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Christof Koch on Free Will, the Singularity and the Quest to Crack Consciousness

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I met Christof Koch in 1994 at the first of series of big conferences on consciousness held in Tucson, Ariz. A professor at Caltech, Koch had helped popularize consciousness as a topic for serious scientific investigation—instead of windy philosophical supposition—through his collaboration with the great Francis Crick, who had already cracked the genetic code and now wanted to solve the riddle of mind as well.

In Tucson Koch outlined a theory, jointly fashioned by him and Crick, that 40-hertz brain waves might be a key to consciousness. Although I was skeptical of that particular theory, I liked the hard-nosed, materialist, reductionist approach that Koch and Crick took toward consciousness. I also liked the quirky intensity that Koch brought to his scientific work.

This trait was on display in Tucson during an encounter between Koch and the philosopher David Chalmers, who proposed that consciousness is such a “hard problem” that it needs new approaches, such as one incorporating ideas from information theory. Confronting Chalmers at a cocktail party, Koch declared that Chalmers’s information-based theory of consciousness was untestable and therefore useless. “Why don’t you just say that when you have a brain the Holy Ghost comes down and makes you conscious!” Koch exclaimed. Such a theory was unnecessarily complicated, Chalmers responded dryly, and it would not accord with his own subjective experience. “But how do I know that your subjective experience is the same as mine?” Koch retorted. “How do I even know you’re conscious?”

Koch, who since Tucson has been my go-to source on neuroscience, is still chasing the white whale of consciousness, and he describes his quest in his marvelous new book Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist (MIT Press). Koch interweaves a brisk update on consciousness studies—with sidebars on zombies, brain-downloading, free will, neurons that recognize Jennifer Aniston, “consciousness meters” and information theory, which Koch now apparently views more favorably—with a memoir about his personal life, which has been turbulent lately. I emailed Koch—who is still at Caltech and is also the chief scientific officer of the Allen Institute for Brain Science, which recently launched a major new initiative —with questions about his book and career.

Horgan: You seem to have written your latest book in an attempt to achieve catharsis. Did it work?

Koch: Yes, it did help me resolve a long-brewing conflict between my Catholic upbringing and faith on the one hand and my scientific view of the world on the other. And writing the book also helped me deal with a more personal crisis.

Horgan: Your late friend and colleague Francis Crick once told me that free will was an illusion. Do you share this pessimistic view?

Koch: Well, Francis was right in that the standard conception of free will, that has the soul hovering above the brain and making it “freely” decide this way or that, is an illusion. It simply does not work at the conceptual or empirical level However, more subtle readings of free will remain, as I discuss in my book. Yet we are all less free than we like to believe. What remains, though, is that I am the principal actor in my life, so I better take responsibility for my actions.

Horgan: Do you think consciousness will ever be really, totally, explained? Could the “mysterians” [who propose that consciousness is not scientifically solvable] turn out to be right?

Koch: There is no law that states that all phenomena will have an explanation that humans can apprehend or understand. But my gut feelings—based on the past several centuries of progressively ever more successful explanations of the natural world—is that there will be better and better answers to the puzzle of our existence. We are not condemned to wander forever in some sort of epistemological fog. We will know. We will understand consciousness.

Horgan: Can you tell my readers, briefly, what Integrated Information Theory is and why you think it may be the key to consciousness?

Koch: The Integrated Information Theory of consciousness of Giulio Tononi is a general and quantitative way to approach the problem of consciousness. Ultimately, science needs to explain why some systems—a healthy and awake human brain, for example—give rise to conscious sensations, to experience, while other biological networks—the immune system, for example—do not. We also need to answer questions about consciousness in severely injured brain patients, in new-born babies, in a fetus, in dogs and cats, frogs, bees and flies and in artificial creatures, in iPhones and the internet. And only an information-theoretical account of consciousness is rich and powerful enough to be able to answer those sorts of questions in a meaningful and empirically accessible manner.

Horgan: Will scientists ever crack the neural code? If so, could that lead to powerful, precise mind-reading and mind-control technologies?

Koch: Of course.  In some very concrete ways, neuroscience can do so already now. You can lie inside a magnet scanner and look at one of many possible YouTube videos, and cognitive neuroscientists can infer with reasonably good chances of success what sort of movie you’re watching from the blood flow pattern in your visual brain. This sort of capability will get ever more refined as time goes on.

Horgan: Is DARPA [the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency] supporting your research at Caltech because it wants to create bionic soldiers?

Koch: No

Horgan: I’ll take your word for it. Have you become a member of the Singularity cult? Because I would find that very depressing.

Koch: Most certainly not.  I have an article under revision right now that provides a quantitative argument for why the belief that we will understand the brain of a mouse, let alone that of a human, within a decade is as sound as the belief that the rapture is imminent.

Horgan: Phew. Has all your research into the brain given you any insights into—or control over—your own brain, emotions, behavior?

Koch: I have stopped eating the flesh of mammals and birds, as they too share the wonders of experience with us. We are all nature’s children. We all experience the pains and pleasures of life. Furthermore, the commodious literature on voluntary actions makes it quite clear that we are less free than we think we are, that our prior actions, beliefs and habits shape us in untold ways. This has made me more humble.

Horgan: Not too humble, I hope. Regarding your involvement in the new initiative of the Allen Institute for Brain Science: Do we really need another of these big brain research projects? How will this differ from, say, the Blue Brain Project?

Koch: The just-announced Brain Observatory initiative at the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle is concentrating enormous resources (hundreds of millions of dollars in the first four years alone due to the unprecedented generosity of Paul Allen) and several hundred anatomists, physiologists, molecular biologists, computer scientists, physicists and engineers in a concerted team effort to understand the most complex piece of organized matter in the universe, the mammalian cerebral cortex.  Neuroscience is a splintered field. Some 10,000 laboratories worldwide are pursuing distinct questions about the brain across a panoply of spatio-temporal scales and in a dizzying variety of animal species, behaviors and developmental time-points. At any large neuroscience meeting, one is struck by the pace of discovery, with 50,000 or more practitioners heading away from each other in all directions, in a sort of scientific Big Bang. Although this independence is necessary, it has prevented neuroscience from entering a more mature phase, which would involve developing common standards and collaborative projects. Neurophysiologists are more likely to use each other’s toothbrushes than each other’s data and software; physiological results are hoarded and rarely made accessible online; molecular compounds and transgenic animals are shared only after publication. All of this has made comparisons across laboratories difficult and has slowed progress. We take a different approach. In particular, as in the past, all of our data, analyses, and atlases are freely available to anybody on the planet with a browser. Think of it as an experiment in the sociology of neuroscience. Only time will tell how successful this will be. Cheers

About the Author: Every week, hockey-playing science writer John Horgan takes a puckish, provocative look at breaking science. A teacher at Stevens Institute of Technology, Horgan is the author of four books, including The End of Science (Addison Wesley, 1996) and The End of War (McSweeney's, 2012). Follow on Twitter @Horganism.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. KeithCaserta 3:04 pm 04/2/2012

    I found this particularly interesting as I deal with a number of these topics in my hard science fiction novel, Soul Searching. I’m not sure I agree with Koch about the Singularity. Although we MAY be many years from creating superintelligence, we may also stumble across it in the next ten years or so. Think of vast, hardware neural net circuits, which are well within current technology.

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  2. 2. EyesWideOpen 4:35 pm 04/2/2012

    A rather disturbing theory has been crystalizing intensely since theories of consciousness and parallel universes have formed over the years.

    Suppose, just suppose, that in each parallel universe, one conscious mind (yours, mine) simultaneously occupy every conscious being in that multiverse? Hawking said that if we experience consciousness linearly, that is, experiencing each life seemingly “one after another” even though they’re technically happening in parallel universes, suppose you and me are the same person? I will experience you in “another life” as you’re interacting with me now (or I have already experienced you). Conversely, you will experience me in the same manner.

    Can you see the implications here? That even though there could be infinite conscious entities occupying infinite parallel universes, each entity is “alone” with themselves. In effect we get to become every living human and other conscious lifeform in THIS universe, experiencing what is happening RIGHT NOW in all its glory or infamy (depending on our perspective).

    I dread this is true because I don’t fancy dying of starvation on some dry expanse of parched land in Bangladesh, or experiencing a fly-swatter as my last moment of consciousness, or being eaten alive by a cannibal out in the boonies. Just the same, all these horrors have their compensations, for I also can experience what it’s like to sat at the President’s desk in the Oval Office (from the perspective of a black man), look out through the windows of the Kremlin as I smugly smoke a Cuban cigar, win the $10 billion interstate lotto in the year 2025, make love to Madonna, and be Madonna.

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  3. 3. TobyNSaunders 6:20 pm 04/2/2012

    That is AWESOME Kock went vegetarian via evidence-based morality; that is amazing, that is good! He should go vegan; everyone should! —Saying free will is an illusion is not pessimistic, as the interviewer implied, by the way. Consciousness is pretty much the most important thing, next to the wellness of consciousness of course!

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  4. 4. Cognosium 5:22 am 04/3/2012

    it is it incredible that some of those who claim to be representatives of science still wallow in antiquated notions of “The mystery of consciousness” when it is certainly a mystery no more.

    We have at our disposal today, as a result of ongoing scientific enquiry, conceptual tools that provide a full empirical understanding of the general nature of consciousness.

    Firstly, and most importantly, from our understanding of biological evolution by natural selection it becomes quite clear that the provision of a navigational feature that involves some degree of self awareness is required for an organism to interact optimally with its environment.
    It is a measure of its fitness for the prevailing environment and subject to selection pressure accordingly. There is, of course, a great gulf between the level of consciousness exhibited by our species in comparison to any other. Simply because the level of interaction with the environment required by our particular ecological niche is incomparably higher. As evidenced by the billions of artifacts and systems that have resulted from human activities,

    Secondly, we can be sure that consciousness has a purely chemical basis by virtue of the fact that it can be “turned off” chemically by anesthetics. What’s more, the state (and perception) of consciousness can be modified at sub-anesthetic levels by such substances as diethyl ether, and nitrous oxide. Not to mention the wide variety of altered states of consciousness induced, again chemically, by substances such as alcohol, cannabis, amphetamines, cocaine, LSD and so forth.

    Thirdly, from computer science, we now have a good understanding of how information processing systems work. While, of course, neural mechanisms are very different from the digital electronic circuitry of our computers there are sound functional comparisons to be made and to help our understanding at a general level.

    We must always bear in mind that, most of the activity of our central nervous system performs its multitudinous complex tasks without any awareness on our part. The consciousness is merely a tiny window on the world of which we are part. Essentially just a navigational facility. Albeit a rather nifty and important one.

    That may, of course, offend anthropocentric conceits.

    If you are game to bite the bullet and have them further offended then check out my books, which are free downloads in ebook formats from the “Unusual Perspectives” website.

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  5. 5. jgrosay 2:49 pm 04/4/2012

    This a beautiful article, but nature is like the pinball wizard: blind, deaf and dumb, an it has no creatures, so when the author says “we are children of nature”, he’s probably wrong, and not only this, it can be suspected that under the names “nature”,”pachamama”,”ceres”, and “gea”, somebody is hidden, the same one in all these names. Some free will of course exists, but some of our choices are between, for example, coffee, or Pepsi, or wine, or beer, or city council provided water, but there’s no escape: we haven’t the freedom of passing from drinking. At last, these limitations are part of our nature, this time the word seems appropiate to me, and we better accept them, and enjoy them, whithin a reasonable continence, let us say. Salut +

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