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Chapter Three

By the third day of the conference, the Kiva Ballroom felt like Plato’s cave. We prisoners sat in darkness as spotlighted figures on a stage projected arcane patterns on two enormous screens and jabbered about free will, neural networks, Bayes theorem, machine intelligence, panpsychism, psychedelics and telekinesis. What’s real, I wondered, what’s illusion? Does our desire to escape the cave just drive us deeper into darkness?

It was April 2016, and I was in Tucson, Arizona, at “The Science of Consciousness,” the same meeting I attended back in 1994. Hundreds of scholars pitched theories to a thousand listeners. A disproportionate number of males had shaved heads or ponytails. The woo quotient had, if anything, surged over the past 22 years, perhaps because spirituality mogul Deepak Chopra had become a sponsor.1

I tried to be open-minded, but skepticism welled up like stomach acid. Simmering in an outdoor hot tub with a quantum-consciousness enthusiast, I raised the old objection that brains are too warm to sustain effects like coherence and superposition. Bullshit, my tub-mate said, light is a quantum effect that happens at room temperature. To my annoyance, I couldn’t think of a retort, probably because the hot tub was interfering with my quantum coherence.

My hopes rose for a lecture by anthropologist Terrence Deacon, whom another science writer had urged me to check out. Deacon proposed that all organisms, even bacteria, possess “sentience,” the capacity to detect and distinguish themselves from the outer world. Once we figure out sentience, we can take on consciousness, which emerges when organisms become sentient of their sentience.

That seemed reasonable, but as he built upon this premise, Deacon kept introducing more neologisms. Homeodynamics, morphodynamics, teleodynamics, autogenesis and so on. I mused over how one clever coinage, like “strange loop” or “meme,” can illuminate, whereas many obfuscate. Overhearing someone rave about Deacon’s “fantastic” talk, I thought, Our responses to theories of subjectivity are so subjective! And sensitive to theorists’ style.

What does it say about mind-science that language matters so much? One can rank scientific fields by their dependence on rhetoric. Darwin and Einstein could be eloquent, but their theories endure because they fit the facts. We justly call them true. We still read William James and Freud because they are literary masters. To call their works true seems like a category error, akin to saying Pride and Prejudice is true. But does that mean objective analysis of the mind is impossible? Should we see all mind-body theories as works of fiction?

By the time Alison Gopnik lectured, I was desperate for something tangible, empirical, objectively true. Gopnik is a psychologist who specializes in children. While scientists like Deacon try to understand how mind evolved long ego in our ancestors, Gopnik investigates how mind unfolds in kids. Each childhood reprises, in a sense, human evolution.

In her 2009 book The Philosophical Baby: What Children’s Minds Tell Us About Truth, Love, and the Meaning of Life, Gopnik rebukes the great sages of history for overlooking childhood. “You could read 2,500 years of philosophy and find almost nothing about children. A Martian who tried to figure us out by studying Earthling philosophy could easily conclude that human beings reproduce by asexual cloning.”

Studying children, Gopnik argues, can illuminate deep mind-body riddles, like how we know about the world. In a chapter called “Escaping Plato’s Cave,” she points out that knowledge begins with sensory stimuli, such as photons impinging on our retinas and sound waves on our eardrums. From these inputs we construct accurate, predictive maps of the world. How?

Plato proposed that we are born with an intuitive knowledge of mathematical forms existing in a transcendent realm. Worldly things are imperfect manifestations of those ethereal forms. A modern incarnation of this idea holds that evolution encoded knowledge into our genes, knowledge activated by external stimuli. These approaches assume our brains deduce truth. You see something small and furry with a black nose and floppy ears, compare it to your internal models and conclude: puppy!

An alternative, Gopnik points out, would be representing the world probabilistically. Our brains toss out multiple interpretations of a given stimulus and select those that seem most probable. That is probably a puppy, and it’s probably okay to pet it. This is the Bayesian method of knowledge generation, based on a formula for calculating probabilities invented by 18th-century cleric Thomas Bayes (who used it to prove God’s existence).2

Bayesian models have been embraced by other psychologists specializing in learning and by computer scientists trying to build intelligent machines. Gopnik was an early adopter, in part because the models emphasize imagination, which she sees as an underappreciated human talent. Imagination allows us to envision, and become, something other than what we are. Our “capacity for change,” Gopnik states, “both in our own lives and throughout history, is the most distinctive and unchanging thing about us.”

When Gopnik stood before us in the Kiva Ballroom, illuminated by spotlights, I felt sympathetic stage fright, as I often do before others’ talks. But she commandeered the ballroom like Caesar, a diminutive, feminine Caesar with short dark hair, sheathed in silky pants and blouse. Yanking the mike from its stand, Gopnik primed us with a barrage of questions. What is it like to be a child? A baby? Why do humans have such a long childhood? Are babies just dumb, incompetent versions of adults? Are they less conscious than adults, or even unconscious?

Babies are in some respects more conscious than adults, Gopnik said, more open to stimuli, because they have fewer filters, pre-conceptions, goals. She backed up this assertion with a graph charting the synaptic connections between brain cells. The connections surge from birth until we are seven or eight and then drop off sharply as our brains undergo “synaptic pruning.”

Gopnik’s research has also established that kids can be more creative than adults, better at finding “unlikely solutions” to problems. The older we get, the more our knowledge and pseudo-knowledge blind us. We are in “a box defined by our hypotheses.” We search the space of possible solutions for those compatible with our pre-existing beliefs. Yeah! I thought. That’s why we don’t see the damn gorilla!

Gopnik distinguished between two mental modes, “explore” and “exploit.” Kids are in the explore mode, absorbing information at a prodigious rate, open to anything, experimenting wildly with ideas, imagining all sorts of possibilities, even fantastical ones. From puberty on, we shift to exploit mode, in which we increasingly focus on goals like finding mates and making money. Kids are humanity’s R&D department, Gopnik said, adults do manufacturing, marketing and sales.

Another metaphor: Grownup consciousness is a spotlight, kid consciousness a lantern, casting light widely. Oldsters can recapture their child-like open-mindedness with meditation, travel, romance and caffeine, which has chemicals like those abounding in kids. Being a child is like being in Paris high on love and double espressos. Psychedelics can also do the trick. “Babies and children are basically tripping all the time,” Gopnik said. I and the other old acidheads in the audience clapped and cheered.

Gopnik’s talk left me wanting to recapture the innocence of childhood, open my eyes, see the gorilla. Maybe it was time to drink ayahuasca again, or give meditation another shot. Exiting Kiva Cave into blinding sunlight, I joined a line of grownups trudging up the path to the main hotel. A boy and girl, seven or eight, descended in the opposite direction on the grass beside the path. They didn’t trudge, they ambled, sauntered, they were loosey-goosey, tipsy. As the boy passed me, he flopped forward and summersaulted the rest of the way down the slope. For an insane instant, I wondered if the boy was in cahoots with Gopnik.3

* * * * *

I interviewed Gopnik in Tucson in 2016 and at her home in Berkeley a year later, where I observed one of her experiments on kids. Physically petite, she has an over-sized presence. Her face seems—the word that kept coming to mind was naked. She is ebulliently unguarded. When I posed a question, she didn’t just answer it. She pounced on it, batted it around, grabbed it in her teeth, shook it back and forth. Ideas gushed out of her so fast that her speech could barely keep pace. The faster she talked, the more ideas she had. Now and then, acting as her own traffic cop, she abruptly held her hand out and fell silent for a moment before revving up again.

She was pricklier in person than on the page or stage. She compared a prominent psychologist to Professor Irwin Corey, a comedian whose shtick is spewing out pseudo-intellectual gibberish. Although fond of Buddhism, which helped her get through a rough patch, she complained that some Buddhists “treat women with complete contempt, which is part of the tradition.” She mocked old-school Darwinians for assuming that “silver-haired, aging psychology professors should be allowed to sleep with their graduate students because that is the basic, fundamental tenet of human nature.”

She often ended sentences with rising pitch, as if the interrogative mode propelled her forward. Discussing how physical systems allow for human choice, or free will, she said, “I don’t think anybody has a good story about it?” and “I think there is a case to be made that it will not be reduced away?” (Gopnik has written that “uptalk” has become “a marker of status and power for this generation, rather than insecurity or uncertainty.”)

Both times I spoke to Gopnik, her second husband, Alvy Ray Smith, sat nearby. A computer scientist and co-founder of Pixar, the animated-film studio, he is a big, genial man with a ruddy face and white goatee. For the most part, Smith leaned back with a doting grin, watching his wife perform. But he chimed in now and then, for example, when Gopnik talked about the upside of a midlife crisis.

One way to solve problems, she explained, is to look for solutions similar to those you have already tried. Another way is to “do a lot of random shit,” she said. “Try something completely crazy.” The older we get, the more we take the cautious approach, because we have become “increasingly rigid and structured.” We also have more to lose. A crisis, however painful, “can shake up all that structure and order. And that enables you, if you are lucky, to come up with something on the other side that is a genuine, new, creative solution.”4

Annealing, a process used in materials science, provides an analogy to identity crises, Gopnik said. You heat up an alloy or other substance and let it cool into a new chemical structure with novel properties. Annealing “randomizes everything,” Smith interjected. “Sometimes it comes down in a wonderful place, sometimes not.”

This was not a hypothetical discussion. Around her 50th birthday, Gopnik melted down, an episode that she describes in “How an 18th-Century Philosopher Helped Solve My Midlife Crisis,” published in The Atlantic in 2015. For most of her life, she had been “an exceptionally fortunate and happy woman, full of irrational exuberance and everyday joy.” She was married to a “good man,” with whom she had three sons. Her career brought her enormous satisfaction. She writes:

My life’s work had been to demonstrate the scientific and philosophical importance of children, and I kept a playpen in my office long after my children had outgrown it. Children had been the center of my life and my work—the foundation of my identity. And then, suddenly, I had no idea who I was at all.

After her sons grew up and left home, her marriage collapsed. Then she discovered something surprising about herself. She was bisexual. For her entire prior life, she had been attracted to men, period. She saw herself as exclusively heterosexual right up until the moment she first had sex with a woman, with whom she fell in love. Her former identification as 100-percent straight, she realized, stemmed from “sheer stupidity and lack of experience.”

Gopnik sees sexuality as much more fluid than she once did, and not only because of her personal experience. Research suggests that some people have a strong biological predisposition to heterosexuality, others to homosexuality, perhaps because of hormonal influences in utero. But “there is incredible variability in sexual attraction and identity,” Gopnik told me. When male friends assure her they are completely straight, she responds, Try having a romantic relationship with an attractive man. “If you come to me and report you can’t have that relationship, then I’ll believe you. But now I don’t think you have the data to say that.”5

After her lover ended their relationship, Gopnik was heart-broken. For the first time in her life, she sank into a deep depression. This novel experience, unlike her lesbian affair, was not enlightening. Depression “shuts down your experience of what is going on around you,” produces a “narrowing of focus” and “flattening of affect.”

Gopnik lost her passion for science, and her curiosity about the world, which had given her so much pleasure. “That sense of having a large world independent of you and your own internal concerns,” she said, “is a characteristic consolation of science.” She felt bereft in every possible way. She was an authority on the mind-body problem, the mystery of who we are, who didn’t know who she was. “I was no longer a scientist or a philosopher or a wife or a mother or a lover,” she recalls in The Atlantic.

Antidepressants didn’t help, but meditation did, a little, and, perhaps more important, it rekindled her intellectual curiosity. Reading about Buddhism, she discovered correspondences with David Hume, one of her intellectual heroes. Hume was a radical skeptic, who questioned the existence of God, immortal souls, even the self. In A Treatise on Human Nature he wrote:

When I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe any thing but the perception.

This insight bears an uncanny resemblance to the Buddhist doctrine of anatta, which holds that the self is an illusion. Gopnik became obsessed with the possibility that Buddhism had inspired Hume. He wrote his Treatise while living in France near a Jesuit monastery, through which scholars acquainted with Buddhism had passed.

As Gopnik pursued her investigation of Hume’s influences, her depression lifted. She had a “romantic adventure or two,” straight and gay. She spent a year on sabbatical in Caltech, where she commiserated with Christof Koch, who was enduring his own midlife crisis. They talked about love and sex and the mind-body problem. Like Koch, Gopnik eventually settled into a new, happy equilibrium. In 2007, Alvy Ray Smith introduced himself after watching her give a public lecture. They married a few years later.

Life was good again. “I had found my salvation in the sheer endless curiosity of the human mind,” Gopnik writes, “and the sheer endless variety of human experience.” Gopnik’s meltdown did not alter her core values and convictions so much as it helped her rediscover them. She had always believed in the fluidity of the self, but discovering her bisexuality transformed her belief into “a lived experience.”

Gopnik’s crisis also bolstered her non-supernatural spirituality. She has had “spiritual-slash-numinous experiences” throughout her life, she told me. She never dissolved into nothingness, or found herself transported to a celestial realm. But she has often felt overwhelmed with “meaning and beauty and significance” in response to music, a sunset or sleep-deprivation. These experiences weren’t “transformative” in the sense of radically changing her worldview. They didn’t make her believe in God or alter her philosophy in any significant way. “They were just things that were an important part of my pleasure.”

And that, for Gopnik, is enough. For thousands of years, prophets and philosophers have postulated the existence of an eternal, transcendent reality that gives life meaning. But “every one of those attempts at metaphysical transcendence crumbled,” Gopnik said. Science has made it hard to believe in souls, God and heaven, leading to a collective spiritual disappointment.

Gopnik’s crisis convinced her that everyday experiences, if we pay close attention, should give us all the beauty, mystery and meaning we need. “And I think that—that—genuinely, truly was a consoling insight for me.” We should stop yearning for a God, an afterlife, a transcendent moral order, and make the most of this life, right here, right now. “If there isn’t life after death, you ought to be paying a lot of attention to life before death. And pay attention to things going on in front of you.” Things like kids.

Gopnik doesn’t just explicate kids, she celebrates them. They are much more than a means of testing conjectures about consciousness, learning and creativity. She called children “the foundation of my identity.” During her midlife crisis, her divorce and lesbian affair “were kind of trivial compared to not being a mother any more.” Male sages, historically, have disdained caregiving as women’s work, a distraction from the quest for enlightenment. The joys of parenthood are “completely invisible to most [religious] and philosophical traditions,” Gopnik said, “because they are all pursued by a bunch of men.”

Some women, too, avoid talking about the spiritual dimensions of having kids. “We kind of keep it quiet, because it’s like an anti-feminist thing.” Changing your daughter’s diapers or helping her with her math homework can be a chore. But many women, and men, too, undergo a “total moral and spiritual transformation as a result of having children.”

Erotic love can be spiritually profound, but the love you feel for your children is “utterly altruistic, profoundly selfless. It has all these kinds of mystical characteristics.” Caring for children lends “meaning and purpose and direction and significance to life,” she said, and it is “an awfully fast and efficient way to experience at least a little saintliness.” Your kids even give you an afterlife of sorts. Maybe life has no transcendent meaning, but parenthood, for Gopnik, comes close.

Perhaps inevitably, she has written a book on raising kids, The Gardener and the Carpenter: What the New Science of Child Development Tells Us About the Relationship Between Parents and Children. Published in 2016, it is a kind of anti-parenting guide, and a work of almost defiant optimism. Given the enormous diversity of children, caregivers and cultures, Gopnik argues, there can be no single prescription for child-rearing. So chill, your kids will turn out fine, and if they don’t, it’s probably not your fault. Rumanian orphans raised for years with virtually no human interaction thrived, usually, after they were adopted.

Don’t be a carpenter, trying to construct high-achieving kids who become high-achieving adults. Be a gardener, give kids the nourishment they need to grow in their own weird, unpredictable ways. Gopnik notes that each generation “creates a slightly different world than the generation that preceded them. It’s a mess. But it’s a good mess, a mess that allows human beings to thrive in a staggering array of constantly changing environments.” Trust your children, trust your fellow humans, everything is going to be okay.

Alison Gopnik and Alvy Ray Smith.

* * * * *

Gopnik embodies her own values of flexibility and open-mindedness. She does not respond to questions with pre-recorded, rote answers, as many prominent scientists do. She has an unpredictable, live mind. Although she is a master exploiter—a successful researcher and writer with set beliefs, principles, goals—part of her is always in explore mode. She is on the lookout for new ideas about children, the self, sexual identity, the acquisition of knowledge and other mind-body puzzles.

Many scientists, like Christof Koch and Douglas Hofstadter, seem compelled to attach themselves to a big idea, but Gopnik resists big ideas, whether involving God, Darwin, Buddha or Bayes. She finds Buddhism fascinating, but she isn’t evangelical about it, and she doesn’t like Buddhists’ exaltation of celibate males, such as the Dalai Lama, as the epitome of spirituality.6

She sees genetics and evolutionary biology as powerful frameworks for understanding our minds and behavior. But she accuses some Darwinians of peddling flimsy “just-so stories” about human nature and of projecting their obsessions with sex, violence and status on our ancestors. Bayesian learning, similarly, is not a theory of everything, as some advocates have suggested.

She pooh-poohs claims of artificial-intelligence enthusiasts that we are approaching a “Singularity,” when computers become much smarter than us and start pursuing their own goals. Computers are far from being autonomous or creative in any meaningful sense. “You have to have incredibly well-defined problems for them to succeed,” and they still need lots of help from humans. The gap between what computers can do and what little kids can do is “so enormous at this moment that thinking about the Singularity is just silly.”7

As for consciousness, Gopnik doesn’t think it will be explained by a single model, like integrated information theory or strange loops. She compared research on consciousness today to studies of life in the 19th century. Back then scientists believed in vitalism, the idea that life stems from some mysterious force or essence. They thought “we’d find the thing that was responsible for life.” Science never did discover what “made life different from non-life,” she said. “It just didn’t turn out there is a single magic feature.”

Modern scientists no longer fret over the “problem of life” because they have explained so many biological processes, such as evolution, reproduction, heredity and metabolism.8 “I suspect that’s going to end up happening with consciousness,” Gopnik said. Scientists will not converge on a single explanation for consciousness. “There won’t be convergence, there will be divergence. But the divergence will be a bunch of genuinely explanatory stories.”

But these scientific stories, no matter how compelling, might never entirely capture us, because we are moving targets. That is one of the key messages of Philosophical Baby. “The human capacity for change,” Gopnik asserts, “means that we can’t figure out what it is to be human just by looking at the way we are now.”

Philosopher Isaiah Berlin divided intellectuals into foxes, who know many things, and hedgehogs, who know one big thing. “Oh, I am completely a fox,” Gopnik answered when I asked her to categorize herself. Children are sort of a big idea, or obsession, but she has always been restless intellectually, as evidenced by her recent interest in Hume and Buddhism. Smith interjected that he thought of her as a fox too, and Gopnik gave him a wicked smile.

Actually, you’re a hedgehog, I told Gopnik, and here’s why. Your big idea is that there are no big ideas, at least not when it comes to the mind-body problem. The theme of diversity, creativity, imagination and change runs through all your work. You see childhood as a time for exploring ideas, and you think adults, too, should try to be more open-minded. You dislike deterministic theories of human identity and behavior, including sexual behavior, and you like theories that emphasize variability and probability, like the Bayesian models. You’re a pluralist, like Isaiah Berlin, who rejected the idea of the big idea and dwelled on the myriad ways we find to be human.

Gopnik seemed amused, and pleased, by my description of her worldview. She was a fan of Isaiah Berlin, whom she cited in Gardener and the Carpenter. But she frowned when I got to my punch-line. Your pluralistic outlook, I said, meshes nicely with my perspective of the mind-body problem: We are all entitled to choose our own solutions, which reflect our particular outlooks.

“I guess it depends what you mean by solution,” she said. “We are all entitled to have guesses….” Gopnik brooded, then she played with my proposition, swatting it this way and that. She wasn’t keen on the idea that “everybody gets entitled to his own opinion.” We shouldn’t choose theories simply because they make us feel good or reflect our values. After all, science settles some questions once and for all. “I am definitely a scientific realist? Fairly strongly?”

But “within the constraints of scientific realism,” she added, “there is lots of play and opportunity.” Scientists rely on imagination. They envision how the world might be, propose a theory and try to prove it false. Einstein’s path to relativity began with a thought experiment about a train moving at the speed of light. “Even though that’s false, working out inferences in those counterfactual situations can actually tell you something you didn’t know.” Science, as it progresses, rules out certain possibilities, but it keeps generating new ones, expanding our degrees of freedom.

So do the arts, in their own way. Gopnik’s father, a professor who specialized in 18th century English literature, encouraged her and her five siblings to read literature. By her mid-teens Gopnik had consumed Dickens, Austen, Shakespeare, Proust. She spent more time in fictional worlds than in the real world. Eventually her tastes turned to philosophy and science, but she still loves literature, which helps us appreciate the “range of possibility” of life by getting us to “jump over into the subjective experience of another person.”

After all this thinking aloud, Gopnik said she would be “happy to serve as a representative pluralist” for my book. She does not think we will discover a single, final solution to the mystery of who we are. We will certainly never construct a utopia, not defined as a final, optimal state of human self-organization and self-fulfillment. But it might be possible to create a pluralist utopia that allows “many, many, many, many different forms of life, many ways of being in the world.”

She warned, as Isaiah Berlin did, that there will always be tension between people whose values diverge. Faith will always jostle against science, freedom against equality, hedonism against virtue. Some Americans see gay rights as “destabilizing and terrifying,” Gopnik said, because they value “tradition and continuity” with the past. No matter how accepting we are of each other, our pluralist utopia will always be in explore mode. It will keep growing, evolving, in unpredictable ways, which can always go awry.

“I think the garden metaphor is actually a pretty good metaphor for utopia. This,” Gopnik added, spreading her arms to take in our surroundings. We were at her home in Berkeley, sitting in the backyard, a small patio ringed by lush greenery. Gopnik worked on this garden a lot during her midlife crisis. Actually, she confessed, she spent more time reading gardening books than gardening (just as she read about Buddhism more than she meditated).

The books decreed that gardens must have a theme, so she picked the theme of “decadent, falling apart, once-great aristocratic English garden going to seed.” That explained the unruliness of her garden, the foxglove, clematis and fuchsia encircling us, and the tree, wrapped in climbing roses, towering over us.

Where does that fit in? I asked, pointing to a potted plant with thick, fleshy, purple leaves. It looked like it had been imported from Mars. Ah, Gopnik said, that is an Aeonium Schwarzkopf, a succulent, sometimes called a black rose. That is Alvy’s contribution to the garden, and so is that, she said, pointing to a cactus that looked like a prickly, melting brain, and that, and that.

Aeonium Schwarzkopf, also known as a black rose.

Only then did I notice all the other-worldly plants ringing the patio. Smith, who grew up in New Mexico, has always been fond of desert flora, and when he moved to Berkeley he began slipping them into the garden. “So we have my beautiful English garden and then Alvy’s insane cactus and succulent garden,” Gopnik said.

“That was the first test of marriage,” Smith said. “I slipped one succulent in.” The irony of Smith’s attraction to cacti, Gopnik said, is that he is “as un-spiky a person as you can possibly have.” Gopnik and Smith, sitting in the middle of their own quirky, still-evolving mini-utopia, beamed at each other.

* * * * *

A journalist working on a story has to shift, at some point, from explore mode to exploit. You must choose one way to tell your story out of all the ways to tell it. Sometimes your choices feel inevitable, often they don’t. As I worked on this chapter, I kept waiting for it to anneal into its pre-ordained, Platonic form, but it remained stubbornly fluid. The kicker proved especially elusive. Kicker is journalist jargon for ending with oomph.

I considered closing with a recap of Gopnik’s pluralistic perspective on the mind-body problem, or my version of it. Shun mind-body stories that have harmful consequences or blatantly contradict well-established empirical evidence. Otherwise, let your imagination run wild.

This perspective makes sense to me, because I share it. It’s the theme of this book. There can’t be one optimal way to see ourselves, or be ourselves, whether Buddhism, Marxism or Darwinism, because we have different ideas about what counts as a meaningful life. Being a stay-at-home dad works for you. I prefer being an antiwar activist, or an investment banker snorting coke off the breasts of a hooker. And over the course of our lives we change our minds about what is meaningful. “A human being isn’t just a collection of fixed traits,” Gopnik writes, “but part of an unfolding and dynamic story.” Yes, to be human means to be in explore mode. I could wrap up this celebration of pluralism with a snapshot of the hedgehog and her mate in their garden.

But that kicker felt too straight. I am fond, no doubt too fond, of oblique kickers, which undercut what I’ve just said or dart off in a new direction. Also, I needed to vent the misgivings aroused in me by Gopnik’s adoration of kids. She knows she gets a little schmaltzy. “One of the worst things about writing about the importance of children,” she writes in Philosophical Baby, “is that practically everything you say turns out to sound like a greeting card.”

From the Darwinian perspective, it’s hard to overstate kids’ importance. I once heard Richard Dawkins, trying to spin evolution as a feel-good meme, point out that we are all descended from a long line of biological “winners,” organisms that succeeded in passing on their genes. I guess that means I should be proud to be a reproducer.

But natural selection, that old joker, programmed males to want sex, not necessarily children. I didn’t choose to be a father, really. Before we married, my wife-to-be insisted she didn’t want kids, and I said fine. A couple of years into the marriage, she changed her mind, she wanted kids, and I said fine. So much for my free will. We had a son and a daughter, one right after the other. Fatherhood didn’t come naturally to me. Male friends had assured me I would be overwhelmed with love when I held my first-born in my arms. That didn’t happen. The birth was arduous, and I was just relieved that my wife and son were okay.

Over time I became bound, as if by sinews and veins, to Mac and Skye. But when they were in their mid-teens, their mother and I split up, and I felt like I had failed them. I was grateful for Gopnik’s assurance in The Gardener and the Carpenter that my kids will probably turn out okay no matter what I do, and that it’s probably not my fault if they don’t. But her exaltation of parenthood exacerbated my feelings of guilt and inadequacy.

These emotions were roiling within me when I flew to Berkeley to interview Gopnik and observe one of her experiments. I arrived a day early, and to kill time I wandered into a funky used-book store. Looking in the horror section for something fun to read, I spotted an ancient, apparently mis-categorized paperback edition of What Maisie Knew by Henry James.

What Maisie Knew, which I finished that night, turned out to be a horror story after all, a deep dive into human folly and depravity. It tells the tale of a pre-pubescent girl abandoned by her divorced biological parents. Other adults pretend to come to Maisie’s rescue, but they just manipulate the poor waif for their own ends. What Maisie Knew demolishes the notion of selfless love, just rips it to shreds. At least I’m not as bad as Maisie’s dad, I thought. But I also recognized myself in James’s self-absorbed adults.

The next morning I met Gopnik at a daycare center for children of Berkeley employees and students. The center, where Gopnik was carrying out an experiment with a graduate student, Adrienne Wente, was a spacious, well-lit room with an arched ceiling. Bright, splashy watercolors covered the walls, plus a poster showing Einstein and a quote: “Play is the highest form of research.”

“My heart always rises when I walk into this place,” Gopnik murmured as we entered the building. We eased onto tiny blue chairs in one corner of the room. “You cannot be pompous sitting in a chair that is much too small for you,” Gopnik whispered. Nearby, Wente and her tiny subjects sat on tiny chairs, a tiny table between them. As Gopnik gazed at the children, her fondness was palpable.

Wente tested three girls and three boys, all five years old, one at a time. Each child was different. This girl was chatty, this boy taciturn, this girl fidgety. Actually all the kids were pretty fidgety. Sitting in that chair seemed as perilous as riding a pogostick. Two kids tumbled off the chair.

The experiment probed children’s tendency toward wishful thinking. Gopnik whispered the protocol to me as Wente performed it on one child after another. Wente showed each kid 10 plastic Easter eggs, eight blue and two yellow. She put the eggs in an opaque bag, shuffled them and pulled one out, concealed in her hand. She asked the child to guess the color. Most kids guessed blue, showing they grasped basic probability.

Wente performed the same routine, except this time she put prizes–little colored stickers–in the yellow eggs. Once again she pulled an egg from the bag, concealed in her hand, and asked the child to guess the color. She said if there is a prize in the egg, the child can keep it. Rationally, the child should still guess blue, but most guessed yellow. They wanted the egg to be yellow, because they wanted the prize. Wishful thinking trumped common sense.

This tendency toward wishful thinking shows up by the time kids are four and fades when they are seven or eight. Of course wishful thinking persists in other forms, Gopnik noted. Her son was opening a restaurant. How wishful is that! Starting a business, doing research, writing a book all require wishful thinking. We are all wishful thinkers, unless we are depressed. You could define depression as the absence of wishful thinking–unless the wish for non-existence counts.

Nothing requires more wishful thinking than having children. Watching Gopnik’s colleague talking to the five-year-olds, these bundles of pure promise, my heart ached. I thought of the scene in Annie Hall when kids in a classroom announce what they will become when they grow up. A methadone addict, a leather fetishist, head of a plumbing company. We bring kids into the world knowing they will endure disappointments, get old and die. Why? What’s the point? Because it is our biological imperative. The purpose of life is making more life.

Gopnik acknowledged that the compulsion to have kids isn’t exactly rational. “I can rationalize it in the context of evolution,” she said of parenthood, “but you certainly can’t rationalize in the context of your everyday conception” of happiness. The more you love your child, the worse you feel when she leaves to live her own life. Gopnik was devastated when her kids went to college, and that is a happy parting, a best-case scenario. As I began this book, a couple I know lost their son to a drug overdose. He had been one of my son’s best friends. I had played tennis with the boy and his dad.

After I flew home from Berkeley, I vaguely recalled that Siddhartha, Hermann Hesse’s fable about the quest for enlightenment, explores the pain of parenthood. I dug up and re-read my decrepit paperback copy, which I have had since my teens. Born a prince, Siddhartha rejects that life and becomes a monk, abandons that life for one of worldly pleasures and finally, in his dotage, becomes a ferryman.

His simple, serene life is disrupted when a teenage boy shows up. He is Govinda, the child of Siddhartha and his long-lost lover Kamala, who has died. The more Siddhartha tries to love Govinda, the more the boy scorns him. When Govinda runs away, after stealing money from him, Siddhartha’s heart breaks. But staring at the river, he remembers how he broke his father’s heart by running away from home, and he has a vision:

The image of his father, his own image, the image of his son merged, Kamala’s image also appeared and was dispersed, and the image of Govinda, and other images, and they merged with each other, turned all into the river, headed all, being the river, for the goal, longing, desiring, suffering, and the river’s voice sounded full of yearning, full of burning woe, full of unsatisfiable desire. For the goal, the river was heading, Siddhartha saw it hurrying, the river, which consisted of him and his loved ones and of all people he had ever seen, all of these waves and waters were hurrying, suffering, towards goals, many goals, the waterfall, the lake, the rapids, the sea, and all goals were reached, and every goal was followed by a new one, and the water turned into vapor and rose to the sky, turned into rain and poured down from the sky, turned into a source, a stream, a river, headed forward once again, flowed on once again.

Talk about going meta. When I first read Siddhartha, I was desperate to escape the cave, to feel the mystical bliss that Siddhartha felt. Now that I’m a father, nirvana has lost its appeal. Enlightenment supposedly insulates you from the pain and peril of earthly love, but I don’t want to see my kids as ephemeral manifestations of the eternal wheel of death and rebirth. I don’t want to be so meta that they can’t break my heart. Not that I have a choice.

In The Gardener Gopnik writes, “The dance through time between parents and children, the past and the future, is a deep part of human nature, perhaps the deepest part. It has its tragic side.” I can’t regret having children any more than I can regret my own existence. But I understand why some of my friends chose not to have kids, and why Buddhism says being a celibate monk is your best chance for enduring happiness.

I even understand why that old bastard Socrates, before drinking the hemlock juice, ordered his distraught wife and son out of his prison cell. He wanted to lay some final wisdom on his buddies, and the woman and boy were distracting him. Families can be a drag. Not all of us have the wherewithal to chase truth and cherish our families with equal fervor, as Gopnik does.

A final nit. I wish Gopnik’s pluralism were a little more accommodating. We should resist supernatural beliefs, she argues, and savor “the sheer endless variety of human experience.” I share her skeptical outlook, but she and I have been quite fortunate, in spite of a few glitches, and we even get the cathartic pleasure of writing about the glitches. I can’t fault others who, to ease their pain, take comfort in a woo belief or two.

Listen to Gopnik talk about the spiritual dimensions of having children, Tucson, April 29, 2016.

NEXT: The Complexologist: Tragedy and Telepathy | Chapter Four
 


  1. Deepak Chopra, after I bashed Richard Dawkins and other prominent skeptics, invited me to speak at his “Sages & Scientists” meeting in 2016. He apparently thought the enemy of his enemy was his friend. He paid me and treated me well, and I repaid him by knocking him in two posts, “My Bunk-Bashing Diatribe at a Deepak Chopra Conference” and “My Doubts about Deepak Chopra and the Monetization of Meditation.”

  2. The basic Bayesian formula is P(B|E) = P(B) X P(E|B) / P(E), with P standing for probability, B for belief and E for evidence. P(B) is the probability that B is true, and P(E) is the probability that E is true. P(B|E) means the probability of B if E is true, and P(E|B) is the probability of E if B is true. Translation: The probability that a belief is true given new evidence equals the probability that the belief is true regardless of that evidence times the probability that the evidence is true given that the belief is true divided by the probability that the evidence is true regardless of whether the belief is true. Got that? For more on Bayes Theorem and its application in psychology, see my blog posts “Bayes Theorem: What’s the Big Deal?” and “Are Brains Bayesian?

  3. I posted four “dispatches” from the 2016 meeting in Tucson. The first, “Dispatch from the Desert of Consciousness Research, Part 1,” has links to the next three.

  4. In a 2016 essay Gopnik offers a more uplifting view of old age, comparing it to childhood. She notes that psychological theories often “describe both the young and the old in terms of their deficiencies, as if they were just preparation for, or decline from, an ideal grown-up human. But new studies suggest that both the young and the old may be especially adapted to receive and transmit wisdom. We may have a wider focus and a greater openness to experience when we are young or old than we do in the hurly burly of feeding, fighting and reproduction that preoccupies our middle years.”

  5. I criticized reports of a “gay gene” in the 1990s because the research was shoddy. To my distress, homophobes have cited my critiques as a justification for gay-conversion therapy. I complained about this abuse of my work in “How Christian homophobes misuse my ‘gay gene’ report.”

  6. I have misgivings about Buddhism too. See my columns “Can Buddhism Save Us?” and “Why I Don’t Dig Buddhism.”

  7. Again, I share Gopnik’s misgivings. See my columns “The Singularity and the Neural Code” and “How Would AI Cover an AI Conference?

  8. Actually, the origin of life is still a complete mystery. See my blog post, “Pssst! Don’t tell the creationists, but scientists don’t have a clue how life began.”