An interview with Christof Koch on consciousness that touches on faith

Just came across an interesting interview from a couple years ago with the neuroscientist, Christof Koch in an article titled The Spiritual, Reductionist Consciousness of Christof Koch. He worked with Francis Crick on the neurobiology of consciousness. “Crick, a legend in science, was an outspoken atheist, while Koch, 40 years younger, was a Catholic yearning for ultimate meaning.”

Though not an evangelical, he might have made a good contributor to this site. I wonder if anyone here knows him professionally? (If so, how about sending an invite?)

Here are a couple of excerpts which others might find interesting, as much for what they reveal of his faith as for the science. There are a lot of easily understood explanations about consciousness generally early on. Anyhow a couple of the more interesting excerpts concerning faith-and-science:

An exchange regarding his faith:

It sounds like you lost your religious faith as you learned about science.

I lost my religious faith as I matured. I still look fondly back upon it. I still love the religious music of Bach. I still get this feeling of awe. In a cathedral, I can get a feeling of luminosity out of the numinous. When I’m on a mountain top, when I hear a dog howling, I still wake up some mornings and say, “I’m amazed that I exist. I’m amazed there is this world.” But you can get that without being a Catholic.

In reference to a week long visit he and some other scientists had with the Dalai Lama:

They have no trouble with the idea of evolution and other creatures being sentient. I found that very heartening—in particular the Dalai Lama’s insistence on the primacy of science. I asked him, “What happens if science is in conflict with certain tenets of Buddhist faith?” He laughed and said, “Well, if this belief doesn’t accord with what science ultimately discovers about the universe, then we have to throw it out.”

That made me wonder. Does his willingness to toss aside those of his beliefs which run afoul of science mark the Dalai Lama as faithless or as a person of still greater faith.

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Good post! I think that we can’t be taken seriously as seekers of truth if we are not willing to follow it where it goes. I hope that others on this site will keep me honest in that way; thanks for this post.

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That is a good question. I’m still pondering it, but I think I could make a case for either answer. It reminded me of a quote from a book by Jewish author Chaim Potok called “In the Beginning.” I haven’t actually read it, but I’ve been wanting to ever since I came across that quote.

“I will go wherever the truth leads me. It is secular scholarship, Rebbe; it is not the scholarship of tradition. In secular scholarship there are no boundaries and no permanently fixed views.”
"Lurie, if the Torah cannot go out into your world of scholarship and return stronger, then we are all fools and charlatans. I have faith in the Torah. I am not afraid of truth.”

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I think it was Greg Boyd (I can’t find the source; probably “Benefit of the Doubt”) who said that Jesus was so honest that he would be the first person to question the faith if presented with good reasons.

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Appreciated your post too. I’ve been thinking about posting something about whether the best faith is unblinkingly steadfast or the kind that will admit to the need for an occasional course correction. Seems like most people at BioLogos have already made such corrections, but by temperament not everybody is happy about that. And of course the familiar is almost always more comfortable while change can be stressful.

I’m glad you got a look at that article. I’d never heard of this guy Koch before. I wish I could have a conversation with him about his conversion. He seems to have dropped identifying himself as a catholic but from the way he describes how he feels about the numinous, I have to wonder whether he identifies as an atheist. Seems to me he has more room to maneuver than that.

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Koch replied: “I lost my religious faith as I matured.”

His reflection there reveals his characterization of religious faith: “it’s a childish state from which one should hope to mature.” It strikes me that this caricature is itself a sort of adolescent approach which cannot find comfort in its own body and must impatiently discard one thing only to seek it by other names.

He certainly has the right to use whatever names he wants if “faith” is too frightening a label to keep around. But my impression is that such faith as he does have (invested where he chooses to place it anyway) has matured quite a bit - which isn’t necessarily to say it’s a healthy direction or that it’s not. But whatever it is, it now has his life experiences all bearing their respective fruits in his present reflections which I think does have good and deep wisdom to share.

It is fascinating to me that it would take an expert with a microscope to distinguish between human, or dog or mouse brain tissue. And it makes me wonder what the expert would be looking for and how would they know? Would it have to be down to a DNA level analysis?

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That’s one of the things I’d like to get him to elaborate on. Does he think that loss of faith is inevitable or even required in order to mature? I’m not sure he does think that, but it is definitely one way to read it.

I assume that it is entirely possible to mature just fine without loss of faith. Anyhow, I wish we could cross examine him.

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The layering of the human cortex is different enough between human and mouse (not sure about dog) that it would jump right out to an expert, and at low magnification and even if differences in size were accounted for.

That’s the one difference I can think of. Otherwise, yes, you’d need gene expression (not, technically, “DNA level” since you’d be looking at mRNA) to see differences in cell types and how they work.

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The problem here is talking in terms of universals when this is really about particulars.

HIS faith may indeed have been a childish state from which we should hope to mature. Because it is definitely true that a loss of SOME faith is inevitable and required in order to mature, but this does not mean that a loss of ALL faith is inevitable or required, OR that a childish faith isn’t replaced by a more mature faith. Nor does it mean that the religious faith is always the more immature/childish faith, for this can easily happen the other way around as an irreligious faith is replaced by a more mature religious faith. It definitely happens!

This is why I say yes to this question in the OP:

The scientist is the great example of faith in modern times, honestly confronting the facts and accepting the determination of evidence with a faith that this will lead us to truth and something worthwhile. Dalai Lama is exemplifying the same kind of faith.

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From the last paragraph it seems he hasn’t let go of all faith.

I don’t know who put all of this in motion. It’s certainly not the almighty God I was raised with. It’s a god that resides in this mystical notion of all-nothingness. I’m not a mystic. I’m a scientist. But this is a feeling I have. I find myself in a wonderful universe with a very positive and romantic outlook on life. If only we humans could make a better job of getting along with each other.

Seems like, after a lot of razzle dazzle “I’m a scientist”, what it comes down to for him is I have a feeling. That’s neither any better nor worse than the rest of us. He isn’t really in any position to throw any rocks given that his house is made of the same glass as ours.

I appreciate his humility.

Well it does seems he is ready to allow faith based on a feeling in his own case that he might be too ready to dismiss in others. We really need some follow up questions but, he’s not here.

“Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” -Colossians 4:6

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