Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Neuroscience, atheism and the meaning of life

by Salman Hameed

Steve Paulson has a knack for asking probing questions about science and religion. He did that in his excellent book, Atoms and Eden: Conversations on Science and Religion. You should definitely check it out if you are interested in knowing how scientists and philosophers navigate the questions of science and religion, and you will find a full range of responses in his book. So it is again a pleasure to read his interview of neuroscientist, Christof Koch. Here are some of the questions that are relevant for the blog:

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.
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.

Koch also worked with Francis Crick, a Nobel-Laureate and the co-discoverer of the structure of the DNA molecule. Crick was also a prominent and vocal atheist. Here is the part of the interview where Koch talks about Crick and his atheism. I think the anecdote about what Crick was doing 2 hours before his death is absolutely phenomenal:

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. 
And here is Koch's take on the issue of soul:

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.
Read the full interview here.


Asad M said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Asad M said...

Neuroscience and quantum mechanics, and how they’re linked to produce consciousness, is one of the most fascinating areas of research. A while ago I came across a post by a biology student on a forum wherein he shared a research paper which suggested that consciousness would have come about as a byproduct of evolution and in turn it aided in the survival of the species who exhibited such behavior. The paper is quite technical and old too (1992); the writer also says that reptiles, amphibians, fish and non-vertebrates haven’t quite achieved consciousness because consciousness is associated with the unique properties of the mammalian neocortex (a part of the cerebral cortex which in humans is responsible for conscious thought, language, sensory perception etc.) and probably the Wulst of the avian brain. Reptiles, fish etc. have an underdeveloped cerebral cortex and are not capable of the level of consciousness displayed by mammals and birds.

Bits from the paper:

“In Darwinian evolution, consciousness would have occurred initially some 200 million years ago in relation to the primitive cerebral cortices of evolving mammals. It would give global experiences of a surrounding world for guiding behavior beyond what is given by the unconscious operation of sensory cortical areas per se. So conscious experiences would give mammals evolutionary advantage over the reptiles, which lack a neocortex giving consciousness. The Wulst of the avian brain needs further investigation to discover how it could give birds the consciousness that they seem to have.”


“The cerebral cortex with the synaptic machinery of its dendrons can be regarded as a functionally effective neural design that evolved in natural selection as a purely material structure for efficient performance of the cerebral cortex in integrating the increased complexity of neural inputs that resulted from the evolutionary advances in receptors for special senses-light, sound, touch, movement, and olfaction. The hypothesis is that biological evolution induced in the neocortex the design of apical dendrites that is recognized as a dendron and that had as a side effect the capacity for interacting with the world of the mind. And so, psychons came to exist. Thus, it is sufficient for the emergence of consciousness.”

Link: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC49701/
Full paper: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC49701/pdf/pnas01090-0042.pdf

Salman Hameed said...


Thanks for sharing this - this is really interesting. Of course, this is not a really hot topic and bunch of work has been done - as well as multiple debates over the definition of consciousness as were. But the ultimate root has to be linked to natural selection. And here is Dan Dennette talking about the illusion of consciousness. I am too far removed from this topic to comment on it - but I do follow discussions about the reasons why people get uncomfortable by evolutionary explanations of consciousness. I think this will become a major arena of conflict as we learn more about the workings of the brain...

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