Consciousness, Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist

consciousChristof Koch, a professor at California Institute of Technology and Chief Scientist at the Allen Institute, has written this book, Consciousness, published in 2012. It is both a science book and a personal book.  Although judgment and decision making are not the subject, free will versus determinism is one of the subjects.  This seems to be near the essence of judgment.

Koch says that classical determinism is out, but the strong version of free will is also out.  That version of free will  is the belief that if you were placed in exactly the same circumstances again, including the identical brain state as previously, you could will yourself to act differently.  To me that is a stronger version of free will than I imagined. Koch adopts a more pragmatic concept called compatibilism.  You have free will if you follow your own desires and preferences. Koch points to experiments that show the brain decides before you will something. By the time you say to yourself in your head to sit up and get out of bed, your brain beat you by half a second.

Koch looks at the global workspace model of Bernie Baars. Baars proposes that a common processing resource like a common blackboard exists in the mind.  Whatever data are written into the workspace become available to working memory, language, the planning module, and so on.  The idea is that the act of globally broadcasting  the information makes us aware of it.  He agrees that conscious information is globally accessible but that is limited and that so called zombie agents keep their knowledge to themselves.  Koch looks at Dehaene’s effort to investigate the neuronal workspace and agrees with much, but he does not want a descriptive model.  He wants a prescriptive one.

He finds such a model in Giulio Tononi’s integrated information concept.  Consciousness requires  extreme differentiation and extreme integration.  Your computer meets the differentiation  requirement, but is weak on the integration. He posits that consciousness is a fundamental feature of the universe. Koch loves the idea, but admits it has a ways to go.  There is something appealing about the idea that integration of a differentiated system creates consciousness.

Koch sees mammals including mice as sentient beings based on these ideas and has stopped eating birds and mammals based on this. Although I certainly respect this choice, I don’t necessarily equate consciousness with feeling pleasure or pain.  If consciousness is a fundamental  feature of the universe, then certain plants might be considered slightly conscious.  It is certainly difficult to know whether a dog is one millionth as conscious as a human or one tenth, but not eating creatures based on consciousness in a world where consciousness is a fundamental feature seems problematic.

Stanislas Dehaene in a Science review of the book praises Koch’s science interpretation, relevance and honesty, but demurs at some of his conclusions.  To show the relevance, Dehaene points to a Francis Crick experiment which showed that weakening beliefs in free will and responsibility increased cheating behavior.  Dehaene admits to sometimes wondering if neuroscience is compatible “with living a happy, meaningful, moral, and yet nondelusional life.”  Dehaene does not see Koch’s embrace of Tononi’s measure of consciousness as logically coherent. Dehaene notes that complex networks of the cerebellum and even the cortex operate entirely unconsciously.  He notes that during the attentional blink, word meanings can be accessed unconsciously, and that requires the differentiated and integrated networks of the left temporal lobe.  Koch does provide a little defense in noting that the cerebellum although having a huge number of neurons has many largely independent modules so that there is little contribution to consciousness. In my little mind, this puts into question the consciousness of a mouse.

Nevertheless, this book has much to give and I do not believe that I have read it for the last time.