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Friday, October 27, 2023

Theory of consciousness branded 'pseudoscience' by neuroscientists

Clare Wilson
New Scientist
Originally posted 19 Sept 23

Consciousness is one of science’s deepest mysteries; it is considered so difficult to explain how physical entities like brain cells produce subjective sensory experiences, such as the sensation of seeing the colour red, that this is sometimes called “the hard problem” of science.

While the question has long been investigated by studying the brain, IIT came from considering the mathematical structure of information-processing networks and could also apply to animals or artificial intelligence.

It says that a network or system has a higher level of consciousness if it is more densely interconnected, such that the interactions between its connection points or nodes yield more information than if it is reduced to its component parts.

IIT predicts that it is theoretically possible to calculate a value for the level of consciousness, termed phi, of any network with known structure and functioning. But as the number of nodes within a network grows, the sums involved get exponentially bigger, meaning that it is practically impossible to calculate phi for the human brain – or indeed any information-processing network with more than about 10 nodes.


Giulio Tononi at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who first developed IIT and took part in the recent testing, did not respond to New Scientist’s requests for comment. But Johannes Fahrenfort at VU Amsterdam in the Netherlands, who was not involved in the recent study, says the letter went too far. “There isn’t a lot of empirical support for IIT. But that doesn’t warrant calling it pseudoscience.”

Complicating matters, there is no single definition of pseudoscience. But ITT is not in the same league as astrology or homeopathy, says James Ladyman at the University of Bristol in the UK. “It looks like a serious attempt to understand consciousness. It doesn’t make it a theory pseudoscience just because some people are making exaggerated claims.”


A group of 124 neuroscientists, including prominent figures in the field, have criticized the integrated information theory (IIT) of consciousness in an open letter. They argue that recent experimental evidence said to support IIT didn't actually test its core ideas and is practically impossible to perform. IIT suggests that the level of consciousness, called "phi," can be calculated for any network with known structure and functioning, but this becomes impractical for networks with many nodes, like the human brain. Some critics believe that IIT has been overhyped and may have unintended consequences for policies related to consciousness in fetuses and animals. However, not all experts consider IIT pseudoscience, with some seeing it as a serious attempt to understand consciousness.

The debate surrounding the integrated information theory (IIT) of consciousness is a complex one. While it's clear that the recent experimental evidence has faced criticism for not directly testing the core ideas of IIT, it's important to recognize that the study of consciousness is a challenging and ongoing endeavor.

Consciousness is indeed one of science's profound mysteries, often referred to as "the hard problem." IIT, in its attempt to address this problem, has sparked valuable discussions and research. It may not be pseudoscience, but the concerns raised about overhyping its findings are valid. It's crucial for scientific theories to be communicated accurately to avoid misinterpretation and potential policy implications.

Ultimately, the study of consciousness requires a multidisciplinary approach and the consideration of various theories, and it's important to maintain a healthy skepticism while promoting rigorous scientific inquiry in this complex field.