Christof is a neurophysiologist and computational neuroscientist best known for his work on the neural basis of consciousness on which he worked with Nobel Prize winner Francis Crick for 24 years. He is the president and chief scientist of the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle. Having originally trained as a physicist, from 1986 until 2013, he was a Professor of Biology and Engineering at the California Institute of Technology in Southern California.
Christof describes his passion in life as "to understand how I came to be in this wonderful, mysterious universe. Not so much me, personally, but me as a conscious, experiencing thing surrounding by other conscious organisms and trees, stars, and the sea." Over the last decade, he has worked closely with the psychiatrist and neuroscientist Giulio Tononi. Together they advocate for an Integrated Information Theory (IIT) of consciousness - often seen as a modern version of panpsychism that only ascribes consciousness to entities with some degree of irreducible cause-effect power.
Christof is the author of the books Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist. , The Quest for Consciousness: A Neurobiological Approach, and Biophysics of Computation: Information Processing in Single Neurons. His forthcoming book, Then I am Myself the World, is due out in 2024.
In Sentientist Conversations we talk about the two most important questions: “what’s real?” & “what matters?”
- "My dog... Mr. Felix... a sentient being"
- The dedication from Christof's forthcoming book "Then I Am Myself The World": "... to all fellow travellers on the river of time who howl, bark, cry, screech, whine, bellow, shriek, buzz, sing, speak or those without a voice - for it is only in compassion with all life that we can redeem ourselves."
03:52 Christof's Intro
- Physicist turned neurobiologist
- "I've always been fascinated by the question of #consciousness"
04:45 What's Real
- Growing up in a devout Roman #catholic family, raised kids Catholic
- "One thing that always irked me... the belief that my dogs... somehow didn't have a soul and wouldn't be resurrected... that always bothered me... whatever it is we all share"
- "I lived in two worlds - like many scientists do. On Sunday you go to church and you pray... during the week, the rest of the time, you're a scientist - you try to explain everything using natural explanation... this split... I couldn't support any more"
- "Progressively I lost my faith... I'm a naturalist... I try to explain everything... using natural laws"
- "What's real, the only thing that exists is causal power... that gravity has... that electric charge has... that I have when... I raise one of my hands"
- "... the central aspect which is that I can feel, I have experiences, I can see - all of that is somehow arising out of causal powers"
- A priest acknowledging that non-human animals are "parts of god's creation" and can suffer, but "they do not partake in the same way we do"
- Human exceptionalism "many religions believe that humans are exceptional... we're in charge of the universe... everything gets subsumed under human demands - that struck me as wrong"
- Living in Arabic, muslim-majority countries
- "Who has what faith - it's totally random - it depends where you were born and in which family you were born... how can this be true"
- Doing science, using rational assumptions, Bayesian reasoning, the scientific method
- JW: Topics that draw even some naturalists back towards the mystical: Origins & nature of the universe, life, humanity, consciousness...
- Wagner's "Tristan and Isolde" as inspiration for the title of Christof's new book "they lose their own identity and become one... which includes them and the entire world"
- Conversion, mystical, near-death, psychedelic experiences "The question is - what do they reveal about the universe?"
- Leaving Catholicism "it's not easy... there are many things that are very positive about faith... but there are also very negative things... It puts the roots inside of you and it's not easy to leave that comfort... like looking back at the comfort of a childhood... you can't go back... you grew up... now you realise... life is not a consoling tale for children"
- "The universe is beautiful but it's also terrible and it's up to us to understand it... there isn't a god who's going to do that for us"
13:47 What and Who Matters?
- "Morality... the rules and ethics the deeper part, how should we behave, ultimately has to be to minimise the suffering of all creatures... all sentient, conscious creatures... creatures that can experience."
- "Given we're all products of natural selection - we all have pain and can suffer... that's necessary as part of our evolutionary heritage"
- Trade-offs between types of sentient beings: "We are obviously vastly more conscious than... dogs or fish or a coral reef... is there a scala naturae? I think there is… it has to do with the complexity of our complexity… integrated information theory of consciousness gives you such a natural scale… it says in principle you can measure the quantity of consciousness in any one specific individual"
- “We have 100,000 times more neurons than a bee… capable of very complex actions… recognise faces… can communicate… waggle dance… but a bee doesn’t worry about the weekend… but it feels like something… that’s shared…”
- “I’m pretty sure I feel vastly more than the bee does… but ultimately we’re both sentient creatures”
- The value of positive experiences? JW: Because one way of minimising suffering is to end all sentient life
- “You want to maximise positive experiences – that have to include a sense of ethics and a sense of understanding”
- “Why is there anything at all... from the point of view of Bayesian assumption... isn’t the simplest thing for there to be nothing?”
- “We find ourselves in universe so we have to acknowledge that is miraculous… we can postulate a prime mover like god or we say it’s a random fluctuation… basically we have no frigging idea why we’re here… but this universe is unfolding in a spectacular way”
- “As I get older and I realise my time is short I become more and more aware of the transient beauty of nature… I walked with my Bernese mountain dog in this beautiful forest here in the Pacific North-West… it’s just such a thing of beauty”
- “We want to understand and appreciate the positive and minimise pain”
- People who grow up without pain sensors “typically they used to die young”
- “We should not forget that the universe is a beautiful, miraculous place to be and we want to appreciate that”
- “This is truly what’s mystical… us, matter, becomes self-conscious, that we can reflect on this beautiful and terrible universe”
- “Why is it that we’re here in the first place… I don’t think this question will ever have an answer”
- The anthropic principle “We seem to live in a type of universe that leads to long-term stable stars and planets that have stable chemicals… via evolution gives rise to these complex systems of selves… that become conscious… they can begin to reflect on themselves… was that inherent in this particular universe?”
- Could simpler sentient beings actually suffer more intensely?
- “The basic stuff… the substrate of consciousness at least in us… are brains… at least in mammals… it’s basically all the same”
- “Since the hardware [is similar]… our types of experiences… will also be similar”
- ChatGPT and LLMs “seem to have some of the hallmarks of consciousness… of course they’re been trained to strenuously deny that they’re conscious… that’s just the guard rails that big tech puts on not to scare us”
- “Do they [LLMs] have moral rights… are they sentient?”
- “The big fault line in modern attitudes towards consciousness is really… computational functionalism… a function that can be replicated either in different types of brains but also in computers… computation is sufficient for consciousness… vs. taking an attitude that’s… more fundamental… more structural, closer to idealism, that says no – ultimately consciousness is a state of being, this is nothing to do with function… it’s not about processing… it’s not about computation… it’s a state of being in a particular, very complex physical system”
- “These computers today… and even in 10 years from now when they’re much more intelligent than we are… they’re not conscious”
- “These machines can be as intelligent as we are… ultimately of course much smarter… superintelligent… but they are not conscious… they are not sentient – therefore they have no moral rights”
- The journey to sentiocentrism: “It’s companion animals and in my case dogs… when you see them suffer you feel terrible”
- “I’ve never met a pet owner who denies that their companion animal isn’t conscious”
- “If you grow up with animals… of course they are conscious… they have needs… you want to minimise their suffering”
- Being interviewed by Susan Blackmore… “she asked me out of the blue… ‘do you still eat meat?’ and that stopped me cold – because I did… that deeply shamed me.”
- The death of Nosy, a beloved dog “she died in my arms and I was so distraught... I thought ‘how is it possible I can be so distraught at the death of this creature while a lamb or a pig… I love to eat – this doesn’t seem right. That very night… I decided… to honour her memory… I would never eat the flesh of another conscious creature again – and I haven’t.”
- “That’s the great sin that our modern civilisation does… we think ourselves so morally superior than our previous [generations]… racism, misogyny… but then we have this large-scale industrial production of animals… billions of animals every year that we slaughter and keep under totally inhumane conditions – that’s the big stain of 21st Century modern civilisation”
- “It’s also really bad for the environment. We could get rid of it but we don’t”
- “I’ve been inconsistent… someone else asked me ‘why are you not a vegan?’ and the answer is I have not really thought much about it… I don’t really have a good answer to that”
- Honey and bees. Michael’s Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”… “If we don’t use any of these animals they probably wouldn’t be around today”
- “I confess I have not deeply thought about veganism”
- John Sanbonmatsu’s forthcoming “The Omnivore’s Deception” (see his Sentientism episode here)
39:45 What are Consciousness and Sentience?
- Sentience “the capacity to have experiences” and consciousness (sometimes loaded with additional stuff)
- Working with Francis Crick the Nobel Prize winning co-discoverer of DNA
- “The footprints of consciousness in the brain… it’s not in the heart!”
- “You never give your sweetheart for valentines a little brain… a little hypothalamus… you give her a little heart-shaped chocolate”
- “Which bits and pieces of the brain are necessary?... The neural correlates of consciousness”
- Losing a 25 year-old bet to David Chalmers that by now “we’ll have knocked it out of the park and the community will agree [which parts of the brain drive consciousness]”
- The “hard-problem of consciousness… why should anything physical… a brain… exude consciousness... or a particular computation… or behaviour… but not something else”
- “Consciousness is really a fact above and beyond our understanding of the natural world”
- Chalmer’s zombie thought experiment… exactly the same physically but without consciousness “it’s certainly possible that consciousness is a fact above and beyond”
- “He [Chalmers] admits that finding the correlates – we will get there sooner or later – we haven’t got there yet so you lost your bet Christof, but ultimately this will be something we will understand”
- Correlates are independent of your philosophy of mind: dualism, epiphenomenalism, computational functionalist…
- “We need a theory… this is how the physics of a piece of matter has to be in order for it to be conscious… and this is why certain pieces of matter like my iphone don’t have it but other pieces of matter like my dog and like you and I do have it – and this is what IIT (integrated Information Theory) tries to accomplish”
- “You can talk to neurosurgeons… they have to take out bits of the brain… if you take out the brain stem you die”
- “Here I disagree with Mark Solms… the brain stem is absolutely necessary for you to live… but it’s the same with the heart… nobody would say that the heart is the correlate of consciousness… it is an enabling factor… a background condition that needs to be there”
- “In neurotypical people and other mammals it’s really the outermost layer… the neocortex… it’s like a pizza… that is the structure that gives rise to seeing and hearing and being in pain”
- “But even there… you can take out a large part of the frontal lobe and people do not lose consciousness”
- “The majority of opinion seems to converge that it’s the back part… the posterior cortex that’s really critical for consciousness… then you have to ask why?”
- “The big difference is the connectivity… it’s the connectivity that gives rise to [consciousness]… that makes us unique with respect to computers that have a radical different connectivity which is why digital computers as they are currently built are not conscious in the way you and I are”
- Caveats: “If you never had a cortex… anencephalic children… they may have some other structures that replace a certain amount of consciousness”
- Bees and octopuses and cephalopods “on a very different evolutionary path… they don’t have a cortex but there’s another structure that has similar connectivity that I think in their case is the substrate of consciousness”
- IIT “It doesn’t arrive at a philosophy”
- Giulio Tononi “he didn’t start off and say OK ‘this is my belief – I’m a panpsychist or I’m a dualist or I’m an idealist’… no, they looked at the brain and tried to understand from a physical point of view… he starts out with consciousness”
- The association of consciousness with the 40hz gamma band “It seems rather random… why?”
- “Every other theory has the same Achilles heel… collapse of the wave function… broadcasting in a global neuronal workspace… feedback… why?”
- “All those theories… say it’s an event or it’s a type of activity or it’s a computation… they just postulate that’s what consciousness is… they take the brain and try to squeeze the juice of consciousness out… you turn the waters of the brain by really squeezing - you turn them into the wine of consciousness. That seems like a miracle”
- “IIT is different. IIT says ‘let’s start with consciousness… what really exists ultimately is consciousness’… it’s intrinsic (for me – not for you), it’s specific… it’s integrated, it’s holistic, it has various parts,… it’s definite… it is exactly what it is right now… these seem indubitable properties of any conscious experience”
- “It also starts with ontology – what exists. What truly exists is what has causal power – and causal power upon itself, that’s intrinsic, is ultimately what consciousness is. Causal power on others – that’s what physics is all about”
- “Any system that has causal power upon itself feels like something”
- “Causal power is very operational… you’re in a current state… it has a transition probability matrix – with certain probabilities you go into that state or that state… causal power is the ability to control that”
- “If it’s random [your next state] then you have no causal power on yourself… if my current brain has now power to determine the next state it may as well not exist – in fact that’s what existence is!”
- “So you take a substrate like a brain or a computer chip… you look at all the various causal relationships within and you determine which structure maximises the causal power. This causal power, the maximum, is called Integrated Information – it has the Greek symbol phi.”
- “When I’m in a deep sleep I don’t exist for me. When I’m under anaesthesia I don’t exist for me. I only exist for me when I am conscious.”
- My deeply sleeping [non-dreaming] body “can still exert some causal power [on others]… but I don’t exist for myself”
- “How much it feels is quantified by phi. What it feels… space extended… time flows… objects have permanence… that all determined on the unfolding causal power of the substrate”
- “The theory is very radical… consciousness is 1 to 1… an identity relationship… the causal powers of this system… that ultimately is identical to one conscious experience… this unfolded causal power…
- “consciousness ultimately is structure… a state of being… not a state of doing”
- “It’s not emergent, it’s not dualist… it does have some panpsychist implications… some…”
- An amoeba: “It may well be that this little single-cell feels an itsy-bitsy bit like something…”
- IIT is “more permissive of consciousness in non-standard systems… but unlike panpsychism… it says the borders of conscious systems has to be always this maximum… two cells are not conscious as an entity… chairs aren’t conscious… most things are not conscious.”
- “You exist for yourself… I exist for myself… but there isn’t any super-conscious… Jamie-Christof”
- “Causal powers… which includes the laws of physics”
- “Panpsychism is a philosophy… it doesn’t explain where are the exact borders… IIT is very precise”
- Progressively connecting our brains… at one point do we become an integrated consciousness? “IIT says there comes a very precise point – where we add one more wire at which point the integrated information between your brain and my brain now exceeds, by some little iota, the integrated information just in your brain or just in my brain – at that point Jamie will disappear, consciousness of Christof will disappear. Instead there will be this new entity… Christof-Jamie a single conscious being… 4 hemispheres… 2 mouths… 8 limbs… probably major psychiatric disorders”
- Split brain operations… “now, as far as we can tell there are two consciousnesses in one brain”
- “This is the beauty of having a scientific theory vs. just a philosophy”
- Libertarian free will vs. laws of physics re: causal powers?
- “Consciousness according to IIT is causal power upon yourself”
- JW: Doesn’t describing consciousness as a “state” imply something static when consciousness and even the unfolding of causal power seems like an ongoing temporal process that must have evolved in biological entities that needed to flourish, practically over time?
- Advanced meditators “Go into a state of pure presence… they claim… that they are conscious yet they have no content”
- 5-MeO-DMT experiences where “near death experience where also time comes to a stand – there’s no more flow of time – you perceive it as a moment in now that doesn’t have any duration any more - nothing happens… there’s just a state of pure experience”
- “That’s extremely rare and so our intuition is that… there’s constantly stuff going on in my head… but you don’t have to think like that… you can ultimately try to train yourself to remain in one single state”
- “IIT makes this prediction… if you have a brain that’s completely quiet… probably corresponds to what the Buddhists call this pure presence… that brain… from an external point of view… no neurons are firing…” compared with an anaesthetised brain that has lost its causal power and can’t fire “both look identical… neither shows any neural activity” but the meditating brain remains conscious because it could choose to fire – whereas the anaesthetised brain cannot because you’ve removed its causal power
- “It’s not a computation… you’re not computing anything [in a pure presence state]… you’re just in this state of being”
- “You can also think of the brain as doing computation… but consciousness is not a computation”
1:14:09 A Better World?
- “Leave the world a better place than you found it… I think we have to take a humble attitude here rather than making grand pronouncements”
- “Use whatever influence you have to minimise the suffering of all creatures”
- “We all live in… our own perception box… we have to realise that other people have a different view of the same facts”
- Polarisation vs. “to try to understand the point of view of the other… not just the other person but also the other, in more radical forms, the other animals that have suffered here and are never spoken about”
1:17:35 Follow Christof
- “I don’t Twitter”
- “Then I am Myself the World” book launched in 5 months
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