Nautilus

The Spiritual, Reductionist Consciousness of Christof Koch

Consciousness is a thriving industry. It’s not just the meditation retreats and ayahuasca shamans. Or the conferences with a heady mix of philosophers, quantum physicists, and Buddhist monks. Consciousness is a buzzing business in neuroscience labs and brain institutes. But it wasn’t always this way. Just a few decades ago, consciousness barely registered as a credible subject for science.

Perhaps no one did more to legitimize its study than Francis Crick, who launched a second career in neurobiology after cracking the genetic code. In the 1980s Crick found a brilliant collaborator in the young scientist Christof Koch. In some ways, they made an unlikely team. Crick, a legend in science, was an outspoken atheist, while Koch, 40 years younger, was a Catholic yearning for ultimate meaning. Together, they published a series of pioneering articles on the neural correlates of consciousness until Crick died in 2004.

WHAT’S THE BUZZ: Bees have all the complicated brain components that humans have, but in a smaller package. “So yes, I do believe it feels like something to be a honey bee,” Christof Koch says.Pixabay

Koch went on to a distinguished career at Caltech before joining the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle. Today, as the president and chief scientific officer, he supervises several hundred scientists, engineers, and informatics experts trying to map the brain and figure out how our neural circuits process information. The Institute recently made news with the discovery of three giant neurons connecting many regions of the mouse brain, including one that wraps around the entire brain. The neurons extend from a set of cells known as the claustrum, which Crick and Koch maintained could act as a seat of consciousness.

Koch is one of the great thinkers about consciousness. He has a philosophical frame of mind and jumps readily from one big idea to the next. He can talk about the tough ethical decisions regarding brain-impaired patients and also zoom out to give a quick history of Christian thinking on the soul. In our conversation, he ranged over a number of far-out ideas—from panpsychism and runaway artificial intelligence to the consciousness of bees and even bacteria.


You’ve said you always loved dogs. Did growing up with a dog lead to your fascination with consciousness?

I’ve wondered about dogs since early childhood. I grew up in a devout Roman Catholic family, and I asked my father and then my priest, “Why don’t dogs go to heaven?” That never made sense to me. They’re like us in certain ways. They don’t talk, but they obviously have strong emotions of love and fear, hate and excitement, of happiness. Why couldn’t they be resurrected at the end of time?

Are scientific attitudes about animal consciousness simplistic?

The fact is, I don’t even know that you’re conscious. The only thing I know beyond any doubt—and this is one of the central insights of Western philosophy—is Cogito ergo sum. What Descartes meant is the only thing I’m absolutely sure of is my own consciousness. I assume you’re conscious because your

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