The ambition to create a simulacrum of a person, as human beings are said to have been created in the image of likeness of God, dates back as far as we can go in the surviving records of human imagination, appearing in different forms in cultures throughout the world. In our time, it has been a favorite theme of science fiction (as in Philip K. Dick's novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the basis for the movie Blade Runner). Mary Shelley's Frankenstein has been perhaps the most resonant telling of this tale.

Now this age-old ambition has moved from the realm of fantasy and black magic to the realm of science, just as Mary Shelley foresaw. Consider, for example, the December 4, 1998 issue of the journal Science, which includes an article by Giulio Tononi and Gerald M. Edelman entitled "Consciousness and Complexity." Edelman, who received the 1972 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, is one of several Nobel laureates who have taken up the challenge of Consciousness Studies after making their mark in another field; among the others are Francis Crick, the codiscoverer of the structure of DNA, and the mathematical physicist Roger Penrose.

In fact, over the last fifteen years or so, there has been an extraordinary surge in the study of consciousness. In part this can be attributed to advances in neuroscience. And in part, no doubt, it reflects the lure of a formidable challenge, for consciousness has notoriously resisted scientific explanation. But another factor at work is the desire to disprove, once and for all, the traditional understanding of the human person which, in Western culture, has been deeply influenced by Christianity.

The concluding sentence of Tononi and Edelman's article states that "The evidence available so far supports the belief that a scientific explanation of consciousness is becoming increasingly feasible." Now of course what the authors mean by "a scientific explanation" is a naturalistic explanation; human consciousness, they believe, is the result of undirected, unsupervised natural processes. (Edelman's theory of the brain, which he has developed both in technical works and in versions for the general reader, is called "neural Darwinism.") And that is a striking claim.

But even more striking is the endnote for this sentence (note 52 in an article of four and a half pages). The note is crafted with the flamboyant understatement that many scientists relish: "It is perhaps worth pointing out that our analysis predicts the possibility of constructing a conscious artifact and outlines some key principles that should constrain its construction." So, with no unseemly hoopla, Frankenstein's monster enters the precincts of Science.In his fascinating 1992 book, Bright Air, Brilliant Fire: On the Matter of the Mind, Edelman devoted a brief chapter to the question, "Is It Possible to Construct a Conscious Artifact?" He concluded with a tentative yes, adding that the prospect of creating "artifacts with higher-order consciousness" (such as we possess) is much more distant, although "in principle, there is no reason to believe we will not be able to construct such artifacts someday." Edelman added:

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Whether we should or not is another matter. The moral issues are fraught with difficult choices and unpredictable consequences. We have enough to concern ourselves with in the human environment to justify suspension of judgment and thought on the matter of conscious artifacts for a bit. There are more urgent tasks at hand.

Hmmm. I wonder if it not time to end that moratorium and begin sustained reflection and debate on "the matter of conscious artifacts."John Wilson is Editor of Books & Culture, Christianity Today's sister publication.

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Books & Culture Corner appears Mondays at Earlier Books & Culture Corners include:

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See earlier Books &Culture articles on consciousness, "I Cerebrate Myself | Is there a little man inside your brain?" (Jan./Feb. 1999) and "Soulless | If consciousness is only an illusion, it's the greatest mistake human beings have ever made" (Jan./Feb. 1998).

Tononi and Edelman's Science article, "Consciousness and Complexity," is available online, but you'll have to pay for it.

See also an article in The Scientist titled, "Consciousness Studies: Birth of an Empirical Discipline?" (May 10), Science-Week's focus issue on "Substrates of Conscious Experience," the Journal of Consciousness Studies, and Psyche: An interdisciplinary journal of research on consciousness.

Or, for a more understandable series of articles, see "The New Brain," a special issue of the delightful online magazine Feed.