June 2012

Kathleen Reeves


Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist by Christof Koch

Christof Koch, a neuroscientist who studies consciousness and the author of Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist, was once drawn to mystery. In his youth he was steeped in "the masses, passions, and requiems of Orlande de Lassus, Bach, Vivaldi, Haydn, Mozart, Brahms, and Bruckner... I fell in love with the magical intonations of centuries-old Roman prayers." In adulthood, he found himself with "a split view of reality" -- half-Catholic and half-scientific:

These two frameworks, one divine and one secular, did not intersect. The church provided meaning by placing my puny life in the context of the vastness of God's creation and his Son's sacrifice for humankind. Science explained facts about the actual universe I found myself in and how it came to be.

Harboring two distinct accounts... is not a serious intellectual stance.

So Koch rejected God and the soul once and for all, and took up a belief in science that approaches the dogmatism of some of Catholicism's most venerable dogmatists.

Koch believes that consciousness -- not just how we see or hear or remember names but how, at any given moment, we're experiencing the world in a multisensory, unique, and unrepeatable way -- can be explained through brain mechanisms. It's certainly not radical to believe that the brain gives rise to consciousness. But Koch believes that the exact process by which neurons generate this highly complicated experience can and should be mapped and defined mathematically. Indeed, he thinks this will happen in his lifetime.

Scientists know a great deal about how the brain works -- that is, which parts of the brain control the various elements of perception, like color and sound. But getting from the physical brain to conscious experience -- "the Hard Problem" -- is a jump that even some neuroscientists think impossible. The idea is that no matter how long you study the mechanisms of perception, you will never be able to explain how they give rise to phenomenal experience. Two such believers in the eternal inscrutability of this problem, both mentioned in the book, are Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, a German mathematician and philosopher, and David Chalmers, the philosopher of mind. In the early eighteenth century, Leibniz put it as follows:

If we imagine that there is a machine whose structure makes it think, sense, and have perceptions, we could conceive it enlarged, keeping the same proportions, so that one could enter into it, as one enters into a mill. Assuming that, when inspecting its interior, we will only find parts that push one another, and we will never find anything to explain a perception.

Leibniz's description holds remarkably true today. Yes, we know more about the structure, but our understanding of neuronal activity is just a more differentiated version of Leibniz's mill. We still don't know how gray matter produces a decidedly non-material impression. How can we?

Koch calls this assessment of science's limits "defeatist" and launches into one of his many, telling dismissals of philosophers and other "airy-fairy" (e.g., non-scientist) thinkers:

Despite the hectoring of deconstructionist, "critical" scholars and sociologists, science remains humanity's most reliable, cumulative, and objective method for comprehending reality... Because science is so good at figuring out the world around us, it should also help us to explain the world within us.

Remember that Koch is not talking about our digestive systems when he talks about "the world within us," nor is he even talking about our brains; he's talking about our minds. He's talking about why we make the decisions we do, fall in love, listen to music. He's talking about ethics and the meaning of life. This is what he wants mapped, mathematically modeled, and manipulated with optogenetics (viruses implanted in brain cells that cause the brain to react in certain ways to certain colors of light). Our minds in their entirety can be understood by studying, ever more closely, the structure of our brains.

When Chalmers stands up to Koch's reductionism by insisting that "no empirical fact, no discovery in biology or conceptual advance in mathematics, could dissuade him of [the] unbridgeable gap between the two worlds" -- the physical and phenomenal worlds -- Koch is dumbfounded. He wonders, "How could mere words, without the benefit of either a mathematical or physico-empirical framework, establish anything with that degree of certainty?" This is just the first instance of a troubling privileging of science over other models of knowledge, namely philosophy and religion. He separates facts from words, not considering that facts are words. "Facts," like philosophies and works of literature, are observations by humans. Scientific facts, like philosophies, have changed a great deal over the centuries. They are not infallible, as scientists have themselves proved.

And yet Koch continues to elevate science above other disciplines, a tendency called "scientism." As the philosopher Philip Kitcher recently wrote in a review of Alex Rosenberg's supremely scientistic The Atheist's Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life Without the Illusions: "Scientism rejects dialogue: the sciences provide the answers; the lesser provinces of the intellectual and cultural world should take instruction." In this vein, Koch writes, "Philosophers deal in belief systems, simple logic, and opinions, not in natural laws and facts." Of course, the belief in natural laws and facts, however those are defined, is itself a belief system, one that loses its stability as soon as we acknowledge that all facts are interpretations.

Now, the deconstruction of facts grows tiresome when we argue about statements like, "It is raining" (as Don DeLillo famously demonstrated in White Noise). But calling facts into question becomes terribly important when we look at the areas where science has had to be revised. Just look at something as supposedly simple and "fact- and science-based" as the food pyramid (and now we have a plate rather than a pyramid). If nutrition has eluded us (at least in the Western world) for so long, how can we expect to conquer consciousness?

It's a human tendency to see what we want to see, as Koch himself insists. Throughout the book, he emphasizes man's ability to fool himself, but he and his fellow scientists are somehow exempt from this tendency. Toward the end of the book, he goes for broke:

If we honestly seek a single, rational, and intellectually consistent view of the cosmos and everything in it, we must abandon the classical view of the immortal soul. It is a view that is deeply embedded in our culture; it suffuses our songs, novels, movies, great buildings, public discourse, and our myths. Science has brought us to the end of our childhood.

Of course, Koch has his own childhood, and his mythic heroes, as he admits just a few pages earlier, are Francis Bacon and René Descartes. Koch frequently considers more than one possible approach to a problem and declares the "rational" one superior. He seems to assume that his reader will read "rational" as "intellectually sound," "worthwhile," or "true." This reader does not.

A compassionate, thoughtful writer, Koch claims to care for humans and the earth: among his preferred causes are animal rights and environmentalism. But Koch's beloved rationality has brought us, among other things, the industrial revolution, an unsustainable food system, slavery, and above all a profoundly unjust economic system that justifies human oppression and the destruction of the earth.

Science often leads to discoveries that improve our lives, of course. But rational thinking has also led to many horrors. Koch's failure to acknowledge this and his arrogant dismissal of intellectual pursuits that have a great deal of power to free us, like philosophy and religion, are especially unforgivable given his professed interest in meaning and ethics. "Humanity is not condemned to wander forever in an epistemological fog," he says, "knowing only the surface appearance of things but never their true nature. We can see something; and the longer we gaze, the better we comprehend."

So we're approaching the truth -- through neuroscience? Science had led us to truths, but does it lead us to truth? More accurately, science leads us where we want to go. And often, a society's direction is determined not by "truth-finding" but by profit, and so science is directed and used to that end. When science turns up something that runs counter to profit, as was the case with global warming (first announced, tentatively, in the 1970s), that truth is silenced, usually quite effectively.

So we cannot, as Koch suggests, expect science to lead us to the promised land. We have to look at the other things we humans do, like economics and politics. Fully mapping and decoding the thing that makes us human will not solve our human problems, because our greatest human problem has always been a moral one: the problem of greed. This is what science does not and cannot address. A deep consideration of morality, especially these days, could do us good. And that's something that must be done on a humanistic or spiritual, not a mechanistic, level.

But Koch believes so uncritically in his ability to understand even the most complex physical structures that his purported rationality or practicality becomes impractical. Reviewing psychological studies of attention -- how the brain "decides" to focus on certain sights, sounds, and sensations over others -- Koch brushes it all aside. He doesn't want to study the effects of attention; he wants to find it in the brain itself and declares, once again, that it can be done:

In the final analysis, psychological methods are too edentate to fully resolve this issue. Without delicately intervening into the underlying brain circuit the distinction between attention and consciousness will not be fully resolved... The history of any scientific concept -- energy, atom, gene, cancer memory -- is one of increased differentiation and sophistication until it can be explained in a quantitative and mechanistic manner at a lower, more elemental level.  

If the process of observation and theory used by psychologists, philosophers, and even neuroscientists permits us to live better, is it less useful than his Ahab-like pursuit of the "structure" of consciousness? I suppose we can outline a few definitions of practical: that which produces scientific knowledge (whatever that means), that which creates profit, and that which leads to a better quality of life. The first two definitions are often linked.

Koch, however, believes in something akin to Better Living Through Chemistry. He frequently praises the Internet, wonders if it might be classified as "conscious," and more than once compares it to our brains:

The working of our brain is typically compared with the most advanced technology of the day. Today, it is the vast and tangled Internet. Yesterday, it was the digital computer. Yester-century, it was the moving statues of gods, satyrs, tritons, nymphs, and heroes in the fountains at the French court in Versailles.  

I've certainly never compared my brain or anyone else's to a machine, no matter how complex, and I wouldn't want to hang around with anyone who did. Later, while disproving the existence of a soul by asking questions like, "What logic does it follow?", Koch asks derisively if the soul "float[s] around in some sort of hyperspace, like a ghost." In his reverence for his Mac laptop, the Internet, and artificial intelligence, Koch approaches a sort of awe that makes it clear that there is one thing he worships: human constructions. He should know better than anyone that humans are fools, and the harm we do is as well-planned, legal, and scientifically approved as the good.

Perhaps Koch should take a lesson from a fellow critic of Catholicism, Cullen Murphy, whose God's Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World positions the Inquisition squarely in modern times. For Murphy, the moral certainty of the Inquisition, and the terror and torture that that certainty justified, were not dispelled by the Enlightenment but survived to take root in new reigns and empires, including, of course, the American one. The Inquisition was not pre-modern and pre-rational but rather set the terms for later forms of authority who claimed ownership of truth. In a New York Times op-ed, Murphy includes "rationalism and science," along with God and national security, as one of the "higher justifications" appealed to in modern times. Murphy insists that our greatest moral virtue is doubt, and, interestingly, he finds such doubt in Catholic theology:

A long philosophical tradition in the Roman Catholic Church itself -- admittedly, not the one most in evidence today -- has long balanced the comfort of certainty against the corrective of doubt. Human beings are fallen creatures. Certitude can be a snare. Doubt can be a helping hand.

We should not replace certainty with another kind of certainty. The only antidote to certainty is doubt. If we approach the human mind, and by extension our entire culture, solely through the narrow passage of scientific knowledge, we risk losing the uncertainty that makes us human: art, philosophy, God, and other things that make life worth living.

Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist by Christof Koch
The MIT Press
ISBN: 978-0262017497
184 pages