On June 6th 2005, EPFL (École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, Switzerland) and IBM launched the Blue Brain Project, an ambitious attempt at simulating a mammalian brain down to a molecular level. Headed by professor Henry Markram, the Blue Brain Project, along with a dozen international partners, has recently proposed the Human Brain Project, with as ultimate goal the simulation of a human brain. Recently, the group has been awarded a grant of roughly 1.4 Euros by the European Commission to formulate a detailed research proposal. If the decision of the European Commission (expected in 2012) is favorable, up to 1 billion pounds could be awarded to the project…

And here, the characters come into play. After hearing the news, a discussion ensues between a reductionist proponent (RP) and a non-reductionist opponent (NRO).

RP: Wow.That’s interesting. An ambitious project. It’s a lot of money, but maybe it’s worth it.

NRO: I disagree. There are far better uses for that money, like finding a cure for cancer and other conditions, or developing durable technologies based on alternative energy sources, or development aid, and many other projects.

RP: All these examples should certainly be pursued, I’m not going to argue about that. But this project can have many benefits. Not only will we learn a lot about how the brain works, with many potential uses in the fight against numerous neurological conditions, but we might even get closer to the answer for one of the greatest known mysteries: ‘What is consciousness?’.

NRO: A computer simulation of a human brain, even if it works, will not teach us anything new about consciousness, which is more than just a collection of neurons, no matter how complex the interactions between them might be. Besides, a human brain is one of the most complex structures known to man, simulating it might be harder then they envisioned.

RP: Sure, it’s going to be hard, but the project will be pursued over a course of a dozen years. And if consciousness is more than a collection of neurons and their connections, than what is missing? Surely, you’re not talking about a ‘soul’ or anything like that?

NRO: Of course not. All I’m saying, is that a reductionist account of consciousness will not be able to explain how it feels like to be conscious, and why it feels this way. Consider the well-known example of the colorblind scientist who knows everything there is to be known about color, such as the wavelengths of light in the visible part of the spectrum, but also which neurons respond to color in which particular combination. Still he or she will not know how it feels to see color.

RP: That might be true, but if we know which neurons interact in which way, and we are able to simulate this in the scientist (assuming this is possible, of course), he or she will know what is feels like to see color. In fact, the scientist will experience color, despite being colorblind.

NRO: I disagree. In my opinion, there has to be something more to it.

RP: But you can’t define what is missing?

NRO: No, I don’t think I can define it, just because there might not be a physical definition for whatever it is that is missing.

RP: Umm…Well, at this point in the discussion I guess we have to adhere to that old saying and agree to disagree.

NRO: I suppose so.

RP:Consciousness aside, I still think this project is worthwhile.

NRO: I never said it couldn’t be worthwhile, but the prize, at this moment, is just too high, and the chance of success, in my opinion, does not warrant such a huge investment.

RP: As always, my friend, you are entitled to your opinion.

NRO: As you are to yours.

...To Be Continued?

(DISCLAIMER:These characters in no way represent actual people, nor the only possible viewpoints. For example, RO and NRP happened to be on vacation.)

For more information about the project, you can visit the site of the Blue Brain Project here.

(The example of the colorblind scientist is borrowed from The Conscious Mind by David J. Chalmers)