Sunday, February 10, 2013

Christof Koch on zombies and consciousness

Brain Science Podcast has many interesting interviews. I'm looking at one with Christof Koch. Recall that Eagleman used Koch in chapter 5 to support his notion of consciousness as the CEO. I referenced Crick and Koch's papers in a previous post supporting consciousness. Following is a relevant excerpt from the podcast on the scientific method. One might say I'm using confirmation bias to support my position but I'm pretty sure that the understanding of the scientific method is well established among scientists as the following.

Dr. Campbell: "This brings up an issue that I think is important, and I’m curious about your position on. It’s this issue of data-driven vs. theory-driven science."

Dr. Koch: "It has to be both. The belief that you can do everything bottom-up, I think is a fallacy. The brain is so vastly complex, if I say I don’t have any theory, I don’t have any hypothesis, I don’t have any supposition, I’m just going to look at the data, that doesn’t work. Because the data itself is huge; and you have to make all sorts of assumptions—explicit or implicit. Conversely, the belief that I can just reconstruct it by thinking about it deeply enough and doing mathematics, also doesn’t work, because brains are incredibly complex; they’re shaped by evolutionary forces that we need to understand. So, it really has to be both" (8).

They discuss it a bit further in the podcast. Like the section in Incognito referenced above, here too the question is posed on 21: Why does consciousness exist? The ensuing answer on the follow pages is interesting. Although on 24 when he wonders if consciousness is panpsychic I personally start to think he's going overboard into the wu wu.

Let's keep in mind that the Crick of Crick and Koch is the guy who discovered DNA. I don't think that is a controversial subject and is well established as a fact? Granted Crick and Koch in exploring 'consciousness' are pushing the limits of what has heretofore been an unexplored area in neuroscience. Still, these guys are expert neuroscientists that are not only forming hypotheses based on voluminous empirical research but are then testing their hypotheses and validating them. Are they engaging in confirmation bias? Again, time will be the judge.

As but one example, see Chapter 5 in Koch's book The Quest for Consciousness dealing with the neuronal correlates. Note on pp. 88-9 he distinguishes between consciousness with and without an object, and that the latter is what is explored in meditation. At that time of writing (2004) he said that is difficult to study, but great strides have been taken since then and that is the subject of study in a previous post.

You might also enjoy this article on Koch and "zombie agents." A few brief excerpts:

"Most of what we do, he says, is not under our conscious control; we’re not even aware we’re doing it.... So much of our human fluidity results from automatic processes buried deep in the mind far below perception, what Koch refers to in his forthcoming book, The Quest for Consciousness, as 'an army of unconscious sensory-motor agents' or 'zombie agents.' He insists that for much of our lives we are in effect zombies.

"Given the range and effectiveness of these zombie agents, Koch believes the great mystery is why we are not complete zombies. Or to put it another way: What purpose does consciousness serve? Why does it exist at all?"

Read on to get his answer, which is in the book as well.


  1. This article is about ten years old, but I’m surprised a sophisticated neuroscientist like Crick makes the mistake of assuming that flexible behavior, behavior that is not hard-wired, has to be conscious. There is no reason at all that such behavior could not be unconscious. While Koch says that “zombie agents operate purely according to preprogrammed rules”, this is not how philosophers of mind like Chalmers and many others describe them. Zombies as used in philosophical arguments behave in a fashion absolutely identical to that of a conscious human being, including any kind of flexible behavior that is associated, in real humans, with consciousness. Their behavior is no more preprogrammed than that of a real human, because zombies, as defined by these philosophers, are generally physiologically identical to real humans. They have exactly the same neural processes.

    Moreover, if one is a materialist, as Koch clearly is, one believes that every thought, emotion, action, etc. that is conscious is the product of specific neural activity in the brain. That being the case, there is no reason in principle why this activity has to be conscious, be accompanied by consciousness, or have any other relationship with consciousness. The neural activity, alone, is sufficient to elaborate the behavior. Consciousness is superfluous.

    This is why no materialist has yet been able to provide a cogent explanation for why consciousness evolved, what benefits it adds. If you are a consistent materialist, there is nothing consciousness does that could not be performed by the same brain unconsciously. To argue that it does add something is to revive that outside the causal chain argument. Accepting consciousness as a top-down phenomenon doesn't help, because according to the materialist view, it can only cause phenomena by acting through the nervous system. Again, the same neural processes could occur without consciousness.

    Then again, I learn from this article that Crick is a practicing Catholic. Not sure how he reconciles that with his materialist view.

  2. Sorry, meant Koch, not Crick, in that first sentence.

  3. I am only referencing Koch since his work focuses solely on the simplest process that might be considered conscious. Hence his differentiations between automatic and conscious behavior is not as clear as Damasio's work, who I prefer. The latter details the difference between being awake (aware), mind and the conscious self. The first produces a tremendous amount of intelligence. The second compounds that even more, as does the third. All in a continuous evolutionary development. Plus Damasio, a materialist, goes into some detail on why and how consciousness evolved. I highly recommend Self Comes to Mind. In the meantime you can see an excellent summary/review by the woman who runs Brain Science Podcast. I provided some excerpts in this post*, which also contains a link to her summary.



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