The confusing viewpoint of Christof Koch

#1
Christof Koch, a former guest on the Skeptiko show has been branded as one of the great scientific thinkers into the fundamentals of consciousness. He also happens to be the chief scientist in the brain science team at the Allen Institute. One would think he would have something interesting to say about the science of consciousness. However the strange thing with this guy is that he always seems to stop short of actually explaining any coherent idea that matches his divergent assumptions (why I think they are divergent I will explain below). I just read a new interview with him (http://nautil.us/issue/47/consciousness/the-spiritual-reductionist-consciousness-of-christof-koch) in which he expresses a viewpoint very much in line with his book "Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist".

Let me make a few quotes from the interview:

Yes, there’s this ancient belief in panpsychism: “Pan” meaning “every,” “psyche” meaning “soul.” There are different versions of it depending on which philosophical or religious tradition you follow, but basically it meant that everything is ensouled. Now, I don’t believe that a stone is ensouled or a planet is ensouled. But if you take a more conceptual approach to consciousness, the evidence suggests there are many more systems that have consciousness—possibly all animals, all unicellular bacteria, and at some level maybe even individual cells that have an autonomous existence. We might be surrounded by consciousness everywhere and find it in places where we don’t expect it because our intuition says we’ll only see it in people and maybe monkeys and also dogs and cats.
At this point at least my interpretation was something like, okay this guy actually believes consciousness is fundamental and not a computable property of complex neuron interactions.

He continues with the well known paradox of brain damage and seemingly normal conscioussness function which had some new information (for me at least)

We also know that consciousness does not require your entire brain. You can lose 80 percent of your neurons. You can lose the little brain at the back of your brain called the cerebellum. There was recently a 24-year-old Chinese woman who discovered, when she had to get a brain scan, that she has absolutely no cerebellum. She’s one of the extremely rare cases of people born without a cerebellum, including deep cerebellar nuclei. She never had one. She talks in a somewhat funny way and she’s a bit ataxic. It took her several years to learn how to walk and speak, but you can communicate with her. She’s married and has a child. She can talk to you about her conscious experiences. So clearly you don’t need the cerebellum.
If you were thinking that Christof Koch is a nice proponent of the 'non-materialistic' world view at this point which I was almost thinking the interview suddenly takes a dramatic turn:

Unfortunately, I now know four words: “No brain, never mind.” That’s bad news. Once my brain dies, unless I can somehow upload it into the Cloud, I die with it. I wish it were otherwise, but I’m not going to believe something if it’s opposed by all the facts.
And then Dalai Lama is in line for some punishment:

I found that very heartening—in particular the Dalai Lama’s insistence on the primacy of science. I asked him, “What happens if science is in conflict with certain tenets of Buddhist faith?” He laughed and said, “Well, if this belief doesn’t accord with what science ultimately discovers about the universe, then we have to throw it out.”

But the Dalai Lama believes in reincarnation.

We talked about that. In fact, I said, “Well, I’m really sorry, Your Holiness, but I think we just have to agree that Western science shows that if there’s no physical carrier, you’re not going to get a mind. You’re not going to get memory because you need some mechanism to retain the memory.” I asked him, “Were you not reincarnated from the previous Dalai Lama?” And he just laughed and said, “Well, I don’t remember anything about that anymore.”
To round it off and make sure nobody leaves with any false impression Koch finalizes the interview with:

. I’m a reductionist because I do what scientists do. I take a complex phenomenon and try to pull it apart and reduce it to something at a lower level.
Well - the guy confuses me. He is so close to openly supporting a panpsychism worldview. He is well aware tate reducing consciousness to interactions between neurons in the brain has some fundamental challenges - and yet he is so extremely close minded when it comes to other possbilities than reductionism.
 
#3
I think Koch is in the closet. He probably doesn't believe in afterlife, but he won't diss reductionism because of his rep and funding. His institute got $300 mil funding from Paul Allen, he wouldn't get the job as CEO if he said reductionism is wrong. You have to understand the pressure the mainstream materialist view has on many scientists.

Michael Persinger, a self professed materialist, gets ignored on his results about telepathy, he even said the scientific world is close minded http://skeptiko.com/michael-persinger-discovers-telepathic-link/. I just don't understand why they even reject telepathy, it's perfectly compatible with materialism if you assume consciousness is related to the electromagnetic field generated by your brain (Persinger's view). I guess the mainstream isn't dedicated to stamping out non materialists, it's dedicated to stamping out anyone who doesn't agree with them.
 
#4
I think Koch is in the closet. He probably doesn't believe in afterlife, but he won't diss reductionism because of his rep and funding. His institute got $300 mil funding from Paul Allen, he wouldn't get the job as CEO if he said reductionism is wrong. You have to understand the pressure the mainstream materialist view has on many scientists.

Michael Persinger, a self professed materialist, gets ignored on his results about telepathy, he even said the scientific world is close minded http://skeptiko.com/michael-persinger-discovers-telepathic-link/. I just don't understand why they even reject telepathy, it's perfectly compatible with materialism if you assume consciousness is related to the electromagnetic field generated by your brain (Persinger's view). I guess the mainstream isn't dedicated to stamping out non materialists, it's dedicated to stamping out anyone who doesn't agree with them.
Yes I agree. He comes so close to admitting materialism can't explain consciousness yet fails to come fully out of the closet. Eventually it must happen for some of these academics when it becomes embarassing clear that they are making no progress with the standard reductionist approach.
 
#5
Sbu,

I take a far more positive approach. Here is a scientist actually facing the cognitive dissonance of materialism! He isn't playing games, like some do - he can see the paradoxes and he doesn't know how to fit the pieces together yet! I have never heard about that Chinese woman before, and the fact that he is willing to discuss a case that isn't widely known, tells me that he really wants to understand what is going on.

He hasn't gone the whole way, but there is a decent chance he will - after all, Nagel saw the light. If he makes it all the way, perhaps he will do another podcast for us :) Heck - maybe he would do one right now and then come to this forum for a little help!

David
 
S

Sciborg_S_Patel

#6
Mail him a copy of Gregg Rosenberg's A Place for Consciousness. It's worked before...

Anyway, here's why I think the book is underappreciated. Here's a first pass: it's a book that more or less singlehandedly caused me, a one-time staunch physicalist, to become a mind-body dualist. I know this is just a personal anecdote, but still, I think it is worth dwelling on for a moment. I started out my undergraduate career doing philosophy of mind at Tufts with Dan Dennett, one of the hardest-core physicalists out there. I was completely on board with him. Dualism had always seemed silly to me, and completely at odds with any scientifically respectable account of reality. And reading David Chalmers' book The Conscious Mind didn't sway me at all. The Zombie Argument -- the argument that Chalmers' entire book was based on -- immediately struck me then (just as it does now) as utterly question-begging. It seemed to me that will share Chalmers' intuition that zombies are conceivable, and so metaphysically possible, if one antecedently finds dualism attractive. Since I didn't find dualism attractive in the slightest, the Zombie Argument seemed silly to me.

Anyway, I more or less remained a physicalist...until I read Rosenberg's book. What was it about the book that did it for me? What was it that converted me into dualist? The first preface of Rosenberg's wonderful premise hits the nail on the head.
 
#7
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#10
Ah sorry I probably should've mentioned there are numerous excerpts and summaries of the work, noted here in the Limitations of Mechanistic Assumptions Resources thread.
Thanks for these references on Rosenberg. I can't really get to the gist of his arguments even though I noticed in one article he avoided the classic issues with the radio transmitter analogy. But for example the following argument is just too abstract for me and does not provide anything testable:

When we reach physics, we find the same kind of circularity as in other, less fundamental, sciences, and the pivotal, required role for carriers raises questions. We can easily see the circularity in physics by asking questions about the identity conditions on the basic physical entities. These conditions are broadly functional. What it is to be a photon, for instance, is to play the functional role in our environment that photons play in physics. What it is to be charge, mass, or spin is to be distinct from the other physical properties and to nomically instantiate the pattern of regularities prescribed by the laws (again, in our environment). What it is to be gravity is to play the role gravity plays, and similarly for the other basic physical properties. As a result, physics incorporates circularity, just as all functional systems do.ii

The circularity of physical concepts leads to the question, What is extrinsic within physics? That is, what carries the contrasts and relations needed to satisfy our system of physical concepts?iii Taking a hard line here, insisting that nothing carries the physics, is unprecedented and problematic. It is unprecedented in that the extrinsic properties in other circular systems are not spandrels but elements required for the instantiation of those systems. It is problematic in that the resulting metaphysics seems unintelligible, if looked at too closely. The metaphysics requires a system of contrast, and relations between the contrasts, in which these contrasts have no carriers. Without carriers, it requires a notion of pure contrast, contrasts that seem not to be contrasts between anything. The idea seems to melt away before the mind s eye, like an echo issuing from no originating voice. The champion of such a metaphysic takes on a large unmet burden in trying to explain it.
For me the classic definition of the hard problem of consciousness is a more simple explanation of why physicalism can't be the full picture.
 
S

Sciborg_S_Patel

#11
Thanks for these references on Rosenberg. I can't really get to the gist of his arguments even though I noticed in one article he avoided the classic issues with the radio transmitter analogy. But for example the following argument is just too abstract for me and does not provide anything testable:

For me the classic definition of the hard problem of consciousness is a more simple explanation of why physicalism can't be the full picture.
These are things defined in terms of relations rather than descriptions of things in themselves, as Lee Smolin put it:

We don't know what a rock really is, or an atom, or an electron. We can only observe how they interact with other things and thereby describe their relational properties. Perhaps everything has external and internal aspects. The external properties are those that science can capture and describe - through interactions, in terms of relationships. The internal aspect is the intrinsic essence, it is the reality that is not expressible in the language of interactions and relations. Consciousness, whatever it is, is an aspect of the intrinsic essence of brains.
-Time Reborn


The patterns are discovered by observations of change (and lack of change) through time. But there has to be something that exists which has the properties necessary to have the relations.

That particular passage from Rosenberg, however, only gets to the beginning of a longer argument in which he shows something like consciousness has to exist for there to be causality. Thus consciousness is the carrier for causation, which has quite a few potential ramifications IMO...

Whether it's testable - I'll have to go back and check. I thought there were some empirical predictions but maybe I'm misremembering.
 
#12
That particular passage from Rosenberg, however, only gets to the beginning of a longer argument in which he shows something like consciousness has to exist for there to be causality. Thus consciousness is the carrier for causation, which has quite a few potential ramifications IMO...

Whether it's testable - I'll have to go back and check. I thought there were some empirical predictions but maybe I'm misremembering.
I didn't find any - but obviously three hours of digging into a few articles doesn't make me an expert in his full work. I realise one will almost need a degree in philosophy to follow these arguments with intrinsic and extrinsic properties e.g. understanding the color green as an intrinsic property - green being something 'extra' than just the bandwitdh of the light being reflected which would be the extrinsic property of green if I understand it correctly.

Anyway there's no guarantee that a correct theory of consciousness is going to be testable. It would just be immensely satisfying if it was the case.
 
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