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Lions Roar : July 2016
Why is it important for scientists to study consciousness? Consciousness isn’t written in the foun- dational equations of physics, it’s not in the periodic table of chemistry, it’s not in the charts of our genes. Yet we wake up each morning feeling something, see- ing something, and hearing something. The only way I know about the world is through my consciousness. If science claims to have the best description of everything around us, then it must also describe the things that are within us. The essence of consciousness is that it feels like something. How is it that a piece of matter, like my brain, can feel anything? That’s the ancient mind– body problem, going back to Aristotle and Plato, and I focus on the scientific exploration of it. Once we better under- stand the physical underpinnings, we’ll better understand where consciousness comes from. Can you be conscious without being con- scious of anything in particular? I think so. In normal life we’re always conscious of something, but Buddhists frequently talk about being “in the flow.” That’s a more egoless state. Schopen- hauer also talks about these moments, when you overcome the object–subject distinction in acts of creativity. You’re overcoming want and desire. You’re just in the act. What projects are you working on to advance an understanding of consciousness? Neuroscientist Giulio Tononi and I are building a theory of consciousness called Integrated Information Theory (IIT). The theory says that any system that is sufficiently complex will have conscious- ness. Based on that, the theory derives a mathematical calculus to measure the quantity of consciousness in a system, which we call phi. We want to use the theory to build a consciousness meter. What is the relationship of Buddhism to your work on conciousness? Buddhism is the spirituality that most closely approximates what I know about the world. It embodies many attitudes that I really like. It has no gods, it says the “you” is a fiction, and everything is impermanent and in constant change. It acknowledges evolution. It acknowledges the reality that sentience and conscious- ness are much more widespread than we usually believe. In 2013 I spent a week with the Dalai Lama and Matthieu Ricard. What struck me was their belief that sentience is everywhere—what we in the West call “panpsychism”—and the belief that we Q&A Does Complexity = Consciousness? Neuroscientist CHRISTOF KOCH is finding consciousness in unexpected places. VIDEOSTILLFROMPBS’SMARTERBRAINS have to reduce the suffering of all con- scious creatures. They didn’t claim that everything is conscious, but that sen- tience extends very widely, possibly even to herbology. The big thing we didn’t agree on was reincarnation! I love the idea of reincar- nation, but unless there’s some mechan- ism by which my consciousness can be maintained after death, I don’t see how my memory could be saved over into the next life. Did that meeting change your idea of what consciousness is? Not what consciousness might be, but how widespread it is and who has it. Snakes, snails, and flies don’t have self- consciousness, but they feel like some- thing, and they can have something like happiness and pain, and we should act accordingly. The question is, how serious Christof Koch is chief scientific officer of the Allen Institute for Brain Science. He worked with DNA co-discoverer Francis Crick to promote the scientific study of consciousness. LION’S ROAR | JULY 2016 15