The science of consciousness is a challenging field, plagued by philosophical complexities and a lack of experimental evidence. However, a recent head-to-head experimental competition between two rival theories at the Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness meeting in June garnered significant attention. The results were inconclusive, with some supporting integrated information theory and others favoring global workspace theory. The outcome was covered by prominent publications such as Science, Nature, the New York Times, and The Economist.
Following the media coverage of the June results, a group of 124 consciousness scientists and philosophers published an open letter on September 16 criticizing integrated information theory as “pseudoscience.” This letter has caused quite a stir within the field and poses a potential threat to its reputation.
Integrated information theory was first proposed by Italian neuroscientist Giulio Tononi in 2004 and is currently in its fourth version. It is a complex theory that suggests consciousness is determined by the amount of “integrated information” within a system. This refers to the information that the system as a whole possesses beyond what its individual parts have.
Unlike many other theories that seek correlations between mental and brain events, integrated information theory begins with “phenomenological axioms” – self-evident claims about the nature of consciousness. One notable implication of this theory is that consciousness is widespread in nature, even in simple systems like an inactive grid of computer circuitry.
The open letter against integrated information theory makes three main claims. Firstly, it argues that the theory does not deserve its status as a leading theory of consciousness and has received excessive media attention. Secondly, it raises concerns about the implications of the theory on various ethical issues, including AI sentience, stem cell research, animal testing, and abortion. Lastly, it accuses integrated information theory of being pseudoscience.
However, despite criticisms, integrated information theory has garnered significant support within the scientific community. A survey conducted among consciousness scientists found that nearly 50% considered the theory promising. It has been featured in keynote debates and scientific reviews, and is one of the most discussed theories of consciousness in the scientific literature.
Regarding its implications, integrated information theory’s stance on fetal consciousness is often misinterpreted. The theory does not propose consciousness in human fetuses at very early stages of development but rather posits consciousness emerging after 26 weeks gestation.
While it is important to consider the ethical and legal implications of any theory of consciousness, the letter fails to demonstrate that integrated information theory’s implications are more problematic than those of other leading theories.
Lastly, the accusation of pseudoscience against integrated information theory is unfounded. While the theory’s core tenets may be challenging to test, this is true for all theories of consciousness. The charge of pseudoscience is not only inaccurate but also attempts to discredit and silence the theory unjustly. If the theory is flawed, the scientific process will naturally expose its shortcomings.