The Feeling of Life Itself

by Christof Koch

Reviewed by Eileen Quinn Knight, Ph.D.



We, as a human race, have been grappling with consciousness since the beginning of time. In The Feeling of Life Itself, Christof Koch offers a straight-forward definition of consciousness as any subjective experience, from the most mundane to the most exalted-the feeling of being alive! “Psychologists study which cognitive operations underpin a given conscious perception. Neuroscientists track the neural correlates of consciousness in the brain, the organ of the mind. But why the brain and not the liver? How can the brain, three pounds of highly excitable matter a piece of furniture in the universe, subject to the same laws of physics as any other piece, given rise to subjective experience? Koch argues that what is needed to answer these questions is a quantitative theory that starts with experience and proceeds to the brain.” In this book, Koch outlines such a theory, based on integrated information.


Koch describes how the theory explains many facts about the neurology of consciousness and how it has been used to build a clinically useful consciousness meter. “The theory predicts that many and perhaps all, animals experience the sights and sounds of life; consciousness is much more widespread than conventionally assumed. Contrary to received wisdom, however, Koch argues that programmable computers will not have consciousness. Even a perfect software model of the brain is not conscious. Its simulation is fake consciousness. Consciousness is not a special type of computation it is not a clever hack. Consciousness is about being.” The book continues to examine the theory of consciousness and in chapter 13 the author state: “barring some catastrophic planetary nightfall, the tech industry will create, within decades, machines with human-level intelligence and behaviors, capable of speech, reasoning, highly coordinated actions in economics, politics and inevitably Warcraft. The birth of true artificial intelligence will profoundly affect humankind’s future, including whether it has any. Whether the reader is among those who believe that the arrival of artificial general intelligence signals the dawn of an age of plenty or the sunset of homo sapiens, the reader will still have to answer the fundamental question: Are these AI’s conscious? Does it feel like anything to be them? Or are they just more sophisticated versions of Amazon’s Alexa or smartphones-clever machines without any feelings?”


A completely different line of argument takes the principles of integrated information theory to their logical conclusion. Some level of experience can be found in all organisms including perhaps in Paramecium and other single cell life forms. Indeed according to IIT, experience may not even be restricted to biological entities but might extend to non-evolved physical systems previously assumed to be mindless, a pleasing and parsimonious conclusion about the makeup of the universe.


Because of the complexity and density of the work, the author provides us with an annotated bibliography as well as a section on the most recent references. Christof Koch is President and Chief Scientist of the Alan Institute for Brain Science in Seattle, following twenty-seven years at a Professor of the California Institute of Technology.

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