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”

Upon a friend’s enthusiastic recommendation, I have watched What the Bleep: Down the Rabbit Hole. Damn it, can we humans resist wishful magical thinking? While creationists have chosen to deny evidence challenging their world view, the next wave of psychics, diviners, and mystics invent evidence by merging quantum mechanics and neuroscience. Both are equally deceptive. The question is why? – in genuine search for meaning or just trying to make a quick buck?

Both the creationist filmmakers of Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed and the New Age authors of “Down the Rabbit Hole” cloak their arguments in scientific authority and claim to be the newer and hipper kind of science. Granted, new agers are gentler, more subtle, more inspiring, inclusive, and sophisticated than bible literalists, but that does not excuse the false certainty and deliberate deceit to manipulate the credulous.

The hypothesis that cognition is best explained by quantum effects has produced no verifiable predictions and is not a productive area of research in neuroscience: not because it’s suppressed but because it has not delivered. Instead a host of new religions are sprouting or reforming (e.g. The Quantum Brain, Noetic Sciences) by incorporating scientific jargon. Quantum consciousness seems to be becoming the intelligent design of new age religions: dressed in scientifically sounding gobbledegook, both serve to soothe the magic believers’ cognitive dissonance.

Paul Dirac once described someone’s scientific argument in a particularly derogatory (to a scientist) way: It’s not right – it’s not even wrong : a claim so vague that it cannot be falsified. The Quantum Mind just as Intelligent Design is not even wrong: they both are marketing tools.

Now what do I say to my enthusiastic friend when I return the movie?

In October, Nature Neuroscience reported a study implying that politically conservative Americans have a harder time acting against habit than their liberal peers.

In these experiments, the subjects were asked to perform a monotonous, habit-forming task: pushing a button in response to a frequent “GO” cue. Every once in a while, a “NO GO” cue would prompt the subjects to act contrary to their newly formed habit. Subjects who considered themselves politically conservative made more mistakes in response to the “NO GO” cue than their liberal peers.

Furthermore, liberal brains produced a more robust response to habit-challenging cues in the anterior cingulate cortex, the brain region involved in decision making.

What do we do with these findings? Not much. Establishing correlation between local brain activity, behavior in simple tasks or lifestyle choices is only a first step in formulating more general theories for the biological basis of cognition and behavior.

Still, I will surely use this little study to poke fun at my conservative friends, “Ah, you are just having a hard time responding to conflicting stimuli —”

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?

Imagine an extraterrestrial biologist Ph.D. candidate who receives regular samples of Earth’s species. In each shipment, she receives a single living ant. She studies it carefully and thinks she understands it completely: every molecular pathway, every gene, metabolism, and behavior. She dissects the next and receives the next shipment. After several years, she submits her research to her committee and prepares for her career as a myrmecologist. She puzzles over how such a simple creature with only 100,000 neurons, nearly blind, can survive in a world of any complexity. During her doomed defense, her shrewd committee chair asks her, “Have you tried putting a thousand ants together, or a billion?” “Why should I? I know every possible thing about every possible kind of ant on Earth.” “You may learn something new.” Boiling with resentment, she concedes and, after two more arduous years (equalling quite possibly several millennia on Earth) of research and many more ant abductions, she writes a new dissertation titled “Anthills: the organisms we almost missed.”

Emergence describes a common phenomenon taking place at many levels in nature: when simple objects interact in large numbers, they produce new behaviors that defy straightforward inference from the properties of the simple objects. Hegel described emergence in his dialectics as the Law of Transformation: quantitative developments lead to qualitative changes. John Stuart Mill in his System of Logic described the limitations of logic when pressed against emergent processes: one cannot use logic to predict what will happen if many components interact at a larger scale.

Although I don’t claim substantial expertise on epistemology, consilience or unity of all knowledge has always appealed to me. I have never empathized with physicists who disparage biology as a “soft science” that cannot reveal any real laws of nature or biologists who think of anthropology, economics, or sociology as mere philosophy or poetic musings. As for philosophy and poetic musings, I also find a place in the unified fabric of knowledge.

Emergence separates and unites sciences. For a physicist, the entire universe comprises nothing but innumerable elementary particles interacting ceaselessly. Her perfect knowledge of these particles does not mean that she knows anything of chemistry. The laws of chemistry arise as the result of emergence. Biology, in turn, describes the laws of life, which emerge from chemistry. Psychology and cognitive sciences describe laws that emerge from biology. Sociology, economics, political science, and macrohistory again capture regularities that do not directly derive from cognitive sciences, separated from them by emergence.

Separated by emergence, natural phenomena and scientific disciplines may appear convincingly unrelated. Most of us cannot comprehend life as emergence from inorganic chemistry. Most do not accept consciousness as emergence from living cells. Most have a hard time conceiving of society emergence from individual behaviors, preferring to believe in governed or conspiratorial mechanisms. Emergentism seems too difficult for most of us to accept.

“Consilience” by Edward Wilson argues convincingly for unity of natural sciences, social sciences, arts, and philosophy with numerous supporting examples. As a biologist, Wilson views the world from an uncommon intellectual vantage point. Biologists routinely relate their subject back to chemistry and physics and forward to psychology and anthropology. To them, the unity of knowledge becomes experiential.

For a long time, chemists have proudly professed their discipline as the unifying science bringing together biology and physics. As the scientific method proliferates into social sciences, will neuroscience increasingly contribute to the unification of knowledge by joining “sciences of the soul” with biology?