists for the subject undergoing it) accompanies certain sorts of physically instantiated processes, the nature of which the evidence suggests is strongly tied to representation. I don’t see that there’s an in-principle bar to finding a solution, although it likely won’t be along the lines of a causal, emergentist, panpsychist or other sort of physicalism, which mistakenly tries to publicize/objectify what exists for the representational system alone: the content of its representations (see Dennett and the reality of red on this).

“But scientists cannot build a consciousness-meter until they reach agreement on what physical conditions are necessary and sufficient to produce consciousness. And scientists cannot reach agreement on those conditions unless they have a means of solving the solipsism problem, that is, a consciousness-meter. Lacking a consciousness-meter, our views of the hard problem will always be subjective, a matter of taste.”

This methodological problem isn’t, as you seem to think, necessarily a defeater for explanations of consciousness. The NCC (neural correlates of consciousness) can be narrowed down using reports (verbal or behavioral) of conscious states, and then we can research what it is the NCC do, and indeed much progress is being made on that score. Andy Clark’s work on predictive coding in the brain shows promise, and Thomas Metzinger has a well-developed, empirically-grounded theoretical model in his book Being No One. So I think we might eventually arrive at an objectively specifiable explanation for subjectivity that doesn’t eliminate it (as do Dennett, Frankish and other eliminativists and illusionists) but rather shows it to be an entailment of our being certain sorts of representational systems. This might end up seeming pretty weird (which is what you want, right?), but if it’s evidence-based and theoretically consistent and predictive, it won’t be woo. Nor will it be just a matter of taste.

In any case, I do enjoy your first-person account of the struggle to incorporate the first-person into science (or is it to protect the first-person from science?), so thanks for making it available to hard problem addicts like me 🙂

Deepak Chopra

I’m impressed that Mind-Body Problems is so fair-minded. By taking the approach of interviewing a diverse group of people who come at the topic from distinct points of view, John Horgan brings a refreshing air of pluralism to vexing issues. The second major virtue of the book is that it is personal and engaging–the intended reader has a curious mind, enjoys a good story, and doesn’t want to get bogged down in academic disputes. I think such a reader will be very happy with what Horgan has done.

Giving an abstract problem a human voice–in this case ten voices, counting the author and the nine people he interviewed–has many rewards.  We get something close to the real texture of how ideas are woven into biography. These ten people—like all people–lead lives in which mental activity cannot be tweaked out and examined objectively.  I envy Horgan his ability to convey the lived-in quality of thinking.

It’s also true, however, that I couldn’t have written a similar book. The larger picture, or what might be called the agenda behind Mind-Body Problems, was to investigate if science can objectively solve the ancient problem of how mind and body are related. Horgan’s conclusion is that a scientific answer to consciousness will never be found. To divert the reader from feeling let down, he says that the knowledge that there will never be a final, objective answer is actually liberating, because it frees each of us to explain consciousness in our own way.

Some readers might claim that this is the same as giving every player in a junior soccer match a trophy. I don’t object on those grounds. My issue is with pluralism as a valid approach. First off, the approach is self-contradictory if Horgan is marching under the banner of science. Scientists didn’t take a vote to determine if Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity was correct; they tested the hypothesis experimentally, measured the results, and came to a conclusion. This method left room for a number of open questions, and a rift developed between relativity, which explains the limits of spacetime on the macro level, and quantum mechanics, which explains the behavior of elementary particles on the micro level. The two theories remain incompatible to this day.

I wish Horgan had put this incompatibility front and center, because it overrides the mind-body problem and clarifies some issues his interviewed subjects only cloud. The current state of scientific knowledge is confused and turbulent. At bottom this is due to the victory of physics, which took our explanation of the universe to an untenable place. At the horizon of space, time, matter, and energy, data and measurement came to an end. When this happened, empiricism had nothing more to measure, and no physical evidence can be hoped for except in patches. Even then, if new subatomic particles are emitted for milliseconds in a mammoth atom smasher or a proton is witnessed actually decaying or “dark” matter and energy turn out to interact with the visible universe (just to mention some cherished projects being funded by the scientific establishment), there would still be a fixed limit to empirical data.

The leading edge where the visible universe touches on the precreated state is the dead end of the scientific method. Much speculation has been aired about what lies on the other side, but essentially the core question is “How did something come out of nothing?” The precreated state is a nothing in that it holds the potential for creating space, time, matter, and energy while not actually containing them. The precreated state is pure potential. As long as you think in terms of time, space, matter, and energy, you are confined to creation. Even to say that the precreated state “caused” the big bang is dubious, since cause-and-effect are wrapped into the setup of the universe after the big bang appeared.

In any scientific inquiry there has to be a source or foundation for the thing you want to investigate. Atoms, molecules, and subatomic particles are the irreducible “stuff” of creation if you take the physical world as it appears. But the quantum revolution long ago de-materialized matter, undercutting the appearance of solid objects with fixed positions in time and space. The eventual arrival of nothing as the source of creation was much more radical–and yet it is true and should be accepted as such.

If the mind-body problem is viewed from this one irreducible fact, a great deal of confusion would be cleared up. To begin with, we’d stop asking the wrong questions. The eminent British philosopher Bertrand Russell attempted to clear the air in his 1927 book, The Analysis of Matter. In it, Russell exploded once and for all the notion that the sequence of physical events that make up the body and brain has any causal relationship to the emergence of mind, or as he narrowed it down, sensations. The atoms and molecules that participate in building a body/brain don’t have sensations. Atoms don’t feel anything. Therefore, Russell said, it must be considered outright miraculous that the end product of atoms and molecules should feel anything. He was not in favor of miracles.

In my experience, science is outraged when confronted with its own magical thinking, being confident that only mystics and religionists, or scattershot dabblers in metaphysics, are guilty of it. But 99% of neuroscientists believe in the assumption that atoms and molecules in the brain must create the mind or cause it to surface.  This puts us on a level playing field with devout Christians who believe that God must be the Creator of the cosmos. There is no intellectual superiority between the two.

If Mind-Body Problems had begun with a fixed idea about which questions were truly crucial, a very different book would have emerged. It would have given voice to the strongest answer to the riddle of “something from nothing,” which is that consciousness is the irreducible source of creation. It would have dropped the notion that brain causes mind or the reverse, that mind causes brain. Both are modes of consciousness transforming within itself. The book would then have tested the proposition that there is only one reality, which brings us out of dualism into the fruitful field of monism. The discussion would have pinpointed the very thing that contemporary physics faces–the relationship between the visible universe and its inconceivable source in “nothing”–which is the exact same problem as the mind-body problem.

It’s entirely unfair for Mind-Body Problems to be a book it isn’t. I only offer the alternative because I think surveying ten individuals to get their opinions has serious limitations. Likewise, saying that all views of consciousness deserve equal respect and equal status in a boiling pot of possibilities doesn’t hold water. Consciousness is the bedrock of reality as experienced by human beings. Consciousness is aware of itself by definition. Therefore, it can deliver–we can deliver–true understanding about what consciousness is and how it behaves.

Steve Snyder, a.k.a. Socratic Gadfly

This is an insightful, thought-provoking overview of where scientists, philosophers, social scientists and others are at in consciousness studies today. Like Horgan (I think), and like some of his interviewees, I believe that the issue will become more solved in the future, that it will probably never be totally solved, and that the answer will be in multi-part solutions, not one single one.

One book that certainly ties in with some of the discussion is Tor Norretrander’s The User Illusion. I didn’t see John mention it, and so I didn’t know if he was familiar with it or not. It discusses a number of issues related to consciousness, including some possible angles on what the Libet-experiment delay might mean.

Another relevant book? One with which I’ve argued with Massimo Pigliucci over the years? Dan Wegner’s The Illusion of Free Will. He takes Dennett’s idea (borrowed from Gilbert Ryle, of course), about us having no “Cartesian meaner” and no “Cartesian theater,” to the logical extension that we also have no “Cartesian free willer.”

As I tell Massimo, I think we may have “something like free will” associated with “subselves” similar to what Dennett proposes, but … really, Wegner’s on the right track that we really don’t have free will in the sense most proposes. My review:

That said, I’ve long chided people for viewing this whole issue as “free will” vs. “determinism” as two polarities with no middle, let alone no event-specific sliding scale. From Zen (thanks Hofstadter, for introducing me to the word aeons ago), I’ve long said “mu” to such ideas:

Finally, ranging well beyond consciousness itself, an excellent book (and video of the symposium) by an author John mentioned in one of his interviews. That would be Wim Kayzer and his “Glorious Accident.”

Onno de Jong

I liked how your book shines a light on the body mind problem by illuminating the lives of people who have come to certain conclusions about that mystery. It is very clever.  The mind body problem is one of the mysteries that requires us to answer many of the other mysteries and its answer may lie outside of the scope of empirical science if its scope is limited to reconstructing the visible world through models that we create (Kant’s argument for transcendental idealism).  I just visited a biochemist researcher at the University of Chicago and appreciated the way she spoke about her scientific research in terms of models created by us for human understanding. It harkens back to the limits Kant places on scientific knowledge, that we can know only appearances and not the thing itself.

Deirdre McCloskey, through a number of talks she has given at the New School, very much influenced me by questioning how the modern world came to be. I tried to answer that question in my book, For a Future that I gave to you when we met. Though I respect how this modern world allowed her to become who she is, my conclusions are very different. She has a very expansive view about our political economy and its amazing possibilities that we take for granted. I see the ecological limitations. Less that 20% of humans living on Planet Earth use more than what the biosphere can easily regenerate. The other 80% of humans want to live like we do. That’s impossible. It would take five planets the size of Earth to accomplish this. The rate of environment destruction is much faster than the rate at which we can innovate our way out of the mess. Global warming, the sixth great extinction, etc. There are 9 such nine planetary boundaries according to the Stockholm Resilience Centre and then there is war, inequality and more. I’m too much a student of Socrates to buy her optimism, particularly when most of the things that modern technology accomplishes merely make life easier for us — more shadows on the proverbial cave wall. We do not walk out of the cave with the unrestrained feeding of our selfish desires. See the choice of Herakles by Xenophon on virtue and vice.

It’s important to understand that individual humans, like any other animal, are merely external presentations of our genetic code. It’s the code that counts. That makes our destruction of the Earth’s biosphere so damning. Humans have swarmed, especially since World War 2, and are destroying our own possibility for progeny. It makes us humans no more intelligent that the yeast in the beer I make. Yeast will kill themselves on their own waste product. You touch on some of these themes at the end of your book but it feels inconclusive and Luke-warm, as if as a journalist you only report and do not go to bat yourself. I would have liked to see you interview yourself on the question and its consequences but I suppose we get that in your presentation of the others. Anyway, I feel one with many of your positions and appreciate that you have a platform to bring them up.

Anthony Verbalis

I’ve read most of the chapters of your book, and want to summarize some of my impressions while they are still relatively fresh.

I expected the chapter on Douglas Hofstadter to be my least favorite, but I found myself agreeing with him quite a lot. Truth is Beauty and Beauty Truth? “That’s nonsense. Absolute junk.” Yes! I have long felt that way. “I think we should try to bring as much beauty into the world as we can,” he said, “since the world is so non-beautiful!” A worthy sentiment on which to base an entire life. (Also, a goal which implies that we have the free will to choose it.)

But his ideas on mind are incomprehensible to me, and that which I do comprehend, I reject. Consciousness does not exist? He must be putting me on! If it is an “illusion” as he claims, he doesn’t provide any clue about how a lump of meat like the brain can produce such an illusion. OK, OK. He says ‘illusion’, I say ‘conscious thoughts and feelings’. A distinction perhaps without much of a difference.

I particularly like the chapter where you interviewed Rebecca Goldstein: “But she cannot accept a value system that ranks some lives above others.” Me neither. But almost all human culture is based on status and rank. So that makes the world somewhat difficult for me, and very difficult for some who are made to feel worthless because of such things as skin color. Any mind-body theory that I embrace will emphasize a fundamental equal worth of all minds, human culture to the contrary. In my own case, I know that I am not an Einstein, or some other variety of genius. But I can feel pain, gratitude, happiness etc. with the best of them. I am entirely worthy of searching for my own particular mind-body solution. And putting what I find out there.

My ‘own’ mind body theory is much informed by the scientist/philosopher Erwin Schrodinger, who wrote the small book “Mind and Matter”. Two important ideas. For a long time, humans did not distinguish between objective and subjective. Science changed that. As a way to bring some order to our perceptions of the world, we drew a boundary between inside and outside, and science was able to deal with the outside, without complications from feelings, etc. It was a spectacularly successful strategy, but at the cost of making our world impersonal and colorless, without feelings or other qualia. Now, to take this objective strategy and try to make it explain feelings and qualia contradicts the assumptions at the heart of scientific method, and we would not expect it to succeed. It doesn’t and can’t.

Secondly, he says that “consciousness is a singular of which there is no plural”. No one has ever experienced more than one consciousness at a time, even those who experience multiple personality disorder. “In truth, there is only one mind”, and the apparent multiplicity of minds is really the manifestation of this singular consciousness as it interacts with multiple physical structures. In this view, consciousness becomes a fundamental property of the Universe, along with the usual physical properties. Having unified conscious entities, I see no advantage of unifying further, and the resulting dualism seems to me the simplest way to understand the Universe. As you (John Horgan) have said so well, “I once thought the origin of the universe is the biggest mystery, why there is something rather than nothing. But without mind there might as well be nothing.” Matter, without consciousness to apprehend matter, makes no sense to me.

I spent much of my life speculating on how physics might be compatible with free will. Quantum indeterminacy, when I first learned about it, seemed to be the way. Let me be clear, quantum physics does not explain free will but I think it allows room for it. I understand that randomness by itself does not imply free will, but hiding in that randomness may be purpose and intention. I am not claiming that this is a scientific hypothesis, but a plausible story which would be consistent with objective observations made according to the scientific method.

In the chapter on Stuart Kauffman, there is this statement: “Consciousness, Penrose concluded, must arise from probabilistic quantum effects.” So, let’s postulate that this is true, that the probabilistic aspects of quantum physics can under some circumstances produce consciousness. Further postulate that it is a two-way street; consciousness can conversely influence the probability distribution (under certain circumstances). There are many other places in physics, chemistry, biology and medicine where a specific action produces a reaction. The ‘action’ in this case is the production of consciousness, and the ‘reaction’ is free will.

This is the only way that I can understand how free will might be consistent with the laws of physics. It seems to significantly ease my mind about this longstanding personal issue. Therefore, I freely choose to believe it is true.

Jim Hughes

I loved the book.  And now I don’t feel those solipsist anxieties anymore, because I’ll always be part of a group: people who’ve felt the “vertigo” at some point in their lives, and for whom the “mind-body problem” is so obviously the most interesting question there is, and who don’t understand why everyone else doesn’t feel the same way.

There’s one point in the book – one single sentence – I disagree with.  You say: “You need to be extraordinary, blessed with a high IQ, to appreciate general relativity and quantum mechanics…”   But I don’t think that’s true.  I’m not a scientist, I can’t do the math, but I feel like I can nevertheless get the gist of these things, what they’re really telling us.  And it changes everything.

Amanda Jones

Thank you for your interesting compilation and amusing personable writing style. As someone who has long been fascinated with mind body studies, I have longed for us to join top minds and data from a broader range of fields so we could hope to have a better understanding. It is my belief that we should stop looking at things through narrowed viewpoints ie neuroscientists vs psychiatrists vs quantum physicists perspectives and instead work together to join data and research from all fields even the ones people turns their noses up at ie astrology, psychics, sensitives etc.

It is only once we open our minds to all the information available fully can we hope to have an inkling. When I cross study across all of these different ways of thinking the patterns that emerge are striking, but more data is needed.

Hoping one day we can create a think tank from all these fields to open up and communicate our oneness. Consider me your first volunteer.

Murali Karri

A quick introduction, I am Murali and a new student to looking at Science for all solutions through eye of spirituality.

I follow Scientific American magazine and read it with curiosity. I did come across your book and took two weeks to read a first time and another few days to read a second time. At the end I would like to complement you for your extensive research, compiling as well as presenting in a very simple but interesting way.

One of the great positives of the book was the diversity of fields you touched and also the eminent scientists in this field. The book is interesting and for a beginner like me very valuable source.

Some areas I was looking for which were not really dealt with in details were:

  1. The relationship between knowledge and consciousness.
  2. The relationship of consciousness at a very minute level, and when these contribute to a big structure how it contributes or gets ignored.
  3. I think the Mind-Body is not a problem but a solution. It shows how complementary both of them are, and also it shows how neutral as well as how much they work against each other. Hence the coexistence of mind and body. Their relation is what you tried to bring out, hence a different and positive title would have been better.

Lastly thank you for making this book freely available. In this world of capitalistic tendencies you have shown the way of expressing your thoughts for all people.

Sergey Ivanenko

Thank you for the book – it is quite fascinating to read about multiple points of view on the mind-body problem and its multiple facets and, perhaps even more so, to see the personalities behind these points of view. Also thank you for being open for feedback!

My personal take on the problem of consciousness is that consciousness is primary. And I have what I think is a pretty good logical argument in its support.

Let’s narrow the concept of consciousness to “ability to have an experience”. By definition this is a binary property. An entity is either conscious or not (i.e. it is either able to have an experience or not). There might be different degrees of how rich the experience is, but still, it is either “1” or “0” (“yes” or “no”).

Let’s consider development of a complex system, for instance, a human being. On its way from an elementary particle (presumed to be not conscious) to a newborn (conscious) it undergoes a growth of complexity, which presumably causes consciousness to emerge. This means that at some moment of time, by a very insignificant, infinitesimal change in complexity (addition of an atom or a slight change in the position of its constituent particles) there will be a qualitative shift from “0” to “1” [1]. Which is essentially an equivalent to appearance of consciousness “out of nowhere”. This is a paradox hidden in the word “emergence”. Or, it could be that consciousness is already present, it just starts to “inhabit” the developing body. But in either case it means that consciousness does not require matter to appear (perhaps to manifest itself, but not appear).

Alternative scenario would be that consciousness is present in every elementary particle and in a highly developed system it undergoes an exponential “jump” to a more advanced state (similar to how electric current starts to flow in a closed circuit – all particles already possess the properties needed for electrical current, but turning the switch on causes a quick, but continuous increase of the flow of the charged particles).

To me both of these scenarios really mean that consciousness is primary – it is either already present in all matter or can appear out of nowhere. Although the scientific paradigm would probably balk at this, I can’t really see a logical fallacy here. A vast consciousness can certainly create a simulation of a physical Universe (as one could play a game of chess in her mind). And, considering Occam’s Razor, it is preferable to assume one “axiomatic” entity (consciousness) versus having four of them (space, time, matter, consciousness).

I’d also suggest that concept of “emergence” is not something that can be realized in the physical Universe due to its non-conservative nature. We should be careful using this word!

Once again, thank you for the book and for the opportunity to participate in the discussion!

[1] To avoid confusion with a fuzzy concept of “fractional consciousness”, “fractional” is still “non-zero”. In a life of a human there is one precise moment, when the consciousness “arises” in the body, and one precise moment when it ceases to exist. If we plot consciousness as a function of time, for each of these moments there’s a break in derivative.

The Weirdness | Introduction

The Weirdness | Introduction

Introduction: The Weirdness

In an ancient flash memory, I am walking near a river on a hot summer day. My left hand grips a fishing rod, my right a can of worms. One friend walks in front of me, another behind. We’re headed to a spot on the river where we can catch perch, bullheads and large-mouth bass. Weeds bordering the path block my view of the river, but I can smell its dank breath and feel its chill on my skin. The seething of cicadas builds to a crescendo.

I stop short. I’m me, I say. My friends don’t react, so I say, louder, I’m me. The friend before me glances over his shoulder and keeps walking, the friend behind pushes me. I resume walking, still thinking, I’m me, I’m me. I feel lonely, scared, exhilarated, bewildered.

The memory is like an old coin I’ve kept in my pocket since childhood, smoothed by decades of handling. I’m not sure how accurate it is. I’ve forgotten details, like who my companions were. They were probably Tim and Nancy, my best friends, but I can’t be sure. If a mini-drone disguised as a dragonfly had been spying on us, I could check my memory against the video. But the drone couldn’t read my mind, where the real action was.1

Me (left) and my best friend Tim, circa 1959. My girlfriend says I still make that face.

Over the decades, this incident has become my personal creation myth, which goes as follows: Before that moment beside the river, I was whole, living entirely within myself. Then my mind split in two. One part of me was still seeing, hearing, smelling, walking. Another part was gawking at the first part and thinking, Huh? I became self-conscious, aware of myself as something weird, distinct from everything else in the world. I couldn’t articulate any of this at the time. I’m projecting decades of rumination back onto my clueless five-year-old self. But that moment, that Huh?, was my first confrontation with the mind-body problem.

The phrase “mind-body problem” dates back only to the 19th century, but the problem is primordial.2 It springs from the bewilderment you feel when you unexpectedly come face to face with yourself. The loopy feedback-ness of the sensation amplifies it. Try to analyze it, put it into words, and you might take note of your bizarre hybrid nature. You are a physical thing in a world of physical things, including other people. You have height, width, heft, you are subject to gravity and other forces, and yet you are not just physical. Others can see your body, but they cannot see your mind. You have perceptions, thoughts, feelings, including this feeling of estrangement.

The mind-body problem is often equated with the problem of consciousness, which philosopher David Chalmers calls “the hard problem.”3 How does a brain, a mere lump of matter—“meat you can eat,” as Douglas Hofstadter puts it—produce subjective experiences like those I have writing these words and you have reading them? When and why did consciousness evolve, and what creatures besides humans possess it? Most people accept that monkeys and dogs are sentient, but what about a trout or bedbug? Are brainless organisms like jellyfish or amoebas aware? Smart phones and other non-living things?

But consciousness is just one of many mind-body conundrums. Free will is another. Do our physical components—genes, ganglia, neurotransmitters, hormones—dictate what we do? Are conscious thoughts really afterthoughts, which give us the illusion of self-control but lack causal power? Does that mean that “mental illness” is a misnomer, that depression and schizophrenia are physical illnesses best treated with physical remedies?

Then there are questions related to morality and meaning. Where do compassion and empathy come from, and our sense of right and wrong, of fairness, of what ought to be? Can investigations of the biological basis of morality give us moral guidance? If we are nothing but matter—if there is no divine justice, no soul or afterlife, if when we die that’s it—what is the point of being good? What, if anything, makes life worth living? What gives it meaning? The philosopher Owen Flanagan calls this the really hard problem.

And what is the self, this… thing that each of us possesses, that supposedly exercises free will, that agonizes over whether to undergo a sex-change operation, stop taking anti-psychotic medication, believe in God or telepathy? What makes me me, and you you? Could the Buddhists be right that the self is a mirage? Given all the metamorphoses we undergo as we age, is it absurd to believe in something enduring at our core? Can I really be the same person as that boy pushing through weeds and bleating, “I’m me”?

Schopenhauer, that German grouch, called the mind-body problem the “world knot,” but he could have said knots. The more you stare at the mind-body problem, the more problems you see, knots within knots within knots. It is the deepest of all mysteries, the one toward which all other mysteries converge. I once thought the origin of the universe is the biggest mystery, why there is something rather than nothing. But without mind there might as well be nothing.

Few people outside philosophy and mind-related fields are familiar with the phrase “mind-body problem,” with good reason. Experts make the problem seem dauntingly arcane and remote from everyday concerns. Some insist it is a pseudo-problem, which vanishes once you jettison archaic concepts like “the self” and “free will.” Actually, the mind-body problem is quite real, simple and urgent. We face it whenever we wonder who we really are, can be and should be.4

Every field of science, from physics to economics, touches on this question, at least implicitly. So do philosophy and other humanities, as well as poems, novels, paintings, films, all the arts. Historically most of us have relied on religion for answers. I was raised Catholic, and as a boy I believed that I have an immortal soul, and if I’m good in this life, I’ll be rewarded in the next. After I confessed my sins to a priest, my soul glowed within me, white and pure. I was smugly confident that if a bus ran me over, God would whisk me up to paradise to live forever with Him, Jesus and Mary.

The church I attended as a child, when I still believed.

By my teens, Catholicism had stopped making sense. Like others in my generation, I read books like The Doors of Perception, Be Here Now and Siddhartha, and I became entranced by the mystical doctrines of Hinduism and Buddhism. The concept of enlightenment was especially alluring. It’s like heaven, except you don’t have to die to go there. I twisted myself into yogic knots, chanted mantras and ingested tiny orange barrels and squares of blotting paper. Far from enlightening me, these practices compounded my confusion.

I became a science journalist after deciding that science represents our best hope for telling us who we really are. My timing was fortuitous. In the late 1980s, when I joined the staff of Scientific American, scientists seemed poised to solve the mind-body problem once and for all. They were tracing consciousness, emotions and other mental functions to the chatter of brain cells, the ebbs and flows of hormones and neurotransmitters, the switching on and off of genes.

Leading this assault on the mind-body problem was Francis Crick, legendary cracker of the genetic code. He spelled out the implications of his perspective with brutal clarity in his 1994 book The Astonishing Hypothesis: “‘You,’ your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. As Lewis Carroll’s Alice might have phrased it: ‘You’re nothing but a pack of neurons.’” Italics added. The book’s subtitle, The Scientific Search for the Soul, was ironic. Crick, an atheist, wanted to eradicate belief in souls. And note the scare quotes around “You.”

Crick’s neuro-reductionism, while dispiriting, clearly represented our best hope for self-knowledge, and for solving practical mind-body problems like mental illness. So I thought. I expected Crick’s approach to crush its competition and give mind-science the unifying paradigm it desperately needed. Science would grind mind down to purely physical processes, just as it had done with photosynthesis, heredity and other biological puzzles.

That hasn’t happened. I have been tracking mind-science for decades now, and it has never been more fractious. Far from converging on a common approach to the mind-body problem, experts cannot even agree on how to talk about it. Should they adopt the jargon of neuroscience? Physics? Computer science? Evolutionary biology? Psychology? Philosophy? All the above? None of the above? Some hard-core materialists insist the mind-body problem has already been solved. Sure, we have details to work out, but we really are nothing but a pack of neurons.

Other theorists are proposing models based on quantum mechanics, information theory and Bayes theorem, a centuries-old formula for calculating probabilities. Heretics question the assumption that matter is the primary stuff of reality. They speculate that consciousness is as fundamental as matter, or more fundamental. Theorists are dredging up conjectures of Descartes, Spinoza and even Buddha, a quasi-mythological figure who lived 2,500 years ago. That’s like particle physicists reviving the ancient Greek claim that everything is made of earth, water, air and fire. “Paradigm shift” doesn’t describe what’s happening in mind-science. It is a paradigm explosion.

Nothing has surprised me more than the change of mind—the swerve—of Crick’s long-time collaborator Christof Koch. When he and Crick began co-writing articles on the neural approach to consciousness, Koch was in his early 30s. He became a world-famous scientist in his own right, an authority on the mind-body problem. In 2011 he took over a major brain institute in Seattle.

By then Koch was touting an ambitious new explanation of consciousness, integrated information theory, which he called “a gigantic step in the final resolution of the ancient mind-body problem.” The theory holds that consciousness lurks within any system, not just brains, with parts that interact in complex ways. A bacterium, integrated circuit, even a single proton. Koch described the theory as “a scientific version of panpsychism, the ancient and widespread belief that all matter, all things, animate or not, are conscious to some extent.”

My reaction was, Huh? Integrated information theory struck me as preposterous, and a repudiation of the practical, no-nonsense approach Koch and Crick had stood for. I suspected that Koch, whom I had interviewed many times, had gone off the deep end. When I heard he had passed through a mid-life crisis, during which his marriage collapsed, I thought, Aha! That explained his swerve. Emotional factors had warped his scientific judgment.

But my respect for Koch gave me pause. Maybe my judgment was warped. After all, I was stubbornly committed to the idea that the era of profound discoveries has ended. My hyper-skepticism could be blinding me to the merits of integrated information theory and panpsychism. And who was I to tell Christof Koch how to see the mind-body problem? That’s like telling him who he really is.

Then I thought, Hold on, there’s a paradox here. Science is a method for eliminating subjectivity from our perceptions so we see things as they really are, we achieve objectivity, which philosopher Thomas Nagel calls “the view from nowhere.”5 But the mind-body problem is different from other scientific problems, because subjectivity is part of the problem. Subjectivity, you might say, is the problem. Maybe we cannot escape our subjectivity when we contemplate consciousness and other mind-related riddles. When it comes to the mind-body problem, maybe there is no view from nowhere.

Wait, would that mean anything goes? People can answer mind-related puzzles in any way they choose? They can believe whatever they like about themselves, and about humanity in general? Objective investigation of the mind-body problem is pointless? That can’t be right. At some point during this internal panel discussion, my view of the mind-body problem shifted, and I came up with an idea for a book. I called Koch in Seattle, and I said something along these lines:

I’m thinking of writing a book about the mind-body problem, and I’m thinking of calling it Mind-Body Problems, with an “s,” because there are lots of mind-body problems, like consciousness, free will, and the self, and also we all wrestle with our own private versions of the mind-body problem, because we all have different minds and bodies and lives and outlooks, different fears and desires, so maybe we should accept that there isn’t one correct answer to the mind-body problem, we all have to find our own answers, and I want to explore this idea by telling the stories of people who have struggled, really struggled, with the mind-body problem in their professional and personal lives, people like a neuroscientist who went through a mid-life crisis…

Yeah, yeah, Koch said as I wrapped up my spiel. He got the idea, and he was ready to talk, on the record, about how his troubles might have affected his scientific views. If Koch had scoffed at my pitch, and declined to tell me about his personal life, I probably would not have written this book. Instead, he foolishly suggested dates when I could visit him in Seattle, and he recommended other experts for me to interview. If my life-long, anxious self-awareness is the ultimate cause of this book, Koch’s swerve is the proximate cause. Thanks a lot, Christof.

* * * * *

“No ideas but in things,” William Carlos Williams proclaims in his epic poem Paterson, violating the precept in stating it. My conceit is no ideas but in people. If there is no totally objective, third-person view of the mind-body problem, then there are only first-person views, and the best way to see the mind-body problem is to look at it from lots of different mindsets.

Each of the following nine chapters peers at the mind-body problem through the eyes of a different expert. Five are men and four women, one of whom used to be a man. They come at the mind-body problem from distinct intellectual perspectives. Neuroscience, mathematics, physics, child psychology, evolutionary biology, philosophy, economics. One is a law professor trained in psychoanalysis, another a novelist who called her first work of fiction The Mind-Body Problem.

For these men and women, the mind-body problem is not just an intellectual puzzle. They have skin in the game. When I mentioned this criterion to the transgender economist Deirdre McCloskey, she chortled and said, “I have skin in the game all right.” She and the other eight subjects of this book have endured the suicide of a child, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, a brain tumor, sexual confusion, the loss of religious faith. They have struggled to understand themselves, to be good, to be happy, to live meaningful lives, to matter. That could be a definition of humanity: matter that yearns to matter.

I’ll show how my subjects’ intellectual judgments, their convictions about what is true, are entangled with their fears and desires, their feelings about themselves and the world, about life and death, about what is good and beautiful and meaningful, about what really matters. In other books, I’ve dwelled on subjects’ personalities in ways that undermine their credibility. Here I’m ad hominem and ad feminam in the service of empathy and understanding.6

I’ll try to be honest about my own feeling and foibles, too. This book presents my subjective views of my subjects’ subjective views of subjectivity. It’s subjectivity all the way down. Have I abandoned all hope of objectivity? Not at all. At heart I’m still a straight-laced, fuddy-duddy science journalist who believes, knows, that science can discover true facts about the world. But my view of truth has become more expansive lately.

Since 2005 I’ve taught at Stevens Institute of Technology, an engineering school in New Jersey. One perk of the job, until he retired recently, has been seeing my pal James McClellan, a historian of science with magnificent, Moses-esque hair and beard, rushing to class, black academic gown billowing behind him.

Science and technology historian Jim McClellan, who has substituted a barbecue apron for his academic gown. He’s actually a very cheerful person.

Another perk, which endures, is arguing with Jim about truth. He is an honest-to-god postmodernist, who studied under Thomas Kuhn in the 1970s and was permanently infected by his skeptical outlook. Jim denies that science discovers absolute, objective, permanent truth. He drives me nuts by insisting that natural selection, the genetic code, the atomic theory of matter and the big bang aren’t “discoveries,” and they aren’t “true.” They are inventions, or “stories,” which reflect our culture’s values, and will inevitably yield to different stories.7

Jim accuses me of being a “naïve realist,” because I believe that our scientific stories reflect reality, how things are. He once demanded that I give him an example of an absolute, permanent scientific truth. The earth is round, I replied, not flat. The earth isn’t round, Jim cried, it’s an oblate spheroid! Okay, I said, then that is the absolute truth. After that conversation, whenever Jim spouted his Kuhnian nonsense, I’d mutter, Oblate spheroid, oblate spheroid.

Oblate (left) and prolate spheroids. Tomruen/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

I have grudgingly come to accept that Jim is right in one very important way. When it comes to the mind-body problem, the deepest of all mysteries, we should look at our suppositions as stories. All stories, even those with omniscient narrators, have a point of view. This isn’t as anything-goes as it sounds. As Jim (like Kuhn) emphasizes, some stories are more persuasive than others. They explain observations better, and yield more impressive applications.

Jim’s view resembles that of our engineering colleagues. Faced with a problem like building a bridge across the Hudson, engineers don’t seek the “true” solution. That would be a misuse of language, or what philosophers call a category error. Engineers seek a solution that works, that solves the problem at hand.

Mind-body stories can work in many ways, from the practical to the spiritual. They can lead to more accurate models of neural activity, to more effective tests and treatments for bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, to brain implants that can monitor and manipulate thoughts, to better methods for raising and educating kids, to more peaceful, prosperous societies. These are outcomes that can be objectively assessed.

Mind-body stories can also help us overcome despair or rage, give us moral guidance when our marriages are wobbling, console us if our child takes her life. They can satisfy our longing for meaning and beauty, help us make sense of our lives and feel less estranged from the world. These outcomes are more personal and hence harder to evaluate from the outside. They are matters of taste as much as truth.

My subjects have found mind-body stories that work for them. We are illusions created by self-perpetuating “strange loops” in our brains. Quantum wave functions communing spookily with other functions. Egos trying desperately to keep a lid on our ids. I’ll do my best to judge these mind-body stories objectively, to tell you how well they work, while acknowledging that a mind-body story that works for you might not work for me. In fact, a mind-body story that works for me today might not work for me tomorrow.

To be human means to undergo a perpetual identity crisis, to be a work in progress. We do not discover ourselves in the same way that we discover other features of nature, like pulsars and x-rays, or even components of our bodies, like synapses and genes. We invent ourselves, imagine ourselves, and we keep shape-shifting, swerving, throughout our lives. Our ideas about ourselves and others can change dramatically when we fall in love, have children, get divorced, get locked up in a psychiatric ward, have a sex-change operation and fall in love again, miraculously, after resigning ourselves to solitude.

Also, human history is one long identity crisis. Science and other realms of culture keep expanding the range of possible answers to the mind-body problem. Inventions as diverse as meditation, Islam, capitalism, Marxism, eugenics, stream-of-consciousness fiction, psychoanalysis, quantum mechanics, computers, genetic tests, MRIs, queer theory, civil-rights legislation, brain implants and LSD have given us new ways in which to conceive of ourselves.

We should take stock of our protean nature when we consider what we are, can be and should be as a species. Yes, I’m talking about the destiny of humanity. When we peer into the future and imagine ourselves a decade, century or millennium from now, that, too, is a mind-body mystery, maybe the most consequential of all. Will our identity crisis ever end? Will we ever converge on a single answer to the mind-body problem? I hope not.

When I said, earlier, that my nine experts have “skin in the game,” I meant that they have earned the right to choose mind-body stories that work for them. This book’s premise is that all of us, experts and non-experts alike, have that same right, because we are all suffering, mortal creatures. We all have skin in the game. And as long as we are individuals, with different minds and bodies and lives, we will always choose different mind-body stories, unless our species has swerved down a very dark path.

A friend in the publishing racket urged me to give this book a more self-help-y theme and title, like The Mind-Body Solution.8 I should emphasize the inspiring aspects of my subjects’ life stories and offer advice on discovering your true self, something along those lines. I’m not against uplift, and I do find my subjects’ stories inspiring. Toward the end of this book I’ll offer thoughts on how we can create a more peaceful world, in which we all have a pretty good shot at happiness.

But if self-help books offer certainty and assurance, this is the opposite of a self-help book. For most of my life, I have assumed that there is a way to look at myself and others that would dispel my feeling of weirdness. Now I’ve come to accept that the weirdness isn’t just in my head, it’s out there.9 To see ourselves clearly is to see ourselves as wildly improbable and inexplicable. My goal is to get you to be as mystified by the mind-body problem as I am. Because, to answer a question I posed earlier, I am still the same person as that five-year-old boy pushing through weeds and thinking, Huh?

* * * * *

My students, to whom this book is dedicated, serve as my sounding board and more. They inspire me, they make me feel better about the future. Most are engineering and computer science majors, and many take humanities courses only because they must. They can be a tough audience, but I like that, I see it as a challenge.

I have tried various tricks to get them to appreciate the mind-body problem. Recently I assigned everyone in my science-writing seminar a different mind-body expert. Each student had four or five minutes to tell classmates about his or her expert. Don’t just recite the accomplishments, I said, tell a story about this person.

The presentations often surprise me, because the students don’t see Koch and Hofstadter and McCloskey as I do. When they were done, I asked them to guess why I gave them this assignment. Blank faces, shrugs. These experts have something in common, I said. What is it? Someone replied, They seem pretty different from each other, and others nodded. Yeah, they are pretty different, I said, but most of them are in a book I’m writing, and all of them could be in it. Can you guess what the book is about? More shrugs, stares.

Imagine these experts, I said, standing in a circle, facing inward. They are staring at this mysterious thing in the middle of the circle, trying to figure it out. Each expert describes the thing in a different way, with physics, neuroscience, psychology, biology, philosophy, economics, even literature. But it’s the same thing, the same mystery, there in the middle. What is it? There were only a couple of minutes left in the class, and a few students were reaching stealthily for their backpacks. Humanity? a brave soul finally ventured. Yes! I said, and added,

The mystery is you, and it’s me, it’s all of us, it’s every person who ever lived, and who ever will live. It’s the mystery of human existence, which is the oldest and deepest mystery. What are we, really? What can we be? What should we be? Are we meat? Bags of quarks and electrons? Genes and neurotransmitters? Software programs? Children of God? Cogs in the industrial machine? This mystery is sometimes called the mind-body problem. Some of you may think you already know who we are, or you may think there are experts out there who do. But I want you to consider the possibility that there isn’t one answer to that question, there are lots of answers, maybe even an infinite number of answers, as many answers as there are people, because we’re all different, not in trivial ways but in ways that matter, and also humanity keeps changing, we keep creating new ways to see ourselves, and be ourselves, you have more choices than I did when I was a kid, and some of you might invent things like AI programs or brain implants or gene therapies that give us more options, more ways to be human, more answers to the mind-body problem, and that’s never going to end, at least I hope it never ends. Anyway that’s what my book is about. I have a few loose ends to tie up, but I’m almost finished with it. I call it Mind-Body Problems. With an “s.”

My students were rising from their chairs now, cramming notebooks into backpacks, checking smart phones, chatting with each other. Some, perhaps amused by my rant, were smirking. A few were frowning. They looked distracted, even bewildered, as if brooding over a dilemma for which they saw no solution. Yeah, I thought, I’m getting through to them.


NEXT: The Neuroscientist: Beyond the Brain | Chapter One


  1. My “flash memories” are unreliable. In a recent conversation with my sister, I recalled an argument that took place during a big family dinner at her home. She said, What are you talking about? You weren’t there. I was definitely there, I assured her, I had a “flash memory” of the scene. Even now, I could picture her and other family members at the round table in her dining room… Actually, my sister interrupted, the scene took place around a rectangular table in a different room. Only after I called my stepmother, who confirmed my sister’s account, did I realize my brain had constructed a pseudo-memory from stories I had heard about the dinner. My memory’s fallibility disturbs me. I take copious notes, record all my interviews and fact-check obsessively, but I’m haunted by the possibility of self-deception, so much that I called my sister to fact-check my memory of our conversation about my pseudo-memory. She confirmed it.

  2. For more on the origins of the phrase “mind-body problem” and the underlying idea, see “Who Invented the Mind–Body Problem?

  3. Tom Stoppard’s 2015 play The Hard Problem tells the story of a female scientist trying to crack the riddle of consciousness, but it is also about the quest to find morality and meaning in a strictly physical universe. A more accurate title would have been The Mind-Body Problem. Stoppard’s heroine, Hilary, in Venice for a conference on consciousness, rants about the inadequacies of materialism: Materialism is in trouble, and we’re all materialists now. Everything is matter. There is no science that says beauty is truth or truth beauty, but the gondolas are heaving with name-tagged materialists having their minds blown by Venice. What is to be done with the sublime if you’re proud to be a materialist? To save the appearance of value, no theory is too unlikely, no idea too far-out to float so long as it sounds like science—elementary particles with teeny-weeny consciousness; or a cosmos with attitude; or the life of the mind as the software of a biological computer. These are desperate measures, Spike! What does materialism remind you of? It’s a faith.

  4. Rebecca Goldstein got me to think about the mind-body problem as the mystery of who we really are, and she also alerted me to Schopenhauer’s phrase “world knot.”

  5. Thomas Nagel argued that conventional, materialist science cannot explain reality, including life and consciousness, in his book Mind & Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False, which I reviewed on my blog in 2013.

  6. Later in this book Stuart Kauffman complains to me that in The End of Science “everybody who disagreed with you had something like snot dribbling from his nose or was a hunchback.” An exaggeration, but I know what he means.

  7. Jim McClellan studied under Kuhn in the 1970s at Princeton at the same time as Errol Morris, who went on to become an Academy Award-winning documentary-maker. Morris ended up loathing Kuhn, and even blamed him, sort of, for the rise of Donald Trump. See my blog post “Did Thomas Kuhn Help Elect Donald Trump?” For more on Kuhn see also “What Thomas Kuhn Really Thought about Scientific ‘Truth’” and my lightly fictionalized account of an argument between me and McClellan, “Science, History and Truth at the Faculty Club.”

  8. This book’s title came to me as a revelation, as though it had pre-existed in a Platonic ether and was waiting for me to discover it. As usual with my epiphanies, others do not share my awe. I had a disconcerting conversation about the title with a woman who works in the publishing racket, whom I’ll call Emily. She’s smart and blunt, which is why I value her feedback. She wasn’t familiar with the phrase “mind-body problem.” Here is how I remember our conversation going:

    Emily: So what does your title mean, anyway? Does it have anything to do with alternative medicine?

    Me: No. Um, the mind-body problem is an old philosophical phrase. It’s about how a brain, which is matter, makes a mind…

    Emily: That sounds boring. What’s the big deal? Our minds come from our brains. So what?

    Me: But, but, our minds are conscious, and consciousness is weird, it’s totally different than anything else in the universe, because it’s not physical, and it’s hard to imagine how to explain it in physical terms. In fact, lots of philosophers and scientists call consciousness “the hard problem.”

    Emily: “The hard problem?” I like that! Why don’t you call your book The Hard Problem?

    Me: Tom Stoppard, the playwright, already wrote a play called The Hard Problem. “Hard problem” is over-exposed, it’s sort of a cliché. That’s another reason I like Mind-Body Problems.

    Emily: The Hard Problem would be better, trust me.

    Me: Well, but my book isn’t just about consciousness, the hard problem. It’s about lots of other mind-related mysteries. Like the meaning of life, which some people call “the really hard problem.”

    Emily: I like that! That’s great! Why don’t you call your book The Really Hard Problem?

    Me: Um, because the philosopher who came up with that phrase already wrote a book called The Really Hard Problem. And my book isn’t just about the really hard problem, either. It’s about the hard problem, and the really hard problem, and free will, and what makes me me, and you you. It’s about all these different mind-related mysteries. So that’s why I call it Mind-Body Problems. With an “s.”

    Emily (sigh): It’s your book.

  9. For more on my feelings about weirdness, see “The Weirdness of Weirdness.”

The Neuroscientist: Beyond the Brain | Chapter One

The Neuroscientist: Beyond the Brain | Chapter One

Chapter One

I like students to see canonical thinkers as real people, not word-spouting statues. So when I talk about Socrates, I call him a pompous blowhard, to humanize him—and because he was a pompous blowhard. At his trial, defending himself against charges of heresy, Socrates disparages various big shots, including his accusers, for being too dumb to know how dumb they are. Only he, Socrates, is truly wise, because he knows how little he knows, and that makes him a better man than his critics.

I understand why this know-nothing/know-it-all irked his fellow Athenians. But his view of wisdom is, well, wise, and so is his framing of the mind-body problem. Socrates brought it up after his trial, when he was in his prison cell awaiting execution. He was complaining to his acolytes about philosophers who explain everything in terms of physical “eccentricities” such as “air, and ether, and water.”

How, Socrates asked, would such a philosopher account for what he is doing in this cell? The philosopher might point out that he, Socrates, “is made up of bones and muscles… and as the bones are lifted at their joints by the contraction or relaxation of the muscles, I am able to bend my limbs, and this is why I am sitting here in a curved posture.” But that would be a crappy explanation, Socrates pointed out, because the “true cause” of his situation “is that the Athenians have thought fit to condemn me, and accordingly I have thought it better and more right to remain here and undergo my sentence.”

Socrates continued: “It may be said, indeed, that without bones and muscles and the other parts of the body I cannot execute my purposes. But to say that I do as I do because of them, and that this is the way in which mind acts, and not from the choice of the best, is a very careless and idle mode of speaking.” Emphasis added.

There it is, Socrates zeroing in on the mind-body problem 2,400 years ago. Yes, we’re bodies subject to physical forces. But we also have minds, which are motivated by causes—like our sense of right and wrong, of “the best”—that cannot be reduced to physiology. Viewing ourselves as nothing but bodies leads to what Socrates called “a strange confusion of causes and conditions.” Again, italics added.

Philosophers have been wrestling with the mind-body problem for millennia now. In honor of Socrates, let’s call this period “The Era of Strange Confusion.” Not only have philosophers failed to converge on a solution, they have buried the mind-body problem under a mishmash of isms. Here are the most popular:

  • Materialism: Matter is at the bottom of everything.
  • Idealism: Mind is at the bottom of everything. (Idealism is confusing, because of its alternate meaning, but philosophers, I suspect, like confusing us lay folk.)
  • Dualism: Mind and matter are both really important, and they are linked by a trans-dimensional quantum wormhole embedded within the pineal gland. Or something. Dualists still aren’t sure about that part.

In 1990 the Era of Strange Confusion seemed to be ending, with materialism prevailing once and for all. That was the year in which Francis Crick and his sidekick Christof Koch issued their manifesto “Toward a Neurobiological Theory of Consciousness.” They announced that “the time is now ripe for an attack” on consciousness, the core of the mind-body problem. Science could “solve” consciousness by finding its “neural correlates,” that is, processes in the brain corresponding to conscious states.

Crick and Koch identified a possible candidate for a neural explanation of consciousness. Experiments on cats and other animals indicated that when the brain focuses on a visual stimulus, like a red ball, neurons corresponding to that stimulus fire at roughly the same rate, 40 times a second, in synchrony. These 40-hertz oscillations could play a key role in consciousness, Crick and Koch proposed. They could have been telling Socrates,

You were right to mock physiological explanations of the mind. In your day, you didn’t have a clue about the connections between physiological and mental processes. You didn’t even know that the mind is based in the brain! Today, we know much more about our physiologies than you did. We can explain a lot with neuroscience, biochemistry, evolutionary theory and genetics.

Koch became a leader of the effort to explain consciousness in neurobiological terms. You might even say he embodies the failure of that effort, and I mean that as a compliment. He is always at the center of things. That’s one reason why I’ve interviewed him so often over the decades. Another is that I never felt like he was patronizing or bullshitting me.

Are Koch and I friends? That’s hard to say. I like him, he seems to like me. But as Koch likes pointing out, no one really knows what’s going on in someone else’s head. I can’t even be sure that Koch is conscious, nor he me. It’s the old solipsism problem. For all I know, I am the only conscious entity in the cosmos. I am sealed within the prison of my subjectivity, and I can only speculate about what, if anything, is going on inside your head.

Moreover, when I’m with friends, I don’t ordinarily keep a notebook and recorder on hand.1 When Koch and I meet, we do so as professionals. I am a science journalist, he an expert on the mind-body problem. I am a means to his end, getting publicity for his work, he a means to mine, producing a piece of journalism—a story—for which I am compensated. As Robert Trivers (the subject of Chapter Eight) points out, even the most intimate relationships are ultimately tit-for-tat exchanges. Trouble arises when one side thinks he’s not getting enough tat for his tit.

Koch has always given me what I need. First, he is a character, a tall, lean, hyperkinetic fast talker who favors brightly colored clothes and footwear and has tinted his hair orange and other hues. The son of a German diplomat, he speaks with a German accent, even though he has lived in the U.S. since the late 1980s. His right shoulder sports a tattoo of a rainbow-striped apple, the computer company’s logo.

Koch churns out quips, insights, anecdotes, and he deftly explains even the most esoteric concepts. He reads voraciously in philosophy, history and literature as well as science, so he can flesh out the historical and cultural context of ideas. He mentions T.S. Eliot or Nietzsche not to show off but to drive home a point or crack a joke.

My “Koch” file is packed with my scrawled notes on our conversations. The oldest, on lined, yellow paper, record a telephone chat on December 28, 1992, when I was a full-time writer for Scientific American. We were talking about the limits of science, a topic to which we would return often. Koch told me to check out Thomas Mann’s unfinished novel Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man. A character in the book says there are three great mysteries: the creation of matter, life and consciousness. I never read Felix Krull, but my first book, The End of Science, argued that science will probably never explain the origin of the universe, life and consciousness. Thanks for that, Christof.

I met Koch in the flesh in 1994 at “Toward a Science of Consciousness,” the first of what became biennial gatherings in Tucson, Arizona. Hundreds of scientists and philosophers from all over the world presented a dizzying array of “solutions” to the mind-body problem, from chaos theory to Hindu metaphysics. Quantum theories of consciousness were especially popular. One speaker described consciousness as “quantum fluctuations of the vacuum energy of the universe,” which “is really God.”

Koch served as a one-man reality check. In a keynote lecture, he deplored the flaky pseudo-science, often derided as woo, on display elsewhere in Tucson.2 He derided quantum-consciousness models, arguing that they were based on a bogus syllogism: Quantum mechanics is mysterious, so is consciousness, therefore they must be related. And speculation about whether bacteria or computers or even the whole cosmos are conscious can never be confirmed and should be reserved for “late-night conversations over beer.” To understand consciousness, we must study brains, the only kinds of matter that we know are conscious. We should also focus on visual consciousness, because so much is already known about vision in humans and other animals.

Consciousness, Koch pointed out, is not exactly the same as perception. To demonstrate this point, he projected an image that can be viewed as either a vase or two human profiles. Although the visual input to the brain remains constant, the pattern that you are conscious of, or paying attention to, keeps shifting back and forth: vase, profiles, vase, profiles. Pinpointing neural operations underlying these shifts in attention, such as 40-hertz oscillations, would represent an important step toward solving consciousness.

Once we find the neural correlates of visual consciousness, Koch said, we might have a shot at more complex forms of consciousness, like self-consciousness. We might even take on riddles like free will. But Koch warned that science might never solve all mind-body mysteries to everyone’s satisfaction. He quoted “philosopher” Dirty Harry, the tough movie cop played by Clint Eastwood: “A man’s got to know his limitations.” The crowd laughed and clapped, as did I.

Another high point of the meeting was Koch’s run-in with David Chalmers, an Australian philosopher with long, lovely tresses.3 Chalmers was insisting that conventional, materialist approaches to consciousness, like the one advocated by Koch and Crick, are doomed to fail. They cannot explain why cognitive functions, such as attention, are accompanied by subjective experiences. They cannot account for the “felt quality of redness,” the sound of a clarinet, smell of mothballs, agony of depression, ecstasy of orgasm. This is the “hard problem of consciousness.”

Chalmers suggested a radical new perspective involving information theory, invented in the 1940s to quantify the capacity of telephone lines and other communication systems. Chalmers proposed that information, along with matter and energy, is a fundamental property of reality, and it has two aspects, one objective, or physical, and one subjective, or experiential. Things containing lots of information, like brains, are very conscious, and things with just a little information, like thermostats—Chalmers actually used this example—are slightly conscious.

I thought, Conscious thermostats? Come on. Also, the concept of information is meaningless in the absence of a mind to be informed. Information-based theories of consciousness are circular. They explain consciousness with a concept that presupposes consciousness. This was just the kind of woo Koch had denounced. I was thus delighted when Koch confronted Chalmers at a cocktail reception and denounced his information hypothesis as untestable and hence pointless. “Why don’t you just say that when you have a brain the Holy Ghost comes down and makes you conscious?” Koch exclaimed.

Chalmers is a cool cat. The Holy Ghost hypothesis, he responded drily, is unnecessarily complicated, and it does not accord with his own subjective experience. “But how do I know that your subjective experience is the same as mine?” Koch retorted. “How do I even know you’re conscious?” Yes! I thought, scribbling furiously in my notebook, good stuff, definitely going in my Scientific American article. Koch was bringing up the bugaboo of consciousness research, the solipsism problem. I can’t be sure you are conscious, let alone a thermostat.4

After that 1994 meeting Koch kept updating me on consciousness research—and reminding me of its limits.5 He pointed out weaknesses in all neural theories, including the 40-hertz oscillation model proposed by him and Crick. He warned that if we find a robust neural theory of human consciousness, we will probably keep arguing over whether fish or machines are conscious. We won’t know how consciousness evolved here on Earth, or whether it has arisen beyond our planet.

Koch taught me an especially invaluable lesson about the limits of knowledge in 1998 while I was visiting him at Caltech. As we entered his office he asked, too nonchalantly, Are you good at tests? Not bad, I said. He tapped the keyboard of his computer, and it displayed a frozen video shot of six men and women standing in a circle. Three were dressed in white, three in black. A person in white held one basketball, a person in black held another. Koch told me to count the number of times the white team passed the basketball back and forth. Could I do that? Sure, I said.

Koch started the video, and I watched the white players toss the ball back and forth. I had to concentrate, because the black team was passing its basketball, too, and all the players, black and white, milled around. But when the video ended, I knew I had the answer. Fifteen! I said triumphantly. Koch smirked. That’s good, he said, but did you see gorilla? Huh? I responded. Watch again, Koch said, and replayed the video. As the men and women passed the basketball back and forth, a man in a gorilla suit strolled into their midst, paused to face the camera for a moment and strolled off camera.

I was flabbergasted. How had I missed the gorilla? My dismay delighted Koch. Two psychologists designed the video, he said, to expose a feature of consciousness that is also a bug. Consciousness is highly selective. We are always conscious of something. We pay attention to that thing and filter out unrelated perceptions, thoughts and memories triggered by neural activity. I’m still haunted by that now-famous video. It implies that no matter how much we know, or think we know, we always miss something. Right now, an invisible gorilla could be standing in front of me, sticking his tongue out, waggling his hands, sneering.

* * * * *

In his 2004 book The Quest for Consciousness, Koch reiterated his commitment to the neural-correlates paradigm, while acknowledging that consciousness remains as mysterious “as when humans first started to wonder about their minds several millennia ago.” It was because of this intellectual modesty that I trusted his scientific judgment. He combined ambition with a hardheaded realism, a sense of science’s limits. He was a shining beacon in the shadow realm of consciousness studies, a voice of reason in a cacophonous madhouse, an anti-woo warrior. That’s why I felt baffled, even betrayed, when Koch embraced integrated information theory. It seemed like a big step backward into strange confusion.

Koch didn’t invent integrated information theory. His friend Giulio Tononi did, in the early 2000s, and Koch soon embraced it. The theory resembles the information-based hypothesis that Chalmers floated back in 1994, except it is far more detailed and ambitious. According to integrated information theory, a system is conscious if it possesses Φ, or phi, a measure of the system’s “integrated information.” Phi corresponds to the exchange of information between different parts of a system. Phi is often equated to “synergy,” the degree to which a system is more than the sum of its parts.

The theory’s technical details are hideously abstract and complicated, but they are less important than the theory’s startling implications, which Koch spelled out in a 2009 article for Scientific American. A “single hydrogen ion, a proton made up of three quarks, will have a tiny amount of synergy, or Φ,” Koch writes. So consciousness is a property not only of brains but of all matter. It pervades the entire universe. Integrated information theory represents the kind of metaphysical speculation that Koch once denounced, and yet in 2010 he told The New York Times that it is “the only really promising fundamental theory of consciousness.”

Seeking illumination, in the fall of 2015 I wormed my way into a two-day workshop on integrated information theory at New York University. It was organized by Tononi, the theory’s inventor, Koch and Chalmers. They and 10 other speakers presented their views, which were batted around by 30 or so other scientists and philosophers.

Tononi kicked off the workshop with a 90-minute tutorial on integrated information theory, followed by another hour from Koch. Their presentations paralleled an overview they published jointly in 2015, “Consciousness: here, there and everywhere?” Although the paper has whimsical touches (the title echoes an old Beatles song), this excerpt conveys its forbidding density:

…the central identity of IIT can be formulated quite simply: an experience is identical to a conceptual structure that is maximally irreducible intrinsically. More precisely, a conceptual structure completely specifies both the quantity and the quality of experience: how much the system exists—the quantity or level of consciousness—is measured by its Φmax value—the intrinsic irreducibility of the conceptual structure; which way it exists—the quality or content of consciousness—is specified by the shape of the conceptual structure. If a system has Φmax = 0, meaning that its cause–effect power is completely reducible to that of its parts, it cannot lay claim to existing. If Φmax > 0, the system cannot be reduced to its parts, so it exists in and of itself. More generally, the larger Φmax, the more a system can lay claim to existing in a fuller sense than systems with lower Φmax. According to IIT, the quantity and quality of an experience are an intrinsic, fundamental property of a complex of mechanisms in a state—the property of informing or shaping the space of possibilities (past and future states) in a particular way, just as it is considered to be intrinsic to a mass to bend space–time around it.

I love the “quite simply” in that opening sentence. In his presentation, Koch focused on empirical evidence for the theory. For example, the cerebellum, which seems to have less internal connectivity—and hence lower phi—than other neural regions, can be damaged without significantly affecting consciousness. The more Tononi, Koch and others talked about phi, information and integration, the more confused the audience became.

Participants kept calling on Tononi to settle doctrinal disputes, but his oracular responses did not always clarify matters. Someone asked: Is integrated information theory materialist, idealist or dualist? In other words, does it imply that matter is primary, or mind, or does it give matter and mind equal status? Tononi smiled and replied, “It is what it is.” (Perhaps he meant, “IIT is what IIT is.”) Is an explanation an explanation if hardly anyone understands it?6

Workshoppers seemed especially confused by a postulate called “exclusion.” According to IIT, many components of a brain—neuron, ganglia, amygdala, visual cortex—may have non-zero phi and hence mini-minds. But because the phi of the entire brain exceeds that of its components, its consciousness suppresses or “excludes” the components’ mini-minds.

Exclusion helps explain why our consciousness feels (more or less) unified, but it has odd implications. If members of a group, like the participants of the workshop, start communicating so obsessively that the group phi exceeds the phi of each individual, the theory predicts that the workshop will become conscious and suppress the consciousness of the individuals, turning them into unconscious “zombies.” The same could be true of smaller or larger groups, from a besotted couple to the United States of America.

A computer scientist pointed out another weird prediction of integrated information theory. According to its mathematical definition of phi, very simple, two-dimensional information-processing systems can possess more phi than a human brain. In other words, a compact-disk player could be much more conscious than we are.7

At one point participants debated whether dark energy could be conscious. Dark energy is a hypothetical substance that, according to some cosmological theories, comprises the bulk of the universe. Dark energy is thought to consist not of baryons, that is, protons and neutrons, the basic stuff of matter, but of something entirely different. When someone voiced doubt that dark energy could be conscious, Koch quipped, “Let’s not be baryonic chauvinists.”

By the time the workshop ended, I was more baffled than ever. Proponents of integrated information theory were projecting a human trait, consciousness, onto the entire cosmos. This view reminded me of the God-is-everywhere doctrine that nuns drilled into me in catechism when I was a child. Integrated information theory was dragging us back toward the dark ages, when we thought the universe revolved around us.8 How could someone as smart and hard-nosed as Koch fall for this, this woo?

* * * * *

In his 2012 memoir Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist, Koch implies that personal factors influenced his professional judgment. He acknowledges that his quest to solve the mind-body problem has always been emotional as well as intellectual. He describes himself as “not only a dispassionate physicist and biologist but also a human being who enjoys but a few years to make sense of the riddle of existence.”

For most of his life he “forcefully denied that either the Freudian unconscious or traumatic memories that I didn’t know I had… were influencing my behavior.” A mid-life crisis made Koch appreciate Freud’s insights. “I learned over the past years how powerfully my unconscious inclinations, my beliefs, and my personal strengths and failings have influenced my life and the pursuit of my life’s work.”

Koch alludes to upheavals in his personal life, including the loss of his Catholic faith and the end of his 25-year marriage. He left Caltech, his home for decades, in 2011 and moved to Seattle to take charge of a brain-research center created by Paul Allen, a Microsoft billionaire. But Koch dwells more on scientific models of consciousness than on his private life. Philosopher John Searle groused in a review that Confessions was mistitled, because “any confession where [Koch] actually admits to some serious or even trivial misdeed is conspicuously absent.”

In March 2016, I flew to Seattle to grill Koch on his private and professional lives. I was especially curious whether his mind-body expertise had helped him deal with personal problems. We met for dinner on my first night in town, which was cold and drizzly. I got to the restaurant first and sat beside a window, through which I saw Koch swoop up on a bicycle. He locked his bike to a rack and strode in, water glistening on his helmet and slicker. Baring his big white teeth, he grabbed my hand and pumped it before peeling off his gear. He had peddled here through the rain from the Allen Institute. He rides his bike everywhere, rain or shine.

Koch looked much as he did when I first met him, rangy, with a forward tilt, as if poised to bolt. He seemed to vibrate with sheer animal vitality. The restaurant was noisy, so Koch obligingly clipped my recorder’s microphone onto his collar. After we ordered our meals, I reminded him that in 1998, when he was still at Caltech, he had me over to his house for dinner. I met his wife and kids, and he revealed that he was Catholic. He still believed the neural-correlates approach was the best way to explain consciousness. He wasn’t spouting any nonsense about panpsychism. He seemed content, more than content. What the hell happened?

Koch laughed, and over the next two hours, between bites of food and sips of wine, he did his best to answer my question. Ever helpful, he packaged his life into stories, and even threw in a little psychoanalysis. He has always been compulsively neat, he said. He likes things in their proper places, in his home and office. He tied this trait to his love of science, which reveals that “despite all the appearances, the chaos on the surface of things,” nature is orderly. He became a scientist because he wanted to explore this hidden order.

His passion for order also explains his youthful affinity for Catholicism, a religion of rules and rituals. He loved its “wisdom, music, art, history,” he said. “Particularly if you go to Jesuit school early on, it gets into your blood, and it forms you.” Raised Catholic, he attended Catholic schools and became an altar boy, and when he became a father he took his son and daughter to church.

Koch remained Catholic well after becoming the protégé of Crick, a legendary infidel. The two never really discussed Koch’s religion. But by the summer of 1999, which Koch spent at a research center in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, he was reading Nietzsche on the death of God, and his faith was wobbling. One stormy night, he walked on a beach, tormented by doubt.

“I was half crying. I wanted God to show himself. I was waiting for a burning bush, a booming voice from the sky.” Koch screamed into the night, “Where are you God! Show yourself!” Suddenly a light blinded him, and someone screamed back. It wasn’t God. It was some guy who had been trying to sleep in a tent on the beach and was yelling at Koch to shut the fuck up.9

Koch decided that God, if he exists, is “an absentee cosmic landlord.” He is not a loving, judgmental being with whom we can have a personal relationship. “The God I now believe in,” Koch said, “is much closer to the God of Spinoza than the God of Michelangelo or the Old Testament.” Spinoza, after abandoning his Jewish faith, constructed a remarkably modern philosophy. It equates God with the abstract principles that govern order in the cosmos, principles that we deduce through reason. Spinoza’s God is impersonal, an It rather than He or She. It does not love us any more than general relativity or quantum mechanics do.

When I asked if losing his faith made it harder to cope with his mortality, Koch shook his head and said he has never dwelled on death much. In fact, he didn’t really confront his own finitude until his early forties. After an evening playing violent video games with his son, he woke up in the middle of the night terrified. “I just thought, ‘Shit! I’m going to die!’” Within weeks he had overcome his fear and accepted that “everything that has a beginning has an end.”

Unlike those gloomy existentialists who say that death strips life of meaning, Koch thinks mortality makes our lives more precious and meaningful. But after the death of his father in 2000 and Crick in 2004, he began brooding over the limited time he had left. His children also left for college, leaving him with a bad case of empty-nest syndrome, and he turned 50. At that point, he and his wife had been married for more than 20 years. They had “a very good marriage, no issues, no affairs, nothing. No problems. We raised our children, lived in a house, all very good.”

But Koch felt restless, and he had an affair. “I knew from the get-go that it wasn’t good,” Koch said. “You don’t stay with a woman for 25 years and then, when she gets older, leave her for a sexy younger woman. That’s wrong.” But he couldn’t stop himself. “We can’t escape…” Koch paused and pressed his lips together. “We can’t completely escape our biology.”

Koch’s mind-body expertise didn’t give him much insight or control over his actions. If anything, he said, the smarter you are, the better you are at rationalizing your urges. “There are parts of the brain that are generating these very powerful emotions. Love, hate, sadness, guilt, lust. And you have very little access to that, and you only control them very indirectly.” After you behave in a certain way, “you construct some scenario where you think, ‘Well this is probably what happened.’ Whether that actually corresponds to what happened, I think nobody knows.”

Koch once assured his wife, falsely, that he had ended his affair. He went for a long, guilt-wracked run in the mountains. When he returned, his wife was holding a phone bill documenting a conversation between him and his lover. He had left the bill on a table, where his wife couldn’t miss it. Koch believes he subconsciously wanted his wife to find the bill. “I’m one of the world’s experts on consciousness, and my mind does this trick!”

Incidents like this made him appreciate Freud’s emphasis on the unconscious. Afterwards, Koch quit rock climbing, one of his passions. “I didn’t trust myself any more,” he said. He worried his subconscious might decide, “You have caused too much agony. You’re just going to make a mistake and end it, and your wife can just think of you as a fallen hero.”

Koch nonetheless hung on to his belief in free will, his ability, albeit limited, to know and control himself. One night toward the end of his marriage, he got drunk and ran up a mountain near his home. He soon felt sick and turned back, but only after shouting into the dark the last line of the poem Invictus: “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.” “This,” Koch adds in Confessions, “is a perhaps overenthusiastic expression of my position on free will: For better or worse, I am the principle actor of my own life.”

Koch’s marriage ended, and so did his affair, which was a “disaster.” He moved from Pasadena, which evoked too many painful memories, to Seattle, where he oversees 300 researchers and an annual budget of $70 million. He fell in love with and married a professor of nursing. They moved into a sunny yellow house perched high above a lake and adopted a Bernese mountain dog. Koch assured me that now he is “very happy, very stable.”

But Koch has always been pretty happy and stable, at least emotionally. At no point in his life has he succumbed to despair or self-loathing. “I never once went through a depression,” he said, not even when his marriage was crumbling. He conjectured that his cheeriness is largely genetic. “The biggest trick in life,” he said with a grin, “is to choose your parents well.”

Toward the end of dinner, we had an exchange that sharpened my sense of the difference between us. I said I felt bad that he had to ride his bicycle home through chill, drizzly darkness, and Koch assured me that he looked forward to the hour-long ride. You “forget yourself,” he said. “You are hyper aware of your environment but not very aware of yourself. You are in the flow.” He got the same feeling from rock-climbing before he quit.

“There’s something very Zen-like about it,” he said. “When you’re climbing, you lose awareness of everything else. You lose the voice of the critic, the self-consciousness.” He gets the same feeling now from rowing crew, which he does several times a week. He strives to be “fully in the experience itself, fully mindful, fully there” during less strenuous activities. “I mean, here I am having a discussion with you, right? I like this. I’m very comfortable here. I have my wine”—he held up his goblet—“my food, good conversation. Right now, I have no meta.”

I’m always meta, I said. Koch looked puzzled, so I explained that I compulsively stand back from my life and think, Hmm, interesting. I see almost all experiences as potential material for my writing. This habit can be therapeutic. It has helped me get through hard times, like the breakup of my marriage. But it can be annoying. When I tried to meditate recently to reduce my anxiety, I kept thinking, I’m meditating, and thinking about things I should write about meditation.

“I’m not sure that’s good!” Koch exclaimed, frowning. It’s okay to think about your experiences, and think about thinking, but you also need to “be in the experience. You want to experience the experience. And if you always have this meta on, if you can never turn that voice—that point of view that looks down at you—off, I think you are missing something of life!” He looked genuinely concerned.

Partly to reassure him, partly because it is true, I told him that sometimes I stop watching myself when I play hockey in the Hudson Highlands, which I’ve done for decades with a bunch of buddies. We play on ponds ringed by snowy woods, and we sometimes play after sunset, until stars shine above us, and our old eyes can barely see the puck.

My buddies and me playing hockey on Lake Alice, Garrison, N.Y.

“There you’re not meta,” Koch said, nodding approvingly, “and that’s probably why you enjoy it, because you can just be in the experience. You don’t have to think, ‘So what’s the story I can tell?’ or, ‘How does this relate to what other issues I have?’ You’re just doing what you’re doing.” Listening to him I had two thoughts. One was that I hadn’t been entirely truthful about how I feel playing hockey. I’m always aware of who’s winning and losing, and I get frustrated if my team is losing. I also thought, This is good, this meta stuff, the recorder better be picking this up.10

* * * * *

Koch didn’t talk about science much over dinner, but he did the next day, when he gave me a tour of the Allen Institute for Brain Science. Dedicated to reverse-engineering the brain, the institute would make a terrific setting for a sci-fi film, perhaps about the birth of a malevolent cyborg. It is an immense glass cube with a hollow core lined with laboratories and conference rooms.

In one lab, hulking electron microscopes produced high-resolution images of thin neural slices, which are assembled into three-dimensional maps. In another, researchers experimented on snippets of brain from patients who have undergone surgery for epilepsy and tumors. The neurons remain alive, capable of sending and receiving electrochemical signals, for several days. Question: Does it feel like anything to be a slice of human hippocampal tissue in a petri dish?11

In this sci-fi setting, Koch seemed transformed. Talking about his private life the previous evening, he had dwelled on his cognitive limits. Strolling through this transparent temple of science, he was an ebullient booster of human reason, who saw no bounds to what science can accomplish. Since his mid-life crisis, Koch affirmed, he had become “much more optimistic” about science’s power to solve mysteries. He rejected the idea that any problems might be intractable.

“It’s this, this, this defeatism,” Koch said, grimacing. It is “fraught with danger to claim that we will never understand,” because that belief could become self-fulfilling. “Whenever philosophers have said we cannot understand, they have been proven wrong.” The 19th-century philosopher August le Comte declared that we would never know what stars are made of just before the invention of spectroscopy, which revealed what stars are made of.

Some mysteries do seem daunting, such as the origin of the cosmos, why there is something rather than nothing. But this problem might eventually yield, Koch said, perhaps to one of the multiverse theories cosmologists are toying with, which postulate that our universe is just one of many.12 Although we can never directly observe other universes, we might accept them as real if the circumstantial evidence becomes compelling enough. “Just like I believe fervently there are other conscious minds, it may be that years from now we believe fervently, ‘Yeah, it’s established, there are other universes.’”

Koch was especially confident that science would crack the hard problem. “All the problems associated with consciousness, in the fullness of time, unless we stop doing science or we have a nuclear catastrophe, will be solved.” He called integrated information theory “a very good step in right direction. It’s the first theoretical progress we’ve had since Descartes.” Yes, panpsychism “is a strange consequence of the theory,” and so is the prediction that a compact-disc player can be more conscious than a human, but quantum mechanics and relativity have crazy implications too.13

Neuroscientists are developing techniques for measuring the informational complexity, or phi, of brains and other systems, which according to integrated information theory is proportional to consciousness. These advances, Koch said, could lead to a “consciousness-meter” that measures consciousness as objectively as a thermometer measures temperature. Such a device would bypass the solipsism problem. It would determine whether it feels like anything to be a spider, octopus or smart phone.

Koch thinks science might even determine what makes life meaningful, worth living. This is what philosopher Owen Flanagan calls the really hard problem. “I see no reason why science shouldn’t look at that,” Koch said, “as long as you can describe it in some precise fashion.” Science can investigate “what makes people content. Is it pure pleasure? Well, it turns out that it’s more than pleasure, it’s to give people a meaningful life.” Science can help solve all parts of the mind-body problem. It can tell us what we are, can be and should be.

* * * * *

Real literature, I learned in college, resists reduction. Interpretations of Ulysses or even a short story like “The Dead” are hopelessly inadequate. They always miss something. That is much truer of real events. The above rendering of my encounter with Koch, distilled from five hours of sprawling conversation at the restaurant, Allen Institute and his home, leaves out his many hedges and second-guesses, as well as his asides on the “Buddha-hood” of dogs (“they can’t dissemble… they are in the here and now”), the hyper-sexuality of modern humans (because of the hyper-sexuality of modern media), the risks of artificial intelligence (which at some point “might outsmart us”). I could dump the full transcript or audio recording online, but they wouldn’t reveal what was going on in our heads or around us.14

Koch at the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle.

With these caveats, I’ll take a shot at interpreting Koch. When I met him in the early 1990s, he had a hardheaded view of science’s limits. His mid-life crisis rubbed his face in the limits of his own reason, self-knowledge and self-control. And yet he emerged from the crisis with more confidence that science can solve the mind-body problem.

In Confessions, Koch offers a startling explanation of his intellectual swerve. Early in his career, when he was still Catholic, he was motivated by an “entirely subterranean desire to justify my belief that life is meaningful.” Fulfilling that desire meant proving that science cannot comprehend the “mind-body divide,” the “essential mystery at the heart” of existence.

Got that? Koch’s unconscious self didn’t want his conscious self to explain consciousness. When he was quoting Dirty Harry on the limits of knowledge and reminding Chalmers of the solipsism problem decades ago, Koch wasn’t rational. He was under the spell of an unconscious impulse motivated by his Catholicism. After he lost his faith in God, he became more fully committed to reason.

This is an intriguing hypothesis, but I don’t buy it. Koch is an unreliable narrator of his own life. I have come up with several explanations for his swerve, which are not mutually exclusive. The most mundane holds that Koch has been transformed by his role as director of the Allen Brain Institute. As the manager of a high-profile research program, he can no longer indulge in speculation about the limits of science. His job requires him to be a scientific optimist, even a booster.

A deeper cause of Koch’s intellectual swerve is his sense of death’s approach.15 Within the span of a decade, he lost his God, his biological father and his intellectual father, Crick. Feeling the chill of mortality, Koch became dissatisfied with his life, and he did what many middle-aged husbands do, he had an affair with a younger woman.

Koch also began to see the flaws of the neural-correlates approach to consciousness, to which he had long been wedded. That paradigm implies, as Crick put it, that we are “nothing but a pack of neurons.” It strips us of concepts that help us make sense of our lives—souls, free will, even selves—and gives us little or no meaning in return. The language of neuroscience is disconnected from the psychological, moral and spiritual realm in which we live our lives.16

If Koch gave Socrates a tour of the Allen Brain Institute, the old know-nothing/know-it-all would surely be mightily impressed with brain-mapping technologies and other marvels. But Socrates would have derided the claim that neuroscience can solve the mystery of who we are. Oscillations of neurons, Socrates would point out, can’t explain why he ended up in prison any more than muscle contractions can. Nor can neural oscillations explain why Koch drifted away from his Catholic faith.

After that crisis, Koch needed more oomph from science. He convinced himself that his scruples about science’s limits were irrational, and he fell into the arms of sexy, exotic integrated information theory. The theory is far more ambitious and meaningful than the dull old neural-correlates model advocated by him and Crick. It depicts us as nodes in an infinite web of information, a cosmic consciousness that is pretty close to God, the God of Spinoza if not The Bible.

But Koch is not a drowning man grasping at a straw. Intellectuals tend to be angst-ridden, but Koch, even taking into account his (mostly) subliminal fear of death, is endowed with an unusually high intelligence/angst ratio. He knows how to live life, and not just treat it as an intellectual puzzle. His mind and body exist in harmony, which he projects onto the cosmos. That is another reason why he fell for integrated information theory, because it reflects his sunny worldview.

Integrated information theory denies that consciousness is something meta, an add-on to the universe, a freakish, random occurrence that as far as we know emerged only on this tiny planet billions of years after the universe exploded into existence. According to the theory, consciousness has been woven into the fabric of the cosmos from the very beginning. It was glimmering in the incandescent plasma of the big bang.

Koch imbues integrated information theory with spiritual significance. It validates the mystical belief of the ancient Greeks that “mathematics is the ultimate reality,” he writes in Confessions. He compares conscious states, as described by the theory, to multidimensional crystals. The “dream of the lotus-eater, the mindfulness of the meditating monk, and the agony of the cancer patient feel the way they do because of the shape of the distinct crystals in a space of a trillion dimensions—truly a beatific vision.”

Koch’s affinity for integrated information theory isn’t entirely rational, nor is my distaste for the theory. Unlike Koch, I’ve always felt apart from the world and from myself. I’m always meta. Reality, and our consciousness of reality, strike me as fundamentally weird. Psychedelics exacerbated this feeling. They convinced me that not even God, if there is a God, knows what the hell is going on.

This conviction, after I became a science writer, mutated into the belief that science will never solve the mystery of existence. Koch, back in the 1990s, seemed to share my sense of science’s limits. No wonder I found him such an appealing source. And no wonder I felt betrayed when he declared that consciousness is solvable, and that integrated information theory might be the solution. If Koch is an unreliable narrator of his own life, so am I. We all are. “One is not one’s own historian, let alone one’s own psychoanalyst,” Thomas Kuhn warned when I asked him how he came up with his postmodern philosophy.

My views of the mind-body problem, like Koch’s, have swerved. Mind-body research resembles one of those images that can be interpreted in two ways. Vase or human profiles? I once disdained the wild abundance of mind-body stories. The failure of mind-science to converge on a unifying paradigm meant that no theory works very well. Now I see that same abundance as an expression of our creative, protean nature, and of our freedom. And the more I think about integrated information theory, the more I see its merits. After attending the 2015 workshop on the theory, I criticized it on my blog but tacked on an upbeat conclusion:

I loved the workshop. Watching all those brainy participants grappling with the deepest conundrums of existence, citing Descartes, Leibnitz and Hume as well as papers less than a year old, was the most exhilarating intellectual experience I’ve had in a long time. Whatever phi is, my brain brimmed with it by the workshop’s end. Pondering IIT has deepened my appreciation of the mind-body problem. In an age of rampant scientism, we need theories like IIT to help us rediscover the mystery of ourselves.

When I wrote that final sentence, it was bullshit. I was trying to be nice to Koch and other proponents of integrated information theory. Now I retroactively mean what I wrote. Mind-body stories like integrated information theory, whether or not they are true, really do help us appreciate the mystery of ourselves. In that sense, they work.

In the 1990s Koch insisted, like his mentor Crick, that mind-body stories conform to materialism, the idea that only matter really exists. And the stories had to be about the brain, the one object we know is conscious. I admired Koch for that hard-headedness, and for his efforts to tame an unruly field. Now I admire him for escaping the brain’s gravitational pull and rocketing into the wild reaches of theoretical possibility.

Mind-body philosophers speak of the “explanatory gap” between our physiological models and the mind as we experience it, but the metaphor should be flipped. Our objective knowledge of ourselves is like a dust mote floating in uncharted space. Given our unbounded ignorance, we should be free to invent mind-body stories that console and exalt us, that mirror our fears and desires. Here’s the catch. We should not insist that integrated information theory or any other story is the final, definitive solution to the mind-body problem. There can be no final solution, because science cannot eradicate subjectivity from its accounts of consciousness.

Koch hopes integrated information theory might lead to a consciousness-meter, which determines whether a given thing is conscious, and how conscious it is. But scientists cannot build a consciousness-meter until they reach agreement on what physical conditions are necessary and sufficient to produce consciousness. And scientists cannot reach agreement on those conditions unless they have a means of solving the solipsism problem, that is, a consciousness-meter.

Lacking a consciousness-meter, our views of the hard problem will always be subjective, a matter of taste. You think only humans are truly conscious, and we’re a lot less conscious than we think we are, whereas I think everything is at least a little conscious, including jellyfish, compact-disk players and dark energy.17 Nor will science ever solve the really hard problem, because our ideas about what makes life meaningful are even more subjective and divergent than our ideas about consciousness. I bet even if we merge into one meta-mind, like the Borg in Star Trek, we’ll still be bewildered.

A member of the Borg.

Deep down Koch surely suspects, even hopes, that our quest for self-knowledge will never end. That may be why, in Seattle, he urged me to check out Solaris by Stanislaw Lem. After I flew home, I read the novel, originally published in Polish in 1961. It is, ostensibly, a story about humans encountering an alien consciousness, in the form of a sentient ocean, on a planet called Solaris. But Solaris is really about the strangeness of our own selves. Kelvin, the narrator, becomes as bewildered by his own mind as by the oceanic mind of Solaris. He’s not sure what is real or unreal, whether he is dreaming, imagining, perceiving. He’s not sure what he wants or doesn’t want.

One section of the book is a history of “Solaristics,” scientific efforts to comprehend the sentient planetary ocean. “The subsequent years abounded in theoretical models of the living ocean, all highly complex and based on biomathematical analyses,” the history notes. “The third period involved the collapse of what had hitherto been largely monolithic opinion on the part of scholars. A multiplicity of schools appeared, that often fought furiously with one another.”

This passage, written in a communist state in the early 1960s, is a dead-on description of the paradigm explosion of modern mind-science, in which Koch has played a central role. Kelvin, the narrator, bitterly calls Solaristics “a substitute for religion in the space age. It is faith wrapped in the cloak of science.” He muses: “Human beings set out to encounter other worlds, other civilizations, without having fully gotten to know their own hidden recesses, their blind alleys, well shafts, dark barricaded doors.”

Yes, inner space is as infinite as outer space. The self is the hole, the blind spot, at the center of every worldview. If we look unflinchingly inward, we will be filled with what Socrates called “strange confusion.” We will see ourselves as baffling, unknowable, alien, weird. Someday we might convince ourselves that the Era of Strange Confusion is over, that we have solved the mind-body problem, figured ourselves out. We will exult in our triumph. But when we stop seeing ourselves as weird, we are not really seeing at all. We are missing the gorilla standing right in front of us, sticking out its tongue. I rarely see, really see, the weirdness. I get so absorbed in my trivial schemes and troubles that I take reality for granted. But as I read Solaris, that old estrangement crept over me again. Thanks, Christof.

Listen to Koch talk about the really hard problem in his home in Seattle, March 24, 2016.

Watch Koch and me talk on after this book was published.

NEXT: The Cognitive Scientist: Strange Loops All the Way Down | Chapter Two

  1. A few years ago, re-reading Ulysses inspired me to write a stream-of-consciousness account of a day in the life of a science writer obsessed with the mind-body problem. Parts of the book were based on my recorded conversations with students, colleagues and my girlfriend. When I pitched the project to a literary agent, she responded with two words: “Oh dear.” The book remains unpublished, but I have posted excerpts on my blog. One describes what it feels like to talk to freshmen about William James’s essay on the “stream of thought,” another a conversation about scientific “truth” with my friend Jim McClellan.

  2. I used to say woowoo, which I thought was twice as funny. But when I gave a talk on the mind-body problem in 2016, an audience member questioned my use of woowoo to refer to flaky ideas. He had a vague recollection of comedian Mel Brooks calling female genitalia “woowoo.” With a few flicks of his smartphone, he confirmed his recollection. In the film High Anxiety, Brooks, playing a psychoanalyst lecturing other psychoanalysts, refers to the “female erogenous zone” as “the woowoo.” This is why I love the Internet.

  3. In a 1994 report on the Tucson meeting for Scientific American, I described Chalmers as a “long-haired Australian philosopher who bears an uncanny likeness to the subject of Thomas Gainsborough’s famous painting ‘Blue Boy.’” The article included a photo of Chalmers and his tresses. When I saw Chalmers decades later, he pretended to be annoyed, still, that I had teased him about his appearance, so I can’t resist teasing him again. I considered devoting a chapter of this book to Chalmers, but after interviewing him in 2016 I decided he is too well-adjusted. His personal life is abnormally normal, and unencumbered by philosophical concerns. “I’m not sure how deep an integration there is between what I think about philosophically and the way I live,” he said. “I’ve basically lived my life the way I want to live it without necessarily being all that reflective at the practical level.” For a fuller account of my 2016 interview with Chalmers, see “David Chalmers Thinks the Hard Problem Is Really Hard.”

  4. See my recollection of the 1994 consciousness meeting in Tucson, “Flashback: My Report on First Consciousness Powwow in Tucson. How Far Has Science Come Since Then?”

  5. Koch was a source for The End of Science, Undiscovered Mind and several articles I wrote on the brain’s software, or “neural code,” between 2004 and 2008. See “The Myth of Mind Control,” “Can a Single Cell Recognize Your Face?” and “The Consciousness Conundrum.” See also “The Singularity and the Neural Code” and “Christof Koch on Free Will, the Singularity and the Quest to Crack Consciousness.”

  6. Two months after I published Mind-Body Problems, Christof Koch emailed me “a note on a significant source of confusion around IIT,” in which he distinguished the IIT version of information from other versions. Koch explains: In engineering, information is used in the sense of Claude Shannon, assessed from the external perspective of an observer. It quantifies how accurately signals transmitted over some noisy communication channel, such as a radio link or an optical cable, can be decoded. Data that distinguishes between two possibilities, “low” and “high”, or 0 and 1, carry 1 bit of information. What that information is, though, the result of a blood test or the least significant bit in a pixel in the lower corner of a holiday photo, is not specified; that depends on the context. That is, the meaning of the information is in the eye of the beholder, not in the signals themselves. Information in the sense of integrated information theory reflects a much older Aristotelian usage, derived from the Latin in-formare, “to give form or shape to”. Integrated information gives rise to the cause-effect structure, the form, that is the experience. Integrated information is assessed from the inner perspective of a system, based on how its mechanisms and present state shapes its own past and future.

  7. The computer scientist, Scott Aaronson, critiqued integrated information theory in a blog post, “Why I am Not An Integrated Information Theorist.” See also my Q&A with Aaronson, “Scott Aaronson Answers Every Ridiculously Big Question I Throw at Him.”

  8. NOTE: I coined the term neo-geocentrism to describe, and denigrate, theories that make consciousness a fundamental part of reality. See my post “The Rise of Neo-geocentrism.” During the IIT workshop, however, I thought of a way in which consciousness can be eternal, sort of. I describe the idea in “A Super-Simple, Non-Quantum Theory of Eternal Consciousness.” For more criticism of IIT, see also “Can Integrated Information Theory Explain Consciousness?” and “Why Information Can’t Be the Basis of Reality.”

  9. Koch told the story of his loss of faith in front of a live audience in 2013.

  10. Socrates said the unexamined life is not worth living. I live according to a more extreme version of that principle: the unrecorded life is not worth living. Or, to put it more positively, the recorded life is more meaningful. That is the guiding principle of Meta-Me, which values experiences to the extent that they can be turned into words. What’s cool, or insidious, about Meta-Me is that it can go meta on itself, ad infinitum. Example: Koch makes me reflect on the downside of always being meta, of viewing my most private thoughts and emotions and even my friendships and loves as word-fodder. Seeing life this way makes me cold. That bothers me. Then I think, If being cold bothers me, I’m not really cold, I have a heart after all. Then I think, That’s interesting, I should write that down. Then I think, That thought means I am cold. And so on. So where does that leave me, in terms of what kind of person I am? Perhaps the infinite regress of meta-thoughts sums up to a superposition of states, in which I am cold/warm, heartless/caring. Then I think, I like that, I should write that down.

  11. When I first posed this question, I meant it as a joke, but a 2018 Nature article, “The ethics of experimenting with human brain tissue,” takes seriously the possibility that fragments of brain might be conscious.

  12. Pardon the appeal to authority, but the legendary string theorist Edward Witten has asserted that consciousness is a harder scientific problem than the origin of the universe. See “World’s Smartest Physicist Thinks Science Can’t Crack Consciousness.”

  13. Philosopher Eric Schwitzgebel has proposed a concept called “crazyism,” which decrees that some things, like consciousness, must have explanations that violate our intuitive concepts, or “folk metaphysics,” and hence seem crazy. Here’s the problem: For every crazy idea that works, like quantum mechanics and general relativity, there are an infinite number of crazy ideas that don’t work. So your crazy idea is infinitely more likely to be false than true.

  14. All of my books are based in part on recorded interviews. After transcribing the recording, I ruthlessly edit the transcript, hacking out redundancies and digressions. I further reduce and transform the interview once I decide how to tell the interviewee’s story. I rarely if ever go back and listen to the original recording, but I did in the case of this book because I decided to add audio clips to the end of chapters. Searching for clips turned out to be a disconcerting exercise. I was disturbed by the gap between the interviews and my rendering of them. Listen, for example, to the audio snippet at the end of this chapter, which was recorded in Koch’s home, and in which I am trying, in my muddled way, to ask whether science can solve the really hard problem.

  15. Dread of death, even if it remains subliminal, can have a profound impact on individual and group behavior, according to psychologists Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg and Tom Pyszczynski. They call this proposition, which I find quite plausible, terror-management theory. See my 2016 Q&A with Solomon.

  16. Comedian John Cleese dramatized this problem in a video skit. Wearing a white lab coat and standing beside a plastic model of the brain, to parts of which he keeps pointing, Cleese informs us how the brain works. With his plummy British accent, he perfectly captures the smugness of the scientific know-it-all. He intones, in part (and I found this transcript here): Now: Resumptory frictation and multicentic compulator, simple as the leviating Dudsmeery Lubble-Dutch, making contase and together t-slip temperance and expend agency. A reflection that actually corresponds to Huyu Perverts, his supercredity balance multiviratory equation, E = 2R. I’ll say that again: E = 2R. Where R is the radiancy of my home measure, the boundary effect. And, finally, the feenery sends a parabolic and paraseltic refector, a rasurdity, overleses the homovesery and heterovanthify, so that neglectance of Mamat’s anthepomerapy supercontraction causes struck dimension of faction carnity. There.

  17. The solipsism problem loomed over a conference on animal consciousness held at New York University in November 2017, where speakers had wildly divergent ideas about the degree to which various animals might be conscious. See my posts on the meeting, “Do Fish Suffer?” and “Jellyfish, Sexbots and the Solipsism Problem.”

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