Francis Crick on the Workings of the Brain

By Flynn, Thomas W.; Madigan, Timothy J. | Free Inquiry, Fall 1994 | Go to article overview

Francis Crick on the Workings of the Brain


Flynn, Thomas W., Madigan, Timothy J., Free Inquiry


Francis Crick won the Nobel Prize in Physiology in 1962, with James Watson, for their work on describing the structure of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), the material within cell nuclei that determines heredity. In recent years he has returned to an earlier interest--the brain and consciousness. He recently talked to FREE INQUIRY Editors Thomas W. Flynn and Timothy J. Madigan about his current work, which is described in his new book, The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul (Macmillan, 1994). Crick is a member of the Academy of Humanism.

FREE INQUIRY: What is the "astonishing hypothesis" and the "fallacy of the homunculus"?

FRANCIS CRICK: The astonishing hypothesis says that all feelings and thoughts are essentially the behavior of an enlarged set of nerve cells, neurons, and their associated molecules and other cells in your brain. One has to say two things: It's really not astonishing to a lot of scientists, especially neuroscientists who work on the brain; it's what they normally assume. On the other hand, if you take the ordinary citizen, in general, not only is it regarded as astonishing, he or she decides it is almost certainly false. And so you have this curious situation in the Western world where you have what is essentially a minority of people--and this is true even of educated people--who at least think along the lines of the astonishing hypothesis. And on the other hand you have a lot of people who essentially don't believe that, and believe in some disembodied soul or something of that sort, which they usually assume survives after death.

One has to add that the people who do subscribe to the astonishing hypothesis often haven't seen its implications. It's very easy to think, as it were, along both lines without realizing it. And that brings us to the second part of your question, about the homunculus, which is the assumption that there is a person inside one's head who is doing the seeing and the thinking and the feeling, and using your brain to do it. And that's a very useful sort of rough-and-ready model for dealing with our interaction with the world and with other people. But the astonishing hypothesis would say that that's probably wrong.

FI: You've done many interviews regarding your book The Astonishing Hypothesis. Have you received much of a response from what you would call the ordinary citizen?

CRICK: I get a number of letters, usually from rather enthusiastic Christians of one sort or another who say you really should understand what they believe and what they think is right, and so on. But they're not what I would call cogently argued letters. It would be perhaps unkind to say they were nut letters, but they give that flavor. I haven't had much reasoned response from more educated people. I've had a number of letters, of course, from colleagues taking up or disagreeing with certain points.

When I give lectures, I take questions from the audience, some of whom seem to find the whole thing very puzzling. They worry about out-of-body experiences or near-death experiences, for example. But I don't really feel I've got an overall reaction. I have the impression that the people who disagree with my ideas have more or less ignored the book.

FI: In your book, you write that "science may at last be ready to test the theory that human consciousness arises solely from the activities of networks of neurons." Why should this relatively straightforward hypothesis be so astounding to so many people?

CRICK: Well, when you realize that more than half the people in the United States believe in the existence of angels, I think you don't have to look very far to see why. They believe the most extraordinary things. It's not only Christian fundamentalists, like a number of Southern Baptists, or creationists, you also have New Age people. So I don't think it needs any special explanation. Incidentally, people from Europe comment on the difference between America, and, let us say, England. …

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