Monday, 18 May 2020

The universe may be conscious, according to integrated information theory

"Is the universe conscious? It seems impossible until you do the maths" Michael Brooks, New Scientist 2nd May 2020.

The maths being integrated information theory:
Integrated information theory, or IIT, was conceived more than a decade ago by Giulio Tononi, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin. His basic idea was that a system’s consciousness arises from the way information moves between its subsystems.

One way to think of these subsystems is as islands, each with their own population of neurons. The islands are connected by traffic flows of information. For consciousness to appear, Tononi argued, this information flow must be complex enough to make the islands interdependent. Changing the flow of information from one island should affect the state and output of another. In principle, this lets you put a number on the degree of consciousness: you could quantify it by measuring how much an island’s output relies on information flowing from other islands. This gives a sense of how well a system integrates information, a value called “phi”.

If there is no dependence on a traffic flow between the islands, phi is zero and there is no consciousness. But if strangling or cutting off the connection makes a difference to the amount of information it integrates and outputs, then the phi of that group is above zero. The higher the phi, the more consciousness a system will display.

Another key feature of IIT, known as the exclusion postulate, says that a group will explicitly display consciousness only when its phi is “maximal”. That is to say, its own degree of consciousness has to be bigger than the degree of consciousness you can ascribe to any of its individual parts, and simultaneously bigger than the degree of consciousness of any system of which it is a part. Any and all parts of the human brain might have a micro-consciousness, for example. But when one part has an increase in consciousness, such as when a person is brought out of anaesthesia, the micro-consciousnesses are lost. In IIT, only the system with the largest phi displays the consciousness we register as experience.
A criticism of IIT is that it leads to the conclusion that all sorts of inanimate objects might have consciousness.
One consequence of this stimulus might be a reckoning for the notion ... that inanimate matter can be conscious. Such a claim is typically dismissed out of hand, because it appears to be tantamount to “panpsychism”, a philosophical viewpoint that suggests consciousness is a fundamental property of all matter. But what if there is something in it?
To be clear, no one is saying that fundamental particles have feelings. But panpsychists do argue that they may have some semblance of consciousness, however fragmentary, that could combine to generate the various levels of consciousness experienced by birds or chimpanzees or us. “Particles or other basic physical entities might have simple forms of consciousness that are fundamental, but complex human and animal consciousness would be constituted by or emergent from this,” says Hedda Hassel Mørch at Inland Norway University of Applied Sciences in Lillehammer.
The idea that electrons could have some form of consciousness might be hard to swallow, but panpsychists argue that it provides the only plausible approach to solving the hard problem. They reason that, rather than trying to account for consciousness in terms of non-conscious elements, we should instead ask how rudimentary forms of consciousness might come together to give rise to the complex experiences we have.
Not surprisingly, these ideas remain controversial:
Others express related doubts as to whether maths is up to the job, even in principle. “I think mathematics can help us understand the neural basis of consciousness in the brain, and perhaps even machine consciousness, but it will inevitably leave something out: the felt inner quality of experience,” says Susan Schneider, a philosopher and cognitive scientist at the University of Connecticut.
....even from supporters of panpsychism:
Philip Goff, a philosopher at Durham University, UK, and a vocal advocate for panpsychism, has a similar view. Consciousness deals with physical phenomena in terms of their perceived qualities, he points out – the smell of coffee or the taste of mint, for example – which aren’t conveyable in a purely quantitative objective framework. “In dealing with consciousness, we need more than the standard scientific tools of public observation and mathematics,” Goff says.

Saturday, 22 September 2018

Imagined Communities

In Imagined Communities, Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, Benedict Anderson [1] writes:

“[I]n themselves, market-zones, ‘natural’-geographic or politico-administrative do not create attachments. Who will willingly die for… the EEC?”

When first published 1983, this, about the EEC (European Economic Community), was a rhetorical question, but replace EEC by EU (European Union) today and the question might be taken at face value. Certainly many people in the UK, myself included, felt an acute and painful sense of loss on the morning after the Brexit referendum, when we learnt that we were to leave the EU.
Anderson defines a nation as

 “An imagined political community – and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign”.

While nationalism is usually founded on the perception of an identity traced back through history, in reality the very concept of a nation is relatively recent. As late as 1914, Anderson argues, the majority of the world political systems were dynastic states, although by then many were seeking a national cachet for a renewed legitimacy. The community of a dynasty, however, is neither inherently geographic not racial, and the same can be said of the alternative major category of communities which preceded nations: religions.

The emotional backdrop of the leave/remain fault lines surely lies in the perceived nationhood of the EU. When the signposts at ports and airports point to the queue for ‘EU nationals’ it means, of course, citizens of one of the constituent nations of the EU, but might easily be read as suggesting an (imagined) EU nation. If the EU is a nation, then internal EU migration has no qualitative difference from, say, scousers or brummies moving to Milton Keynes. The idea of excluding, say, Romanians, from Milton Keynes is as offensive as excluding people born in Liverpool or Birmingham. 

Meanwhile, though, a common complaint of supporters of leave, especially older people, is that when they signed up to an economic community: they weren’t imagining a ‘sovereign’ community. And if we are making a nation of the EU by imagining a European community which is sovereign, we are also giving it Anderson’s second qualification by making it inherently limited. The imagined community is exclusive at the same time as inclusive. There have to be people outside if there are to be people inside.

If, furthermore, the nation is a recent construction, should we be so ready to jettison the former bases of community? Unless we sign up to a Whiggish teleological interpretation of history, we need to be ready to revisit the past and imagine alternative paths forward.  

1. Benedict Anderson Imagined Communities, Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. Verso Revised Edition 2016

Tuesday, 24 April 2018

Launch of the Critical Information Studies (CIS) research group

Learning from Luther: 95 Theses about Technology

Professor John Naughton (Cambridge University)

Thursday 3 May 2018, 12.30pm-2.00pm (Lunch at 12.00pm), Meeting Room 10, 2nd Floor, JLB, Walton Hall, The Open University.

(NB: The talk will be accessible remotely online. Email: for more information.)

This keynote talk by John Naughton launches the recently formed Critical Information Studies (CIS) research group within the School of Computing and Communications at The Open University.

Biography: John Naughton is Emeritus Professor of the Public Understanding of Technology at the OU. He is also a Senior Research Fellow in the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH) at Cambridge, where he is co-Director of the Leverhulme-funded ‘Conspiracy and Democracy’ project. With David Runciman, he was co-Director of CRASSH’s ‘Technology and Democracy’ project which has recently concluded. He is also the Observer’s Technology columnist. He was a member of the Systems Group in what was originally the OU’s Faculty of Technology (now Faculty of Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics) from 1972 until 2011. After leaving the OU he served as Vice-President of Wolfson College, Cambridge from 2011-2015 and is currently Director of the college’s Press Fellowship Programme. His most recent book — From Gutenberg to Zuckerberg: what you really need to know about the Internet — is published by Quercus.

Monday, 8 January 2018

The Cybernetic Hypothesis

The Critical Information Studies Group (CIS, formerly the Difference That Makes a Difference, DTMD, research group - we're in the processes of renaming/refocusing the group) recently had a discussion about The Cybernetic Hypothesis of Tiqqun. Rather than provide any background to it myself, I'll refer to a blog post by Joss Winn. (See also Joss's longer notes on it.)

My contribution (albeit with some of the words stolen from other people, like Joss, Richard Hall, and my colleagues in CIS) is a diagram I used to get my head around it.

Wednesday, 11 October 2017

Levels, layers, levelism

(This is one of these posts where I just put up miscellaneous odds and ends as a way of making some of my reading more interactive. I drafted it back in March and didn't post it then.) 

Exploring Floridi's references in his chapter on "The Method of Levels of Abstraction" (Chapter 3 in The Philosophy of Information*). Text in blue is from Floridi

*Floridi, L. The philosophy of information Oxford University Press, 2011

1     p47 line 2.  "Reality can be studied at different levels, so forms of ‘levelism’ have often been advocated in the past [Brown 1916]"

Brown, Harold Chapman Structural Levels in the Scientist's World The Journal of Philosophy, Psychology and Scientific Methods, Journal of Philosophy, Inc., 1916, Vol. 13(13), pp. 337-345

I enjoyed this paper. It is basically putting forward arguments for the importance of emergence.
"Each level of the physical world, above the electronic, is then to be looked upon as containing entities constituted by an integration of entities on a lower level in accordance with the lawful forms of their behavior. But it is to be noted that the consequent behavior of these aggregates is not the behavior of the elements of which they are composed: electrons do not have valency, atoms have not molecular properties, and, for the molecule, surface tension or the solid, liquid, and gaseous states are meaningless. Even when a property seems to be present on several levels, as a mutual attraction between entities, its description is markedly different in the different cases, as was the case in the now outlived "distance coefficient" physics." [p 339]
"[N]o genuine whole is merely the sum of its parts, but is a consequence of the integration of its parts, and such integration is not, in general, expressible entirely in terms of the parts and their relations. Because picking a pocket involves movements of physical masses at varying velocities and therefore could be studied from the point of view of mechanics, and chemical and organic processes that might make it of interest to the chemist or the physiologist, it does not follow that it is not also a real fact for the student of human conduct from a social point of view and that for him it may not constitute an event the significance of which can not be expressed in terms of the sciences previously mentioned. Also the reaction of any integrated group or whole to any other such group is something quite different from the reactions of any of their constituents to each other or from any fact that can be ex- pressed in terms of such reactions." [p 341]
It all seems reasonable to me.  One oddity, from the perspective of 2017 anyway, is the comments on ether: "... while there can be little doubt that the ether concept represents something physically real...". I better not get side-tracked, but the Michelson–Morley experiment was in 1887 and this paper was published in 1916, so had people not abandoned ether by 1916?

2  p47 ll 10-24

Consider the following varieties of levelism currently available in the philosophical literature:

  1. epistemological, e.g. levels of observation or interpretation of a system;
  2. ontological, e.g. levels (or rather layers) of organization, complexity, or causal interaction etc. of a system;[Poli (2001) provides a reconstruction of ontological levelism]
  3. methodological, e.g. levels of interdependence or reducibility among theories about a system; and
  4. an amalgamation of (1)–(3), e.g. as in Oppenheim and Putnam (1958).
The current debate on multirealizability in the philosophy of AI and cognitive science has made (3) controversial, as Block (1997) has shown; while Heil (2003) and Schaffer (2003) have seriously and convincingly questioned the plausibility of (2). Since criticisms of (2) and (3) end up undermining (4), rumours are that levelism should probably be decommissioned.

I agree with Heil and Schaffer that ontological levelism is probably untenable. However, I shall argue that a version of epistemological levelism should be retained, as a fundamental and indispensable method of conceptual engineering (philosophical analysis and construction) in PI, albeit in a suitably refined version.

Poli, R. The Basic Problem of the Theory of Levels of Reality Axiomathes, 2001, Vol. 12(3), pp. 261-283

I struggled with this paper. Probably because I don't have philosophical background so don't have a firm enough foundation in ideas of things like ontology and epistemology, but maybe also it not such a well-written paper? The idea I take from it (which may be a completely misunderstanding) is that we should consider alternative (ontological) hierarchies to that of a hierarchy based on aggregation. If that is what Polis is saying, then, fine, I'm sort-of OK with it.
[T]he predominant opinion is that there is only one multi-dynamic (multi-layered) system: the one described by the natural sciences. Other forms of knowledge are scientific to the extent that they can be located in the progressive series of supraformations (groups of groups of groups of items, each with its specific kinds of interaction). Hence the alternative: a discipline is scientific to the extent that it can be located in the series of aggregation levels – if so it can be more or less easily reduced to the base level – or it cannot be thus located and is consequently not a science: it has no citizenship in the realm of knowledge and is scientifically stateless.

We shall see that this is not so, and that the opinion just described is simply wrong. The progressive array of levels, in fact, has breaks in it where the frame of reference is categorially modified. The only way to handle this is to acknowledge that the hierarchy of levels of granularity is only one of the hierarchies of reality. A satisfactory theory must obviously recognize the former, but it must recognize the other forms of organization into levels as well. For this reason too, a categorial approach is more promising than an ’objectual’ one base on items of some kind in interaction. [p266]

Schaffer, J. Is There a Fundamental Level?. Nous, 2003, Vol. 37(3), pp. 498 - 517

Another really good read!
Talk about "the fundamental level of reality" pervades contemporary metaphysics. The fundamentalist starts with (a) a hierarchical picture of nature as stratified into levels, adds (b) an assumption that there is a bottom level which is fundamental, and winds up, often enough, with (c) an ontological attitude according to which the entities of the fundamental level are primarily real, while any remaining contingent entities are at best derivative, if real at all. Thus the physicalist claims that microphysical theory (or some future extension thereof) describes the fundamental level of reality on which all else supervenes; the Humean claims that all supervenes on the distribution of local, fundamental qualities in spacetime; the epiphenomenalist claims that all causal powers inhere at the fundamental level; and the atomist claims that there are no macroentities at all but only fundamental entities in various arrangements. 
I find the hierarchical picture of nature in (a) plausible as reflected in the structure and discoveries of the sciences, and consider the ontological primacy of the fundamental entities in (c) a natural (though not inevitable) conclusion. In any case I will not discuss these issues here. Rather I will discuss the assumption (b) that there exists a fundamental level; first because it is almost entirely second because, as I will argue, there is no evidence in its favor; and third because the hierarchical picture minus (b) yields a far more palatable metaphysic in which, contra (c), all entities are equally real. [p498, emphasis in the original]
Schaffer proceeds to present an argument that (i) suggests there is no reason to cling to atomism and (ii) rejects the idea that there is any reason to suppose that physics is approaching a complete microphysical theory.

I am tempted to quote lots from it because it is so nicely written. (And, in terms of (ii), accords with my own thinking. I’d simply not thought about (i)). However, instead I just encourage any reader to read the paper for themselves. But, some key conclusions:
So I conclude that we do not, right now, have any evidence for atomism. We now have no evidence that there will be a final theory, no evidence that such a theory will postulate anything that could serve as a mereological atom, and no evidence that such a theoretical postulate will correspond to an ontological atom as opposed to a boringly decomposable composite. Evidence for fundamentality is lacking thrice over. 
In short, there are at least two perfectly good conceptions of the hierarchy of nature: fundamentality and infinite descent. The empirical evidence to date is neutral as to which structure science is reflecting. And so, concerning the proposition that there exists a fundamental level of nature, one should withhold belief. [p505-506]
And then
[First line of retreat] [C]an certain fundamentalist doctrines be (re)formulated without presupposing the existence of a fundamental level? I will consider physicalism, Humeanism, epiphenomenalism, and atomism in turn, and show that all presuppose fundamentality in some sense.
BTW, a handy links: supervenience 
As a second line of retreat, the fundamentalist might maintain that, while there is no evidence for mereological atoms, there may yet be evidence for a fundamental something else. I think that there is one particularly interesting form of this retreat, on which this "something else" is a fundamental supervenience base. In any case I will limit my discussion of this retreat to this particular maneuver. [p509]
So it is in fact worth distinguishing (at least) three metaphysical pictures: full-blown fundamentality, supervenience-only fundamentality, and full- blown infinite descent. Should we not discover a complete microphysics (or should we at least continue to discover ever-deeper novel structure) this would provide evidence for infinite descent. Should we discover a complete microphysics, this would then provide evidence for supervenience- only fundamentality, and allow for physicalism and Humeanism. Should the complete microphysics also turn out to postulate particles, and should these particles turn out indivisible, this would then provide evidence for full-blown fundamentality, and allow for epiphenomenalism and atomism in addition. For now, all of these outcomes must be regarded as live possibilities. [p512]
And, finally
What would a metaphysic of infinite descent look like? The most striking feature of an infinite descent is that no level is special.25 Infinite descent yields an egalitarian ontological attitude which is at home in the macro- world precisely because everything is macro. Mesons, molecules, minds, and mountains are in every sense ontologically equal. Because there can be no privileged locus for the causal powers, and because they must be somewhere, they are everywhere. So infinite descent yields an egalitarian metaphysic which dignifies and empowers the whole of nature.

Treat infinite descent as a working hypothesis, and since all entities turn out to be composite, supervenient, realized, and governed, it emerges that these attributes cannot be barriers to full citizenship in the republic of being.

The macroworld, once regained, is not easily lost, even should real evidence for fundamentality arrive. Here I am, a human organism, a macro- entity, but in no sense unreal for that. I believe that I am both composed of and dependent on certain cells, which are in turn both composed of and dependent on certain molecules, which are in turn both composed of and dependent on certain atoms, which are in turn both composed of and dependent on certain subatomic particles, which are in turn both composed of and dependent on certain quarks and leptons. We just don't know whether this chain stops. But from this perspective it seems obvious that my realness does not in any sense turn on whether there are preons and so on below, or not.

To see that there is no evidence for fundamentality is already to regain the macroworld.

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Meaning in information theory

Here's something I've been meaning to write about for a long time, addressing a common criticism of Shannon information.
According to many measures of information, as used in Shannon’s information theory and in algorithmic information theories (Kolmogorov, Solomonoff and Chaitin), the more random and unpredictable data is, the higher the information content. This is often presented as a reason for rejecting them as meaningful measures of semantic information.
Arguments go something like this.
            Compares these two sets of data:
Data set #1
The rambler who, for old association or other reasons, should trace the forsaken coach-road running almost in a meridional line from Bristol to the south shore of England, would find himself during the latter half of his journey in the vicinity of some extensive woodlands, interspersed with apple-orchards.
Data set #2
ƒw€¾ë †eܯ⠡nÊ.,+´Àˆrœ                D[1]R¥­Æú9yŠB/öû˜ups>YS ­ Ù#Ô¤w/ÎÚÊø ªÄfª Æýð‘ëe© Y›C&$¾"˾Bµ"·
                       F8 ©t"60 <Ikˆ¢†I&Év*Úí‡a,àE l xùçkvV¯hó
                       ZÑi½ŠD°4‹¨D#n ¬T*g    
                       ZœÎr‡œ`™ó%î ù†ðË %P€óKIx­s©ÊÁz¯
8V79{¾à²ÈÇ'R|“‡üE­ û—€Ñ‚ŠB×ÉD         \{F$þݦýCÕŽ´Û2ø

They both contain the same number of characters (307, including spaces) and information theory would have us believe that the second contains more information than the first because it is more random. This is clearly rubbish.
QED: information theory sucks!

The thing is that you, the reader, perceive data set #1 as containing information because of the levels above. It contains information, for you, because it is a legitimate sentence according to English grammar (the syntax) and because of the meaning in the context of the story (“The Woodlanders” by Thomas Hardy [1]).  At the level of the Shannon (or Kolmogorov of whatever) this is not known. The Shannon level doesn’t know that data set #2 is ‘just’ random whereas data set #1 contains meaning. The data set #2 *might* contain information from the layers above, and if it did, it would be able to contain more than data set #1.

And actually, I generated data set #2 by using a zipping tool (7-Zip) to compress the whole of “The Woodlanders”, opening the compressed zip file in a text editing programme (Editpad lite) and copying 307 characters [2]. The uncompressed text file is 778 Kbytes compared to 287 kbytes for the compressed file, giving a compression ratio of 37%. So in fact data set #2 contains a bigger fraction of the whole story than data set #1. It contains 1/0.37 = 2.7 times the amount of information in data set #1. 

The point is that compressing files reduces their size by removing redundancy and the more a file is compressed, the more random it appears. This, indeed, is the principle behind algorithmic information theory: the information content of a file is given by the size of the smallest file that can represent the content. It is theoretical limit to compression.

However, data set #2 might not have been created in the way I said it it was. Consider now data set #3

      ±­Ìšê줳ÓÙÙ“ãÝá´¬Âᄅ¥¬È¤ØÃߤ—Ž»Ü“”š™Ø—ÕК Î祐ßÔ£¶ºª‘ì½’¤â¾¦”Êœ›   
      ÉêÈ šÆ§Ì¯èÉß«Ž²Œ«Ç¡ÉÍ̬—¦ê½Á•²¾ÁÅªÃ²¸¡¢Í¡¬¿à±·ž•Ü©ÑÚçÑύ敔ÈÙÂÚ×›
      ŽÓåÁ䟟ÃÍ ÙÙÍáßâÉÙäÕë⻵Ã̎ߪÒç´±¼Ø׬驓Ϭ߬—

This one I created with the help of the RAND function in Excel. So it doesn’t contain information, does it? Well, generating random numbers in computers is notoriously difficult, because any deterministic algorithm is by definition not random. I think I read somewhere that the RAND function in Excel tries to do something clever with time intervals in the machine, thereby picking up some of the thermal randomness that will affect the precise timing of the computer clock. But the point is: a) it doesn’t contain information for me and you at the moment [3] but b) it might nevertheless contain information that could, in principle, be extracted. If it does contain information, then information theory tells us how much it can contain – an upper limit on how much it can contain.

As to the randomness question, we are again back to quantum mechanical randomness as the only true randomness of physics, always assuming that God does play dice, of course.

[1] Text file of The Woodlanders downloaded from the Gutenberg Project:

[2] It was a bit more messy than that, because the zip file is not coded as a text file so Editpad is trying to interpret arbitrary bytes as text, so I've fudged it a bit. If I had the time, I would have written a compression programme that gave an output in text. It would be possible but presumably wouldn't compress as much. The fudge doesn't change the argument, though.

[3] Note the theme of provisionality cropping up again!