Skip to main content


It's hard to know how to categorise this book, but I'll take Christof Koch at his word and describe it as a confession, after the style of St. Augustine. It is written, seemingly for a number of purposes: to outline the discoveries Koch and his colleague Francis Crick have made regarding consciousness and its relationship to the biology of the brain; to pay tribute to Crick and work through Koch's grief at his death; to outline Koch's spiritual journey as he moved from childhood Roman Catholicism to a sort of Deism which seems to lean fairly heavily on Buddhism; to work through the issues surrounding a particular moral dilemma encountered  in middle age.

Because of its variety of purposes the book is quite uneven and always surprising, and that is a good thing, on both counts. I bought it because I wanted to know about the neurobiology stuff. Here was one of the world's leading scientists in the field of consciousness setting out his insights in a form accessible to those who cant read all the peer reviewed journals. He does this wonderfully, and it is all interspersed with enough of the autobiographical stuff to help me grasp the meta story: what drives a man to study this stuff and what does studying it do to him? In terms of pure science of course, these questions are crashingly irrelevant, but given the subject matter, they do seem important to me.

Koch's starting point is what philosophers sometimes call "the Hard Question"; i.e. the mind/body question. That is, how can immaterial things have an effect on material things? How can something as ephemeral and abstract as my thought - "I will go to the shop and buy a Time Magazine" - convert itself into real, measurable phenomena in the material world - movements in my muscles, the movement of a ton of metal down the road, the transfer of cash, the transport of some printed paper. A related question is the nature of consciousness: what is this "I" that is capable of deciding whether or not to buy a magazine? Koch's response to these questions has been a lifetime spent at the forefront of neuroscience investigating the structure and function of the brain. Influenced by thinking in information theory, he is convinced that consciousness is a function of systems that are both complex and integrated. The more complex a system is, and the more its various component parts are integrated with each other, the more it will be sentient. That is, the more consciousness it will possess. The human brain is enormously complex and each of its component parts is connected with each of the others in manifold ways, so the human brain is conscious. Stop some of that integration, and the complex brain will stop being conscious, as happens in anaesthesia or deep sleep. Other brains are less complex and less integrated but will nevertheless possess enough complexity to be conscious at some level. As will perhaps some artificial systems.

The argument is carefully laid out, exhaustively backed up with experimental evidence and quite compelling. Quite compelling, but only quite. In the end I'm not sure that the hard question has been answered. Koch has come a long way from Descartes theorising that the soul was housed in the pineal gland, but in the final analysis, I'm not sure his answer is qualitatively any different from Descartes' even though he has quantitatively more data to back himself with. Koch locates consciousness not in one part of the brain but in the brain as a whole but still cannot say how the abstractions of though give rise to material action in the physical world. He makes a case for the rise of consciousness as an evolutionary requirement; that is, it bestows a survival advantage on species to be able to plan and decide, but I don't find this very convincing because of the unconscious mind. The unconscious also seems to reside in the complex and integrated brain, and to have powers of perception and the ability to make decisions; and yet it is... unconscious. Why should evolution not favour increasingly sophisticated zombies over consciousness beings?

But more than this, I find Koch's idea of consciousness to be too static. He has a formula which calculates the level of consciousness according to the complexity and level of integration of a system, but this seems to me to reduce consciousness to a stable, calculable property, when in fact it is a process. And more, it is a process which grows and develops in sophistication over time, even when it is being borne in a system (the human brain) or more or less constant levels of C&I. Koch seems to miss the point of all the great world faiths: they are not systems of belief so much as methods of analysing and promoting the development of consciousness which proceeds in a fairly predictable  pattern.

Koch ends the book regretting the loss of his childhood Catholicism with its comforts and sureties, but he is unable to believe because of his inability to reconcile an immaterial deity with action in the material world. And yet he can only explain the existence of the universe by positing that "some deep and elemental organising principle created the universe and set it in motion for a purpose I cannot comprehend". So this principle created a universe in, presumably, a similar manner to the way my desire creates movement in my legs and the progression of my car towards the shop. We seem to be back where we started from.


Unknown said…
Starting with the material and trying to explain consciousness is a waste of time. Better to start with consciousness. Matter can then be explained as a bound up state of consciousness - why not? In Genesis God created the universe with words that came from thoughts. "The Self-Aware Universe by Amit Goswami offers this kind of perspective to the mind/body problem.

Popular posts from this blog

Camino, by David Whyte

This poem captures it perfectly Camino. The way forward, the way between things, the way already walked before you, the path disappearing and re-appearing even as the ground gave way beneath you, the grief apparent only in the moment of forgetting, then the river, the mountain, the lifting song of the Sky Lark inviting you over the rain filled pass when your legs had given up, and after, it would be dusk and the half-lit villages in evening light; other people's homes glimpsed through lighted windows and inside, other people's lives; your own home you had left crowding your memory as you looked to see a child playing or a mother moving from one side of a room to another, your eyes wet with the keen cold wind of Navarre. But your loss brought you here to walk under one name and one name only, and to find the guise under which all loss can live; remember you were given that name every day along the way, remember you were greeted as such, and you neede

The Matter With Things. 2

  Last night I finished reading Iain McGilchrist's The Matter With Things, Our Brains, our Delusions and the Unmaking of the World , the biggest book I have ever read, in all senses of the word "biggest". Back in 2017 I wrote about books which had been important to me , and, however I would recompile that list now, The Matter With Things would go straight to the top. Really. It's that good. I've read every word: no skipping or coming to and realising that my eyes have been glazed over for the past ten minutes. It's taken me a couple of months to engage  with its 1300 or so pages of text, and, as well, there are another couple of hundred pages of  appendices and bibliography (well, OK, I haven't read the bibliography). At the end of the book proper there is an epilogue which is a "so what" chapter in which McGilchrist speculates about the implications of his hemispheric theory for the world in the immediate future. This epilogue is preceded by a

En Hakkore

In the hills up behind Ranfurly there used to be a town, Hamilton, which at one stage was home to 5,000 people. All that remains of it now is a graveyard, fenced off and baking in the lonely brown hills. Near it, in the 1930s a large Sanitorium was built for the treatment of tuberculosis and other respiratory ailments. It was a substantial complex of buildings with wards, a nurses hostel, impressive houses for the manager and superintendent and all the utility buildings needed for such a large operation. The treatment offered consisted of isolation, views and weather. Patients were exposed to the air, the tons of it which whistled past, often at great speed, the warmth of the sun and the cold. They were housed in small cubicles opening onto huge glassed verandas where they cooked in the summer and froze in the winter and often, what with the wholesome food and the exercise, got better. When advances in antibiotics rendered the Sanitorium obsolete it was turned into a Borstal and the

Turn Sideways Into The Light

David Whyte speaks in his audio series What To Remember When Waking of the myth of the Tuatha De Danann. They were a mythical race from Ireland's past who were tall, magical, mystical people devoted to beauty and artistry. When another more brutal people, the Milesians invaded Ireland the Tuatha De Danann fought them off in two battles, but were faced with a third, decisive battle against overwhelming odds. So, lined up in battle formation and facing almost certain defeat, the Tuatha De Danann turned sideways into the light and disappeared. Whyte's retelling is, to put it mildly, a gloss, but I am quite taken with the phrase and with the phenomenon it describes. Turning sideways into the light is the realisation that there are some encounters that are damaging to all involved in them: no one wins a war. Faced with such an exchange, to turn sideways into the light is to seek another, more whole form of relationship. It is to reject the ground rules of the conversation as they

Prayer as Relationship

  This is a reconstruction of the talk I gave, last night, at the 3 in 1 group at St Michael's Church, Anderson's Bay, Dunedin.  We have all had unhelpful experiences of prayer . I remember the clergy colleague who would sometimes correct the theology of my sermons 5 minutes later, when he led the intercessions; or the prayer groups when you dreaded THAT person speaking, because you knew they would speak for a quarter of an hour and list everything they knew to be wrong with the world. I've heard prayer used to share gossip, or to preach sermons, or to make announcements. I've seen prayer used to shame, or to control or to boast. In all these instances I have to ask "who, exactly is being addressed here?" and find myself asking again what, exactly, is prayer anyway?  I know what it's not. Prayer is not telling God what God should do with the universe. Neither is it barking into a silence in which nothing is ever heard. Prayer is not exercising some positio