Animism, Neuroscience, and Information

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.

This topic I explored in Patterns and No More Secrets.

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.

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2 Responses to Animism, Neuroscience, and Information

  1. Marilyn says:

    Always enjoy reading your posts. Many questions and theories to ponder. Hope all is well with you. Thanks for continuing your blog. You have come a long way since the days of, “I have thinking about starting a blog”.


  2. epoptika says:

    A given person’s specific classifications of what constitutes intelligence may become more clear when the factor of identity is taken into consideration. Certain ideas themselves are a threat to the sense of identity to the extent that they undermine the fundamental assumptions which a particular identity is based on. And make no mistake – assumption itself is a basic part of the learning process in general, which in turn, informs any set of data which is built over a certain period of time.

    While it would be ideal for a person who is investigating the nature of reality to remain entirely impartial and “objective” – this is impossible to the extent that the person in question has not realized the entirety of their own psyche. There is a certain amount of personal “unknown” that must be made “known”, before the universal “unknown” can be approached with any sort of clarity or accuracy.

    Entering more into the sphere of abstraction, it could be said that the very process of material organization itself (in terms of particles, waves, energies, forces, etc.) is a kind of intelligence – albeit one that is not currently understood, even in its total manifestations within humans themselves. Subsequently taking up the popular theory of a “big bang” scenario might then relate the entire universe itself to an intelligent living organism – but this would require us to accept that our current perception of “inert” matter being without life to be a flawed view. At some point, the origins of the “big bang” scenario itself may also come into question.

    However we may wish to approach these issues, we must begin with our own means of perception itself. But in order to reach our own “tabula rasa” of pure instinct, we must overcome the conditioned response enforced by the survival mechanisms of society itself – in our own personal way, in our own personal circumstances. Encountering ourselves as biology unhindered by the inertial effects of unexamined psychological mechanisms (from personal to cultural), we may find, in fact, that the very same universal principals of organization exist within us in an approachable way, as well as their relationship to the origin of such processes… whatever it may be.

    This is not a matter to be taken lightly – for one thing, the body knows it will eventually die. A person’s identity is usually not amenable to this fact (to say the least), nor is it “trained” to be. The mind therefore becomes a playground of abstraction for the identity, which divorces itself from actual physical processes in an attempt to either overcome or ignore them. The resulting issues are legion, and range quite broadly from person to person and culture to culture. “Training” is the operative word here, because theoretical abstraction alone will never bring actual understanding. Personal practice is the key, especially since it is not culturally provided. Physical process must be accepted totally and worked with on it’s own terms, which requires navigating across an ocean of intimately related psychological baggage to get there in the first place.


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