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.
Artist David Poleski sent me this image of his painting “The Nocturnal Levitation.” Look further down for his response to my book and more paintings.
“MIND-BODY PROBLEMS,” THE TALK SHOW
My buddies Robert Wright and Nikita Petrov have created an online show at Meaningoflife.tv, 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). More recently, I have chatted with philosopher of religion Jeffrey Kripal, philosopher of consciousness Bernardo Kastrup and indefatigable Freud-basher Frederick Crews.
STUFF BY ME AND OTHERS
Economist Russ Roberts and I talk about Mind-Body Problems on his podcast Econtalk.org.
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.”
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?,” “Are Cyborg Warriors a Good Idea?,” “Meta-Post: Posts on the Mind-Body Problem,” “In Defense of Disbelief: An Anti-Creed,” “Why We’re Still Fighting over Freud,” “Can Psychiatry Heal Itself,” “Free Will Is Real,” “The Dawn of Self-Consciousness” and “Genealogical Anxiety.” In April 2019 Scientific American put its blogs behind a paywall, but you can see several posts for free every month.
I’ve just enjoyed (and I do mean enjoyed) reviewing your book Mind-Body Problemsfor my book review page at
https://www.acampbell.uk/bookreviews/r/horgan-3.html, along with two of your other books. Like you, I’ve been obsessed with the mind-body problem for many years, perhaps because, like you, I’m a former Catholic. I also, at the age of six, had an experience which sounds rather similar to what you describe — in my case, looking up into the sky and feeling sudden overwhelming terror at the thought: Why does anything exist?
Several of the people you interviewed were writers whose books I’d previously read. You showed them in a new light and in a couple of cases (Goldstein and Flanagan) made me want to read more by them (I’ve already made a start with Flanagan’s Buddhism book). In one case (Kauffman), whose book I once tried and failed to read, I was considerably taken aback by his acceptance of the paranormal and even more so by your (qualified) endorsement of his view. When I was younger I was persuaded of the reality of such things but I’ve increasingly moved towards skepticism as the years go by, though there are still moments when I waver.
On this subject, one far-out idea has occurred to me: if you take the hypothesis that we are living in a computer simulation seriously, this would provide a ready explanation for the paranormal (not to mention religious visions, reincarnation, etc.). These things are put there by the simulators to tease us, or to make us suspect the real state of affairs. Conversely, if you believe in the paranormal, perhaps you ought to take the simulation hypothesis seriously, since the alleged phenomena appear to be inexplicable in our world.
A couple of minor comments. I think I’m more inclined towards the mysterian position concerning consciousness than you seem to be. (I was delighted to see that you have a post by Colin McGinn on your page.) As regards free will, this has preoccupied me since my ‘teens (I’m now 86), when I realized that it was incompatible with what I’d been taught about sin. Each time you sin, we were told, it becomes harder to resist sin in the future; but in that case we are all on a slippery slope to perdition.
For my money the most helpful view of the matter has come from Galen Strawson: free will is impossible because we don’t choose our own characters. This is not fatalism; we can do what we choose but we can’t choose what we choose. (Schopenhauer, I believe, said the same thing.) This is true regardless of whether determinism is true or false and whether we have a soul or not. So free will in the fullest sense cannot exist but this is something we are unable to take on board psychologically.
Anyway, thanks again for a most enjoyable and stimulating read.
Robert Hutchinson (old friend and former Hudson-Valley neighbor)
I wonder, did you suspect for a fleeting moment that Dr. Koch might not have played you back the same video clip of the black and white ball game you’d just studied and instead on the second run played you a gorilla-modified clip? I immediately suspected such a trick one morning when I was trying out a new pair of cross-country skis on the Old 9W/Jones Point Greenway path above Snake Hole Creek (by which you and I paddled into Iona Marsh, you might recall). Several inches of an early wet snow had fallen the night before, which happened to be Halloween. The snow kept caking to the bottom of my skis, steadily raising me above the road as though I were wearing preposterously elongated platform shoes. Sweating and cursing, I persevered in this absurdity for three-quarters of a mile along the path, stamping and scraping my impedimenta, before slinging the skis over my shoulder in disgust and walking back the way I’d come. Halfway back, I encountered a young man dangling a few feet off the path from a stout rope tied around his neck and slung over the pre-1931 transmission cables visible on the upslope/south side of the road in this photo:
The nape of the neck of his bomber jacket was rucked up past the slip-knot, as though his slumped body had been held upright by another’s hand gripping the jacket as the noose was tightened, and his toes were lightly touching the ground with plenty of play in his bent legs to have stood erect if he were conscious. Filled with a sense of irreality because my ski tracks proved I had fifteen minutes earlier passed within arm’s reach of the space now occupied by the body without remarking it, I seized on the hypothesis that some mischief-maker, after a night of deviltry in the Doodletown cemeteries a short distance upslope, had as an All Hallow’s Morn prank strung up a leftover Halloween mannequin just after I’d passed by on my skis. Testing the mannequin hypothesis by close-up inspection, I recoiled from the perfect verisimilitude of each its wiry black hairs and the corporeal heft of the twist when I prodded its shoulder with the tip of my ski pole. Then I observed that there was no disturbance in the snow apart from my own tracks. A signal instance of Walpurgisnacht presenting itself as the instant negative to broad daylight whenever workaday blinkers are torn off by epistemic violence.
“Mind-Body Problems” is one of my favorite discussions of consciousness out there today—both because of the broad diversity of theories & approaches that it presents, and the keen insights it provides regarding the individual minds behind those theories & approaches. Horgan’s passion for investigating these ideas and his deep curiosity are infectious, and his eye for the important details brings each of his subjects vividly to life.
The book also reveals a truth about consciousness studies that has been a primary motivator behind the work I’ve been doing over the last decade: the lack of a truly unifying theory of mind. As Horgan makes very clear, the absence of a truly unifying theory means that all of the ideas presented by the various thinkers in these essays remain, in some way, on-the-table in the world of consciousness studies. Yet, in reality (because the mind *must* work in one specific way) some of these ideas are undoubtedly “more right” (or closer to that one specific way) than others.
As overly-ambitious (or simply insane) as it sounds, the goal of my work has been to develop just such a unifying theory—a comprehensive model of consciousness & behavior that can help us to concretely sort out exactly which of these ideas are “more right” than the others. As unlikely as it sounds, I believe that I have, indeed, developed such a theory. And in the eyes of that theory, the clearly “most right” of all the book’s thinkers & ideas is the brilliant Douglas Hofstadter & his Strange Loop.
After reading “Mind-Body Problems” I decided to reach out to Hofstadter and share my theory (which I’ve laid out in a book of essays and dubbed “Narrative Complexity”). My hope is that by sharing some of his response, it might help to persuade my fellow consciousness junkies that “Narrative Complexity” is a theory that is genuinely worth examining further:
What I can say as a result of about an hour’s perusing is that it seems to be a very good book, filled with excellent examples and careful analyses of what perception and experience and consciousness are, and with good discussions of “free” will and determinism and such things. It correctly highlights the central role of emotions in what we call “consciousness”, and it deftly deflates the challenges of qualia and of Dave Chalmers’ “hard problem”… So all in all, I think you have written an important and fascinating book. — Douglas Hofstadter
Hofstadter offered to meet up to discuss his Strange Loop & Narrative Complexity, so I traveled to Bloomington, we had dinner, and talked consciousness for about 3 hours. After our discussion, he offered to send an email about my work to David Chalmers and Daniel Dennett (a very generous & validating gesture). I’m not particularly hopeful that they’ll actually get around to reading my book (they’re obviously very high profile/in demand individuals). But, nonetheless, being able to type that previous sentence has bolstered both my belief in the work’s value and my sense of urgency in finally getting it out there. And even if Chalmers and Dennett don’t read it right now, you (whoever might be reading this) can begin exploring the theory anytime you want right here (and reading the whole book should make an even more convincing case for its value than a perusal):
Although I understand that you might also fly Horgan’s flag of “we’ll probably never know, so finding *the* theory isn’t going to happen”—what I’m trying to get across here is that this isn’t “just another theory.” And the unlikeliness of such a theory emerging doesn’t *actually* preclude it from being possible.
Consider the unlikeliness of this: I have no formal academic or professional training in brain or behavioral science (I last set foot in a classroom in Spring ‘92). I have taught myself about the brain and developed a comprehensive model of consciousness & behavior working entirely alone over the last 10 years (mostly in the wee hours, after days occupied as a full-time stay-at-home dad) using just an Internet connection, Google Scholar, an Amazon Kindle account, a big roll of butcher paper & a pile of sharpies (white board sessions have to be erased or saved with tiny pictures on your phone).
We are already in the territory of the deeply unlikely here. And I promise that anyone who reads the book will understand that we are also in the territory of the deeply useful. Narrative Complexity is the kind of truly comprehensive theory of mind & behavior that can allow us to finally bring the messy outlay of myriad mind-body approaches into some kind of practical, applicable order.
Someone like Christof Koch, for all his brilliance & insight, cannot hope to use his model of consciousness to do something like help explain to an anorexic how their brain is betraying them, and how they might use the parts of their brain that are still their allies to battle the dysfunction. Theories like Koch’s cannot tell the story of how emotions—our most vital behavioral generators—evolved from the earliest vertebrates’ simple pain/pleasure mechanics into that complex array of feelings that define our experience, nor can they explain how those emotions interact with our action-decisions, cognition & memories. In contrast, Narrative Complexity tells that story, explains those mechanics, and applies its model of mind to a broad array of specifically-defined, familiar behaviors & behavioral dysfunctions (like anorexia)—while also being able to illuminate more abstract matters like why the Hard Problem doesn’t really exist, and how our Internal Dialogue Loop (a version of a Hofstadter Strange Loop) drives our consciousness.
I’ve read *a lot* of brain & behavioral theory over my last decade of researching & theorizing, and I have encountered nothing else that approaches the scope & applicability (& plausibility) of this theory in terms of explaining behavior & experience. (And its mechanisms are strongly supported by the latest neuroscience.) Horgan’s blog has rightly lamented the individual & societal costs from the absence of a truly useful theory of mind, and it only makes sense that anyone interested in addressing such an absence (like you, whoever has read all the way to the end of this) would find would it important to investigate & share such a theory if one actually emerged. Right? This work could help a lot of people—I am certain of that.
John, Your entire book is asking the question you first state in the introduction as: “What is the self, this… thing that each of us possesses, that supposedly exercises free will.” There now appears to be an emerging expert consensus around “Representational Qualia Theory” which provides the following scientifically verifiable answer to what your book is asking: “Intentionality, free will, intersubjectivity, self-awareness, desire, love, spirits… indeed consciousness itself, are all computational bound elemental qualities like redness and greenness.”
The only disagreement is about the nature of qualia. Some are predicting it could be “substance dualism” and currently more (see the numbers by the camps) are predicting it is “mind brain identity”. Everyone, even Dennett’s camp, is finally agreeing that “Representational Qualia Theory” is a way to experimentally verify which of all these is correct. Once we stop being “qualia blind” and start distinguishing between reality and knowledge of reality (color is a quality of knowledge) we will be able to connect the qualitative subjective with the abstract objective. Once we do this, we’ll be able to eff the ineffable nature of qualia and all the what you call in your book “weirdness” is no longer weird.
Free will or not?
First off, thanks for a lucid and entertaining read, written in an engaging way that really befits the topic of subjectivity.
I come at the mind-body problem through philosophy and especially Spinoza, whose work made sense of it all for me in grad school, or perhaps it was just the illusion of sense. Either way, I can see Spinoza as a hidden red thread in the book – embraced by some of the interview subjects, and a kind of foil for the author who explicitly does not want to abandon the concept of free will.
This is understandable, for the usual reading of Spinoza in history of thought does place him at the far end of one pole running from determinism to free will. Infamously, Spinoza wrote that “what they call free will consists only in this – that they are ignorant of the causes by which they are determined.” In his world-view, free will was the price to pay for clarity on the problem – and that price may seem too high for some.
But this rests on a common misreading, I think. At the time, Spinoza really wrote directly against Descartes and has to be understood in that context. Descartes’ philosophy was trying to uphold a Christian doctrine where free will is essential and Spinoza’s heretical project was to show that this world-view really is an inside-out view of reality.
Descartes argued that because the mind is free (he supposed), it is primary to the body – mind over matter. Materialist science has long since turned this around, viewing the body as primary and mind as some kind of epiphenomenal effect. The radical crux of Spinoza, on the other hand, is that mind and body are two sides of the same reality. There is no causation, which requires one to be reducible to the other, and there is also no dualism with mysterious correspondence because mind and body co-exist in the same reality.
The experience John describes as his childhood memory of the mind-body problem would for Spinoza not be a weird anomaly but a basic feature of human experience – you experience your body and your thought of that body simultaneously. This ambivalence or ambiguity is intrinsic to being human because you are both mind and body at the same time. In this sense, there is no mind-body problem in Spinoza at all – it’s only a problem if you demand causation between them.
In a sense, it would make more sense to speak of a mind problem, for the peculiarity of the mind is that it’s not one like the body is. If you hit your knee on the coffee table, your knee is bruised and you also have, instantaneously, a basic idea of this – “fuck, that hurts” – which can developed into a range of more or less self-conscious ideas – “my knee again!” – “what if I can’t run the race next weekend?” – “why didn’t I throw out the fucking table like my wife said” – “why am I such a goddamn klutz” etc etc. The mind can be multiple – for Spinoza, to have an idea of your body means you can also have an idea of the idea of your body, and this is what we would call self-consciousness, which can go all the way to meta.
So what Spinoza calls an idea of the mind in the basic sense is what many today would call a feeling. In a way, a feeling is an example of something that is simultaneously physical and mental, that ’traverses’ the mind-body problem. And the mental side of a feeling can be flipped back and forth in the mind into more or less (often less) rational ideas. Daniel Kahneman’s popularized notion that we have a two-track fast intuitive vs a slow conscious mind running alongside each other is fully consonant with Spinoza.
The central insight of Spinoza is that your mind is affected by other minds in the same way that your body is affected by other bodies. Your thoughts when you hurt yourself are not ‘free’ in this sense, they are affected by your ideas of the race next weekend, your wife’s demands and your own self-image, etc etc. That’s why all your thoughts are ‘determined’ for Spinoza. Not pre-determined – which is something very different – but shaped and affected by other thoughts, just like your body is conditioned by all the physical bodies that affect it, from the miles you walk and the stairs you climb to the goddamn coffee table you bump into. Your body is not free either, like the mind, it cannot not be conditioned by something. So when Descartes equates free will with the mind, Spinoza laughs and says – no, that just means you are ignorant of what makes you think that way.
But does that mean there is no free will in Spinoza? Not really, for there is something else in the picture. What animates your mind and your body is what Spinoza calls ‘conatus’, a Latin concept that resembles the soul, though not quite like the Christian soul. Your conatus is your striving to exist, which for Spinoza is your essence, and this striving can mean more than a Darwinian survival instinct. Your conatus is your inner drive or your motivation.
I do experience myself as truly having free will in some important ways, as John also describes well. But this freedom does not come out in banal decision-making between cereal brands but in life situations where a lot is at stake, that is, when my motivation or drive is heightened, my conatus engaged. In these situations, especially when I look back on them, I cannot reduce my sense of freedom to my ignorance and it also does not feel like my will is reducible to my mind. The link between the mind and the will seems like a category mistake.
But of course this means smuggling the soul back into the picture and that may be an even worse option to a scientifically minded person. And I would add – reading John’s book opened the problem up to a degree of complexity that I admit – freely or not – may not be resolved by a 17th century heretic in Amsterdam.
Your book makes me feel so much less alone, knowing that all of the souls depicted therein (yourself included) are perplexed by the same questions and longings that taunt me as well. Your candor is especially wonderful and I thank you for all of it.
After reading chapter two describing your visit to Hofstadter, I felt compelled to send you my own (rather sophomoric) articulation of the idea of the recursive conundrum in the attached video. I’m also sending a few of my paintings, including ‘Witnessing The Dream State,’ which deals with ‘lucid dreaming’.
As a lucid dreamer I find that upon waking from such I am forced to ask that if I am able to construct a reality in a dream state that is so intensely and vividly real, then what does that say about ‘our’ so called ‘consensual reality’? It, too, must be a dream to which I continually return perhaps as a result of the ‘gravitational pull’ of a personal narrative. This implies that I am alone, dreaming all of this. And the pain of this loneliness is not mine, but God’s, for it’s not so much that God fears His own death as it is His continual struggle to hide from His inescapable loneliness, His infinite solitude. If God is omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent then there is nothing that is not God (myself included)…and how lonely is that? And the reason for this manifestation? To escape this horror. In particular the human discord I see all around me is only God’s greatest attempt to create the sense of ‘other’ to assuage this loneliness. The excruciating and seemingly inescapable loneliness that I, myself, have always sensed is only God failing at His attempt and seeing behind the curtain.
Perhaps Rebecca Goldstein’s observation that she’s the happiest when lost in a project points to the most meaningful way to deal with the mind/body problem. And Gödel’s Theorem is pointing us in that same direction in that the level of mind that creates the problem is incapable of solving it. As I understand it, Einstein said something similar when he opined that ‘No problem can be solved by the same level of consciousness that created it’. The ‘answer’ is, therefore, not going to be realized through intellectual comprehension, for it’s the intellect that creates the problem to begin with (which is why zen koans are meant to frustrate the rational mind of course), but rather through a ‘realization’ that transcends (but includes [ala Ken Wilber]) the intellect. The ‘answer’ should be available to all humans, not just those intellectually gifted enough to comprehend intensely complex logical arguments.
But back to Goldstein’s observation. The problem is the ‘self (the strange loop that seems to define neurosis)’, and in transcending that ‘self’ the whole nasty problem seems to disappear. Perhaps Goldstein was getting at this with her observation. Pursuing an endeavor (whatever it might be, depending on one’s biochemical predisposition [for me it’s painting, sculpture, ragtime guitar, sleight-of-hand magic et al] ) that marries us so entirely to the present moment, elevates us beyond the past and future and ‘the self’ along with them. Everyone experiences this at one time or another when lost in something that engages them completely. All of a sudden it’s three o’clock in the morning and we’ve forgotten to eat dinner! With the disappearance of the self during that span comes the joy, peace, certainty and…perhaps even love…that we’re all in search of. Joseph Campbell’s admonition to ‘follow your bliss’ points in this same direction and for the very same reason. Could it be that ‘the wide way that leads to destruction’ that Jesus of Nazareth spoke of is ‘the past’ and ‘the future’ and ‘the narrow gate that leads to righteousness’ is the present moment? I wonder. I know that when I’m lost in either of those realms I’m either anxious (the future) or depressed (the past). And when I’m totally and completely absorbed in the present I am ‘in Heaven’. The problem seems to be that the thinking ‘rational’ mind is creating problems that do not exist in reality. It is operating beyond its intended function. Goldstein’s observation then becomes the solution, to quiet the mind by engaging in what you are biochemically predisposed toward. And this, the attainment of this quiet mind, is the prescription of every mystic and spiritual master from every where and every when. Furthermore, Einstein told us that time stands still when we arrive at the speed of light. Well, we are going at the speed of light, what else? It’s obvious that this is so in that it’s always NOW which is, in itself, timeless. The speed of light then is not a physical attainment but a spiritual realization!! And, in this way, and for this reason, now IS ‘the narrow gate’!
We were created by ‘God’, with certain biochemical predispositions to be one thing or another. And it’s my opinion that for us to discover what these are in our own life requires us to notice when these relaxing, engaging ‘loss of time events’ occur in our lives (once again Campbell’s admonition). The peace that transpires at such times is evidence that we are doing what it is we were ‘designed’ to do. Dare I say that we are performing ‘God’s will’ in such moments? There’s an old mystical bromide that says (God speaking) ‘Be what I want you to be and I will let you be what you want to be’. And, as it turns out, both God and I want the same thing; for me to be myself. And I both become and transcend myself in the same instant; when lost in that present moment bliss that occurs when I am doing what I am biochemically predisposed to or created for. But enough. [For more on David Poleski’s art see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H5OAPcmJJDQ.]
Excellent book. Thank you for putting it out there for free: improving my welfare substantially, especially for someone who supports capital market liberalism as the “best way forward.”
I fully agree that we should strive for the freedom, more than the capital, that comes from liberalism. I do however think – and have experienced – the downside of misconceptions (?) about freedom (where does my freedom end and where does the next person’s begin?). Hence, I very much see the value in institutions that perhaps ‘limit’ individual freedoms in favor of increased social / universal freedoms. It is a complicated and fine balance, of course. But not one we should ignore.
Environmental conservation / climate change is a very good example of this. Deirdre McClosky (and perhaps you) believes that if we provide enough freedom, we will come up with technological fixes – and perhaps this may be true. However, will we get to these fixes before the damage is too large? Or rather: will people want and care to use these fixes? And, more importantly, who will be impacted most? We know the processes causing the problem are almost entirely unnecessary (as in, there are better ways of doing things already – we already have the solutions, some just don’t want to do them). Isn’t it in our best social interest to “guide” individual freedoms towards better outcomes? This, by definition, means limiting freedoms. (Think about a child who is limited by parents’ because he doesn’t know any better or care for that matter.)
I agree with many of your points, and really want to delve more into others (e.g. the use of psychedelics to understand the ‘mind-body problem’). On that note, I would like to know more on your thoughts / research on the issue of psychedelics.
I would like to pose another view: could there be a complementary approach? That there are several plausible answers to the mind-body problem(s) – physical, quantum, ethereal, psychological – that in conjunction have impact and influence each other, hence producing different outcomes (and that make it difficult to ‘prove’)?
Somewhat like observation bias, let’s call it ‘genetic experiential bias’ – for lack of a better term (or for lack of my knowledge on a better term) – where our genetic composition and experiences cause the interaction of neurological, psychological, biological, ethereal, etc. processes to be skewed in a non-random manner, leading to potentially understandable (but not equal) results?
I think our limitations with explaining the mind-body problem come from wanting to use a single lens to come to a single answer. By combining lenses we come to many plausible answers – not just individual stories. At the same time, those lenses probably shift as we gain new experiences. Thank you again.
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.
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.
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.]
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.
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.
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: http://cns-alumni.bu.edu/~slehar/. [See also Evgenii Rudnyi’s review, in Russian, of Mind-Body Problems.]
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.
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 Naturalism.org
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 🙂
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. https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/460003928
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: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/477197339
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: https://socraticgadfly.blogspot.com/2015/11/a-la-samuel-johnson-i-refute.html
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.” https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/484487180
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
- The relationship between knowledge and consciousness.
- The relationship of consciousness at a very minute level, and when these contribute to a big structure how it contributes or gets ignored.
- 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.
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” . 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!
 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 the second derivative of this function.