Thanks to Naturalistic Pantheist Musings for pointing to this interview of Christof Koch in Wired Magazine. Koch is a neuroscientist who believes consciousness arises whenever a sufficient level of complexity arises in an information processing system.
Here’s some quotes from Koch in the interview:
There’s a theory, called Integrated Information Theory, developed by Giulio Tononi at the University of Wisconsin, that assigns to any one brain, or any complex system, a number — denoted by the Greek symbol of Φ — that tells you how integrated a system is, how much more the system is than the union of its parts. Φ gives you an information-theoretical measure of consciousness. Any system with integrated information different from zero has consciousness. Any integration feels like something
In the case of the brain, it’s the whole system that’s conscious, not the individual nerve cells. For any one ecosystem, it’s a question of how richly the individual components, such as the trees in a forest, are integrated within themselves as compared to causal interactions between trees.
One implication is that you can build two systems, each with the same input and output — but one, because of its internal structure, has integrated information. One system would be conscious, and the other not. It’s not the input-output behavior that makes a system conscious, but rather the internal wiring.
The theory also says you can have simple systems that are conscious, and complex systems that are not. The cerebellum should not give rise to consciousness because of the simplicity of its connections. Theoretically you could compute that, and see if that’s the case, though we can’t do that right now. There are millions of details we still don’t know. Human brain imaging is too crude. It doesn’t get you to the cellular level.
Koch’s view is described as a sort of panpsychism. This is a view that mind or soul is a part of all things in the universe. Koch’s view is more limited version of this. Koch doesn’t seem to extend consciousness much beyond animals in our current world, although he doesn’t seem to rule out that computer systems or even the Internet might become conscious.
Fundamentally for Koch the question of consciousness is the level of integration, in a sense, the level of networking. The reasons a forest in Koch’s view is not conscious even though there could be a substantial amount of integration between the trees, leaves, soil, plants, and animal life, isn’t entirely clear to me. Koch says: “integrated information theory postulates that consciousness is a local maximum.” The argument seems to be that the forest is not acting as an integrated whole yet it is difficult to see how the Internet might be conscious using this criteria.
The question of where consciousness begins becomes even more problematical if we tie Koch’s ideas to a recent paper that tries to derive quantum mechanics from information theory. The Physics arXiv Blog writes about this paper:
… thanks to the work of Lluís Masanes at the University of Bristol in the UK and a few buddies who for the first time derive quantum mechanics from ideas that have a clear basis in reality. Their derivation is based on the revolutionary idea that information and computation form the bedrock of reality.
In the new work, Masanes and co put forward four postulates about the Universe. If we accept these, they say, quantum mechanics naturally follows. What’s more, their formulation solves an important question about reality—why the universe relies on quantum mechanics and not one of the numerous similar theories that physicists have recently discovered.
If information and computation form the bedrock of reality and consciousness is integrated information processing, there would be no clear dividing line between quantum reality and consciousness. The universe would be conscious from the micro to the macro level. What’s more it would be something in a sense very insubstantial – information or mind.