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John Horgan

Mind-Body Problems

Science, Subjectivity & Who We Really Are

Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence.
Horgan thinks that few apart from professional philosophers are familiar with the phrase "mind–body problem", but it has been a life-long obsession for him, as it has for me. It's interesting that we are both former Catholics; at least in my case awareness of the problem goes back to my late 'teens or early twenties, when I was starting to question the faith in which I had been brought up. Since then I've read practically everything I've come across on the subject and its various allotropes (consciousness, free will, the soul…), although, as Horgan says, much of it is "dauntingly arcane".

Actually, although Catholicism may have something to do with it, the roots of our interest in the mind–body problem probably go further back. Horgan describes an episode in early boyhood which has been important in keeping his preoccupation alive. He writes: "As a young boy I became [suddenly] self-conscious, aware of myself as something weird, distinct from eveything else in the world. I couldn't articulate it 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."

This sounds similar to something that happened to me at about the same age (I must have been six at the time). On at least two occasions I suddenly became terrified by the thought: Why does anything exist? On both occasions I was looking up into the sky. Once was at dusk, in the gloaming (this was in Scotland, where we have a gloaming); the other time it was a blue sky on a sunny cloudless day. The fear was so overwhelming that I avoided looking into the sky for a long time thereafter. It was the sheer mystery of existence that overwhelmed me.

This book was a must-read for me as soon as I heard of it. In fact, however, it's is not primarily about the philosophical aspect of the mind–body problem. As its plural title suggests, its focus is wider than this and really is concerned with the meaning of life, no less. No lack of ambition, then.

Horgan's treatment of his subject is similar to what he used in the two books I've reviewed here previously (see the authors' list); it's largely based on nine extended interviews with important thinkers in their fields, which include neuroscience, philosophy, evolution, complexity theory, child psychology, and economics. What is unusual about these interviews is the degree to which the interviewees' ideas are set in the context of their personal lives. All of them have come through traumatic or challenging experiences, including marital breakdown, schizophrenia, change in sexual orientation or gender identity.

Horgan's ability to gain his subjects' confidence to discuss these intimate matters to the extent of allowing him to write about them is impressive. Even so, he might have seemed intrusive, were it not for the fact that he is himself fully aware of this aspect of the enterprise. It also helps that he tells us about his own emotional experiences and vulnerabilities. In a way, in fact, that is his central point: we all experience emotional and personal conflicts in life and these inevitably affect how we think, even as scientists. His 'solution' to the mind–body problems is to recognise that there are as many possible solutions as there are individuals to provide them. But these have to be found by living rather than by intellectual reasoning.

To describe the chapters as interviews is, perhaps, slightly misleading. Often they read more like internal dialogues, in which Horgan is debating with himself as well as with his subjects. The style is reminiscent of Montaigne's essays, the point being as much to travel as to arrive.

Each of the nine chapters follows a roughly similar pattern. Horgan starts with some personal reflection and then describes his interviewee, starting with their physical appearance and continuing with an account of how he himself reacted to them, before going into further details. But there is always a sense of unpredictability in these encounters. When Horgan and his girl friend visited the evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers ("one of the greatest living scientists") in Jamaica they encountered an atmosphere of barely suppressed rage, violence and emotional instability that is genuinely frightening to read about. Understandably the couple took an early departure, although Trivers seemed genuinely sorry to see them go, making Horgan feel guilty.

Some of the interviewees were writers I'd already read, such as Christof Koch, Owen Flanagan and Rebecca Goldstein; in all these cases I felt that Horgan showed me other sides of their characters that deepened or extended what I'd gleaned from their books, and made me want to read more (in fact, I've already started).

In some cases I was considerably surprised, not to say taken aback. This was the case with Stuart Kauffman's interview, in which it emerged that the 'complexologist' has has had two paranormal experiences connected with his daughter's death that have convinced him of the reality of such phenomena. What's more, Horgan himself is at least partly of this opinion.

Let me be clear. Kauffman is describing two paranormal incidents.… These incidents cannot be accounted for by mainstream science, unless of course you assume that they are just coincidences, or that they didn't really happen.
Christof Koch warned Horgan that including this information would prevent his book being taken seriously by scientists. But Horgan is unrepentant.
My views of telepathy are variable, unstable, entangled with my views of God, free will and the decency of humanity. My beliefs exist in a superposition of states, which can collapse when exposed to the force field of others' convictions. They can shift wildly over the course of a single day, especially when I am subject to strong emotion and stress.
The physicist Freeman Dyson ("one of the truly great minds I have encountered") thinks that paranormal phenomena are real but lie outside the limits of science. He said this in 2007 while he and Horgan were sitting at a table with seven or eight other scientists, all of whom accepted the reality of such phenomena although none had revealed this publicly for fear of harming their careers.

I was taken aback by this because, having been impressed by the findings of parapsychology when I was younger, I've now moved pretty far towards the sceptical pole. Kauffman and Dyson appear to offer a pretty serious challenge to my world view (which, of course, is always a good thing.)

I disagree with Horgan on a couple of points. One is that he appears to demur at the suggestion that he is a 'mysterian', meaning that he regards the mind–body problem as insoluble by the human mind. I think he is in fact at least to some extent a mysterian; I have a good deal of sympathy for this position myself. The other concerns free will. Horgan clings to the view that we have at least limited free will, despite the difficulties with the idea.

Free will deniers contend that all causes are ultimately physical and that to hold otherwise puts you in the company of believers in souls, ghosts, gods and other supernatural nonsense. But our minds, while subject to physical laws, are influenced by non-physical factors, including ideas produced by other minds, that alter the trajectory of our bodies through the world.
I think the reference to physical causes misses the point. Whether there is a non-physical mind (a 'soul') or not, the free will problem still arises. As Galen Strawson says, what matters is that we don't choose our own characters. So we can choose our actions but we cannot choose our choices. Ultimately there can be no free will, although this is something we probably cannot taake on hoard psychologically.

A note on publishing

Horgan has made a pdf of this book available to read free on his website, where he explains his reasons for choosing to self-publish. I agree with what he says there; I have myself self-published seven books of which three are free e-books. Please see Why are some of your books free? for details.


%T Mind-Body Problems
%S Science, Subjectivity & Who We Really Are
%A John Horgan
%D 2018
%K philosophy
%D kindle version, downloaded from Amazon 2019
%O also available as a free pdf from www.johnhorgan.org

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