Francis Crick was being coy when he titled his book “The astonishing hypothesis”: that all cognitive processes, including consciousness, are the product of neurons is much more than a hypothesis — it is a mature theory and a subject of active multidisciplinary investigation. The popularization of this insight may meet similar resistance as Darwin’s theory (although it may simply be lumped together with ‘Darwinism’). The view of consciousness as interaction of several mechanisms (or as Dan Dennett calls it, “a bag of tricks”) disagrees with the common sense notion of self as indivisible whole, the starting point in philosophical search (Cogito ergo sum). Therefore, all interesting philosophy of the next decades will be informed by recent experimental findings in neuroscience. Many authors are attempting to popularize the notions of neuronal nature of self. Others are taking advantage of the confusion to push a pet speculation or dogma.

Below I have compiled this chart with several books I have read that address questions of consciousness in intriguing ways. I rated these books based on how much new knowledge or insight they seemed to provide and whether these insights came by way of empirical findings or unfounded speculation. Click to enlarge.

Luckily, many popularizers of scientific understanding of mind and consciousness have made public presentations that are now available online. These make good previews of the contents of their books, and, if you have a couple of hours, getting to know these people will be time well spent.

Daniel Dennett:

Lectures on consciousness:

Jeff Hawkins, “On intelligence”

Christof Koch, “The Quest for Consciousness”

Ben Stein famously declared his disdain for reality by hosting Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed to promote biblical creationism as the next great theory in biology to replace the irksome and elitist evolutionary synthesis.

His next project goes farther! The sex theory of reproduction must be abandoned and replaced with the bold new Intelligent Stork Theory. After all, it’s only fair that both sides of the debate are presented fairly to open-minded students.

Scientists are known to resort to their elitist intimidation tactics, but we must speak out and teach the controversy in the science classroom!

Biological evolution, one the most powerful unifying theories in all science, happens to undermine the significance systems of a large portion of our species. As predicted by Ernest Becker, the carriers will resist any threat to their significance system to the death. No science educator despite his fine accent, ample erudition, reason, and charisma, will budge them away from that which provides them with a sense of consequence. If one significance system falls before a new one takes hold, the individual or the group may collapse in devastating turmoil. Hence, in the United States and other countries, political forces have formed to oppose the teaching of evolution. To address the cognitive dissonance produced by their denial of the most blatant evidence, they have concocted several forms of intellectual gymnastics camouflaging their denial of reality. About a half of the American population denies evolution because it threatens their place in the universe.

To recognize themselves as animals, apes, biological, physical, sexual, and incidental, these sincere and well-meaning people would have to find new sources of meaning, motivation, and social cohesion that they cannot presently visualize. I fully empathize with creationists and fundamentalists. As humans, we all need to belong and feel consequential.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, I witnessed the devastating downfall of the uniting significance system of the Soviet Union, which resulted in a dispirited people. The former Soviet republics will continue to recover from that loss for many decades to come, attempting to replace their former sources of significance with new or revived forms of nationalism, spirituality, or human achievement. The same sort of havoc might visit believers who draw meaning from their reality-denying mythological religions should they accept their organic nature.

As I have stated previously, I believe that the likes of Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris would do much more good by projecting the sense of cosmic heroism that drives them and gives them meaning in their work and help make science more inclusive. Believers already have enough evidence to dispel their antiscientific beliefs.

Why do then the evangelicals not attack neural science? Its stark premises threaten our significance and immortality even more seriously than evolution. Evolution only questions the divine design of the physical body, whereas neuroscience encroaches on the dualism of matter and spirit, mind and body. The unifying principle of modern neuroscience, the neuron theory, states that all cognition arises from interactions of neurons. Of course, some practitioners of neuroscience could still believe in an immaterial soul and attribute some human behaviors to the influence of that ethereal entity, but the very assumption of the organic nature of the mind defines and drives neuroscience. Placing some types of behaviors beyond the reach of scientific inquiry could unnecessarily limit a believing researcher to the point of disqualifying him.

Why do fundamentalists ignore neuroscience? Would they mobilize if public schools required some aspects of neuroscience in their curricula?