Three hundred and seventy-eight years after Descartes kicked it off, humanity is still a long way away from coming to any definitive answers about mind-body dualism — that is, the question of whether the “self” should be seen as existing separately from the body. But as Howard Akler eloquently, movingly argues in his new book Men of Action, published by Coach House Books, the search for those answers is likely a large part of what makes us human.
Akler, whose previous book was the sparse crime novel The City Man, has, with Men of Action, gone in a completely different direction. The book — a sort of memoir-meditation — concerns Akler’s father, who entered a coma after undergoing brain surgery in 2002 and woke up a very different person, thus inspiring the writer’s subsequent investigations into consciousness. (What makes us us? And how much of the self is knowable to others?) Toggling between psychology, philosophy, neuroscience, and his own emotionally gripping personal reminisces, Akler’s book is as poetic, intimate, and honest a look at the creation of the self as you’re likely to read this year.
He spoke with Science of Us on the phone from his home in Toronto.
In the book, you write about mind-body dualism as being, fundamentally, a semantic issue. Can you unpack what you mean by that?
We don’t have the language to adequately deal with the mind-body problem. When you’re trying to explain something so complex as where the self comes from, you tend to reduce the subject to its simplest level. It’s like the idea of nature/nurture — it’s not either/or, it’s both. You might claim that the neuronal response is who you are, but that response is altered by where you are and who you’re with. We don’t have the language for that set of relationships or situations. The more complicated a situation is, the more stress it puts on our language to try and convey what’s really happening.
In the book I quoted [the neuroscientist/philosopher couple] Patricia and Paul Churchland, who say things to each other in everyday conversation like, “Don’t speak to me, my serotonin levels have hit bottom.” They’re trying to more accurately represent what is going on in their mind and body and what their responses are — and they’ve harnessed the language that can do that. But it’s hard not to retreat back to the basic philosophical idea that the moment we impose language on something, we restrict it. You may have some core emotion or feeling or sense of who you are, and you’re trying to pin it down using words, and it’s always going to be a bit of failure of language. We can never quite get to what we want to say.
The Churchlands’ language is so incomprehensible to a layperson. Talking about your dopamine levels doesn’t feel like a more emotionally accurate way of talking about your mental state than saying, “I am mad.” That feels to me like an example of how scientific knowledge doesn’t get to the core of our lived existence. Is that the sort of failure you’re talking about?
What I’m trying to say, I think, is that a strictly scientific perspective doesn’t allow for a certain sense of, for lack of a better word, romance. There’s a huge gap between what science tells us we are and who we feel we are. I keep coming back to this: To think we are something that can be reduced to pure science is hard to accept. I don’t think our brains are wired to think like that. It’s like when people discovered that the Earth revolves around the sun: There are certain scientific principles that have come to be understood as the Way It Works, but it’s humbling when we realize that we are not the center of the universe. When science imposes on who we feel we are, it can take a long time for us as individuals to catch up emotionally and cognitively.
The amount of knowledge we have about how the brain works is mind-boggling — I think I semi-intend that pun — but it makes me think of how if you know how a magic trick is done, the trick becomes less impressive. The idea of being like the Churchlands and — I’m just making this example up — looking at a beautiful vista in nature and considering our reaction to that majesty in causal scientific language doesn’t seem like emotional progress to me. Do we lose anything when we gain that kind of knowledge?
We have an instinct to try and advance scientifically, but I know what you mean — there is a loss of an appealing mystery. But the sense of wonder can be shifted onto different things. You might look out at a gorgeous vista and feel wonder about how your brain is processing all this stimulation, which is a pretty amazing feat. There’s a different kind of mystery that can be opened up.
So it’s a shift in our thinking about what can instill wonder?
I couldn’t quite include this in the book because it just would have veered me too far off-course, but there’s a philosopher named Alva Noë who has written a book called Out of Our Heads. He says we can’t just reduce ourselves to our brain and its biochemical processes. Yes, all of that is occurring, but it’s occurring in an organism that is embedded in a particular time and space, a particular physical environment, and a particular sociocultural environment. The mystery is still there. We may know exactly what every neuron is doing, and how it’s creating our sense of what we are experiencing physically, but the real mystery is how it works together with everything around us and how that informs our senses. I think it ties into some — and I’m not well-versed in this — a lot of Eastern philosophy where the physical body is not all there is to understanding who we are. We respond to our environment in a certain way that you can’t pin down.
There’s a part in the book where you talk about Erving Goffman’s The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, which presented the idea that the self is a character we learn to play to help us get along in the world. And you connect that idea to your dad, who was this mild-mannered guy who drew so much of his personality from the tough-guy behavior he saw in old gangster movies. What’s your sense of why we choose to play the characters in life that we choose to play?
It might be too much of a simplistic view, but as far as my father would have been concerned, he saw characters in gangster films who were decisive and no-nonsense and knew what they wanted and went after it. There was something appealing about that, and also a bit counter to who my dad essentially was. He was a very affable guy, and that’s not the most dynamic quality. Gangsters would have appealed to some sense of who my dad was not.
Do you think there’s typically a big difference between the character we present and our innate self?
I don’t think there’s often a huge gap. Sometimes the way we respond is based exactly on who our innate self is, but generally, our self is much more diffused than that. Sometimes your actions might seem a little out of whack from who you truly are, but I think that means you’re not necessarily acting out of character, you’re just acting out of the most common form of your character. In the book, I used Daniel Dennett’s idea of the narrative center of gravity. We tell ourselves a story that “I am this person” in a way to help make the world more comprehensible to ourselves.
The motivating impulse of the book was your desire to understand what was happening to your father’s mind, both from neurological and philosophical perspectives. Now, after having written the book and having gone so deep into the subject, do you feel any closer to understanding what makes a “self”?
If we’re talking about my dad’s specific self, working on the book underscored how little I would be able to get into his head, and how much of my sense of him would be informed by who I am. There’s a very narrow version of my dad in this book. He was someone who didn’t speak openly about his interior life and often seemed to indicate that he didn’t reflect at all, which to me seems impossible — we all reflect to some degree. Maybe the most surprising thing going through all of this process was realizing that my dad could actually say, “I’m not a very reflective person.” I still can’t believe that. Whatever is going on externally, so much of our lives are actually in our heads. That’s incredibly difficult for someone outside another’s head to understand, let alone put on a page. That was a challenge of the book. Maybe the biggest one.