James McWilliams writes: In January 2010, while driving from Chicago to Minneapolis, Sam McNerney played an audiobook and had an epiphany. The book was Jonah Lehrer’s How We Decide, and the epiphany was that consciousness could reside in the brain. The quest for an empirical understanding of consciousness has long preoccupied neurobiologists. But McNerney was no neurobiologist. He was a twenty-year-old philosophy major at Hamilton College. The standard course work — ancient, modern, and contemporary philosophy — enthralled him. But after this drive, after he listened to Lehrer, something changed. “I had to rethink everything I knew about everything,” McNerney said.
Lehrer’s publisher later withdrew How We Decide for inaccuracies. But McNerney was mentally galvanized for good reason. He had stumbled upon what philosophers call the “Hard Problem” — the quest to understand the enigma of the gap between mind and body. Intellectually speaking, what McNerney experienced was like diving for a penny in a pool and coming up with a gold nugget.
The philosopher Thomas Nagel drew popular attention to the Hard Problem four decades ago in an influential essay titled “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” Frustrated with the “recent wave of reductionist euphoria,” Nagel challenged the reductive conception of mind — the idea that consciousness resides as a physical reality in the brain — by highlighting the radical subjectivity of experience. His main premise was that “an organism has conscious mental states if and only if there is something that it is like to be that organism.”
If that idea seems elusive, consider it this way: A bat has consciousness only if there is something that it is like for that bat to be a bat. Sam has consciousness only if there is something it is like for Sam to be Sam. You have consciousness only if there is something that it is like for you to be you (and you know that there is). And here’s the key to all this: Whatever that “like” happens to be, according to Nagel, it necessarily defies empirical verification. You can’t put your finger on it. It resists physical accountability.
McNerney returned to Hamilton intellectually turbocharged. This was an idea worth pondering. “It took hold of me,” he said. “It chose me — I know you hear that a lot, but that’s how it felt.” He arranged to do research in cognitive science as an independent study project with Russell Marcus, a trusted professor. Marcus let him loose to write what McNerney calls “a seventy-page hodgepodge of psychological research and philosophy and everything in between.” Marcus remembered the project more charitably, as “a huge, ambitious, wide-ranging, smart, and engaging paper.” Once McNerney settled into his research, Marcus added, “it was like he had gone into a phone booth and come out as a super-student.”
When he graduated in 2011, McNerney was proud. “I pulled it off,” he said about earning a degree in philosophy. Not that he had any hard answers to any big problems, much less the Hard Problem. Not that he had a job. All he knew was that he “wanted to become the best writer and thinker I could be.”
So, as one does, he moved to New York City.
McNerney is the kind of young scholar adored by the humanities. He’s inquisitive, open-minded, thrilled by the world of ideas, and touched with a tinge of old-school transcendentalism. What Emerson said of Thoreau — “he declined to give up his large ambition of knowledge and action for any narrow craft or profession” — is certainly true of McNerney. [Continue reading…]