Book review by Steve Minett

THE FEELING OF LIFE ITSELF: Why Consciousness is Widespread but Can’t be Computer
Christof Koch
MIT Press, 2019

ISBN 978-0-262-04281-9




I published a large book on consciousness, with a strikingly similar title. Consequently, and perhaps inevitably, this review will consist of a ‘compare-and-contrast’ analysis of our respective positions on this subject. We both put forward a theory as to where consciousness comes from; Koch’s is called Integrated Information Theory (IIT), mine is grounded in Process Philosophy (largely from the later work of A.N. Whitehead) combined with the ontological implications of quantum mechanics. While we agree on a number of important issues, I find certain aspects of IIT unpalatable; firstly, it comes with a liberal sprinkling of mathematical ‘fairy dust’, which (to the frustration of a near-innumerate like me) seems to ‘magic up’ consciousness out of nowhere. (Similar, in this respect to Douglas Hofstadter’s insistence that ‘I am a Strange Loop’ ). IIT also enthrones information in its title, whereas I argue that an exclusive focus on information-processing (what I call ‘Infomania’) has been a major stumbling block for theories of consciousness. But, perhaps above all, it’s the absence of any reference to emotion, and more especially affect (neither word appears in the book’s index), in relation to the nature of consciousness that profoundly distances my position from Koch’s.


Starting with our areas of agreement: first, the vexed issue of a definition. Koch is admirably clear on dismissing the common confusion of consciousness with intelligence. He emphasises that experience (sentience, feeling) is the essence of consciousness. Whitehead, of course, saw experience as constituting the ultimate building blocks of reality (an idea he took from William James), thus obviating the Cartesian split between mental and physical. In a very similar way Koch claims that the mental and the physical are grounded in extrinsic and intrinsic causal powers; “Causal power of two different kinds is the only sort of stuff needed to explain everything in the universe. These powers constitute ultimate reality.” (p. 166) With a small exception, Koch is also suitably sceptical about Computationalism (arguably the predominant theory of consciousness in Western scientific culture.) The exception concerns what he called ‘neuromorphic electronic hardware’. He claims that this, “… could amass sufficient intrinsic cause-effect power to …” enable a computer, “to feel like something”. ‘Intrinsic cause-effect power’ is part of Koch’s explanation of the origin of consciousness, but before delving into that, let me turn to the subject of facial recognition to challenge even this remote possibility of computer consciousness.


As a young researcher, Koch formed a working bond with the Nobel-prize-winner, Francis Crick. Following his work, together with James Watson, on the structure of DNA, Crick devoted the rest of his scientific career to consciousness studies. Together, Crick and Koch came up with the widely influential concept of the ‘’neural correlates of consciousness’ (NCC). In this book, Koch defines these as, “the minimal neuronal mechanisms jointly sufficient for any one specific conscious percept.” (p. 48) Koch also states that NCC are ‘ontologically neutral’, contrary to the way in which the concept has often been interpreted in neuroscience. This means that successfully identifying NCC is entirely consistent with Whitehead’s Process Philosophy.


In regard to facial recognition, Koch picks out the two fusiform face areas, one on each side of the underbelly of the cortex, as examples of NCCs. My issue with this refers back to how consciousness should be defined: for me, ‘consciousness’ has to include an affective evaluation of what is being experienced – without this the process under consideration is simply an exercise of intelligence. As is well-known, Artificial Intelligence systems are now being used to identify faces, but when humans do so they will have an affective reaction, good, bad or neutral – which defines such acts of recognition as conscious experiences. When computers match a face to a name, they feel nothing: machines don’t have affects, which is why they will never be conscious.


We can now look more closely at Integrated Information Theory, Koch’s core theory of consciousness taken from Giulio Tononi, who Koch describes as, “a polymath renaissance scholar” and “the living embodiment of the Magister Ludi of Hermann Hesse’s novel The Glass Bead Game”. Koch identifies the five axioms of IIT: “any experience exists for itself, is structured, is the specific way it is, is one, and is definite.” (p. 74) Given my commitment to Process Philosophy, I have issues with most of these assumptions. As always in consciousness studies, the destination is determined by where you choose to start: let me suggest that it’s a mistake to start with an adult human being’s experience of consciousness – much better to begin at the beginning, both phylogenetically and ontogenetically. Few, if any, of IIT’s assumptions can be said to sit comfortably with the experience of either a single-celled organism or a new-born human infant, though (along with Whitehead) I would emphatically assert that both are sentient creatures. Koch states that “consciousness needs some sort of mechanism”. (p. 75) I agree with this but mechanisms such as NCCs are required to convert to the ‘raw material’ of experience, or feelings, at every level.


My concern with IIT is that its mechanism seems to be required in order to generate consciousness, rather than converting it out of universally pre-existing experience: Koch refers to ‘the physical substrate of consciousness’, which he poetically dubs ‘the Whole’. This is, “the most irreducible part of any system, the one that makes the most difference to itself. … only this Whole has an experience. … [other circuits] … do not exist for themselves, as they … have lesser intrinsic power.” (p. 87) He adds that; “… any experience is identical to the irreducible, causal interaction of the interdependent physical mechanism that makes up the Whole. It is an identity relationship – every facet of any experience maps completely onto the associated maximally irreducible cause-effect structure with nothing left over on either side.” (p.88) Several issues concern me about all this: firstly, its retention of a mental/physical dichotomy. As above, given the mystification of the very concept of matter by quantum mechanics, one of the great advantages of Process Philosophy is its overcoming of this division. Secondly, IIT’s reliance on causation as an explanatory factor for consciousness exposes it to the accusation of substituting one mystery for another: as any examination of Western philosophy (especially the work of David Hume) will confirm, causation can hardly be claimed as an intellectual ‘fixed point’ to which an explanation of consciousness can be attached.


Finally, IIT seems to be overly restrictive when it comes to subjects (or identities) and experience: at the bottom of the hierarchy, Koch writes, “What would an extrinsic experience be? When it is the experience of somebody else, perhaps? But then it is not yours.” (p. 74) The implication here seems to be that only a subject with a certain level of ‘identity status’ can have an experience. However, according to Process Philosophy, even entities with the vaguest and most nugatory identities, such as photons, can have a ‘puff of experience’. Also, at the top of the hierarchy, Koch claims that; “Experiences do not aggregate into larger, superordinate experiences. Closely interacting lovers, dancers, athletes, soldiers, and so on do not give rise to a group mind, with experiences above and beyond those of the individuals making up the group.” (p. 163)


Let me quote just two writers who flatly contradict this: firstly, Rita Carter says that: “Like ants in a colony or bees in a hive, our individual intentions become subsumed by that of the group.” In addition, Jonathan Haidt, in his book, ‘The Righteous Mind’, says that human societies have often been compared to beehives, and he goes on to say that while many animals are social, living in groups, flocks, or herds, only a few species have crossed the threshold and become ‘eusocial’. This means that they live in very large groups with some form of internal structure, enabling them to reap the benefits of the division of labour. Haidt argues that we are 90 percent chimp and 10 percent bee. He suggests that this switch from individualism to hive-mentality may originally have been a group-related adaptation. He gives three examples as to what can cause people to switch into the ‘hive-awe’ state of mind and also speculates about the underlying mechanism: “I described three common ways in which people flip the hive switch: awe in nature, Durkheimian drugs, and raves.” He describes recent findings which suggest that oxytocin and mirror neurones are the stuff of which the hive switch is made: “Oxytocin bonds people to their groups, not to all of humanity. Mirror neurones help people empathise with others, but particularly those that share their moral matrix.” We can recognise here a great deal of congruence with Whitehead’s ontology: this ten-percent-tendency of human groups to transform into an ‘awe-hive-super-organism’ can be equated with Whitehead’s notion of ‘compound individuals’ emerging from a vast hierarchy of ‘drops of experience’.