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
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!
Christoph Koch is one of the leading scientists studying consciousness at a fundamental level. He has studied under the brilliant Francis Crick, is the lead scientist at the Allen Brain Institute in Seattle, and teaches at Cal Tech. A large portion of the book deals with the theory of a colleague of Koch's named Guilio Tononi. Tononi holds that consciousness is integrated information, a measurable property of causal systems that may exist in both biological and non-biological systems, e.g. computers. This view is interesting for a variety of reasons, but I think two of the things that stood out to me about it were its similarity to panpsychism and its invocation of Platonism. Oddly enough, Koch is very dismissive of philosophers throughout the book, despite being well-versed in the tradition and a huge fan of Descartes. He thinks Chalmer's skepticism about ever being able to resolve the Hard Problem of Consciousness is typical of philosophers overstepping their bounds and limiting science's abilities. There are many interesting autobiographical elements to this book, including some heavy-duty existential reflection. Koch's willingness to speak to issues of religion and his personal faith history were welcome alternatives to most scientists' summary dismissal of all things spiritual. My biggest beefs with this book were his failure to articulate HOW integrated information JUST IS consciousness (i.e. how does it bridge the first-person/third-person divide?) and his sometimes scattered and incoherent thoughts on religion. Overall, one of the best books about consciousness I have encountered, and sure to be a classic.
Philosophers, theologians, and scientists have debated the questions of human consciousness for a very long time. What is the difference between my brain and my mind? Are my thoughts simply epiphenomena arising glibly from the chemical soup of the grey matter behind my skull walls, or do they spring divinely from my eternal soul or from some sort of ethereal akashic records?
These are daunting issues, but Christof Koch is well-qualified to tackle them as a scientist who worked alongside one of the biggest names in neurology and consciousness studies--indeed all of biology--Francis Crick of DNA double-helix fame.
Koch's approach is very readable, almost conversational. Although much of the scientific nitty-gritty was above my crude, rudimentary level of biochemical and neurological understanding, his book takes an approach, as the subtitle indicates, as a confessional of a romantic reductionist. Born into a devout Catholic household, he struggled at times to put aside the romantic notions of mind and soul from the hard-data and empirical results that the reductionist scientific community was building upon after the middle of the 20th Century. The book makes for a read that is part autobiography, part history, part philosophy, and part scientific journal; an eclectic mix for sure, but one that worked well for me.
Although I would have really liked to also see some discussion around puzzles such as out-of-body and near death experiences, which I believe stretch the connection between brain material and consciousness to the maximum, I feel that Koch puts together a pretty good argument that science is slowly but surely getting us closer to a more accurate understanding of what consciousness is and how it works. Let's face it, though...we have a long, long way to go, as science has only just started assembling the edge pieces of this puzzle.
The parts about information theory, information integration, and optogenetics were really interesting. I've always been skeptical of engineers and scientists who simply tout the speed and large memory of a computer switchbox as something approaching artificial intelligence and ultimately the "singularity of consciousness". Well, size is not everything. Koch explains the work of Giulio Tononi, which centers around the idea that the degree of consciousness (of a human, or a dog, or mouse, or even a computer network) depends upon the interlinking integration of the information itself.
...the quantity of conscious experience generated by any physical system in a particular state is equal to the amount of integrated information generated by the system in that state above and beyond the information generated by its parts. The system must discriminate among a large repertoire of states (differentiation), and it must do so as part of a unified whole, one that can't be decomposed into a collection of causally independent parts (integration).
I heartily recommend this for readers with a reasonable background in basic science interested in the ancient puzzle of mind over matter and who don't mind dipping into personal anecdote and thoughtful commentary. They should find this an interesting and entertaining read in a daunting subject.
It's very hard to categorise or summarise this book. It works as an introduction to the field of neuroscience - particularly to the concepts involved, as opposed to this-bit-of-brain-then-that-bit-of-brain - it also has elements of speculative science; memoir and philosophy. Perhaps most affectingly, however, it is a surprisingly emotional grappling from a man who knows than almost everyone about how the brain works, yet loses himself in grief and guilt just the same. A man who understands how far we are from understanding why we do what we do, and how this rich internal life of ours, well, *is*.
Which is not to be confused with a religious or spiritual approach that says this is unknowable. If Koch's book is a hero's journey towards specific knowledge, it doesn't conclude with defeat, but with the optimistic note that gradual enquiry reveals truths and understandings, even if it falls short of "Life, the Universe and Everything" answers. (Koch provides a splendid side-swipe at M-Theory here, managing to make it look petty and small - the attempt to have a solution at any cost, when we just aren't there yet).
It's very short this book, but in the end it packed a real punch and will be one of those which come back and cycle around in my head.
I liked it very much. Some of it was very entertaining. In a few places, I just felt lost. An excellent discussion of free will, however, and that's a difficult topic. I'll probably reread that chapter.
My favorite paragraph:
"If we honestly seek a single, rational, and intellectually consistent view of the cosmos and everything iin it, we must abandon the classical view of the immortal soul. It is a view that is deeply embedded in our culture; it suffuses our songs, novels, movies, great buildings, public discourse, and our myths. Science has brought us to the end of our childhood. Growing up is unsettling to many people, and unbearable to a few, but we must learn to see the world as it is and not as we want it to be. Once we free ourselves of magical thinking we have a chance of comprehending how we fit into this unfolding universe." - p. 152.
And this should be a poster:
"No matter, never mind."