Integrated Information Theory

Neuroscientist Giulio Tononi has proposed that consciousness is integrated information and can be measured by a quantity called \phi, which is a measure of the amount of information that involves the entire system as a whole. I have never really found this theory to be entirely compelling. While I think that consciousness probably does require some amount of integrated information, I am skeptical that it is the only relevant measure. See here and here for some of my previous thoughts on the topic. One of the reasons that Tononi has proposed a single measure is because it is a way to sidestep what is known as “the hard problem of consciousness”. Instead of trying to explain how a collection of neurons would be endowed with a sense of self-awareness, he posits that consciousness is a property of information and the more \phi one has, the more conscious you become. So in this theory, rocks are not conscious but thermostats are minimally conscious.

Theoretical computer scientist Scott Aaronson has now weighed in on the topic (see here and here). In his inimitable style, Aaronson shows essentially that a large grid of XOR gates could have arbitrarily large \phi and hence be even more conscious than you or me.  He finds this to be highly implausible. Tononi then produced a 14 page response where he essentially doubles down on IIT and claims that indeed a planar array of XOR gates is conscious and we should not be surprised it is so. Aaronson also proposes that we try to solve the “pretty hard problem of consciousness”, which is to come up with a theory or means for deciding when something has consciousness. To me, the fact that we can’t come up with an empirical way to tell whether something is conscious is the best argument for dualism we have. It may even be plausible that the PHPC is undecidable in that solving it would entail the solution of the halting problem. I agree with philosopher David Chalmers (see here) that there are only two possible consistent theories of consciousness. The first is that it is an emergent property of the brain but it has no “causal influence” on events. In other words, consciousness is an epiphenomenon that just allows “us” to be an audience for the dynamical evolution of the universe. The second is that we live in a dualistic world of mind and matter. It is definitely worth reading the posts and the comments, where Chalmers chimes in.

4 thoughts on “Integrated Information Theory

  1. What is the difference between consciousness and cognition…does this muddle the debate on what is or how to measure consciousness?


  2. @BKGMU Since there is no official definition of consciousness, here is my take. Cognition is the computational algorithms of the brain and consciousness is the subjective sensation of self-awareness and being. So examples of cognitive processes would be recognizing figure from ground, working memory, categorization, etc. Machine learning is slowly reproducing cognition but we’re nowhere near to understanding consciousness.


  3. On Fox News (possibly an APS journal, or maybe IOPS) if I recall they had a report that “Turing Test mostly harmless’ (Daniel Berrar). In current NY Review of books patricia churchland rebukes Colin McGinn for panning her book—it takes one to know one, so each one teach one—which pointed out within a few years we will be able to understand consciousness as a mechanical process,just as we understand now the Krebs cycle, ATP, the physics of immortality (Tipler), entropic gravity, tsallis entropy, and even Piketty. see also Benioff (language is physical), Volovich (number) or

    I personally do not like Tononi’s formalism or ‘equation’; there is better stuff out there, but i guess big Macs and Fox news are still quite popular.

    it for bitcoins. ‘cuz i’m happy (if you feel like a room without a roof)’
    (pharrell williams —- didnt like that song but now i do).


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