What Is Consciousness? The Scientific Pursuit of Consciousness

Scientific Pursuit of Consciousness

Tononi postulates that any complex and interconnected mechanism whose structure encodes a set of cause-and-effect relationships will have these properties—and so will have some level of consciousness. It will feel like something from the inside. But if, like the cerebellum, the mechanism lacks integration and complexity, it will not be aware of anything. As IIT states it, consciousness is intrinsic causal power associated with complex mechanisms such as the human brain.

IIT theory also derives, from the complexity of the underlying interconnected structure, a single non-negative number Φ (pronounced “fy”) that quantifies this consciousness. If Φ is zero, the system does not feel like anything to be itself. Conversely, the bigger this number, the more intrinsic causal power the system possesses, and the more conscious it is.

The brain, which has enormous and highly specific connectivity, possesses very high Φ, which implies a high level of consciousness. IIT explains a number of observations, such as why the cerebellum does not contribute to consciousness and why the zap-and-zip meter works. (The quantity the meter measures is a very crude approximation of Φ.)

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IIT also predicts that a sophisticated simulation of a human brain running on a digital computer cannot be conscious—even if it can speak in a manner indistinguishable from a human being. Just as simulating the massive gravitational attraction of a black hole does not actually deform spacetime around the computer implementing the astrophysical code, programming for consciousness will never create a conscious computer. Consciousness cannot be computed: it must be built into the structure of the system.

Two challenges lie ahead. One is to use the increasingly refined tools at our disposal to observe and probe the vast coalitions of highly heterogeneous neurons making up the brain to further delineate the neuronal footprints of consciousness.

This effort will take decades, given the byzantine complexity of the central nervous system. The other is to verify or falsify the two, currently dominant, theories. Or, perhaps, to construct a better theory out of fragments of these two that will satisfactorily explain the central puzzle of our existence: how a three-pound organ with the consistency of tofu exudes the feeling of life.

Daily reflect on the deep and wonderful mystery of life and consciousness that we should not take for granted.


Written by: Christof Koch
Originally appeared on: Scientific American
Republished with permission

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