“Mind-Body Problems: Science, Subjectivity and Who We Really Are”

A conversation with the Author John Horgan

Comparing himself to the famous moral philosopher Owen Flanagan, the author notes, “I am a judgmental jerk who likes to be liked, as I disguise my criticism of others with irony or humor. Very passive aggressive. And like Flanagan, I puff myself up and deflate myself, sometimes simultaneously.

“There are differences between us, I am more agnostic about supernatural matters than Flanagan, perhaps because psychedelics have loosened my grip on reality. I don’t believe in God, ghosts or souls but I am not adamant in my disbelief.”

I have to say here, based on several lengthy personal encounters, that John Horgan is nothing like this. In three years of intensively interviewing, reviewing, and meeting with world-class science writers, philosophers, cosmologists, and physicists, no one has been more plain-spoken, less pretentious, less defensive, more accessible and easier to talk to than him. I found that it was also surprisingly easy to disagree, to debate, even to argue with him. He was always cordial, never looked as though he’d rather be somewhere else, and if you said anything remotely funny, you could count on his supportive laughter.

Then why the self-disparagement? Is this merely a literary affectation, a preemptive strike against his many critics. Well, perhaps partly, but just listen now for the echo of the lapsed Catholic, the boy (as he tells us) who would feel clean inside, ’purified’ after he would go to confession, and who gave up or lost his God, at a young age but never stopped looking for surrogates, for higher powers, for cosmic oneness. You will hear then, beneath a playful boastfulness, an almost Dostoyevskian need to confess to “something”: to purge what he often refers to as “my demons”.

He wrote a book about all this and more called “Rational Mysticism”(a book I would like to read but can not, because of my aversion to the subject matter). To my surprise, when I reveal this to John in our interview he is genuinely sympathetic. His interest in the big questions goes back to when he was five years old, but his fascination with the mind-body problem took hold when he attended a now famous 1994 Tucson, Arizona consciousness conference organized in part by the anesthesiologist, Stuart Hameroff, and the great Roger Penrose. This was the conference, you may remember in which the Australian philosopher, David Chalmers, would electrify the audience with his then-radical concept of the “hard problem of consciousness”. It would legitimize and help kickstart a subsequent tsunami of consciousness studies.

Fast forward to 2016 when a now fully engaged John Horgan joins a philosophy salon in 2016, in NYC that includes assorted leading academics. Why John Horgan, who had no formal philosophy affiliations? Well, “bulling my way”, “worming my way” into places where he is not generally invited, is what he is good at (for all I know, of course, he may have been invited). Once inside Horgan is true to his personal code: “I refuse to be intimidated”. Posts from battlelines of cutting-edge consciousness studies, begin appearing in his popular blog Cross-Check. Soon he is not only reporting the emerging theories of others, but he is also weighing in with his own original solutions to problems that have been unsolved for thousands of years.

Thus we have in January of this year The Weirdness of Weirdness. The main idea is incredibly simple. At its root, the world really is weird. It is not weird to think that reality is weird because it really is. It’s weirdness all the way down. The reason it’s weird is because science is telling us, more and more, just how contingent, how improbable, how easily our own world (and of course us in it) could have been either radically different or just non-existent (pick your own poison) and the reason we. almost never think this way is that we have been acclimated and brainwashed into thinking that what’s obvious is self-evident and readily comprehensible. Note the charm of the idea, the deceptive simplicity and it’s almost memetic appeal.

Three years in the making, the fruit of all this is the new free online book: Mind-Body Problems: Science, Subjectivity and Who We Really Are. It’s based on a series of interviews with prominent thinkers, with turbulent, sometimes psychiatric histories, who have all consented to reveal their very personal, sometimes sexual narratives to our ever serious, but quite respectful interlocutor. We are invited to eavesdrop on a psychic Smorgasbord of depressive episodes, adulterous affairs, years of painful struggle, deep professional disappointments, tragic bereavements, intermittent flashes of brilliance, psychiatric incarcerations, and the joys of triumphal intellectual breakthroughs.

The reader will not be surprised that I loved the book. It is not his edgiest or most controversial — that would be The End of Science — but from a purely literary perspective, it is easily the best. When I communicate this to him, he replies he is glad I think so because that is what he thinks too.

We agree to meet at The Copper Still, an old-timey Irish bar cafe on 9th street in the East Village. It’s the place we met for our first interview two years ago. Its main feature is that it is almost uninhabited in the early afternoon and it is within walking distance of my office.

Early in the morning, as I am about to leave for my office, I retrieve a message from John: is it possible we could meet two hours earlier than planned, at 12 o’clock instead of 2 PM? Something came up and he is anxious to get back to Hoboken. Not sure The Cooper Still opens that early, I call back. John, having returned from a run, is in the shower. I call again and the voicemail is on. I leave for my office, call two more times as soon as I arrive, to no avail, and head directly for The Copper Still, hoping it’s open. It is and standing at the bar is John Horgan who has already delivered his lunch order to the bartender. Trim, taller than average, he has a weathered, virile look of an outdoorsman, hawkish features and a wide Irish smile. When I ask if he’d like a glass of wine or something he quickly says no. I suddenly remember the exact same thing happened the last time we met.

“You don’t drink do you?”

“I haven’t had anything to drink for nine years.”

“Do you mind if I drink a glass of wine?”

“Not at all.”

“I don’t like to drink in the company of non-drinkers. My very first job as a graduate in the mental health field was as an assistant in the first voluntary rehabilitation center for recovering alcoholics located on the grounds of the Creedmoor State Psychiatric Hospital, in Queens. Abstinence from drink should go hand in hand with abstinence from friends who drink. They stressed that a lot.”

“I’m not an alcoholic… just a heavy drinker”

“I’m sorry. I remember the last time you spoke about how troubled you had been as a young man, how you had gotten heavily into drinking and drugs.”

“I did then. Did you know I’ve just kicked my caffeine habit?”

“How many cups were you drinking in a day?”

“Six or seven”

“I used to drink ten daily”


The Interview

(due to time constraints it’s been condensed and slightly edited)

“Before I begin, did you receive the email I sent you on Sabine Hossenfelder’s medical condition?”

JH “Yes, I did”

(I should say that Sabine Hossenfelder is a brilliant quantum physicist who writes an enormously popular blog, Backreaction. Her debut book, Lost in Math, has been garnering glowing reviews (including one by me) and she is currently engaged in a whirlwind book tour, spanning several continents. On October 3, one of those stopovers will be at the prestigious Stevens Institute in New Jersey. The school in which John Horgan heads up a dynamic program in creative journalism. In one of those it’s-a-small-world coincidences I happened to be there (at an event sponsored by the NYU Center for Journalism) when John Horgan intercepted Sabine Hossenfelder, who was scheduled to speak, and invited her to be a guest speaker at Stevens Institute. In the email I referred to John Horgan’s attention this upsetting sentence from a recent blog by Sabine Hossenfelder: “I’ve spent most of my life in the awareness that I may not wake up tomorrow”.)

“I found it quite sad”

JH “She’ll be ok — I mean it is sad… but it just makes her a braver person…”

“There’s no doubt she’s brave, but you know, for some reason, maybe she was just under the weather, but I tried my best to be as friendly as possible and I got absolutely no response”

JH (seemingly concerned about my feelings) “Oh don’t take it personally… she had a long flight…”

“I was glad to see she accepted your invitation to come to Stevens Institute”

JH “We got along great”

(Here I’m puzzled) “But I was there when you introduced yourself to her and she didn’t seem to recognize you at all”

JH “Oh…well… we all went out together afterward. She didn’t recognize me at first, but then when she remembered she had participated in an email Q&A with me (which I remembered reading and enjoying) she loosened up…”

“She was friendly?”

JH “Oh, yes”

(I knew I was a little bit envious of their budding camaraderie and that it was time I spoke about his book. Which is always the easy part for me. I only review books that I love or at least like very much… so if I’m lucky enough to score an interview, I’m confident my natural enthusiasm will spill over and come across as sincere.)

“The book was a page-turner for me.”

This makes John happy.

“Each time I finished a profile, I’d think ‘this must be the best one.’ That’s what I thought when I read the Christof Koch one. Then I read the wonderful one on Douglas Hofstadter and I thought ‘O.K. this is the best one’ ditto for Rebecca Goldstein. But it was Robert Trivers and his gun who won the best.”

In 2017 the author and his girlfriend (I’ll call her Emily) traveled to Jamaica to interview Robert Trivers, the evolutionary biologist whom the psychologist Steven Pinker calls “one of the greatest thinkers in the history of Western thought” and an “underappreciated genius”. Trivers, however, may be “underappreciated” according to the author, at least in part because “he is a difficult man, a hot-tempered, bipolar, anti-authoritarian with a taste for booze and weed”. Yet if many evolutionary hypotheses deserve to be derided as fanciful “just so stories” this certainly does not apply to the “hypotheses of Trivers.”

In his landmark papers “Parental Investment and Sexual Investment” (1972) and “Parent-Offspring Conflict” (1974) Trivers explains why “hatred and cruelty abound even within families”. John Horgan first crossed tracks with Trivers when he attended the annual conference of the Human and Evolution Society in Santa Barbara, California. Someone pointed out a scruffily bearded guy, in a knitted cap, and tinted glasses smoking a joint with two other men. “That’s Bob Trivers, my informant said. I approached Trivers, identified myself as a reporter for Scientific American and asked for an interview. He eyed me suspiciously and waved me away.”

Not to be deterred, Horgan delivers the report on the conference he was assigned to cover, going out of the way to be “fair” to Bob Trivers. But fair (or the accolade “bracingly cynical”) hardly pacifies an annoyed Trivers. Shortly after publication, “Trivers sent me a letter containing this excerpt”:

‘I was disappointed in your shallow piece on evolutionary psychology. Even on trivial matters, you are resolutely ignorant.’

Not surprisingly the author sticks to his guns. He continues to think he is right but he is “stung” by the letter. Now fast forward to 2011 when the author accepts an offer from The New York Times to review Trivers’ new book The Folly of Fools. Putting past grievances to the side, the author rises to the occasion and “I gave Folly a positive review”. He decides to invite Trivers to his school to talk about Folly.

Trivers accepts and in 2012 he gives “a terrific talk” to a packed auditorium. Afterward, Trivers, John Horgan and a dozen students in his science writing seminar meet for a discussion. To jumpstart the conversation, the author brings up the “old complaint that evolutionary hypotheses are unconfirmable ‘just-so stories’.” It was the wrong jumpstart. Cooly, Trivers asked for an example and suddenly the author realized he was in over his head: “Trivers’ narrow-eyed gaze spooked me.” Refusing to be intimidated, Horgan “mumbles” his way through the first answer that pops into his mind — but “as I spoke I am actively aware of my students eyeing me. Like a pack of feral dogs watching their leader challenged by a bigger rival; they sensed my fear; the moisture on my brow, the tremor in my voice”. To his credit, Trivers does not press his advantage. Serendipitously “his tone became mild. He didn’t want to embarrass me in front of my pack. I felt grateful and humiliated.”

Nothing in John Horgan’s book affected me as much as this anecdote. As someone who has frequently witnessed apex academics smash down anyone who for any reason seemed to challenge in any way their authority- simply because they could — I could only empathize with the author’s dilemma. So my respect for Robert Trivers which had plummeted at the first display of his ferocity as quickly soared at the sudden appearance of his better angels. Perhaps because of the sudden mood swings of Robert Trivers, the author feels obliged to “convey a couple of scenes”.

“Later when I was alone with him in his living room, Trivers displayed knowledge of a different kind. If someone pulls a knife on you, he informed me… wait for your assailant to make his move, knock his knife hand aside with a forearm and punch him or go for his throat. He showed me a chokehold he learned from his pal Huey Newton. Gripping the back of my windpipe between his thumb and fingers, Trivers pinched until I winced. He apologized for hurting me but did I understand how it would feel if he had squeezed hard? This hold can incapacitate anyone, no matter how big and strong and kill him if you keep squeezing…”.

In his 2015 memoir, Wild Life Trivers recounts incidents in which he was robbed at gunpoint and fought off would-be assailants with his fists or knife. He talks about his friendship with Huey Newton, who co-founded the Black Panthers. They remained close until Newton’s death in 1989. Trivers calls Newton “a warm, brilliant man” but acknowledges his “dark side”. Newton “brutally beat and murdered people of various ethnicities sometimes for no crime at all”.

At the end of his memoir, Trivers regrets his “absence of self-reflection.” He doesn’t think madness and genius are linked “you don’t learn anything when you go crazy.” His manias, which usually culminated in hospitalization, lasted for a month or two and were followed by a longer period of depression and recovery.

After a day, a sleepless night of oppressive heat and non-stop animal noises, the author and his girlfriend were ready to return to their air-conditioned hotel room. But when Bob Trivers abruptly left the room, Emily had whispered “he has a gun”.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

She had just seen Trivers walking past a doorway with a pistol in his hand. At first, John Horgan did not see the gun. Then, as they waited on the porch for the driver to arrive, Trivers standing in front of the author, sipping from a dark brown bottle of …rum and cream, he sees the gun clipped to his belt.

“Bob, why the gun?” I asked.

“Trivers replied that he always wore the gun when he left the house. No point having a licensed firearm on this island if you don’t carry it with you.”

When I reiterate to John Horgan that I consider “Bob, why the gun?” the single best line in the whole book, he repeats it, seems to savor it one more time, and smiles.

“I haven’t read that much of Robert Trivers. I read that forward he wrote to Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene. I read Richard Dawkins’ glowing praise and beautiful exposition of the seminal papers of Trivers. But I never read those papers…”

JH (more excited than I’ve ever seen him) “Oh my God, his papers on parental conflict… on parental investment… they are GREAT…GREAT…There is everything, anything you could ever want in a paper. He is a GREAT SCIENTIST….”

“But what you wrote about was just so raw, so revealing… what was Trivers’ reaction?”

JH “He emailed me and said he liked it. He apologized for allowing my girlfriend to see him carrying a gun. He’s in New York right now. We might get together.”

To lighten the mood, to lighten my mood (though utterly riveting, I had also found the Trivers’ sketch emotionally draining) I tried to inject a little irony.

“Emily is the same Emily you mentioned two years ago? (he nods) O.K. I don’t understand why then, on the one hand, you’re chivalrous to a fault, you give her a pseudonym for a first name (as though she is reluctant to even be outed as your girlfriend) — and on the other hand you take her along with you to the heart of darkness, to a really dangerous tropical island with one of the highest murder rates in the world to interview a “bipolar, hot-tempered” genius with a taste for booze and weed”?

JH (acknowledging his gaff with a small shake of the head and a sheepish look) “I’m still hearing about it from her”

I should say Emily comes across as the moral center of his universe. It is obvious (to me) he very much values her opinion and intelligence and needs her approval. To that extent, as the coyly shrouded dark lady of the narrative, she seems (again to me) at least as intriguing as any of the more inflated performative characters who form the core of this book.

“Did Emily really require you to provide a first name pseudonym?”

JH “She’s a private person.”

At one point, in the midst of an enthusiastic discussion of books that have had a pivotal effect on our development, John, lowering his head, says:

JH “You’ve read more than I have.”

“You said the same thing to me two years ago. You say it like it’s a defeat. Like we’re having some kind of contest and you lost”

JH (ignoring my comment) “Emily can’t understand how I, as a supposedly educated man, know almost nothing about Henry James. So I go on a Henry James binge and I marvel at the subtleties of Portrait of a Lady. He’s a great psychologist…”

“Along with William James, they are among the greatest brother geniuses in the history of America.”

JH “I think Varieties of Religious Experience by William James, written over a hundred years ago is still unsurpassed.”

“I agree, but I think most people consider The Principles of Psychology to be his masterpiece.”

JH (searching his memory) “Is that stories…does that have narrative in it?”

“No. It was commissioned by Holt company originally to be a textbook”

JH “Do you recommend it?”

“Well, I’ll put it this way, by far the prevailing opinion today is that The Principles of Psychology is still considered the single greatest contribution to psychology by an American.”

JH (thinking this over) “Really?”

At this point, I have to ask: “John, a number of your characters have psychotic breaks. You talk openly in The End of Science about your psychedelically fueled psychotic episodes. Could you talk more about it from the perspective of today over forty years later?”

JH “You mean the first time?”

“Yes.”

JH “That would be around my first year of college. It was an incredible experience of imagining I was God”

“But wasn’t it chaotic? Did you feel afterward you had learned anything useful?”

JH (shrugging) “I felt underneath it there was a sense of unity of oneness with the cosmos. Something I feel a need to understand. Something I think science… which I love, science alone… cannot solve… So I think I will never stop looking…”

As good a place as any to stop, but before I do, not to be missed, in his account of Elyn Saks.

“Elyn, Elyn…. Watermelon.”

That’s what she remembers her classmates called her in school. It didn’t stop her from graduating at the top of her class at Vanderbilt and Yale Law School, and from getting a doctorate in psychoanalysis, from becoming a psychoanalyst/ a legal scholar. Nor did it stop her from receiving a diagnosis of being schizophrenic with a “grave” prognosis. When she was a philosophy student at Oxford, she estimates “80% of my thoughts are psychotic”. She puts high priority on her antipsychotic medications, as a necessary biomedical crutch to stabilize her, but she considers Freud to have provided a window on the human mind that is “richer and deeper” than anything we have.

She is one of the few psychoanalysts to out herself as a certified person with schizophrenia in her gripping memoir: The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness. If you doubt she is a certified person with schizophrenia, consider this, when she was a philosophy student at Oxford (and getting good grades) she was falling under the influence of insidious voices inside her telling she was evil and that she needed to destroy herself. So, she began burning herself with cigarettes. She contemplated pouring gasoline over herself and setting herself on fire. It was only when she looked into a mirror — “and saw a hideous, wild-haired, bug-eyed woman who looked three times older than herself” — that she realized she needed help. Here’s how she described how it felt to be in Yale-New Haven Hospital:

“Nothing I can do. There will be raging fires and hundreds, maybe thousands of people lying dead in the streets. And it will be all — all of it — be my fault”.

I could not resist the triumphal Ted Talks presentation (mentioned by John Horgan). What I saw, was something I had never seen before. A tall, proud woman, under enormous inner stress struggling valiantly to tell her story (which included three bouts of cancer and a stroke). As inspiring and powerful to watch, she would receive a standing ovation from a stunned crowd.

But there are other stories besides Elyn Saks. There is Christof Koch, the prominent neuroscientist, decade’s long collaborator with DNA discoverer Francis Crick, and his “consciousness meter”, soon to constructed, that promises to record the level of consciousness (that is as soon as it is discovered whatever that is) of everything in the cosmos from plants to people.

There is Douglas Hofstadter, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning cult book GEB (Godel, Escher and Bach) an acknowledged computer genius whose first wife Carol dies tragically young — and he desperately tries to “download” her personally as a means of programming her identity.

If I had to name a single flaw, I would say he seems to lack a middle range. He either writes at the top of his voice or sotto voce (humbly reciting his deep flaws). He talks frequently about his demons but it’s never clear whether he’s exercising them or playing hide and seek with them. He’s either a serious thinker and artist (which is how I tend to think of him) or he’s a charming informative entertainer. Here’s either a first responder, a Paul Revere of journalism, alerting the nation to imminent threats to our freedoms or he’s a Monday morning, self-promoting quarterback. He can’t be both. He can’t be a passionate advocate of free-will and not choose a singular identity. So, finally, why should anything bother to read this book?

Two reasons.

One. It’s free.

Two. It’s superb — on just about every level.


Gerald Alper

Author

God and Therapy

What We Believe

When No One Is Watching