2016: The Science of Consciousness

In Scientific American, John Horgan has a somewhat meandering report comparing the expert opinions at the original 1994 “The Science of Consciousness” conference, held annually at the University of Arizona, vs. the recent 2016 conference.

Bottom Line: the “integrated information theory” (IIT) approach, which entails panpsychism, is gaining steam.

IIT, Horgan notes, “is essentially an elaborate, mathematical version of the old information-based idea that Chalmers presented in Tucson in 1994. And like the Chalmers conjecture, IIT implies than panpsychism is true.” In 1994, Horgan writes:

The young Australian philosopher Chalmers generated lots of chatter at Tucson when he said that consciousness—subjective experience– is different from other natural phenomena and hence unlikely to be solved with conventional, materialistic approaches. The “hard problem” of consciousness, Chalmers said, might be solved by assuming that information—along with matter and energy—is a fundamental property of reality. Chalmers seemed to be reviving not only dualism but also panpsychism, the ancient mystical doctrine that everything is at least a little bit conscious.

Among the heavy hitters, perhaps the most significant event has been the reversal by Christof Koch:

In the early 1990s the great Francis Crick and a smart young sidekick, Christof Koch, said it was time to rescue the mind-body problem from philosophers and make it a respectable scientific problem. They proposed that science could “solve” consciousness by finding its “neural correlates,” that is, processes in the brain that correspond to conscious states. They even suggested a possible candidate for a neural correlate: 40-hertz oscillations, the simultaneous firing of many neurons 40 times a second….

I liked Chalmers’s discussion of how “hard” consciousness is, but I found his information conjecture too hand-wavy. Woo. And panpsychism? Come on. So I was delighted when Koch confronted Chalmers at a reception in Tucson and criticized his ideas as untestable. “Why don’t you just say the Holy Ghost comes down into your brain and makes you conscious?” Koch asked. Koch, who also criticized quantum-consciousness theories, was standing up for common sense and against woo. Or so I implied in mywrite-up of the 1994 Tucson conference for Scientific American

That brings me to arguably the most significant development of the last two decades of research on the mind-body problem: Koch, who in 1994 resisted the old Chalmers information conjecture, has embraced integrated information theory and its corollary, panpsychism. Koch has suggested that even a proton might possess a smidgeon of proto-consciousness. I equate the promotion of panpsychism by Koch, Tononi, Chalmers and other prominent mind-theorists to the promotion of multiverse theories by leading physicists.

Horgan, however, isn’t too thrilled about this development:

These are signs of desperation, not progress.

There’s another reason I don’t like IIT. From a cosmic perspective, the mind-body problem asks how a strictly physical universe gave rise to consciousness. According to IIT/panpsychism, consciousness was there from the start, glimmering in the big bang. That’s not an answer, that’s cheating. It’s like explaining how life began by saying the big bang was a little bit alive.

Horgan settles on a tentative Mysterianism, one that (like Thomas Nagel) doesn’t go “full McGinn”. This bracketed Mysterianism is a perfectly respectable position to hold, although I do believe one can arrive at Full McGinn Skepticism a priori:

Some philosophers, notably Colin McGinn, argue that the mind-body problem is unsolvable. Just as rats aren’t smart enough to do arithmetic, McGinn suggests, we’re not smart enough to figure out consciousness. Philosopher Owen Flanagan calls proponents of this pessimistic position “mysterians.”

Mysterianism seems increasingly reasonable to me. I doubt science will ever give us a theory so potent that we think, “Ah, so that explains consciousness.” But unlike McGinn, I don’t think we’re too dumb to solve the mind-body problem. In fact, I suspect that the smarter we get, the more puzzled we will be by our own minds…

Koch acknowledges that IIT might not pan out, but he vehemently rejects mysterianism, arguing that that it could foment “defeatism” and hence become a self-fulfilling prophecy. “It’s very fraught with danger to claim that we will never understand,” Koch told me recently.

I agree, and I admire Koch for his can-do spirit (which is shared, let me emphasize, by Aaronson and Chalmers and every other mind-theorist I know). Maybe we will never solve the mind-body problem, but we must never stop trying. Who knows? Maybe IIT will pan out, or we’ll crack the neural code.

This entry was posted in Philosophy of Mind. Bookmark the permalink.