Quantizing consciousness, informational dualism. Notes on Koch’s Consciousness

In my last post, I wondered what sort of unexpected things might be quantized as information. My latest read has provided me with a somewhat startling answer: consciousness. Christof Koch’s Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist (2012) suggests that consciousness can be quantized, and thus measured, as precisely as the data streaming through your internet connection. In fact, there are several points of interest in this book, which is a sort of hybrid memoir/pop-science book from the renowned neuroscientist.

First, the theory of integrated information. This theory, developed by psychiatrist/neuroscientist Giulio Tononi is based on two propositions. The first is that every conscious state is differentiated, or that every conscious state represents a massive amount of information determined not only by what is perceived in the conscious state (your computer screen, for example) but also by everything that that conscious state does not consist of (a view of the moon, the title scroll of Star Wars, a blue jay, etc.). Koch puts it this way: [a particular] “subjective experience implicitly rules out all these other things you could have seen, could have imagined, could have heard, could have smelled. This reduction in uncertainty (also known as entropy) is how the father of information theory, electrical engineer Claude Shannon, defined information. To wit: Each conscious experience is extraordinarily informative, extraordinarily differentiated” (125). Shannon’s idea was that information exists only where there is uncertainty. If you were to communicate with a single binary switch that can only be one of two states, 1 or 0 (or a fair coin toss) the uncertainty or Shannon entropy is 1 bit. I’ll let Wikipedia elaborate for me:

Entropy is a measure of unpredictability or information content. To get an informal, intuitive understanding of the connection between these three English terms, consider the example of a poll on some political issue. Usually, such polls happen because the outcome of the poll isn’t already known. In other words, the outcome of the poll is relatively unpredictable, and actually performing the poll and learning the results gives some new information; these are just different ways of saying that the entropy of the poll results is large. Now, consider the case that the same poll is performed a second time shortly after the first poll. Since the result of the first poll is already known, the outcome of the second poll can be predicted well and the results should not contain much new information; in this case the entropy of the second poll results is small.

Now consider the example of a coin toss. When the coin is fair, that is, when the probability of heads is the same as the probability of tails, then the entropy of the coin toss is as high as it could be. This is because there is no way to predict the outcome of the coin toss ahead of time—the best we can do is predict that the coin will come up heads, and our prediction will be correct with probability 1/2. Such a coin toss has one bit of entropy since there are two possible outcomes that occur with equal probability, and learning the actual outcome contains one bit of information. Contrarily, a coin toss with a coin that has two heads and no tails has zero entropy since the coin will always come up heads, and the outcome can be predicted perfectly. Most collections of data in the real world lie somewhere in between (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Entropy_(information_theory))


Keeping that in mind, the second proposition of integrated information is that conscious states are highly integrated. Conscious states are gestalt wholes, irreducible to parts that can be experienced independently. You can’t make yourself start seeing in black and white, Koch says, nor can you will certain sound waves out of your auditory perception.

These two premises form the ground of the theory. Any system that is “a single, integrated entity with a large repertoire of highly differentiated states” is thus conscious, to some extent. Tononi “posits that the quantity of conscious experience generated by any physical system in a particular state is equal to the amount of integrated information generated by the system in that state above and beyond the information generated by its parts. The system must discriminate among a large repertoire of states (differentiation) and it must do so as part of a unified whole, one that can’t be decomposed into a collection of causally independent parts (integration)” (126). The quantity of conscious experience is measured as Φ (phi), which is expressed in bits as “the reduction of uncertainty that occurs in a system, above and beyond the information generated independently by its parts, when that system enters a particular state” (127).  So Φ expresses the amount of reduction of uncertainty in your brain/central nervous system as it enters a conscious state and can do the same for any system that exhibits the two necessary properties, integration and differentiation. Animals, artificial intelligences and computers can be measured in the same way. Koch even suggests that “the Web may already be sentient. By what signs will we recognize its consciousness? … The implications don’t stop there. Even simple matter has a modicum of Φ. Protons and neutrons consist of a triad of quarks that are never observed in isolation. They constitute an infinitesimal integrated system” (132). This notion, of course, leads to the entire universe having consciousness – panpsychism – a proposition I’ve always found repugnant. I might be forced to reconsider. Integrated information is appealing to me in that it dethrones human consciousness from a place of privilege (a mainstay of Western religion). If successful, the theory would institute a thorough demystification, like Newton’s quantization of mass, force, etc. did for Aristotelean physics.

Related to the resultant panpsychism of the consciousness as information theory that Koch endorses is his endorsement of an informational substance dualism. He asserts that “subjectivity is too radically different from anything physical for it to be an emergent phenomenon” (119). The feeling of subjectivity, doesn’t just emerge from a complex network of neurons (my belief), he is saying. He instead makes a surprising claim: “I believe that consciousness is a fundamental, an elementary, property of living matter. It can’t be derived from anything else; it is a simple substance, in Leibniz’s words” (119). Just as positive or negative electrical charge is an intrinsic property of protons and electrons, and there are no uncharged particles waiting to be charged, consciousness is intrinsic in “all organized chunks of matter. It is immanent in the organization of the system. It is a property of complex entities and cannot be further reduced to the action of more elementary particles” (120).  Thus, Koch holds what he admits is “a form of property dualism: The theory of integrated information postulates that conscious, phenomenal experience is distinct from its underlying physical carrier … The conscious sensation arises from integrated information: the causality flows from the underlying physics of the brain, but not in any easy-to-understand manner. This is because consciousness depends on the system being more than the sum of its parts” (152).

This is really a bewildering theory, to my mind. In truth, I can’t wrap my head around it just yet. I’m very accustomed to thinking of consciousness as emergent property of networks, and partial in particular, to Douglas Hofstadter’s ‘strange loop’ theory. Anyhow, it turns out philosopher of mind David Chalmers holds a similarly dualistic view to Koch, which he terms “double-aspect theory” in which information has two aspects – physical and phenomenal. I am HIGHLY uncomfortable with such ideas and cannot figure out how information is meant to be understood as immaterial. I mean, it is always embodied in some sort of matter (neurons, circuits, text on paper) and requires some sort of energy to transfer/communicate – this even proponents of such theories have to admit – but they also assert that “Information is neither matter nor energy”. So what is it? It must be a pattern, but a pattern requires a medium in which it is instantiated to exist, doesn’t it? When and how would there be a pattern which exists with no material instantiation? If you can help this prejudiced materialist, or recommend reading, please do.

Koch also touches on free will. His position is interesting. He first rules out strong determinism (Ligotti’s puppet-nature), due to quantum indeterminacy in the basic structure of matter. But he also rules out strong free will, in the Cartesian or Christian sense, the kind that says in exactly the same situation, were it repeated, you could will yourself to act differently. This because physics rules out any action of an immaterial will that escapes material laws and somehow compels the physical brain to act. He also admits that experiments show that brain decides on actions (relatively) long before consciousness becomes aware of the decisions. Or that “the sensation of agency or authorship – is secondary to the actual cause. Agency has phenomenal content, or qualia, just as sensory forms of conscious experience do … How the decision is formed remains unconscious. Why you choose the way you do is largely opaque to you” (111). Feeling in control is just that – a feeling. And it can be manipulated by shooting electricity into certain parts of the brain. It is certain, he says, that a large part of consciousness is really just “zombie agents” or unconscious circuits that we attribute agency to only after the fact. He doesn’t come out and say it explicitly – he asserts a kind of compatibilism – but it seems he’s essentially admitting there’s very little free will, if any. He asserts that “Yet we cannot rule out the possibility that quantum indeterminacy … leads to behavioural indeterminacy … evolution might favour circuits that exploint quantum randomness for certain acts or decisions” (101). It seems he keeps a shred of free will by optimistically assessing the linkage between quantum events and the actions of conscious systems, a connection I was under the impression is tenuous at best (though I’m no expert). Yet he also says, “Personally, I find determinism abhorrent … (Of course, my personal feelings on this matter are irrelevant to how the world is)” (101). It would behoove him then, to spend more time explaining his compatibilism, because as it stands, it seems unjustified. Particularly when taken in combination with the closing chapter of the book in which he waxes hyperoptimistic and says “My tribulations are not meaningless – I am no nihilist … I am less free than I feel I am … Yet I can’t hide behind biological urges or anonymous social forces. I must act as if “I” am fully responsible, for otherwise all meaning would be leached from this word and from the notions of good and evil” (164). Again, the conspiracy, the lie… As Cioran writes in The Trouble With Being Born: “Lucidity is the only vice that makes us free – free in a desert” (12).


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