Can Integrated Information Explain Consciousness?

The Thinker

The debate on the nature and origin of consciousness has lately taken an unexpected turn. Rather than restricting consciousness to the human species, the new theories such as Integrated Information Consciousness (IIC) are expanding the notion of consciousness to many material entities, non-biological included. After a long detour into the material and away from anything remotely spiritual some psychologists such as David Chalmers and neuroscientist Christof Koch are contemplating a return to panpsychism.

In a recent article published in Scientific American, John Horgan the author of The End of Science, summarizes a recent conference on IIC at New York University.

The fundamental tenet of IIC is according to Horgan, that a system is conscious if it possesses a property called Φ, or phi, which is a measure of the system’s “integrated information. Phi corresponds to the feedback between and interdependence of different parts of a system. 

In a nutshell, Phi — and hence consciousness, can be a property of any biological or non-biological system. A proton which emerges from a complex interaction of quarks would by this definition be conscious. Can the total of any entity be reduced to the sum of its parts? If it cannot, that entity has a measure of consciousness.

In their article Consciousness, Here, There and Everywhere, Gulio Tonini and Christof Koch explain a key postulate of IIC, that consciousness is inherent in the structures of an entity and not in the information exchanged. This explains why in patients whose brain activity appears to cease, consciousness nevertheless persists.

Though the motivation for developing IIC emerges from recent computer tests that suggest some computers are exhibiting consciousness, the theory unexpectedly expands the domain of consciousness to matter itself. About panpsychism, the authors say,

Unlike idealism, which does away with the physical world, or dualism, which accepts both in an uneasy marriage, panpsychism is elegantly unitary: there is only one substance, all the way up from the smallest entities to human consciousness and maybe to the World Soul (anima mundi). But panpsychism’s beauty has been singularly barren. Besides claiming that matter and mind are one thing, it has little constructive to say and offers no positive laws explaining how the mind is organized and works.

IIT was not developed with panpsychism in mind. However, in line with the central intuitions of panpsychism, IIT treats consciousness as an intrinsic, fundamental property of reality. IIT also implies that consciousness is graded, that it is likely widespread among animals, and that it can be found in small amounts even in certain simple systems.