John Horgan (long-time columnist for Scientific American) has a new book on the mind-body problem. You can conveniently read it for free at www.mindbodyproblems.com. Horgan has produced many words, but offers very little original insight on questions of mind and body.
I can think of some general approaches that might be fruitful in gaining some insight on the problem of mind and body. A good approach would be as follows:
First, make a very thorough study of long-made claims about the brain, to try to determine how solid such claims are. This would involve trying to figure out whether there is really any robust evidence for the claims that are so often made about brains, such as the claim that brains store memories, and claims that brains produce ideas and understanding. Such a study would be extremely involved, and would need to involve an in-depth examination of whether the typical research practices of modern neuroscientists are sound, or whether they are faulty.
Second, make a very thorough study of whether the brain actually has the type of physical characteristics that it would need to have if the claims typically made about brains are correct. Such a study would need to ask questions such as this:
- Does the brain actually have any mechanism for writing learned information?
- Does the brain actually have any mechanism for reading learned information?
- Does the brain actually have any characteristics allowing an instant retrieval of learned information?
- Does the brain have the type of stablity needed to store information for many decades, or does it have the kind of high molecular turnover that would prevent such a thing?
- Does the brain actually have the kind of speed it would need to be the cause of instant human recall and fast thinking?
- Has anyone ever found any sign of stored learned information in brains?
- Does anyone actually understand any system by which a brain could translate learned information or episodic memories into brain states?
Third, make a very thorough study of whether the brain actually appears like some organ that is storing memories or producing thoughts. Such a study would need to ask questions such as this:
- Do brains really look different or act different when people are engaging in actions such as thinking or recalling memories, or are the differences in its appearances at such time merely the kind of differences we would expect to see by chance variations?
- How much of their memories do people lose when you remove half their brain?
- Can people with only half a brain (or much less) still think well and understand well?
- Are some people able to think and remember well with much smaller than half a brain?
- Is there real evidence for ESP and clairvoyance, human mental abilities that cannot be explained by brain activity?
- Is there real evidence that human consciousness can exist outside of the brain (something which, if true, would in itself disprove claims that minds are made by brains)?
- Is there evidence for apparition sightings that cannot be credibly explained as hallucinations?
- Is there evidence from things such as near-death experiences and mediumistic phenomena that a soul can survive death?
"After I became a professional science journalist, my interest in the paranormal, or psi, faded as I delved into more scientifically acceptable mysteries. I decided that ghosts, telepathy and telekinesis are woo. My skepticism is not strictly rational—that is, based entirely on objective, empirical analysis. Like, say, sexual faithfulness, skepticism has become a fundamental part of my identity, personal and professional. A choice. I’m proud of my skepticism, but a little ambivalent, too, because it is based in part on cowardice (again, like sexual faithfulness). I fear if I become too open-minded toward the paranormal, I might harm my image as a science writer, such as it is, and my self-image. I might forget who I really am."
We have every reason to believe after such a frank confession that Horgan has deliberately avoided studying the paranormal, not because of any sound intellectual reason, but because he fears that learning about such a topic might lead him to be disapproved by his peers. What he describes as his "skepticism" may better be described as an obstinate refusal to examine evidence that might shake prior opinions. Apparently such cowered-by-the-herd behavior is very common. Horgan quotes biologist Rupert Sheldrake as saying "that scientists constantly confess, privately, that they keep their belief in the paranormal secret for fear of damaging their reputations." It is unwise to suggest that by studying evidence for the paranormal, someone will "forget who he really is," and such an investigation may instead help you discover something about who you really are (something much more than the mere ephemeral apelike neural epiphenomenon depicted by many who haven't studied the paranormal).
Horgan fails to discuss in much of any substantive way any of the main problems that plague contemporary neuroscience, and says very little about the details of the brain. He incorrectly defines the mind-body question as "how matter generates mind" rather than some more appropriate definition such as "the problem of what is the relation between mind and body." He ends up with a kind of shoulder-shrugging chapter that seems to say or insinuate that we can't get much of anywhere understanding much of anything about mind-body questions. This is not at all correct. By very carefully and thoroughly studying a large set of things that Horgan has not paid attention to (such as anomalous medical cases, out-of-body experiences, the slowness, high noise levels, high protein turnover and many very serious physical limitations and functional shortfalls of all brains, the explanatory failures and defective procedures of neuroscientists, and the abundant evidence of paranormal mental phenomena that cannot be explained as brain activity), we can gain very solid reasons for reaching the extremely important mind-body realization that our minds must have some source other than our physical bodies.