It is the central mystery of existence, the one toward which all other mysteries converge. Schopenhauer called it the world knot (hence the image above). Descartes often gets credit for posing it first, but Socrates pondered it millennia earlier, as did Buddha and other Eastern sages. I’m talking about the mind-body problem, which encompasses the riddles of consciousness, the self, free will, morality, the meaning of life.
Modern scientists and philosophers often make the mind-body problem seem hopelessly esoteric, a topic only for experts. Hard-core materialists 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. You face it whenever you wonder who you really are.
Long before I heard of it, I was obsessed with the mind-body problem. I touch on it, directly or indirectly, in my previous four books, even The End of War, the epilogue of which is called “In Defense of Free Will.” Writing hasn’t been cathartic. The more I write about the mind-body problem, the more it grips me.
In 2015, after attending a workshop on a weird new theory of consciousness, I started looking at the mind-problem in a new way. Our responses to the mind-body problem will always be emotional as well as rational, a matter of taste as much as truth. We can’t escape our subjectivity when we try to solve the riddle of ourselves. So I conjectured.
I have spent three years fleshing out this perspective in a book, Mind-Body Problems: Science, Subjectivity & Who We Really Are. I explore my thesis by delving into the professional and personal lives of nine mind-body experts. They include: neuroscientist Christof Koch, cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter, child psychologist Alison Gopnik, complexologist Stuart Kauffman, legal scholar and psychoanalyst Elyn Saks, philosopher Owen Flanagan, novelist Rebecca Goldstein, evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers and economist Deirdre McCloskey.
The book is, I admit, odd. It offers my subjective takes on my subjects’ subjective takes on subjectivity. I didn’t want an agent, editor or publisher to second-guess me, so I wrote the book without a contract. I want to be read more than I want to make money, so I posted the book for free this morning at mindbodyproblems.com. I don’t mind making money, so I added a donate button. Publishing online also let me add art, links, audio and video clips and embedded notes.
To provide an overview of the book, in the epilogue I pretend to be an obnoxious, skeptical reporter (not exactly a stretch) interrogating an earnest, grandiose author (ditto). Here is an edited version of that exchange:
Q: I don’t have time to read your book. Give me your sound-bite.
A: My book is about life’s deepest mystery, 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, 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, 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: 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 an example.
A. 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. The neuroscientist 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: 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, Deirdre McCloskey and other experts? 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 I should 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: Just because you can't imagine a solution to the mind-body problem doesn't mean no one can. Someday a genius will come along and solve the mind-body problem once and for all.
A: I call this the myth of the scientific savior. I can imagine, all too easily, some charismatic figure, a 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 else share 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: Good luck with that.
My slightly less megalomaniacal hope is that Mind-Body Problems will start a conversation by provoking reactions from readers. Send corrections, complaints and criticism to me at email@example.com. If your comments meet minimal standards of civility and intelligibility, I’ll post them in my book’s discussion section. Who knows, you might even get me to change my mind, again, about the mind-body problem.
Mind-Body Problems (free online edition, recommended)
Mind-Body Problems (abridged Kindle edition, $5)