Christof Koch and The Feeling of Life Itself

LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 25: A general view of the new Francis Crick Institute at King's Cross on August 25, 2016 in London, England. The Francis Crick Institute will be the biggest biomedical research institute under one roof in Europe with around 1250 scientists and 250 other staff working there. The Cricks research aims to discover how and why disease develops and seeks to find new ways to diagnose, treat and prevent conditions such as cancer, heart disease and stroke, infections and neurodegenerative conditions like motor neurone disease. It is expected that the institute will be fully operational in early 2017. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

Now and then, Christof Koch steps out of the laboratory to write an informative overview of the topic of consciousness. In 2004, he published his first book, The Quest for Consciousness (Robert & Co., 2004), an introduction of his works alongside Nobel Laureate, Francis Crick. The book introduced the daunting task of finding the neural correlates that give rise to consciousness in the brain.

After Crick’s death, Koch concentrated his efforts in another book, Consciousness (MIT Press, 2012), a part overview, part memoir, that put forward the established science in which consciousness should be studied and what is legitimate in the field. Those two efforts help Koch position his views and where the field should look next when dealing with what David Chalmers calls the “hard problem.”

Now, seven years after his last book, Koch delivers what should be considered his verdict on the advances that the field has made, The Feeling of Life Itself (MIT Press, 2019).

Christof Koch’s Search of Life Itself

Where is Consciousness?

The Feeling of Life Itself is a book of two tales. First, Koch pickups where he left off in his final’s installment; defining what is consciousness, spelling the errors of those who say that consciousness is an illusion (e.g. Daniel Dennett), and giving a tour through the brain, in search of parts that might give rise to consciousness.

The casual reader might suggest obvious questions when examining any topic on consciousness: “What’s the big deal?” “Isn’t it obvious that the brain gives rise to consciousness?” That of course, as Koch shows, depends on what part of the brain and which brain you’re referring to.

Koch goes beyond the human brain to explore the possibilities of consciousness. His Bernese Mountain Dog is always present in his narrative when he finds himself in need of an example outside the Homo Sapiens. The curiousness and authority of Koch make a powerful combination that relates complex elements that give rise to consciousness to everyday tales that can explain it.

Moreover, he gives a straightforward answer to detractors, especially dualists (those who think that mind and brain are separate entities), who philosophically, still might want to define what is consciousness. In a curious case of metamorphosis, Koch turns into his late mentor, Crick. The latter wasn’t interested in establishing the grounds of what consciousness is. A famous story goes that when Crick was already involved with Koch, trying to solve the problem of consciousness, an unnamed philosopher asked him: “But Dr. Crick … you are attempting to solve the so-called problem of consciousness yet you haven’t even bothered to define it…can you clearly define what you are talking about?” To which, Crick replied:

“My dear chap, there was never a time in the pre-DNA era when a lot of us biologists sat around the table and said ‘Let us first clearly define life before we explore it’. We just went out there, forged ahead and found out what it was. It’s no doubt good to have a rough idea of what one is talking about but matters of terminology are best left to philosophers who spend most of their time on such things. Indeed clear definitions often emerge from empirical research. We now no longer quibble over questions like is a virus really alive.”

In The Feeling of Life Itself, Koch first demonstrates which regions of the brain, although with a high conglomeration of neurons, do not affect consciousness (e.g. the cerebellum). Subsequently, he presents which parts show signs of the emergence of consciousness, including “the thin layer of neurons underneath the cortex,” known as the claustrum. Indeed, Crick worked till his dying days with the hopes that this region could be the “conductor of the cortical symphony,” essential to conscious experience.

The second part of the book finds Koch taking off the gloves and finally diving into the theory and possibilities of consciousness. Here, his writing becomes more complex, with less practical examples and more mathematical models. Koch has moved on from the days of hearing possibilities on the nature of consciousness from many scholars. To him, the debate should move towards experimental tests, that can prove how experience arises (he defines consciousness as “any experience, from the mundane to the most exalted”).

He’s no longer interested if you think that all things in the universe are conscious or if Artificial Intelligence (AI) is close to achieving the goal of downloading people’s minds into a computer long after their death. Instead, The Feeling of Life Itself gives a final appraisal of these theories and moves on. For Koch, those who are proposing the theories are behind, the only ones that are worth debating are the scientists that propose them and do the experimental research.

Integrated Information Theory (IIT) Is The Way!

Koch selects Giulio Tononi’s Integrated Information Theory (IIT) as the preferred explanation of the phenomena. IIT remains throughout the book as the vehicle to finally discover how consciousness works. Koch expands on why this is the case:

“ITT is a deep theory in the sense that it explains many facts, predicts new phenomena, and can be extrapolated in surprising ways… As more philosophers, mathematicians, physicists, biologists, psychologists, neurologists, and computer scientists become interested in ITT, we are learning more about its mathematical foundations and its complications for understanding existence and causality, for measuring physiological signatures of consciousness, and for the possibility of sentient machines.”

For the second part of the book, is all IIT; its possibilities, its advantages, and more importantly, how does it fare against other theories. The Feeling of Life Itself shines when Koch gives enough space to theories, like panpsychism (a theory that proposes that everything can have a degree of consciousness), to later contrast them with IIT and see which one can hold up with the different scenarios.

Koch’s brilliant book ends with some considerations on the ethics of knowing that other cellular organisms might be conscious. As he replies to the reader on why this coda is necessary, he exclaims: “I now know that I live in a universe in which the inner light of experience is far more widespread than assumed within the standard of Western canon… However, I’m not just a scientist; I also strive for an ethical life.” The Feeling of Life Itself leaves another window open on where to look next. With this new addition, it seems that “the hard problem” is in good hands with a scientist like Koch. The book shines a light in a dark ally full of a plateau of theories, demonstrating what good empiricism can do for the mystery of consciousness.

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The Feeling of Life Itself: Why Consciousness Is Widespread But Can’t Be Computed

by Christof Koch

MIT Press, 2019, Hardcover, pp. 280 

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