Christof Koch:
"Consciousness" (MIT Press, 2012)

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Koch makes a surprising turnaround with this book compared with his previous classic "The Quest for Consciousness" (2003) : instead of the synchronized firing of neurons that he co-discovered and that galvanized neuroscience, Koch now thinks that consciousness has nothing to do with the wild dances of neurons in the brain and has only to do with the flow of information. The specific substance of the human brain may be relevant only to the extent that provides a better (or worse?) medium for information, but, in general, any information system is conscious: consciousness is information and viceversa. And since just about everything in the universe can be described in terms of information, de facto Koch embraces panpsychism: everything in the universe is, to some extent, conscious. This "integrated information theory" was originally proposed by the Italian neuroscientist Giulio Tononi.

Koch's view (or, better, Tononi's view) is intriguing but has too little scientific foundation and lends itself to apparent paradoxes that Koch does not even mention. For example, if everything is conscious, it means that my foot is conscious too, and that my toe is conscious too, and each cell of my body is conscious too: they can all be represented as information systems. The "I" that is writing these words is what? The sum of all consciousnesses inside this body? totally unrelated to this body? only related to the brain? only related to the fingers that are typing these words on the keyboard?

In his review of this book (published in the New York Review of Books) the philosopher John Searle makes a powerful argument that information is such only relative to a conscious observer: the rings in a tree stump are information (about the age of the tree) only to a conscious observer who knows the relationship between rings and seasons. Otherwise they are just slightly different molecules inside some wood. I would further submit that the "kind" of information is different depending on the conscious observer: two observers might look at the same object and see two different pieces of information. If i look at a traffic sign indicating the distance to a city, i probably only make a note of the kms that i still have to drive, whereas my friend Sara who is a calligrapher probably takes note of the font used to write the name of the city. Tononi would probably reply that what mattes is the information "inside" the system, but, again, there is no information until some conscious observer looks inside. There is certainly potential information there for conscious observers to pick up, but different conscious observers will pick up different kinds and pieces of information: does that mean that the system has different "consciousnesses" depending on which observer looks at it? And isn't it a form of circular reasoning that we are assigning consciousness to systems that conscious beings recognize as having information?

This discussion, however, is less than half the book, the rest being a "memoir" of sorts. The biggest problem with books of this kind is that they dilute the worthy scientific and philosophical discussion with negligible and frequently boring autobiographic tales. It feels like Koch didn't have enough material to make a book that can be sold for $30 and therefore randomly spread bits and pieces of his life's story into the text. Unfortunately, the net effect is to make the reading quite painful.


Koch converted late in life to panpsychism but he is still welcome. This is me in the mid 1990s Me in 2001 (the first chapter). And, if you want the historical background, go to (being the last chapter of my 2006 book) and scroll down to "The Roman philosopher Lucretius" where i talk about the pioneers of panpsychism.