Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist

Christof Koch isn’t as much of a household name as Ed Koch, though they are both prone to streams of consciousness, hence the attraction here.  Christof has actually been on a quest to understand consciousness for quite some time, stemming from his collaboration with the world-renowned Francis Crick, of double helix/DNA fame.  Crick and Koch zeroed in on the neural correlates of visual awareness as the key to understanding consciousness.  Crick reviewed this in his book The Astonishing Hypothesis in 1994, and Koch followed up with his own review of their efforts ten years later, around the time that Francis died, with The Quest for Consciousness.   It’s almost comforting to know that as bright as Koch is, he too can have trouble with his laptop talking to a projector.  He has a propensity toward hiking and climbing, and Koch’s presentation at the Seattle Brain Salon got off to a rocky start, but it hit me like a ton of bricks when Christof announced that he was closing his lab at Caltech to initiate a project at Microsoft Founder Paul Allen’s Institute for Brain Science.  Allen has invested megabucks to fuel Koch’s project MindScope, which seeks to understand the computations that lead from photons to behavior by observing and modeling the physical transformation of signals in the visual brain for one perception-action cycle.  His aim is to catalogue all the building blocks of the visual brain and their dynamics.  Koch’s entire talk is brilliant, but at the 9:00 mark he’s particularly insightful in laying out his rationale for why he is leaving academia and crossing over to the private side, again something anyone who departed academic for private practice can identify with.

As you may have gathered, I am not making any confessions here, nor am I the romantic reductionist.  It is Christof Koch who is the confessor, romancer, and reductionist, and in the introduction to his latest book he confides that he writes in the face of a powerful professional taboo against bringing in subjective, personal factors.  This is why scientific papers are penned in the third person: “It has been show that … ”  Anything to avoid the implication that research is done by flesh-and-blood creatures with less than pristine motivations and desires.  Among the many pearls Koch intersperse along the way, he gives three examples of why we don’t see with our eyes – something that painters have known for centuries.  He advances the argument that eyes are necessary but insufficient to account for what we see.  And while that may be evident to us, we have made the point many times over that professionals who obscure this distinction do the public a great disservice.

Wither the romance?  Koch implies something of the cosmic, but reading between his lines one can sense him hedging his bets.  Reductionism is classically portrayed as the flip side of emergence, the former implying that to understand a process one must understand its parts, and the latter positing that a process is something greater than the sum of its parts.  One needn’t be a behavioral optometrist to grasp this.  I’m fond of citing the work of Lea Hyvarinen, a Finnish Pediatric Ophthalmologist who is a breath of fresh air in her field, and has recently written a book that is compatible with the concept of romantic reductionism.  Incidentally, Lea will be speaking at this year’s Annual COVD meeting, and the title of her lecture is Early Detection, Assessment and Intervention of Problems in Visual Development: Optometrists’ and rehabilitation ophthalmologists’ role in the transdisciplinary team work.

As much as I admire Koch, I hold even greater admiration for the quintessential romantic reductionist, the ophthalmologist, Sir Stewart Duke-Elder, surgeon-oculist to Her Majesty the Queen of England circa the 1950s.  Here is an image from The Duke’s oration to The Royal College of Surgeons in 1958, entitled The Emergence of Vision in the Animal World. 















As you read his oration, you’ll get the sense that The Duke pondered many of the questions that Crick and Koch did about consciousness, and was well ahead of his time.  Some key points by The Duke:

“Here then is how I picture the emergence of vision in the animal world stated in terms of Lloyd Morgan’s theory of emergent evolution or Wundt’s creative syntheses.  As complexity increases, every now and then a stage is reached when something new and surprising emerges something which could not have been foretold because it represents something greater than the summation of its constituent parts … In a philosophy such as this I see the development of vision in the animal world in three emergent stages.”  Duke-Elder identifies these three stages as Motor Taxis, Perceptual Vision, and Imaginative Vision.  This is followed by a statement that should blow you away, given that it was delivered over 50 years ago by perhaps one of the most brilliant ophthalmologists of all-time:

“It must be remembered that a perceptual pattern arises from many different sensory impressions which present no additive qualities among themselves, some derived from the outside world, others from the individual himself.  The impulses from the outside world are integrated in the central nervous system, be it a simple ganglion or a ten-thousand-million-celled brain.  This is brought about by the facilitation of the accustomed and the inhibition of antagonistic impressions, a process in which a thousand are inhibited to allow the passage of one, for only by the exclusion of the irrelevant can the important hold stage.  These are interwoven on a basis of inherited dispositions and past experience to form a perception.  The conditioning of experience is continuously changing and essentially plastic in its nature.”

One thought on “Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist

  1. Len,
    Enjoyed this post, with the exception that now I have another book on consciousness to read and the ones I already have are about to leave me unconscious. In the book I’m currently writing about the Rhetoric of Objectivity, I note that just as Gilbert Ryle replaced the soul with the “Ghost in the Machine,” the rhetoric of objectivity replaces the self, known to most of us as “I” with the Ghost in the Prose, better known as “The Author.” As for emergents, Richard Sperry in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech talks about an emergent enity running the brain. The enity is natural in that it emerges from the brain. But opens the loop, so to speak, allowing that we (the emergent) can interfere with the chain reaction that I normally refer to as Stimulus Response seeing. The buck stops, so to speak, with the emergent. Readers can consider that emergent naturally or supernaturally according to their tastes. But without it, the endless cycle of stimulus response monitoring itself becomes perplexing.

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