Christof Koch Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Consciousness and the Biology of the Brain: conversation with Christof Koch, Lois and Victor Troendle Professor of Cognitive and Behavioral Biology at Caltech, March 24, 2006, by Harry Kreisler

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Cutting-Edge Science

As I listen to you, I want to understand how you are confident amidst this complexity that you're describing, because there's an interesting synergy here. You're saying you want to focus on a piece of action, but the level of complexity is striking because it's not just perception ultimately you're talking about, you're talking about past and present, and so on. Talk a little about that, because that must bring the excitement that you get in mountain climbing. Is there any comparability there?

Well, in a sense it's daunting, just like in climbing. What do you do when you have a difficult climb? You don't think about the twenty pitches ahead of you that are going to take you twelve hours. You just think, "Right now I'm on this pitch and this is the cracks that are coming out," and you totally empty your mind, you just try to solve this problem.

The same thing here. If you think about the brain, it's so daunting. Right now there are probably only 50,000 neuroscientists on the planet studying, 50,000 people studying the brain. Each week there's almost a new journal in neuroscience and related fields that appear. So, you can be totally daunted by it. You have to focus and believe that ultimately, maybe similar to replication and DNA and RNA transcription, there is a simple mechanism at the root of consciousness that we, I mean humans, are able to understand. There's no guarantee. It may well be that consciousness requires a principle beyond our brain.

Some philosophers made the argument, "What chance does an ant have of understanding relativity?" There's [no chance,] fundamentally -- it couldn't understand, it just doesn't have the cognitive operators. Likewise, we may not have the cognitive operators to study consciousness. I don't like the argument, of course. It's defeatist. I don't like it at all. I tend to be optimistic. And I know for sure, the only way we will ever solve it is by trying to pursue this empirically. Also, there's really no sane alternative.

I know that people like Searle believe that we're on the edge of finding these answers, that there's a real revolution, and the next big questions are here and they will be answered in some reasonable timeframe. Why is this, that it's all coming together right now? Is it that these various disciplines are coming together? I mean, just looking at your own academic career and your training, that that is all coming together among a community of scientists, but also with technology that can deliver things that ...

Yes, fundamentally, like always in science, what's driving this is our instrumental ability, technology, that we can manipulate, we can study the brain at an unprecedented detail in the revolution, we can begin to manipulate. That really makes all of this possible. Otherwise we would just be sitting around and speculating. So, that's the biggest driver of all of this. And then yeah, the belief, there's a convergence, there's a meeting now each year where philosophers and psychologists and neuroscientists come together, many hundreds of them, and talk about consciousness. So, there is this great excitement that we're on the verge or we're in this revolution, this is going to be one of the golden ages that people talk about in future histories, and we're well on the way to understanding.

Now of course, one has to admit we may be fooling ourselves. Of course, it's always better to believe that you're going to solve the problem than to say, "Oh, darn, I'm not going to solve it anyhow." That's not how you do progress, right? So, you could also consider this as a form of self-hypnosis!

Right now, there's no question we're making unprecedented progress. We are beginning to intervene, also, in a [...?...] context with the human brain as never before, so right now everything looks very positive. There's no question we will find the neuronal college of consciousness. There's very little doubt about that, assuming no major catastrophe in funding, or other things. The big question is what a final theory of consciousness look like, and will it really explain everything.

Some people say, "This is all very interesting; I'm willing to believe -- in 50th time we know that if I feel 'red' and these neurons find this way, and if I feel pain, then those neurons fire. But so what? That really doesn't explain the feeling." People made very similar analogies with life. They said, "You're going to tell me it's all molecules and organic chemistry, but that really doesn't explain life. There's something magic about life." But of course, we discovered life is metabolism and hereditability, etc. Likewise here, we have to see how far can we push the explanation, and will we finally have a satisfactory explanation of why certain types of systems namely ask [?] some of the times -- not while in a deep sleep, not while in a coma -- have these states. And that's the open question.

Is there a subset of questions that are very important in the short term in this long-term project that we hope to find the answers to, that will be a piece of this?

Yes. People have criticized us focusing on the neural college of consciousness. They say, "That doesn't really explain consciousness. If you know these neurons are critical, so what?" Well, that's something, an empirical project, that everybody can do today with today's technology, and just like knowing the molecular college of heredity, once Crick and Watson solved the double helix, most of the problems were clear. Now it's probably not going to be of this character for consciousness, but it once again shows that structure follows function, particularly in biological systems, and once you know the structure, you're probably a huge step forward to understanding its function. You can also track that structure then in diseased people, as I mentioned, in babies, you can track what happens -- we've got schizophrenia, autism, or ADHD -- you can track it in animals, so this will be a huge step forward. It will not be a final theory of consciousness but it will be a gigantic step forward on the road to final resolution of this mind/body problem.

Of course, there are some philosophers who think this can never be done. There are some philosophers, David Chalmers for one, who argue there's the hard problem, the easy problem; that we assign these people the easy problem. He doesn't mean easy in the practical sense. He says the easy problem may take you hundreds of years to figure it out, the mechanism, this neuron activating that neuron, inhibiting that neuron, but he said forever we'll be reduced to just seeing [that] finally it's just a list of material problems you can make in the brain, and over here you have things like blue and pain and being self-conscious, but how they link will forever elude us. But of course, many philosophers have before made the argument: "We shall never know what the stars are made out of, we shall never know what life is." I'm very skeptical when philosophers tell me this is something in principle we'll never know. We'll have to see.

What do you think will be the implications of this, if you can come up with an answer? Does it have an impact on the treatment of disease? Does it have an impact on who we are and understanding our place in the universe?

Yes. Well, certainly there's no question it'll have an impact on disease, on systemic things like autism, schizophrenia. But even longer term, whatever the understanding will be -- you see, we grew up with a picture in our history, in our culture, that we grew very fond of. And it remains to be seen to what extent this picture -- [that] people are independent actors having free will, and the soul, and all of that -- corresponds to actual reality. We have to see how it pans out.

Do we really know what we are and what's our place in the universe, and are we unique? Is consciousness unique to us? What about animals? Right now we treat animals beastly. Right? If you look at the way the animals are raised and kept under horrible conditions for us to eat them, is that really justifiable? I don't think it is. Once we realize, once we extend this magic circle of consciousness, once we're really compassionate about other creatures that can actually suffer, and have a true understanding of that, and at the same time realize that certain people cannot suffer anymore, that a patient in PVS, in persistent vegetative syndrome like Terry Schiavo, as far as we can tell from the best medical evidence, there isn't anything to suffer anymore. The person isn't dead because the body's still alive but there's no consciousness whatsoever. So, you could argue a person like that is sort of, on the level of consciousness, much, much less conscious than any of our cats and dogs and pigs and cattle and veal that we treat horribly. So, all of this understanding surely is going to impact the way we treat each other and we treat the other creatures in the world. And then of course, the question: should we create other conscious entities, like computers? Is it a good thing? Will we increase the amount of suffering in the world? Should we do this? Under what conditions should we do this?

How does this work affect whatever religious or spiritual values you hold? Does it?

Yes, of course. I think a lot about it. I was raised as a Roman Catholic and I think a lot about it. Certainly it's difficult to reconcile some of these ideas with a classical Roman Catholic doctrine of a really independent actor, and this relates to the question we haven't talked about, the question of free will and volition; but neuroscience, of course, like all of science, throws some doubts on that, some "water" on the idea that I can really truly act like the unmoved mover, the uncaused cause. Because how would that be? If I can truly act independent, that means that something happens without there being any something happening before, and how is that supposed to work in real life? So, those are issues I'm profoundly interested in, to reconcile, to come to a single understanding of everything in the universe, including things outside the universe.

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