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The Romantic Reductionist

A Conversation with Christof Koch


Wednesday, March 13, 2013
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Reductionism is one of the primary methods of modern science. The key idea is that previously intractable problems – like the mind/body problem – are in theory tractable by breaking the problem into smaller parts and solving the smaller problems. Solving the smaller problems will, then, allow the larger problem to be solved. Or so the idea goes.

Christof Koch, for the past 27 years a professor of cognitive and behavioral biology at Caltech, but who has now moved to be the chief scientific officer of the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle, is a lifelong reductionist. He’s written extensively on biophysics and neuroscience. His best-known book, a detailed and scholarly examination of the physical basis for consciousness, is The Quest for Consciousness: A Neurobiological Approach.

Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist
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Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist

Koch’s new book, Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist, is far more accessible. It’s a lively and interesting account of Koch’s evolution as a thinker, including his changing views in neuroscience, philosophy, and spirituality.

Koch stated just a few years ago, in an article co-authored with his long-time mentor Francis Crick, the Nobel Prize-winning co-discoverer of DNA: “Neuroscientists do not yet understand enough about the brain’s inner workings to spell out exactly how consciousness arises from the electrical and chemical activity of neurons. Thus, the big first step is to determine the best ‘neuronal correlates of consciousness’ – the brain activity that matches up with specific conscious experiences.”

This is a good example of the reductionist approach to understanding the brain basis of consciousness because it intentionally ignores – for now – the over-arching metaphysical issue of “how consciousness arises” and focuses instead on understanding how the brain and its components work.

In his latest book, however, Koch is willing to indulge his more “romantic” side. The self-professed romantic reductionist goes far beyond his earlier statement and does discuss his current views on how consciousness arises. Perhaps most significantly, Koch supports panpsychism as probably the best candidate for explaining how consciousness arises. Panpsychism suggests that all matter has some modicum of mind, and vice versa.

Tam Hunt

“Romantic” doesn’t mean anti-rational. To me, the term means simply that we recognize the mystery of the universe and the fact that the universe will always remain mysterious to some degree. For Koch, it means that we can discern patterns of meaning in the universe, meaning that can’t be drawn from mere scientific facts and theories.

But panpsychism can also be intellectually rigorous, particularly when we recognize that it’s about as simple (parsimonious) as a theory can be while also including the reality of conscious experience – rather than simply ignoring it as some approaches do (what the physicist Erwin Schrödinger described as “objectivation” – the tendency to forget the reality of the subject while the subject itself engages in its theory-making).

Specifically, Koch supports Giulio Tononi’s version of panpsychism (described in his new book, Phi: A Voyage from the Brain to the Soul), which views any system, biological or artificial, that has at least some bits of “integrated information” as possessing at least some minimum level of consciousness. As integrated information increases, so does consciousness.

Some have decried this apparent evolution in Koch’s thinking. Stanislas Dehaene, a prominent neuroscientist, wrote in a review of Koch’s book:

[For Koch] evolution implies a progressive amplification of global consciousness, with computers and the Internet as its most recent avatars. Openly confessing his recent familial turmoil and his loss of Christian faith, Koch finds solace in this view of life. He also admits that his long-time mentor and collaborator on the mind-body problem, Francis Crick, would have cringed. An avid reader of Jacques Monod’s Chance and Necessity, I too was stunned: Rare are contemporary biologists who confess such thoughts, and they are even rarer, I thought, among those who study consciousness.

As a card-carrying panpsychist (in the linked article I address some of the problems with panpsychism that Koch refers to below, offering my preferred solutions), I find Koch’s “confessions” refreshing and encouraging. Recognizing that all matter very likely has some modicum of consciousness and that the universe is, as a general matter, evolving toward higher consciousness is an entirely fact-based, rational, and rigorous position. But, contrary to the prevailing reductionist materialism in neuroscience and other sciences, it also provides room for more spiritual approaches to the world – which recognize the inherent mystery behind the world around us.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Koch via email but also for my in-progress documentary on spirituality in the 21st Century, which should be completed later this year.

You’ve studied the mind for decades but only until recently have you been willing to publicly discuss the problem of consciousness itself. What prompted this change of heart?

Well, that’s not really true. I started to give public talks on the brain correlates of consciousness, including a very popular Caltech class on The Neurobiology of Consciousness, since roughly the early 1990s. What has changed over the past several decades is the attitude the audience brings to the topic. Early on, I always had to justify why natural scientists can, and should, study consciousness and that the quest for the material roots of consciousness should not just be left to philosophers, religious people or the retired. This view, that consciousness can be investigated in a scientific manner, has now become much more widely accepted.

Your new book, Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist, is a great and accessible read on your career studying the brain and mind. You surprised me with a sort of “coming out” as a panpsychist, in that you suggest the most natural and simple of solutions to the mind/body problem is the idea that all matter has some associated consciousness. Can you explain your reasoning behind this position? And what does it mean in practical terms to have a panpsychist view of the world?

There are two main sources for my attraction to a panpsychist position.

First, many species – bees, octopuses, ravens, crows, magpies, parrots, tuna, cichlid and other fish, mice, cetaceans, dogs, and monkeys - are capable of sophisticated, learned, non-stereotyped behaviors that would be associated with consciousness if a human were to carry out such actions. The nervous systems of these creatures, while typically smaller than that of humans, are highly complex, with neuronal circuits as complex as anything seen in the human brain. When studying mammalian brains, it is difficult to observe anything exceptional about the human brain, except possibly its large size (note that the brains of whales are up to five times bigger than the human brain). From this I conclude that consciousness is vastly more widespread than commonly assumed. What makes humans special is the emergence of self-consciousness, consciousness reflecting upon itself. But all the current evidence suggests that many animal species, and perhaps all multi-cellular animals, experience the sounds and sights of life. This opens the way to reconsider the old philosophical position of panpsychism.

Panpsychism is the belief that anything physical has a mental aspect or that the mental is fundamental and ubiquitous, from electrons to brains. It has two major flaws. One is known as the problem of aggregates as recognized already by Leibniz. As the philosopher John Searle puts it well in his review of my book Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist in the New York Review of Books, “Consciousness cannot spread over the universe like a thin veneer jam; there has to be a point where my consciousness ends and yours begins.” Indeed, if consciousness is everywhere, why should it not animate the iPhone, the Internet, or the United States of America? A second flaw was that earlier versions of panpsychism did not explain why a healthy brain is conscious while the same brain, placed inside a blender and reduced to a goo, would not be. That is, it does not explain how aggregates combine to produce specific conscious experience.

So, second, I have in recent years been swayed by the conceptual framework of the integrated information theory (IIT) of Giulio Tononi, which postulates that conscious experience is a fundamental aspect of reality and is identical to a particular type of information (integrated information). Consciousness depends on a physical substrate but is not reducible to it. Any system that possesses some non-zero amount of integrated information, whether it hails from the ancient kingdom of animalia or from its recent silicon offspring, experiences something. While it feels like nothing to be a heap of sand or a black hole, it feels like something to be a bee or the Internet.

Is cognitive neuroscience a mature science at this point? Or are we still in the early days of understanding the brain and mind, with many competing theories still presenting credible but competing views?

A final true science of the mind will have to be built out of a deep understanding of nerve cells, and the amazingly complex circuits they form in the brain. For it is neurons that are the atoms of perception, memory, behavior, thought and consciousness. To paraphrase Winston Churchill - cognitive neuroscience is at the end of the beginning of the quest to understand our brain and mind. So it will still be a while.

I’m familiar with Tononi’s work and also find it pretty appealing. You write that “consciousness depends on a physical substrate but cannot be reduced to it.” Can you elaborate on what this means? This sounds kind of dualistic to me but I don’t think that’s what you mean.

Exactly what I say. Experience utterly depends on a brain but is not the same as the brain that produces this experience. It is experience, after all, which I am more certain about than anything else. Brain I can only infer indirectly. I have no direct experience of my brain. It is the mind that feels the heavy heart after falling out with a loved one, not the neurons making up the brain. Without the neurons, there would no sadness but it is not the neurons that are sad.

As you state in your own writings, you don’t believe in philosophical labels, so I won’t answer into what sort of exact philosophical camp this position falls and the extent to which it is a dualistic position. The world is too complex to be easily labeled.

Staying with Tononi’s ideas, can you explain Tononi’s solution to the “boundary problem” (also known as the “combination problem”)? That is, how is it that, as you write, all Americans have individual minds but there is no “American mind” in the literal sense as an aggregate of all the smaller minds? How are “local maxima” determined?

One of the central notions of integrated information theory is exactly this: that only ‘local maxima’ of integrated information exist (over elements, spatial and temporal scales) – my consciousness, your consciousness, but nothing in between; each individual consciousness in the United States, but no superordinate [aggregated] U.S. consciousness. The local maxima themselves are determined by the extent to which some neural network carried information that is both integrated and differentiated. Even though it may be residing within a larger network, the larger network of which it is a part can have a lower degree of integration and differentiation. It is all a question of the wealth and strength of the connections among the subcomponents.

More fundamentally, why would consciousness be tied to integrated information, or information at all?

That, my friend, I couldn’t tell you. This might well fall into the same category of fundamentally unanswerable (but utterable) questions as “Why is there something rather than nothing?” You and I find ourselves in a universe where integrated information is consciousness.

You delve into the spiritual arena a little in your book and I wanted to ask if you could briefly describe your own spiritual evolution – the “romantic” aspect of the “romantic reductionist” that you describe yourself as?

I was raised by my parents in the best liberal Catholic tradition, in which science—including evolution by natural selection—was by and large accepted as explaining the material world. I was an altar boy, reciting prayers in Latin and listening to Gregorian chants and the masses, passions, and requiems of Orlande de Lassus, Bach, Vivaldi, Haydn, Mozart, Brahms, and Bruckner.

Mother Church was an erudite, globe-spanning, culturally fecund, and morally unassailable institution with an unbroken lineage extending across two millennia to Rome and Jerusalem. Its catechism offered a time-honored and reassuring account of life that made sense to me. So strong was the comfort religion provided that I passed it on. My then-wife and I raised our children in the faith, baptizing them, saying grace before meals, attending church on Sundays, and taking them through the rites of First Communion.

Yet over the years, I began to reject more and more of the church’s teachings. The traditional answers I was given were incompatible with a scientific worldview. I was taught one set of values by my parents and by my Jesuit and Oblate teachers, but I heard the beat of a different drummer in books, lectures, and the laboratory. This tension left me with a split view of reality. Outside of Mass, I didn’t give much thought to the questions of sin, sacrifice, salvation, and the hereafter. I reasoned about the world, the people in it, and myself in entirely natural terms. These two frameworks, one divine and one secular, one for Sunday and one for the rest of the week, did not intersect. The church provided meaning by placing my puny life in the context of the vastness of God’s creation and his Son’s sacrifice for humankind. Science explained facts about the actual universe I found myself in and how it came to be.

Harboring two distinct accounts, one for the supralunar and one for the sublunar world, to use Aristotelian imagery, is not a serious intellectual stance. The resultant clash was my constant companion for decades. Yet I knew that there is but a single reality out there, and science is getting increasingly better at describing it. Humanity is not condemned to wander forever in an epistemological fog, knowing only the surface appearance of things but never their true nature. We can see something; and the longer we gaze, the better we comprehend.

In a mid-life crisis (that erupted late, at age 50), I resolved the conflict between these two types of explanations, by rejecting Catholic and indeed all Christian precepts.

I do believe that some deep and elemental organizing principle created the universe and set it in motion for a purpose I cannot comprehend. I grew up calling this entity God. It is much closer to Spinoza’s God than to the God of Michelangelo’s painting. The mystic Angelus Silesius, a contemporary of Descartes, captures the paradoxical essence of the self-caused Prime Mover as “Gott ist ein lauter Nichts, ihn rührt kein Nun noch Hier” (God is a lucent nothing, no Now nor Here can touch him).

The rise of sentient life within time’s wide circuit was inevitable. Teilhard de Chardin is correct in his view that islands within the universe—if not the whole cosmos—are evolving toward ever-greater complexity and self-knowledge. I am not saying that Earth had to bear life or that bipedal, big-brained primates had to walk the African grasslands. But I do believe that the laws of physics overwhelmingly favored the emergence of consciousness. The universe is a work in progress. Such a belief evokes jeremiads from many biologists and philosophers, but the evidence from cosmology, biology, and history is compelling.

Spiritual traditions encourage us to reach out to our fellow travelers on the river of time. More than most secular ideologies, religions emphasize the common bond among people: Love thy neighbor as thyself. Religious sentiments, as expressed through music, literature, architecture, and the visual arts bring out some of what is best in humankind. Yet, collectively, they are only of limited use in making sense of the puzzle of our existence. The only certain answers we can obtain come from science.

What I find most appealing from an intellectual and ethical point of view are certain strands of Buddhism.

I am saddened by the loss of my religious belief, like leaving forever the comfort of my childhood home, suffused with a warm glow and fond memories. I still have feelings of awe when entering a high-vaulted cathedral or listening to Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. Nor can I escape the emotional thrall, the splendor and pageantry, of High Mass. But my loss of faith is an inescapable part of growing up, of maturing and seeing the world as it is. Science is a story for grown men, not a consoling tale for children.

I’m cast out into the universe, a strange, scary, and often lonely place. I strive to discern through its noisy manifestations—its people, dogs, trees, mountains, and stars—the eternal Music of the Spheres.

Do you think we’ll be able to satisfactorily integrate science and spirituality in the not-too-distant future? Do you find Ken Wilber’s attempted integration (in works like The Marriage of Sense and Soul and Sex, Ecology, Spirituality) at all compelling?

I truly do not know. But I know I will not give up striving to reunite a scientific with a spiritual perspective.

You state toward the end of your book: “The universe is a work in progress.” Waxing romantic, would you agree that “God is a work in progress”?

I do not know what this means!

Last, how large a role in your own peace of mind and spiritual practice do activities like rock-climbing and meditation play?

So far, meditation, while appealing from an intellectual point of view, is not for me. I lack the discipline and the desire to contemplate for hours, attending to “no awareness.” I thrive on running, biking, and climbing for hours, hyperkinetic. For me, life is motion. I can rest when I’m dead.

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I wonder how Koch decided which aspects of experience are “facts about the actual universe” that only science and not spiritual traditions can explain. That he was born, must relate in some way to his fellow creatures -- his social species-mates in particular -- and must die seem rather unavoidable facts. What sort of meaning about the “true nature” of these things does he gather from his belief in “local maxima of integrated information” and his faith “that some deep and elemental organizing principle created the universe and set it in motion for a purpose [he] cannot comprehend”?

It is unclear what he means by uniting “a scientific with a spiritual perspective,” since he says that the latter is “only of limited use in making sense of the puzzle of our existence,” only science being able to provide answers that are certain. He apparently believe he’s closer to “seeing the world as it is,” but it also remains unclear what world he believes he’s seeing that needs the sort of explanation he now claims to prefer.

pk (anonymous profile)
March 13, 2013 at 3:34 p.m. (Suggest removal)

pk, I think you'd enjoy Koch's book so check it out. I don't think Koch himself would suggest that he's worked out any detailed reconciliation of science and spirituality, but he's open enough to recognize that today's science is lacking in terms of providing spiritual succor in many ways.

TamHunt (anonymous profile)
March 15, 2013 at 9:32 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Perhaps he's more coherent and nuanced a writer than his emails suggest.

In any case, this part of my reading list is currently occupied with Matthew Kapstein's Reason's Traces: Identity and Interpretation in Indian and Tibetan Buddhist Thought. The early chapters seem promising.

pk (anonymous profile)
March 15, 2013 at 6:14 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Interesting - I read Kapstein's book a few years ago and found it quite good.

TamHunt (anonymous profile)
March 16, 2013 at 3:04 p.m. (Suggest removal)

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