On Reconciling Atheism and Meaning in the Universe

"Romantic reductionist" neuroscientist Christof Koch -- who previously posited how the Internet could become conscious -- discusses the search for meaning in the world of science, and the philosophical influence of working with Francis Crick.


(James W. Hamblin)

Scientists are now launching one of the most audacious projects ever conceived: an attempt to map the neural circuits within the human brain. Our brains have close to 100 billion neurons and trillions of synapses, so the task is almost impossibly complicated. For some neuroscientists, the goal isn't just to map the brain; it's to crack the mystery of consciousness. But can our minds -- our thoughts and feelings, our experience of joy and sorrow and self-awareness, even our faith in God -- be reduced to brain chemistry?

It's a sobering idea, especially for religious believers. If you really are your brain, will neuroscience bury your soul?

Not exactly, says Christof Koch, a leading neuroscientist at the California Institute of Technology. It all depends on how we understand the soul. Unlike his mentor, the legendary scientist Francis Crick, Koch has always nurtured a religious sensibility. In his new book Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist, he writes about his hunger for meaning and his yearning for the transcendent. And in January he plans to meet with the Dalai Lama to talk about the connections between neuroscience and Buddhist meditation

During our interview Koch talked fast and jumped quickly from one big idea to the next. In a piece last week, "The Nature of Consciousness," we talked about Koch's search for the neural correlates of consciousness and the possibility that the Internet could learn to feel. Today, we conclude our conversation.


You like big philosophical questions, don't you?

Koch: Well, I think a lot about my place in the universe. What are we doing here? How did we come about? Does it mean anything? I like to think about these problems. You know, usually you ask these questions when you're 18 and 19, and then you get on with the business of living. Even at my age, I still ask these questions because I want to know how it all fits together before I die.

Speaking of death, you write about a night of existential angst a dozen years ago when the fact that you were going to die hit you in some very visceral way. What happened?

Koch: It was pretty late compared to most people. I felt immortal until I was 42 or so. I played one of my son's shooter video games where you are chased by hordes of aliens through empty corridors on alien suns. I did that for a couple of hours and then went to bed. Suddenly I woke up in the middle of the night with the abrupt realization that I was going to die. I didn't have any premonition that something bad was going to happen. I just knew one day I was going to die. That stayed with me for the next four to six weeks. I had a tough time until I accepted it. It's a beautiful illustration of the power of the unconscious. There I was sleeping and something was churning away, probably agitated by all that shooting and killing in the video game, and then came to some startling or unsettling conclusion, and that's when my brain decided to wake me up. Since then, unfortunately, I know I'm going to die. [Laughs.] I shouldn't have played that video game.

You write about how you grew up an observant Catholic and then lost your faith in a personal god. But it seems that the search for meaning, that yearning for the absolute, is still with you.

Koch: That's correct. I try to be guided by what's scientifically plausible. Of course, there is a huge amount of randomness, but we also find ourselves in this universe that is very conducive to life. I don't know how to explain it, but I see this arrow of progress toward an ever-larger complexity and to a larger consciousness and that fills me. I don't know what it means. I can't understand it but I see it. I observe it and I'm happy about it.

So you're not exactly an atheist.

Koch: I'm not a conventional atheist who believes it's all just a random formation. I believe there is meaning. But as you said, I don't believe in a personal god or any of the standard things that you're supposed to believe as a Christian.

Your book suggests that you're a deist, maybe believing there's some sort of supreme being that created the laws of the universe but does not intervene in it.

Koch: I don't know. I grew up with that picture in mind, which is very difficult to get rid of when you acquire it in your formative years. This God I have in mind is very ephemeral. It's much closer to Spinoza's God than to the God of Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel. The mystic Angelus Silesius, who was a contemporary of Descartes, had this wonderful quote: "God is a lucent nothing, no Now nor Here can touch him." It's totally different from any conventional conception of a god. In fact, it's much closer to Buddhist thought than to any monotheistic religion. I just grew up calling this "God" because that's my tradition, but it's not any god that we in the Western world would recognize. There isn't an old guy with a beard who watches over us.

Do you look for meaning in the world of science?

Koch: I find meaning in science. It's this incredibly beautiful thing. Isn't it a wonder that we can understand the universe using mathematics that's comprehensible to our minds? That's just absolutely amazing. There's no law in the universe that says it should be like that. Physics can make predictions about the shape of the early universe. We can predict the size and the pitch of the initial bang in the universe. That's just amazing that the universe actually is comprehensible to our minds. So that fills me with great contentment.

You take this even further in your book. You talk about experiencing the numinous, the transcendent. What does that mean for you?

Koch: That's more personal. It's just that I often feel - I don't know - I find it very difficult to talk about. I can't really describe it. I just feel the universe is filled with meaning. I see it everywhere and I realize it's a psychological mindset. I fully realize other people don't have this. I have it. It's very difficult to explain where it comes from. I just have this firm belief and the experience of numinosity. It's difficult to put into words.

It's so interesting hearing you talk about your spiritual life, given your partnership with Francis Crick, the famous scientist who was also a famous atheist. How did you end up working with Crick?

Koch: He had already left England to live in California when I moved there in 1986. He also switched from molecular biology to neuroscience. We began to interact very intensely from 1989 until he died in 2004. We wrote 24 papers together and interacted daily, trying to explore the neural basis of consciousness. At the time it was still very unpopular for scientists to think about consciousness. He said a retired Nobel laureate can do that but working scientists who don't have tenure shouldn't do this. It wasn't considered a scientific problem. I think our writing helped change this attitude. Now it's much more widely accepted by the neuroscience community that consciousness can be tackled empirically.

It wasn't mainstream science until the late 80s or early 90s, partly because of functional brain imaging. Then you could track the footprints of consciousness in the human brain. That really made a big difference, and people with big reputations like Francis Crick said, "Listen guys. If science wants to have a complete picture of the universe, it has to understand consciousness. We aren't forced to listen forever to just philosophical talk. We can actually turn this into real empirical science."

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.