I like students to see canonical thinkers as real people, not word-spouting statues. So when I talk about Socrates, I call him a pompous blowhard, to humanize him—and because he was a pompous blowhard. At his trial, defending himself against charges of heresy, Socrates disparages various big shots, including his accusers, for being too dumb to know how dumb they are. Only he, Socrates, is truly wise, because he knows how little he knows, and that makes him a better man than his critics.
I understand why this know-nothing/know-it-all irked his fellow Athenians. But his view of wisdom is, well, wise, and so is his framing of the mind-body problem. Socrates brought it up after his trial, when he was in his prison cell awaiting execution. He was complaining to his acolytes about philosophers who explain everything in terms of physical “eccentricities” such as “air, and ether, and water.”
How, Socrates asked, would such a philosopher account for what he is doing in this cell? The philosopher might point out that he, Socrates, “is made up of bones and muscles… and as the bones are lifted at their joints by the contraction or relaxation of the muscles, I am able to bend my limbs, and this is why I am sitting here in a curved posture.” But that would be a crappy explanation, Socrates pointed out, because the “true cause” of his situation “is that the Athenians have thought fit to condemn me, and accordingly I have thought it better and more right to remain here and undergo my sentence.”
Socrates continued: “It may be said, indeed, that without bones and muscles and the other parts of the body I cannot execute my purposes. But to say that I do as I do because of them, and that this is the way in which mind acts, and not from the choice of the best, is a very careless and idle mode of speaking.” Emphasis added.
There it is, Socrates zeroing in on the mind-body problem 2,400 years ago. Yes, we’re bodies subject to physical forces. But we also have minds, which are motivated by causes—like our sense of right and wrong, of “the best”—that cannot be reduced to physiology. Viewing ourselves as nothing but bodies leads to what Socrates called “a strange confusion of causes and conditions.” Again, italics added.
Philosophers have been wrestling with the mind-body problem for millennia now. In honor of Socrates, let’s call this period “The Era of Strange Confusion.” Not only have philosophers failed to converge on a solution, they have buried the mind-body problem under a mishmash of isms. Here are the most popular:
- Materialism: Matter is at the bottom of everything.
- Idealism: Mind is at the bottom of everything. (Idealism is confusing, because of its alternate meaning, but philosophers, I suspect, like confusing us lay folk.)
- Dualism: Mind and matter are both really important, and they are linked by a trans-dimensional quantum wormhole embedded within the pineal gland. Or something. Dualists still aren’t sure about that part.
In 1990 the Era of Strange Confusion seemed to be ending, with materialism prevailing once and for all. That was the year in which Francis Crick and his sidekick Christof Koch issued their manifesto “Toward a Neurobiological Theory of Consciousness.” They announced that “the time is now ripe for an attack” on consciousness, the core of the mind-body problem. Science could “solve” consciousness by finding its “neural correlates,” that is, processes in the brain corresponding to conscious states.
Crick and Koch identified a possible candidate for a neural explanation of consciousness. Experiments on cats and other animals indicated that when the brain focuses on a visual stimulus, like a red ball, neurons corresponding to that stimulus fire at roughly the same rate, 40 times a second, in synchrony. These 40-hertz oscillations could play a key role in consciousness, Crick and Koch proposed. They could have been telling Socrates,
You were right to mock physiological explanations of the mind. In your day, you didn’t have a clue about the connections between physiological and mental processes. You didn’t even know that the mind is based in the brain! Today, we know much more about our physiologies than you did. We can explain a lot with neuroscience, biochemistry, evolutionary theory and genetics.
Koch became a leader of the effort to explain consciousness in neurobiological terms. You might even say he embodies the failure of that effort, and I mean that as a compliment. He is always at the center of things. That’s one reason why I’ve interviewed him so often over the decades. Another is that I never felt like he was patronizing or bullshitting me.
Are Koch and I friends? That’s hard to say. I like him, he seems to like me. But as Koch likes pointing out, no one really knows what’s going on in someone else’s head. I can’t even be sure that Koch is conscious, nor he me. It’s the old solipsism problem. For all I know, I am the only conscious entity in the cosmos. I am sealed within the prison of my subjectivity, and I can only speculate about what, if anything, is going on inside your head.
Moreover, when I’m with friends, I don’t ordinarily keep a notebook and recorder on hand.1 When Koch and I meet, we do so as professionals. I am a science journalist, he an expert on the mind-body problem. I am a means to his end, getting publicity for his work, he a means to mine, producing a piece of journalism—a story—for which I am compensated. As Robert Trivers (the subject of Chapter Eight) points out, even the most intimate relationships are ultimately tit-for-tat exchanges. Trouble arises when one side thinks he’s not getting enough tat for his tit.
Koch has always given me what I need. First, he is a character, a tall, lean, hyperkinetic fast talker who favors brightly colored clothes and footwear and has tinted his hair orange and other hues. The son of a German diplomat, he speaks with a German accent, even though he has lived in the U.S. since the late 1980s. His right shoulder sports a tattoo of a rainbow-striped apple, the computer company’s logo.
Koch churns out quips, insights, anecdotes, and he deftly explains even the most esoteric concepts. He reads voraciously in philosophy, history and literature as well as science, so he can flesh out the historical and cultural context of ideas. He mentions T.S. Eliot or Nietzsche not to show off but to drive home a point or crack a joke.
My “Koch” file is packed with my scrawled notes on our conversations. The oldest, on lined, yellow paper, record a telephone chat on December 28, 1992, when I was a full-time writer for Scientific American. We were talking about the limits of science, a topic to which we would return often. Koch told me to check out Thomas Mann’s unfinished novel Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man. A character in the book says there are three great mysteries: the creation of matter, life and consciousness. I never read Felix Krull, but my first book, The End of Science, argued that science will probably never explain the origin of the universe, life and consciousness. Thanks for that, Christof.
I met Koch in the flesh in 1994 at “Toward a Science of Consciousness,” the first of what became biennial gatherings in Tucson, Arizona. Hundreds of scientists and philosophers from all over the world presented a dizzying array of “solutions” to the mind-body problem, from chaos theory to Hindu metaphysics. Quantum theories of consciousness were especially popular. One speaker described consciousness as “quantum fluctuations of the vacuum energy of the universe,” which “is really God.”
Koch served as a one-man reality check. In a keynote lecture, he deplored the flaky pseudo-science, often derided as woo, on display elsewhere in Tucson.2 He derided quantum-consciousness models, arguing that they were based on a bogus syllogism: Quantum mechanics is mysterious, so is consciousness, therefore they must be related. And speculation about whether bacteria or computers or even the whole cosmos are conscious can never be confirmed and should be reserved for “late-night conversations over beer.” To understand consciousness, we must study brains, the only kinds of matter that we know are conscious. We should also focus on visual consciousness, because so much is already known about vision in humans and other animals.
Consciousness, Koch pointed out, is not exactly the same as perception. To demonstrate this point, he projected an image that can be viewed as either a vase or two human profiles. Although the visual input to the brain remains constant, the pattern that you are conscious of, or paying attention to, keeps shifting back and forth: vase, profiles, vase, profiles. Pinpointing neural operations underlying these shifts in attention, such as 40-hertz oscillations, would represent an important step toward solving consciousness.
Once we find the neural correlates of visual consciousness, Koch said, we might have a shot at more complex forms of consciousness, like self-consciousness. We might even take on riddles like free will. But Koch warned that science might never solve all mind-body mysteries to everyone’s satisfaction. He quoted “philosopher” Dirty Harry, the tough movie cop played by Clint Eastwood: “A man’s got to know his limitations.” The crowd laughed and clapped, as did I.
Another high point of the meeting was Koch’s run-in with David Chalmers, an Australian philosopher with long, lovely tresses.3 Chalmers was insisting that conventional, materialist approaches to consciousness, like the one advocated by Koch and Crick, are doomed to fail. They cannot explain why cognitive functions, such as attention, are accompanied by subjective experiences. They cannot account for the “felt quality of redness,” the sound of a clarinet, smell of mothballs, agony of depression, ecstasy of orgasm. This is the “hard problem of consciousness.”
Chalmers suggested a radical new perspective involving information theory, invented in the 1940s to quantify the capacity of telephone lines and other communication systems. Chalmers proposed that information, along with matter and energy, is a fundamental property of reality, and it has two aspects, one objective, or physical, and one subjective, or experiential. Things containing lots of information, like brains, are very conscious, and things with just a little information, like thermostats—Chalmers actually used this example—are slightly conscious.
I thought, Conscious thermostats? Come on. Also, the concept of information is meaningless in the absence of a mind to be informed. Information-based theories of consciousness are circular. They explain consciousness with a concept that presupposes consciousness. This was just the kind of woo Koch had denounced. I was thus delighted when Koch confronted Chalmers at a cocktail reception and denounced his information hypothesis as untestable and hence pointless. “Why don’t you just say that when you have a brain the Holy Ghost comes down and makes you conscious?” Koch exclaimed.
Chalmers is a cool cat. The Holy Ghost hypothesis, he responded drily, is unnecessarily complicated, and it does 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?” Yes! I thought, scribbling furiously in my notebook, good stuff, definitely going in my Scientific American article. Koch was bringing up the bugaboo of consciousness research, the solipsism problem. I can’t be sure you are conscious, let alone a thermostat.4
After that 1994 meeting Koch kept updating me on consciousness research—and reminding me of its limits.5 He pointed out weaknesses in all neural theories, including the 40-hertz oscillation model proposed by him and Crick. He warned that if we find a robust neural theory of human consciousness, we will probably keep arguing over whether fish or machines are conscious. We won’t know how consciousness evolved here on Earth, or whether it has arisen beyond our planet.
Koch taught me an especially invaluable lesson about the limits of knowledge in 1998 while I was visiting him at Caltech. As we entered his office he asked, too nonchalantly, Are you good at tests? Not bad, I said. He tapped the keyboard of his computer, and it displayed a frozen video shot of six men and women standing in a circle. Three were dressed in white, three in black. A person in white held one basketball, a person in black held another. Koch told me to count the number of times the white team passed the basketball back and forth. Could I do that? Sure, I said.
Koch started the video, and I watched the white players toss the ball back and forth. I had to concentrate, because the black team was passing its basketball, too, and all the players, black and white, milled around. But when the video ended, I knew I had the answer. Fifteen! I said triumphantly. Koch smirked. That’s good, he said, but did you see gorilla? Huh? I responded. Watch again, Koch said, and replayed the video. As the men and women passed the basketball back and forth, a man in a gorilla suit strolled into their midst, paused to face the camera for a moment and strolled off camera.
I was flabbergasted. How had I missed the gorilla? My dismay delighted Koch. Two psychologists designed the video, he said, to expose a feature of consciousness that is also a bug. Consciousness is highly selective. We are always conscious of something. We pay attention to that thing and filter out unrelated perceptions, thoughts and memories triggered by neural activity. I’m still haunted by that now-famous video. It implies that no matter how much we know, or think we know, we always miss something. Right now, an invisible gorilla could be standing in front of me, sticking his tongue out, waggling his hands, sneering.
* * * * *
In his 2004 book The Quest for Consciousness, Koch reiterated his commitment to the neural-correlates paradigm, while acknowledging that consciousness remains as mysterious “as when humans first started to wonder about their minds several millennia ago.” It was because of this intellectual modesty that I trusted his scientific judgment. He combined ambition with a hardheaded realism, a sense of science’s limits. He was a shining beacon in the shadow realm of consciousness studies, a voice of reason in a cacophonous madhouse, an anti-woo warrior. That’s why I felt baffled, even betrayed, when Koch embraced integrated information theory. It seemed like a big step backward into strange confusion.
Koch didn’t invent integrated information theory. His friend Giulio Tononi did, in the early 2000s, and Koch soon embraced it. The theory resembles the information-based hypothesis that Chalmers floated back in 1994, except it is far more detailed and ambitious. According to integrated information theory, a system is conscious if it possesses Φ, or phi, a measure of the system’s “integrated information.” Phi corresponds to the exchange of information between different parts of a system. Phi is often equated to “synergy,” the degree to which a system is more than the sum of its parts.
The theory’s technical details are hideously abstract and complicated, but they are less important than the theory’s startling implications, which Koch spelled out in a 2009 article for Scientific American. A “single hydrogen ion, a proton made up of three quarks, will have a tiny amount of synergy, or Φ,” Koch writes. So consciousness is a property not only of brains but of all matter. It pervades the entire universe. Integrated information theory represents the kind of metaphysical speculation that Koch once denounced, and yet in 2010 he told The New York Times that it is “the only really promising fundamental theory of consciousness.”
Seeking illumination, in the fall of 2015 I wormed my way into a two-day workshop on integrated information theory at New York University. It was organized by Tononi, the theory’s inventor, Koch and Chalmers. They and 10 other speakers presented their views, which were batted around by 30 or so other scientists and philosophers.
Tononi kicked off the workshop with a 90-minute tutorial on integrated information theory, followed by another hour from Koch. Their presentations paralleled an overview they published jointly in 2015, “Consciousness: here, there and everywhere?” Although the paper has whimsical touches (the title echoes an old Beatles song), this excerpt conveys its forbidding density:
…the central identity of IIT can be formulated quite simply: an experience is identical to a conceptual structure that is maximally irreducible intrinsically. More precisely, a conceptual structure completely specifies both the quantity and the quality of experience: how much the system exists—the quantity or level of consciousness—is measured by its Φmax value—the intrinsic irreducibility of the conceptual structure; which way it exists—the quality or content of consciousness—is specified by the shape of the conceptual structure. If a system has Φmax = 0, meaning that its cause–effect power is completely reducible to that of its parts, it cannot lay claim to existing. If Φmax > 0, the system cannot be reduced to its parts, so it exists in and of itself. More generally, the larger Φmax, the more a system can lay claim to existing in a fuller sense than systems with lower Φmax. According to IIT, the quantity and quality of an experience are an intrinsic, fundamental property of a complex of mechanisms in a state—the property of informing or shaping the space of possibilities (past and future states) in a particular way, just as it is considered to be intrinsic to a mass to bend space–time around it.
I love the “quite simply” in that opening sentence. In his presentation, Koch focused on empirical evidence for the theory. For example, the cerebellum, which seems to have less internal connectivity—and hence lower phi—than other neural regions, can be damaged without significantly affecting consciousness. The more Tononi, Koch and others talked about phi, information and integration, the more confused the audience became.
Participants kept calling on Tononi to settle doctrinal disputes, but his oracular responses did not always clarify matters. Someone asked: Is integrated information theory materialist, idealist or dualist? In other words, does it imply that matter is primary, or mind, or does it give matter and mind equal status? Tononi smiled and replied, “It is what it is.” (Perhaps he meant, “IIT is what IIT is.”) Is an explanation an explanation if hardly anyone understands it?
Workshoppers seemed especially confused by a postulate called “exclusion.” According to IIT, many components of a brain—neuron, ganglia, amygdala, visual cortex—may have non-zero phi and hence mini-minds. But because the phi of the entire brain exceeds that of its components, its consciousness suppresses or “excludes” the components’ mini-minds.
Exclusion helps explain why our consciousness feels (more or less) unified, but it has odd implications. If members of a group, like the participants of the workshop, start communicating so obsessively that the group phi exceeds the phi of each individual, the theory predicts that the workshop will become conscious and suppress the consciousness of the individuals, turning them into unconscious “zombies.” The same could be true of smaller or larger groups, from a besotted couple to the United States of America.
A computer scientist pointed out another weird prediction of integrated information theory. According to its mathematical definition of phi, very simple, two-dimensional information-processing systems can possess more phi than a human brain. In other words, a compact-disk player could be much more conscious than we are.6
At one point participants debated whether dark energy could be conscious. Dark energy is a hypothetical substance that, according to some cosmological theories, comprises the bulk of the universe. Dark energy is thought to consist not of baryons, that is, protons and neutrons, the basic stuff of matter, but of something entirely different. When someone voiced doubt that dark energy could be conscious, Koch quipped, “Let’s not be baryonic chauvinists.”
By the time the workshop ended, I was more baffled than ever. Proponents of integrated information theory were projecting a human trait, consciousness, onto the entire cosmos. This view reminded me of the God-is-everywhere doctrine that nuns drilled into me in catechism when I was a child. Integrated information theory was dragging us back toward the dark ages, when we thought the universe revolved around us.7 How could someone as smart and hard-nosed as Koch fall for this, this woo?
* * * * *
In his 2012 memoir Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist, Koch implies that personal factors influenced his professional judgment. He acknowledges that his quest to solve the mind-body problem has always been emotional as well as intellectual. He describes himself as “not only a dispassionate physicist and biologist but also a human being who enjoys but a few years to make sense of the riddle of existence.”
For most of his life he “forcefully denied that either the Freudian unconscious or traumatic memories that I didn’t know I had… were influencing my behavior.” A mid-life crisis made Koch appreciate Freud’s insights. “I learned over the past years how powerfully my unconscious inclinations, my beliefs, and my personal strengths and failings have influenced my life and the pursuit of my life’s work.”
Koch alludes to upheavals in his personal life, including the loss of his Catholic faith and the end of his 25-year marriage. He left Caltech, his home for decades, in 2011 and moved to Seattle to take charge of a brain-research center created by Paul Allen, a Microsoft billionaire. But Koch dwells more on scientific models of consciousness than on his private life. Philosopher John Searle groused in a review that Confessions was mistitled, because “any confession where [Koch] actually admits to some serious or even trivial misdeed is conspicuously absent.”
In March 2016, I flew to Seattle to grill Koch on his private and professional lives. I was especially curious whether his mind-body expertise had helped him deal with personal problems. We met for dinner on my first night in town, which was cold and drizzly. I got to the restaurant first and sat beside a window, through which I saw Koch swoop up on a bicycle. He locked his bike to a rack and strode in, water glistening on his helmet and slicker. Baring his big white teeth, he grabbed my hand and pumped it before peeling off his gear. He had peddled here through the rain from the Allen Institute. He rides his bike everywhere, rain or shine.
Koch looked much as he did when I first met him, rangy, with a forward tilt, as if poised to bolt. He seemed to vibrate with sheer animal vitality. The restaurant was noisy, so Koch obligingly clipped my recorder’s microphone onto his collar. After we ordered our meals, I reminded him that in 1998, when he was still at Caltech, he had me over to his house for dinner. I met his wife and kids, and he revealed that he was Catholic. He still believed the neural-correlates approach was the best way to explain consciousness. He wasn’t spouting any nonsense about panpsychism. He seemed content, more than content. What the hell happened?
Koch laughed, and over the next two hours, between bites of food and sips of wine, he did his best to answer my question. Ever helpful, he packaged his life into stories, and even threw in a little psychoanalysis. He has always been compulsively neat, he said. He likes things in their proper places, in his home and office. He tied this trait to his love of science, which reveals that “despite all the appearances, the chaos on the surface of things,” nature is orderly. He became a scientist because he wanted to explore this hidden order.
His passion for order also explains his youthful affinity for Catholicism, a religion of rules and rituals. He loved its “wisdom, music, art, history,” he said. “Particularly if you go to Jesuit school early on, it gets into your blood, and it forms you.” Raised Catholic, he attended Catholic schools and became an altar boy, and when he became a father he took his son and daughter to church.
Koch remained Catholic well after becoming the protégé of Crick, a legendary infidel. The two never really discussed Koch’s religion. But by the summer of 1999, which Koch spent at a research center in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, he was reading Nietzsche on the death of God, and his faith was wobbling. One stormy night, he walked on a beach, tormented by doubt.
“I was half crying. I wanted God to show himself. I was waiting for a burning bush, a booming voice from the sky.” Koch screamed into the night, “Where are you God! Show yourself!” Suddenly a light blinded him, and someone screamed back. It wasn’t God. It was some guy who had been trying to sleep in a tent on the beach and was yelling at Koch to shut the fuck up.8
Koch decided that God, if he exists, is “an absentee cosmic landlord.” He is not a loving, judgmental being with whom we can have a personal relationship. “The God I now believe in,” Koch said, “is much closer to the God of Spinoza than the God of Michelangelo or the Old Testament.” Spinoza, after abandoning his Jewish faith, constructed a remarkably modern philosophy. It equates God with the abstract principles that govern order in the cosmos, principles that we deduce through reason. Spinoza’s God is impersonal, an It rather than He or She. It does not love us any more than general relativity or quantum mechanics do.
When I asked if losing his faith made it harder to cope with his mortality, Koch shook his head and said he has never dwelled on death much. In fact, he didn’t really confront his own finitude until his early forties. After an evening playing violent video games with his son, he woke up in the middle of the night terrified. “I just thought, ‘Shit! I’m going to die!’” Within weeks he had overcome his fear and accepted that “everything that has a beginning has an end.”
Unlike those gloomy existentialists who say that death strips life of meaning, Koch thinks mortality makes our lives more precious and meaningful. But after the death of his father in 2000 and Crick in 2004, he began brooding over the limited time he had left. His children also left for college, leaving him with a bad case of empty-nest syndrome, and he turned 50. At that point, he and his wife had been married for more than 20 years. They had “a very good marriage, no issues, no affairs, nothing. No problems. We raised our children, lived in a house, all very good.”
But Koch felt restless, and he had an affair. “I knew from the get-go that it wasn’t good,” Koch said. “You don’t stay with a woman for 25 years and then, when she gets older, leave her for a sexy younger woman. That’s wrong.” But he couldn’t stop himself. “We can’t escape…” Koch paused and pressed his lips together. “We can’t completely escape our biology.”
Koch’s mind-body expertise didn’t give him much insight or control over his actions. If anything, he said, the smarter you are, the better you are at rationalizing your urges. “There are parts of the brain that are generating these very powerful emotions. Love, hate, sadness, guilt, lust. And you have very little access to that, and you only control them very indirectly.” After you behave in a certain way, “you construct some scenario where you think, ‘Well this is probably what happened.’ Whether that actually corresponds to what happened, I think nobody knows.”
Koch once assured his wife, falsely, that he had ended his affair. He went for a long, guilt-wracked run in the mountains. When he returned, his wife was holding a phone bill documenting a conversation between him and his lover. He had left the bill on a table, where his wife couldn’t miss it. Koch believes he subconsciously wanted his wife to find the bill. “I’m one of the world’s experts on consciousness, and my mind does this trick!”
Incidents like this made him appreciate Freud’s emphasis on the unconscious. Afterwards, Koch quit rock climbing, one of his passions. “I didn’t trust myself any more,” he said. He worried his subconscious might decide, “You have caused too much agony. You’re just going to make a mistake and end it, and your wife can just think of you as a fallen hero.”
Koch nonetheless hung on to his belief in free will, his ability, albeit limited, to know and control himself. One night toward the end of his marriage, he got drunk and ran up a mountain near his home. He soon felt sick and turned back, but only after shouting into the dark the last line of the poem Invictus: “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.” “This,” Koch adds in Confessions, “is a perhaps overenthusiastic expression of my position on free will: For better or worse, I am the principle actor of my own life.”
Koch’s marriage ended, and so did his affair, which was a “disaster.” He moved from Pasadena, which evoked too many painful memories, to Seattle, where he oversees 300 researchers and an annual budget of $70 million. He fell in love with and married a professor of nursing. They moved into a sunny yellow house perched high above a lake and adopted a Bernese mountain dog. Koch assured me that now he is “very happy, very stable.”
But Koch has always been pretty happy and stable, at least emotionally. At no point in his life has he succumbed to despair or self-loathing. “I never once went through a depression,” he said, not even when his marriage was crumbling. He conjectured that his cheeriness is largely genetic. “The biggest trick in life,” he said with a grin, “is to choose your parents well.”
Toward the end of dinner, we had an exchange that sharpened my sense of the difference between us. I said I felt bad that he had to ride his bicycle home through chill, drizzly darkness, and Koch assured me that he looked forward to the hour-long ride. You “forget yourself,” he said. “You are hyper aware of your environment but not very aware of yourself. You are in the flow.” He got the same feeling from rock-climbing before he quit.
“There’s something very Zen-like about it,” he said. “When you’re climbing, you lose awareness of everything else. You lose the voice of the critic, the self-consciousness.” He gets the same feeling now from rowing crew, which he does several times a week. He strives to be “fully in the experience itself, fully mindful, fully there” during less strenuous activities. “I mean, here I am having a discussion with you, right? I like this. I’m very comfortable here. I have my wine”—he held up his goblet—“my food, good conversation. Right now, I have no meta.”
I’m always meta, I said. Koch looked puzzled, so I explained that I compulsively stand back from my life and think, Hmm, interesting. I see almost all experiences as potential material for my writing. This habit can be therapeutic. It has helped me get through hard times, like the breakup of my marriage. But it can be annoying. When I tried to meditate recently to reduce my anxiety, I kept thinking, I’m meditating, and thinking about things I should write about meditation.
“I’m not sure that’s good!” Koch exclaimed, frowning. It’s okay to think about your experiences, and think about thinking, but you also need to “be in the experience. You want to experience the experience. And if you always have this meta on, if you can never turn that voice—that point of view that looks down at you—off, I think you are missing something of life!” He looked genuinely concerned.
Partly to reassure him, partly because it is true, I told him that sometimes I stop watching myself when I play hockey in the Hudson Highlands, which I’ve done for decades with a bunch of buddies. We play on ponds ringed by snowy woods, and we sometimes play after sunset, until stars shine above us, and our old eyes can barely see the puck.
“There you’re not meta,” Koch said, nodding approvingly, “and that’s probably why you enjoy it, because you can just be in the experience. You don’t have to think, ‘So what’s the story I can tell?’ or, ‘How does this relate to what other issues I have?’ You’re just doing what you’re doing.” Listening to him I had two thoughts. One was that I hadn’t been entirely truthful about how I feel playing hockey. I’m always aware of who’s winning and losing, and I get frustrated if my team is losing. I also thought, This is good, this meta stuff, the recorder better be picking this up.9
* * * * *
Koch didn’t talk about science much over dinner, but he did the next day, when he gave me a tour of the Allen Institute for Brain Science. Dedicated to reverse-engineering the brain, the institute would make a terrific setting for a sci-fi film, perhaps about the birth of a malevolent cyborg. It is an immense glass cube with a hollow core lined with laboratories and conference rooms.
In one lab, hulking electron microscopes produced high-resolution images of thin neural slices, which are assembled into three-dimensional maps. In another, researchers experimented on snippets of brain from patients who have undergone surgery for epilepsy and tumors. The neurons remain alive, capable of sending and receiving electrochemical signals, for several days. Question: Does it feel like anything to be a slice of human hippocampal tissue in a petri dish?10
In this sci-fi setting, Koch seemed transformed. Talking about his private life the previous evening, he had dwelled on his cognitive limits. Strolling through this transparent temple of science, he was an ebullient booster of human reason, who saw no bounds to what science can accomplish. Since his mid-life crisis, Koch affirmed, he had become “much more optimistic” about science’s power to solve mysteries. He rejected the idea that any problems might be intractable.
“It’s this, this, this defeatism,” Koch said, grimacing. It is “fraught with danger to claim that we will never understand,” because that belief could become self-fulfilling. “Whenever philosophers have said we cannot understand, they have been proven wrong.” The 19th-century philosopher August le Comte declared that we would never know what stars are made of just before the invention of spectroscopy, which revealed what stars are made of.
Some mysteries do seem daunting, such as the origin of the cosmos, why there is something rather than nothing. But this problem might eventually yield, Koch said, perhaps to one of the multiverse theories cosmologists are toying with, which postulate that our universe is just one of many.11 Although we can never directly observe other universes, we might accept them as real if the circumstantial evidence becomes compelling enough. “Just like I believe fervently there are other conscious minds, it may be that years from now we believe fervently, ‘Yeah, it’s established, there are other universes.’”
Koch was especially confident that science would crack the hard problem. “All the problems associated with consciousness, in the fullness of time, unless we stop doing science or we have a nuclear catastrophe, will be solved.” He called integrated information theory “a very good step in right direction. It’s the first theoretical progress we’ve had since Descartes.” Yes, panpsychism “is a strange consequence of the theory,” and so is the prediction that a compact-disc player can be more conscious than a human, but quantum mechanics and relativity have crazy implications too.12
Neuroscientists are developing techniques for measuring the informational complexity, or phi, of brains and other systems, which according to integrated information theory is proportional to consciousness. These advances, Koch said, could lead to a “consciousness-meter” that measures consciousness as objectively as a thermometer measures temperature. Such a device would bypass the solipsism problem. It would determine whether it feels like anything to be a spider, octopus or smart phone.
Koch thinks science might even determine what makes life meaningful, worth living. This is what philosopher Owen Flanagan calls the really hard problem. “I see no reason why science shouldn’t look at that,” Koch said, “as long as you can describe it in some precise fashion.” Science can investigate “what makes people content. Is it pure pleasure? Well, it turns out that it’s more than pleasure, it’s to give people a meaningful life.” Science can help solve all parts of the mind-body problem. It can tell us what we are, can be and should be.
* * * * *
Real literature, I learned in college, resists reduction. Interpretations of Ulysses or even a short story like “The Dead” are hopelessly inadequate. They always miss something. That is much truer of real events. The above rendering of my encounter with Koch, distilled from five hours of sprawling conversation at the restaurant, Allen Institute and his home, leaves out his many hedges and second-guesses, as well as his asides on the “Buddha-hood” of dogs (“they can’t dissemble… they are in the here and now”), the hyper-sexuality of modern humans (because of the hyper-sexuality of modern media), the risks of artificial intelligence (which at some point “might outsmart us”). I could dump the full transcript or audio recording online, but they wouldn’t reveal what was going on in our heads or around us.13
With these caveats, I’ll take a shot at interpreting Koch. When I met him in the early 1990s, he had a hardheaded view of science’s limits. His mid-life crisis rubbed his face in the limits of his own reason, self-knowledge and self-control. And yet he emerged from the crisis with more confidence that science can solve the mind-body problem.
In Confessions, Koch offers a startling explanation of his intellectual swerve. Early in his career, when he was still Catholic, he was motivated by an “entirely subterranean desire to justify my belief that life is meaningful.” Fulfilling that desire meant proving that science cannot comprehend the “mind-body divide,” the “essential mystery at the heart” of existence.
Got that? Koch’s unconscious self didn’t want his conscious self to explain consciousness. When he was quoting Dirty Harry on the limits of knowledge and reminding Chalmers of the solipsism problem decades ago, Koch wasn’t rational. He was under the spell of an unconscious impulse motivated by his Catholicism. After he lost his faith in God, he became more fully committed to reason.
This is an intriguing hypothesis, but I don’t buy it. Koch is an unreliable narrator of his own life. I have come up with several explanations for his swerve, which are not mutually exclusive. The most mundane holds that Koch has been transformed by his role as director of the Allen Brain Institute. As the manager of a high-profile research program, he can no longer indulge in speculation about the limits of science. His job requires him to be a scientific optimist, even a booster.
A deeper cause of Koch’s intellectual swerve is his sense of death’s approach.14 Within the span of a decade, he lost his God, his biological father and his intellectual father, Crick. Feeling the chill of mortality, Koch became dissatisfied with his life, and he did what many middle-aged husbands do, he had an affair with a younger woman.
Koch also began to see the flaws of the neural-correlates approach to consciousness, to which he had long been wedded. That paradigm implies, as Crick put it, that we are “nothing but a pack of neurons.” It strips us of concepts that help us make sense of our lives—souls, free will, even selves—and gives us little or no meaning in return. The language of neuroscience is disconnected from the psychological, moral and spiritual realm in which we live our lives.15
If Koch gave Socrates a tour of the Allen Brain Institute, the old know-nothing/know-it-all would surely be mightily impressed with brain-mapping technologies and other marvels. But Socrates would have derided the claim that neuroscience can solve the mystery of who we are. Oscillations of neurons, Socrates would point out, can’t explain why he ended up in prison any more than muscle contractions can. Nor can neural oscillations explain why Koch drifted away from his Catholic faith.
After that crisis, Koch needed more oomph from science. He convinced himself that his scruples about science’s limits were irrational, and he fell into the arms of sexy, exotic integrated information theory. The theory is far more ambitious and meaningful than the dull old neural-correlates model advocated by him and Crick. It depicts us as nodes in an infinite web of information, a cosmic consciousness that is pretty close to God, the God of Spinoza if not The Bible.
But Koch is not a drowning man grasping at a straw. Intellectuals tend to be angst-ridden, but Koch, even taking into account his (mostly) subliminal fear of death, is endowed with an unusually high intelligence/angst ratio. He knows how to live life, and not just treat it as an intellectual puzzle. His mind and body exist in harmony, which he projects onto the cosmos. That is another reason why he fell for integrated information theory, because it reflects his sunny worldview.
Integrated information theory denies that consciousness is something meta, an add-on to the universe, a freakish, random occurrence that as far as we know emerged only on this tiny planet billions of years after the universe exploded into existence. According to the theory, consciousness has been woven into the fabric of the cosmos from the very beginning. It was glimmering in the incandescent plasma of the big bang.
Koch imbues integrated information theory with spiritual significance. It validates the mystical belief of the ancient Greeks that “mathematics is the ultimate reality,” he writes in Confessions. He compares conscious states, as described by the theory, to multidimensional crystals. The “dream of the lotus-eater, the mindfulness of the meditating monk, and the agony of the cancer patient feel the way they do because of the shape of the distinct crystals in a space of a trillion dimensions—truly a beatific vision.”
Koch’s affinity for integrated information theory isn’t entirely rational, nor is my distaste for the theory. Unlike Koch, I’ve always felt apart from the world and from myself. I’m always meta. Reality, and our consciousness of reality, strike me as fundamentally weird. Psychedelics exacerbated this feeling. They convinced me that not even God, if there is a God, knows what the hell is going on.
This conviction, after I became a science writer, mutated into the belief that science will never solve the mystery of existence. Koch, back in the 1990s, seemed to share my sense of science’s limits. No wonder I found him such an appealing source. And no wonder I felt betrayed when he declared that consciousness is solvable, and that integrated information theory might be the solution. If Koch is an unreliable narrator of his own life, so am I. We all are. “One is not one’s own historian, let alone one’s own psychoanalyst,” Thomas Kuhn warned when I asked him how he came up with his postmodern philosophy.
My views of the mind-body problem, like Koch’s, have swerved. Mind-body research resembles one of those images that can be interpreted in two ways. Vase or human profiles? I once disdained the wild abundance of mind-body stories. The failure of mind-science to converge on a unifying paradigm meant that no theory works very well. Now I see that same abundance as an expression of our creative, protean nature, and of our freedom. And the more I think about integrated information theory, the more I see its merits. After attending the 2015 workshop on the theory, I criticized it on my blog but tacked on an upbeat conclusion:
I loved the workshop. Watching all those brainy participants grappling with the deepest conundrums of existence, citing Descartes, Leibnitz and Hume as well as papers less than a year old, was the most exhilarating intellectual experience I’ve had in a long time. Whatever phi is, my brain brimmed with it by the workshop’s end. Pondering IIT has deepened my appreciation of the mind-body problem. In an age of rampant scientism, we need theories like IIT to help us rediscover the mystery of ourselves.
When I wrote that final sentence, it was bullshit. I was trying to be nice to Koch and other proponents of integrated information theory. Now I retroactively mean what I wrote. Mind-body stories like integrated information theory, whether or not they are true, really do help us appreciate the mystery of ourselves. In that sense, they work.
In the 1990s Koch insisted, like his mentor Crick, that mind-body stories conform to materialism, the idea that only matter really exists. And the stories had to be about the brain, the one object we know is conscious. I admired Koch for that hard-headedness, and for his efforts to tame an unruly field. Now I admire him for escaping the brain’s gravitational pull and rocketing into the wild reaches of theoretical possibility.
Mind-body philosophers speak of the “explanatory gap” between our physiological models and the mind as we experience it, but the metaphor should be flipped. Our objective knowledge of ourselves is like a dust mote floating in uncharted space. Given our unbounded ignorance, we should be free to invent mind-body stories that console and exalt us, that mirror our fears and desires. Here’s the catch. We should not insist that integrated information theory or any other story is the final, definitive solution to the mind-body problem. There can be no final solution, because science cannot eradicate subjectivity from its accounts of consciousness.
Koch hopes integrated information theory might lead to a consciousness-meter, which determines whether a given thing is conscious, and how conscious it is. But scientists cannot build a consciousness-meter until they reach agreement on what physical conditions are necessary and sufficient to produce consciousness. And scientists cannot reach agreement on those conditions unless they have a means of solving the solipsism problem, that is, a consciousness-meter.
Lacking a consciousness-meter, our views of the hard problem will always be subjective, a matter of taste. You think only humans are truly conscious, and we’re a lot less conscious than we think we are, whereas I think everything is at least a little conscious, including jellyfish, compact-disk players and dark energy.16 Nor will science ever solve the really hard problem, because our ideas about what makes life meaningful are even more subjective and divergent than our ideas about consciousness. I bet even if we merge into one meta-mind, like the Borg in Star Trek, we’ll still be bewildered.
Deep down Koch surely suspects, even hopes, that our quest for self-knowledge will never end. That may be why, in Seattle, he urged me to check out Solaris by Stanislaw Lem. After I flew home, I read the novel, originally published in Polish in 1961. It is, ostensibly, a story about humans encountering an alien consciousness, in the form of a sentient ocean, on a planet called Solaris. But Solaris is really about the strangeness of our own selves. Kelvin, the narrator, becomes as bewildered by his own mind as by the oceanic mind of Solaris. He’s not sure what is real or unreal, whether he is dreaming, imagining, perceiving. He’s not sure what he wants or doesn’t want.
One section of the book is a history of “Solaristics,” scientific efforts to comprehend the sentient planetary ocean. “The subsequent years abounded in theoretical models of the living ocean, all highly complex and based on biomathematical analyses,” the history notes. “The third period involved the collapse of what had hitherto been largely monolithic opinion on the part of scholars. A multiplicity of schools appeared, that often fought furiously with one another.”
This passage, written in a communist state in the early 1960s, is a dead-on description of the paradigm explosion of modern mind-science, in which Koch has played a central role. Kelvin, the narrator, bitterly calls Solaristics “a substitute for religion in the space age. It is faith wrapped in the cloak of science.” He muses: “Human beings set out to encounter other worlds, other civilizations, without having fully gotten to know their own hidden recesses, their blind alleys, well shafts, dark barricaded doors.”
Yes, inner space is as infinite as outer space. The self is the hole, the blind spot, at the center of every worldview. If we look unflinchingly inward, we will be filled with what Socrates called “strange confusion.” We will see ourselves as baffling, unknowable, alien, weird. Someday we might convince ourselves that the Era of Strange Confusion is over, that we have solved the mind-body problem, figured ourselves out. We will exult in our triumph. But when we stop seeing ourselves as weird, we are not really seeing at all. We are missing the gorilla standing right in front of us, sticking out its tongue. I rarely see, really see, the weirdness. I get so absorbed in my trivial schemes and troubles that I take reality for granted. But as I read Solaris, that old estrangement crept over me again. Thanks, Christof.
Listen to Koch talk about the really hard problem in his home in Seattle, March 24, 2016.
A few years ago, re-reading Ulysses inspired me to write a stream-of-consciousness account of a day in the life of a science writer obsessed with the mind-body problem. Parts of the book were based on my recorded conversations with students, colleagues and my girlfriend. When I pitched the project to a literary agent, she responded with two words: “Oh dear.” The book remains unpublished, but I have posted excerpts on my blog. One describes what it feels like to talk to freshmen about William James’s essay on the “stream of thought,” another a conversation about scientific “truth” with my friend Jim McClellan.
I used to say woowoo, which I thought was twice as funny. But when I gave a talk on the mind-body problem in 2016, an audience member questioned my use of woowoo to refer to flaky ideas. He had a vague recollection of comedian Mel Brooks calling female genitalia “woowoo.” With a few flicks of his smartphone, he confirmed his recollection. In the film High Anxiety, Brooks, playing a psychoanalyst lecturing other psychoanalysts, refers to the “female erogenous zone” as “the woowoo.” This is why I love the Internet.
In a 1994 report on the Tucson meeting for Scientific American, I described Chalmers as a “long-haired Australian philosopher who bears an uncanny likeness to the subject of Thomas Gainsborough’s famous painting ‘Blue Boy.’” The article included a photo of Chalmers and his tresses. When I saw Chalmers decades later, he pretended to be annoyed, still, that I had teased him about his appearance, so I can’t resist teasing him again. I considered devoting a chapter of this book to Chalmers, but after interviewing him in 2016 I decided he is too well-adjusted. His personal life is abnormally normal, and unencumbered by philosophical concerns. “I’m not sure how deep an integration there is between what I think about philosophically and the way I live,” he said. “I’ve basically lived my life the way I want to live it without necessarily being all that reflective at the practical level.” For a fuller account of my 2016 interview with Chalmers, see “David Chalmers Thinks the Hard Problem Is Really Hard.”
See my recollection of the 1994 consciousness meeting in Tucson, “Flashback: My Report on First Consciousness Powwow in Tucson. How Far Has Science Come Since Then?”
Koch was a source for The End of Science, Undiscovered Mind and several articles I wrote on the brain’s software, or “neural code,” between 2004 and 2008. See “The Myth of Mind Control,” “Can a Single Cell Recognize Your Face?” and “The Consciousness Conundrum.” See also “The Singularity and the Neural Code” and “Christof Koch on Free Will, the Singularity and the Quest to Crack Consciousness.”
The computer scientist, Scott Aaronson, critiqued integrated information theory in a blog post, “Why I am Not An Integrated Information Theorist.” See also my Q&A with Aaronson, “Scott Aaronson Answers Every Ridiculously Big Question I Throw at Him.”
NOTE: I coined the term neo-geocentrism to describe, and denigrate, theories that make consciousness a fundamental part of reality. See my post “The Rise of Neo-geocentrism.” During the IIT workshop, however, I thought of a way in which consciousness can be eternal, sort of. I describe the idea in “A Super-Simple, Non-Quantum Theory of Eternal Consciousness.” For more criticism of IIT, see also “Can Integrated Information Theory Explain Consciousness?” and “Why Information Can’t Be the Basis of Reality.”
Koch told the story of his loss of faith in front of a live audience in 2013.
Socrates said the unexamined life is not worth living. I live according to a more extreme version of that principle: the unrecorded life is not worth living. Or, to put it more positively, the recorded life is more meaningful. That is the guiding principle of Meta-Me, which values experiences to the extent that they can be turned into words. What’s cool, or insidious, about Meta-Me is that it can go meta on itself, ad infinitum. Example: Koch makes me reflect on the downside of always being meta, of viewing my most private thoughts and emotions and even my friendships and loves as word-fodder. Seeing life this way makes me cold. That bothers me. Then I think, If being cold bothers me, I’m not really cold, I have a heart after all. Then I think, That’s interesting, I should write that down. Then I think, That thought means I am cold. And so on. So where does that leave me, in terms of what kind of person I am? Perhaps the infinite regress of meta-thoughts sums up to a superposition of states, in which I am cold/warm, heartless/caring. Then I think, I like that, I should write that down.
When I first posed this question, I meant it as a joke, but a 2018 Nature article, “The ethics of experimenting with human brain tissue,” takes seriously the possibility that fragments of brain might be conscious.
Pardon the appeal to authority, but the legendary string theorist Edward Witten has asserted that consciousness is a harder scientific problem than the origin of the universe. See “World’s Smartest Physicist Thinks Science Can’t Crack Consciousness.”
Philosopher Eric Schwitzgebel has proposed a concept called “crazyism,” which decrees that some things, like consciousness, must have explanations that violate our intuitive concepts, or “folk metaphysics,” and hence seem crazy. Here’s the problem: For every crazy idea that works, like quantum mechanics and general relativity, there are an infinite number of crazy ideas that don’t work. So your crazy idea is infinitely more likely to be false than true. ↩
All of my books are based in part on recorded interviews. After transcribing the recording, I ruthlessly edit the transcript, hacking out redundancies and digressions. I further reduce and transform the interview once I decide how to tell the interviewee’s story. I rarely if ever go back and listen to the original recording, but I did in the case of this book because I decided to add audio clips to the end of chapters. Searching for clips turned out to be a disconcerting exercise. I was disturbed by the gap between the interviews and my rendering of them. Listen, for example, to the audio snippet at the end of this chapter, which was recorded in Koch’s home, and in which I am trying, in my muddled way, to ask whether science can solve the really hard problem.
Dread of death, even if it remains subliminal, can have a profound impact on individual and group behavior, according to psychologists Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg and Tom Pyszczynski. They call this proposition, which I find quite plausible, terror-management theory. See my 2016 Q&A with Solomon.
Comedian John Cleese dramatized this problem in a video skit. Wearing a white lab coat and standing beside a plastic model of the brain, to parts of which he keeps pointing, Cleese informs us how the brain works. With his plummy British accent, he perfectly captures the smugness of the scientific know-it-all. He intones, in part (and I found this transcript here): Now: Resumptory frictation and multicentic compulator, simple as the leviating Dudsmeery Lubble-Dutch, making contase and together t-slip temperance and expend agency. A reflection that actually corresponds to Huyu Perverts, his supercredity balance multiviratory equation, E = 2R. I’ll say that again: E = 2R. Where R is the radiancy of my home measure, the boundary effect. And, finally, the feenery sends a parabolic and paraseltic refector, a rasurdity, overleses the homovesery and heterovanthify, so that neglectance of Mamat’s anthepomerapy supercontraction causes struck dimension of faction carnity. There.
The solipsism problem loomed over a conference on animal consciousness held at New York University in November 2017, where speakers had wildly divergent ideas about the degree to which various animals might be conscious. See my posts on the meeting, “Do Fish Suffer?” and “Jellyfish, Sexbots and the Solipsism Problem.”