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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Looking to the future, if you had to advise students about how to prepare for the future in this field, what advice would you give them? Obviously they need to learn this array of scientific skills that you require, but what about also humanistic values and education with regard to dealing with this, once we come up with some of these answers?

What I tell people who ask me what[ever] it is they want to do -- to study physics, study math, study biology, study the basic sciences -- be compassionate and leave the world a better place. There really isn't much else to say.

And then finally, for the public, what is the best way to follow this revolution? They're obviously not going to go back and get graduate degrees, and so on, but do you have some markers that people should ...

Oh, they can read my book.

Right! We'll show it again.

There are many journals -- for example, Scientific American just started a journal called Mind last year. Together with the normal Scientific American, they have this second journal, Scientific American Mind, that's dedicated to the dissemination of a lot of these ideas. There are many books being written, some very good books. John Searle has written a wonderful little primer on consciousness and the mind. So, there are a number of excellent books that are now available for the general public to inform themselves. The information is all there. You have to work at it. That's not surprising. Consciousness is a very puzzling thing and it can't be reduced to a single sound bite. If you ask me what's consciousness in thirty seconds or less, it's difficult to answer that. But there are some wonderful books available that describe the current state of knowledge, incomplete as it is, for the general public.

I'm curious, looking back at the trajectory of your life, are there certain factors that have brought you to this focus in your life? Does it all come together, in a way, in this, or is it primarily the science education that has led you here?

Life is always a series of accidents and then some more profound currents that tug you, that pull you along in a certain direction. I've always had, probably because of the way my parents raised me in a very religious setting -- always thought a lot about some of these more fundamental problems about time, about eternity, about life before death and life after death. book coverBut it's always puzzled me that people are much more obsessed about life after death than life before death. It's strange, particularly in the context of consciousness. They rarely ask, "What does it tell you about life before birth? Where was I before I came into this planet?" They're always obsessed about what happens after they go out. Anyhow, [science] certainly had a large influence, thinking about these big problems, and I discovered, I learned that the only way we can answer these problems in any satisfactory way is by doing science. I mean, it's great to do philosophy, you can think about it, everybody should do it, but ultimately you can't prove any of that. The only sure touchstone we have seems to be empirical knowledge. The rest, we just have to believe something.

Well, Christof, on that note, I want to thank you for sharing your intellectual odyssey, and also for being patient with us for trying to get into the complexity that you're working on. I want to show the audience your book again, The Quest for Consciousness, which I recommend highly. And I want to thank you very much for being here today.

Thank you very much, Harry. It was a pleasure.

And thank you very much for joining us for this Conversation with History.

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See also the Interview with John Searle (1999): Philosophy and the Habits of Critical Thinking