Jim Fleming: Back in the mid-90s the renowned scientific Francis Crick laid out what he called the ‘astonishing hypothesis’. Crick had already achieved scientific immortality for his discovery with James Watson of DNA’s double helix. He then turned his attention to neuroscience and stated flatly that everything to do with consciousness is the direct result of the brain. Here’s how he described it in an interview he did with us.
Francis Crick: It says essentially that all the feelings you have and what you see and how you feel pain and what you think about yourself and your emotions and ambitions and so on are basically the behavior of an enormous number of nerve cells in your head firing away and interacting and of course the molecules associated with them.
Fleming: Francis Crick wrote, and I’m quoting here, ‘This hypothesis is so alien to the ideas of most people alive today that it can truly be called astonishing.’ Crick died a few years later but his theory about the mind is now the standard scientific view of consciousness. But that’s unfortunate says philosopher Alva Noe. He’s written a book called Out of our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain, and other Lessons from the Biology of Consciousness. Noe told Steve Paulson that Crick’s theory was partly what prompted him to write this book.
Alva Noe: The thing that strikes me is the appreciation of just how astonishing it isn’t. The idea that there is a ‘thing’ inside of us that thinks and feels and decides and that each of is that thing, that’s not an astonishing idea at all. That’s kind of the sort of culturally shared, inherited, conventional wisdom. Descartes thought it was the immaterial soul, that is that thing inside us, and Crick thinks it’s the brain or this collection of brain cells but we really don’t have any better idea how the brain gives rise to consciousness than we do how the immaterial soul substance of Descartes does. So I don’t really think there’s much that speaks in favor of the idea that, as Crick put it, ‘you are nothing but a collection of brain cells and associated molecules.
Steve Paulson: How would you assess the current state of scientific about what makes us conscious?
Noe: It’s very early days. We’re sort of in the teenage years when it comes to the development of this science and like teenagers we’ve got lots of fancy toys that we like to play with, brain imagining technologies and all sorts of high powered laboratory techniques but we haven’t really yet found the organizing framework for understanding how the science should move forward. In a way we think we simply made a mistake about where to look. We think that the answer to the question of what makes us conscious has to be a question about our brains but I don’t think the consciousness is something that happens in our brains. It’s something that we achieve, that we do, that we enact. It’s something that depends on our brains. The brain is necessary for consciousness but the brain is not the sole sufficient basis of consciousness.
Paulson: This makes me think of a concert pianist who doesn’t think out how to play a particular piece of music. Somehow it’s through the feel of the keys that the fingers know the pace and they work with the brain to generate the experience of music.
Noe: That’s absolutely right. So much of our actual lives we are in the flow. We are already wrapped up in a project. If I’m a soccer player in the middle of a game I’m not in the position of an alien from a strange land who looks at the ball and says, ‘Hmm. What is this ball and what is its function in my life?’ I know what to do because I’m trained, because I’ve got habits, because I’m in the flow. And that’s certainly true of the concert pianist too. The concert pianist’s performance would be disrupted if he or she were made to contemplate the movements of the fingers. The fingers are these kinds of transparencies through which the musician is acting on the world.
Paulson: All this, obviously, has some profound implications for research into artificial intelligence. And as we’ve said, there are a lot of scientists who think that the brain basically works like a computer and therefore someday we’ll be able to build a sophisticated computer that is conscious. Are you saying that will never happen?
Noe: I’m not saying that actually. To make a creature with a mind, say in a laboratory, you need to give it a kind of embodied relation to the world.
Paulson: We need to be able to build robots that can walk around and interact with the environment and change because of those interactions. Only that will lead to consciousness.
Noe: That’s right. And maybe even go a step further and say that as we develop prosthetic, cyborgian ways of enhancing ourselves technologically that we will enhance or develop or at least change the character of our consciousness. So I think that much is right in this kind of science fiction fantasy.
Paulson: Well, while we’re on the subject of science fiction fantasy let me ask you about the movie Blade Runner which raises the whole question of whether replicants, the machines in the movie, have consciousness. Is this a possible scenario?
Noe: One of the things which is so beautiful about that movie, I think that movie is really a deeply philosophically engaged work of art. To really understand that movie and follow the plot and engage it you kind of have to do some philosophy. If you remember the main character, played by Harrison Ford, he’s a sort of policeman named Deckard. His job is to track down and maybe kill runaway sort of revolutionary replicants. And the whole movie narratively is built on the idea that we just know, we know with moral certainty, that it’s wrong to think that a merely mechanical or physiological test can decide the question of whether these beings have minds and consciousness or not. We just know that. And even Deckard knows that. Deckard actually forms a romantic relationship with one of them. Being romantically involved with somebody is incompatible with thinking of them ‘as just a machine’. So that movie I think really shows us that we can’t consistently take physiological criteria to be definitive of what it is to have a mind. That mind, spirit, soul, consciousness, call it what you will, are wrapped up with the kinds of ongoing temporally extended interactions that we enjoy.
Fleming: Alva Noe is a philosopher at the University Of California Berkeley. He spoke with Steve Paulson about his book, Out of our Heads.
Roy Batty: Why are you staring at us Sebastian?
Sebastian: ‘Cause you’re so different. You’re so perfect.
Sebastian: What generation are you?
Batty: Nexus 6.
Sebastian: Ah, I knew it. ‘Cause I do genetic design work for the Tyrell Corporation. There’s some of me in you. Show me something.
Batty: We’re no computers, Sebastian. We’re physical.
Pris: I think, Sebastian, therefore I am.
Fleming: A scene from the science fiction classic Blade Runner.