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A bit of a barney erupted this week in the field of consciousness research. Apparently, integrated information theory (IIT, proposed by the neuroscientist Giulio Tononi) is a pseudoscience… or it isn’t, if you take the other side. Letters, signed, were written and published, and there was a fuss on social media and in the scientific press.
IIT hopes to give mathematically precise conditions describing whether any system of matter is or is not conscious. The hypothesis (I prefer not to call it a theory) is based on a mathematical measure of the integration of information, the idea being that any system made of matter – a brain, for instance – becomes conscious when there is more integration in the system as a whole than in any of its parts.
What is a pseudoscience, then? It is a framework of belief based on untested or untestable foundations which uses the trappings of science to give itself credibility. Intelligent Design is one such pseudoscience. Its proponents try to get it taught opposite or even alongside science because they want people to think that the two are equivalents. They are not.
It’s the same with IIT. Why do cerebral, male warriors of the intellect insist on discussing consciousness outside of its only known home? That home is human beings. If Tononi, Christof Koch et al reflected on their own lives, they would recall that they were born into an intense social world, from which they were never for a moment separated. Yet as soon as they become grown men – and they almost always are men – they decide consciousness should be liberated from its messy, social, human foundation and propelled into the arena of mathematics and esoteric intellectual debate. Moreover, these manly warriors insist on objectivity. Subjectivity, they claim, is a problem, because conscious experience is private and not therefore available to scientific enquiry. Some conclude that consciousness can be understood only through a combination of science and philosophy. But is that actually correct? Should we really take a step back from science when thinking about consciousness, and in doing so imply that part of the universe is not open to enquiry through public use of the scientific method?
To return to panpsychism. It essentially says that consciousness is a property of the universe itself, like temperature for instance, which means that for supporters of the hypothesis there is a clear gap between quantitative and qualitative explanations. Materialism is anathema to panpsychists because they cannot believe quantity can lead by itself to quality. But those who grasp that panpsychism, in proposing that consciousness is a property of the universe, explains absolutely nothing, and who understand that there is no difficulty in proposing an evolutionary explanation of human consciousness, see that materialism can make quality from quantity. Moreover, panpsychists assume that they are working with the correlates of consciousness itself – directly observable – rather than with the correlates of representing it. Panpsychism, in fact, is not interested in the experience of consciousness, nor indeed in the individuals experiencing it. In this regard it is rather like another failed explanation of the minds of human beings, behaviourism. Panpsychism is behaviourism with maths bolted on. It, like behaviourism, does not care about caring. It is only interested in the technique of consciousness. Of course, we would expect this in a logos-dominated world run by men.
It should be a matter of great disappointment that once again the opportunity to return the discussion of consciousness to our actual selves – born of women, heirs to lives that really matter to us, alive without hiatus in an extraordinary mental medium called society, seeking out sensation, pleasure, artistic and musical experience – has been lost. Once again the discussion has been limited to a remarkably small area: discrete computable quantities, hypotheses divorced from the real world, an emphasis on abstract things above the actual experiences in our minds. Panpsychism is clinical, and rather cold, unlike ourselves. Panpsychism reduces the fuzzy mess of living to statistics represented by Greek letters, which we don’t. A large part of why this happens is because the overwhelming majority of those involved in the discussion are male. They are the evangelists of technique, the speakers of mathematics, the reducers, the observers. How ironic then that panpsychism, which simply assumes that consciousness is a quality of the universe, can provide no evidence for that, and indeed offers nothing better than does a religion. Panpsychism must currently be taken on faith. It presumes the existence of something outside explanation, rather like religion presumes spirits and deities, or String Theory presumes strings.
I think most people are scared of materialism, and even repelled by it. To them, materialism is somehow insufficient to explain what they feel about the world. How can “mere” quantitative change, they say, be accumulated into something qualitatively different? Well, I use the word feel advisedly, because we do feel. We feel everything. Because consciousness is about feeling and mattering, we experience our lives with unique intensity, an intensity brought about by subjective qualia. That intensity, people believe, cannot be explained by mere materialism because the wonder of life seems to be missing.
I understand how this disjuncture opens up. Yet, as the best scientists have said and written, if you truly grasp the wonder of the world – the wonder of evolution for instance – then you do feel amazement and joy. Richard Dawkins, for all his faults and his clumsy disservice to atheism, is an example of an author able to convey the wonder of the universe via materialistic explanations.
We need more authors able to do this. We need them to be talked about on social media. We need them interviewed, and we need them placing bets on the future of the debate about human consciousness. David Chalmers, that titan of the “hard problem” of consciousness, won his bet with Christof Koch, but even he is reduced to implying that some aspect of the universe must be inexplicable.
We need to return the debate to ourselves: real human beings.