resources_nature_interests_Dr Crick's brain
resources_nature_txt_Dr Crick's Brain
Dr Crick's brain. Searching for the soul with the scalpel
Author: Mariano Artigas
Published in: Aceprensa, 156/94
date of on-line publication: 23 November 1994
Together with James Watson, Francis Crick received the award Nobel Prize for his finding, in 1953, for the double helix structure of DNA. At the age of 77, he has published a book on the brain and consciousness, in which he mixes interesting scientific perspectives with a cheap, anti-religious materialism, unbecoming of a Nobel Prize winner award .1.
Almost all of Crick's book is a knowledge dissemination of current knowledge about the brain and, above all, about vision. The ideological burden is concentrated in the Preface and Introduction, at the beginning of the book, and in the last chapter and a short final epilogue: 33 pages in all. Not much. But it is these 33 pages that give the book a provocative and polemical tone.
The scientific search for the soul
This degree scroll summarises the intention of the book and explains why it will fail. Indeed, how could the spirit soul be found by scientific methods? Experiments must have observable and repeatable results. Therefore, they only allow the study of the material. However, Dr. Crick claims that science can judge the problem of the soul.
In the 1950s, when I went to high school, some people denied the existence of the soul because it doesn't appear anywhere, even if you dissect the whole body with a scalpel. In the 1960s, a Russian astronaut came back from space saying that there is no God, because he had not seen him anywhere. Now, in the 1990s, Dr. Crick tells us that brain science does not find the soul, but instead finds neurons and neural processes everywhere. What would we think of someone who went to a football match and came back disappointed, saying that the players had not played Beethoven's Ninth Symphony? We would say that to hear Beethoven you have to go to a concert, not to a football ground. Well, the same is true here. Science provides us with very interesting insights, but it has never and will never tell us anything about the spiritual dimensions of reality, and that does not mean that these dimensions do not exist.
What may be puzzling is that a award Nobel laureate would fall into such an elementary error. But it is that Nobel laureates, when they step outside their topic, know as much (or as little) as you and I do. And they contradict themselves. Dr. Crick himself writes: "Not all neuroscientists believe that the idea of the soul is a myth (Sir John Eccles is the notable exception B), but most do". Eccles is award Nobel laureate for his programs of study on the brain, and he is a staunch defender of the idea that every human being has a spiritual soul created by God. However, it is not worth pursuing this line, because the problem of the soul cannot be solved by appealing to votes, majorities or Nobel prizes.
Soul and brain
In the preface, Crick writes: "This book is about the mystery of consciousness: how to explain it in scientific terms... what I want to know is what exactly happens in my brain when I see something". Perfect. That's a very interesting study. We are not pure spirits. When we think, want, desire, imagine, something happens in our brain, and probably elsewhere in our body. The more science advances, the better we know the correlation between the physical and the mental.
Crick adds: "The message of the book is that it is time to think scientifically about consciousness (and its relationship, if any, to the hypothetical immortal soul) and, most important of all, time to begin the experimental study of consciousness in a serious and deliberate way. Throughout the book, Crick will argue that the soul does not exist. Why?
What is the soul?
The first chapter begins with this quotation: "What is the soul? The soul is a living being without a body, having reason and free will (Catholic Catechism)". In grade Crick explains that this is what his wife Odile heard, when she was a little girl, from an old Irish lady who taught her catechism.
Of course, the quotation leads one to think that this is what Catholic doctrine says. But this is false. The official doctrine of the Church, which has been concretised over two thousand years in many ecumenical councils and in the magisterium of the Popes, has never said anything like that. And it is not that it has said nothing about the soul: it has said many things. For example, that the soul is the "substantial form" of the body, which means that soul and body form one thing, one substance, one being.
In one of my books I have devoted a chapter in 12 pages to a brief statement of what the Church has taught about the human soul throughout its history, and what this doctrine, which aims to save both human spirituality and the unity of the person, means.2. Unfortunately, in the 386 pages of Crick's book there is no serious clarification of this topic, despite the fact that the central thesis of the book revolves around it. When you write a whole book about soul-searching and attack religion for maintaining the concept of the soul, the least you should do is not reduce the "enemy" to a caricature. That is already in dubious taste in politics; but when you write about science, Philosophy and religion, and the writer is a Nobel Laureate award , you expect the author not to dogmatise with generalities that seem to enjoy the authority of science.
The revolutionary hypothesis
Crick proposes a "revolutionary hypothesis". What is it? In his own words, "The revolutionary hypothesis is that "You", your joys and sorrows, your memories and ambitions, your own sense of identity staff and your free will, are nothing more than the behaviour of a vast array of nerve cells and associated molecules. As Lewis Carroll's Alice would have put it: "You're just a bunch of neurons". This hypothesis is so alien to the ideas of most people today that it may well be called revolutionary".
I don't think the hypothesis is so revolutionary. It is the materialist hypothesis, as old as Philosophy. A few years ago, Carl Sagan said the same thing in his programme "Cosmos". Others have said the same. I venture to guess that, in 50 years' time, the same will be said, adding to neurons and neural networks whatever has been discovered in the brain by that time.
Crick, twice, in a few lines, speaks of being "nothing but". On Philosophy, this is called "reductionism", because it means "reducing" something to one of its aspects. It is a dangerous position, because reality is rich and complex, and reductionism usually ends badly: one day or another, one ends up recognising that it is too narrow. The reductionist wants to corset reality, to put it in a straitjacket in which there is no room for what he does not like, even at the cost of leaving out important aspects.
Crick not only talks about reductionism, he defines and defends it. His definition is as follows: ""approach reductionism", i.e. that a complex system can be explained by the functioning of its parts and the interactions between them". Crick wonders where we are going with reductionism, that is, if there are ultimate parts to which everything is reduced, and he also answers: "Where does that process end? Fortunately, there is a natural stopping point, at the scale of chemical atoms". He then goes on to praise reductionism, stating that "reductionism is the main theoretical method that has guided the development of physics, Chemistry and molecular biology. It is the main manager of the spectacular developments in modern science. It is the only sensible way to proceed until (and unless) we are forced to confront incontrovertible experimental evidence that requires us to change our attitude. General philosophical arguments against reductionism are of no use here".
It is therefore a matter of studying man by reducing him to his parts, ultimately to atoms, and to the interactions between them. In other words, physics, Chemistry and biology. Of course, it does not take a genius to see that this method is legitimate, but it will never lead us to the soul or anything like it. Many illustrious thinkers have attacked reductionism. For example, Bergson said that we cannot understand what a cat is by taking it to pieces and then trying to put them together: we may know some aspects of the cat, but what a living cat really is cannot be known in this way. And he was right.
Methodological reductionism" is useful in science: components are studied, isolated, experiments are carried out under controlled conditions, and we learn a lot of things we didn't know before. But it is only a method, which has its limitations. Many things cannot be known in this way. Philosophical reductionism" claims that only that which can be subjected to experimental study exists; but this is already Philosophy, not science, and it is certainly bad Philosophy, because nothing authorises us to deny the existence of that which cannot be subjected to a particular method, however important that method may be. The philosophical reductionist puts on earmuffs, like those worn by the donkeys that walked the streets of our country a few years ago, so as not to see more than what is in front of his nose. Earmuffs can be useful and sometimes necessary to avoid getting lost in the complexity of problems, but we should not lose sight of the fact that reality is broader than what the earmuffs allow us to see.
Furthermore, Crick acknowledges that, in his book, he does not deal with typically human characteristics, saying: "Many of my readers might justifiably complain that what has been discussed in this book has very little to do with what they mean by the human soul. Nothing has been said about that most human of all capacities, language, nor about how we do mathematics, nor in general how we solve any problem.... I have completely ignored such matters as self-awareness and religious experiences.... ". Indeed. Under these conditions, the logical thing to do would be not to talk about the soul, nor about the person. Instead, Crick plays a juggler's game, adding: "These criticisms are perfectly valid at the moment, but to place them in this context would demonstrate a lack of understanding of the methods of science. Koch and I have chosen to consider the visual system because... it seems to offer some chance of success. Another thing we accepted was that, once the visual system was fully understood, it would be much easier to study the more fascinating aspects of the "soul". Only time will tell whether these arguments are correct....".
But this is not a problem of time. Crick studies the brain and vision, common to man and many animals, and from the point of view of science. Nothing can come out of it that goes beyond the material level.
Who is attacking whom?
I don't mean to attack Crick: I admire him, because he made one of the major discoveries of all history. I criticise his views on the soul, and I say why. If I adopt a somewhat sour tone, it is perhaps because Crick's book includes strong, unfair and superficial attacks on Philosophy and on religion. Under these conditions, it seems to me that there is a right to defend oneself.
Crick refers to philosophers in the following terms: "Philosophers have obtained such poor results during the last two thousand years that they had better show some modesty instead of that arrogant superiority they usually exhibit.... they must learn to dispense with their pet theories when the scientific evidence contradicts them, on pain of making fools of themselves". The attack is indiscriminate and, therefore, he may be partly right, because he attacks everyone. But it is very superficial. Whether we like it or not, we have to use the Philosophy. Crick too: he uses a Philosophy, by the way a rather bad one, from subject reductionist. The only way not to use Philosophy is not to think and not to talk; and when you think or talk about important matters, you either take the trouble to know what Philosophy you are using and why, or you run a serious risk of using a poor or just plain wrong Philosophy .
The attacks on religion are worse, and they are also directed at all religions, in spades. For example, Crick says: "So far, the results obtained by religious beliefs in explaining scientific phenomena have been so poor that there is little reason to believe that conventional religions will succeed in doing so in the future.... Not only do the beliefs of the most popular religions contradict each other but, according to scientific approaches, they are based on such flimsy evidence that they can only be accepted through an act of blind faith.... History shows us that mysteries that religions thought they alone could explain (e.g. the age of the earth) have fallen under consistent scientific assault. What's more, the real answers are often far removed from those of conventional religions. If revealed religions have revealed anything, it is precisely that they are often wrong".
Of course, the Catholic Church does not claim to "explain scientific phenomena", nor has it ever considered the age of the Earth to be a mystery or that only religion could explain it. On that basis, to conclude that revealed religions are often wrong, just like that, seems at the very least inadequate, gratuitous and superficial.
Science, Philosophy and religion
It is a pity, among other reasons, because there is now, at last, an atmosphere of understanding and partnership between scientists, philosophers and theologians, and Crick's book spoils it. It is a real intellectual attack, a kind of terrorism in the world of ideas.
Ideas powerfully influence people's behaviour. Crick says it is wonderful what science is discovering about our brains and our neurons. From agreement. But if one is a true materialist, if everything comes down to neurons, if we are nothing more than "a bunch of neurons", where does that leave freedom, morality, responsibility and all this subject stuff? In fact, Crick ends the book with a post scriptum devoted to freedom, and it is clear from his words that we are not really free, even if we think we are.
Indeed, according to Crick, it is the brain that works, plans and decides: "part of our brain is engaged in making plans for future actions", "we can be aware of such plans", we are aware "of the "decisions" it makes: that is, of the plans". Obviously, neither Crick nor anyone else can explain what all this means, let alone prove it. But, having embarked on this strange business, we can no longer be surprised that Crick tells us where freedom is located in the brain: "Free will is located in, or near, the sulcus of the anterior cingulum. At internship, the issue is likely to be more complicated. Other frontal areas of the brain may be involved...".
Yes, the matter is more complicated. But not only because other areas of the brain are involved, but also because there are other factors that Dr. Crick has completely forgotten. Worse: as we have seen, he knows he has ignored them, and he wants to remedy this by making a bet on the future. He tells us, in effect: "Only time, together with much more scientific effort, will allow us to decide. Whatever the answer, the only sensible way to arrive at it is a detailed scientific research . All other approaches are little more than a pat on the back to keep us on our toes". This subject betting is also well known, and someone has called it "promissory materialism", because it is always based on the promise that the future will prove him right. But where will Dr. Crick be to vouch for his bet?
Dr. Crick makes things difficult for those who claim that freedom is real, and therefore that responsibility and morality are also real. I suppose Dr. Crick has freedom and morals; what I do not understand is why he admits them. I can only congratulate Dr. Crick because he has a wonderful brain, capable of the award Nobel Prize. Rather: the one I have to congratulate is Dr. Crick's brain, which is the one that plans and decides: Dr. Crick only learns, from time to time, what his brain plans and decides. We are our brain. So, you know: everything must be changed at the root. We must make policy and laws for brains. We must make schools for brains. We must put brains in jail. Books must be written for brains. Films must be made for brains. In the meantime, perhaps we can go on holiday, although if Dr Crick is right, we probably can't, because we are only illusory ghosts. We may have no choice but to repeat to ourselves over and over again: I am my brain. Maybe we will end up believing it.