Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist

Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist

Christof Koch’s autobiographical work Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist is just that: his confessions relating to his career, and why he does what he does. I’m going to keep this review short, since this book is not primarily about his own theories. Instead, he takes this book as a chance for him to drop his professional guise and explain why, deep down, he believes certain facts about the universe to be the way that they are. He does not pretend to have pristine motives, or that he only ever disagrees with other researchers based purely on an objective, reflective foundation. He states very clearly his most fundamental beliefs about the topic at hand. He talks, quite honestly, about his lifelong struggle with religion, about his relationship with Francis Crick, about his love of dogs—about anything and everything that he thinks is relevant to, as before, why he does what he does.

For anyone fed up with the sterility and impersonal nature of research on consciousness, this will be a long-needed breath of fresh air. It will be especially useful, I think, for those partaking, or aspiring to partake, in the great quest for consciousness themselves. In particular for those still aspiring, it may be nice to see, explicitly, that a larger-than-life researcher, decades into his own quest, still has some of the same doubts and moments of personal struggle that you may be faced with ever too frequently. Of note, this same researcher who spent 30 some years of life searching for a truly “reductive” explanation of consciousness endorses in this book, quite clearly, property dualism. Take that as you will.

Five out of five stars, one of my new personal favorites. Be sure to check out the cover art, it’s quite impressive.

Two Quotes

Today, I am sharing two quotes from Christof Koch’s Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist that struck me in a particularly meaningful way. I’ll leave you to interpret them as you will.

I also write in the face of a powerful professional edict against bringing in subjective, personal factors. This taboo is why scientific papers are penned in the desiccated third person: “It has been shown that. . . .” Anything to avoid the implication that research is done by flesh-and-blood creatures with less than pristine motivations and desires.

This second one, for background, is referring to Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the double helical structure of DNA, neurobiological investigator, and through-and-through “a scientist to the bitter end.”

As a theoretician, Francis’s methods of inquiry were quiet thinking, daily reading of the relevant literature—he could absorb prodigious amounts of it—and the Socratic dialogue. He had an unquenchable thirst for details, numbers, and facts. He would ceaselessly put hypotheses together to explain something, then reject most of them himself. In the morning, he usually bombarded me with some bold new hypothesis that had come to him in the middle of the night, when he couldn’t sleep. I slept much more soundly and, therefore, lacked such nocturnal insights.