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Integrated information theory of consciousness is a functionalist emergentism

Abstract

In this paper I argue that the Integrated Information Theory of Consciousness has an underlying emergentist metaphysics, specifically of a kind that has received minimal attention and we may call functionalist emergentism. I will try to show that in this scientific theory conscious experience is a functional-role property possessed by the whole system, not by their parts, which is dependent on, but also (purportedly) causally powerful over and above, the properties of the parts. However, I will argue that depicting conscious experience as a functional-role emergent property threatens the whole coherence of the theory because, by definition, functional-realizers do all the causal work associated with the instantiation of any functional-role property on any occasion. Hence, to preserve the causal power of consciousness, which, as we will see, is one of the fundamental building blocks of the theory, linked to the assertion of the very existence of consciousness, phenomenal properties should be re-thought as realizers of the relevant informationally integrated causal-roles.

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Notes

  1. See Bedau (1997a) for a related view that he calls emergent functionalism. A brief comparison will be done shortly.

  2. Level and order talk should be understood interchangeably and according to the parts-whole relationship, e.g. in molecules, atom-to-atom interaction is lower-level compared to molecule-to-molecule interaction, which is higher-level.

  3. I will not make any claim about the plausibility of breathing being an emergent phenomenon, just what would be the sufficient conditions that, if satisfied, would make it emergent.

  4. I give just sufficient but not necessary and sufficient conditions because presently, I could not rule out other plausible ways in which a property may be said to be functional and emergent.

  5. If the term ‘downward causation’ is considered to be problematic or mysterious it could be understood just as the idea that, within emergent wholes, “parts behave differently” (Gillet 2016, p. 2), because of the presence of higher-level causally relevant properties commonly associated with the organization of the system and irreducible higher-level laws.

  6. However, see Bedau (2008) for a defense of a purportedly robust form of higher-level causal efficacy within weakly emergent phenomena.

  7. To my knowledge, at least two special issues on IIT have been released in 2019; in Entropy (https://www.mdpi.com/journal/entropy/special_issues/integrated) and in Journal of Consciousness Studies (https://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/imp/jcs/2019/00000026/f0020007).

  8. In Book Z, Aristotle gives two examples, flesh as an entity besides its components fire and earth, and a syllable composed of consonant and vocal being something besides its component phonemes.

  9. That is, gate A = ON, gate B = OFF and gate C = OFF.

  10. This is called a cause-effect repertoire. By probability distribution I mean the assignment of a probability between zero (certainly not occurring) and one (certainly occurring), to each one of a set of possible states of the system, that could have occurred in the immediate past or can occur in the immediate future, given the current state of the target mechanism.

  11. It corresponds, among all possible splits, to the partition of the n-order mechanism that entails the least informational difference compared to the n-order mechanism as a whole. Partitions are obtained dividing the mechanism in two parts (e.g.[ABC] is divided in [AB] and [C]) and noising the connections between them, viz., making them completely random channels of influence.

  12. The difference between the causal information that generates the whole and the information generated by its partition is computed by a measure called the ‘earth mover’s distance’ (EMD). According to the authors, this statistical measure should be interpreted as “the minimum cost of transportation” (Oizumi et al. 2014, Supplementary Text 2, p. 5) that would result from transforming one probability distribution into another if a certain amount of “earth” is associated with each probability.

  13. See Lombardi and López (2018) for a detailed examination of the meaning of ‘information’ within IIT.

  14. In Oizumi et al. (2014) these n-order irreducible mechanisms are themselves called concepts and their past/future informationally integrated repertoires are called Maximally Irreducible Cause-Effect Repertoires (MICEs). However, in Tononi et al. (2016), concepts are no longer identified with irreducible n-order mechanisms but with the corresponding informationally integrated past-future repertoires. Hence the terminology of MICE is abandoned and the cause-effect repertoires are called concepts. We will use this later terminology because it is the one that prevailed.

  15. Throughout the article we will call these felt sensations or ‘raw feelings’ interchangeably as qualia (sing. quale), phenomenal properties, subjective qualities and the like.

  16. The first name is due to the Eleatic stranger in Plato’s Sophist; while the second is due to British emergentist Samuel Alexander.

  17. See Bayne (2018) for a detailed and critical examination of these five purported axioms of experience and Cerullo (2015) for a critique centred on Information and Exclusion. In this work, however, we will assume the plausibility of the IIT framework and evaluate its theoretical virtues concerning functional emergence and causal irreducibility.

  18. Together with its constituting n-order mechanisms that specify φmax > 0, as we mentioned earlier.

  19. Evidently, the complex can interact with other systems and an environment. The point is that those interactions are not a necessary condition for both the existence and experience of the complex, as witnessed by our capacity to imagine, hallucinate and dream. See Bayne et al. (2020) for an assessment of the actual and future possibility of ‘islands of awareness’ in both natural and artificial substrates.

  20. If a reader worries that causal capacity or potentiality is not enough for ontological emergence, but instead higher-level actual causation is required, see Albantakis et al. (2019) for an account that applies IIT postulates to understand when and how composed mechanisms actually cause the next state of activation of other mechanisms.

  21. This is to discard the objection that the surplus of causal power could be just an artifact of our ignorance concerning key lower-level facts.

  22. For ease of exposition we will discuss just the differences in spatial scales.

  23. Just for exposition, not meant to be a real proposal.

  24. Thanks to Erik Hoel (personal communication) for stressing this.

  25. See Van Cleve (1990) and Stephan (2016) for that analysis.

  26. Thanks to one of the reviewers for stressing this.

  27. Nonetheless, it could be suggested that the conditions for the emergence of consciousness that IIT propose are so weak that even the smallest composed systems, namely protons and neutrons composed of interacting quarks, would be conscious. If this is the case, as Koch suggests (2012, p. 132), then consciousness would be almost everywhere, except in the elementary (non-composed) particles like quarks and electrons. Then, if such a microscopic system like a proton is conscious because it satisfies IIT’s conditions for emergence, I would strongly recommend, based both on the absence of independent reasons to regard these particles as conscious, and more controversially, on reasons for taking life as a necessary condition for consciousness (Thompson 2007, 2011), the incorporation of stronger constrains, like biological nature, in the IIT framework to compute max > 0.

  28. Let me note that this problem is different from whether the satisfaction of IIT’s postulates in a given system is sufficient or not for that system to be conscious. As I mentioned in the introduction and in footnote 17, I am assuming the overall plausibility of IIT’s postulates as a theory of consciousness. See also footnote 27. I am grateful to one of the reviewers for suggesting me to clarify this.

  29. Thanks to one of the reviewers who suggested me to clarify this discussion about the functional-zombie systems entailed by IIT.

  30. All references to Mayner et al. (2018) are to the graphical interface to the PyPhi toolbox found online at https://integratedinformationtheory.org/calculate.html.

  31. It is crucial to notice that the meaning of the term “order” in this context is different to the meaning of the same word I have been considering in the context of distinguishing between mereological or compositional levels.

  32. If the reader has any doubts about this assumption, then consider that exactly the same reasoning about functional roles and their realizers can be applied to the whole MICS.

  33. At best, qualia would be token-identical to their realizers, in which case Kim’s argument for functional-property conceptualism (ontological anti-realism) would enter stage (Kim 1992, 2008).

  34. Thanks to Abel Wajnerman for our discussions on this.

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Acknowledgements

I thank Abel Wajnerman, Erik Hoel, Niccolò Negro and two anonymous reviewers for their thorough comments, criticism and encouragement concerning previous versions of this paper, without which it would not have improved as it did. Also, I am grateful to audiences at the 23rd annual meeting of the Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness, Canada; 2019 Mind and Life Summer Research Institute, USA; 2019 Workshop on Philosophy of Mind and Cognitive Science, Chile; and at my Ph.D. thesis defense at Alberto Hurtado University, Chile. Especially important were the commentaries by, and discussion with Andrew Haun, Anil Seth, Francisco Pereira, Mazviita Chirimuuta, Miguel Ángel Sebastián, Olimpia Lombardi, Robert Van Gulick, Rodolfo Aldea and Will Mayner. Finally, I would like to thank ANID-Chile (ex CONICYT) for a doctoral scholarship that allowed me to do much of the research presented in the present article.

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Cea, I. Integrated information theory of consciousness is a functionalist emergentism. Synthese 199, 2199–2224 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-020-02878-8

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Keywords

  • Qualia
  • Phenomenal consciousness
  • Ontological emergence
  • Causal irreducibility
  • Functionalism
  • Panpsychism