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A neuroscientist and philosopher's 1998 bet on consciousness between finally ends after 25 years

The bet was placed between neuroscientist Christof Koch and philosopher David Chalmers where one said that by 2023 someone would discover the mechanism by which the brain’s neurons produce consciousness.

A neuroscientist and philosopher's 1998 bet on consciousness between finally ends after 25 years
Cover Image Source: David Chalmers speaks onstage during Unfinished Live at The Shed on September 23, 2022, in New York City. (Photo by Roy Rochlin/Getty Images for Unfinished Live)

Decades ago, friends David Chalmers, a philosopher, and Christof Koch, a neuroscientist, placed a bet at the conference of the Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness (ASSC). According to Vox, Koch said that by 2023, science could explain how the brain's network of neurons gives rise to the phenomenon we call consciousness.


Koch believed every conscious experience is associated with the activity of certain neurons necessary for the awareness that comes with it. While Chalmers liked the concept, he wasn't entirely convinced. According to him, it would be difficult for scientists to find neural markers soon and experts still had too much to learn about consciousness. Ultimately the two decided that the winner of the bet would receive a few bottles of fine wine.


Fast forward to 25 years and it looks like we have a winner in Chalmers. Despite years of scientific effort, experts still haven't learned how or why the experience of consciousness arises. According to WION, Chalmers accepted that it was always a "relatively good bet" for him and a bold one for Koch. "It started off as a very big philosophical mystery," Chalmers said. "But over the years, it's gradually been transmuting into, if not a 'scientific' mystery, at least one that we can get a partial grip on scientifically."

Koch, a German-American neurophysiologist and computational neuroscientist, wasn't too eager to accept defeat just yet, but he still honored the wager and bought Chalmers a "case of fine Portuguese wine" the day before the ASSC session. The expert first started his search for the neural footprints of consciousness way back in the 1980s. He has spent his life working on identifying necessary neurons to "generate a feeling of seeing or hearing or wanting." According to The New York Times, while remembering the 1998 bet, Koch joked he had been fueled by drinks and enthusiasm. "When you're young, you've got to believe things will be simple," he said.


After giving a 1978 bottle of Madeira to Chalmers, he challenged his friend yet again. This time it was double or nothing: a brain marker of consciousness by 2048. Chalmers instantly shook on the wager with another 25 years as a window, despite the odds that either will still be alive to see the outcome. "I hope I lose," he said. "But I suspect I'll win."

Consciousness will still mystify us even if we scientifically solve it, the philosopher once said, according to the Scientific American. "I think there is some true story about why there is consciousness in the universe. There is some basic set of laws or something that explains it as well as it can be explained... Whether we are going to be in a position to come up with that really great story is a further question. I'd be happy if we got to the point where, say, in 50 or 100 years, we at least have some candidate theories, serious, well-developed mathematical theories that are consistent with the data… But we're not even close to that point yet. I guess, I'm inclined to think we can always make a lot of progress. Whether we get all the way is an open question."


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