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Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul Paperback – July 1, 1995

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Nobel Prize-winning biochemist Crick (co-discoverer with James Watson of DNA's double helix structure) here takes readers to the forefront of modern brain research. Geared to serious lay readers and scientists, this speculative study argues that our minds can be explained, without recourse to religious concepts of a soul, in terms of the interactions of a vast assembly of nerve cells and associated molecules. Crick delves into the nature of consciousness by focusing on visual awareness, an active, constructive process in which the brain selectively combines discrete elements into meaningful images. Early chapters include numerous interactive illustrations to demonstrate the brain's shortcuts, tricks and habits of visual perception. In later chapters Crick discusses neural networks--electronic pathways that can "remember" patterns or produce spoken language--and outlines research strategies designed to pinpoint the brain's "awareness neurons" that enable us to see.
Copyright 1993 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Library Journal

Nobel Prize winner Crick, who with James D. Watson discovered the molecular structure of DNA, considers the nature of human consciousness, focusing in particular on visual consciousness in an explanation of how the brain "sees."
Copyright 1994 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Scribner; Reprint edition (July 1, 1995)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0684801582
  • ISBN-13: 978-0684801582
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 0.8 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (39 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #145,818 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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51 of 55 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer on January 17, 2007
Format: Paperback
The astonishing hypothesis referred to in the title of Crick's book is that all of your phenomenological experience is ultimately reducible to "no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules." So, just how is consciousness neurally instantiated? What the reader should take away from the book is just how difficult of a question this is.

Francis Crick was a thorough going empiricist and he strongly believed that the experimental method was the only way of successfully tackling the problem of consciousness. Along with his close collaborator, Christof Koch, Crick chose visual awareness (rather than say, self-awareness) as the main point of attack. The reason for this is because the visual system is relatively well understood and much easier to study in the laboratory.

Visual processing is an extremely complex business. Essentially, the visual system has to create a fairly high-fidelity representation of the environment (a model) from an array of heterogeneous light patches falling onto the retina. A staggering number of computational processes need to be performed in order for you to become aware of the final output. These processes operate unconsciously, in massively parallel streams. So, what we finally become aware of (our model) is the end result of a great many hidden computations. Much has been learned about the details in which the various features of a visual scene are decomposed and processed, but what remains a mystery is how we ultimately see something (i.e., become visually aware of it). As Crick says, what is required is an account of our "explicit, multilevel, symbolic interpretation of a visual scene."

"The Astonishing Hypothesis" does not provide anything like a Crick-Koch `theory' of consciousness.
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27 of 30 people found the following review helpful By Brian Bex Huff on October 19, 2006
Format: Paperback
This is one of the top 10 science books I have ever read. Not a light read, but anybody with a basic grasp of biology and computers should be able to follow along.

Francis Crick plays the quintessential scientist in this book. He puts forward a hypothesis about human consciousness that closely mirrors the philosophies of John Searle: there is no mind-body problem. There is only the body. You, your soul, is basically a complex pattern of neurons in your brain.

Naturally, gathering supporting evidence for such a hypothesis is quite a daunting task. This book does not provide ultimate proof, nor ultimate answers. Rather it presents a large body of promising and highly interesting anecdotal evidence. Since its a huge subject, Crick focuses mainly on how vision affects consciousness. He discusses a good part about the human visual cortex, and neural network theory in computer science.

The book is filled with fascinating stories about people with brain trauma, and how it affected their behavior, their personality... their SOUL.

Did you know that there is a form of blindness, where the people don't know they are blind? Did you know that human free will is probably located in the anterior cingulate sulcus?

If Crick is correct, this scientific journey to understand the soul is a long one: it might take a century. This book is the first step on a very, very long journey, and it might not even be correct. Readers and reviewers must keep this in mind.

To emphasize again, its a HYPOTHESIS. Not a THEORY. So don't expect a ton of supporting evidence. Just a bunch of good ideas, some compelling data, and a good direction for future research.
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23 of 27 people found the following review helpful By bourgeml on March 10, 2007
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Crick claims to be investigating consciousness through the visual system because he believes that the visual system is more amenable to scientific investigation. Those who do not appreciate this tactic, he sniffily claims, do not understand how science operates. It should be clear why it is often necessary to study what can be experimented on first, but this in no way validates this particular strategy. Crick's approach is a lot like trying to understand the mechanics of a car's engine by studying its wheels. Yes, there is a connection, and yes, the wheels are a lot more accessible (especially if you haven't yet figured out how to open the hood). But you won't necessarily learn very much about how the engine actually works.

Closely connected to this difficulty is his refusal to countenance the very question of what consciousness actually is. Of course, not doing so makes his investigation of visual perception as a `mode' of consciousness much more plausible. If one explicitly refuses to define what is under investigation, then investigating almost any related phenomena will do. Unfortunately, this mindset will not actually serve to advance the enterprise very far. Crick uses the glib analogy of a battle: in war, he notes, one will not get far trying to define what a battle is when what is needed are troops and strategy. It should go without saying that this analogy is so deeply flawed as to be useless, except for its intended rhetorical purpose. There is no need to define the battle because that is clearly understood by all out the outset; the same can hardly be said of consciousness. If one does not know what the battle objective is, fighting it well becomes a lot harder. And that is the unfortunate plight of this book.
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