Introduction: The Weirdness

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

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

The memory is like an old coin I’ve kept in my pocket since childhood, smoothed by decades of handling. I’m not sure how accurate it is. I’ve forgotten details, like who my companions were. They were probably Tim and Nancy, my best friends, but I can’t be sure. If a mini-drone disguised as a dragonfly had been spying on us, I could check my memory against the video. But the drone couldn’t read my mind, where the real action was.1My “flash memories” are unreliable. In a recent conversation with my sister, I recalled an argument that took place during a big family dinner at her home. She said, What are you talking about? You weren’t there. I was definitely there, I assured her, I had a “flash memory” of the scene. Even now, I could picture her and other family members at the round table in her dining room… Actually, my sister interrupted, the scene took place around a rectangular table in a different room. Only after I called my stepmother, who confirmed my sister’s account, did I realize my brain had constructed a pseudo-memory from stories I had heard about the dinner. My memory’s fallibility disturbs me. I take copious notes, record all my interviews and fact-check obsessively, but I’m haunted by the possibility of self-deception, so much that I called my sister to fact-check my memory of our conversation about my pseudo-memory. She confirmed it.

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

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

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

The mind-body problem is often equated with the problem of consciousness, which philosopher David Chalmers calls “the hard problem.”3Tom Stoppard’s 2015 play The Hard Problem tells the story of a female scientist trying to crack the riddle of consciousness, but it is also about the quest to find morality and meaning in a strictly physical universe. A more accurate title would have been The Mind-Body Problem. Stoppard’s heroine, Hilary, in Venice for a conference on consciousness, rants about the inadequacies of materialism: Materialism is in trouble, and we’re all materialists now. Everything is matter. There is no science that says beauty is truth or truth beauty, but the gondolas are heaving with name-tagged materialists having their minds blown by Venice. What is to be done with the sublime if you’re proud to be a materialist? To save the appearance of value, no theory is too unlikely, no idea too far-out to float so long as it sounds like science—elementary particles with teeny-weeny consciousness; or a cosmos with attitude; or the life of the mind as the software of a biological computer. These are desperate measures, Spike! What does materialism remind you of? It’s a faith. How does a brain, a mere lump of matter—“meat you can eat,” as Douglas Hofstadter puts it—produce subjective experiences like those I have writing these words and you have reading them? When and why did consciousness evolve, and what creatures besides humans possess it? Most people accept that monkeys and dogs are sentient, but what about a trout or bedbug? Are brainless organisms like jellyfish or amoebas aware? Smart phones and other non-living things?

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

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

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

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

Few people outside philosophy and mind-related fields are familiar with the phrase “mind-body problem,” with good reason. Experts make the problem seem dauntingly arcane and remote from everyday concerns. Some insist it is a pseudo-problem, which vanishes once you jettison archaic concepts like “the self” and “free will.” Actually, the mind-body problem is quite real, simple and urgent. We face it whenever we wonder who we really are, can be and should be.4Rebecca Goldstein got me to think about the mind-body problem as the mystery of who we really are, and she also alerted me to Schopenhauer’s phrase “world knot.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then I thought, Hold on, there’s a paradox here. Science is a method for eliminating subjectivity from our perceptions so we see things as they really are, we achieve objectivity, which philosopher Thomas Nagel calls “the view from nowhere.”5Thomas Nagel argued that conventional, materialist science cannot explain reality, including life and consciousness, in his book Mind & Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False, which I reviewed on my blog in 2013. But the mind-body problem is different from other scientific problems, because subjectivity is part of the problem. Subjectivity, you might say, is the problem. Maybe we cannot escape our subjectivity when we contemplate consciousness and other mind-related riddles. When it comes to the mind-body problem, maybe there is no view from nowhere.

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

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

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

* * * * *

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

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

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

I’ll show how my subjects’ intellectual judgments, their convictions about what is true, are entangled with their fears and desires, their feelings about themselves and the world, about life and death, about what is good and beautiful and meaningful, about what really matters. In other books, I’ve dwelled on subjects’ personalities in ways that undermine their credibility. Here I’m ad hominem and ad feminam in the service of empathy and understanding.6Later in this book Stuart Kauffman complains to me that in The End of Science “everybody who disagreed with you had something like snot dribbling from his nose or was a hunchback.” An exaggeration, but I know what he means.

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

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

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

Another perk, which endures, is arguing with Jim about truth. He is an honest-to-god postmodernist, who studied under Thomas Kuhn in the 1970s and was permanently infected by his skeptical outlook. Jim denies that science discovers absolute, objective, permanent truth. He drives me nuts by insisting that natural selection, the genetic code, the atomic theory of matter and the big bang aren’t “discoveries,” and they aren’t “true.” They are inventions, or “stories,” which reflect our culture’s values, and will inevitably yield to different stories.7Jim McClellan studied under Kuhn in the 1970s at Princeton at the same time as Errol Morris, who went on to become an Academy Award-winning documentary-maker. Morris ended up loathing Kuhn, and even blamed him, sort of, for the rise of Donald Trump. See my blog post “Did Thomas Kuhn Help Elect Donald Trump?” For more on Kuhn see also “What Thomas Kuhn Really Thought about Scientific ‘Truth.’”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But if self-help books offer certainty and assurance, this is the opposite of a self-help book. For most of my life, I have assumed that there is a way to look at myself and others that would dispel my feeling of weirdness. Now I’ve come to accept that the weirdness isn’t just in my head, it’s out there.8For more on my feelings about weirdness, see “The Weirdness of Weirdness.” To see ourselves clearly is to see ourselves as wildly improbable and inexplicable. My goal is to get you to be as mystified by the mind-body problem as I am. Because, to answer a question I posed earlier, I am still the same person as that five-year-old boy pushing through weeds and thinking, Huh?

* * * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

NEXT: The Neuroscientist: Beyond the Brain | Chapter One