Apparently the Templeton Foundation is interested in seeing progress on consciousness science, and so is contemplating funding studies to test various theories. The stated idea is to at least winnow the field through “structured adversarial collaborations”. The first two theories proposed to be tested are Global Workspace Theory (GWT) and Integrated Information Theory (IIT).
GWT posits that consciousness is a global area that holds information that numerous brain centers can access. I’ve seen various versions of this theory, but the one that the study organizers propose to focus on holds that the workspace is held by, or at least coordinated in, the prefrontal cortex at the front of the brain, although consciousness overall is associated with activation of both the prefrontal cortex and the superior parietal lobe at the back of the brain.
IIT posits that consciousness is the integration of differentiated information. It’s notable for its mathematical nature, including the value Φ (phi); higher values denote more consciousness and lower values less consciousness. According to the theory, to have experience is to integrate information. Christof Koch, one of the proponents of this theory, is quoted in the linked article as saying he thinks this integration primarily happens in the back of the brain, and that he would bet that the front of the brain has a low Φ.
While I think this is going to be an interesting process to watch, I doubt it’s going to provide definitive conclusions one way or the other. Of course, the purpose of the collaboration isn’t to find a definitive solution to consciousness, but to winnow the field. But even that I think is going to be problematic.
The issue is that, as some of the scientists quoted in the article note, GWT and IIT make different fundamental assumptions about what consciousness is. Given those different assumptions, I suspect there will be empirical support for both theories. (They are both supposed to be based on empirical observations in the first place.)
From the article, it sounds like the tests are going to focus on the differences in brain locations, testing whether the prefrontal cortex in the front of the brain is really necessary for consciousness, or whether, as Koch proposes, that the parietal lobe in the back is sufficient. However, even here, philosophical distinctions matter.
By “consciousness” do we only mean sensory consciousness, that is awareness of the information provided by the senses, both exteroceptive (of the outer world) and interoceptive (of the insides of the body)? If so, then the parietal lobe probably would be sufficient, provided subcortical structures like the brainstem, thalamus, basal ganglia, and others are functional and providing their support roles.
Or do we mean both sensory and motor consciousness? Motor consciousness here refers to being aware of what can be done and having preferences about various outcomes, that is, having volition and affective feelings (sentience).
If by “consciousness” we only mean the sensory variety, then Koch will likely be right that only the back of the brain is needed. But for anyone who considers both sensory and motor consciousness essential, an empirical accounting of the sensorium will not be satisfying.
What complicates a discussion like this is that our intuitions of consciousness are not consistent. We have intuitions about what subjective experience entails, and that usually includes feelings and volition. But if we see a patient who’s had a prefrontal lobotomy, who is still able to navigate around their world, and respond reflexively and habitually to stimuli, even if they’ve lost the ability to emotionally feel or plan their actions, we’ll still tend to think they’re at least somewhat conscious.
Which brings me to my own personal attitude toward these theories. I find GWT more grounded and plausible, but as I’ve progressively learned more about the brain, I’ve increasingly come to see most of these theories as fundamentally giving too much credence to the idea of consciousness as some kind of objective force.
Many of these theories seemed focused on a concept that is like the old vital force that biologists used to hunt for to explain the animism of life. Today we know there is no vital force. Vitalism is false. There is only organic chemistry in motion. The only “vital force” is the structural organization of molecular systems and the associated processes, and the extremely complex interactions between them.
I currently suspect that we’re eventually going to come to the same conclusion for consciousness, that our subjective experience arises through the complex interactions of cognitive systems in the brain. Cognitive neuroscience is making steady progress on identifying and describing these systems. Like molecular biology, we may find that there’s no one simple theory that explain it all, that we have little choice but to get down to the hard work of understanding all of these interactions.
Still, maybe I’m wrong and these “structured adversarial collaborations” will show compelling results. As Giulio Tononi mentions in a quote in the article, the tests may well teach us useful things about the brain.
What do you think? Am I too hasty in dismissing consciousness as some kind of objective force? If so, why? Are there things about GWT or IIT that make one more likely than the other, or more likely than other theories such as HOT (Higher Order Theory)?