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.
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--
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.