How a leading neuroscientist lost a 25 year bet on proving the brain produces consciousness

Gerald R. Baron
4 min readJun 29
Images: Wikipedia. Neuroscientist Christof Koch (left) and philosopher David Chalmers (right) made a bet in 1998 that by 2023 the neural basis for consciousness would be revealed. The loser just paid. (Koch image from 2008, Chalmers from 2011)

A leading neuroscientist lost a 25 year bet against a leading philosopher of consciousness. The bet: by 2023 the neural basis for consciousness would be found. The loser delivered a case of expensive wine but then upped the ante and asked for another 25 years.

Christof Koch is one of the primary leaders in the search for consciousness. He started with Francis Crick, the famous co-discoverer of DNA, who turned to the search for how the brain creates consciousness. Now Koch leads the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle, one of the preeminent research centers focused on neuroscience.

Koch is an avid popularizer of the Integrated Information Theory (IIT) developed by Giulio Tononi. This is a panpsychist theory that insists some form of consciousness exists in every particle of matter but that it depends on the interconnectivity of various parts. This connectivity can be measured and where it reaches a level of density, consciousness emerges. Koch called this theory, which has helped develop, the only promising theory of consciousness.

David Chalmers, the Australian philosopher now at New York University, is well-known for describing phenomenal consciousness as “the hard problem.” He bet Koch on June 20, 1998 that in 25 years the intense search for how the brain produces consciousness would fail. He won.

The New Scientist article which covered the ceremony held in New York to resolve the bet discussed the two primary theories of brain-caused consciousness. Integrated Information Theory (IIT) which Koch focuses on and the Global Neuronal Workspace Theory (GNWT).

The bet resulted in a project called COGITATE to test which of these two theories best meets key predictions. IIT says that the density of connectedness between the parts of a system will result in consciousness. GNWT focuses on signals in the front region of the brain which compete with signals. IIT won several aspects of the test but GNWT won another.

Is this another “Philosopher’s Stone”?

I’ll admit I cheered when I saw that Koch paid up on this bet. I hope that brilliant neuroscientists like Koch keep searching for an exclusively physical cause for our…

Gerald R. Baron

Dawdling at the intersection of faith, science, philosophy and theology.