John Horgan on Mind-Body Problems
Dec 17 2018

Mind-Body-Problems-259x300.jpg Science journalist and author John Horgan talks about his book, Mind-Body Problems, with EconTalk host Russ Roberts. Horgan interviewed an array of scientists, philosophers, and others who have worked on consciousness, free-will, and what it means to be human. Horgan argues that no single solution to the problems in these areas is likely to be established by science and that our perspective on these questions is inevitably colored by our personal experiences rather than by scientific evidence. Horgan concludes by making the case for personal and intellectual freedom and the need to embrace subjective interpretations of mind-body issues in ways that bring meaning to our lives.

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Explore audio highlights, further reading that will help you delve deeper into this week’s episode, and vigorous conversations in the form of our comments section below.

READER COMMENTS

Eric
Dec 17 2018 at 10:35am

John Horgan’s core problem (behind the mind-body problems) derives directly from a starting assumption and a bit of faulty reasoning.

If you construct a fish net that can only catch fish that are at least 3 inches long, you will only catch fish at least 3 inches long.  That doesn’t imply that there are no fish in the lake less than 3 inches long.  With that in mind, consider (my emphasis added):

John Horgan: Well, the phrase “Mind-body problem” dates back to the early 19th century. It was German philosophers who came up with it. And, they realized that if you assume that reality is made of matter–which is what science was strongly implying back at the beginning of the 19th century; a lot of people had already accepted that–that creates a problem if you are trying to understand the mind. Consciousness. Free will. All these different mind-related phenomena.

Science is a great tool for studying the properties and limitations of matter.  But just because matter is the kind of “fish” that science can catch and study, that has never implied materialism is true, i.e. the claim that matter is only made of matter. That is an error in reasoning about the results of science. To the contrary, the scientific discovery that the universe is not eternal shows that this material universe doesn’t account for its own existence.  There must be a something beyond and before the material universe — something that is beyond the reach of science to examine.

The claim that there is nothing other than matter is a philosophical assumption that some people make, but an open mind can still consider the possibility that the assumption is false — especially if we find (as Horgan correctly observes) that the dogmatic claim of a materialistic worldview is too limited to account for the full extent of the reality we do experience.  It is a simplistic answer that is too simple for reality.

Albert Einstein: “It can scarcely be denied that the supreme goal of all theory is to make the irreducible basic elements as simple and as few as possible without having to surrender the adequate representation of a single datum of experience.”

At times Hogan comes so close, such as when he concedes free will appears incompatible with materialism (and it is), or when he allows that perhaps science is currently incomplete, i.e. that there are aspects of reality that science cannot capture (which is true), and yet he seems never quite open to taking the logical next step of allowing this may be so because the materialistic assumption he started from is actually false.

Besides the free will issue, there is also the issue of right and wrong and moral accountability.  Later in the episode Russ Roberts brings up the heinous killings at a synagogue.  We know these are truly wrong, objectively wrong, not merely wrong from one point of view and right from someone else’s preferred point of view.

Yet, if “freedom” meant freedom to define reality as one pleases, and if reality is only matter and people only accidental animals, there is no logical basis for saying one moral assessment of those killings is any more legitimate than any other assessment of those killings.

Russ Roberts: Why is it that it bothers us that we’re just animals? Why can’t we accept it? I would suggest that we’re not just animals.

Exactly.  We can’t accept it because it’s not true.  It doesn’t fit with our experience of reality.

Armin Chosnama
Dec 17 2018 at 10:54am

One part that is gnawing on me was the diversion into capitalism. I feel that there was no resolution to what I felt was a contradiction between Mr. Horgan’s preference for freedom over any one version of the truth [1] vs. his strong desire for compulsion in the form of regulation and government intervention to conform to his/the progressive version of truth regarding healthcare, climate, and inequality [2]. It seems that by excluding capitalism from his list of acceptable freedoms, he’s throwing back “to other kinds of ideologies that do not accept certain kinds of human freedom.”

 

[1]: “And we should be very wary of anyone–whether they are religious prophets or scientists or philosophers or politicians–who says they know who we really are and that there are consequences to that; that we should live in a certain way to fulfill this vision of who we really are.”

[2] “I’m hoping that it can just be reformed in regulation… I don’t think capitalism works very well when it comes to health care. American health care is a total mess. We pay more than any other country and our health outcomes are way down compared to most other countries–certainly the Western European countries. And capitalism has produced inequality that I think has become toxic. So–there’s also the problem of climate change, which is a product of unregulated industry. So, my hope is that people come to their senses, even the free market people, realize that there’s certain areas where capitalism works really well and other areas where you need some kind of government intervention.

bogwood
Dec 17 2018 at 4:04pm

There seems to be an asymmetry in our existential angst.  We were not here for at least 14 billion years in the past, why worry about not being here in the future?

Frank Fuzz
Dec 17 2018 at 4:06pm

1) One of Horgan’s arguments for the existence of free will was the fact that some people tend to have more free will than others.   He gives the example of a youngster having fewer options available to him than an adult.  Thus, Horgan seems to be defining free will as having a sufficiently large set of choices available.  This seems similar to how the philosopher Daniel Dennett defines free will.  Dennett argues that as long as we don’t have a gun to our head and can make a variety of choices, then we have free will.

I think both Horgan and Dennett are mistaken about what most people mean when they talk about free will.  I’d argue that most people think that if they could rewind their life and relive it, they could take basically any action they wanted (e.g. they could eat 2 cookies instead of 3).  Or to put it another way, their choice would not be confined to a particular probability distribution.  They could have eaten 3 cookies every time because they had free will. They believe that there is an additional causal link in the chain   Brain Activity > Thought > Action.  To most people, their thoughts are determined by something other than chemical and electrical changes in the brain.

2) I would have liked the principle of parsimony to make an appearance in the discussion in well.  It’s possible that even if we can’t yet completely explain something scientifically, a scientific explanation is still the most parsimonious.

3) I really liked Russ’s comments on the impermanence of life.  They reminded me a lot of Sam Harris’ monologue here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y4DhNETVap4

 

bogwood
Dec 17 2018 at 4:18pm

…and, if you just google “turtles all the way down”, you may miss the Terry Pratchett older version.  The turtles bearing the multiple worlds are slowly, circling , gradually moving toward a central destination where they will engage in mating behavior.  This is known as the “Big Bang Theory” of the universe.

antonio de sousa
Dec 17 2018 at 4:22pm

I have a quote from an a wall street type guy, I don’t like him or his demenour but I do like one of his favourite quotes about life in general “Life is hard, then you die”.

These metaphysical meanderings never reach a conclusion. These are not the interests of practical people, so perhaps Russ was right and these are discourses of people in their 3rd age.

As Armin above noted, I too was a bit perplexed about the guest’s embrace of expansive freedom of choice and his criticism of capitalism rings a bit hollow and uncritical. Its the same criticism I often hear from my progressive friends.

Climate change due to unfettered unregulated businesses; can we have an example of a business that faces no regulation?
Capitalism produces inequality; inequality has existed since we were picking lice off the backs of our chimpanzee cousins
Scandanavians are enlightened; its easy to have a social welfare state when you have vast amounts of oil trapped on your continental shelf and don’t admit the hypocracy of selling it when faced with point 1.

Other than that it was pretty eye opening, and what I got from this is that some people who lived through the 60s are pretty colourful.

Blackthorne
Dec 17 2018 at 5:08pm

Great discussion as always. When I was listening to the Free Will section I couldnt help but think of Kierkegaard. To me it seems that regardless of how “rational” one claims to be, at some level you have to take some small leap of faith. In order to function as a human you have to hold some beliefs that you can’t fully justify. I think the existence of Free Will is definitely one of those topics, as John Horgan points out. The existence of an objective good is another, as highlighted by one of the commenters above.

Frank Vasquez
Dec 18 2018 at 9:06am

Unfortunately, I felt like much of this discussion was rather uninformed — or rather still rooted in the science of the 1960s or earlier — it sounded like a debate about the merits of Positivism.

It seemed that neither the author nor the host was aware of the development of complexity theory and concepts of emergence as a reaction to bald reductionism and how it has been applied to the mind-body problem, going back to P.W. Anderson’s seminal paper, More Is Different (1972) http://robotics.cs.tamu.edu/dshell/cs689/papers/anderson72more_is_different.pdf

— and how neuro-scientists like Michael Gazzaniga have applied this to the problem of consciousness and free will.  (See “Who’s in Charge:  Free Will and the Science of the Brain” and also his Gifford Lectures).

This kind of surprised me, because Russ is a big fan of emergence in certain areas.  Perhaps its in the book, but the guest seemed completely ignorant of where we are with this in the 21st Century.  In fact, IIT is just and example of the “reductionist view” that Anderson and others were criticizing — it is not the only model available or even the best one.

Sam P
Dec 18 2018 at 3:21pm

Spot on Frank! Thank you for wording that much better than I could. So frustrating this podcast.. it’s as if they have never heard the arguments for how the illusion of free will could have emerged. Haven’t looked into the studies showing that your brain decides while you still think you haven’t decided yet.

This is one of those ideas that it seems people reject because “free will is all there is” or bc “I don’t want to live in a world without free will”. It’s sad that most intellectuals cannot separate how they want the universe to be from how it actually is in reality.

Going as far as suggesting that if it feels like  you have free will, you do. Smh

 

Uninformed might be an understatement.

John Horgan
Dec 19 2018 at 10:23am

Great comments here! I’m honored. Frank, yes, you’re right that complexity research has taken on mind-body problems, from consciousness to economics. FYI I’ve been tracking the field of complexity since the early 1990s and devoted a chapter of my book The End of Science to it. My view is quite critical. Complexity (like its predecessors chaos, catastrophe theory and cybernetics) has never lived up to its hype. Read The End of Science if you’re curious. Or, for a more oblique take, check out Chapter Four of Mind-Body Problems, which profiles Stuart Kauffman, a leading complexity theorist. https://mindbodyproblems.com/chapter-four/

Jamie Kingsbery
Dec 18 2018 at 9:26am

This was a thought provoking discussion in many ways, and I look forward to reading the book although I anticipate that I may disagree with it in many parts.

Horgan presents his point of view as something new and exciting, but what he described sounds like a rehashing of voluntarism, which has been around in the West since the 13th century. The problem with evangelizing a 700-year-old argument while pretending that it’s new is that you do not enter into dialog with the long tradition that had a lot to say about it.

I get that in his book, he wanted to focus on people who followed a particular journey, but there are many who hit similar identity crises who responded differently. Instead of saying “freedom should trump truth,” these people (see e.g., the biographies of CS Lewis, Holly Ordway, Thomas Merton, J. Warner Wallace as just a few examples) who saw that the pursuit of truth was what mattered, that the the truth matters more than freedom and more than the self. These people all had an open mind along the way, but as they explored, they came to conclusions. As GK Chesteron wrote: “Merely having an open mind is nothing. The opening of a mind, like the opening of a mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.” It sounds like this perspective was unfortunately lacking in Horgan’s work.

Dr Golabki
Dec 18 2018 at 2:26pm

Great episode – while Russ commented that some listeners might be tuning out because the topics weren’t meaningful for the real world, I had the opposite reaction. After listening to part of the episode on my way to work I found it quite difficult to find meaning in my real world job. With that as a preface, here are a few thoughts…
On “just” being an animal:
Early on Russ asks and answers, “Why is it that it bothers us that we’re just animals? Why can’t we accept it? I would suggest that we’re not just animals.” To this, I’d first say, it doesn’t bother me at all and it never has. So why does it bother Russ and not me? Probably because believing that he’s not just an animal is a big part of Russ’s self-identity, and rejecting part of your self-identity is hard. It’s not part of my self-identity, so it’s not an issue from my perspective, but I have had to confront other parts of my own self-identity in my life, and it’s never comfortable.
Of course it isn’t just Russ who believes that we’re not just animals. Lots of people throughout human history have had the same thought. So why has this idea arisen so many times in so many places in human history? Because the one thing all of human history has is common is that it’s by and for… humans. And humans tend to believe in their own exceptionalism. This is true in big ways (like thinking humans were made in the image of god), and dangerous ways (like thinking my religious group is divinely chosen to dominate others), but also in very mundane ways (like thinking I’m a particularly high quality person because I’m good at chess).
 
On free will and consciousness:
John and Russ’s discussion of free will seemed to conflate the issue of free will with “will power”. I don’t think anyone would claim that people don’t have will power (with the possible exception of some neuroscientists that are bad at science and worse at philosophy). My view on this is that we clearly do not have free will, except in all the ways that actually matter.
There is an overall claim here which is that, because we don’t fully understand free will and consciousness scientifically, there must be something divine about them. But of course there are lots of things we don’t understand. I’ve often heard Russ talk about how we don’t really understand macroeconomics, but it doesn’t follow from that that materialism is wrong and the economy is imbued with some type of divinity. It just means that the economy is a highly complex emergent system… like consciousness, or global climate change, or life in general. A thousand years ago people might have made a similar argument about lightning or the tides. “I don’t understand it” is just not a good argument for divinity.
Now admittedly, there is something unique about consciousness. I can observe and think about the economy, or the climate, or a cell under a microscope… but the act of observing and thinking is consciousness itself. There’s a sense in which I simply cannot step back from consciousness and even pretend to be impartial. I guess this is part of the idea of John’s book. I just think it says much more about our limits as humans than it says about the actual nature of consciousness.
 
On awesomeness:
There’s another idea that runs through both Russ and John’s comments, which is that if you’re an atheist and/or a materialist, the universe must somehow be less awe inspiring. This view baffles me. Science has taught us that the same stuff can make the stars, and life and the human mind. It is both particle and wave. It can change from matter to energy and back again. This place is awesome, even if it’s “just” made of matter.

Sam P
Dec 18 2018 at 3:08pm

The inability of most to understand the term “free will” is baffling.  I think this the most revealing of all ideas about how one person thinks and views themselves and others in this world. When someone is unable to realize that although their choices appear to be theirs, is NOT at all evidence that free will exists. You vastly misunderstand the human brain. The human body. And physics. There is more and more mounting evidence and theory in many fields showing free will is an illusion and it is easily found and understood if you actually cared to find the answer rather than set up straw man arguments. This is one of the few areas Russ falls short.

Nathan Bonilla-Warford
Dec 20 2018 at 6:08am

One of my core beliefs is that within every aspect of life, there lies a paradox that cannot be ignored. There are no answers. Free will is not exempt.

May take away from the free will section was not that it was an inability to accept that free will is an illusion, but rather a conscious choice not to fully accept it. Life is more fun if you are “doing it” rather than mechanically going through the motions.

Sam, do you have some key references to demonstrate the absence of free will? Thanks.

Nathan Bonilla-Warford
Dec 25 2018 at 4:26pm

Sam,

I am really having a hard time letting this go. Can you please explain how it is that you can belittle Russ for not believing in free will if free will doesn’t exist? If there is no free will how can it be his fault? And how could he act in any other way?

 

Thanks.

 

-Nate

Doug Iliff
Dec 18 2018 at 6:44pm

“I don’t think capitalism works very well when it comes to health care. American health care is a total mess. We pay more than any other country and our health outcomes are way down compared to most other countries–certainly the Western European countries.”

For a nice refutation of this amazingly ignorant statement, read Hoover’s Dr. Scott Atlas in the WSJ here:

https://www.wsj.com/articles/single-payers-misleading-statistics-11545090658?emailToken=153a0d81f823c2feff14d4b504249316IL7kZTQpphAVQHmfT0bBzXEvRXgC9NtOWFtDrA+NWEBaiWN1qEmVejRN/ARNQawvDPIVJhO4LT1GMyw72hJThg%3D%3D&reflink=article_copyURL_share

 

James
Dec 18 2018 at 6:58pm

I’m an avid listener, but found this particular episode frustrating. I felt there was little attention given to the sheer depth of conviction possible in human beings; the stakes we’re dealing with here.

It’s a depth not easily reducible to genetic and environmental precursors. The complexity is astounding. In short, I found that the discussion oversimplified the topic.

It sounds like a fascinating book, I hope to read it soon.

Andreas Loeffler
Jan 6 2019 at 1:00pm

I find myself in line with James comments – interesting but frustrating, ultimately to the point of tossing out Horgan’s entire way of thinking.

First, while not surprising, it sounds as though Horgan left his Catholic faith and any serious thought of it early in life. The inheritance found in 2000 year of Christianity (and a few thousand more before in Judaism) may have helped him avoid the infinite number of ways of looking for meaning in life.  Yes the number may be infinite, but number of good answers is far more limited in places we would want to live.

The second issue with much of the conversation was the notion that science will lead us to meaning.  Science will may answer the question of why, but is incapable of answering why it matters.  Science was never intended to answer the questions of the good, the true, and the beautiful.  I would argue that meaning can only be found in the pursuit of these virtues.  Bishop Robert Barron engages the falsehood of “scientism” far better than I, but even a cursory review of history – and shelf after shelf of thoughtful sci-fi fiction – should give us all pause as to where unbridled science will take us.

Nick Ronalds
Dec 19 2018 at 3:29pm

A stimulating episode on some fascinating questions. I am sufficiently intrigued to check out Horgan’s book. That said, like commenter Doug above I am shocked that a highly intelligent person can hold up the U.S healthcare system as an example of the shortcomings of unrestrained capitalism. And Horgan has interviewed Deirdre McCloskey! Does he really think healthcare is lightly regulated, and more regulation would fix it?

Horgan points to the Scandinavian countries as models for tempering the rawness of capitalism. Guess what? Sweden and Denmark both rank higher than the U.S. on the index of economic freedom (2018 rankings). They are more capitalist than the U.S. Denmark is ranked 12, Sweden 15. The U.S. is at No. 18. Only Norway ranks lower, at 23. Neighboring Netherlands (not “Scandinavian”) also ranks above the U.S., at 17.

Mr. Horgan, if you are curious about economics and regulation, you might want to ask Deirdre McCloskey if she’s willing to spend some time with you to talk about that subject.

Paul R
Dec 20 2018 at 3:00pm

This podcast and discussion of free will reminds me of a scene from “Annie Hall” (1977), that I think may have referenced in a previous podcast.

This is the scene:
The Universe is Expanding
https://youtu.be/5U1-OmAICpU

If we made our decisions at the resolution of billions of years, any action we take is meaningless in comparison.

Similarly, if I assume that I don’t have free will, all my “decisions” are meaningless.

Whether free will exists or not, it’s not the resolution at which I make my decisions.

Schepp
Dec 20 2018 at 6:17pm

Walt Whitman Song of Myself, Beginning of Verse 3.

“I have heard what the talkers were talking, the talk of the beginning and the end,
But I do not talk of the beginning or the end.

There was never any more inception than there is now,
Nor any more youth or age than there is now,
And will never be any more perfection than there is now,
Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now.”

 

With regard to the podcast:

I don’t begrudge being just an animal but claim my human faculties both emotional and intellectual.

I do not understand how matter contains life nor if it does contain life, but my existence, that I sense in my own being, which indeed is all the sense that I have, gives me the belief that life exists in contrast with good and bad.

It seems life could be easily be snuffed out and never exist again. In the same thought, it seems much more impossible that being came from nothing.  So given the likely infinity of being behind us, I believe Mr. Whitman’s position above.

I imagine super being effort to find a means of surviving as the energy of the universe dissipates.  I image the same super being effort made an infinite number of times before at each punctuated equilibrium and potential infinite branches of the struggle for being. This gives me hope that quality being with good and bad will continue.

SaveyourSelf
Dec 29 2018 at 8:22am

Around 1:08:00 Russ Roberts said, “He [Alan Lightman] invokes an extraordinary ant colony that somehow manages to last for decades. And in the midst of those decades they create art, and understanding of what they are. But, after a hundred years, an ant colony can’t live beyond that. And it’s gone. Is there anything meaningful about it?”

The riddle of the ants brought to my mind the Theory of Relativity, which states there is no fixed frame of reference in the universe. As I understand it, the Theory of Relativity predicts that what we perceive—or what a bunch of ants perceive—is relative to the frame of reference through which we—or they—are observing it. To wit great meaning—the value of ant art for example—in a decades long frame of reference has, at the same time, zero meaning—relatively speaking—in a frame of reference of 100 billion years.  Thus the “extraordinary bittersweetness” that Russ spoke of is really just the realization that his or mine or theirs or even our combined frame of reference is not absolute or even very special, which is a restatement of the Theory of Relativity. It’s startling and humbling, for sure, but what is truly interesting is that that repeated exposure to that fact never fails to surprise us. This particular riddle never gets old, even to Russ, who’s career constantly exposes him to different frames of reference.

Eric
Jan 6 2019 at 5:38pm

John Horgan: I’ve never found a concept of God that makes any sense to me, because, you know, the traditional God of Christianity, and of Judaism and Islam, who is supposedly all-powerful and loves us, allows these terrible things to happen. How can that be? This is the problem of evil. …

When Horgan raises the problem of evil (but considers it only in regard to theism), this leads to several ironies in light of his own position.  First is the fact that even multiple atheist philosophers have acknowledged that the attempt to establish a logical inconsistency between the existence of God and the existence of evil has failed (e.g. see at least Suffering and Evil: The Logical Problem, Part 1).

On the other hand, the irony is compounded because he doesn’t seem to notice that materialism itself is logically inconsistent with the existence of evil that is both objectively real and objectively wrong. That’s why so many materialists are driven to deny not only free will (which Horgan holds on to), but to also deny objective good and evil. (Here’s a short video summary of the problem of morality. For more on this topic, a classic treatment is Right and Wrong as a Clue to the Meaning of the Universe, which was included as Part One of C.S. Lewis’s book Mere Christianity.) Though Horgan doesn’t seem to notice the fatal problem of evil for materialism, he does recognize other ways if falls short.

John Horgan: … But the flip side of the problem of evil is the problem of beauty. And friendship. And love. And everything that makes life worth living. That’s a problem, too. If you are an atheist, how do you account for that? And a strict materialism … doesn’t really give an adequate explanation for, you know, this fantastic human adventure in which we do actually make progress.

The most ironic aspect of this episode is that Horgan understands the importance of recognizing free will despite the fact that “It’s very hard to understand how free will arises in a strictly physical universe.” And yet in this episode he also faults God (the creative source of human free will) regarding evil, not noticing that in God’s chosen path regarding evil, God has valued the human will no less than Horgan. Horgan wants free will, but finds it hard to understand a Creator who also wants humans to have free will. Horgan desperately wants there to be real freedom to choose and yet faults God for allowing the freedom of choices that violate God’s intentions. Horgan repeatedly expressed aversion to the imposition of a single right answer, and yet faults God when he doesn’t immediately solve evil through the coercive imposition of irresistible power but instead adopts a solution that is operating and spreading through willing human choices rather than regardless of human will.

John Horgan: Francis Crick, who I interviewed back in the early 1990s and he, as I said earlier, was one of the people who made consciousness scientifically a respectable topic, didn’t believe in free will, and thought that the more we learn about how the brain works, the more we will accept that free will is just an illusion. …

In his book Why Us? How Science Rediscovered the Mystery of Ourselves, James Le Fanu puts a pin into the balloon of the assumption by Crick and others that the scientific study of the brain would bring us an understanding of consciousness. It’s not turning out that way.

John Horgan: … I need free will. I need the concept of free will much more than I need the concept of God. Without free will, I can’t make sense of life. I can’t make sense of my own life.

Horgan is not alone by any means. Author Nancy Pearcey provides examples of materialists who admit they are not able to live consistently with the implications of their materialism. See When Reality Clashes with Your Worldview. Why then should we have confidence in a worldview that conflicts with the direct experience even of its own advocates?

As Einstein indicated (see above), we should look for an understanding of reality “without having to surrender the adequate representation of a single datum of experience.” The assumption of materialism fails that standard, as Hogan’s own experience reveals.

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DELVE DEEPER

This week's guest:

This week's focus:

Additional ideas and people mentioned in this podcast episode:

A few more readings and background resources:

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AUDIO HIGHLIGHTS
TimePodcast Episode Highlights
0:33

Intro. [Recording date: November 30, 2018.]

Russ Roberts: I want to mention that if you are listening to this on the iPhone Podcast App, you are likely to have all the episodes going back to 2015 on your feed. And I think that's true, as well, for Android listeners. But, if you search for EconTalk on your iPhone Podcast App, in addition to the regular feed, you will also find individual years' episodes. So, the 2006, 2007, 2008, all the way up through 2014--they are all there. So, feel free to download and listen to those as well, and not just go back to 2015. As long as you give me, cut me a lot of slack, that I was not a great interviewer, I believe, in the past--I like to think I've gotten better. I also want to mention there is a free App for iPhones called Economics that happens to just be EconTalk, as it turns out--that is not related directly to this program: We didn't create it. But, it's out there and it's a fantastic app. It has every episode; you can comment, you can voice-comment; it has all kinds of different speed choices; it's beautifully laid out. So, feel free to check that out.

1:46

Russ Roberts: Now, on to today's guest. He is science journalist and author John Horgan. His latest book, the subject of today's episode, is, Mind-Body Problems: Science, Subjectivity, and Who We Really Are.... I want to mention to parents listening with young children, we may get into some adult themes in this conversation, so feel free to vet the episode before sharing it with your kids. So, I want to start with a very basic question: What is the classic mind/body problem, and why do you make it a plural in your title, Mind-Body Problems?

John Horgan: Well, the phrase "Mind-body problem" dates back to the early 19th century. It was German philosophers who came up with it. And, they realized that if you assume that reality is made of matter--which is what science was strongly implying back at the beginning of the 19th century; a lot of people had already accepted that--that creates a problem if you are trying to understand the mind. Consciousness. Free will. All these different mind-related phenomena. And so, eventually the phrase spread to the English-speaking world; American scientists and philosophers started bandying it about. It's still not as well known in some circles as just the problem of consciousness, or the problem of free will. But, I like the mind-body problem because--in part because it's kind of vague and it encompasses all these different mysteries that are posed by the mind. And even by human nature. By human behavior. The way that I like to describe the mind-body problem to try to help my students understand it and put it in straightforward terms is that it's really the problem of who we are, and what can we be, and what should we be. And these are all the deepest mysteries of existence. And, they're questions that humans have been asking forever, really. Certainly going back to ancient Greece. And so, yeah, that's kind of what the mind-body problem is about.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. I like to think of it as: Is matter all there is? It seems obvious to most people that are scientifically minded that, 'Of course matter is all there is. It's all chemistry. It's all just a bunch of chemistry, and there's nothing else there.' It feels weird to suggest otherwise. But you quote someone saying that, 'We're the matter that longs to matter.' And that is the strangest thing. I expect we'll come back to that issue. I find that deeply puzzling and fascinating. But, the problem itself of who we are, and are we just animals--are we just physical neurons firing and chemistry--is a problem that--I would say--you don't say this explicitly in your book--but I would say there are three groups of people who try to think about this in a systematic way: Scientists, particularly Neuroscientists; Philosophers; and Theologians. And, you spend a lot of your time with the first two in the book. So, describe--this, by the way, I will tell listeners: This is an utterly fascinating book on so many dimensions. If you care about any of these issues, like, the meaning of life, which I think most thinking people do, you'll find the book provocative. But it's more than just an interesting exploration of these issues. Because, it's a portrait of the views of a variety of different people. So, describe how you came to write the book the way you did, and why that was a good idea. Because, I think it was, even though it struck me, once I got started I thought, 'Whoa. This isn't what I bargained for with this book.' I kind of was taken aback. And it does two things. One thing it does is it's incredibly entertaining, the portraits you describe of these people. But, describe what you did.

John Horgan: Okay. First, I think I--I keep forgetting to mention this. I do want people to read my book. And, I should say, it's online; and it's for free. This is the first time I've ever done this with a book. But I really--at this point in my career, I want people to read my stuff more than I want to make money. So, I encourage people to check it out online. All right, so why did I write the book in this way? I have to give you a little history--

6:44

Russ Roberts: Well, tell--I didn't give you a chance to talk about--tell about what you did actually, first. And then tell why. You didn't just write a book about these issues. You went and interviewed a bunch of people. Describe that.

John Horgan: Um, but I have to explain the reasoning behind it. I had always assumed, as a science writer, that there is a solution to the mind-body problem. So, I started writing about consciousness in the late 1980s, when consciousness was becoming--when it looked like it might be a solvable scientific problem. This is when Francis Crick and this young sidekick of his, Christof Koch, started writing articles for Scientific American and other journals laying out this program for reducing consciousness to physiological processes in the brain. So, they say, 'Philosophers have had thousands of years to try to figure out what consciousness is and how it's related to matter; and they haven't done a good job of it. So, now science is going to take over and we finally have the tools to do that.' And I found that thrilling. And I started writing articles for Scientific American about this quest to solve consciousness. And I've been following the effort to solve consciousness for decades now. And, I assumed that, if there would be--if there is a solution that science can discover, it will be a single solution. And so, you normally have, when a field is in an immature state, lots of different ideas. There's isn't a kind of unifying paradigm yet. And that was the state of consciousness studies when I started writing about it in the late 1980s and early 1990s. But, I expected all these different strands of research to converge on one correct way of looking at the problem. And that just never happened. So, I went to a big Consciousness Conference in 2015, where there were some philosophers and neuroscientists, including this guy, Christof Koch, who had been talking about consciousness with Francis Crick in the late 1980s and early 1990s. And, they were talking about this new theory of consciousness, Integrated Information Theory, that they thought could solve consciousness once and for all. But the theory had these radical implications. It suggested that consciousness is not just a property of brains, or even of just living matter. It could be a property of all matter. One of the implications of the theory is that even a single proton, because it has three quarks that are doing a little bit of information processing, might have a tiny little spark of consciousness. So, this is the old, mystical doctrine of Panpsychism. And I thought everybody had gone off the deep end, that they were even taking an idea like this seriously. It seemed to me to be a big step backward from materialism. And even a return to this kind of narcissistic, superstitious thinking about humanity's place in the universe. And I began wondering what was going on with this scientist, Christof Koch. By the way, I sometimes pronounce his name sometimes 'kotch', sometimes 'kock'--I can't decide which way to pronounce it.

Russ Roberts: You said 'coke' a minute ago. It's [spelled] Koch.

John Horgan: I just wanted to explain that in case listeners noticed the difference. I'll stick with 'kotch' for now. So, I thought that he must have been going through some kind of identity crisis to have seized upon a theory that, to me, was just ridiculous on its face. And then I started thinking, 'Well, maybe the reason I'm so resistant to the theory is that I'm committed to the idea that science will never discover a theory of consciousness. We'll never solve the problem of consciousness. Which is something that I've said in my previous books. And, that got me thinking about the role of subjective thinking, and emotions, and personal experience, and influencing our intellectual views--our supposedly rational, scientific views of the world and of ourselves. And, the whole quest for consciousness assumes that consciousness and the mind-body problem in general--the sort of more expansive way of looking at the mind--can be reduced to an objective problem. We can get all the subjectivity out and come up with a really clear, rational way of solving this problem, in the same way that we do with more traditional scientific problems like photosynthesis or heredity or gravity, and things like that. And, at some point, it occurred to me that maybe, when it comes to the mind-body problem, consciousness, and free will, and the meaning of life, we will never get subjectivity out of our--deliberations--out of our attempts to try to come up with solutions. Maybe every individual person has to come up with his or her own solution to the mind-body problem. So, subjectivity, in a way, is the problem that we're trying to get rid of. And we can't get rid of subjectivity. And then I thought: What am I going to do with this idea? How am I going to elaborate on it? And, the idea for the book came to me: A book in which I would find mind-body thinkers who were wrestling with it, from the point of view of different disciplines: Philosophy, neuroscience, evolutionary biology, even economics. And I would try to show how their personal lives had affected their professional views. And I looked for people with particularly dramatic personal identity crises. In the case of Christof Koch, it was the breakup of what he had thought was a very happy, stable marriage; plus the loss of his religious faith. He'd been a devout Catholic since he was a little kid. And, shortly before he seized upon Integrated Information Theory, he stopped believing in God; and he started searching for other answers. With other people in the book, they were wrestling with alcoholism; with severe mental illness--schizophrenia in one case, bipolar disorder in another case. One of my favorite characters in the book, Deirdre McCloskey, who is a very prominent economist and somebody that you know, Russ: She was born a he, and spent the first 50 years of his life as Donald McCloskey; and was married and had two children. And suddenly in his 50s decided that he was really a woman. And I really just wanted to show the intersection, the entanglement, of these sorts of personal issues with the attempts of these intellectuals, these thinkers, to come to grips with the mind-body problem. So, that's why I wrote the book as a series of 9 profiles of different thinkers who had very different approaches to the mind-body problem.

Russ Roberts: I've been lucky to learn economics from both Donald and Deirdre McCloskey. Donald was my professor at Chicago; and I'm still learning from Deirdre. And she is a former EconTalk guest, and we'll put up a link to that episode with her work, as well.

15:23

Russ Roberts: But, the focus of the book as a series of portraits--besides the fact that these people are very interesting people. Right? It would be a fun book even if they didn't have much to say about the mind-body problem, because they are just interesting people and they have gone through interesting things. But one of the--it does allow you to hit this theme, which is a big theme of this program--that we're all prone to confirmation bias: that our faith and our reason and objectivity is greatly overstated. And the book hammers that, on that, as a meta-theme, all the way through. And it's utterly fascinating. But, as a result, because it is a medley, it could turn out--I don't think it does, but it could turn out to be nothing more than an interesting grab bag of perspectives. But it's more than that. And, what would you say is the lesson of the book, both for you as the author, of having explored in some extraordinary depth some of the personal travails and experiences that you write about? What's the lesson for you? And what's the lesson you want me, as the reader, to take away?

John Horgan: I guess--just speaking for myself, in the course of writing this book, I think I've become not just open minded--that's too mild a term for how I feel now. I have decided that, when it comes to understanding ourselves and deciding who we are, there is no hope for a final answer; and that I don't want there to be a final answer. And it's not just because I'm in love with mystery. I've begun to see how science, especially when it's turned on us--when we're using science to try to understand ourselves--has this terrible downside of possibly limiting our freedom, and limiting our imagination. So, just in terms of personal identity, I see human history as this gradual process of giving us more and more choices to decide who we really are. And science has helped us understand ourselves from different perspectives: certainly evolutionary biology did that, helping us understand our connection to all other species on earth. But, there's a political and philosophical dimension to this as well. The expansion of human rights is really about giving us more freedom to discover who we really are, and to change our minds about who we really are. And, so, by the time I finished the book, I guess I'd come to this--I see that our effort to figure out what reality is and what we are as being in this tension with our desire for freedom. And, I guess when it comes to human nature--I think in some cases, science is really dictating how the world works. I'm not a total Post-Modernist: I don't think scientists are just making stories up. And, I think that the atomic theory of matter and the periodic table and the theory of evolution--they are giving us deep insights into how nature works. But, science has always been very weak when it comes to trying to help us understand ourselves and to solve some of these deep riddles, like free will itself, which I see as pretty much synonymous with freedom. And so I guess the biggest lesson for me--one way I could put it is that: Freedom, when it comes to human beings, when it comes to trying to understand who we really are, freedom should trump truth. And we should be very wary of anyone--whether they are religious prophets or scientists or philosophers or politicians--who says they know who we really are and that there are consequences to that; that we should live in a certain way to fulfill this vision of who we really are. There have been all these utopian visions in the past that have been based on a single idea of what we really are; and in general those have led to disaster.

Russ Roberts: I am reminded of Adam Smith's man of system in The Theory of Moral Sentiments where he says that the man of system thinks that humanity is just like pieces on a chess board that you can move around without being conscious of how--that they have their own modes of motion and their own desires; and the people who try to impose their will on that chessboard do tend to lead to death and destruction. It's kind of a horrifying aspect of modernity.

20:48

Russ Roberts: But I want to go to the--I want to digress for a second; maybe it's not a digression. I want to talk about the Enlightenment, and reason. Because, you've made a very interesting summary of what I would say is the benefit of science. We've gotten so many wonderful things from science and technology, glorious things. Glorious things from the liberation of reason in the last 300 years or so. And most of those glorious things are material, almost by definition that's going to be the case. There are people who think science can give us nonmaterial things. We'll talk about that, I'm sure, at some point today. But, the Enlightenment has been a pretty great thing. And yet--there's that 'and yet'--the worship of Reason can be extremely dangerous. And this idea that there's only one correct way to think of ourselves, I agree with you, is a seductive and potentially dangerous idea. So, I'm a big fan of freedom, and the freedom to decide for oneself, how to look at oneself, how to look at human existence. Yet, at the same time, you have to be conscious and aware of the fact that we are the product of our family, our genes, our destiny, perhaps: that free-will thing rears its head and you start to say, 'Do you really think I can choose how I make myself? I really have the freedom to be who I want to be, to mold myself?' I mean, that really is in many ways, I think, the American Dream. And, I'm not as romantic as I used to be about it. I'm a little less romantic, as I see it not working out so well, overall: it's not as glorious as it seems to be. It seems to me it's a very mixed bag.

John Horgan: Yeah. You know, freedom means different things to different people. I actually--the last full chapter of my book was devoted to McCloskey who has a vision of human history that I find very appealing to me, because I'm an optimist. And I believe in progress; I want to believe in progress. And I want to believe that life is getting better and better for more and more people, in spite of our obvious setbacks. And, McCloskey is pretty much a laissez faire capitalist, and, you know, she thinks that we're going to work out our current problems; we're going to figure out climate change; we are going to overcome some of the excesses of capitalism. We spoke a little bit before Donald Trump was elected; and I don't think either of us was anticipating that Trump would be elected. I'm not as optimistic in general as I was a couple of years ago, and I'm much less optimistic about capitalism working through its problems for the benefit of all. And, capitalism, of course, is one expression of our modern freedom. So, I'm--that's something--

Russ Roberts: What are you going to do with that, John? I mean, that's a--I'm sympathetic to your view. I'm a hard-core free market capitalist myself. But I also am worried about it. But, what's the alternative? Given your unease about single-minded solutions, what's--it's hard to beat the bottom up, emergent aspect of capitalism. You could argue it's too much crony capitalism. Great! Let's get rid of the crony part. I'm all for that. But, where are we going to go?

John Horgan: Yeah. I'm hoping that it can just be reformed in regulation. So, the Scandinavian countries which are always upheld as these models of successful societies, they are certainly capitalistic but with lots of regulation and government intervention. I don't think capitalism works very well when it comes to health care. American health care is a total mess. We pay more than any other country and our health outcomes are way down compared to most other countries--certainly the Western European countries. And capitalism has produced inequality that I think has become toxic. So--there's also the problem of climate change, which is a product of unregulated industry. So, my hope is that people come to their senses, even the free market people, realize that there's certain areas where capitalism works really well and other areas where you need some kind of government intervention. And, I'm just hoping that happens, still. But, right now, it's hard to see how it's going to happen. I certainly don't have any specific solutions to solving these problems.

Russ Roberts: I just have a couple of things. If you look at the proportion of our health care spending that is out of pocket, versus paid by third party, the out-of-pocket portion has steadily decreased since about 1950, coinciding with a massive increase in both quality and expenditure. So, it's again a very mixed story. But, we don't have anything remotely like free-market health care. So, I would just urge you not to judge the current mess that we are in, of spending enormous amounts for maybe not-such-great results, as a product of free choice. It's an unbelievably highly-regulated market. So, it's not much of a: It's not a free market, for sure. And government's hand is quite heavy right now. We can disagree over how much, how different or not it would be if government weren't involved. There would be different problems, of course. But I think that's important to put on the table.

John Horgan: Well, I think we're probably pretty much in di[?], --in agreement. I don't see an alternative to capitalism. I've had some critics of capitalism come to my school--Naomi Klein gave a talk a couple of years ago, and you know, a real barnburner; and it was about how we need to reform capitalism in some kind of radical way or civilization is going to end because of global warming. That was her message. But, Naomi Klein, at least from my conversation with her, she recognizes that we need capitalism in some form. She's not a real revolutionary. I don't think I know any true revolutionaries. So, it's a matter of tweaking the system to help it overcome some of these problems. And, just going back to the theme of my book, ensuring that whatever system we have, it keeps giving us more options for living our lives. For choosing different identities for ourselves. And even changing our minds and adopting different identities at different points in our life, the way that Deirdre McCloskey lives. That, the amount of freedom that we have today is so much more than--certainly than what was available when I was a kid--

Russ Roberts: Yup--

John Horgan: When it was illegal for blacks and whites to get married in certain states. Abortion was illegal. Homosexuality was a crime in many states. And, you know--so, I'm sort of in the Steven Pinker camp of trying to get people to recognize that we really are making extraordinary progress in many ways. But it's threatened. It's constantly threatened. And it's threatened more now than at any time in recent history by this resurgence of--maybe this is too strong a term, but of very traditional, even kind of racist and sexist thinking--

Russ Roberts: Well, I--

John Horgan: and a throwback to other kinds of ideologies that do not accept certain kinds of human freedom.

29:45

Russ Roberts: I'm worried about a different set of things. I'm somewhat worried about that. I don't--think the system is pretty resilient right now. I'm more worried about populism writ large, and a decline in the rule of law, which would lead to all kinds of things of which the ones you are worried about would be part of them. But there would be other things, too. And restrictions on freedom for lots of people. And I think that's a somewhat ominous turn. So, my view, as listeners know, on the Enlightenment thing is that, I'm not the optimist I used to be. I've been influenced by John Gray and Jordan Peterson and others to think a little bit more broadly beyond the material wellbeing that we have--which I'm a big fan of, but I don't want to oversell it. It seems to me that the trump card that you have to play--and I have played as a freedom lover--is, if you don't like, say, the loneliness of modern American life, which I worry about right now--you are free to join clubs, communities, churches. You can go live in a small town, if that is what you long for. That freedom includes the freedom to join with others. And so, I think we need to--that's the trust I have in emergent solutions to these problems. The example of technology--that many of us are addicted to it and it's unhealthy and it's destructive of the human experience--I think that's true. And I think it's really important that we be free to make that choice for ourselves, to give up technology if we can; to look for ways to help ourselves if we feel we are addicted. And not to have, say, those solutions to those challenges come from legislature. So, I think that's where I think we agree. I hope--

John Horgan: Yes. Absolutely. The way I put it in my book is that, you know, we've had this age-old quest to find a perfect society. A Utopia in which we can all discover our true selves. And the implication is that when we discover our true selves, we are all going to be living in harmony with each other and with the rest of nature. And what we have now--and, of course, this utopian idea which is manifested in certain religions and also in the ideologies of Communism and National Socialism and the Nazi Party--it's led to some very bad consequences. But it's still--you need a Utopian vision, if you are dissatisfied with the way things are. You know, you've got to have a vision of how you want things to be. And what I think is fantastic and underappreciated about what we have in the United States right now, and I'd say in Democratic societies in general, is, it's kind of like an anti-Utopia. The idea is that you can--'You are free to choose; you are free to create your own mini-Utopia.' And so, if you are a fundamentalist Christian, that's fine. And you can create your own community of people who think that way. Or Buddhist. Or maybe, you know, fly-fishing is your passion and you think that's the best possible life. I happen to have grown up in the 1960s; I was really into psychedelic drugs. And I know communities of people who share that as a kind of basis for living. And a kind of spiritual path. So, in our--you can say that our utopia consists of allowing people to discover as many possible utopias as possible. Including one which would consist of turning your back on this kind of society. And turning your back on technology. And isolating yourself in the woods with your family, or again with another group of Luddite types--

Russ Roberts: yup--

John Horgan: And so I'm just hoping that we can hang onto that. What worries me is that I feel that democracy is passing through a kind of crisis right now. And there are a lot of doubts about whether democracy will, um, will prevail. And there is always this counter-trend in humans toward wanting certainty. And you want to believe that what you value most is objectively valuable, and that other people should value it, as well. Your truth, your answer to the mind-body problem, to the question of who we really are is The Correct Answer, whether it's political or spiritual or scientific. And, I see strains of that kind of thinking in the world right now; and that's--that worries me.

Russ Roberts: No, I agree. And I--I would just say that I think democracy is incredibly dangerous, and that's why we have a republic. We don't have majority rule in the United States, and I think there's a feticization of majority rule that's quite dangerous coming from--that happens to be coming from the Left. There's plenty of dangerous things coming from the Right. But, a sort of worship of Democracy as a majority rule of democracy as "the will of the people" when it could be 52% of the people wanting to brutalize the other 48% or run their lives is really a dangerous thing. And I wish we could get back to a world where we honored the Constitution a little bit more and had respect for the fact that democracy is a flawed, imperfect system. So, I agree with everything you said, more or less, about the beauty and poetry of a system that, a utopia that says there's no utopia, so we each create our own.

35:56

Russ Roberts: But, I want to get back to the book. Why does this book matter? And I'm asking this partly because I know listeners--there must be some listeners where I've kind of lost them already. Who are saying like, 'What the heck? Who cares? Why this consciousness thing? I'm just going to live my life. What's the importance? Why does it matter whether science understands the brain and the idea of consciousness? Why is this--other than just intellectual golf? It's just a form of intellectual entertainment. There's nothing important here.' What's your answer to that, that listener who turned us off 20 minutes ago?

John Horgan: Well, I think scientists and philosophers have turned the mind-body problem, the problem of consciousness, and free will into these very sort of esoteric technical problems that are only really subjects for experts, and that you have to learn quite a bit of philosophy and science, biology, neuroscience, and even mathematics to really have anything to say about the mind-body problem and to understand some of the new theories. And this is why I'd like to tell people that it's really the problem of who you are. I assume everybody, all your listeners, have at least at one point in their lives asked that question, 'What am I really?' If you are religious, if you are Christian--I was brought up Catholic--you think, 'What I am, really, is an immoral[?] soul that was created by God, and if I live in a certain way they I will be rewarded by God. And if I live in another way, then I might be punished.' So, that religious concept is a very common response to the question of who we really are. Science has given us different ideas of who we really are: are we a software program, or a collection of genes? We're animals that are related to other animals, especially to the great apes; and our brains and bodies, our minds are sculpted by natural selection, and we have certain tendencies that can be explained by these theories. Economics, economic theory gives us a certain view of ourselves. So, every thinking person is trying to figure out where they stand in relation to all these different ideas that thinkers for millennia have been giving us about who we really are. And the assumption has always been that there is an answer to these questions; and an answer that can help us make sense of our lives, that can help us, help give us a sense of meaning. And, I'm actually telling you that there are an infinite number of answers. There is not a single answer. And, actually, the idea that there is a single answer is a bad idea. It has had bad consequences through human history. So, if my book succeeds, by the end, people will know why this matters. And they will realize that it's as personal and important a topic as there can be. It's an attempt to help people make sense of their lives.

39:50

Russ Roberts: So, I want to take the example of one of your portraits--and you'll remember the name, although there's more than one with this related issue. It's the story of a scientist who cheats on his wife. And, it ends up destroying his marriage. And, I don't think he's particularly happy about that; and there's some shame involved in the way he treats his wife, in the story. And, at one point he sort of reflects, 'Well, it's biology. It's hard to resist sexual attraction.' And, we all know that. That's what science teaches us. And, if you're not careful, it's what science excuses, right? It says, 'Ehh. You can't blame yourself. You don't have personal responsibility.' And, that's just a--one way of thinking about that is: That's what science teaches us, but if we're not careful it will lead us astray, if we don't add to it the potential for personal responsibility. Although, I think--in a way, that's kind of a microcosm of the whole issue. Right? We have urges. Self-interested urges--this is where the economics also comes in; and it's what Adam Smith wrote about in The Theory of Moral Sentiments: we're fundamentally self-interested; and yet we don't always act that way. Which is extraordinary. Right? At one point in the book, you say, 'We understand who we are. We're biologically designed to reproduce.' That's it. But, of course, we hate that--except when we are trying to excuse our behavior. We might invoke it, as that scientist did. But, why do we hate that? Why is it that it bothers us that we're just animals? Why can't we accept it? And I would suggest that maybe we're not just animals, right? But I'm curious what your thought on that is.

John Horgan: Well, so one of the great crises that's been created by modern science, and especially the assumption that we are just matter--we are collections of genes designed by natural selection--is that we don't have any free will. It's very hard to understand how free will arises in a strictly physical universe. And there have been some great scientists who have been disbelievers in free will. Einstein was one--very much to my dismay. Einstein once said that 'If the moon were conscious it would think that it was revolving around the earth because it wanted to.'

Russ Roberts: Yeah.

John Horgan: Francis Crick, who I interviewed back in the early 1990s and he, as I said earlier, was one of the people who made consciousness scientifically a respectable topic, didn't believe in free will, and thought that the more we learn about how the brain works, the more we will accept that free will is just an illusion. I--maybe because I was brought up Catholic, maybe because it is not strictly rational--I need free will. I need the concept of free will much more than I need the concept of God. Without free will, I can't make sense of life. I can't make sense of my own life. It seems to me that the choices that we make are what makes life meaningful for us. And, the more choices that we have, the deeper the meaning is. This is why I think it's so important that we've had more freedom as history has progressed. There are no good explanations of free will right now. People invoke quantum mechanics, but with a lot of hand waving. It's not very plausible even to someone like me who really wants free will to exist. But, my conclusion is that this just shows that modern science is radically incomplete, because it cannot yet explain this phenomenon that all of us know is real. And yet--and without which life doesn't make any sense. And even understanding human progress, human history, without the concept of free will it doesn't really make any sense.

Russ Roberts: So, I sense--

John Horgan: So--

Russ Roberts: Go ahead.

John Horgan: Sorry. Go ahead.

Russ Roberts: Well, I was going to say that we have a lot of evidence for free will. It's--in our heads. We feel it. We feel like we have free will. The question is whether that's an illusion or not. I give an example: If you back to 2007 and 2009 and 2011 on EconTalk, I interrupted guests a lot more than I do now. I just interrupted you, accidentally, actually. But I've wanted to interrupt you about four times during that last set of remarks you've made. And, over the years I've gotten better at interrupting less. I still fail, now and then; and of course, there are times when I think it's good to interrupt, still. But the question is: Do I have control over that? Is that--this is such a trivial example. It's akin to the second or third or fourth cookie for dessert: you know, do I have free will to take a third or fourth cookie? Sometimes it feels like I don't. I feel like, 'I just ate the fourth one'; I'm thinking, 'What the heck was I doing there?' Obviously I didn't think about it or I wouldn't have eaten it. Other times, I think, 'Here I am eating the cookie. I could choose not to; but I'm going to choose to, even though I might regret it later.' All those daily decisions, if we really don't feel like have control over--we certainly feel like we have control over them. Which is your point. But, as you also say: Without it, there's nothing left. It's--you may as well--I mean, you are so unmoored if you are not responsible for your actions. If anything goes--forget the death of God; was it Nietzsche or Dostoevsky who said that once God is dead--I think it's Dostoevsky--without God everything is allowed. Without free will, boy, is everything allowed. So, I may be under the illusion that I've become a better interviewer because of a decision I made. But if that isn't true, then why would I try to get better in the future? Because there's no point to it. And yet, I do. I am. And I will. So, it seems to me--you have to live your life as if there is free will, I think is the right way to say it.

John Horgan: Well, the way I look at it is--you know, I've got all these arguments that I use to try to convince myself and other people that free will exists. And, what I've found is that they rarely work on somebody who is really sure that it doesn't exist. But, one that I use is that free will must exist if some people have more of it than others. So, you and I have more free will--and by that, I mean more of a capacity to see different options for ourselves. To imagine different trajectories for our lives ahead of us. We have more of that capacity now than we did, certainly, when we were infants. And even more than we were 9 or 10 years old just because we didn't know much about the world at that point. So, presumably, as we acquire more experience, more knowledge of the world, we can see more different, more possibilities ahead of us. Also, free will is dependent on the cultural and political environment in which we grow up. So, we were just talking before about the expansion of human freedom and human rights; and they have grown enormously just in my lifetime. Both for people like us, and especially for women and for African Americans, for homosexuals. So, again, without a concept of free will, then you eliminate all these different measures of human progress. To me, those are absolutely real. And it's almost beside the point that physics and chemistry and biology can't figure out what it means to have more choices. I don't really care. Maybe they will catch up at some point, and maybe they won't. But, to discard our concept of free will because science can't explain it now seems to me, just needlessly destructive, annihilistic.

49:05

Russ Roberts: So, I want to make a different picture of your book, related to this. And then I'm going to take us in a different direction where I am interested in your thoughts on a different topic. Which is the following: 'The unexamined life is not worth living.' It's attributed to Socrates. I think there is something to it. Not just because it's part of what makes us human, but partly because if you want to have a satisfying life or a meaningful life or a happy life or a pleasurable life or a contributing life, you need to understand yourself a little bit. And your book forces us, the reader, to grapple what we are about and to think about what we want to do with this short, temporary time we have here on earth. And that would seem to me to be kind of important. So, I want to talk to you about, as you about something you mentioned in passing a couple of times, which is meditation. There's an enormous fad, it seems to me--intellectual trend, toward the value of meditation. I've become a little bit of a meditator over the last few years. I've gone to number of silent meditation retreats. And I think--perhaps an illusion--but I think it's helped me understand myself much better. You are a bit of a skeptic--comes through in your book. So, a lot of people are touting meditation as the thing that will save humanity. Which I think is ludicrous. A lot of people tout it as a road to morality. I think that's also ludicrous. But I do think it's the road to some self-understanding if done in a thoughtful way. What are your thoughts on that?

John Horgan: Yeah. It's funny you bring this up, because--I have been--you know, I'm a child of the 1960s. I have a lot of friends who went chasing after gurus and learned various kinds of meditations. I was more into psychedelics than mediation and yoga[?]. But, a good friend of mine, Robert Wright, is a really talented science writer, wrote a book called Why Buddhism Is True; came out a couple of years ago. He and his wife, who are dear friends of mine, have been bugging me to go on a Buddhist retreat. Because they say that I can't be a critic, really, unless I've given it a good shot. And I just dismissed that. Then I finally decided last summer, after I'd finished my book, to give--to try a retreat. And so I went on a retreat in last July, a one-week silent retreat. Lots of meditation. But, mainly just lots of lying on my back on the grass and watching clouds float by. And, Russ: It blew my mind. It's--I had a profound experience. I felt like I was high on LSD [lysergic acid diethylamide], for pretty much the whole week. And I'm still a little bit in the afterglow of that. And, uh, you know, going back to my book is that one of the themes of my book is that not only do different people arrive at different understandings of who they really are, but individuals keep changing their ideas of who they really are. I certainly have, throughout my life. And, my views have changed again, just in the last few months, because of this, this Retreat. So, I have really had to revise my estimate of the value of meditation. I still think that it's way overhyped. But, in my case, I agree: I think I've become--my girlfriend says I'm a nicer person since I went on this retreat. I just feel more relaxed. I think that the greatest benefit is that I don't get as bored and restless as much as I used to. I don't feel the need to be busy all the time. I can be just kind of content and whatever moments or situation I happen to find myself in. So, I'm not sure--this might all wear off within the next couple of months, or years: I don't know if I'm going to keep it up. But, it just reminds that, you know, life really is unpredictable. And, that it pays to try to be open-minded, both when it comes to understanding the world in general and understanding ourselves. I mean, I certainly haven't come to the end of trying to figure myself out.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. Robert Wright was a guest on EconTalk, talking about his book. We'll put a link up to that. And, I'm sympathetic, of course, to that transformation. I think I have experienced some of that myself. I think the flip side of that would be the following: I remember meeting a friend I hadn't seen in a long time--this was a few years ago--old friend. And, I remember being struck with how little he had changed, thinking, 'He's the same old (fill-in-the-blank). Same old guy. Same old person. He hasn't changed at all.' And then I realized, 'You know, he probably thinks the same thing about me.' And if he only knew how different I am inside--and I wonder how much of that is just the passage of time, versus actual transformation. I think I'm a much different person than I was before I went on my three silent meditation retreats; but I also worry that that's an illusion. That, to the outside world--to my wife and children--I mean, they tease me about it all the time, endlessly, about whether I've changed or not. I have less anxiety when I travel because of that retreat, those retreats. But, when I travel with my kids, those, of course, they are always--there's empirical evidence constantly being revealed about the effectiveness of that transformation. So, it's a very--again, it's an example of what we're talking about here: It's subjectivity all the way down.

John Horgan: Subjectivity all the way down. And humans--it's not easy being in an identity crisis and trying to understand who you really are. But, in a way, it's what makes life so exciting and meaningful. And, what we have yearned for--again, for millennia--is a resolution to the identity crisis, both that we go through as individuals and that we go through collectively as a species. We want to know who we really are. And, religion is a manifestation of that. An ideology like Marxism is a manifestation of that. We have scientific answers to the question of who we really are. And yet we sort of squirt out of every ideological bottle that we have created for ourselves. And that's a wonderful thing. And I'm sure that there are going to be ways we have of understanding ourselves in the future that come from not only science and philosophy, but also from the arts. And from the new technologies that we create for ourselves--that we can't even imagine now. And, one of the reasons I wrote my book is to get people to accept that and be open-minded to that possibility. And even embrace and cherish that vision of the future.

56:41

Russ Roberts: So, you confessed to me you are a child of the 1960s--which means you are somewhere in my age group. I'm 64.

John Horgan: I'm 65.

Russ Roberts: So, you could argue this is something of an old man's game, this self-awareness, figuring-out-life thing. I think when you are 18, or 24, you have to spend some time living before you can figure out what life's about. And I think--I want to put in a plug for Pragmatism, the philosophy. I had a wonderful professor in college, Dick Smyth, who has since passed away. But he was an extraordinary teacher. And he gave the example of the Cartesian urge to, while in a boat, to pull up every plank and examine it: 'Is it safe? Is it good? Is this a healthy plank, or does it need replacing?' And, that's not a practical, pragmatic--literally--pragmatic way to go through life. Because, he was talking about intellectual planks. He was saying, 'Is this true? Should I believe this?' or, 'Should I replace this view, this belief, with a different view?' As if reason could solve those problems. And I think, in this conversation, romanticized the ability to transform oneself. We are, in many ways, as much as I love free will, we also are the product of our genes, and our family, and our culture, and our country. And it's not--it's a bit of an illusion to think that your mind can fix all of the things that are wrong with your mind. Which, of course, is what we are sort of talking about here.

John Horgan: Yeah. Well, I guess I would object to the language of 'fixing our minds.' I think that the idea that there's something wrong with us--this is where I disagree with my friend Robert Wright. He thinks that--the guy who wrote, Why Buddhism Is True,. He thinks that there really is something wrong with us. You know, it's sort of a version of original sin--

Russ Roberts: Yes--

John Horgan: and Buddha told us that there's something wrong with us. And, so, they are creating, in a sense, the problem that they purport to solve. Um, and I'm really sensitive to that problem. This is why I'm saying--I'm trying to convince people to see identity crises as positive and exciting. Another way that I try to get people to see, just the human condition--and I think this comes from my experience with psychedelic drugs, but it's something that I feel--I certainly felt on my Buddhist Retreat and I feel in all sorts of situations: When I'm not high on psilocybin or LSD [Lysergic Acid Diethylamide]. Which is just that life is really strange. Right? Life is really weird. It is infinitely improbable. And I think this is something that science has actually helped us to understand. It's like a convergence of science and mysticism. Life is--our existence is just infinitely improbable; and yet here we are. And, you know, if you think of one definition for something that's infinitely improbable and yet it happens anyway, would be a miracle. So, I like to tell my students, when I feel like--when they seem to be glum, which they often are, these days--I give them this little spiel about how life is a miracle, and you should--you've got to get on with your life, as you said. There are these practical realities; you've got to get a job; if you want to have kids and get married there are certain things you have to do to make that happen, and to make it a success. But: Try to stand back and just look at your life. And life, in general, now and then. And realize how extraordinary it is. This is something that I also try to show in my book: the mind/body problem, the human condition, consciousness--all these things--there's a paradox that the more we study them, the stranger they seem. The more inexplicable they seem. And that's what I'm trying to get people to see, as well.

1:01:14

Russ Roberts:

Russ Roberts: It reminds me of the--this is a very strange thing to be reminded of--but in P. G. Wodehouse, the great British comic writer, Bertie Wooster is not very bright. And his valet--his butler, his valet, Jeeves, is quite bright. And the humor of the Jeeves stories is that Jeeves is a lot smarter than his boss. And, a lot of things mystify Bertie, because he's not very smart. He's not very self-aware, either. And something will happen, and he'll say, 'You know, Jeeves, Life is rum.' It's a British expression: I think it just means weird. And I think about it all the time. Life is so rum. I think we have a tendency, and it's part of your book in a way we haven't talked about. You know, I know the insight of Ed Leamer, EconTalk guest, who said 'We are story-telling, pattern-seeking animals.' And we really like those utopias, those ideologies, those religions--the things that we want to organize our thinking around. And there is such a temptation--and, the one I've been thinking about lately--if all goes as planned, this episode with you, John, comes out after our conversation with Peter Berkowitz on the Enlightenment. And, you know, I have an urge--well, is the Enlightenment good or is it bad? Well, it's both.

John Horgan: Yeah.

Russ Roberts: And it's really hard to accept that. I had an incredible example of it recently, where, in the aftermath of the murders in Pittsburgh of 11 Jews on a Saturday morning [Sat., Oct. 27, 2018--Econlib Ed.], I went to the funeral of two of the people who were killed in Pittsburgh--because I just felt I should have. And it was one of the most--it's almost embarrassing to say this--it was one of the most exhilarating and inspiring things I've done in my life. I say it's embarrassing because it was a tragedy. We were commemorating a tragedy at this funeral. But, there was an unimaginable outpouring of human love and affection by the 1500 or 1800 people who were at that funeral. Including members of the Pittsburgh Steelers, who were there because the sister of these two brothers who had been killed who had worked for the Steelers. So, in the middle of the NFL [National Football League] Season, Ben Roethlisberger, the quarterback, and Mike Tomlin, the coach, showed up at a funeral--took off 3 hours in the middle of the day. Which is just--I don't think people realize what a bizarre and an incredible thing that is for an NFL--people to do. That's not the way they behave. People flew back to Pittsburgh who weren't Jewish, who didn't know any of these people, just because they felt they should be there. Every policeman who I talked to, and thanked for being out on the street that day--a number of them felt guilty. They were sad and sorry that they hadn't prevented this. And so, in the middle of this most heinous crime that a human being could do, just take people's lives of strangers other than religious heritage, this unbelievable human joy--not joy, that's not the right word--but coming together and compassion was on display there. So, which is it? Are human beings fundamentally good or fundamentally bad? Well, we're both. Life is rum. Life is--and that poetry, that richness of the human experience, to me, is just deeply--I'm deeply gratified when I appreciate it. And, I just think--appreciating it is a huge part of being alive.

John Horgan: Yeah. I--when you were talking about this, about going to those funerals, it reminded me of my reaction to, you know, the terrorist attacks on 9/11. So, I was living just above New York City, and that morning I--my wife and I, now ex-wife, ran up to this hill where we live and we could see the New York City skyline, and we could see the Twin Towers had collapsed. They weren't there any more. And I remember that day as feeling both terrified--very frightened and thinking about the consequences for our young children, then--but I also felt a kind of exhilaration. Everything seemed brighter and more real. I think that the death and the tragedy and the unpredictability of it was a reminder of how fragile life is, and how easily it can be snatched away from us. Which helps you see its beauty. And, it helps you see all the good things that we have--the love, and the friendship, and how much we have to lose. So, that is a paradox. This is something that I've tried to show in my own writing. I think it's what spiritual experiences do for us when they are really working: They help us confront this richness of our own lives with, you know, the worst possible aspects and everything that's good. I'm not a religious person, myself. I stopped being Catholic a long time ago; and I've never found a concept of God that makes any sense to me, because, you know, the traditional God of Christianity, and of Judaism and Islam, who is supposedly all-powerful and loves us, allows these terrible things to happen. How can that be? This is the problem of evil. But the flip side of the problem of evil is the problem of beauty.

Russ Roberts: Yeah.

John Horgan: And friendship. And love. And everything that makes life worth living. That's a problem, too. If you are an atheist, how do you account for that? And a strict materialism--and this is something that I explore in my book and that I ask all my subjects--strict materialism doesn't really give an adequate explanation for, you know, this fantastic human adventure in which we do actually make progress. We learn ways to live with each other with more tolerance, and respect, and to give ourselves more freedom. So, yeah. It's a mystery.

1:08:04

Russ Roberts: Yeah. Well, you bring me to an issue that came up in a conversation with Alan Lightman a couple of episodes back, where he makes the point in his book, Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine, and he says, 'I wonder if anything impermanent can matter.' And he asked the question--I don't remember exactly how he says it, but this is the gist of it--'Shakespeare, King Lear, great play. Maybe it will last a thousand years. Maybe 10 thousand. But, at some point all the lights will go out in the universe. The stars--the sun will lose its energy. It will burn out. If we've escaped to other galaxies, they, too, will--their stars will, other solar systems will burn out.' And his view, which disturbs him: Nothing is permanent. Nothing. He invokes an extraordinary ant colony that somehow manages to last for decades. And in the midst of those decades they create art, and understanding of what they are. But, after a hundred years, an ant colony can't live beyond that. And it's gone. Is there anything meaningful about it? It's a very bleak vision in a certain way. I fought against it, when we talked about it. But, afterward, either--I can't remember whether I came to this idea or a listener wrote about it--even though permanence seems to be the hallmark of meaning, impermanence is what gives life its meaning. In so many ways. It's an incredible paradox, right? If we lived forever, who cares what happens today, tomorrow, yesterday, a year from now? It's a fact that the time period is finite is what gives life its extraordinary bittersweetness. Right? It's that skyline in New York, and the funeral that I went to, and all those things--the poignance of the impermanence of life is deeply meaningful. Which is crazy.

John Horgan: Yeah. And we struggle against it. And yet, in our struggles, we discover meaning, and we can also share our experience of being mortal creatures who are eventually going to lose everything that we love. And being able to share the experience, that's a kind of way of overcoming the impermanence of things. You know, there are scientists who think that we can become immortal, and we can shed our flesh-and-blood bodies and become these kinds of cyborgs or cyber-creatures, live in cyber-space forever. I find that fascinating, but I also see it as a kind of human pathology.

Russ Roberts: Yup. Yep.

John Horgan: And, an attempt to escape--what also makes life so exciting and wonderful. But, it's always going to be painful, as well as beautiful and blissful. That's--I guess, growing up, or a kind of mature spirituality just accepts both that the darkness as well as all that's good about life. It's not always easy for me, I've got to say. And, you know, I have children; so this is one reason I worry about the future--just the near-term future. I also worry about--I think about, along with Alan Lightman, who I've met, how meaningful can life be if everything is going to be extinguished--I don't know, billions or trillions of years from now. And the universe evolves toward some state of terminal heat death. There are some scientists who have tried to come up with solutions to that: How we can survive in an infinitely large, cold universe.

Russ Roberts: Heh, heh, heh.

John Horgan: Yeah. Believe it or not. Freeman Dyson, one of the greatest physicists who ever lived, has come up with all kinds of crazy schemes. We can become gas clouds in space, sentient gas clouds. And our main cognitive activity will be figuring out how to conserve energy for another trillion years. Huh, huh. I'm just going glad--that just makes me glad that I'm here sort of trapped in this aging body right now and capable of enjoying, enjoying the very mortal flesh and blood life that I have.

Russ Roberts: Well, Freeman Dyson has also been a guest on the program; and we did not talk about that. But it strikes me as interesting, and we'll close on this--it strikes me that so many of these scientific explorations--the brain in the box, you know, immortality through the singularity, what you just mentioned of Freeman Dyson's--these are desperate attempts by people who don't believe in God to create a God that's different. And God is one way to solve the impermanence problem. Obviously. If you can't believe in God, it's interesting to me that you have to find something else. Why is that? Why do we care? Why can't we accept the fact that life is short? Now, an animal--even a proton--with its limited consciousness, or a dog, with its limited consciousness, doesn't--I don't think--spends any time worrying about its mortality. I don't think it ever wonders, 'Should I eat this, because it might make me sick, and then I'll perhaps die before my time?' I don't think a dog has those worries. We do. Why? Why do we have those worries? And, to me, that's a--I find that deeply inspiring, that mystery. It--to some extent, it's a backbone of my faith. My religious faith. It helps me, at least rationalize it in a scientific world. But close with your thoughts on that.

John Horgan: Well, the way I think about this sometimes is that, you know, I guess, intellectually, rationally, I accept that none of our attempts to create a transcendent meaning work. That's what religions try to do. There's some scientific attempts to do something similar to that, the kind that I was just mentioning that Freeman Dyson has proposed. But, wrestling with the meaninglessness of life is--has given me meaning. I feel extraordinarily privileged to, at the age of 65, to still be wrestling with these deep philosophical problems that most of us are supposed to give up in our sophomore year of college.

Russ Roberts: Heh, heh.

John Horgan: And, you know, talking to somebody like you who obviously is obsessed with these sorts of things as well, it gives me a sense of companionship. It's fun. I enjoy it. And I'm going to do it as long as I can. I disagree with Socrates that unexamined life is not worth living. I think that's a terrible thing to say. Because there a lot of people who are not terribly introspective, and they can have perfectly good lives. But, for me, it's been wonderful. I've really enjoyed it.


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