In defense of Integrated Information Theory
I find the letter baffling. IIT is fundamentally a bunch of math. The math may be wrong or it may map inappropriately into the empirical world, but declaring it incorrect (which underlies a legitimate question) is entirely different from declaring it pseudoscience, which underlies a subjective judgment fraught with political and other types of debatable perspectives. To me, the critical point is that, by such standards, if someone tries hard enough, any theory can be argued to be pseudoscience. It smacks of prejudice. At least some of the theorists signing the letter should know better.
what a sad sad thing. another example of the humanity of scientists and the eagerness to condemn the unfamiliar.
Looks like everyone is learning to play the same narrative game: present your group as the serious levelheaded consensus; denounce your enemies as misinformation or some hate crime; demand that media gatekeepers follow your recommendation and censor or disqualify your enemies.
Informative, as usual Erik. As a layman, I've learned so much recently from reading your Substack and The World Behind the World.
One question I would love to see you explore in more detail is the potential for consciousness in machines. This article in Scientific American (https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/what-does-it-feel-like-to-be-a-chatbot/) compares IIT to "computational" theories of consciousness, and touches on how each might or might not support conscious AIs. I would love to see these ideas explored further, especially in extrapolating the most likely models and architectures (hardware and software) for sentient machines.
Brilliant post. The letter is a travesty. On top of just craven jealousy, my guess is that the scientific establishment doesn’t like some of the metaphysical implications of IIT. They also detect how philosophically informed the theory is. IIT makes you really think hard about consciousness. Really, really hard. I think IIT demands one revise their thinking about mereological questions as well in a way that can feel threatening to the “standard way” science has thought about entities and existence. No one who internalizes the concept of qualia space I suspect can really look at their own consciousness the same way again. Great post.
I suspect that the problem here is trying to have the mental cake and eat it too. To explain consciousness on terms friendly to natural science means doing without subjective and qualitative properties. But since the target of explanation is subjective and qualitative properties, they've got to be in there somewhere. As soon as you attempt to squeeze blood from a stone, you're attracting partisans of blood and stones alike.
This is roughly the same backlash that Dennett attracts with his intentional stance, and for broadly the same reasons. There's not really a consistent theoretical position that gets you both a) the phenomenon of subjective awareness and b) an objective, observer-neutral theory of such. You either have to grant that the methods of natural science have to be open to new kinds of properties, or else you grant that experience is not how it appears. Both are tough sells.
How did all those people come to agree on doing this? It seems like a contagion, like mob behavior. I suppose from now on scientists will sometimes defend or attack en masse like this instead of just doing science. We have entered the era where any publicly discussed issue is a matter of two (+) factions, each of which is the only one on the side of human decency.
Oh dear! This seems like a disaster! The researchers seem like, rather than arguing against IIT (which is reasonable--I think IIT is false!), trying to just smear it publicly. This is not how science or philosophy ought to be done.
Thank you for covering this sorry episode. The label of scientific misinformation seems to apply to the authors of the letter. I have no expertise in the field but everything you say about the rendition in the media of the results of the cooperative competition between the two theories corresponds to the impression from what I read.
I can imagine only two reasons behind the initiative: one is hostility toward Giulio Tononi (as one reader said, academics may find convenient to hide attacks on a colleague behind attacks on journalistic representations of his work); the other is hostility toward the practico-political implications that someone might draw at some point from the theory. The first explanation does not do honor to the authors of the letter as human beings; the other does not do honour to them as scientists. The two explanations may well coexist.
I wonder whether some of the signatories are going to walk it back, given that some of the claims about us science journalists are clearly wrong. It often happens in academic disputes that, hesitant to criticize their colleagues directly, scholars aim their fire instead at journalists.
To focus for a moment on the actual science, what do you think of the Blums’ formalization of GWT?
Very astute analysis. I am totally a layperson on these topics, but I can't see how you are wrong about any of the arguments you make. Especially the last part, about the politics. I mean, really? If a scientific investigation leads us to question a politically popular belief, we should "cancel" that investigation?
You're right. I don't think that IIT is correct but it doesn't mean that iit is Pseudoscience. Pseudoscience is usually the term that describes charlatans that tries to sound like scientists, something like Deepak Chopra. It's wrong to call a scientific theory pseudoscience even if it's unfalsifiable. Science needs to be open for new creative and brave ideas.
Always a pleasure reading this, even if somewhat embattled.
I wonder how the "near world-famous" guys got roped into signing this thing, but yeah it seems irresponsible and sadly kinda lazy with regards to its critique.
I'm barely aware of the mentioned theories of consciousness (IIT included), but the appeal to media and academic politics instead of a constructive reproach is just low as far as science in general is concerned. With how much formalism (hence, points to engage with) IIT in particular exposes, it's doubly sad and kinda baffling.
I appreciate your commentary on the silly letter. // "A Universe of Consciousness," by Edelman and Tononi, is one of the most impressive and perhaps profound books I've read by neuroscientists. I'm curious why Tononi gets credit for IIT in your commentary on the letter. Maybe the math of it, yes, and some minor (?) conceptual advances (like?). But the foundational conceptual model of IIT presented in U of C is principally attributable to Edelman, no? I'm not nit-picking; I would really like to understand why you give the credit to Tononi.
"My competitor is getting media attention and I'm not!"
IIT has plenty of flaws, to be sure, but calling it pseudoscience seems like petty jealousy to me. Consciousness science will get nowhere if we're afraid to present bold theories.
W-T-F?! How did so many rational people get into this pitchfork brigade? Perhaps some of them did so unwittingly or too trustingly? I hope this is the case. What are they protecting the public from? What possible harm to the public episteme would accepting IIT as a legitimate hypothesis bring? I cannot think of a single one. Maybe I am not insightful enough to see the “danger”.
Perhaps it is the popularity of the “contest” that was staged? Maybe? But I certainly see harms from accepting their weak sauce argument. Basically they are just name-calling: “panpsychist commitments”.
But the attractiveness of the IIT theory is that it is NOT panpsychist. It is giving an operational “cell level” measure to assess no matter what the interpretive substrate actually is made of. This is the exact opposite of panpsychist hand waving. Or did I miss something?