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Christof Koch


Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist

Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence.
As readers of Francis Crick's book The Astonishing Hypothesis will know, Koch collaborated with Crick in the research on consciousness that occupied the latter years of Crick's life. In this book Koch talks about this work and what it tells him about consciousness, and he also considers the philosophical and religious implications of his research. The book is a mixture of science, philosophy, and autobiography. These are not always clearly demarcated from one another and this makes it difficult to discern a sustained line of argument in the book.

Koch was brought up a Roman Catholic and although he has lost his formal religious faith he is not free of the need to search for transcendence that his upbringing inculcated. He tells us that he started studying consciousness to justify his "instinctual belief that life is meaningful". This explains his choice of subtitle.

[I am] reductionist because I seek quantitative explanations for consciousness in the ceaseless and ever-varied activity of billions of tiny nerve cells, each with their tens of thousands of synapses; romantic because of my insistence that the universe has contrails of meaning that can be deciphered in the sky above us and deep within us.
The first six chapters are mainly concerned with neuroscience in relation to consciousness. Koch is sure that science can explain consciousness, contrary to what some scholars believe.
I do not share this defeatist attitude. Despite the hectoring of deconstructionist "critical" scholars and sociologists, science remains humanity's most reliable, cumulative, and objective method for comprehending reality.
At the same time, he admits, we are not there yet. And the brain is certainly intimidatingly complicated; Koch notes that in the last two decades up to a thousand different types of nerve cell have been identified.

One mistake some researchers make is to look for areas of the brain that underlie consciousness—something Koch describes as naïve phrenology.

In summary, local properties of the cortex and its satellite structures mediate the specific content of consciousness, whereas global properties are critical for sustaining consciousness per se. For a coherent coalition of neurons to assemble at all—and for awareness to emerge—the cortico-thalamic complex needs to he suffused with neurotransmitters, chemicals released by the long and winding tentacles of neurons in the deeper and older parts of the brain. Both local and global aspects are critical for consciousness.
The more philosophical part of the book begins with Chapter 7. Here we get a discussion of the free will problem. Koch reviews this from the viewpoints of classical physics and quantum theory. Both of these indicate that firm prediction of events in the brain isn't possible (although the alternative—randomness— doesn't seem to be much better). Koch doesn't mention Galen Strawson's view—that we can choose what we do but only within the limits of the kind of person we are, and this we cannot choose. This seems to me to be one of the most illuminating contributions to this notoriously difficult problem that I have come across.

Chapter 8 takes us back to the "hard question" of consciousness. At least some animals are conscious, Koch believes—notably dogs, which he is particularly fond of; he thinks they are closer to 'true Buddha nature' than people are.

He has a discussion of whether consciousness is an 'emergent property' of brain organisation that I found somewhat unclear. At one point he seems to be favouring panpsychism.

I believe that consciousness is a fundamental, an elementary property of living matter [my emphasis]. It can't be derived from anything else; it is a simple substance, in Leibniz's words.
Yet a little further on he says:
It is not the nature of the stuff that the brain is made of that matters for mind, it is rather the organization of the stuff—the way the parts of the system are hooked up, their causal interactions.
I don't find it easy to reconcile these two statements. Doesn't the second imply that a non-living system such as a computer could be conscious? And doesn't that contradict the previous statement?

In his final chapter (Chapter 10) Koch gives us his latest views on religion. He no longer believes in a God who interferes in the way the world works or who answers prayers, but he does think there is a God who has produced the world and who gives a meaning to life. This is deism rather than theism. He inclines to the thinking of Teilhard de Chardin, who he suggests would be suitable as a patron saint for the Internet.

There is no reason why complexification should cease at the boundary of our blue planet with interplanetary space. Teilhard de Chardin believed that the entire cosmos evolves towards what he terms the Omega point, when the universe becomes aware of itself by maximizing its complexity, its synergy.

As will be evident, this is a deeply personal book. The final chapter includes an account of a very painful midlife crisis, triggered by the death of Francis Crick and the departure of Koch's son and daughter to college, which resulted in the end of his marriage. This is not elaborated on, but there may be a clue in Chapter 7, where he uses a psychological sketch of falling in love and wrecking a marriage to illustrate the complexity of free will.

There seems to be a tendency nowadays for scientists to include quite intimate details of their personal life in books describing their research (Svante Pääbo has done this in Neanderthal Man). Perhaps this is due to a wish to show that scientists are as human and emotional as everyone else, but I think it would usually be better to keep these elements separate.


%T Consciousness
%S Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist
%A Chrisof Koch
%I The MIT Press
%C Cambridge, Massachusets; London, England
%D 2012
%K Brain and mind, biography
%O Kindle version downloaded from, 2017

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