n: Our series, “Meet Your Mind: A User’s Guide to the Science of Consciousness”is supported by Promega Corporation, providing tools and technologies for research in life science, and the Nour Foundation, exploring meaning and commonality of human experience.
Steve Paulson: Could the Internet feel happy or depressed? It’s a distinct possibility according to the pioneering neuroscientist, Christof Koch. He says, “The Internet is developing a staggering level of complexity, maybe even comparable to the wiring of the human brain.”Koch is the rare neuroscientist who speculates openly about all kinds of big questions - computer consciousness, God, and just what it means that our brains have a hundred billion neurons and trillions of synapses.
Christof Koch: It's not the sheer numbers of it, it's the incredible complex ways in which these things are wired up and so that makes it different from a galaxy. Our Milky Way, for example, also contains hundred billions of suns, but the way these suns interact is very, very simple compared to the way that neurons can interact with each other.
Paulson: This is an important point to make. You're saying that it doesn’t matter so much what the neurons are made of, it's how they're organized, how were they wired together, that’s what counts.
Koch: Correct. So, unless you believe in some magic substance that’s attached to our brain or some magic stuff that exudes consciousness, what certainly no scientist believe, then the only answer is, as you said, it's not the stuff the brain is made out of, but it's the relationship of its stuff to each other. So it's the fact that you have these neurons and interacting in very complicated ways. In principle, if you could replicate that interaction that’s in silicon on a computer, you would get the same phenomenon including consciousness.
Paulson: Is it entirely possible that the Internet could become conscious or maybe it already is conscious?
Koch: In principle, that’s possible. Correct. What matter for consciousness is the fact that you have these incredibly complicated little machines, these little switching devices called nerve cells and synapses and they're inter-braded, they're wired up in amazingly complicated ways. If you could mimic that, for instance, if the Internet taken as a whole, the Internet already now has a couple of billion nodes, each node is a computer, each one of these computers contains a couple of billion transistors. So, yes, it is, in principle possible that the complexity of the Internet is such that it feels like something to be conscious. Depending on the exact state of the transistors on the Internet, it might feel sad one day and happy another day, I mean whatever the coolant is in Internet space.
Paulson: You're serious about using these words, that the Internet could feel sad or happy?
Koch: What I'm serious about is that the Internet, in principle, could have conscious states. Now, the exact meaning of these conscious states, do they express happiness? Do they express pain, pleasure, angry? That really depends exactly on the relationship of the transistors, of the nodes, and of the computers to each other. But there's no question that, in principle, it could feel something, yes.
Paulson: Would we humans recognize whether there are certain parts of the Internet that are conscious? Or, is that somehow beyond our understanding?
Koch: Well, if suddenly, it develops some autonomous behavior that nobody poke on into it, where people just, “Woo! What just happened here?”I mean, it's just sort of self-organized in some really weird way, it wasn’t a bug, it wasn’t some ad that was paid for some nefarious organization, but it did it by itself. Yes, and if this happens in some regular basis, then I think at some point, many people would say, yes, I guess it did something, that it's alive and it may have conscious sensation.
Paulson: You like these big philosophical questions, don’t you?
Koch: I think a lot of what my place, you know, “What are we doing here? How do we come about? Does it mean anything?”Usually, you ask these questions when you're 18 and 19 and then you get on with this business of living. I guess, I might still ask these questions, because I want to know before I die, I want to know how it all fits together.
Paulson: It's worth pointing out that you grew up a Roman Catholic. I mean, an observant Catholic and I know you have kind of lost your faith in a personal God, at least. But it would seem that that search for meaning, that yearning for the absolute is still with you.
Koch: That’s correct. That’s very much correct. You know, I tried to be guided by the calm state of our science, but I also see these facts that we find ourselves in this universe that is very conducive to life and this somehow has to be explained. I don’t know how to explain it, but I see this sort of progress to what's ever larger complexity and to a very larger consciousness. I don’t know what it means, I can't understand it, but I see it, I observe it, and I'm happy, I'm content about it.
Paulson: It sounds like you're not exactly an atheist, is that right?
Koch: Yes, I'm not a convinced atheist. I believe, it's all just a random information, that’s correct. Although, as you said, I don’t believe in a personal God or any of the standard things that you're supposed to believe in as a Roman Catholic or as a Christian in general. But it's much closer, in fact, to Buddhist thought. I just grew up calling the thing God because that’s my tradition, but it's not any God in any sense that we in the Western World would recognize it, I believe.
Paulson: So do you look for meaning in the world of science?
Koch: I find meaning in the world of science, it's just incredible, beautiful, aesthetic thing. I mean, isn't it a wonder that we can understand the universe using mathematics that’s comprehensible to all mind? That’s just absolutely amazing. I mean, there's no law in the universe that says that it should be like that, that fills me with great contentment, I must say, yes, and science does that to me.
Paulson: From reading your book, my sense is that you take one step further. You talk about experiencing neumanist, the transcendent. What do you mean by that?
Koch: That’s something more personal. I can't really describe it. Yes, I just feel I'm in a universe that’s filled with meaning, I just see it everywhere and I realize it's a psychological mindset. I fully realize other people don’t have this. I have this, I think maybe I'm just more fortunate. It's difficult to explain, to put into words. You have this intense feeling of the beauty of the world. You don’t know where it comes from but you just have this very intense experience of it.
Paulson: It's so interesting hearing you talk about what I would call your spiritual side. I mean, given your credentials as a scientist, and especially, given your partnership with Francis Crick, one of the most famous scientists of the 20th century who was also a famous atheist. Francis Crick was 40 years older than you?
Koch: Yes, in fact, exactly 40.
Paulson: Is it fair to say that he was your mentor?
Koch: Yes. We had this some sort of intellectual father-son relationship because the age difference and we got along very well. It was a very intense experience.
Paulson: What was that like working with him? I mean, with someone who was so brilliant.
Koch: It was sheer joy and pleasure. I mean, what happened so often that he would take the same facts that I would read, and he would just come to a startling new conclusion. I'd looked at the same fact or at the same people, but then he made this jump because he connected these facts to something he’d done early on in molecular biology and sort of age as well. In molecular biology, we looked at these sort of facts from this point of view, so maybe we should look at these facts and the brain scientist from that point of view. He was very, very good at that. Later on, he didn’t sleep so well, so very often, he would lie awake at night and think about things and come to the breakfast table having great new ideas. He wasn’t afraid of continuously throwing out these ideas. Many of them were crazy, many of them were interesting but didn’t work, but occasionally, there would be this one full of ideas. So he just generated per unit of time, so much more ideas than other people did.
Paulson: As we've already said, the other piece of Francis Crick’s story is that he was an ardent atheist. In fact, the story is that he actually left Churchill College in Cambridge because they went ahead and built a chapel over his objections.
Koch: That’s correct, I just visited it last week. I was just at Churchill College and I visited the chapel because of that story.
Paulson: You have this background as a Catholic and you still have some sort of religious sensibility. Did you talk much about religion with Crick?
Koch: Yes, we did. In fact, he was gentle with respect to my faith. I mean, he knew I had some religious sensibilities quite well because we talked about it, but I guess sort of his other fight against religious sensibility had cooled by the time I'd met him.
Paulson: Did you ever push back? Did you ever challenge some of his atheist assumptions?
Koch: No. No. We once had a very interesting discussion about death, that’s one of the things I greatly admired about him. Not only that he was a genius and a great source of scientific inspiration for me, but also his attitude towards getting old and dying. I just debated with him about this, where he knew he had very short to live because he had colon cancer that couldn’t really be held in check. Every time I came there, early on in the morning when I arrived there, we talked a little bit about his current state of health, but then he would just say, “Now, let's move on to more interesting things,”and then we would talk about science. He kept that attitude until the bitter end. I mean, two days before he passed away, he called me up on the way to the hospital, he said, “I'm sorry, Christof, the paper will be delayed because I have to go into hospital.”Then in the hospital, he worked, two hours before he passed away, he dictated the last correction to his secretary. So I mean, he knew he was going to die but he didn’t let it interfere with his business of trying understand the universe, in particular, trying to understand how consciousness rises from the brain. I mean, what an attitude to take.
Jim Fleming: Christof Koch is the Chief Scientific Officer of the Allen Institute for Brain Science, and is the author of the book, “Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist.”If you’d like to find out more, you'll find the transcript of Steve’s interview with Koch that ran in the Atlantic Online on our website at TTBook.org/MeetYourMind.