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Is Consciousness Universal?

Panpsychism, the ancient doctrine that consciousness is universal, offers some lessons in how to think about subjective experience today

Yet the mental is too radically different for it to arise gradually from the physical. This emergence of subjective feelings from physical stuff appears inconceivable and is at odds with a basic precept of physical thinking, the Ur-conservation law—ex nihilo nihil fit. So if there is nothing there in the first place, adding a little bit more won't make something. If a small brain won't be able to feel pain, why should a large brain be able to feel the god-awfulness of a throbbing toothache? Why should adding some neurons give rise to this ineffable feeling? The phenomenal hails from a kingdom other than the physical and is subject to different laws. I see no way for the divide between unconscious and conscious states to be bridged by bigger brains or more complex neurons.

A more principled solution is to assume that consciousness is a basic feature of certain types of so-called complex systems (defined in some universal, mathematical manner). And that complex systems have sensation, whereas simple systems have none. This reasoning is analogous to the arguments made by savants studying electrical charge in the 18th century. Charge is not an emergent property of living things, as originally thought when electricity was discovered in the twitching muscles of frogs. There are no uncharged particles that in the aggregate produce an electrical charge. Elementary particles either have some charge, or they have none. Thus, an electron has one negative charge, a proton has one positive charge and a photon, the carrier of light, has zero charge. As far as chemistry and biology are concerned, charge is an intrinsic property of these particles. Electrical charge does not emerge from noncharged matter. It is the same, goes the logic, with consciousness. Consciousness comes with 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 properties. We have reached the ground floor of reductionism.

Yet, as traditionally conceived, panpsychism suffers from two major flaws. One is known as the problem of aggregates. Philosopher John Searle of the University of California, Berkeley, expressed it recently: “Consciousness cannot spread over the universe like a thin veneer of jam; there has to be a point where my consciousness ends and yours begins.” Indeed, if consciousness is everywhere, why should it not animate the iPhone, the Internet or the United States of America? Furthermore, panpsychism does not explain why a healthy brain is conscious, whereas the same brain, placed inside a blender and reduced to goo, would not be. That is, it does not explain how aggregates combine to produce specific conscious experience.

Integrated Panpsychism

These century-old arguments bring me to the conceptual framework of the integrated information theory (IIT) of psychiatrist and neuroscientist Giulio Tononi of the University of Wisconsin–Madison. It postulates that conscious experience is a fundamental aspect of reality and is identical to a particular type of information—integrated information. Consciousness depends on a physical substrate but is not reducible to it. That is, my experience of seeing an aquamarine blue is inexorably linked to my brain but is different from my brain.

Any system that possesses some nonzero amount of integrated information experiences something. Let me repeat: any system that has even one bit of integrated information has a very minute conscious experience.

IIT makes two principled assumptions. First, conscious states are highly differentiated; they are informationally very rich. You can be conscious of an uncountable number of things. Think of all the frames from all the movies that you have ever seen or that have ever been filmed or that will be filmed! Each frame, each view, is a specific conscious percept.

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