Exploring the mind-body problem: An evening with Siri Hustvedt

This post was contributed by Andrew Youngson, media and publicity officer for Birkbeck, University of London

“The truth is that people don’t agree on the mind. Confusion reigns. Scientists, philosophers and scholars frequently clash,” explained Siri Hustvedt to a gathered audience at Woburn House on Friday 23 October.

The American essayist, novelist and poet was in London to attend a daytime conference exploring academic responses to her work on her work hosted by Birkbeck’s Centre for Contemporary Literature. The event, which borrowed its name from Hustvedt’s 2012 collection of essays Living, Thinking, Looking was coordinated by Birkbeck English and Humanities PhD student, Alex Williamson, whose thesis examines the writing of Hustvedt and her husband, Paul Auster.

Siri Hustvedt (photo courtesy of Annabel-Clark-www.annabelclark.net)

Siri Hustvedt (photo courtesy of Annabel-Clark-www.annabelclark.net)

This particular event, however, was the associated evening seminar,– a public reading and open Q&A, comprising part of the Bloomsbury Festival, in which Hustvedt was tasked with laying out her thoughts on the ‘mind-body problem’.

Are the brain and mind different? What is the distinction between the mental and the physical? Such questions have fuelled the overarching mind-body debate which has been battered about for centuries within and between various spheres of academic pursuit. A debate, said Hustvedt, which is far from over.

“The unsolved problems of the mind and body are treated by the media, philosophers and science like they are behind us. But often the underlying assumptions are hidden. Much remains unknown about the mind and its relation to the world,” she continued.

This broad topic of discussion offered an illuminating window into Hustvedt’s portfolio of work, which for nearly four decades has spanned the realms of academia, art, fiction and non-fiction.

The Delusions of Certainty

(L-R) Siri Hustvedt and Dr Johanna Hartmann (pic: Dominic Mifsud, Birkbeck Media Services 2015)

(L-R) Siri Hustvedt and Dr Johanna Hartmann (pic: Dominic Mifsud, Birkbeck Media Services 2015)

The evening began with a reading from Hustvedt – an extract from her forthcoming 200-page essay, The Delusions of Certainty, in which she analyses the concepts of ‘the self’ and ‘consciousness’ and how they have been interpreted through the ages.

Philosophical luminaries including Alfred North Whitehead, Giambattista Vico, Margaret Lucas Cavendish, Rene Descartes and Thomas Hobbes have all been influential in how we view the mind-body divide, Hustvedt noted. However, grand theories which have been created by such thinkers — constructivist, dualist and absolutist as many are – often serve to stultify and stymie the opportunity for further debate.

“Part of the problem is that of expertise,” she said. “My issue is with knowledge that presents itself as a finished theory. That is pernicious.”

A pluralist by nature, Hustvedt made her case for being sceptical of “truisms”, “asking questions” rather than rushing to answer them, and “acknowledging the limitations” of our own knowledge. The world-renowned writer’s thoughts came to the fore in her reading and the Q&A sessions which followed – initially an on-stage interview with Dr Johanna Hartmann, a contributor to the collection of academic responses to Hustvedt’s work, Zones of Focused Ambiguity in Siri Hustvedt’s Work; and secondly in an open Q&A session with the audience.

The topics touched upon during the evening were wide ranging:

  • the reductionist ‘Computational’ and ‘Hardwired’ models of the brain: “They should be put to bed forever,” Hustvedt remarked
  • the underlying misogyny in theories of artificial intelligence: “It’s about hopping over women entirely”
  • the value of Eastern medicine and philosophies: “As a pluralist, I try to read as much as I can, and to see how they can work together”
  • the production of art: “All art is a relational reality”
  • her ease in writing about a mysterious series of seizures she experienced earlier in her life: “I didn’t consider it a moral failing or something that was shameful. When I was over it, I just thought ‘this is really interesting, I could use it in my writing’”

A connection to something out there

In many cases, it was in raising her own questions, rather than making assertions, that Hustvedt’s core take-home message was laid bare.

Siri Hustvedt at the Birkbeck evening event (pic: Dominic Mifsud, Birkbeck Media Services 2015)

Siri Hustvedt at the Birkbeck evening event (pic: Dominic Mifsud, Birkbeck Media Services 2015)

“It’s fascinating, because it asks questions like, ‘can the endochrine system think?’”, she said in response to an audience member’s question about the phenomenon of false pregnancy. “Now, I don’t know the answer, but I think it’s good to ask the question.”

This approach to knowledge and truth lies at the heart of her essay, The Delusions of Certainty, and indeed her writing in general. Hustvedt rallies against the forced certainties of dominant discourses. The arrogance of such “wrapped up” scientific writing as Steven Pinker’s How the Mind Works – the very publication which inspired Hustvedt to write her essay in the first place ­– distort debate.

That said, this doesn’t lessen her passion for the pursuit of knowledge, and the value of science.

“My aim here isn’t to ‘diss’ science,” she concluded. “It’s very important to assert something which is true. We’re all the beneficiaries of the models used in science that have power over the material world, such as antibiotics. But does it mean that the model is perfect? No, it just means it has some connection to something that’s out there.”

Hear Siri’s interview on the Birkbeck Voices podcast on iTunes or the Soundcloud link below.

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