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.

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