Both as a science writer and a human being, I’m obsessed with the mystery at the heart of things, the mind-body problem. In a narrow, technical sense, the mind-problem asks how brains make minds, but it really poses a deeper question: What are we? Are we matter? Genes and neurons? Computer programs? Souls? All my books, from The End of Science to Pay Attention, grapple with the mind-body problem. Since the beginning of the pandemic, I’ve been studying quantum mechanics, which is related to the mind-body problem. I've written a bunch of columns for Scientific American on quantum mechanics over the last 16 months, and I'm writing a book about it now. I'd love to talk to Redditers about the mind-body problem, quantum mechanics and related topics. I’d also be happy to talk about why I’m an optimist, at least on good days. Here are relevant links: My AMA proof: Mind-Body Problems, free online book: Mind-Body Problems, talk show: Recent Scientific American column: Twitter handle: @Horganism Profile on the Progress Network:

Comments: 921 • Responses: 75  • Date: 

dog_snack407 karma

How often to people confuse you with the current premier of British Columbia?

iamJohnHorgan274 karma

Enough for it to be annoying. There's also a terrorism expert named John Horgan. I once interviewed him for Scientific American.

iambluest11 karma

What makes him an expert?

iamJohnHorgan49 karma

He's devoted his career to interviewing and studying actually terrorists.

lanzaio163 karma

The title of this post makes OP seem a lot more authoritatively knowledgable about quantum mechanics than he is and thus he's getting questions about it as if he's an expert. He's an enthusiast who uses QM as a hobby to write about. The title should be rewritten to make this more clear.

edit: I rewrite this comment to come off less mean and more objective.

iamJohnHorgan36 karma

I can recommend some great quantum experts, including some of the folks I mention above. Musser, Hossenfelder, Aaronson, Maudlin, Albert. David Deutsch would also be great. But be warned that they all see quantum mechanics differently.

Physix_R_Cool27 karma

"I started with Leonard Susskind's "Quantum Mechanics: The Theoretical Minimum." But that was very difficult."

This quote from this thread should tell us all we need to know about him. If the bare minimum is very difficult for him, then why should anyone take seriously what he writes about QM?

iamJohnHorgan19 karma

The problem with Susskind was that I was starting from absolute scratch. I had to go back and re-learn logarithms and trig and calculus, which I took more than 40 years ago, and learn linear algebra for the first time. Susskind pretty much assumes that you know that stuff.

rehanshj4racy6kb22 karma

For sure. He sounds like a journalist.

iamJohnHorgan51 karma

That's because I am a journalist.

funkboxing97 karma

Why do I experience 'now'? 'Time' makes a lot of intuitive sense in terms of being what separates events. But I'm interested in why our experience of an apparent 'now' has such total primacy in our conscious experience. Only think I can think is sort of an anthropic principle answer- that there has to be a now that we can experience so we're experiencing this one because we can, but that doesn't really satisfy me.

Just an open ended question, looking for any thoughts or research direction, philosophical or physical, to help me explore this question.

iamJohnHorgan128 karma

That's a deep one. Mystics say there is only now, an eternal present. Whereas some physicists say that our sense of the present, and of time itself, is illusory. All of time, past and present, exists simultaneously. Check out the work of Julian Barbour.

errorsniper19 karma

I wonder if it could be said there is only a now from your own frame of reference. For example if you go into extremely close to the event horizon orbit of a black hole. Time dilation does happen in a measurable way.

From the observer outside the event horizon orbit the "now" is at a normal rate and you have almost stopped in place. From you inside the "now" feels the same but you are moving at a dramatically lower rate though time. All we have done is gotten closer to a massive object and going quickly around it. But our frames of reference have fallen totally out of sync.

(I may have that inverted)

Im very out of my depth here with multiple concepts I honestly dont totally understand. But how can all of time exist simultaneously if we can alter the flow of time not just our perception. You will age much slower in that orbit than you would outside of it from the outside point of view. All of that with just very high gravity and velocity? Both my and your "now" are valid but going at very different rates.

I honestly dont even know if what I am trying to ask is coming across here so sorry in advance.

funkboxing12 karma

I was asking about the conscious experience of 'now'. I'm not sure 'the present' is a material property of the universe so much as our perception of it. Establishing the relationship between two particles positions and time can be achieved with calculations that define the life of the particle, but anywhere along those lines could be considered 'now' from the particle's experience as far as we understand 'now'.

Consciousness seems to be the only thing that has an inherent demand for a particular 'now' to exist, and it makes sense that we could only experience a single 'now' at a time, but my question is 'why now, now'? Why do I experience today, today, instead of yesterday or tomorrow? I know it seems silly and the anthropic answer is rather complete, but I'm looking for more.

Perhaps our minds are analogous to a 'lens' that focuses time into chains of experienced 'moments'. But that's just a poetic interpretation and doesn't really help with any understanding.

iamJohnHorgan14 karma

Perhaps all interpretations should be seen as poetry.

iamJohnHorgan8 karma

You might try reading Roger Penrose on these questions. He's one of the deepest, most imaginative physicists alive.

2Big_Patriot-6 karma

Every answer is just some random gibberish. Do you actually get paid for spewing out this non-sense, trying to sound intellectual but having zero substance?

I have never seen such a crazy AMA.

iamJohnHorgan19 karma

Craziest AMA ever? Thanks, I'll take that as a compliment.

NelsonMinar82 karma

I worked at the Santa Fe Institute in 1995 when you wrote your Scientific American article about the place. It was hugely dispiriting at the time and along with a bunch of other stuff really set the research institute back.

My question is, what do you think of that article now, after 25 years?

iamJohnHorgan82 karma

I was pretty mean, I admit, but I think my criticism of SFI has held up. It applies to Big Data, which is in many respects just complexity theory repackaged. I've become friends with one of the SFI people I criticized, Stu Kauffman. I devote a chapter of Mind-Body Problems to him. In 2019 someone at SFI urged me to apply for a summer fellowship though. I did, because I thought it would be fun, but then the pandemic happened. I probably wouldn't have gotten the fellowship anyway, I think there's still some resentment toward me at SFI. Understandably.

NelsonMinar51 karma

Thank you for the thoughtful reply! I was just a young student at the time and it definitely felt mean then. Later on (after a stint at the MIT Media Lab) I came to understand the value in deflating hyped up science although it does have a cost too.

The substantive criticism does seem spot-on though; SFI has not revolutionized the science of everything. But it has made some valuable contributions, particularly the community it has enabled. For me, the systems and complexity background has served me well in my distributed systems career.

iamJohnHorgan61 karma

The irony is that I loved the time I spent at SFI. All those smart, eloquent people trying to solve the secrets of the universe! The problem was that the signal/noise ratio was very poor, and I felt obliged to report that.

Studoku47 karma

Do we have free will?

iamJohnHorgan39 karma

Yes, we have free will. I experience free will, in the form of choices, every day, unless I'm so sick or sluggish I can only lie in bed. I understand why smart people, taking their lead from physics, think free will is an illusion, but I think they give physics too much credit. Physics tells us very little about the mind.

CrazyH0rs314 karma

What do you think of Sam Harris's experiments that show our decisions are made before our conscious mind has made a decision?

iamJohnHorgan8 karma

Sam makes far too much of the work of Libet, whom I mention above. I've been pretty hard on Sam. His books on free will and morality are examples of scientific materialism run amok.

TheVincibleIronMan10 karma

Do you believe is just current physics that tells us very little about the mind but that it has the potential to completely map and explain it?

I apologize for not providing evidence of this study I'm remembering (I'm on mobile right now), but it was something about scientist being able to predict a basic human decision by entire seconds before the person was conscious of making that decision.

iamJohnHorgan1 karma

You're thinking of Libet's experiments, which supposedly show neural signals preceding conscious choices by a split second. Much has been made of these experiments, especially by free will deniers, but to my mind they don't come close to undercutting free will. If you google Horgan Libet free will you'll find my critiques.

SuckySucky3fiddy18 karma

To preface (in John's favour), the idea that quantum mechanics is connected to consciousness and the mind-body problem is NOT quackery as some self-proclaimed "skeptics" claim, it is a real issue in the philosophical foundations of QM. John von Neumann, the guy who first formulated a complete mathematical description of quantum mechanics, for instance was convinced that the wave function collapse had to happen in the brain.

But I'm first going to play the role of the skeptic here, no disrespect intended.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, I’ve been studying quantum mechanics

Unless you have the mathematical background, it's doubtful you have a deep enough understanding of quantum mechanics to connect it to the mind-body problem in one and a half years since the beginning of the pandemic. To try and understand the mind-body problem with QM, your best tool for this is quantum information theory (for those who don't know, that's the modern version of QM which we can apply to quantum computers and the like).

This is a graduate level subject and an active area of research where new discoveries are being made all the time, so how did you learn it in two years (if at all)? Have you written any papers or been part of active research in quantum information theory?

There are other things I could ask, but to keep it short, I'd like to ask, have you looked at the Hindu and Buddhist philosophy arguments on the mind-body problem? If so, what are your thoughts?

iamJohnHorgan0 karma

You're right, I've learned enough about quantum mechanics in 18 months to know how little I know. Differential equations and matrices still crush me. But I've had a blast studying quantum mechanics, I urge other amateurs to try it. If I can, you can. As for your final question, I've been interested in Buddhist and Hindu mysticism since I was a kid, and I still meditate and yearn for enlightenment, whatever that is. I'm fascinated by attempts to reconcile these systems with western science, that was a major theme of Rational Mysticism. See also "Buddhism Is True" by my friend Robert Wright.

Eldiabolo1817 karma

Have you studied physics and quantum mechanics or did you just get into it and know enough to write about it?

iamJohnHorgan5 karma

I started studying quantum mechanics, and trying to learn the necessary math, including calculus and linear algebra, at the beginning of the pandemic. It's been a slow and painful but also exhilarating process.

daiaomori55 karma

OK, I’m more and more puzzled about this AMA, and about how Scientific American picks their authors these days.

You seriously claim to have knowledge about quantum mechanics but you say you are trying to learn calculus and linear algebra?

I mean I really don’t want to be mean or disrespectful or anything, and nobody can know everything by birth - but seriously, calculus and linear algebra? That’s kind of the basics of math! What else is there before that? Addition and multiplication?

In addition, the required math for quantum mechanics is not that complex; what is complex are the concepts expressed in that math, and how the math progresses into the deeper and derived concepts that follow. It’s less math, but more application of math. That’s also where most of the stuff looses me, and why I try to not get involved too much with interpretations of quantum physics. There are some intriguing aspects from the philosophical perspective, I‘ll agree to that; but interpreting purely mathematically derived concepts that one has not even fully grasped mathematically is a dangerous field.

We don’t have proper linguistic concepts to express the world of quantum physics; that’s why we struggle with concepts like „spin“; it behaves like something spinning, it can be well described like something spinning, but there is nothing there to spin. How do we deal with that? We can’t, until we try to rework our linguistic abilities. Not that I have any idea what that would specifically encompass; I can only describe the limits, not a solution. I believe that speculation, based on those non-fitting concepts, regarding „minds“ won’t lead us anywhere. We first need to make our minds up for the task to do so, and I believe we dramatically lack that ability by now.

Anyhow. I am really really confused by this AMA.

iamJohnHorgan2 karma

You've just stated some of the reasons why I took on this project. I want to see if learning the math will help me understand QM's philosophical implications. So far, it's deepened my puzzlement. By the way, you and others seem to suggest that I've misrepresented myself, when in fact my headline starts by saying I'm a science writer. So please spare me your shock and dismay that I've been allowed to enter the house of Reddit.

scatgreen22 karma

What's a good place to start on the math side? I started reading about quantum mechanics and was fascinated. Then I began watching an online MIT class, but hit a wall with the math.

iamJohnHorgan3 karma

I started with Leonard Susskind's "Quantum Mechanics: The Theoretical Minimum." But that was very difficult. The best book I've read is "Q Is for Quantum" by Terry Rudolph, which conveys the essential mathematics of superposition and entanglement succinctly and brilliantly.

Somalin18 karma

Whats your stance on the mind body problem?

iamJohnHorgan16 karma

I see it as the central problem of science, philosophy, spirituality--of life. It's a way of asking, What are we, what can we be, what should we be? Human history has been shaped by our attempts to solve the problem and by our battles over possible solutions. I think we have to keep wrestling with the mind-body problem while recognizing that there cannot be, and should not be, a single, universally true solution.

baronvoncommentz15 karma

Why shouldn't there be a single universally true solution? There is a reason minds exist. That just sounds like giving up on ever answering the question "Why?".

iamJohnHorgan0 karma

The human desire for a single answer to the question of what we are, the craving for certainty, has led to war, genocide, inquisitions, oppression. That knowledge of history should make us more modest and humble in our pursuit of answers.

JustAppleJuice8 karma

What is your stance on the notion that our universe might be a simulation of sorts?

iamJohnHorgan8 karma

I don't like it, for the same reason I don't like multiverse theories. First of all, it's sheer speculation, with no hope of empirical confirmation. Second, it devalues our world, along with all the suffering and injustice in it. The simulation hypothesis is a sign of science's decadence.

manyfacedsteeze5 karma

Have you looked at Nick Bostrom’s philosophical argument on the Simulation theory? It is difficult to avoid.

iamJohnHorgan4 karma

Yes, Bostrum's argument is very clever. I used to enjoy this kind of stuff, just as I enjoyed speculation about the singularity, in which we supposed download our psyches into computers and live forever in cyberspace. Now I see these sorts of ideas as distractions, I don't take them seriously.

peanutbutterfeelings7 karma

If all time is occurring at the same time is there an afterlife?

What happens before birth?

iamJohnHorgan5 karma

Good questions. I know people who say they don't fear death, because they see it as just a return to their pre-birth non-existence. I wish I could feel that way. I just wrote a column about how theories of physics can be understood as attempts to come to terms with our mortality.

Ghost256 karma

I don't get the "problem" of the mind body problem. The mind is the subjective manifestation of the brain. Obviously if you destroy the brain there is no mind.

It's like asking what is the relationship between the internet and all the connected servers. The internet is what we call the manifestation of those connections and interactions.

You can pose any number of such questions that seem deep but have no testable answer. Like, "what is love?" The answer is "strong feelings of affection". Someone could reply, "no not the definition, what is love?" It's not really a question that can be meaningfully answered.

iamJohnHorgan2 karma

The problem, technically, is about how matter generates subjective conscious experiences. Scientists can correlate various neural events with conscious experiences, but they have no idea how that neural activity actually generates conscious states. This is what philosopher David Chalmers calls "the hard problem," because it is qualitatively different from pretty much any other scientific problem. And by the way, consciousness should not be confused with intelligence. You can have very high intelligence with no consciousness, or subjective experience.

feverbug5 karma

This will probably get buried, but I’ll give it a shot.

The Indian philosophy of Advaita Vedanta suggests that the entire universe and all the physical things that exist within it, is all just pure consciousness.

At its core, it suggests that rather than our conscious experience being produced in our brain which exists inside our skulls inside a body that exists in the world, it suggests that the opposite is true; that the entire universe is one big infinite mind, and that each “individual” person and our body is just a tiny concentration of consciousness within that infinite mind. In essence, our body is an “image” that exists in the mind, it’s not an actual tangible thing-we just perceive it to be. And when we “die” our tiny individual consciousness just gets released into the greater consciousness.

What do you make of this?

iamJohnHorgan7 karma

Yes, I'm familiar with this metaphysics. My psychedelic trips make me sympathetic toward it. At the same time, I suspect all theories that makes mind fundamental, they strike me as grounded in our innate narcissism and anthropomorphism.

najing_ftw5 karma

Any opinion on Terrance’s “stoned ape” theory?

iamJohnHorgan4 karma

I love Terence McKenna! I interviewed him just before he died, and I wrote about him in my book Rational Mysticism. His ideas seemed implausible to me, in their substance, but I think his style captured the psychedelic mindset brilliantly. He was just trying to get us to see the utter weirdness of the world, and the necessity of using our imaginations to deal with it.

MixedBreakfast4 karma

I’m an amateur space nerd, so I love thinking about all the possibilities out there in space. I was really excited about discovering the idea of white holes and wormholes on the larger scale, and then on the very small scale, quantum foam. And discovering the sheer size of the universe, I think I can’t deny the very strong possibility that there might be other planets out there with intelligent life, possibly evolved to our own species, but we might never know what those are. These topics, as well as what the distant future our solar system or galaxy might look like with manmade technology, are the type of things that keep me up at night.

What topics or questions keep you up at night?

What do you think about the future of AI and if will become a uncontrollable force?

iamJohnHorgan4 karma

Good question. I spend a lot of time on metaphysical questions, like "What is real?" because I enjoy them. But what keeps me up at night is whether humanity will survive. I'd really like to see humanity begin demilitarize before I die, because that will help us solve climate change and other problems. That's why I wrote The End of War.

YouAreNotABard3 karma

Do you ever find yourself laughing at yourself due to the fact that there’s no such thing as the mind body problem? Or are you saying that you are a moron?

iamJohnHorgan8 karma

I often laugh at myself, and I often feel like a moron.

Question4u_3 karma

Is it possible that the phenonenon of conscuousness could arise from other natural... things?

e.g. is it possible for consciousness to occur in a swamp if certain chemicals mix? Or for space debree and gasses are arranged a certain way? Or for the whole universe to be conscious?

iamJohnHorgan0 karma

Integrated information theory is a very popular theory of consciousness, advocated by neuroscientists Guilio Tononi and Christof Koch, and it holds that consciousness emerges from any system with interacting parts, such as s single proton. So it says that consciousness pervades the entire universe. I'm skeptical.

aristochaotic2 karma

Do you think its possible for human consciousness to be "uploaded" and preserved on a computer? If so, do you think that consciousness could be identical to that of a human?

Also, hello from your War and Science class!

iamJohnHorgan4 karma

Yay Stevens! Good question! No, I don't think uploading minds will be possible any time soon or possibly ever. That requires cracking the neural code, the algorithms that transform neural pulses into thoughts, memories, emotions, etc! The neural code is one of those problems that seems harder and harder the more we pursue it.

crumpuppet2 karma

What's your take on the bicameral mind?

iamJohnHorgan3 karma

It's evocative, in a poetic kind of way, like the ideas of Freud. I see these sorts of theories as more like literature than science.

LL_moderatelycool_j2 karma

Softball question here: What are your thoughts on what happens to the conscience we die?

iamJohnHorgan6 karma

Gut feeling: when I die I die. So I'm trying to cherish the time I have.

SkooksOnReddit1 karma

Hi John, I'm also fascinated with the mind, I have more of a esoteric belief of it. Have you heard of Astral projection, and if so what's your stance on it?

iamJohnHorgan3 karma

See the work of Sue Blackmore, the British psychologist. She has tried to verify that astral projectors actually leave their bodies but has found no evidence for that. Astral projection is nonetheless a fascinating phenomenon, similar to dreams, which demands some sort of explanation.

FrivolousMe1 karma

Have you tried any psychedelics? Have they changed any of your perceptions of the mind-body problem?

iamJohnHorgan2 karma

I have taken and written a lot about psychedelics, especially in Rational Mysticism. They have made me much more prone to doubt, and more open-minded. And they have fed my suspicion that existence is an unsolvable mystery.

Fluid_Philosopher1831 karma

What do you think of string theory? Also what's the least number of dimensions that guarantee time travel?

iamJohnHorgan5 karma

I've been critical of string theory from the start, because it has no hope of being experimentally proved or falsified. To detect a string, you'd need a particle accelerator bigger than the solar system. In 2003, I bet Michio Kaku that by 2020 no one would win a Nobel Prize for string theory. I won the bet.

skullapius1 karma

What do you think about the behaviorist argument (more specifically, made by Frederic Skinner) that there is no such thing called "mind"?

iamJohnHorgan2 karma

The modern descendant of Skinner is philosopher Daniel Dennett. He is what is called an eliminative materialist, who comes close to saying that consciousness does not exist. What he really means, I think, is that consciousness is so inconsequential that it might as well not exist.

fuzzyshorts1 karma

What does having two brain hemispheres have to do (if at all) with ideas of an "internal dialogue" you may be able to have with yourself (I mean me with myself)? Anything to do to do with feelings that there's a greater consciousness that may actually be some subconscious "voice" being perceived by one brain hemisphere from the other?

iamJohnHorgan2 karma

I often feel as though I have many more than two minds competing for my attention. For a brilliant riff on this idea, see the weird, wonderful book Society of Mind by the AI pioneer Marvin Minsky.

schmo0061 karma

fascinating, I'd liked to know your thoughts on luck. How does our circumstances influence our decision making? Is there choice? What's are some key moments that lead you to where you are today? Have you done any research on 'flow', the idea of concentration in action?

iamJohnHorgan1 karma

My life seems, in certain respects, totally random, a series of coincidences. And yet, at the same time, I feel as though I was fated to become the person I am now. It's very peculiar, I suspect many people feel the same way about their lives. I have not done research on flow, but I experience it all the time while writing about, for example, quantum mechanics and the mind-body problem.

isurvivedrabies1 karma

any thought about the exploration of the "paranormal"? could it hold answers to the link between things like thoughts and 3d reality?

obviously, mainstream science avoids such ideas like the plague because of the inability to meaningfully measure things of highly strange nature. but what about the possibility of developing the ability to measure such things, and to stop playing the taboo game with it (which seems like it's creating it's own barriers for progress, and at this point, seemingly knowingly)?

iamJohnHorgan1 karma

I''m a psi skeptic, but I've tried to be open-minded. See my chapter on Stu Kauffman, whom I mention above. I also did a Q&A for Scientific American with the leading parapsychologist Rupert Sheldrake, who is a brilliant, fascinating person. By the way, the great physicist Freeman Dyson too ESP seriously, and so did Alan Turing!

Jfonzy1 karma

Did you enjoy the Langoliers?

iamJohnHorgan1 karma

I don'[t know what that is.

Datokah1 karma

When you say 'mind/body problem', is it only Humans that have this? Isn't the Human brain much like all others (albeit hugely complex) and 'merely' an evolved stimulus/response organ? Thanks.

iamJohnHorgan2 karma

The mind-body problem applies, potentially, to all living things and even all matter, not just human brains. I went to a great conference at NYU a few years back on Animal Consciousness at which participants debated whether jellyfish are conscious. Good question! How can we possibly answer it?