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INTRODUCING: The World Behind the World
Consciousness, Free Will, and the Limits of Science
What do you give away, when you write a book? What piece of yourself are you carving off, I mean? For a writer must treat himself like some sort of grisly compulsive, but mentally. There goes a childhood memory, now severed and served. There goes your first kiss. There goes your first bad break-up. There goes the enigmatic sad smile of your father.
In my first book, a novel, what I gave away was myself in my twenties, when I was flawed and prideful and angry but also poetic and barely containable. It’s the reason the book has an emotionality I’m still proud of, and that I couldn’t pull off now. I carved off chunks of personality and distributed them across characters, and after they left I felt quieter. Inside, I mean. But also, more lonely. As a person I was a bit smaller, and simpler.
But that was fiction. It may at first seem authors have to give less with nonfiction: Here is a book about some subjects, out of all topics, out of everything under the sun. And in some ways, it’s true it’s easier. The cosmologist merely gives away her cosmology, and so on. This can be deceiving. For the cosmologist was a certain person when she learned her cosmology, and we are human beings, and what an author can give is not just knowledge, but more critically a perspective on that knowledge. Which is why, despite how there is an inexhaustible supply of facts, eventually after many volumes a nonfiction writer has nothing left to give, and so their books get thinner, both physically but also metaphysically—they write the book because this is how they make their money, because they know nothing else. Thus the tenth book by a popular nonfiction writer is often some sort of wisp, risking nothing, carving off nothing. Occasionally, an older veteran writer, either of fiction or nonfiction, will overcome the barrier of experience, but only through audacity—meaning that the best cut their hearts out in the end.
For most of 2022 I was quietly working on my second book, The World Behind the World, which is now being published by Simon & Schuster on July 25th. Its subtitle gives you a stronger hint of what it’s about: Consciousness, Free Will, and the Limits of Science.
What is TWBTW? It is a book that tells the story of the twin perspectives that humanity has taken on the world. First, there is the extrinsic perspective, which describes the mechanical, the scientific. Then, there is the intrinsic perspective, which describes human consciousness and its myriad contents (thus: “The Intrinsic Perspective,” the very name of this Substack). Humans can, with facility, discuss both the mechanical and the mental, but we use very different languages for each. I argue that much of the work of civilization was in the development of these two, often opposing, perspectives—and TWBTW tells that historical tale, focusing on science as the means we developed to best describe the extrinsic and literature as the means to best describe the intrinsic.
But, as grand as that scope may sound, that’s actually just the beginning of the book. For it’s also about what happens when the two perspectives meet in the contemporary attempt to create a science of consciousness. This field, one started by Francis Crick and Gerald Edelman, two Nobel prize winners competitive with each other, was the field I got my PhD in, working on what is arguably the leading scientific theory of consciousness.
A summary of the book in some ways defeats its purpose. It covers so much, from an analysis of how ancient Egyptian poetry was “mind blind,” to the letters of philosophy and flirtation between Descartes and Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia (she, a great philosopher in her own right, was the first person to point out the fundamental flaw in Descartes’ theory of how the mind interacts with the body via the pineal gland; in this she was first person to fully understand the mind-body problem), to my own recent research on how theories of consciousness inevitably fall into unfalsifiability (which is in some ways an extension of Elisabeth’s original critique), to how the difficulties around creating a science of consciousness may mean that science itself is incomplete due to self-reference, much in the way that mathematics is incomplete, as Gödel showed. The book culminates in a scientific theory of why we have free will, based on the mathematical work on emergence I and my co-authors introduced when I was in graduate school.
As you can tell, it is an interdisciplinary book. In this it is a homage—I was inspired to study science because of unclassifiable books from unusual perspectives, heady tomes like Gödel, Escher, Bach or The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind.
So, what am I giving away? To be blunt, I am giving away my scientific career—for these are the main problems and discoveries that have concerned me since graduate school, things that I’ve been dwelling on for over a decade and publishing papers about. Somewhat ironically, I haven’t actually talked about many of these topics here at TIP, as this book was under contract before I even started TIP and I didn’t want to overlap too much.
I won’t lie, I was at first a bit suspicious of a popular nonfiction book deal of the kind we did where my agent, Susan Golomb, took me around to meet with the big publishers in New York. While there’s nothing wrong with a work of pure popularization, to do it myself I find pretty uninteresting.
Putting together this book has felt very different from what I initially worried about. I decided that, if you’re going to use a medium, use it to its fullest, and at its best a nonfiction book can (a) be an interesting read that is widely understandable, and (b) actually make original intellectual contributions. There are more advantages of the medium too. E.g., a popular book can also avoid the strictures of the fields it discusses. As I wrote in “Why do most popular science books suck?”
. . . a nonfiction work of “popular science” should take full advantage of the fact that it is a discussion occurring outside the normal standards of academia. In the cases of Pinker and McGilchrist and Yuval, their books are so influential precisely because they skipped the peer review of a normal scientific paper, as well as the hierarchies within the fields that they, as dilettantes, touched on. . .
As an example, TWBTW argues that, since neuroscience lacks a good theory of consciousness, and is therefore unable to lawfully relate brain states to experiences, as a scientific field it is currently pre-paradigmatic and deeply confused. Yet, if I wrote this argument up as an academic article, it would likely never be published, and certainly not in a top-tier journal. I know because I tried once, and, after making it quite far, it was quietly culled behind the scenes. And while the issue of neuroscience being pre-paradigmatic is just one example, in fact, one contained to merely a single chapter of the book, it’s the sort of thing that you can only do in a book like this, and therefore it’s the sort of thing that makes me extremely excited about it.
With all that said, I’d like to ask for your help. Publishing is a hard business, and while I have a bunch of advantages due to backing by a major publisher (you’ll be able to find TWBTW in most bookshops across America when it comes out) to get on any bestseller lists and to attract the attention of reviewers and readers, not to mention get the book published in different languages, the book needs to sell well its first week. And all pre-orders prior to the publication date count toward the sales numbers of that first week. So, if this book sounds interesting to you at all, please pre-order it now (links below).
It is strange to be in the business of hollowing yourself out. You become a peculiar salesman of self, gradually getting smaller each time. But being an author is also, in many ways, a deeply rewarding pursuit. So here I am, hoping you decide to check out my alien wares, to buy the jewelry I made from my own bones.