Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionistby Published 09 Mar 2012
|Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist.pdf|
|Publisher||The MIT Press|
In which a scientist searches for an empirical explanation for phenomenal experience, spurred by his instinctual belief that life is meaningful.
What links conscious experience of pain, joy, color, and smell to bioelectrical activity in the brain? How can anything physical give rise to nonphysical, subjective, conscious states? Christof Koch has devoted much of his career to bridging the seemingly unbridgeable gap between the physics of the brain and phenomenal experience. This engaging book--part scientific overview, part memoir, part futurist speculation--describes Koch's search for an empirical explanation for consciousness. Koch recounts not only the birth of the modern science of consciousness but also the subterranean motivation for his quest--his instinctual (if "romantic") belief that life is meaningful.
Koch describes his own groundbreaking work with Francis Crick in the 1990s and 2000s and the gradual emergence of consciousness (once considered a "fringy" subject) as a legitimate topic for scientific investigation. Present at this paradigm shift were Koch and a handful of colleagues, including Ned Block, David Chalmers, Stanislas Dehaene, Giulio Tononi, Wolf Singer, and others. Aiding and abetting it were new techniques to listen in on the activity of individual nerve cells, clinical studies, and brain-imaging technologies that allowed safe and noninvasive study of the human brain in action.
Koch gives us stories from the front lines of modern research into the neurobiology of consciousness as well as his own reflections on a variety of topics, including the distinction between attention and awareness, the unconscious, how neurons respond to Homer Simpson, the physics and biology of free will, dogs, Der Ring des Nibelungen, sentient machines, the loss of his belief in a personal God, and sadness. All of them are signposts in the pursuit of his life's work--to uncover the roots of consciousness.
"Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist" Reviews
I started reading this book because of my connection to the Allen Institute. This is more of an autobiography and memoir than actual details about his integrated information theory and his vision for the future. Koch admits he has a flamboyant personality and that certainly shows in his writing, which makes the book interesting to read, but sometimes hard to decode. He covers many popular neuroscience discoveries (like Jennifer Aniston neurons and the Libet experiments) that may be a boring review for people already familiar with neuroscience & philosophy. If you've already Sam Harris's brief book Free Will, or read How to Create a Mind by Ray Kurzweil, many of the ideas of determinism vs. libertarian compatibilism and panpsychism are echoed. The meat of the book is towards the last few chapters where he briefly discusses integrated information theory, free will, and religion. I would recommend this book more for a lay audience that is less familiar with neuroscience and also interested Christof's autobiography.
I was interested in this book because the title seemed appealing. I basically wanted to know the author's take on the 'Hard problem' of consciousness. Here, I was satisfied. Although a through reductionist, Koch admits the 'limit of reductionism' and claims that consciousness is something fundamentally different from matter and can never be fully reduced to matter. His attempt to gap the bridge between mind and matter is 'Integrated information theory', which is sort of a metaphysical theory with sufficient mathematical formulation, but still has a long way to go.
A major part of the book was a memoir. Koch worked with Francis Crick, who seemed like an amazing character to me. All in all, I enjoyed the book very much.
The writer is a passionate empiricist who strongly believes that the Hard Problem of Consciousness can be resolved through scientific means. He doesn't actually say how in this book, but he emphasises this belief several times.
The text is very easy to read and is peppered with the right amount of geeky humour that most people would appreciate. It's also well-structured and can be read even by those without any background knowledge in philosophy. One possible drawback to the book is the inclusion of some sentimental parts. The last chapter is entirely unnecessary for anyone reading this book purely for academic purposes.
A new thing I did learn from this book was Giulio Tononi's Integrated Information Theory and how it can be used to detect consciousness. The writer then justified panpsychism on empirical grounds.
After receiving the Nobel prize along with James Watson and Maurice Wilkins in 1962 for the elegant description of the structure of our helical molecule, Francis Crick dedicated his life towards the studying of the mind. Although I knew this true genius dedicated his life on this, I haven't got the opportunity to read about his work on consciousness before, so I was really excited when I found this book the other day.
Consciousness is a fascinating memoir, written by Christof Koch, about his research work along with Francis Crick on their quest on understanding what the mind is....on what is consciousness and makes us "human". Koch, also a physicist like Crick and with a minor in philosophy, will give you a fascinating approach on this topic as well as on free will. Can we truly act freely or are we just the result of the predispositions and circumstances of our environment or the culture we were raised by? What does physics have to say about this? Can the computational theory of mind help us to understand our "qualia"? Do animals have consciousness? Does the cortico-thalamic system has the answer? You will find a little of this along your reading.
Many of us, rely on science and philosophy in order to look for answers of the many questions our curiosity can give us, and this is what this memoir is about. So I really enjoy when I find a scientist that tries to give answers from many different approaches. In this case, our consciousness from a physics, philosophical and neurobiological perspective for only one true answer. I found Koch as an honest writer, who besides talking about his research talks openly about his loss in religious belief due to a maturity in seeing the world as it is along with being incompatible with scientific explanations. A naturalist scientific in whom I also noticed a touch of existentialism and a great sense of wonder. I like and agree with Koch expressing: "There is no reason why we should not ultimately understand how the phenomenal mind fits into the physical world".
Well, even if we find a reductionist molecular answer to this great riddle of the mind, will humans ever settle with this explanations or will we always be in the need something more?
I also perceived the same Crick that I've read many times and that James Watson also describes, open to new and radical explanations but always consistent with established and verifiable facts. It was funny to see that he referred to automatisms as zombie agents! It was a true delight for me to read about the research of this pair of geniuses and their friendship all the way to Crick's death.
I'll close with my favorite Francis Crick quote: “There is no scientific study more vital to man than the study of his own brain. Our entire view of the universe depends on it.”
A short memoir, that I really liked!
The reading of all good books is like a conversation with the finest minds of past centuries.
The subject of the book is an age old conundrum that has preoccupied scientists,philosophers and mystics alike for over many millenia- How does the water of biological tissue become the wine of conscious perception? How can the inanimate rumblings of neurons cause feelings as diverse as love, fear, anger or existential angst? Do lower life forms possess that same apparatus as us to perceive love, loss and suffering? If so( if we are to believe Koch), what are the implications on our conduct towards them ?
Early on in the book, Koch desists from overemphasising a rigid definition of consciousness, arguing in favour of a loose interpretation derived from commonplace and clinical experience. Along the way he takes great care in pointing out the distinction between attention and consciousness- a frequent bone of contention in academic circles. The authors love for philosophy is not lost on the reader as he masterfully traces the philosophical underpinnings of consciousness from Aristotle to Nietzsche and Wittgenstein. Koch gives a blueprint for a rigorous theory based on the solid foundations of Shannon’s information theory- the so called Integrated information theory. To quote Koch 'Even if it(IIT) turns out to be wrong, it will be wrong in interesting ways that illuminate the problem.'
Despite the ancient origins of the problem, most serious progress has occurred only in the recent past. Armed with gizmos like fMRIs, EEG and much recent still-optogenetics, neuroscientists are taking definitive steps in the right direction. The book is replete with topical case studies as well as classic experiments like the famous readiness potential experiments pioneered by Benjamin Libet. As such, the book is worth a dekko for the serious practitioner as well.
Koch does well in firmly extricating the study of consciousness from the realm of new age charlatans(Deepak Chopra ?) and cults and places it squarely in the domain of science- so that serious researchers can take a whack at it without losing credibility. Ever since the grand success of quantum mechanics and evolutionary biology, religion has been in constant retreat. In some ways, the mystery of consciousness is the last bastion where religions of all shapes and stripes have sought refuge from the onslaught of science.
Along the way the book provides the reader with interesting snippets about the life of a scientist working at the forefronts. It paints a charming picture of the relationship between a celebrated mentor and his famous acolyte. Koch poignantly captures the trials and tribulations concomitant with a crisis of faith. What stands out throughout the book is the extraordinary courage the pursual of a problem exacts from the scientist. Written in the finest traditions of modern science writing, it gets my unequivocal approval !