No one knows how consciousness works

The science of consciousness has its factions and feuds but this development is unprecedented, and threatens to cause lasting damage.

Melbourne: Science is hard. The science of consciousness is particularly difficult, beset by philosophical difficulties and a lack of experimental data.

So in June, when the results of the head-to-head experimental competition between two rival theories were announced at the 26th annual meeting of the Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness in New York City, they were greeted with some fanfare. The results were inconclusive, with some supporting integrated information theory and others emphasizing global scope theory.

The results were covered in both Science and Nature as well as major outlets including The New York Times and The Economist. And maybe, as researchers continue to investigate these and other theories of how our brain generates experiences.

But on September 16, apparently inspired by media coverage of the June results, a group of 124 consciousness scientists and philosophers, many of them leading figures in the field, published an open letter denouncing the pseudoscience of unified information theory. Was attacked as. This letter has created an uproar. The science of consciousness has its factions and feuds but this development is unprecedented, and threatens to cause lasting damage.

What is integrated information theory?

Italian neuroscientist Giulio Tononi first proposed integrated information theory in 2004, and it is now at version 4.0. It cannot be summarized easily. At its core is the idea that consciousness is equivalent to the amount of integrated information present in a system.

Broadly speaking, this means the information that the whole system has in addition to the information about its parts. Many theories begin by looking for correlations between events happening in our minds and events occurring in the brain.

Instead, unified information theory begins from phenomenological principles, supposedly self-evident claims about the nature of consciousness. Notoriously, the theory implies that consciousness is extremely widespread in nature, and that even very simple systems, such as the passive grid of computer circuitry, have some degree of consciousness.

This open letter makes three main claims against integrated information theory. First, it argues that it is not a leading theory of consciousness and has received far more media attention than it should. Second, it expresses concern about its implications:

If [integrated information theory] Either proven or believed by the public, this will have a direct impact not only on clinical practice relating to coma patients, but also a wide range of ethical issues, from the current debate over AI sentience and its regulation to stem cell research Will happen. Animal and organ testing, and abortion.

Is integrated information theory a leading theory?

Whether you agree with the Unified Information Theory or not, and I have criticized it myself, there is no doubt that it is a leading theory of consciousness. A survey of consciousness scientists conducted in 2018 and 2019 found that about 50% of respondents said the theory was either possibly or definitely promising.

It was one of four principles featured in the keynote debate at the 2022 meeting of the Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness, and one of four principles featured in the review of the state of consciousness science that Anil Seth and I published last year.

According to one article, unified information theory is the third most discussed theory of consciousness in the scientific literature, ahead only of global workspace theory and recurrent processing theory. Like it or not, unified information theory has significant support in the scientific community.

Is it more problematic than other theories?

What about the potential implications of integrated information theory for clinical practice, the regulation of AI and its impact on stem cell research, animal and organoid testing, and abortion?

Consider the question of fetal consciousness. According to the paper, integrated information theory states that human embryos are probably conscious in the early stages of development. Details matter here. I was a co-author of the paper cited in support of this claim, which actually argues that none of the major theories of the unified information theory of consciousness involve the emergence of consciousness before 26 weeks’ gestation.

And while we must be conscious of the legal and ethical implications of unified information theory, we must also be conscious of the implications for all theories of consciousness. Are the implications of integrated information theory more problematic than those of other major theories?

This is far from clear, and there are certainly other versions of the theory whose implications would be just as radical as those of unified information theory.

And so, finally, on the charge of pseudoscience. The paper does not provide a definition of pseudoscience, but suggests that the theory is pseudoscientific because the entire theory is not empirically testable. It has also been claimed that integrated information theory was not meaningfully tested in the head-to-head competition earlier this year.

It is true that the core principles of the theory are very difficult to test, but so are the core principles of any theory of consciousness. Testing a theory requires considering several bridging theories, and the status of those theories will often be conflicting. 3

But none of this justifies treating Unified Information Theory, or indeed any other theory of consciousness, as pseudoscience. All that is required for a theory to be truly scientific is that it produces testable predictions. And whatever its faults, the theory has certainly done that.

The accusation of pseudoscience is not only wrong, but also harmful. In fact, this is an attempt to deny or silence the unified information theory that needs serious attention. This is not only unfair to unified information theory and the scientific community at large, but it also reflects a fundamental lack of trust in science. If the theory is indeed bankrupt, the normal mechanisms of science will demonstrate as much. (Conversation)

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