Mind Hacks is one of my favorite weblogs -- a consistent must-read.
I was disappointed, however, to see that Vaughan Bell currently has a too-uncritical discussion of the recent NYTimes article on Giulio Tononi's suggestion that we define consciousness in terms of what Tononi terms "integrated information."
Two representative quotes from the Times piece should serve to indicate that the discussion there has serious problems:
Consciousness, Dr. Tononi says, is nothing more than integrated information. Information theorists measure the amount of information in a computer file or a cellphone call in bits, and Dr. Tononi argues that we could, in theory, measure consciousness in bits as well. When we are wide awake, our consciousness contains more bits than when we are asleep.
Each sentence in this quote contains problems:
- the slippage between saying consciousness "is nothing more than integrated information" and saying consciousness can be measured in terms of integrated information,
- the confusion between the wakefulness/sleeping distinction and the consciousness/no-consciousness distinction (when you're dreaming, you're asleep, but you're still capable of experience), and
- the confusion between plenitude of information and consciousness (it's conceivable that a non-conscious super-computer running a chess program might contain a higher degree of integrated information than the brain of a simple, conscious, organism experiencing a patch of red).
Then there's this quote:
Dr. Tononi and his colleagues have been expanding traditional information theory in order to analyze integrated information. It is possible, they have shown, to calculate how much integrated information there is in a network. Dr. Tononi has dubbed this quantity phi, and he has studied it in simple networks made up of just a few interconnected parts. How the parts of a network are wired together has a big effect on phi. If a network is made up of isolated parts, phi is low, because the parts cannot share information …
If consciousness is "nothing more than" integrated information, and if more integrated information means more consciousness, then the most complicated networks should have the most consciousness. Given this, then, according to Tononi's theory the universe is conscious.
Presumably, however, a conclusion as bizarre as one holding that the universe is conscious shouldn't be one that follows so quickly from the conceptual presuppositions of what is supposed to be a substantive neuroscientific theory of consciousness.
In other words, Tononi's dreams of a consciousness meter remain just that -- mere dreams.
UPDATE: As is clear from the title of the blog entry here, (the also normally excellent) Carl Zimmer, who wrote the NYTimes piece to which Vaughan refers, seems to have heard of the philosophical discussion of consciousness, but not to have read (or understood!) any of it.