The Astonishing Hypothesis

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When I was growing up there were certain topics that nobody would talk about. I knew I was in a strange world! Why were the most important things never talked about? I was particularly surprised when I learned that the world of science was no different. When I was small I developed the idea that scientists questioned everything and nothing was taboo for science. But when I was in school, I learned that people who studied the brain thought "consciousness" was a dirty word; just too wishy-washy for "real" science. I was always attracted to the borders of conventional science where the really hard questions hide from the "cream skimmers"- the professional scientists who only work on simple problems.

It was exciting when Francis Crick finally came forward and declared that it was okay for science to deal with issues like consciousness and the soul. Others of lesser scientific reputation had previously done so, but Crick was a living legend. So the following is for historical reference, a view of the dawning of a new age.

The Astonishing Hypothesis

The Scientific Search for the SoulEdit

Crick's book about the brain gets a second look.

A Review by John SchmidtEdit

Public perceptions of science are strongly influenced by religion. For example, the idea of a mechanism for the evolution of life by natural selection is opposed by some who fear that it undermines belief in creation of life by divine intervention. The publicity generated by opposition to scientific ideas such as natural selection brings such topics out of the rather obscure literature of science and into general public debate.

Those who oppose ideas such as natural selection are often frustrated by the difficulty of trying, as outsiders, to influence science and science education. This frustration sometimes results in emotional opposition to specific scientific ideas such as natural selection. Scientists have learned a lesson from public debate of topics such as evolution by natural selection. Many scientists now avoid public discussion of any topic that is part of religious doctrine.

Francis Crick was one of the co-discoverers of the molecular structure of the genetic molecule, DNA. Crick served as an important theorist who helped guide the growth of molecular biology, the new science that makes it possible for modern medicine to understand and combat diseases such as AIDS. More recently, Crick has become a theorist for neurobiology and the study of the brain. This year (1994) Crick published a book (The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul) which boldly announces to the public that the human soul is a subject of scientific investigation.

In his book, Crick presents an idea that has great potential to provoke wide-spread public discussion and opposition. The 1990s have been declared the Decade of the Brain by some administrators of science research. Within the rather small brain science community, researchers are discovering mechanisms of brain function that may account for the human soul. Few researchers care to inform the public of the implications of such research for fear of offending those who believe in non-material or eternal souls.

The Wichita Eagle published a review of Crick's book by Kent R. Thomas. Thomas found nothing of value in Crick's book and concluded that he would only be astonished if someone would be willing to pay money to read the book. I entirely disagree with Thomas, but I do not think that our disagreement is only one of literary taste or even scientific judgment. Rather, I view the review by Thomas as an early shot fired in a new battle of the continuing war of ideas between scientists and religion-motivated non-scientists.

It is useful to compare two reviews of Cricks book, the one by Thomas and one by J. J. Hopfield (Science magazine, 4 February 1994). Hopfield concludes that, "The book should be read by scientists for its eloquent attempt to put consciousness, which we so much equate with the essence of our humanity, into the realm of science." I am in agreement with Hopfield that Cricks book is a heroic attempt to wrest consciousness from the minds of philosophers and place it in the hands of scientists. In contrast, Thomas feels that the book is sophomoric and a big snoozer and offers nothing new or particularly interesting. What can account for such differences in opinion? Such dramatically contrasting views are also found in other emotionally charged debates such as those over evolution, abortion, gun control, nuclear power, and school prayer.

Crick's Astonishing Hypothesis is that, "a person's mental activities are entirely due to the behavior of nerve cells, glial cells, and the atoms, ions, and molecules that make them up and influence them." Thomas says that this means that Crick is saying that "humans are the superior species because they have souls and human beings are different [they have a soul] from other living things because their physiology is different." I agree that if this was what Crick is saying then the book would be sophomoric, but I disagree that this is what Crick is saying. What Crick is saying is that scientific study of the brain during this century has brought us to the point that scientists can now accept consciousness, free will, and the human soul as subjects for scientific investigation.

Why is the review by Thomas so far off target? There are many who feel threatened by the idea (to quote Crick) that, "You, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cell and their associated molecules." Crick confronts these fears directly by using an unscientific word, soul. Crick is confrontational in his approach and challenges religious believers with the idea that there is a scientific view of the soul as being just one more manifestation of brain physiology. The review by Thomas seems more directed towards trying to prevent people from reading Crick's book and being exposed to his heretical ideas than giving an accurate description of the book.

I suggest that anyone with an interest in how their brain works let Crick take them on a guided tour. In coming decades, science may reveal the mechanisms of mind and provide humans with powerful means to control their brains. Crick's book is an invitation to understand this brave new world.

Crick's research program in the neurobiology of consciousness.

A nice look at Crick's influence on conciousness studies.

This review of Crick's book was first placed at my website. Go to John's Book Page.

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