The value of wild ideas

By | September 29, 2023

Anil Seth writes:

Earlier this month, the consciousness science community erupted into chaos. An open letter, signed by 124 researchers—some specializing in consciousness and others not—made the provocative claim that one of the most widely discussed theories in the field, Integrated Information Theory (IIT), should be considered “pseudoscience.” The uproar that followed sent consciousness social media into a doom spiral of accusation and recrimination, with the fallout covered in Nature, New Scientist, and elsewhere.

Calling something pseudoscience is pretty much the strongest criticism one can make of a theory. It’s a move that should never be taken lightly, especially when more than 100 influential scientists and philosophers do it all at once.

The open letter justified the charge primarily on the grounds that IIT has “commitments” to panpsychism—the idea that consciousness is fundamental and ubiquitous—and that the theory “as a whole” may not be empirically testable. A subsequent piece by one of the lead authors of the letter, Hakwan Lau, reframed the charge somewhat: that the claims made for IIT by its proponents and the wider media are not supported by empirical evidence.

The brainchild of neuroscientist Giulio Tononi, IIT has been around for quite some time. Back in the late 1990s, Tononi published a paper in Science with the Nobel Laureate Gerald Edelman, linking consciousness to mathematical measures of complexity. This paper, which made a lasting impression on me, sowed the seeds of what later became IIT. Tononi published his first outline of the theory itself in 2004 and it has been evolving ever since, with the latest version—IIT 4.0—appearing earlier this year. [Continue reading…]

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