Consciousness – Koch


Hands down this is the most influential book I read in 2017.

Koch covers the basics of the latest neuroscience research in a very humble, non-assuming way. He weaves in his own personal story about his search for truth.

You will enjoy this book if:

  • you are interested in the questions: "what am I? What is consciousness? Is there a soul?"
  • you are interested in neuroscience

Top ideas

Freewill – Freewill means that if you could go back in time, you could make a decision differently; the ability to choose differently under exactly the same conditions.

Determinism – If consciousness is reducible to neural activity in the brain, then all of our thoughts, decisions, & actions are confined to the laws of cause & effect; action & reaction. Following this logic to it's end on both the micro and macro scale means that you don't ever make "decisions". The causal chain of neurons firing in your brain are wholly dependant on previous neurons firing, ad finitum. There is no room for "choice" since every brain state can be explained by the previous state + inputs.

Correlates of consciousness – Koch and his research partners have spent years aiming to identify the correlates of consciousness; the degree to which regions of the brain impact consciousness. While you can't say that consciousness is one single region of the brain, you CAN say that some regions of the brain have no impact on consciousness (when removed the conscious experience of the subject does not change.)

Qualia - The term used to describe what something feels like; e.g. red has a certain quale (qualia) that is not within red directly, but felt when redness is experienced.

Integrated Information Theory – A theory that aims to model consciousness (explain & predict). The theory states that any Information System is conscious (that is to say, there is something that it feels like to be that information system) when it is both highly connected and highly differentiated .


  • Local networks are needed to supply consciousness with content, but global, long-reaching networks are critical for consciousness per say.
  • Freewill: you are free if under certain circumstances you could have acted otherwise.
  • don't really agree with that
  • The Butterfly Effect: The beating of a butterfly's wings creates barely perceptible ripples in the atmosphere that ultimately alter the path of a tornado elsewhere.
  • Laplace's Demon: If you could know the entire state of the system down to the atomic state, and the forces acting on it, you know the entirety of the past and future, ad infinitum.
  • Deterministic chaos prevents us from ever really achieving the Laplace's Demon
  • Question: If in pure determinism, free will doesn't exist, do logic and rationale exist? If they can't actually influence your behaviour, then isn't logic and rationale an illusion too? In which case, what does that make for this theory that we have arrived at?
  • The universe is causally closed
  • Scholars argue that consciousness is an emergent property of the brain.
  • There is no such thing as strict emergent properties. Ex nihilo nihilo fit Nothing comes from nothing. Emergence can be used to describe behaviour of a system that is not inherent in the parts.
  • Emergence, per consciousness falls flat on its face since:
  • "if mental states are not reducible to physical states, per the emergence theory; then mental states either don't exist, exist but exert no causal powers on physical states, or else the set of physical states is not causally closed (so as to permit causal relations with things not reducible to physical states); but we should accept the causal closure of the physical; thus emergence theory condemns us either to the non-existence or to the epiphenomenality of mental states; neither of these options is acceptable; so emergence theory doesn't work as a successful theory of mental states. Something like this." - reddit
  • Human brain: 16 billion neurons
  • The idea of a Soul also falls flat on it's face since:
  • If the Soul is physical, where is it? (not in the brain as activity is accounted for by neurones and associates)
  • If the Soul is non-physical, then how does the non-physical affect the physical firing of neurones. Conservation of energy is the de facto rule of the universe. If the soul influences the physical neurones, this would break that fundamental rule, this goes contrary to the fundamentals of physics.
  • A double pendulum swinging ( provides a clear example of the complexity of chaos . In a simple system where there are three nodes, highly integrated (through physical force) and highly differentiated (locations in time? not sure if this is really differentiation, otherwise a rock would be differentiated) there is a minute sense of consciousness. Now imagine if the path that the pendulum followed had a positive feedback loop (through electromagnetism or something) to influence it's future state. It's already incompatible path would become incalculably more complex. This is the human brain, times to a factor of 6 billion.
  • We are what it feels like to be an information system of innumerable causal interactions and feedback loops.
  • if qualia is simply the crystal shape of the integrated system, what makes suffering bad? It is just a unique qualia. Is it simply an evolutionary learning?
  • If machines can be developed with integrated systems complex enough to generate qualia, would they feel suffering? How would evolution have programmed it in? Would we define their suffering and pleasure?
  • integrated systems have "free will" in that given a constant input (background conditions) it can act causally upon itself to reach a statistically (not random) differentiated outcome.
  • with that being said, the conscious "I" is not the thing influencing, it is the experience of the system
  • "I" is the qualia of self-consciousness
  • The particular type of difference that is made to the system, is information.
  • Integration is when the system (AB) constrains the past and the future in a particular way that the independent parts (A and B) could not do. It is more than the sum of it's parts, it is integrated.
  • Integrated Information Theory: Integration and Differentiation.
  • Phi is a correlate of consciousness in that it measures how much a system is synergised; how much it is more than the sum of it's parts.
  • For a simple binary-node network with N elements. The qualia space has 2^n dimensions, where each dimension represents a possible state.
  • Qualia: What something feels like. The colour red has a unique qualia.
  • Crystal: is the unique shape in qualia space that represents the state of a system at a given time.
  • The crystal is NOT the underlying mechanical structure generating the feeling.
  • The qualia sphere is not reducible to the physical sphere, but it is generated by definable laws.
  • Everything that we feel, know, experience is a unique qualia. Certain thoughts are reproducible qualia dependant on internal factors alone, where as experiencing the physical world generates new qualia that are similar to others, and hence relatable.
  • Pain, joy, suffering, anxiety: all is just unique shapes in qualia space.
  • Could computers experience? Theoretically yes. Currently (and in the foreseeable future,) no. They are not organised correctly. They are not highly integrated (each node connects to only 1 other node). They are linear integrated circuits with a small Fi.
  • Occam's Razor: given two equally likely explanations for a phenomenal, the simpler one is more likely to be true.


  • "If all factors from nature, nurture and the random factors in your environment are accounted for, is there any room left to manoeuvre"
  • Determinism: "Give me these forces and the current state of a system and I can tell you the state of that system at any future point in time."
  • "Consciousness does not arise from regions but from highly networked neurons within and across regions."
  • "We are quite literally, star dust."
  • "The quantity of consciousness experience generated by any physical system in a particular state is equal to the amount of integrated information generated by the system in that state above and beyond the information generated by its parts."
  • "The idea that humans are special, that they are singled out by the gift of consciousness above all other creates, stems from the deeply held Judeo-Christian belief that we occupy a privileged place in the order of things, a belief with a biblical but no empirical basis. We are not special. We are just one species among uncountable others. We are different, but so is every other species."
  • "If we honestly seek a single, rational, and intellectually consistent view of the cosmos and everything in it, we must abandon the classical view of the immortal soul; a view that is deeply embedded in our culture. Growing up is unsettling to many people, and unbearable to a few, but we must learn to see the world as it truly is and not as we want it to be."
  • "There are no truly emergent properties of complex systems. All properties of a complex system that are not relations between it and something else derive from the properties of its constituents and their effects on each other when so combined. Emergence is an epistemological condition: it means that an observed feature of the system cannot be derived fro m the properties currently attributed to its constituents. But this is a reason to conclude that either the system has further constituents of which we are not yet aware, or the constituents of which we are aware have further properties that we have not yet discovered." - Nagel
  • "Being is not describing. You cannot be what you describe, but you can describe what you are." - Giulio Tononi
  • "Consciousness is everything. It is all the sounds of life, everything we experience and know." - Giulio Tononi


Sebastian Kade, Founder of Sumry and Author of Living Happiness, is a software designer and full-stack engineer. He writes thought-provoking articles every now and then on


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