Consciousness is one of the big questions humanity longs to have answered. What makes us human? What is the experience of consciousness that we all feel exists intuitively, but that we have no evidence-based theory to explain — and also where is it? There are many schools of thought on the topic. Philosopher Alva Noë says consciousness isn’t in the brain, and that looking for it there is like “trying to find the dancing in the musculature of the dancer or trying to find the value of money in the chemical composition of the dollar bill.” Then there are philosophers and neuroscientists who believe that consciousness is caused by neuronal oscillations, and that it’s contained in the brain. For some, it originates there but it could also be an emergent energy or vibration that goes beyond our bodies. There is no proof either way, and until there is, Bill Nye personally takes the molecular view. Do you agree that our physical, chemical brains are the beginning and end of consciousness?
Bill Nye’s most recent book is Unstoppable: Harnessing Science to Change the World.
Peter: Hello Bill. My name is Peter. I live in Miami and I have a hypothetical question for you. If we could clone or build a human brain atom by atom so that the second brain was an exact copy of the first brain and we decided to clone Bill Nye my question is would the second brain also be Bill Nye or do you think consciousness transcends the physical structure and biochemical processes of the brain? Thank you.
Bill Nye: If I understand your question we make a replica of Bill Nye’s brain – very troubling at some level. I don’t think there’s any consciousness or soul or awareness that exists outside of our physical brains. This is a very difficult question to answer. Extraordinary claims are made on both sides - the molecular people like me and the spiritual people like others.
There’s no reason to think – for me there’s no reason to think there’s something beyond the physical brain. And I say this because the experience I had with people as they grow old. Their consciousness, their awareness changes. And I’m talking about people who lose their cognitive abilities. The most reasonable explanation for that for me is the chemical brain is all you get.
The nature of consciousness is a deep and wonderful question. Furthermore would this brain that you produce be just like Bill Nye. I think the answer is clearly no because the Bill Nye you have here is based on all these life experiences which could only happen during the time I have been alive.
In other words I remember Nixon resigning. I remember the moon landing. I remember 9/11 but this new brain you create of Bill Nye will not have had all those experiences. He may not have played ultimate Frisbee with an old Wham-o master. He has only played with a 165 gram disc so his experiences just could be totally different if you see what I’m driving at.
So while this is a wonderful question I’d like all of us to think about the nature of consciousness. And this has all kinds of implications about how you treat other people and how you treat other organisms, other animals. Is there a gradient? You know when I go to the zoo, you know, when I go to the zoo I see the gorillas, the bonobos, chimpanzees. They’re looking at me, they’re thinking “chimpanzetical” thoughts. They’re thinking about something and they’re experiencing life in many ways the same way I do or would.
But there’s something else about me or us that’s different. I mean there’s no evidence that gorillas do calculus for example. At least not formally. And so there’s something else that seems to me best explained as a gradient of chemical processes that happen in our wet computer brains that where our brains have managed to set aside a little more space for cognitive thought.
For example, a blue whale has an enormous brain but most of that brain apparently is used for running a blue whale, not for doing extraordinary philosophical treatises.
If I’m wrong, this turns out to be wrong that’ll be exciting. It’s a great question. Thank you.