Wrap-Up: So What?

I once pitched story ideas to the editor-in-chief of a science magazine over lunch. After obligatory industry gossip, I served up my best story. Scientists have discovered single neurons that respond to images of famous individuals, like Bill Clinton and Sylvester Stallone.

So what? the editor asked.

Scientists find these cells in a dramatic way, I said. They experiment on epileptics who have had electrodes implanted in their brains to locate the seizures. After getting permission from the epileptics and their families, the researchers insert extra electrodes that can detect signals from single brain cells. They show patients images of their favorite celebrities to see if any individual neurons fire. The researchers will let me watch them experiment on a young, epileptic man who has wires running from his head to recording equipment.

So what? the editor asked.

This research, I said, addresses a huge question, how brain cells represent the world, and it is reviving an old, supposedly discredited idea, the grandmother-cell hypothesis, that specific cells are dedicated to specific things, like your grandma. The research suggests that single cells can do a lot of sophisticated signal processing. Each cell is more like a computer than a simple transistor or switch.

So what? the editor asked, taking another bite of his tuna salad or whatever the hell he was eating.

This story, I said, is a little piece of the mind-body problem, the deepest mystery in science, and if that’s not enough for you, I don’t know what else to tell you. The editor dabbed his mouth with his napkin and said he’d get back to me. Did I have any other stories?

The editor loved playing this game with writers, to put them in their place. I wanted to say, So what? So you can publish something interesting in your rag for a change, so you don’t keep hemorrhaging subscribers and get your ass fired, that’s what, Steve.1Steve eventually accepted my pitch, and I wrote the article for the June 2005 issue of Discover. In 2013 I posted an edited version on my Scientific American blog under the title, “Can a Single Brain Cell ‘Think’?

But Steve was just doing his job. Readers as well as editors are entitled to ask an author, So what? I certainly ask that question when someone sends me a science-y book to review. If I’m in a hurry—and I’m always in a hurry—I skim the introduction and jump to the last chapter to see where the author ends up. It’s annoying when the conclusions are so dense and detailed or lyrical and airy-fairy that the point is obscure. As I turn to the final page I think, Give me your punch-line, man! Tell me your point! Now or never!

If you’ve read the previous chapters, I hope you’re not still asking, So what? But maybe you are. Maybe my oblique, case-study approach to my topic left you with unanswered questions. Or maybe you haven’t read the book yet, and you’ve skipped ahead to see where I end up. So in the following Q&A I’ll pretend to be an obnoxious, skeptical journalist (not exactly a stretch) interrogating an earnest, grandiose author (ditto) about his new book.

Q: I’ve read your book, skimmed it, most of it, at least half, and I’m still not sure I get your point. Give me your sound-bite.

A: My book is about the central mystery of existence, the mind-body problem. In a narrow, technical sense, the mind-body problem asks how matter generates mind, but it’s really about what we are, can be and should be, individually and as a species. For thousands of years, prophets, poets and philosophers have told us stories about who we really are, but these stories are all over the place, they conflict with each other, and we have no way to decide which one is true, it just comes down to personal preference, or taste. I like Christianity, you’re into neo-Platonism. Now science is converging on a definitive, objectively true solution to the mind-body problem, backed up by hard empirical evidence, or so some science enthusiasts claim. I argue that they’re wrong. Science has told us a lot about our minds and bodies, but in the end it’s just giving us more stories that we choose for subjective reasons, because we find them consoling, or beautiful, or meaningful. Science will never discover an objectively true solution to the mind-body problem, which tells all of us once and for all who we are and should be, because that solution doesn’t exist. But…

Q: Isn’t this the same pessimistic message you’ve been peddling for decades?

A: Yes, I mean no, it’s…

Q: Even if it’s true, who wants to hear it? It’s depressing.

A: No, it’s not! The message of my new book is exhilarating, and liberating. If science can’t solve the mind-body problem, 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’ve never said this before, because I only realized it recently.

Q: Same old product, glossy new wrapping. Explain your title. Why didn’t you just call your book The Mind-Body Problem?

A: Because there are lots of mind-body problems, like consciousness, the self, free will, our sense of right and wrong, the meaning of life. Also we all face our own private version of the mind-body problem, because we all have different minds and bodies and lives, so we have to find our own solutions. You might say there are as many mind-body problems and solutions as there are individuals. Hence, Mind-Body Problems, with an s.

Q: You might say that, I wouldn’t. Your definition of the mind-body problem seems awfully baggy. Do experts agree with it?

A: Well, as my book shows, mind-body experts don’t agree on much. Some won’t like my definition of the mind-body problem because it mixes is and ought. It lumps questions about what we are and can be with questions about what we should be. But in the real world, is and can and ought are all tangled up with each other, and so are all the parts of the mind-body problem. Science always ends up telling us what we should do, if only implicitly.

Q: Really? Give me examples.

A: Sure. Neuroscience supposedly shows that mental illness is really biochemical and can be successfully treated with drugs, so that’s how it should be seen and treated. Evolutionary biology supposedly shows that males are innately more competitive than females, and better at abstract thinking, so we should accept male domination of math and engineering.

Q: Come on, no scientists say that.

A: Yes they do! Here’s another example. A neuroscientist I interviewed for my book, Christof Koch, says we can enhance our cognitive abilities with brain implants, so that’s what we should do. My point is that when it comes to the mind-body problem, there’s no clear line between is, can and ought. Our ideas about consciousness affect our ideas about the self and free will, which in turn affect how we think about morality and the meaning of life. That’s why I treat the mind-body problem as one big knotty mystery.

Q: So it’s lots of problems, and it’s one problem. Got it. Why didn’t you just lay out your argument in a straightforward way? Why dwell so much on the personal lives of Christof Koch, Alison Gopnik and other experts you interview? You even dig into their sex lives!

A: Right. My claim is that our supposedly rational, objective views of the mind-body problem are invariably affected by subjective factors, by our fears and desires, by what we find beautiful or consoling, and by good and bad things that happen to us. Rather than just state this argument in an abstract way, I thought it would be more interesting, and appropriate, to dramatize it by telling the stories of mind-body experts who’ve undergone some sort of identity crisis. Incredibly, I found nine experts who met this criterion and agreed to talk to me about their private lives. Sex came up in some interviews because it is a fundamental part of our identities. Also, I admit, I am a little nosy. I’m curious how people who think about life for a living cope with life.

Q: Some don’t cope that well, from what I’ve read. Are you worried how your subjects are going to react to your book? 

A: I’m a little worried. But I disagree that my subjects haven’t coped that well. I think they’ve done extraordinarily well, especially considering what some of them have endured.

Q: That’s nice. But I bet they won’t like you saying that neither they nor anyone else can figure out how the mind works. You’re a mysterian, aren’t you? One of those guys who says science can’t explain the mind?

A: Not really. Mysterians say we can’t solve consciousness, the hard problem. I’m saying there are lots of possible solutions to consciousness and other mind-body mysteries. Experts disagree about which ones are best, and they choose solutions that work for them, that help them make sense of their lives. So non-experts should feel free to do the same. I’m really a pragmatist. Whatever works, works.

Q: You mean, anything goes. What if I’m into young-earth creationism, or patriarchy, or white supremacy, or all the above? Is that cool with you?

A: Look. I have my own beliefs, which I think are conducive to human flourishing and compatible with science. I’d be thrilled if more people shared my views. But my book celebrates human diversity, including diversity of belief and behavior. In my ideal world, you are free to believe anything you like, and to persuade others to share your beliefs. You just can’t force your beliefs on others.

Q: Wait, we already have the freedom you’re so generously giving us. In our country you can believe any crazy crap you like and blab about it on Facebook.

A: You’re right. An advantage of the system I’m advocating is that it already exists. Liberal democracies like the U.S. give people freedom of belief and speech, and that’s as it should be. But we can’t take that freedom for granted, because lots of people think we’re too free. They think they possess the one, true answer to the mind-body problem, and they want everyone else to accept it, too. I’m not just talking about religious fanatics. Some scientists insist we’re nothing but matter, a pack of neurons and genes, and they say you’re a fool if you believe in God, souls and free will. This claim is unjustified, it gives science more authority than it deserves. I’m worried about dogmatism in all forms. In the past science has inspired lethal ideologies, like social Darwinism and eugenics and Soviet-style communism. Scientists should be more modest and humble in their claims.

Q: You don’t sound very modest or humble when you tell scientists what to do.

A: Yeah, I get that. I once interviewed Karl Popper, who spent his career denouncing dogmatism in science and politics. When I said that some philosophers accused him of being dogmatic, Popper pounded the table and said his critics were wrong! Advocating skepticism can be tricky. Skeptics are always vulnerable to the charge of self-contradiction, and even hypocrisy. I like to think of my skeptical stance as a paradox, not a contradiction.

Q: I’m skeptical of your skepticism. Look how fast neuroscience and genetics have been advancing lately. A solution to the mind-body problem could be right around the corner.

A: At some point neuroscience and genetics might have a big payoff, like better treatments for mental illness. But physiological theories can’t solve the problems of consciousness, or free will, they can’t solve our ethical dilemmas, or tell us what makes life worth living. Ideally, this research, rather than converging on a single solution to the mind-body problem, will give us more solutions, more options, more ways to see ourselves and be ourselves.

Q: What about artificial intelligence, and the Singularity? Aren’t we all about to turn into cyborgs? Maybe then we’ll be smart enough to figure ourselves out.

A: AI is prone to boom-bust cycles. Right now it’s going through a boom, which is generating tremendous hype. I’m not worried about humans fusing with machines, or machines taking over the world. I am worried about wealthy, powerful humans using machines to gain even more wealth and power and diminish the freedom of the rest of us. I’m hoping our democracy is up to that challenge.

Q: Isn’t it possible that someday a genius will come along who can solve the mind-body problem? 

A: I call this the myth of the scientific savior. I can imagine, all too easily, some charismatic figure, an unholy hybrid of Buddha, Marx, Darwin, Freud, Einstein and L. Ron Hubbard, convincing us that he—it will almost certainly be a he, because we prefer saviors with penises—he has solved the mind-body problem. He knows who we really are and should be. Intellectuals will hail this event as the culmination of the Enlightenment, but actually it will be the opposite, it will be the beginning of a new dark age, because it will mean that our desire for certainty has extinguished our doubt and creativity and desire for freedom. All messiahs are false messiahs. 

Q: Okay, calm down. Let’s say I buy your argument about the mind-body problem. So what? Why does it matter? 

A: Great question. Let’s imagine, as an admittedly far-fetched thought experiment, that everyone reads my book and finds my argument persuasive. How will things change? First of all, scientists and non-scientists alike would give up the idea that there is one true way to see ourselves, and be ourselves. You might like psychedelic quantum anarchy, or Darwinian Buddhism, or a Christianized version of transhumanism, but you don’t insist that everyone shares your preference, because you accept that it is based on taste as much as truth. We all become more tolerant of each other, and more compassionate and kind, because we realize that life is hard for everyone, everyone is struggling to make sense of it, to find a little happiness. Also, when we weigh which way to go collectively, as a species, we will choose paths that give us more choices, more ways to live, to explore and create ourselves. And finally, everyone will see how weird our existence is, and how inadequate language is for explaining it. We are infinitely improbable, there is no reason for us to be here, and yet here we are. If you’re religious, or even if you’re not, you might call our existence a miracle, for which we should be profoundly grateful. So if everyone reads my book and agrees with it, humanity will be more free, kind, peaceful and happy.

Q: What were you saying before about messiahs?

* * * * *

This book, to be honest, feels incomplete. I keep thinking of Douglas Hofstadter’s comparison of his ideas to shells he discovers while strolling along the beach of Platonic forms. He unburies them and brushes the sand off them so he, and we, can appreciate them. Pardon the grandiosity, but I feel as though I have brushed the sand off the tip of a structure that remains largely buried, like an ancient obelisk inscribed with runes.2It’s quite possible that others explored the theme of this book long ago and moved on after deciding it wasn’t that compelling. Scholarly “friends” often inform me I’ve “discovered” ideas considered by Aristotle or some other old smarty-pants. The upside of my vast ignorance of the scholarly literature is that I often feel the excitement of venturing into uncharted territory. The downside is that I look like an idiot to those truly knowledgeable about the history of ideas. If you are aware of writings that defend or criticize themes similar to mine, please let me know and I’ll post the information in “Discussion.”

My own life, as much as anything, convinces me that science cannot pin us down. At 20 I was living in a pup tent in a mangrove swamp in the Florida Keys, eating coconuts, conch and windowpane. At 40 I was a full-time staff writer for Scientific American, married, with a newborn son, commuting to New York City from a hamlet north of New York City. Now I am divorced, with a grown son and daughter. I live alone and teach at a school in Hoboken, New Jersey.

Rebecca Goldstein, or her alter ego Renee Feuer, created the mattering map to emphasize all the different things that make life worth living for different people. You can make the same point by looking at a single life, or even a single day in a single life. Here are things I did that mattered to me on a recent day. Lie in bed beside Emily while she raves about a novel whose heroine falls in love with a sweet, sexy merman. Talk to my daughter over the phone about her plan to fly to Finland to get the hell out of this crazy country. Listen to my students argue about whether college is helping them escape the cave or pushing them deeper inside, and whether knowing you’re in the cave is sort of like escaping.

To be human means to shape-shift, to swerve, to cross in ways small and big, on scales long and short. Right now, as you read these words, your brain is re-wiring itself. Synapses are strengthening and weakening, dissolving and reforming. When I think about neuroplasticity, I envision my brain as a mass of squirming worms. No wonder Buddha and Douglas Hofstadter say the self is an illusion. This book was crowd-sourced. And yet. Something within us endures in spite of our never-ending changes.

When I was a child, I wrote stories about people fleeing dinosaurs. I’m still writing stories. My writing self has gradually subsumed my other selves, which means I’m always meta, standing a little apart from myself and others, and that’s okay. Writing works for me. Writing didn’t resolve my life-long identity crisis, it monetized it. As I finished this book my father had a stroke. He struggles to speak and understand others, he gets frustrated, but he is still the same cheerful, indomitable, loving man, he is still my father.

My father and me at my college graduation in 1982. I’m pretty sure he was even happier than I was.

There is no essence and there is. Each of us is unique and a synecdoche for all. We’re all in this together, we’re all alone. Like super-heated plasmas, we squirt out of every bottle we construct to contain ourselves. Not even a single person can be captured by a single mind-body story, let alone all humanity. Every story, no matter how compelling, misses something. And yet we need stories to escape the prison of ourselves, to see the world through others’ eyes, however dimly.

You have many stories from which to choose. Perhaps you’re in the mood for a novel about a young, female philosopher obsessed with the mind-body problem. You might prefer a nonfiction treatise that depicts babies as mini-Platos deducing the world, or that explains our best and worst impulses with evolutionary biology and game theory. Maybe you’d like a memoir that transports you into the mind of a law student suffering a psychotic breakdown, or a middle-aged male economist who realizes he is a woman.

You might go with an oldie but goody, like Portrait of a Lady or Varieties of Religious Experience. The story could be a sculpture, a giant marionette being jerked around by chains to the soundtrack of When a Man Loves a Woman. It could be an implanted optogenetic array that triggers feelings of mystical oneness by stimulating your temporal lobe while simultaneously generating a real-time, three-dimensional, virtual-reality simulation of your brain so you can swoop through the illuminated neural circuits underpinning your self-transcendence. The story could be a technical and legal argument that neural implants should be banned because they will always be vulnerable to hackers, including those working for governments and corporations.

The story could be a work of journalism about men and women who are obsessed with the mind-body problem and try to explain it in different ways, which reflect their temperaments, tastes and troubles. The book’s premise would be that no one can tell you who you really are, you have to figure that out for yourself, and there isn’t one story of humanity, there are multitudes of stories, which can be told in all the ways above and others yet to be imagined.

* * * * *

It was the last day of the 2016 “Science of Consciousness” conference in Tucson. I had already done what I came to do. I had interviewed Alison Gopnik and Stuart Kauffman and listened to their public lectures. I had taken notes on other talks about consciousness, and given my own talk. As the day wore on, my mood and energy flagged. I perked up for a lecture in the cavernous Kiva Ballroom by Robin Carhart-Harris, who talked about “Brain Imaging Studies with Psychedelics.” He seemed perfectly cast for the role of psychedelic investigator. Young, bearded, British, earnest, trained in psychoanalysis.

LSD and psilocybin, which resemble our natural neurotransmitters, are powerful tools for exploring the conscious and unconscious mind, Carhart-Harris said. He gives these drugs to subjects and records their subjective impressions while scanning their brains with fMRI and other imaging methods. Psychedelics boost crosstalk between different neural regions, and as this “global integration” increases, so does “ego dissolution,” often accompanied by bliss. Our sense of ourselves as distinct individuals, separate from the rest of the world, diminishes. Our sense of “oneness,” Freud’s “oceanic feeling,” grows.

Echoing Gopnik, who spoke before him, Carhart-Harris conjectured that psychedelics return us to childhood, before our frontal cortices, belief systems and egos have congealed. He quoted Wordsworth: “Heaven lies all about us in our infancy!/Shades of the prison house begin to close upon the growing boy.” I found Carhart-Harris’s lecture intriguing but dispiriting. I am in the prison house. I can’t see the splendor in the grass, the glory in the flower.

I also had a split reaction to the lecture of an Asian neuroscientist, Jimo Borjigin, doing research on near-death experiences. Why do people often experience extravagant, heavenly visions during near-death experiences? What’s going on in their brains? Borjigin can’t experiment on dying humans, so she poisons and asphyxiates rats. Dying rats’ brains show a surge of neural activity and dimethyltryptamine, a psychedelic that occurs naturally in trace amounts in the brain. Part of me was impressed with her findings, which corroborate speculation that DMT plays a role in near-death experiences. Another part felt sorry for the rats, sacrificed to satisfy humans’ craving for self-knowledge.

My mood sank further during a physiologist’s lecture on a French guru who emits some kind of mystical light. Cameras can’t detect the light, but the physiologist and others who sit in his presence can. The light emanating from the guru can be white or colored. It becomes brighter in a brightly lit room and fainter in a dark room. It is attenuated by double-glazed glass…

I walked out halfway through the talk. I sat in the lobby of the conference resort, notebook in my lap, contemplating the infinitude of human folly. I was wiped out, mentally and physically. I was ready to skip the “End-of-Consciousness Party” that night and hole up in my hotel room. I would eat a room-service burger and watch vintage Star Trek episodes on my laptop.

Then two young philosophers I knew slightly, male and female, strolled by and asked if I would like to join them for dinner. I said sure. We ended up at a crowded, raucous table with several other youngish mind-explorers and a white-haired psychologist. I ranted to my fellow geezer about my encounter with two guys who claimed they could bend spoons telekinetically. The psychologist said he once bent a spoon. He seemed like a genial, intelligent fellow, so I decided to believe him, or to believe that he believed. I remained unfazed even when he confessed that he believed in astrology. Life is hard, I thought, we’re all entitled to a woo belief or two.

After dinner, I headed with a few tablemates back to the Kiva Ballroom for the “End-of-Consciousness Party.” I sat at a table beside the dance floor with the two young philosophers who had invited me to dinner. We talked about psychedelics, mysticism and God. One confessed her suspicion, inspired by Hindu theology, that God creates the world because he gets bored and lonely. I told her I had the same suspicion. As often happens when I talk to young people, I started feeling better about humanity’s future.

The ballroom was packed when a lithe woman in a white suit with bare midriff and long platinum hair strode onto the stage trailed by four guys in white turtlenecks. Dorian Electra and the Electrodes, our evening’s entertainment. As Dorian took command of center stage, one Electrode planted himself behind a drum set and another behind a keyboard, and two strapped on guitars.

Dorian spotted Stuart Hameroff, who has been organizing these conferences and plugging his quantum-consciousness theories since 1994. Dorian pointed a long, thin finger at Hameroff and yelled, “Stuart, I solved the mind-body problem, so you don’t have to have this conference any more!” Guitars, drums and keyboard pounded, and Dorian growled:

Got my mind on your body and your body on my mind.
It’s a mind-body problem will we solve it in time?
And everybody thinks that you’re fine. But I know there’s a problem, press your body to mine.
Ooo Oo
Press your body to mine
Ooo Oo
Press your body to mine

I don’t know nothin’ bout the heart and the soul
The mind and body and what we control
And can’t help it well my mind knows it true
My body’s calling when I’m next to you

She was a caterwauling witch, undulating across the stage, snarling, shrieking, purring. People swarmed onto the dance floor wriggling and writhing. The song over, Dorian shouted, “That’s all you need to know, people! Hard problem? It’s solved!”

She started singing White Rabbit, slow at first, then faster and faster. The crowd went nuts as a giant white rabbit strolled across the dance floor. Then Dorian was moaning, “This world, unreal, just like a simulated fantasy…. Brain in a vat, I’m just a brain in a vat,” and the dancers parted for a guy in a white lab coat wheeling a table with three brains in jars.

The White Rabbit makes an appearance at the Tucson consciousness meeting, 2016. Photo: David Chalmers.

Dorian spotted David Chalmers and yelled at him to sing a song. Chalmers, looking groovy as usual in black jeans and jacket, jumped up on the stage and bellowed into a mike. Other than the phrase “quantum computers,” I couldn’t understand him, and that was okay, his message was clear, he is an animal, we’re all animals, we’re bodies, let’s not forget that when we’re agonizing over the damn mind-body problem.

Mind-body explorers old and young were boogying now, my two young philosopher friends, and Chalmers and Hameroff with their mates, and Stuart Kauffman, shaking it with his wife and beaming, no sign of sorrow on his noble, weathered face. They haven’t achieved full ego dissolution, collective consciousness, they haven’t escaped the prison of their minds, they have just forgotten they are in the prison, they are having fun, and that’s sort of like escaping, and as I watched these seekers gyrating and grimacing, affection for them washed over me, washed away all my sadness and doubt, and I felt the borders of my prison cell wobbling. I thought, Yeah, man, consciousness, what a trip. Maybe science and philosophy can’t solve the mind-body problem, but rock ‘n roll can.

Or so I wrote in my notebook.