Extended Physiology & IIT

Written by  on April 1, 2015 

I don’t commit to Tononi’s (though I 1st read about it in a book he co-authored with Gerald Edelman) Integrated Information Theory of consciousness either. But Scott Aaronson’s criticism is unsatisfying. It took me awhile to realize why (and I’m still not sure). But the basic idea is that the organization of something like a DVD player (and the math behind something like a codec) is an artifact of consciousness.

I’ve long been convinced that our artifacts (combustion engines, dams, scissors, cities, plowed fields, etc.) are simply extensions of our sensorimotor surfaces in the same way our hands and feet (and eardrums and retina) are extensions of our brains. E.g. the brain of a person born color blind is different, in a fundamental way, from the brain of a person born with all the color receptors. Similarly, a person born in the ubiquitous presence of smartphones has a fundamentally different brain than one born, say, in the 1930s.

Hence, although Scott’s argument works for the necessary but insufficient conclusion, I think it’s wiser to suggest that IIT’s Φ doesn’t measure the extent to which some thing (artifact, living or dead) is conscious. It measures the extent to which the cause(s) of the thing were conscious. I add the parenthetical plural of cause to indicate that perhaps an efficient cause of the thing (the agent) is conscious, but the material cause is not. It seems fairly clear that the DVD player would not have emerged without humans having created it. But to evoke Robert Rosen, when the thing being considered is its own cause, both the thing and its cause are conscious.

The interesting next step, of course, is when/if the intelligent design yahoos will pick up on this. It seems rather obvious that an eyeball doesn’t just “fall together”… it must be painstakingly developed, just like the DVD player. The trick is that the DVD player is not its own cause, whereas the eyeball is (… or almost is, to the extent that eyeballs are extensions of the nervous system of the animal). This is what led Rosen’s critics to accuse him of vitalism … and is the heart of our modern forms of anthropo- and bio-centrism. Where the intelligent design guys are clearly misguided, the ideas of pan-psychism or … pan-life-ism, is not as clearly wrong.)

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