Notes: Consciousness

“Consciousness is a fundamental fact of human existence. It is what makes life worth living. If we weren’t conscious, nothing in our lives would have meaning or value. Yet our subjective awareness remains the most mysterious phenomenon in the Universe. Why are we conscious? Why do we have these inner movies? Why aren’t we just robots who process inputs and produce outputs without experiencing the inner movie at all?” – David Chalmers

Neuer 3-Tesla-Scanner Magnetom Prisma von Siemens erschließt neue Anwendungsfelder für die Magnetresonanztomographie / New 3-tesla MRI scanner Magnetom Prisma from Siemens is designed to explore new frontiers in MRI application

Research indicates that the privileged state of subjective awareness goes well beyond the human mind. Neuroscientists overwhelmingly agree that “humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Non-human animals, including all mammals and birds and many other creatures, also possess these neurological substrates.” Even fish and insects may be more conscious than previously thought.

“How does matter make mind? More specifically, how does a physical object generate subjective experiences like those you are immersed in as you read this sentence? How does stuff become conscious? This is called the mind-body problem, or the ‘hard problem.'” – John Horgan

In recent years, scientists have begun to tackle the hard problem of consciousness with empirical evidence. Research by Giulio Tononi indicates that consciousness may arise from a “dynamic core” of synchronized neural oscillations occurring globally throughout the brain, whereas “locally synchronous firings evoked by external stimuli are unconscious unless integrated into the dynamic core.” Another study from Germany suggests that an integration of neural activity allows the brain to “explore the space of its own possible configurations… If each neuron can be thought of as a node in the network, consciousness might result from exploring the network as thoroughly as possible.”

Presently, the leading explanation of consciousness is the integrated information theory (IIT) by Giulio Tononi. IIT postulates that a system’s degree of awareness corresponds to its amount of integrated data, denoted by the value Φ (phi). Measured in bits, Φ mathematically represents a system’s informational synergy, or the degree to which the system is “more than the sum of its parts.” Thus, the brain is highly conscious because of its interconnectedness, allowing for the simultaneous integration and processing of data from many different inputs.

The human brain, perhaps the most powerful computer in the world, contains about 100 billion neurons making 100 trillion connections. A Japanese supercomputer took 40 minutes to simulate just 1 second of 2% of a person’s brain activity.

Giulio Tononi: “The central identity of IIT can be formulated quite simply: an experience is identical to a conceptual structure that is maximally irreducible intrinsically. If a system has Φmax = 0, meaning that its cause–effect power is completely reducible to that of its parts, it cannot lay claim to existing. If Φmax > 0, the system cannot be reduced to its parts, so it exists in and of itself. More generally, the larger Φmax, the more a system can lay claim to existing in a fuller sense than systems with lower Φmax. According to IIT, the quantity and quality of an experience are an intrinsic, fundamental property of a complex of mechanisms in a state—the property of informing or shaping the space of possibilities (past and future states) in a particular way, just as it is considered to be intrinsic to a mass to bend spacetime around it.”


Because Φ is positive wherever information is shared, Tononi’s theory has an extraordinary implication. With a high Φ, the human brain is very aware. With a medium Φ, the mouse is somewhat aware. But IIT claims that every living cell, every electric circuit, even a proton—an integration of three quarks—has a value of Φ greater than zero. Consciousness is a fundamental property of the Universe, much like mass or charge.

IIT is, in fact, well-known for its embrace of panpsychism, the ancient philosophy that everything is aware. And in recent years, panpsychism has become accepted by some intellectuals as a solution to the hard problem of consciousness. Matter does not give rise to mind because matter is mind. The qualities of subjective experience, like emotions and colors and tastes, are somehow intrinsic to the elements of physical reality.

However, panpsychist theories of consciousness are especially susceptible to the problem of solipsism, an obstacle well-summarized by John Horgan: “As far as I know, I am the only conscious entity in the cosmos. I confidently infer that things like me—such as other humans—are also conscious, but my confidence wanes when I consider things less like me, such as compact discs and and dark energy.” Because of the subjective nature of awareness, IIT and other theories like it remain unverifiable.


Hence, Scott Aaronson, a theoretical computer scientist at MIT, argues that the only test for such a theory is “whether it can produce results agreeing with common sense—for example, whether it can affirm that humans are conscious, that dogs are also conscious but less so, and that rocks are not conscious. The reason it’s so important that the theory uphold common sense on these test cases is that, given the experimental inaccessibility of consciousness, this is the only test available to us.” Any working theory of consciousness must make predictions that agree with what we hold to be “intuitively conscious.”

And here, Aaronson contends, is where IIT fails. The theory “unavoidably predicts vast amounts of consciousness in physical systems that no sane person would regard as ‘conscious’ at all—systems that do nothing but apply simple transformations of their input data. IIT predicts not merely that these systems are slightly conscious, but that they can be unboundedly more conscious than humans are.” Thus, Aaronson concludes that “phi may be a necessary condition for consciousness, but it is certainly not a sufficient condition.” So what is Tononi’s theory missing?

In a rebuttal to Aaronson’s critique of IIT, Tononi argues that a simple 2D grid of identical logic gates may contain enough integrated information to be “highly conscious.”

“We all have a desire to exist. Arising with the first cell, this will to survive is a major distinction between living and nonliving matter. Indeed, the origin of life must involve the origin of its purpose—to live. And purpose must involve awareness, because purpose implies intent, and intent demonstrates the presence of a mind. Thus, the very concept of survival requires a determination that can only be explained by a sense of agency. This ‘struggle for existence’ necessitates an intent that may constitute the very beginnings of consciousness.” (So don’t stop)

According to IIT, the origin of life marks the beginning of the biological mind. Life and its awareness, having arisen from the same chemical networks, are inseparable. This means that a cell’s awareness is more than just integrated information; it is information integrated for a purpose: to survive. So, at least in the context of life, consciousness cannot be separated from its desire to exist. But perhaps this principle of self-preservation can be extended to all conscious entities, both biological and non-biological. After all, if an entity cannot continue itself, then can it really be considered “conscious?”


Slime molds are single cells that have the capacity to learn. They remember, anticipate, and choose conditions that are most amenable to their survival. “One species, the yellow Physarum polycephalum, can solve mazes, mimic the layout of man-made transportation networks, and choose the healthiest food from a diverse menu—all without a brain or nervous system. Slime molds are redefining what you need to have to qualify as intelligent.”

Any “intuitively conscious” entity must have some determination to survive. Consider, for example, Stephen Hawking’s fear that “the development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.” Obviously, robots will remain harmless as long as they lack this inbuilt “struggle for existence” that is characteristic of biological life. Artificial intelligence poses no real threat until it acquires a drive to exist—until it becomes “conscious.” Thus, regarding the development of AI, humanlike consciousness cannot be reproduced without this instinctual drive to persist. As cognition and emotion are bound to survival in the biological mind, so they must also be bound to survival in the artificial mind.


Also, consider our ethical issues with abortion, animal cruelty, or life support. Whether it be a fetus or a pig, or in our medical grading of neurological status, the subject’s ability to suffer—to feel pain—is assumed to be intimately correlated with its level of consciousness. But the biological processing of pain, both the conscious perception and the unconscious reflex, evolved for the signaling and avoidance of harm—ultimately for the survival of the organism. That is, our ability to suffer is largely rooted in our survival instinct. So in using the perception of painful stimuli as a measure of consciousness, we indirectly assume that a drive to persist is inherent to our idea of consciousness.


“Nature has one purpose; being is bound with a will to be.” (So don’t stop)

If mind and survival are indeed inseparable, then consciousness is, at the very least, a self-perpetuating integration of information. In this integration is the mind’s existence, and in this perpetuation is its desire to exist. This phenomenon began with the origin of life at the molecular level, and now forms human thought at the neural level. But one could reasonably argue that a proton, an asteroid, or the cosmic web, is also a “self-perpetuating integration of information.” Indeed, the entire Universe can be described as such, and our panpsychist assumptions hold true.


“Consciousness is a biological phenomenon like photosynthesis, digestion, and mitosis.” – John Searle

But I will explain, in a later post, how the “consciousness” we traditionally associate with biological systems remains fundamentally distinct from that of a proton or the cosmic web. I don’t think we can truly understand and replicate the nature of consciousness until we fully understand the nature and origin of life—how “meaning and intention, thought to be the defining characteristics of living systems, emerge naturally through the laws of thermodynamics and statistical mechanics.

NASA animation showing dust and water currents around Antarctica.

“Perhaps this existential drive is inherent to our concept of dark energy and the arrow of time. That is, the propagation of spacetime also perpetuates every oscillation in nature, from the spins of galaxies to the spins of electrons. When these cosmic and quantum cycles intersect, they align and resonate, producing the self-sustaining cycle of chemical energy that we call biological life. Simply put, life is the resonant frequency of the Universe.” (So don’t stop)

NASA animation showing the 12-month cycle of all plant life on Earth.

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