Francis Crick: Stalking the Rational Mind

Jurriaan Bendien J.Bendien at
Mon Nov 18 13:49:27 MST 2002

Nobel laureate Francis H.C. Crick discovered DNA. Now he is hunting for the
very essence of our being - the source of conscious thought

By Michael A. Hiltzik



"The most valuable thing I ever learned from Francis Crick is not to get
mired down in debate but just to focus on what you can agree on," says
Bogen, who has devoted much of his 76 years to studying the brain. "If
consciousness is everything that everyone wants to apply that word to, the
search is hopeless." Bogen interrupts dinner at a Chinese restaurant to hold
a teapot aloft. "Almost everybody in this room would agree that this teapot
is not conscious. And everyone would agree that everyone in this room is
conscious. So there's a reasonable amount of agreement about what we're
searching for."

He unfurls a napkin and marks it with a network of interlocking circles,
each representing someone's pet definition of consciousness. Then he
indicates the space at the center that falls within every circle. This
common element is composed of the subjective perceptions called
"qualia"--the sense of red as red, the smell of a jacaranda as a floral
perfume or the sun striking our bare arms as a layering on of heat. "That's
the crucial, central core of the many various concepts of consciousness,"
Bogen says.

Researchers already have identified physical manifestations of some
phenomena related to consciousness. They have found, for example, that the
neural patterns differ when one is viewing an image subconsciously and when
one is "seeing" it--actually paying attention. In both cases an image is
striking the retina, but only in the latter can a subject describe it.
Neurons in parts of the brain also appear to fire in different patterns
depending on whether someone is viewing a scene or merely recollecting it
(in the mind's eye, so to speak).

These are rudimentary phenomena. Finding the key to higher-level thought is
what beckons many scientists in this fledgling discipline. Some argue that
as we learn more we will gain a new conception of what it means to be human.
Neuroscientists are contemplating the implications of research suggesting
that our emotions and personalities are largely manifestations of impersonal
electrochemical events in the brain: If we demystify the image of ourselves
as entities with free will, if we banish from our culture a conception of
the human soul as something spiritual, what kind of people will we become?

Others are starting to consider the ethical and legal questions that could
be raised if we learn how to manipulate conscious states. When knowledge of
consciousness provides insights into the mechanisms of decision-making,
perception and emotion, how much will we be tempted to fix what we consider
broken or to "beautify" modes of thinking that are no longer fashionable?
Could mental engineering, in the words of the German researcher Thomas
Metzinger, "reduce the number of ways acceptable to be a person"? If we
conclude that elements of human nature such as moral choice are not the
result of a spiritual communion with God and society but the outcome of a
hard-wired biology, what will keep us from trying to rewire the system?

There might have been no better candidate to move the subject of
consciousness out of the metaphysical world and into the empirical than
Francis Crick. Born in 1916 to churchgoing but not especially devout
Protestants near Northampton, England, he found himself pondering the
incompatibility of science and religion at an early age, and ever after wore
his hostility toward religion and philosophy like a badge.

"At exactly which point I lost my early religious faith I am not clear," he
wrote, "but it was almost certainly before the actual onset of puberty." To
this day, he sprinkles his daily banter with reminders of his antipathy
toward philosophers, lest anyone forget that only science holds the key to
ultimate truths.

In person, Francis Crick is hardly the figure summarized by Watson in that
famous introduction. The tall, slightly stooped figure greeting a visitor to
his home exudes charm and an eagerness to engage in dialogue. Silence is
scarce in a conversation with him, which is an outpouring of ideas and
observations and a challenge to hold up your end of the discussion.

In his memoirs, Crick suggests that Watson misconstrued as immodesty what
was really a habit of thinking aloud, an unconstrained emission of ideas
expressed "unduly loquaciously." Crick maintains that although his opinions
often prove correct in time, they are not always meant as the last word.
Rather, they are notions to be pondered, perhaps by more acute minds than
his. "For solving protein structures, my point of view was bound to emerge
in the long run," he wrote. "By giving my colleagues a very necessary
jolt--all I did was help create an atmosphere in which it happened a little

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