Crick and mind over natter

June 14, 1996

One theory of consciousness rules supreme, Tony Durham reports, while readers reply to one scientist's views.

I can sympathise with Francis Crick's irritation that progress in consciousness research has been subject to intense scrutiny. At the recent Tucson, Arizona, conference, wherever you looked someone was being interviewed. But there are a number of reasons why the study of consciousness cannot be entrusted solely to scientists. The most obvious is that the study of consciousness is the study of ourselves in the deepest meaning of the word. This used to be the province of religion, but we now look to science to provide a more authentic description of what it is to be a conscious agent.

Crick points out that the "strong neuronal" theory of consciousness is only a hypothesis, but in the absence of plausible alternatives such views quickly become part of the zeitgeist. He singles out Roger Penrose for criticism, seemingly forgetting that Penrose wrote the Emperor's New Mind as a direct result of his alarm that the computational theory of mind had become part of common culture. And Crick is just as eager as Penrose to point out the lack of evidence that the brain is like a digital computer.

In the Tucson debate between Oxford physiologist Colin Blakemore and Australian judge David Hodgson both claimed that the scientific study of the brain-mind leaves no room for such folk-psychological terms as "free will". Hodgson pointed out that if this is the case then the western legal system is without any sort of foundation. If this is not an area of legitimate public interest, what is?

Keith Sutherland, publisher, Journal of Consciousness Studies.

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