Is there a little bit of consciousness in everything?

Many people find it interesting, both intellectually and maybe also emotionally, to think that consciousness is common. But is it possible to test? Surprisingly, it might be able to.

Panpsychism is the idea that everything in the universe has consciousness, not just humans and animals, but also trees, plants, and bacteria.
Panpsychists believe that there is some kind of mind in everything, even the smallest particles.
Many people find it interesting, both intellectually and maybe also emotionally, to think that consciousness is common.
But can it be tested in the real world?

Is everything in the world a little bit conscious? | MIT Technology Review


Surprisingly, it might be able to.
This is because integrated information theory (IIT), which is one of the most popular scientific theories of consciousness, has many, but not all, of the same ideas as panpsychism.

Thomas Nagel, an American philosopher, has said that something is conscious if there is "something that it is like to be" that thing in its current state.
When a person is awake, their brain feels like something in particular.

IIT specifies a unique number, a system’s integrated information, labeled by the Greek letter φ (pronounced phi). If φ is zero, the system does not feel like anything; indeed, the system does not exist as a whole, as it is fully reducible to its constituent components. The larger φ, the more conscious a system is, and the more irreducible. Given an accurate and complete description of a system, IIT predicts both the quantity and the quality of its experience (if any). IIT predicts that because of the structure of the human brain, people have high values of φ, while animals have smaller (but positive) values and classical digital computers have almost none.

A person’s value of φ is not constant. It increases during early childhood with the development of the self and may decrease with onset of dementia and other cognitive impairments. φ will fluctuate during sleep, growing larger during dreams and smaller in deep, dreamless states.

IIT starts by figuring out what the five true and essential parts of any conscious experience are.
For example, experiences are definite (exclusion).
This means that an experience is neither less than it is nor more than it is. For example, an experience is neither just the feeling of the color blue and not the moving ocean that made the color come to mind, nor is it the ocean and the tree canopy behind the person.
In a second step, IIT finds five physical properties that any system, like a brain, computer, pine tree, or sand dune, must have in order to feel like something.
In IIT, a "mechanism" is any part of a system that causes something else to happen. This could be a logical gate in a computer or a neuron in the brain.
IIT says that consciousness can only happen in systems of mechanisms that are set up in a certain way.
To put it more simply, that structure must be as integrated as possible. It can't be accurately described by breaking it down into its parts.
It must also be able to cause and effect itself. This means that the current state of a given mechanism must affect not only its future states but also the future states of the whole system.

Given a precise physical description of a system, the theory provides a way to calculate the φ of that system. The technical details of how this is done are complicated, but the upshot is that one can, in principle, objectively measure the φ of a system so long as one has such a precise description of it. (We can compute the φ of computers because, having built them, we understand them precisely. Computing the φ of a human brain is still an estimate.)

Systems can be evaluated at different levels—one could measure the φ of a sugar-cube-size piece of my brain, or of my brain as a whole, or of me and you together. Similarly, one could measure the φ of a silicon atom, of a particular circuit on a microchip, or of an assemblage of microchips that make up a supercomputer. Consciousness, according to the theory, exists for systems for which φ is at a maximum. It exists for all such systems, and only for such systems. 

Free Nature Image on Unsplash

The φ of my brain is bigger than the φ values of any of its parts, however one sets out to subdivide it. So I am conscious. But the φ of me and you together is less than my φ or your φ, so we are not “jointly” conscious. If, however, a future technology could create a dense communication hub between my brain and your brain, then such brain-bridging would create a single mind, distributed across four cortical hemispheres. 

Conversely, the φ of a supercomputer is less than the φs of any of the circuits composing it, so a supercomputer—however large and powerful—is not conscious. The theory predicts that even if some deep-learning system could pass the Turing test, it would be a so-called “zombie”—simulating consciousness, but not actually conscious.

IIT, like panpsychism, thinks that consciousness is an inherent, basic property of reality that can be graded and is probably common in the tree of life, since any system with more than zero bits of information will feel like something. This doesn't mean that a bee feels fat or makes plans for the weekend. But a bee can feel some happiness when it gets back to its hive after gathering pollen in the sun. When a bee dies, it no longer has any feelings or thoughts. In the same way, a single cell is very complicated, with millions of proteins interacting with each other. It may feel a little bit like something.

At first, arguing about what consciousness is might seem like an academic game, but it has real and important effects. It's clear that it affects how we think about people who are in vegetative states. These patients may groan or move on their own, but they don't do what they are told when they are told to move their eyes or nod. Are they aware minds stuck in damaged bodies, able to sense but unable to act? Or are they not aware of anything?

It's hard to tell if these kinds of patients are conscious or not. IIT supporters have come up with a way to check if a person is conscious even if they are not responding. First, they set up a network of EEG electrodes that can measure the electrical activity in the brain. Then they use a gentle magnetic pulse to stimulate the brain and record the echoes of that pulse. They can then use a tool called a perturbational complexity index to figure out how complicated these echoes are (PCI).

The PCI is always above a certain threshold in people who are healthy and aware, or who have brain damage but are still aware. On the other hand, a healthy person's PCI is always below that threshold when they are sleeping (0.31). So it makes sense to use PCI as a stand-in for a conscious mind. If a person in a persistent vegetative state always has a PCI that is lower than this threshold, we can be sure that this person is not covertly conscious.

Several clinical centers in the US and Europe are looking into this method. Other tests are done to see if IIT's predictions about where and when sensory consciousness leaves its mark in the brains of humans, nonhuman primates, and mice are true.

In contrast to panpsychism, the shocking claims of IIT can be tested in the real world. If they hold up, science may have found a way to cut through a knot that has puzzled philosophers for as long as philosophy has been around.

Follow us on Google News

Recent Search