The Body in Question   /   Summer 2015   /    Essays

On the Value of Not Knowing Everything

James McWilliams

Stupor Mundi (detail), 2010, by Mimmo Paladino (b.1948); Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna, Rome, Italy/© Stefano Baldini/Bridgeman Images.

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.

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