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 will also post links to mind-body articles by me and other writers. 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.
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.
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.
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.