Ard: There’s a famous quote by Francis Crick I think in his book, The Astonishing Hypothesis, where he says essentially, you – your joys, your sorrows, your free will, your memories – are nothing but the collective motions of neurons and molecules.
DN: Yes, yes.
Ard: What’s your response to that kind of statement?
DN: Well, first of all, it’s sort of a mixture of humour and sadness. If he really thinks that, I’m very sad. If it’s play, then maybe it’s humour. I think Crick did both, actually. I think he really believed what he was saying, and I think he was also partly joking. People do that to provoke.
Ard: And if you’d never thought, or questioned it? If you were to take your brain, for example, and freeze it in a vat and then, with future…
DN: When they can resurrect me, yes!
Ard: At some point in the future when science has progressed, we can, you know, thaw it again and resurrect you…
David: I thought it was only Californians who did that!
Ard: It’s a thought experiment.
DN: They’re doing it already. There are frozen brains, yes.
Ard: So if you froze your brain and then later thawed it and resurrected you, would that still be you?
DN: Quite definitely not. No.
Ard: And why not?
DN: Well, the mistake is to think that there’s some physical thing here that is the seat of my consciousness: that my consciousness is somehow a process that’s occurring only inside here.
First of all, that can’t be right because my consciousness and my interaction – I’m talking about social awareness and so on, not just about whether I’m awake – that depends on interactions with everybody else. So it cannot be the case that it’s only situated here. And it cannot be the case for another reason too.
It is not a thing: consciousness is a process.
David: Process, yeah.
DN: And I think the big problem with this approach – and it’s a big problem with the reductionist approach in general – is that it is mistaking processes for things.
David: Yes. I mean, isn’t reductionism essentially a commitment to say everything will be explained as a thing?
David: Things are made of smaller things, which are made of smaller things, and once we understand the things, then we understand everything. As you say, it pretends that processes don’t happen.
DN: Exactly so. And one can prove that very simply. At the point when I die, my molecules will be, essentially, still there. My consciousness will not. Simple.
David: There’s another lovely example from your book… I know we keep asking you to rehash your book, but when you were talking about reductionism, you used the example of pointing.
DN: Yes, yes.
David: Would you run through that for us?
DN: Yes, well, David, can you point now?
David: Yeah, okay.
DN: Thank you. You put the arm back and I put a set of electrodes here. And imagine also that I’m such a good physiologist that I know exactly how to excite your brain to make you point. I tell you what will happen is, you’ll do that.
David: Right. So you flick a switch and I go [points arm]…
DN: Yes, that’s right. However, you would then say, ‘Denis, this is different. I didn’t point. Something made me point.’ That means that the motion of doing that pointing isn’t the explanation for my intention to point.
David: Yes, everything in my body would have happened the same way.
DN: Exactly so.
David: But I didn’t have anything to do with it.
Ard: But you weren’t really pointing, you were…
David: Well, I didn’t think, ‘I’ll point at him’. So you’re saying that there’s this thing called intention?
David: Which isn’t a thing?
DN: Well, a process which isn’t a thing: it’s a process.
David: I can’t find intention.
DN: You can’t find it in here because it isn’t a thing. Exactly so.
Ard: It’s a process.
DN: Yes, it’s a process. Once you’ve got that explanation, you don’t need trillions of recordings of my nerve cells to ask the question, ‘Why did Denis Noble point?’
David: You pointed because you had an intention.
DN: Precisely. And an intention is part of those processes that are processes that are interpersonal, that are therefore, in a sense, jumping outside my body, and I don’t mean that in a ghostly sense, obviously.
Ard: But to understand them, if you localise them in your brain, you’ve misunderstood.
DN: Exactly so, which is why if you just freeze it and a hundred years later you bring it out of the freezer, you won’t have the same person.
David: It does sound, doesn’t it, that you’re committed to the idea that ideas are real in some sense and have this ability to make things happen?
David: What you call causation.
DN: And the way that happens is what I would call contextual logic.
DN: Because what I’m doing at the moment, in interacting with you, is that everything I say is dependent on what you say, which is dependent on what I say, which is… and so it goes on, and I cannot be outside that process.