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Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul (Anglais) Broché – 1 juillet 1995

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Chapter 1

Q: What is the soul?

A: The soul is a living being without a body, having reason and free will.

Roman Catholic catechism

The Astonishing Hypothesis is 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 cells and their associated molecules. As Lewis Carroll's Alice might have phrased it: "You're nothing but a pack of neurons." This hypothesis is so alien to the ideas of most people alive today that it can truly be called astonishing.

The interest of human beings in the nature of the world, and about their own natures in particular, is found in one form or another in all peoples and tribes, however primitive. It goes back to the earliest times from which we have written records and almost certainly from before that, to judge from the widespread occurrence of careful human burial. Most religions hold that some kind of spirit exists that persists after one's bodily death and, to some degree, embodies the essence of that human being. Without its spirit a body cannot function normally, if at all. When a person dies his soul leaves the body, although what happens after that -- whether the soul goes to heaven, hell, or purgatory or alternatively is reincarnated in a donkey or a mosquito -- depends upon the particular religion. Not all the religions agree in detail, but this is usually because they are based on different revelations -- contrast the Christian Bible and the Muslim Koran. In spite of differences among religions, there is broad agreement on at least one point: People have souls, in the literal and not merely the metaphorical sense. These beliefs are held, and in many cases held strongly and aggressively, by the majority of human beings alive today.

There are, of course, a few exceptions. At one point, a minority of some of the more extreme Christians (following Aristotle) doubted whether women had souls, or at least had souls of the same quality as men. Some religions, such as Judaism, put little emphasis on life after death. Religions differ as to whether animals have souls. An old joke suggests that philosophers (in spite of all their differences) fall broadly into two classes: Those who own dogs, it is said, are confident that dogs have souls; those who do not, deny this.

Yet a minority of people today (including a large number in the former Communist countries) is inclined to a totally different view. Such people believe that the idea of a soul, distinct from the body and not subject to our known scientific laws, is a myth. It is easy to see how such myths could have arisen. Indeed, without a detailed knowledge of the nature of matter and radiation, and of biological evolution, such myths appear only too plausible.

Why, then, should this basic concept of the soul be doubted? Surely if almost everyone believed it, this is, in itself, prima facie evidence for it. But then some four thousand years ago almost everyone believed the earth was fiat. The main reason for this radical change of opinion is the spectacular advance of modern science. Most of the religious beliefs we have today originated in a time when the earth, while a small place by our standards, was then thought of as being very large, even though its exact extent was unknown. Any one person had direct knowledge of only a tiny part of it. It was not implausible to believe that this large earth was the center of the universe and that man occupied the leading place in it. The earth's origins seemed lost in the mists of time and yet the span of time thought to be involved, while it seemed long in terms of human experience, we now know to be ridiculously short. It was not implausible to believe the earth was less than ten thousand years old. We now know its true age is about 4.6 billion years. The stars seemed far away, fixed perhaps in the spherical firmament, but that the universe extended as far as it does more than 10 billion light years -- was almost inconceivable. (An exception has to be made here for certain Eastern religions, such as Hinduism, that take pleasure in inflating times and distances for the sheer joy of it.)

Before Galileo and Newton our knowledge of basic physics was primitive. The movements of the sun and the planets seemed to be regular in some very intricate way. It was not totally unreasonable to believe that they needed angels to guide them. What else could make their behavior so regular? Even in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries our understanding of chemistry was largely incorrect. Indeed, the existence of atoms was doubted by some physicists as late as the beginning of the twentieth century.

Yet today we know a great deal about the properties of atoms. We can give each type of chemical atom a unique whole number. We know their structure in detail, and most of the laws that control their behavior. Physics has provided a framework of explanation for chemistry. Our detailed knowledge of organic chemical molecules is enormous and expanding every day.

Admittedly, we still do not understand exactly what happens at very small distances (within the nucleus of an atom), at extremely high energies, and in very large gravitational fields. But for the conditions we normally have to deal with on earth (when an atom will only change into another atom under very special circumstances), most scientists think that this incompleteness of our knowledge probably matters very little, if at all, in our attempts to understand the mind and the brain.

In addition to our knowledge of basic chemistry and physics, the earth sciences (such as geology) and cosmic science (astronomy and cosmology) have developed pictures of our world and our universe that are quite different from those common when the traditional religions were founded. The modern picture of the universe, and how it developed in time, forms an essential background to our present knowledge of biology. That knowledge has been completely transformed in the last 150 years. Until Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace independently hit on the basic mechanism driving biological evolution -- the process of natural selection -- the "Argument from Design" appeared to be unanswerable. How could an organism as complex and well designed as man have arisen without the help of an all-wise Designer? Yet this argument has collapsed completely. We now know that all living things, from bacteria to ourselves, are closely related at the biochemical level. We know that life has existed on earth for billions of years, and that the many species of plants and animals have changed, often radically, over that time. The dinosaurs have gone and in their place many new species of mammals have arisen. We can watch the basic processes of evolution happening today, both in the field and in our test tubes.

In this century there has been an equally dramatic biological advance, due to our understanding of the molecular nature of genes, the processes involved in their exact replication, together with our detailed knowledge of proteins and the mechanisms of their synthesis. We now realize that proteins, as a class, are immensely powerful and versatile, and can form the basis of elaborate biochemical devices. A major assault is being mounted on embryology (now often called "developmental biology"). The fertilized egg of a sea urchin normally divides many times, eventually turning into a mature sea urchin. If, after the first division, the two daughter cells of the fertilized egg are separated, then each of them will develop, in time, into a separate though rather smaller sea urchin. A similar experiment can be done on a frog's egg. The molecules have reorganized themselves to produce two little animals from the material that would otherwise have produced one. When this was first discovered, about a hundred years ago, it was suggested that some kind of immaterial Life Force must surely be at work. It seemed inconceivable that this dramatic doubling of a living creature could ever be explained on a biochemical basis -- that is, using the properties of organic and other molecules and their interactions. Nowadays we feel that we shall have no difficulty in principle in working out how this can happen, although we expect the explanation to be complex. The history of science is littered with statements that something was inherently impossible to understand ("we shall never know of what the stars are made"). In many cases time has shown these predictions to be incorrect.

A modern neurobiologist sees no need for the religious concept of a soul to explain the behavior of humans and other animals. One is reminded of the question Napoleon asked after Pierre-Simon Laplace had explained to him the workings of the solar system: Where does God come into all this? To which Laplace replied, "Sire, I have no need of that hypothesis." Not all neuroscientists believe that the idea of the soul is a myth -- Sir John Eccles is the most notable exception -- but certainly the majority do. It is not that they can yet prove the idea to be false. Rather, as things stand at the moment, they see no need for that hypothesis. Looked at in the perspective of human history, the main object of scientific research on the brain is not merely to understand and cure various medical conditions, important though this task may be, but to grasp the true nature of the human soul. Whether this term is metaphorical or literal is exactly what we are trying to discover.

Many educated people, especially in the Western world, also share the belief that the soul is a metaphor and that there is no personal life either before conception or after death. They may call themselves atheists, agnostics, humanists, or just lapsed believers, but they all deny the major claims of the traditional religions. Yet this does not mean that they normally think of themselves in a radically different way. The old habits of thought die hard. A man may, in religious terms, be an unbeliever but psychologically he may continue to think of himself in mu...

Revue de presse

Carl Sagan Author of Cosmos The Astonishing Hypothesis is a fascinating argument that consciousness and what has long been called the soul are now accessible to scientific investigation.

Sheryl Stolberg Los Angeles Times Skewering philosophy and religion in a book that is supposed to be about the study of the brain might be awkward for other scientists. But Crick pulls it off, and incorporates the nitty-gritty of science to boot.

Matthew Belmonte The Washington Times Crick's new book is a well-constructed and comprehensive overview of visual neuroscience for the lay reader....[The] book's questions and conjectures are incisive and provocative.

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The Astonishing Hypothesis is 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 cells and their associated molecules. Lire la première page
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Couverture | Copyright | Table des matières | Extrait | Index | Quatrième de couverture
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49 internautes sur 52 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
Flawed, but still worth it 18 janvier 2007
Par Amazon Customer - Publié sur Amazon.com
Format: Broché
The astonishing hypothesis referred to in the title of Crick's book is that all of your phenomenological experience is ultimately reducible to "no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules." So, just how is consciousness neurally instantiated? What the reader should take away from the book is just how difficult of a question this is.

Francis Crick was a thorough going empiricist and he strongly believed that the experimental method was the only way of successfully tackling the problem of consciousness. Along with his close collaborator, Christof Koch, Crick chose visual awareness (rather than say, self-awareness) as the main point of attack. The reason for this is because the visual system is relatively well understood and much easier to study in the laboratory.

Visual processing is an extremely complex business. Essentially, the visual system has to create a fairly high-fidelity representation of the environment (a model) from an array of heterogeneous light patches falling onto the retina. A staggering number of computational processes need to be performed in order for you to become aware of the final output. These processes operate unconsciously, in massively parallel streams. So, what we finally become aware of (our model) is the end result of a great many hidden computations. Much has been learned about the details in which the various features of a visual scene are decomposed and processed, but what remains a mystery is how we ultimately see something (i.e., become visually aware of it). As Crick says, what is required is an account of our "explicit, multilevel, symbolic interpretation of a visual scene."

"The Astonishing Hypothesis" does not provide anything like a Crick-Koch `theory' of consciousness. In fact, Crick goes to some length to eschew any precise definitions or theories. Any such purported theories, he believed, were pre-mature. (The closest that he comes to presenting some kind of a theory is his `Processing Postulate'). Instead what the book offers is a general strategy for submitting the problem to experimental study. Here the idea is to look for neural signatures of awareness or more technically the neural correlates of consciousness (abbreviated NCCs). In a nutshell (excuse the oversimplification), here is what NCCs are all about: submit to study some visual phenomenon which has an ambiguous interpretation (e.g., the Necker cube which can be perceived in two possible ways) and simultaneously obtain measures of neural activity. Some portion of the neural activity associated with the processing of an ambiguous figure will remain invariant (that portion which corresponds to the unchanging retinal input) while another, minimal portion of the neural activity will vary along with the percept. This variant, minimal portion is a good bet for representing a NCC, a neural signature of awareness. Finding a NCC can also tell us many other interesting things, such as whether or not there any special properties of the neurons in question, whether they are located in particular places or cortical layers and so on. And, a similar mechanism which underlies visual awareness is likely to underlie other forms of awareness. [Note that this addresses what David Chalmers has called the `easy' problem of consciousness and does not touch on the `hard' problem. There is a possibility however that Chalmers' hard problem is ill-posed and that there may in fact not be a hard problem to address].

Crick presents the results of many interesting research studies that bear on the problem of consciousness. He devotes some space to the issue of temporal binding and the 40-Hz oscillation hypothesis (or more precisely, the gamma-band oscillation hypothesis) as well as the potential importance of reverberatory thalamo-cortical circuits (see also the work of Gerald Edelman). Crick also speculates about the possibly important role played by the claustrum in the generation of consciousness (something he thought about a lot just prior to his death). Unfortunately for the general reader, this comes only near the end of the book, after a rather protracted discussion of the psychology and neurobiology of vision. For a reader who is unfamiliar with neuroscience, all the hard work done to get to the final portion of the book may produce a low pay-off. It seems that Crick could have got the main point of the book across just as strongly while omitting some of the technical details along the way. For those who have some familiarity with the subject matter the book will actually be an interesting and concise review but since the work was intended for a general readership one must judge it according to that criterion (and this is one of the book's flaws).

Francis Crick died in 2004. This marked a tremendous loss to the field as Crick was blessed with a brilliant mind and he undoubtedly had it in him to make many more important contributions. He brought his enthusiasm to the study of consciousness and made it a bona-fide scientific problem. For this, among other things, he should be celebrated.

A few final remarks about the book's title are in order. First, "The Scientific Search for the Soul" is a sensationalist title that was more likely than not the publisher's idea. Second: as most of the people working in the neurosciences adopt a materialist perspective (the most famous exception of course was Sir John Eccles), the purported astonishing aspect of the hypothesis has sometimes been questioned. And yet, this idea (that our consciousness, in all its richness, is in some mysterious way the result of biophysical processes) really should be astonishing. It is easy to be familiar with the workings of the brain and still slip into old habits of thought, implicitly believing that there really is some homunculus in the head who is doing all of the perceiving. As Crick says, "A man may, in religious terms, be an unbeliever but psychologically he may continue to think of himself in much the same way as a believer does, at least for everyday matters."

It is interesting to speculate about whether our experience of ourselves would change even in the hypothetical case that we did have a complete neurobiological theory of consciousness.
27 internautes sur 30 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
One of my top 10 favorite science books 19 octobre 2006
Par Brian Bex Huff - Publié sur Amazon.com
Format: Broché
This is one of the top 10 science books I have ever read. Not a light read, but anybody with a basic grasp of biology and computers should be able to follow along.

Francis Crick plays the quintessential scientist in this book. He puts forward a hypothesis about human consciousness that closely mirrors the philosophies of John Searle: there is no mind-body problem. There is only the body. You, your soul, is basically a complex pattern of neurons in your brain.

Naturally, gathering supporting evidence for such a hypothesis is quite a daunting task. This book does not provide ultimate proof, nor ultimate answers. Rather it presents a large body of promising and highly interesting anecdotal evidence. Since its a huge subject, Crick focuses mainly on how vision affects consciousness. He discusses a good part about the human visual cortex, and neural network theory in computer science.

The book is filled with fascinating stories about people with brain trauma, and how it affected their behavior, their personality... their SOUL.

Did you know that there is a form of blindness, where the people don't know they are blind? Did you know that human free will is probably located in the anterior cingulate sulcus?

If Crick is correct, this scientific journey to understand the soul is a long one: it might take a century. This book is the first step on a very, very long journey, and it might not even be correct. Readers and reviewers must keep this in mind.

To emphasize again, its a HYPOTHESIS. Not a THEORY. So don't expect a ton of supporting evidence. Just a bunch of good ideas, some compelling data, and a good direction for future research.
69 internautes sur 88 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
What is so astonishing, Dr. Crick? 3 avril 1998
Par Un client - Publié sur Amazon.com
Format: Broché
The problem with Crick's book--a rather common problem these days--is that it does not do what it sets out to do. According to Crick, there is this revolutionary and "astonishing" hypothesis that most people either do not know or cannot accept, namely the century-old idea that neurons, as individual and independent units of the brain, are solely responsible for all the higher functions that most people attribute to God, to mind, or to some mysterious agent. Well, if you tell this to any neuroscientist, you probably won't astonish him; if you tell this to a lay man, you won't astonish him any more than, say, the god hypothesis. So Crick, who is a reductionist in need of a little sophistication, really isn't telling us anything extraordinary. His arguments neither shock nor enlighten. The primary merit of this book lies in a solid, if technical, summary of some interesting research in recent years. It is handy as reference, but not particularly a pleasure to read. Crick is not much of a writer; nor is he competent enough in other fields to talk about some of the issues that he does talk about. The more entertaining part of the book, for me, is the delightful bibliography, in which Crick briefly describes each book that he recommends. His remarks are sometimes sharp and witty. Overall, though, this is merely an average book on a most popular subject.
20 internautes sur 24 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
Are the eyes really the window to the soul? 11 mars 2007
Par bourgeml - Publié sur Amazon.com
Format: Broché Achat vérifié
Crick claims to be investigating consciousness through the visual system because he believes that the visual system is more amenable to scientific investigation. Those who do not appreciate this tactic, he sniffily claims, do not understand how science operates. It should be clear why it is often necessary to study what can be experimented on first, but this in no way validates this particular strategy. Crick's approach is a lot like trying to understand the mechanics of a car's engine by studying its wheels. Yes, there is a connection, and yes, the wheels are a lot more accessible (especially if you haven't yet figured out how to open the hood). But you won't necessarily learn very much about how the engine actually works.

Closely connected to this difficulty is his refusal to countenance the very question of what consciousness actually is. Of course, not doing so makes his investigation of visual perception as a `mode' of consciousness much more plausible. If one explicitly refuses to define what is under investigation, then investigating almost any related phenomena will do. Unfortunately, this mindset will not actually serve to advance the enterprise very far. Crick uses the glib analogy of a battle: in war, he notes, one will not get far trying to define what a battle is when what is needed are troops and strategy. It should go without saying that this analogy is so deeply flawed as to be useless, except for its intended rhetorical purpose. There is no need to define the battle because that is clearly understood by all out the outset; the same can hardly be said of consciousness. If one does not know what the battle objective is, fighting it well becomes a lot harder. And that is the unfortunate plight of this book.

To be more specific, it seems relatively apparent that whatever else we can say about consciousness, it involves an essentially subjective dimension. Crick makes no mention of this, except to dismiss it as something to be perhaps considered much later. Conversely, it is far from apparent that consciousness must involve visual awareness inherently. Where does this leave blind persons, one might ask? Are they not fully conscious? And today we are close to developing sighted machines, which can process and navigate three-dimensional environments using lasers or stereoscopic video cameras (e.g., the DARPA challenge). Are these machines therefore approaching consciousness? This seems patently absurd.

The book as a whole reeks of a lack of erudition beyond narrow scientific training. We are treated to freshman physiology lessons on neurons, brain areas and basic visual processing, the details which are both not deep enough for real scientific comprehension and far more detailed than necessary for advancing the concepts being discussed. At times, it reads like an undergraduate report in which the student is eager to impress and not let a single fact they have uncovered go unreported - no matter if they actually enlighten the stated aims or not.

In sum, most of the problems with this book could be fixed with a single simple but profound change: change the title to "Primer on Vertebrate Visual Physiology", circa 1995. It probably would not have sold many copies that way, though.
8 internautes sur 9 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
Co-discoverer of DNA maps out conventional wisdom on consciousness 15 décembre 2008
Par Steve Reina - Publié sur Amazon.com
Format: Broché
In 1953 Francis Crick and James Watson discovered DNA and in so doing uncovered a key part of the mechanism by which Darwinian natural selection operates.

Four decades later, in this book, Crick gives fight to the received tradition that our soul somehow exists independently of our biology. Though this news is clearly neither considered to be either astonishing or a hypothesis to members of the scientific community, it is certainly is such to the average layman.

Considering the average level of scientific awareness, I think Crick has well positioned his book in the strike zone of ignorance.

And so, when he says that our mind is created and altered by the physical features of our brain, that is news to most people.

And there was a time not too long ago when it was news to the scientific community as well. Perhaps no more dramatically was the point made than when, in the middle of the nineteenth century, a railway worker named Phineas Gage was placing explosive charges. To Gage's misfortune, one of his charges exploded prematurely sending a metal spike through the front part of his skull.

"After that," in an exteme understatement by a Gage co-worker, "Phineas wasn't the same Phineas anymore."

Where once there had been a thoughtful and sober employee, the new Gage (brain could actually be viewed through the hole in the top of his skull) became sullen and irratible...more prone to drinking than working.

What was significant was the wound helped fuel the first truly modern theory about the workings of consciousness...viz. that they emerged from the brain and therefore could be changed by the brain.

In fact, the one Nobel prize so far awarded in psychiatry (Munoz' 1949 achievement) came when doctors would remove the connecting tissue between the brain's hemispheres to reduce siezure activity (a remedy that now thankfully is achieved with drugs instead of such invasive surgery).

And what doctors accomplish through treatment, Mother Nature accomplishes through natural selection. Just like evolution impacts the development of limbs and internal organs and other anatomy, it also impacts brain development.

While certainly all these developments can't help but throw cold water on traditional notions of a soul/body dichotomy, it nonetheless remains astonishing news to most members of the general public. However, far from from making us feel more common and purposeless, it should makes us feel more lucky, that from a process that usually produces bacteria, bugs or at best meandering animals, that we've been given the opportunity to really understand (at least as best we can) nature and in so doing truly appreciate its beauty.

What a pity it would be to walk through an art museum with our eyes closed or attend a symphony with our fingers in our ears.
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