The Astonishing Hypothesis

January 25, 2013 |  by

That’s the name given by DNA-discoverer Francis Crick to the idea that (as V.S. Ramachandran writes) “our conscious experience and sense of self is based entirely on the activity of a hundred billion bits of jelly—the neurons that constitute the brain.”

“That even our loftiest thoughts and aspirations are mere byproducts of neural activity. We are nothing but a pack of neurons.”

Writing on edge.com, Ramachandran poses the question:

Let’s advance to a point of time where we know everything there is to know about the intricate circuitry and functioning of the human brain. With this knowledge, it would be possible for a neuroscientist to isolate your brain in a vat of nutrients and keep it alive and healthy indefinitely.

Utilizing thousands of electrodes and appropriate patterns of electrical stimulation, the scientist makes your brain think and feel that it’s experiencing actual life events. The simulation is perfect and includes a sense of time and planning for the future. The brain doesn’t know that its experiences, its entire life, are not real.

Further assume that the scientist can make your brain “think” and experience being a combination of Einstein, Mark Spitz, Bill Gates, Hugh Heffner, and Gandhi, while at the same time preserving your own deeply personal memories and identity (there’s nothing in contemporary brain science that forbids such a scenario). The mad neuroscientist then gives you a choice. You can either be this incredible, deliriously happy being floating forever in the vat or be your real self, more or less like you are now (for the sake of argument we will further assume that you are basically a happy and contended person, not a starving pheasant). Which of the two would you pick?

In other words, is there a real you?

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