First published almost 30 years ago, Francis Crick’s masterful argument that we can now endeavor to understand consciousness remains eminently readable today.
The “Astonishing Hypothesis”, as Crick puts it, 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“. In other words, your, consciousness, your soul, if you will, are simply the result of the workings of the neurons in your brain. We should therefore be able to study these phenomena scientifically and to arrive at an understanding of what it means to be conscious of something.
The main point of the book is that science has advanced enough to not be afraid of tackling that most complex question: what is consciousness? Crick decides to address what he thinks is the most accessible sub-problem within the largest challenge of understanding consciousness, the problem of visual awareness: how do we become aware of something we see?
As the deep learning revolution moves forward, at a time when convolutional neural networks can perform visual tasks almost as well as humans and large language models challenge us in terms of linguist abilities, the question Crick poses is more important than ever: what exactly does it mean to understand something, what does it mean to be aware of something?
Crick leads us through a convoluted path, first introducing the concepts of consciousness, awareness and attention, then presenting what is known of the physiology of the brain and of the visual system and, finally, proposing tentative explanations of what sort of phenomena could lead to visual awareness. In the process, Crick challenges philosophers, psychologists, religious people and fellow scientists who believe that the phenomenon of consciousness will remain forever beyond our reach.