On Reconciling Atheism and Meaning in the Universe

Crick was 40 years older than you. Do you regard him as your mentor?

Koch: Yeah. Because of the age difference, we had sort of an intellectual father-son relationship, and we got along very well. Throughout his life, he worked with one person quite intensely. Most famously, he did that with Jim Watson. Then with Sydney Brenner for three decades, and then for the last two decades of his life he did that with me. It was a very intense experience.

What was it like to work with someone who was so brilliant?

Koch: Sheer joy and pleasure. So often he would take the same fact that I read and he would come to a startling new conclusion. He made this jump because he connected these facts to, say, something he'd done earlier in molecular biology. He was very good at using metaphors and analogies from other fields. Later on he didn't sleep well, so he would often lie awake at night and think about these things and come to the breakfast table with great new ideas. He wasn't afraid of continuously throwing out ideas. Many of them were crazy. Many were interesting but didn't work. Occasionally there were wonderful ideas. He just generated so many more ideas than other people did.

Crick was also an ardent atheist. In fact, didn't he leave Churchill College in Cambridge because they built a chapel over his objections?

Koch: That's correct. I was just at Churchill College and I visited the college because of that story.

Given your own background as a Catholic, did you talk much about religion with Crick?

Koch: We did. He was gentle with respect to my faith. When I first met him I still went to church and took my family there. He didn't push me in any aggressive way. He knew I had some religious sensibilities but it didn't impede our ability to have vigorous discussions about the neural correlates of consciousness. I guess his ardor for fighting against religion had cooled by the time I met him.

Did you ever push back? Did you ever challenge his atheist assumptions?

Koch: No. We once had a very interesting discussion about death. It's one of the things I greatly admire about him. Not only that he was a genius and a great inspiration, but also his attitude about dying. He knew he had a short time to live because he had colon cancer. Every morning when I came in, we talked a bit about the current state of his health but then he would say, "Okay, let's move onto more interesting things" and we would talk about science. He kept that attitude until the bitter end. Two hours before he passed away, he dictated to his secretary the last correction to one of our papers. He knew he was going to die but he didn't let it interfere with the business of trying to understand how consciousness arises from the brain.

Maybe the old religious definitions of the soul are outdated. Is part of your project trying to formulate a new, science-based idea of the soul?

Koch: These theories about the complexity of consciousness are essentially a 21st century conception of the soul. The soul in this case is conscious experience. It's attached to certain physical systems. They could be computers or biological systems. However, unlike the classical soul from Plato onwards, the soul disappears if this physical system is destroyed.

This is not a soul that can survive death.

Koch: It could in principle survive death by using technology - if my brain has some fancy reconstruction technology to transcribe it into software on silicon. In principle this simulacrum could survive death and have aspects of the old me. Unless I have a backup code, my soul dies when my brain dies. End of game, unfortunately.

You have worked at Caltech for decades, and you recently took a second job as Chief Scientific Officer at the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle. What are you doing there?

Koch: We've started with a very large donation from Paul Allen, who is very interested in trying to understand the cortex. It's one of the most complex systems in the known universe. This 10-year project called MindScope has enormous resources - between 200 and 300 scientists and engineers - all focused on trying to understand the cortex, particularly the visual cortex. We want to understand its complete wiring and the structure down to the level of a single neuron. Some people call this the connectome. The Allen Institute for Brain Science is somewhere between a university and a biotech company, where we can focus all our resources to try to understand the cortex.

Can't you do a project of this scope at a top university like Caltech?

Koch: No. Universities are great at producing individual scientists who are brilliant at pushing new ideas, but the entire scientific endeavor is constructed on the notion of being hyper-competitive and as different as possible from other people. Otherwise, you don't get a Ph.D. You don't get tenure. You don't get grants. You don't get papers in high profile journals. So it's very difficult to focus an enormous amount of research in a disciplined way.

I was at Caltech for 25 years and I loved it. But academics want to do whatever they damn well please, which is great for exploring something new. But just like in physics - for example, the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva that found the Higgs boson - you need many people to focus on one large project that has clear specs, deadlines and a standard operating procedure. Such large projects can't be done at a university. By and large, neuroscience is still just a professor, her post-doc, and her one student working together. So we're still at the stage of small science. But just like the Human Genome Project 10 or 15 years ago, or like physics 50 years ago, the field of neuroscience is now getting ready for a few very large projects where you assemble large teams and focus on a very specific question.

Are you leaving Caltech?

Koch: Yes. Unfortunately, I can't really do both. MindScope is a very large project. Doing that and also running a lab at Caltech is just impossible. By next year I will cease to be a Caltech professor.

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Steve Paulson is the executive producer of Wisconsin Public Radio's To the Best of Our Knowledge and the author of the book Atoms and Eden: Conversations on Religion and Science. He is now producing a radio series on the science of consciousness.

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