Steve Paulson: Why have you devoted so much of your life to the search for the neural roots of consciousness?
Christof Koch: Well, I mean consciousness is the central factor of our lives, the central factor of our existence. The only way I know I exist, the only way I know anything exists is because I’m conscious. I mean, the most famous deduction in Western philosophy, so I mean Descartes of course, “Cogito Ergo Sum.”In morallanguage, you can say, “I am conscious, therefore I am.”I might bemistaken about who exactly I am. I might be mistaken about how attractive I am to the opposite sex, but there’s no doubt I have feelings. I have feelings of pain, of pleasure, of anger, being a man, of waking up, of seeing red, and by and large, until recently, science has neglected to incorporate the fact of consciousness into its theories. As I and many other people have argued over the last 20 years, it’s really time to change that. If science wants to have a closed sort of a complete understanding of everything in the universe, it has to include consciousness.
Paulson: And yet, this seems to be an incredibly difficult problem for scientists to explain. What makes consciousness so challenging?
Koch: Well, I mean, unlike the black holes or Hicks Bosons or molecules or brains, consciousness has both external, what philosophers call a third person perspective as well as an intrinsic perspective, and all these other things, Hicks Bosons to molecules to neurons, only have an external perspective. In other words, you can weigh these things. You can poke them. You can measure them. You can take them apart and put them together again. And scientists and engineers are very good at doing that, but we don’t think a black hole feels like anything. We don’t believe it’s sort of a Hicks Boson or single nurse cells feels like anything. But a brain, at least a healthy human brain, if it’s awake, feels something.
You know, I feel something. You feel something. You actually see a world. You have a picture of the world in your head. How does this picture get into your head? That’s sort of the mystery. And so, because it has both an exterior third person perspective as well as this interior first person perspective, it’s sort of unique among all the phenomena in the universe. So, it means it’s a little bit more difficult. It doesn’t mean it’s impossible. There many people who use the thing. It’s just a little bit more difficult to attack it using a sort of a scientific point of view.
Paulson: I would think, maybe, a lot more difficult actually, especially if we talk about the complexity of the brain. I mean, just to put this into perspective, how many neurons and synapses are we talking about in the average human brain?
Koch: The average human brain is a hundred billion. The exact number in full male brains is 86 billion. That’s about the number of stars in the galaxy.
Paulson: 86 billion neurons in one brain?
Koch: Correct. Yeah. And synapses is on the order of a hundred trillion or something like that. It’s a thousand or ten thousand times more. But you know, if you look at these mere numbers, if you look at our national debt, it’s getting up there, and if you look at all the numbers of transistors on the internet, it’s also getting up there. It’s not the sheer numbers of it. It’s the incredible complex ways in which these things are wired up are very specific and very, very complex. Only in biology, we’re discovering this over the last ten or twenty years, that the vast complexity of it all, and so that makes it differ, and that makes it different from a hand, from a gigantic sand dune, which might also have a billion particles of sand, or makes it differ from a galaxy. Our Milky Way, for example, contains a hundred billion suns, but the way these suns interact is very, very simple compared to the way that neurons can interact with each other.
Paulson: This is an important point to make. You’re saying that it doesn’t matter so much what the neurons are made of. It’s how they’re organized. How are they wired together. That’s what counts.
Koch: Correct. So, unless you believe in some magic substance, that’s attached to our brain with some magic stuff, that exudes consciousness, which certainly no scientists believe, then the only answer is it’s not the stuff the brain is made out of, but it’s a relationship of that stuff to each other, so it’s the fact that you have these neurons, and they interact in very complicated ways. In principle, if you could replicate that into action, let’s say in silicone on a computer, you would get the same phenomena including consciousness.
Paulson: So, it’s entirely possible that the internet could become conscious, or maybe it already is conscious.
Koch: In principle, that’s possible. Correct.
Paulson: Explain that a little bit more.
Koch: Well, I mean, so this belief is known as functionalism. It doesn’t have to be true, but it’s a working hypothesis, and it comes out of artificial intelligence where the argument is, again, for intelligence, it doesn’t matter so much that you’re made out of neurons and bones and muscles, but what matters is in order to replicate some functional behavior like playing chess, or reasoning, or realizing you can open a door and walk through it, certain hypotheses have to take place. They can take place in brains, or they can take place in computers. What really matters is the functional relationship of the element in your brain to each other of the functional relationship of the elements in the transistors in a computer to each other, and both could use intelligent, either natural intelligent, artificial intelligent. This hypothesis, people think may also be true when it comes to consciousness. Once again, the stuff, the fact that brains are made out of neurons is not so relevant. Obviously, it’s important for us, and if we lose any neurons in a stroke or in a degenerative disease like Alzheimer’s, we lose consciousness. But in principle, what matters for consciousness is the fact that you have these incredible complicated little machines, these little switching devices called nerve cells and synapses, and they’re inter braided. They’re wired up in amazingly complicated ways, and if you could mimic that, for instance if the internet taken as a whole. The internet now already has a couple of billion nodes. Each node is a computer. Each one of these computers contains a couple of billion transistors, so yes. It is in principle possible that the complexity of the internet is such that it feels like something to be conscious. I mean, that’s what it would be if the internet as a whole has consciousness, that means it feels like something to be in the internet. Depending on the exact state of the transistors on the internet, it might feel one way. It might feel sad one day and happy another day, or whatever the equivalent is in internet space.
Paulson: You’re serious about using these words. The internet could feel sad or happy?
Koch: What I’m serious about is that the internet, in principle, could have conscious states. Now, the exact meanings of these conscious states, do they express happiness? Do they express pain? Pleasure? Angry? Red? Blue? That really depends on the exact sort of mapping. That depends exactly on the relationship of the transistors, of the nodes, of the computers to each other. That’s more difficult to ascertain what exactly it feels. But, there’s no question that in principle, it could feel something. Yes.
Paulson: Would we humans recognize whether there are certain parts of the internet that are conscious? Or is that somehow beyond our understanding?
Koch: That’s an excellent question. Well, if we had a theory of consciousness, we could, using the theory, could analyze it and say, yes. Based on our theory, this thing, this entity, this simulacrum is conscious. Or, at some point, because it displays independent behavior. Suddenly, it develops some autonomous behavior that nobody programmed into it, right? Then, that’s the best way, where people are, woah! What just happened here? It just sort of self organized in some really weird way. It wasn’t a bug. It wasn’t a virus. It wasn’t some Botnet that was paid for by some nefarious organization, but it did it by itself. Yes, and if this happens on a regular basis, then I think at some point, we would have to describe, if it has this autonomous behavior, many people would say yeah, I guess it, in some sense, it’s alive, and it may have conscious sensation.
Paulson: You know, I think we actually need to back up for a moment and get a definition. How do you define consciousness?
Koch: That’s very difficult, and typically, what it means pragmatically, if I study consciousness, let’s see, in people that I do, or in patients. You come in the lab. I talk to you. I show you something. You say, “That’s red. That’s an angry face.”Then I assume you’re conscious. So, sort offor normal people under normal circumstances, it’s to have these subjective states. That’s a working definition. That’s not a very rigorous working definition, but it’s perfectly sufficient to do experiments. For example, it’s perfectly sufficient to now put you in a magnet and sometimes she sees, just like when you go to magic shows, sometimes you see it, and sometimes you don’t see it. In both cases, something’s out there, but when you don’t see it because, let’s see, your attention is distracted. In the case of a magician, it might be because he distracts you using his bikini clad assistant. Although you’re looking at something in front of your eyes, you don’t see it. You’re not conscious of it. And now, in principle, I can repeat this experiment, without the assistant and the magician, but I can do an equivalent experiment in a magnet, and I can look at the difference in your brain when you see it and when you don’t see it. When you see it, you can describe it to me. When you don’t see the stimulus, you’re just not aware of it, although the physical stimulus still might be present right there on your eyes, but you don’t see because you’re distracted.
Paulson: So, in that definition, consciousness means awareness.
Koch: I think, and I’ve written extensively on this. I think those are just exactly the same words. They just sort of have slightly different connotations, awareness and consciousness. Yes, I think it’s the same. It’s having subjective states. You see something. You hear something. You’re aware of yourself. You’re angry. You’re sad. Those are all different conscious states. Now, you can retard this saying, “Well, that’s not a very precise definition.”But if you look at historically, almost every scientific fieldhas working definition. The definitions are amenable and subject to change. For example, you may know my Caltech colleague Michael Brown has redefined planets. Like, Pluto is not a planet anymore, right? Because astronomers got together and decided for various reasons, Pluto isn’t a planet anymore, right?
Paulson: I think Pluto still is a planet, but anyway, what do I know?
Koch: But it’s not officially called a planet anymore, and what’s a gene? A gene is very tricky to define. Over the last 50 years, people have had all sorts of changing definitions. So consciousness, it is not easy to define, but the main thing is don’t worry too much about definition. Otherwise, you get trapped in endless late discussion about what exactly you mean, what’s the exact meaning of the word? It’s much more important to have a working definition, run with it, do experiments, and then modify it as necessary.
Paulson: Of course, there’s a related question here, which is: what is and what is not conscious? As we’ve already said, we assume humans are conscious, and I think most of us would also assume dogs and elephants and mice have some degree of consciousness, but as you go down the chain in the animal world, do lizards have consciousness? Are ants conscious? What about bacteria? Are these useful questions?
Koch: Not right now. In the fullness of time, they have to be answered. But right now, let’s stick with cases where undoubtedly they’re conscious, so that includes people, although not all people. You might have a patient. You might remember Terri Schiavo , where it was very controversial, at least in the public domain, whether she was actually conscious or not. She was clearly alive, but because of her anoxia and the damage sustained by her brain, she couldn’t communicate to the outside world, and medical and scientific opinion held that she wasn’t there. She wasn’t conscious, yet she was moaning on occasion. She was making sort of these reflex-like movements. Even with people, there can be cases where it’s controversial. What about a newborn infant? What about a preterm infant? What about a fetus? Even there it’s not fully, it’s not totally clear. Most people, as you said, would agree that mammals, cats and dogs and mice and elephants etc. are conscious, but then what about non mammals? So, I think for now, again, just practically, let’s stick with some simple examples that we can actually work within the clinic or in the lab like people, like closely related species like mammals, and understand the neural basis, the brain basis of consciousness in those, and then in the fullness of time we can look at other things like squids, octopus. They’re very very complex. Bees, birds, worms, and in the limit, we’ll be able to answer a question like bacteria. Now, of course, there was a similar debate around what is alive. What is alive? Is a virus alive? Is a pylon alive? And those questions, by and large, don’t get asked anymore because we now have a different notion of what live is, so, by the time we know these answers for humans and for mammals, we might also have a much more precise notion. I mean, surely we’ll have a much more precise notion on what it means to be conscious that we can then apply to these other biological organisms.
Paulson: But, it’s fascinating to hear you say that at some point, we’ll have to consider the question of whether bacteria are conscious, because, I think the assumption is to be conscious, you have to have a mind, and bacteria don’t have minds as far as I know.
Koch: That’s correct. Therefore, bacteria will probably unlikely to be conscious. However, right now it’s sort of a guessing game with people. Same thing with bugs. Most people say bugs, they are just little machines. While, in fact, if you look at bees, they’re amazingly complex. They can recognize single faces. They can understand. They have this very complex behavior, how they find a nesting site, when they swarm in the spring, so they’re very, very complicated creatures. How do we know it doesn’t feel like something to be a bee? It’s not that bees will have as elaborate minds as we have, but we cannot rule out at this point in time that it doesn’t feel like something to be a bee and that the gold nectar has some conscious, powerful sensation to them. That they actually consciously smell the gold nectar of certain flowers. I don’t know for sure, but I can’t rule it out. Right now, we only have our intuition. We say, “Well, they’re small, fuzzy, and they’re bugs, so clearly, they’re not conscious. That sort of intuition, the same intuition that also says a whale clearly is a fish, right? Whales and fish swim through the water. It smells like a fish, therefore it’s a fish. Then we know, these intuitions very often can be wrong, so one has to be careful with intuitions. But you’re probably right. Bacteria’s probably not very useful to think about as being conscious.
Paulson: Get back to your project, which is to search for the neural coordinates of consciousness. The challenge, it seems to me, is not simply to find the hot spots in the brain that are active during certain mental activities, but actually to explain how neurons and synapses and chemical circuits generate conscious experiences. In other words, this is more than mapping correlations between brain activities and what people say they’re thinking about, which we can already see to some degree with FMRI scans. The real challenge is to explain how specific neural coordinates and the way they’re wired together generate different kinds of conscious experiences. Do I have this right?
Koch: Correct, yeah. The challenge is to see why this activity that’s in your visual brain, why does it give rise to a picture of a cup of coffee in front of me, and other neural activity in my olfactory part of my brain, my olfactory cortex gives rise to the smell of freshly brewed coffee. In both cases, it’s neurons that fire. They look the same. They release a bunch of chemicals called sodium, potassium, etc. In somewhere else, a similar neural activity gives rise to pain. In another part of the brain, the so called cerebellum, similar neural activity doesn’t give rise to anything. So the cerebellum, it’s sort of a little brain at the back of the cortex, in fact contains three quarters of all the cells in your brain, roughly 69 billion. But as far as you can tell, if you lose the cerebellum, you won’t be a ballet dancer anymore. You won’t be a rock climber. You’ll sort of walk with a very funny gait. You’ll talk very strangely. You’ll get attacks here, etc. But your consciousness is only mildly impaired if at all, so that seems to imply that some type of neural activity is privilege. It isn’t neural activity anywhere in the brain, but certain parts of the brain seem to have a preferential and much closer association with consciousness than other parts of the brain. And again, we have to understand what is it ultimately. What type of activity, what type of circuit gives rise to conscious sensation?
Paulson: So, given what you just said, it would seem that the current state of technology, of how we study the brain, is actually pretty limited. I mean, I know a lot of neuroscientists get very excited about brain imaging technology, FMRIs, and all of that, but it sounds like all that’s a fairly blunt instrument, a crude instrument to try to figure out what’s going on in the brain.
Koch: Yeah. It’s a wonderful instrument because it allows us to peer inside your and my brain safely every day, but it’s also very blunt. The number to remember in each cubic millimeter of the brain is a hundred thousand cells, different types of neurons. So if I take a grain of rice, and if I take a volume of brain of a grain of rice, that contains about a half a million different nerve cells, and maybe ten, seven miles of cable. It’s very, very complicated. By the way, that grain of rice of brain volume is, to first order, is very similar in you, in me, in a monkey, in a dog, in a cat, in a mouse. What’s different is the amount of brain volume, so we have much more. Our brain is about a thousand times bigger than the brain of a mouse, but of course, the other brains, like elephants, are even bigger than our brains. So that’s an interesting point that the hardware looks very similar. Anyway, to get back to the FMRI, so in that volume, you have roughly half a million nerve cells, yet in FMRI, that’s a volume element, and the special temple resolution of FMRI is very cool. All you can see, you can clearly see this one box as a single point. But we know, in fact this one point contains half a million neurons, some of which may fire, most of which don’t fire. Some might fire less, some might fire more or fire in a very complicated pattern. But FMRI can’t see any of that. It can just see this part of the brain is active, or that part of the brain is suppressed. And it’s a little bit like trying to understand your computer if you put a volt meter over it and see oh, in this part of your CPU, there’s now more power, and in that part of your computer there’s a little bit less power. That’s essentially what FMRI tracks. Functional brain imaging essential tracks power function in part of the brain. Once again, it’s a wonderful tool, but it is very, very crude. We are only now beginning to realize the complexity of it all. Neurobiology is a little bit similar to astronomers. Over the last 300 years, astronomers realized each successive generation, the universe is bigger than the previous generation thought. At first I thought we are sort of, you know, everything revolves around us, and we discovered there are other worlds called planets, and then, in fact, we discovered revolves around the sun, and we realized we are just one of many suns, then oops, there’s a billion of these suns. Then people realized, oops, there are hundred billion galaxy, each one containing a hundred billion or a trillion stars. Now, people discover that maybe there’s multiverses out there. Same thing in neuroscience. First, we realized the brain is an organ like any other organ consisted of cells. Then we realized, well, there may be two types of cells, the nerve cells and then the so called glee or astrocyte cells. Then people realized, well. There’s not only neurons, there’s excitory, inhibitory neurons, some that increase electrical activity, other on e decreases. But now, over the last ten years, we realized well, there might be, possibly, a thousand different cell types. They all have very highly specialized jobs to do. They look different. They have different chemicals. They use different neurotransmitters. They have different genes encoding for them. In particular, they are wired up in a very distinct manner, so it’s a little bit like having this legal set of 86 billion legal tiles, but they come in sets of a thousand different colors and shapes. The 2 by 2 and the 4 by 4 and the roof tiles etc. and the windows, and they all fit in very specific ways to each other. And now, the big challenge is trying to unravel all of that and see the amazingly specific way that tile number 55 only talks to tile 255 and 972. And it inhibits tile number 17 and 31, and it doesn’t talk to all the other ones. That’s what it’s beginning to look like. And how does anxiety, to give an example, or sadness or the color blue, how does it emerge out of all of that.
Paulson: Of course, there are plenty of very smart people, both scientists and philosophers of science who say we will never understand this. And we will basically never crack the fundamental mystery of how matter turns into what goes on in our mind, and I mean one of the most famous examples of this, the philosopher David Chalmers, who, back in the 1990s, talked about the so called hard problem of consciousness, saying that subjective experience is fundamentally different from what biology and physics can tell us, and he argues that science will never be able to bridge this divide between mind and matter. Do you disagree with him?
Koch: Well, I mean, historically, if you look at the historical record of philosophers, it’s pretty disastrous, right? You should listen, well, this is little acknowledged. Lots of people from 150 years ago, people said the same thing about life. You shall never understand what life is, it requires a special force, élan vital, all of that. It didn’t turn out to be too theme. Theme laws of physics describe life. People said, famous philosophers said, roughly 200 years ago, you shall never name, made the principle argument, we shall never know the matter of which stars are made. That was 20 years before they discovered spectroscopy, and of course they realized you can analyze the elements out of which stars are made. So I’m profoundly skeptical when philosophers tell us once again, we shall never know. Science has a spectacular record of understanding the universe. Yes, right now it’s a hard problem for very practical purposes. The brain, for its size, is by far the most complex system in the known universe. There’s no guarantee that we’ll understand it. Our cognitive apparatus just might not be up to it. I love my dog, but my dog’s unable to understand relativity. And so maybe it’s with us, but I don’t see any principle reason why we should be unable to understand it. Just because some philosophers doesn’t get it doesn’t mean that this is true and we shall never know this. It’s ridiculous. But of course, a lot of people are very happy about that message because a lot of people, for various reason, don’t want really to understand things in a way that science does. So, that’s why I think probably some of these messages are so popular in the general public, that you scientists will never really understand this. I don’t think so. I think it’s a fascinating problem. It’s a complex problem. I might not be able to understand it, but I see in principle no reason why science will not be able to answer this question.
Paulson: Let me go back to the philosopher David Chalmers who has suggested that consciousness may be an irreducible fundamental property in itself, not reducible to the laws of physics. What do you think of this idea?
Koch: Ok. This is a somewhat old idea that I have, I’m quite sympathetic to. So idea goes as follows, roughly just like physicists in the 16th century realize there’s this thing called magnets. Magnets have this weird property. They attract other magnets or pieces of metal. And there doesn’t seems to be any, this is invisible force. So we realized our description of the universe isn’t complete. We have to include magnetic fields. In the 1920s, people realized, well, the best way to describe elementary particle, we have to, possibly, this new thing called spin. And some particles have positive spin, others have negative spin, or they’re half spin, etc. It may well be that to fully understand consciousness, we need to see, well there’s, to understand the universe, we say there’s space, there’s time, there’s matter, there’s energy. And, there might be something equally fundamental—experience, and particularly types of systems, I think a particular type of complex systems that have a particular type of complexity (that needs to be defined of course), will have conscious experience. We just live in a universe where a particular type of complexity is associated with conscious sensation. That’s just the way the universe is, just like there’s matter. We now know there’s a six particalite, conveys a sense of the property of matter. So, we just live in a universe that has this. Well, so goes the theory, this hypothesis, we live in a universe that has this fundamental property, consciousness.
Paulson: This is what sometimes goes by the term pan-psychism, the idea that all matter is sentient to some degree?
Koch: They’re related. They’re not strictly equivalent, yes. But from then, it’s very easy to say, yeah. All matter to some extent, but usually not in the way that people mean it, has some consciousness associated with it, but very complicated pieces of matter like my brain or your brain, or, to a lesser extent, the brain of a dog that’s already 20 times smaller, or to a much lesser extent, the brain of a bee that’s much much smaller than a dog brain. All of these complex systems will have various degrees of consciousness associated with that. So, the limit, you could say yeah, even the worm and the fly have a little bit of consciousness, although it might be so little it might be much less consciousness than you have consciousness in your deep sleep, which is not a lot as far as we can tell.
Paulson: I’m guessing that you’re pretty unusual in suggesting that consciousness might be a fundamental property in itself along with the laws of physics. Are there many other neuroscientists who agree with that?
Koch: No. Most biologists in general don’t think about it. It makes them feel very uncomfortable thinking about these issues, so it’s very frowned upon, but once again I think that’s silly. We have to explain where consciousness comes from. There’s two possibilities, either to so called emerge in property. Small brains don’t have it. Large brains have it. It’s like wetness of water. One molecule of H2O isn’t wet. Two molecules aren’t wet. But you put a whole bunch together, like in my cup of coffee here, and then you get a wet liquid. Water’s the quintessential emerging property. There are many other emerging properties in the world around us like, for example, democracy. One or two people, they don’t have democracy, but in certain types of organization you get this emerging, you can get this emerging phenomenon called democracy. Same thing, the claim of consciousness is of that ilk. I used to believe that, but I’m studying it now for 25 years. Consciousness is so strange. It’s so different from anything else because it has a subjective aspect that, it feels like something. I don’t think it’s an emerging property, and I find it, in essence, much more elegant to assume a theory that doesn’t make any additional assumption. It just assumes while certain types of complex systems are conscious and it depends exactly on the complexity of the systems, how conscious they are, and what type of consciousness do they have. Are they conscious of pain, of pleasure, red, or blue, or some other state that we can’t possibly imagine.
Paulson: I have to say, as I was reading your book, I was fascinated to see that you invoked Pierre Teilhard de Chardin the late Jesuit priest and paleontologist who speculated that, basically, as the universe gets more complex, it becomes more conscious because most scientists kind of write off Teilhard as a religious apologist.
Koch: I wouldn’t call- yes, It is true that most scientists don’t even know about him, so he was this remarkable Jesuit Paleontologist, as you mentioned. And he had this idea about evolution. He accepted evolution and while he bought it, one reason that he couldn’t publish his books until after his death. And he had this live complexification where he argued that from very simple micro molecules to single cell organisms to multi cell organisms to simple animals to complex animals to us is this emergence of our complexity. He just observed the universe around us was getting more and more complex, and then he postulated this would continue. He postulated, essentially, something like the internet. He called it the Know Sphere, the sphere of knowledge that like a sort of incandescent that covers the entire planet and is heavily interconnected, social media and all that, and of course he died in 1951 long before any of this emerged, and so he postulated that sort of human society would evolve into this very complicated entity that would, at some point, become self conscious and he postulated, now this is just pure speculation, that this would go on throughout the entire universe and other planets, and that the universe in some weird to be described state would become self conscious. I do like, though it’s all totally speculative, but I do like some of these ideas because it is true. Before I look out at the universe, I see a universe that’s conducive to life. I see a universe that’s conducive to the formation of stable molecules and of life at least on our planets and very likely on other planets, so even stranger about life as well. And I do believe complexities associated with consciousness. Therefore, we seem to live in a universe that’s particularly conducive to the emergence of consciousness. Which is why I call myself a romantic productionist.
Paulson: You like these big philosophical questions, don’t you?
Koch: Well, because I think a lot about my place in the universe. What are we doing here? How did we come about? Does it mean anything? I mean, like most people, I like to think about these problems, and I guess unlike most people, I haven’t stopped. You know, usually, you ask these questions when you’re 18 and 19, and then you get on with this business of living. I guess even at my age, I still ask these questions because I want to know before I die. I want to know how it all fits together.
Paulson: Well, it’s worth pointing out that you grew up a Roman Catholic, an observant Catholic, and it would seem- and I know you have kind of lost your faith in a personal god, at least. But it would seem that that kind of search for meaning, that yearning for the absolute is still with you.
Koch: That’s correct. But it takes I tried to be guided by what’s scientifically plausible and by the current state of our science. Yes and I do try to reconcile that with a view of the universe not as of at a place I don’t- of course there is a huge amount of randomness but I also see these facts that we find ourselves in this universe that is very conducive to life and this somewhat has to be explained. I don’t know how to explain it but I see this arrow this kind of progress toward a larger complexity and to a larger consciousness and that fills me. I don’t know what it means. I can’t understand it but I see it. I observe it and I’m happy. I’m content about it.
Paulson: It sounds like you’re not exactly an atheist is that right?
Koch: Yeah I’m not a conventional atheist. I believe it’s all just a random formation. That’s correct. Although as you said I don’t believe in a personal god or any of the standard things that you’re supposed to believe in as a Roman Catholic or as a Christian in general.
Paulson: Well in your book the suggestion is that you’re a deist maybe believing that there’s some sort of supreme being that created the laws of the universe but does not intervene in it.
Koch: I don’t know. I grew up as you said with that picture in mind that’s very hard to get rid of when you acquire it in your formative years. It’s certainly not this god I have in mind is very ephemeral. It’s much closer to Spinoza’s God than it is the God of Michelangelo’s painting. There’s this wonderful quote by the mystic Angelus Silesius who is a contemporary of Descartes and he had this wonderful quote it’s a German quote: “Gott ist ein lauter nichts, ihn rührt kein nun noch hier”: God is aloof, nothing not now nor here can touch him so it’s totally different from the sort of any conventional conception of a god. It’s much closer in fact to Buddhist thought this sort of idea than it is to any monotheistic relation. I just grew up calling this thing god because that’s my tradition but it’s not any god in the sense that we in the Western world would recognize that I believe. There isn’t anybody sitting there an older guy with a beard that watches over us. I don’t think that’s the case.
Paulson: Well on the other hand it’s not as most neuroscientists I don’t know about most. I haven’t done a survey on this but my sense is that most neuroscientists would say we’re just stuck ourselves with trying to construct meaning. There’s no overarching meaning there. That’s not your position.
Koch: Correct but either one is a hypothesis that you have to make. You either say I believe like Richard Dawkins I believe it’s all random but that’s a belief. Or I believe like me that there is meaning. And in both cases we look for evidence for our belief. Either there is no meaning or there is meaning. That’s what we have to do. We’re finite beings in an infinite world and we have to make some assumptions. One of us makes an assumption then we look for evidence to confirm that assumption.
Paulson: So do you look for meaning in the world of science?
Koch: I find meaning in the world of science. It’s this incredible beautiful aesthetic thing. Isn’t it a wonder that we can understand the universe using mathematics that’s comprehensible to our minds. That’s just absolutely amazing. I mean there’s no law in the universe that says that it should be like that. Physics can make predictions about the shape of the early universe. We can predict the bang the size and the pitch of the initial bang in the universe and we can look for signatures in it and we find it in there. I mean that’s just absolutely amazing so that the universe actually is comprehensible by our minds. It’s one the most amazing facts about the universe. Yes and so that fills me with great contentment and yes science does that to me.
Paulson: From reading your book my sense is that you take this one step further. You talk about experiencing the numinous, the transcendent. What do you mean by that?
Koch: Well that’s something more personal. It’s just that I often feel that I- I don’t know I find it very difficult to talk about. Yeah I feel this. I can’t really describe it. It’s I just feel the universe is filled with meaning. I just see it everywhere and I realize that it’s a psychological mindset. I fully realize other people don’t have this. I have this. I think maybe I’m just more fortunate than all those other people and it’s very difficult to explain where it comes from. I just have this firm belief and I have this experience of luminosity. It’s difficult to explain to put into words.
Paulson: It’s so interesting hearing you talk about what I would call your spiritual side given you credentials as a scientist and especially given your partnership with Francis Crick one of the most famous scientists of the 20th century who was also a famous atheist. And I want to ask you about your relationship with Crick. First of all how did you end up working with him?
Koch: I met him a long time ago. I met him in Appletree and I discovered in my book in Germany and we interacted through my advisor. When I moved to California in 1986 he of course had moved ten years earlier when he retired from England. He left the old continent to live in El Arroya for his last 30 years and he also switched from molecular biology into neuroscience and at that point I got to know him and then we began to interact very intensely from 1989 until he died in 2004. We’ve written like 24 papers together and we interacted basically on a day to day basis trying to explore the idea of the neural basis of consciousness. At the time it was still very unpopular as scientists to think about consciousness. He said well retired people in Nobel can do that but working scientists who might not even have tenure who may not have obtained the holy state of tenure, they shouldn’t do this. It’s not a scientific problem and I think partly through this writing we did and other of course we helped change the attitude of people and so now I think it’s much more widely accepted by the neuroscience community that consciousness yeah it might be more difficult than other problems but it is a problem that can be attacked scientifically. In particular the neural basis of consciousness in the brain in human or animal brains can be tackled empirically right now.
Paulson: That’s astonishing what you just said. Basically that the study of consciousness was not really considered a legitimate scientific field until the 1980s or so. Really until Francis Crick with his reputation came along. Even though the mind-brain problem has been a fundamental problem that people have obsessed about for centuries.
Koch: So most of the obsession was done by philosophers. Philosophy is sort of the mother if you want to think of it of all sciences. Before science there was philosophy sort of smart people who think about the world in pre-scientific terms but then as the methods it all depends on methods and technology. As we get methods and technology to study these things empirically then sort of these fields separate from philosophy and become their own field. So this happened with psychology with two or three hundred years ago and a few psychologists most famously William James the father of American psychology the brother of the novelist Henry James he wrote extensively about consciousness in 1880s, 1890s. So smart people including psychologists have thought about it but it wasn’t sort of mainstream science until the late 80s maybe 90s partly because of the function of brain imaging as you mentioned before because now you can put people in a magnet you can ask them questions about consciousness. Are you conscious of this or that? And then you track the footprints of consciousness in the human brains. That really made a big difference and people like Francis Crick with his high reputation when he argued listen guys. If science wants to have a complete picture of the universe it has to understand consciousness. It can’t be tackled today. We aren’t forced to forever listen to this philosophical talk we can actually turn this talk into real science that’s empirically accessible.
Paulson: Francis Crick was what 40 years older than you?
Koch: Yes. In fact exactly correct.
Paulson: And is it fair to say that he was your mentor?
Koch: Yeah. He was sort of my second mentor later in life. We had this sort of intellectual father son relationship because of the age difference and we got along very well. He had this- what he did throughout his life he worked with one person quite intensely. He did that with Jim Watson of course most famously and then with Sydney Brenna for three decades and then for the last two decades of his life he did that with me. It was a very intense experience.
Paulson: What was that like working with him with someone who was so brilliant?
Koch: I would say sheer joy and pleasure. What happened so often was he would take the same fact that I would read and he would just come to a startling new conclusion. I looked at the same facts. I read the same paper but then he made this jump because he connected these facts to let’s say something he’d done earlier on in molecular biology and there he sort of says molecular biology we look at facts from this point of view so maybe we should look at these facts and the brain sciences from that point of view. He was very good at that at having these metaphors these analogies from other fields and routinely later on he didn’t sleep so well so very often he would lie awake at night and think about these things and come to the breakfast table having great new ideas so he kept on flowing out these ideas. And he wasn’t afraid of continuously throwing out these ideas. Many of them were crazy. Many of them were interesting but didn’t work but occasionally there were these wonderful ideas so he just generated in that time so much more ideas than other people did.
Paulson: I know the word genius is overused these days but it sounds like he would be a quintessential example.
Koch: Yes. That could be the case.
Paulson: Well as we already said the other piece of Francis Crick’s story is that he was an ardent atheist. In fact the story is that he actually left Churchill College in Cambridge because they went and built a chapel over his objections and you-
Koch: That’s correct. I just visited it last week. I was just at Churchill College and I visited the college because of that story.
Paulson: Well as we’ve already said you have this background as a Catholic and you still have some religious sensibility. Did you talk much about religion with Crick?
Koch: Yeah we did in fact. He was gentle in respect to my faith. When I first met him I still went to church and I still took my family there. We discussed we talked quite a bit about the teaching of the church. He didn’t push me in any aggressive way. He felt as long as it didn’t impede my- He knew I had some religious sensibilities because we talked about it but since it obviously didn’t impede our ability to have vigorous discussion about the neural college of consciousness and part of the brain and what about this physics can that part of physics explain consciousness? He did not make it a cod’s belly as he probably would have done 30 or40 years earlier. There he would have pushed me very hard and maybe not even be willing to talk to me because of my religious sensibilities. But I guess sort of his ardor his vigorous ardor fighting against religious sensibility had cooled by the time I met him.
Paulson: Did you ever push back? Did you ever challenge some of his atheist assumptions?
Koch: No. We once had a very interesting discussion about death. It’s one of the things I greatly admire about him. Not only that he was a genius and a great source of scientific inspiration for me but also his attitudes towards getting old and dying. We had this debate with him about death where he knew he had very short to live because he had colon cancer that couldn’t really be kept in check very well by the drugs and he said I prefer not to die but I’ve accepted it and every time I cam there early on in the morning when I arrived there we talked a little bit about his current state of health but then he would say ok. This is a state of affairs. Just like describing the neighbor. The neighbor has this condition. It’s not so good. He had the two options but now let’s move onto more interesting things and then we would talk about science. And he kept that attitude until the bitter end. Two weeks before he passed away he called me up on the way to the hospital. He had the chance to say “I’m sorry Christof. The paper will be delayed because I have to go into the hospital.” Then in the hospital he worked on it two hours before he passed away he dictated what would be the last correction to this paper we then published his last paper to his secretary. So he knew he was going to die but he didn’t let it interfere with his business of trying to understand the universe. In particular trying to understand how consciousness arises from the brain. What an attitude to take.
Paulson: Yeah. Remarkable story. Speaking about death you have a very revealing section in your book talking about one night I guess it was about a dozen years ago when this seemed to hit you the fact that you were going to die. It hit you in some very visceral way. It sounds like you had a night of existential angst. Can you describe that experience?
Koch: It’s pretty late for most people. That happens pretty early in their life but I lived immortal. I was immortal until I was 42 or something like that. I was immortal until I was 42. I played a haunting video game of my son that it was his but I played it. It’s one of these addicting at first game shooter where you are chased by hordes of aliens and these empty corridors on the alien suns and I did that for a couple of hours wasting my time. Then I went to bed fell immediately asleep and then suddenly I woke up in the middle of the night. I woke up with this abrupt realization I was going to die. It was on one end beautiful illustration of the power of the unconscious because here I was solidly asleep. I’m a very good and solid sleeper but I woke up. I knew I was going to die. I didn’t have any sort of premonition oh I have cancer or tomorrow something bad’s going to happen. I just knew one day I was going to die and I knew it now. That sort of stayed with me the next four to six weeks. I had a tough time until I accepted this. It’s also beautiful how it illustrates the power of the unconscious. Because there I was sleeping getting my six hours worth. Something was churning away probably agitated by all that shooting and killing in this video game. It got agitated and then came to some conclusion and then the conclusion was startling or unsettling and that’s when my brain decided to wake me up. Yeah. So since then I know I’m going to die unfortunately. It’s too bad. I shouldn’t have played that video game. It’s the bad effect of video-gaming.
Paulson: There’s so many interesting facets to that story. One is that the unconscious affects us in powerful ways and it raises questions about is it worth while trying to tap into parts of our unconscious? Would that lead to richer lives?
Koch: This is sort of it you look at the wise tradition of wise men or women in any religious or cultural tradition yes. Know thyself like what the Greeks said 2,400 years ago. Know Thyself. You want to understand your true motivations. Why did you say this? Why did you do this? Why do you have a reaction to the person a positive or negative reaction? It is very very difficult because most of the stuff in our brain including our emotions are generated by a part of our brain that we don’t have conscious access to. We think we’re in charge. We think we’re in control but most of the time we are not. Our brain presents us with some feeling of being excited or sad or being envious or jealous or angry and then we have to really think about why am I angry? Why am I jealous about this? I think it’s a challenge. Each one of us is called upon in our lives to try to lead better lives more productive lives more disciplined lives to try to understand our unconscious to the maximal extent we can. It’s difficult. It’s imperfect. It’s an inference project. It’s an inference process. It might take lots of talking with friends analysts reading books about it but I think we should all do it in order to live ultimately richer lives and better understand ourselves. Why do we why do we say the things we do? Why do we do the things we do? Why do we feel the things that we do feel?
Paulson: Would you say that you have undertaken your own exploration of consciousness? Not just as a scientist who studies it but as someone exploring dimensions of consciousness. Is that important to you in a personal sense?
Koch: What’s more important to me but…this is the project that any person would have who is trying to understand your feelings. Try to understand the sources of them. You can explore new feelings new sensations. You can do all sorts of things to explore, for example, once you start drinking wine it’s a new dimension. You develop a palate. It’s an example of exploring a new dimension of consciousness. You develop a new palate for consciousness..I mean for wine. You can distinguish red wine from white wine chardonnay from vouvray etc. Likewise you can explore other aspects of consciousness but you know each one of us is doing that in their own way. That’s what humans like to do. They like to explore and discover new things and partly that is they like to explore the gamete of the range of conscious experiences.
Paulson: But you can take that in more extreme ways as well. If you’re religious you can explore this through prayer or meditations taking hallucinogens to explore different dimensions of consciousness. Do these kinds of explorations appeal to you?
Koch: Yeah. They all show different aspects different facets of consciousness so I’m in January I’ll be one week with the Dalai Llama in India talking to him. This ongoing dialogue between Western science and Buddhism trying to explore what these meditating monks the sort of explorers of the inner consciousness what can they teach us about consciousness. They have this two thousand year old tradition of meditating in a particular way and I think they get access to certain parts of consciousness that we here tend to neglect especially in our busy lives. It’s dominated by iPhones and emails and things like that.
Paulson: Are we talking to some degree putting this into kind of the scientific context in which you work are we talking about trying to formulate a new idea of the soul? Maybe with the idea that some of the old religious definitions of the soul are outdated. Is part of your project coming up with a 21st century of the soul?
Koch: Yeah so these theories you’re 100 percent correct. These theories these information these theoretical based theories about complexity in consciousness they essentially is a modern conception, a 21st century conception for the soul is. The soul in this case it’s conscious experience. It’s attached to certain physical systems. They could be planes. They could be computers or other systems. However unlike the classical soul from Plato onwards if this physical system disappears or gets destroyed in death then the soul also disappears. There is no eternal abode where the soul goes to. It’s tied in a very specific way to a particular carrier to a particular physical system and it dies with that physical system. But it does have many other properties of the soul. In fact the sense of who you are is conscious sensation because if you’re not conscious you really aren’t anything. You’re just a body without any sensation. You don’t- Terri Schiavo as far as we can tell she was a body. She was alive but there weren’t any conscious sensations. She didn’t feel like anything to be Terri Schiavo. So in that sense her soul was gone but it’s a soul that’s very different from the classical conceived soul.
Paulson: So this is not a soul that can survive death?
Koch: Well it could survive death in principle using technological means. If I can force them to take my brain and somewhere using some fancy reconstruction technology be reconstructed and transcribe it into software onto silicone into different medium. In principle this Simulacrum could survive death and be it would have aspects of me old. In principle if it’s a faithful one to one copy it would be as good as me. And philosophers will have written a lot about that but other than that no. If my brain dies unless I have a backup code my soul dies. That’s it. End of game unfortunately. That’s just the way it is.
Paulson: You have worked at Caltech for a number of years and recently you took on the position of Chief Scientific Officer at the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle. What are you doing at the Allen institute?
Koch: Donor Paul Allen he’s very interested in trying to understand things like cortexes, I mentioned one of the most complex system in the known universe. So we’ve started with a very large donation of Paul Allen this ten year long project which we call Mindscope where we seek to focus an enormous amount of resources something between 200 and 300 people scientists engineers technologies all focused on trying to understand the cortex particularly the visual cortex and to try to understand in a very comprehensive way its complete structures down to the single neuron level where we try to understand its complete wiring. Some people call this connectome where we try to understand each of the neurons how they’re wired to other neurons. We built observatories to attract activity of these neural nets in these animals particularly in mice and to a much more limited extent in humans. And where we also have very large computer models to try to understand how does all of this fit together. It’s a large scale project sort of run out of the Allen Institute for Brain Science here in Seattle which is an institution somewhere between a university and a biotech company where we can focus all these resources to try to understand cortex which after all we think is where consciousness happens in the cortex and closely associated satellite structures.
Paulson: So you can’t do a project of this scope at a university like Caltech? Even a famous university like Caltech?
Koch: No because universities are great at producing individual scientists students faculty that are brilliant that push new ideas but the entire scientific endeavor is kind of constructed on the notion of being hypercompetitive and being as different as possible from other people other groups other students. Otherwise you don’t get a PhD. You don’t ten year. You don’t get grants. You don’t get papers in high profile journals. You have to do things very very different so it’s very difficult to do things comprehensively. It’s very difficult to focus an enormous amount of research in a very disciplined way because academics and as you said for 25 years I was at Caltech and I loved it they don’t want to be confronted. They don’t want to be told you can only do this now. They want to be whatever damn well please which is great to explore something new. But just like in physics for example the large Hadron Collider in Geneva in Switzerland that found the Hicks Boson you need many people who focus on building something that has to be inspected, there have to be deadlines, there has to be standard operating procedure in order to accomplish this. So such large projects they can’t be done at University. University’s just not set up for that.
Paulson: Fascinating. That raises all kinds of questions about the limits of what universities can do in terms of major scientific research projects.
Koch: Yeah but this is not necessarily I mean in physics if you look at two areas of physics one is astronomy astrophysics where they build very large instruments scientific instruments telescopes that cost billions of dollars and they’re sent up in space. So that’s not done typically in universities but in revolving academics and then of course in elementary particle physics as I was just mentioning all those large accelerators including the one in Argonne National Lab at Stanford and the one in Switzerland those are all made outside in different organizations so universities are great at producing certain types of knowledge but they’re not so good at doing things systematically. For that you need sort of a different institution. The only thing that’s really novel is that this hasn’t happened yet in neuroscience so neuroscience, my science includes something between 15 and 100 thousand neuroscientists worldwide and by and large it’s still at the stage where it’s a professor and her post-doc, and her one student that work and make great discovery. So we’re still at the stage of small science. But now just like molecular biology ten or fifteen years ago the human brain or the human genome project was just like physics 50 years ago we’re now at this phase of transition where the field of neuroscience is getting ready for a few of these very large projects where you assemble very large teams focus on a very specific question in order to accomplish things at scale under very standardized conditions.
Paulson: So are you leaving Caltech?
Koch: Yeah. Unfortunately I can’t really do both. It’s a very large project that we’re doing here called Mindscope and having that plus also still running a lab at Caltech doing both things for a long time is just impossible. So yes. By next year I will unfortunately cease to be a Caltech professor. I’ll become a mere mortal like all of us.
Paulson: What is your ultimate goal for your work at the Allen institute? What would constitute success in terms of your research project there?
Koch: Success that we understand why the cortex looks the way it is what is the function of all. What do you need a thousand different cell types to do its job? Is there a general recipe so cortex is this very impressive architecture that evolution came up with 200 million years ago and mammals have it and they expanded and fill every possible ecological niche so there’s this belief that there’s a basic algorithm a secret sauce if you want that basic computation that then the cortex does and what is it and will that explain vision and audition and language and planning and moral reasoning and all the other things that we do and that humans are capable of. So we’d like to understand the structure of cortex how it relates to its function and try to understand that also from a theoretical modeling perspective so in principle we can then mimic it in machines and my personal goal is of course and how will that help us to really be nailed down the detailed mechanisms of how consciousness is generated in brains.
Paulson: Well I wish you the best of luck. Thank you very much.
Koch: Thank you very much Steve for the interesting interview.