BOOK REVIEW – Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist

This is a review originally posted by me at amazon.com.

Dr. Koch is a biophysicist by training who works primarily in computational neuroscience, with special interest in consciousness; he is also well-published, papers- and book-wise. Not surprisingly, he is one of the more recognizable names in consciousness research. For that reason, I had really high hopes for this book.

In all honesty, I really liked the book, even though I was often frustrated while reading it. At times, I felt like going “Right on!!!!!”

And yet at some other times, I was wondering “What the **** is he talking about?”

Briefly, this book is essentially three books in one: (1) An overview of the actual scientific quest to understand consciousness through his
own research and the research of others, (2) A series of candid personal memories and (3) A series of “educated speculations” on the nature of things and how it all began. When reading the book, it became very distracting to go from one frame of mind to the other. I often asked myself, “Ok, which book am I reading now?”

Nonetheless, his style is fluid and witty; he was also able to explain complex ideas in simple terms, which is the mark of someone who
actually knows what he is talking about. That is why it was so puzzling to me when I read things like the following (his words are between brackets, followed by my comments; these are only representative examples):

*Page 19: “…evolutionary theory is open-ended and not predictive.”   What? No!

*Page 43 (referring to cerebellar damage): “…your perceptions and memories are not affected much, if at all.” Nope! It is well-established that the cerebellum possesses cognitive and perceptual roles.

*Page 120: “You and I find ourselves in a cosmos in which any and all systems of interacting parts possess some measure of sentience”. I believe that this sentence would have made more sense if it would have said “…systems of interacting parts of a certain minimal complexity…” A bicycle is a system of interacting parts, but is no sentient in any sense of the word.

*Page 120: “Human consciousness is much more rarefied than canine consciousness because the human brain has more
than twenty times more neurons than the brain of a dog and is more heavily networked.” This implies (unless rarefied is not the word he is looking for) that the consciousness of a dog is more “concentrated” than a human’s. Enough said.

I have to say that other reviewers have commented on his tendency of referring to Francis Crick (of DNA fame) as “Francis” throughout the book. I, for one, can’t blame him. If I were a personal friend and collaborator of such a great scientist I would do that too.

In summary, with a little bit of more work, he would have been able to get three individual books, each one with a coherent theme & topic, and I would have bought each one.

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9 Comments

  1. Interesting. I had heard of this book and am interested in reading it, though I hold no illusions that I’ll be able to understand all of it. The subject of consciousness is, shall we say, a hobby of mine.

    I’m already turned off a little by the first example of erroneous commentary you pointed out. How can a renowned biological scientist fail to understand the scope and nature of evolution, arguably the most basic tenet of biological science? Having said that, is it possible that the problems with this book are in fact due to poor editing, rather than writing or even Kock’s understanding or position on the science within?

    Additionally, am I wrong or does the notion of sentience derived from inter-connective parts not smack of biocentrism, or more relatably, defunct idealism?

    1. Oh, you will understand it, no doubt; will you like it? Maybe. Will you agree with what he has to say? Well…

      I was also turned off by the mistakes; I do not know id they were due to poor editing or not. One thing is for sure, if i ever write a book (stay tuned… (;-)…) i will try and make sure that whatever I say is true to the best of my knowledge and will welcome anyone that catches me in a mistake.

      He is a good scientist, no doubt, but at some point you have to go easy on theorizing/speculating and start getting some real data..

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