How Consciousness Arises From Networks

manwith2brainsmovieVia Wired, neuroscientist Christof Koch argues that there are consciousnesses that exist outside of biological entities:

Consciousness arises within any sufficiently complex, information-processing system. All animals, from humans on down to earthworms, are conscious; even the internet could be.

My consciousness is an undeniable fact. I might be confused about the state of my consciousness, but I’m not confused about having it. Then, looking at the biology, all animals have complex physiology. There’s nothing exceptional about human brains. That consciousness extends to all these creatures, that it’s an imminent property of highly organized pieces of matter, such as brains.

It’s not that any physical system has consciousness. A black hole, a heap of sand, a bunch of isolated neurons in a dish, they’re not integrated. They have no consciousness. But complex systems do. And how much consciousness they have depends on how many connections they have and how they’re wired up.

There’s a theory, called Integrated Information Theory, developed by Giulio Tononi at the University of Wisconsin, that assigns to any one brain, or any complex system, a number — denoted by the Greek symbol of Φ — that tells you how integrated a system is, how much more the system is than the union of its parts. Φ gives you an information-theoretical measure of consciousness. Any system with integrated information different from zero has consciousness. Any integration feels like something.

Integrated information theory postulates that consciousness is a local maximum. You and me, for example: We’re interacting right now, but vastly less than the cells in my brain interact with each other. While you and I are conscious as individuals, there’s no conscious Übermind that unites us in a single entity.

On the internet, computers are packet-switching. They’re not connected permanently, but rapidly switch from one to another. But according to my version of panpsychism, it feels like something to be the internet — and if the internet were down, it wouldn’t feel like anything anymore. And that is, in principle, not different from the way I feel when I’m in a deep, dreamless sleep.

20 Comments on "How Consciousness Arises From Networks"

  1. Ted Heistman | Nov 24, 2013 at 10:47 am |

    Yeah, I think this is true. I also think that various organisms are integrated with each other as a population. For example some bug may individually just have a little bug brain, but contains the collective wisdom of its entire species. I don’t think its just the DNA though, I think there is some type of nonlocal field these bugs tap into, like Rupert Sheldrake’s idea of the morphic field.

    Also Corporations, school’s families, nations, any type of organization has a collective intelligence. Bloom writes about this in his various books about “the Super-Organism”

    I still think, however, that the Hero’s journey is to be an individual and not just follow the inertia of large organizations. They always fuck you over in the end. They are big and dumb, these organization. Its a cold, unfeeling type of consciousness. Its the Borg.

    • Rhoid Rager | Nov 24, 2013 at 2:38 pm |

      Not really disagreeing with the thrust of what you wrote, but I don’t think organizations possess collective intelligence. In fact, I think attributing any qualities to an organization of humans is a major social fallacy with destructive effects. Reification of social forms, like corporations or states, feeds the delusion of the people that comprise them by making the myth more ‘real’ for all. This is what political scientists and sociologists are guilty of, and one of the primary reasons that I realized I made a grave error in going to grad skool for international relations. These areas of study attract the clergy class (academics) who serve to perpetuate the poisonous religion of the idea of a necessarily inescapable hierarchical society. In other words, these people convince us to channel our psychic energy to the bloated, corrupt core of society in obsequious obedience.

      Field thinking (a la Sheldrake) on the other hand is fascinating to me and feels right. In sociology Bourdieu offered field thinking back in the 90s and the idea took on very strongly, even thought it was more of an analogy to understand human behaviour en masse. It’s my belief (indeed I integrated this into my dissertation proposal) that social fields are real phenomena and emanate forth from a larger species field. Where sociality (mutual aid as Kropotkin termed it) is an inevitability because of our latent connection to every other member of our species, the type of social forms will always be malleable and in flux. This was a subversive idea in political ‘science’ because many in that field of study believe in the ‘state’ myth and are not given to accepting alternative social forms. So I didn’t complete my dissertation, and instead dropped out. I believe I’ll get back to it one day soon and write a book accessible to a larger audience.

      • Ted Heistman | Nov 24, 2013 at 3:12 pm |

        You seem to be agreeing with me, but you feel its “wrong” for people to see a corporation as having a type of collective intelligence. I think the reason it does have a collective intelligence is related to the fact that people believe it does. Imagine two guys wearing a horse costume. They are co-operating to make a horse. As a horse they do different things they wouldn’t do as individuals. They use their imagination. In their imagination they create a horse.

        When they take off the costume they go back to being individuals. I think corporations are a lot like that. People play a role and do what they think is appropriate to that role, they put their psyche into what they feel is appropriate. Collectively it forms a type of intelligence.

        I really do think they are organisms. They even reproduce. Why does every Walmart or Target look like every other walmart or target if there is no intelligent behind it? The intelligence that reporoduces target stores all over the country is not the result of any single human intelligence.

        I think there are many different types of entities that exist in the human imagination.

        • sonicbphuct | Nov 25, 2013 at 6:51 am |

          something i’d never thought of: suburban blight as a self-reproducing organism. I just had visions of a walmart dividing like amoebas, and in a few thousand years, going off to get the Target pregnant. I wonder if K-Mart is the illegitimate child of walmart and Kohl’s department stores.

          But seriously – really a very interesting line of thought. Going to have to check out this Sheldrake fields stuff.

          • Ted Heistman | Nov 25, 2013 at 11:08 am |

            I don’t think Shelldrake talks about stores reproducing. That’s a thought that occurred to me from reading Richard Dawkins and Howard Bloom and their ideas about memes.

            I was reading those books as I was watching a new target store go up near my house and then another. I have been around the country and these chain stores all pretty much look alike.

            Its an interesting phenomenon. Plus different companies have their own corporate culture too. You know? Like employees at Trader Joes act different than at Walmart.

          • I disagree with the limits he puts on it. Humans understand consciousness as they understand most things (it’s all about ME), so they are always saying this or that thing is not conscious. But Quantum theory says you cannot measure an object without effecting it, and you cannot know everything about it in any one encounter. To me, that implies that consciousness is part of every interaction, even between subatomic particles, in which case, consciousness permeates the entire universe.

            The limitations on what can be known are just as important as the awareness of what can be known. Otherwise you wouldn’t have integration or growth in complexity, you would just have merging into an amorphous unity.

            From a metaphysical perspective, that would mean the universe going backward to less consciousness. Zero distinctions equals zero opportunities to interact, which equals zero consciousness. Working backwards through this leads me to the conclusion that consciousness (self-awareness) is the goal of the universe — and that the ancient models of male and female or positive and negative are descriptions of this process… the two things that become the ten thousand things.

            It also leads me to believe that what we do as individuals is very important… and fuck a bunch of stupid corporations. They are about as aware as giant viruses… rob, consume, kill. Maybe they’ll evolve someday, but virus haven’t. Part of the function of virus is to move bits of DNA around between creatures that can’t share DNA through sex. Corporations help move information around, but like virus, they are basically parasites that can’t reproduce on their own.

            Oh please please please call me a real “person”.

          • Ted Heistman | Nov 26, 2013 at 3:39 pm |

            “The limitations on what can be known are just as important as the
            awareness of what can be known. Otherwise you wouldn’t have integration
            or growth in complexity, you would just have merging into an amorphous

            I like that. I agree. This reminds me of a blog post a buddy of mine made a while back about the effect of gravity on fire. I guess its defunct now. Yeah I think the ancients were onto something when they constructed the i ching

          • Wow. Too bad it’s gone. Fire and gravity. It brought an an image to mind I had… sometime. I can’t recover that either. Maybe something about expansion/contraction attraction/repulsion… more duality, coexistence of opposites… certainly something modern pop Buddhism has gotten wrong… calling “desire” (attraction) the root of all suffering, when it clearly is one of the most fundamental forces of creation.

          • Thanks Ted. Those photos are great. I really like seeing people with science cred who also have an open mind. It so often seems that the institutions of science have become the mirror image of the institutions of religion that repressed them in the old days… er, did I say the old days?

            It’s frustrating that neither religious fanatics nor materialist fanatics want to make room for a synthesis that might be aptly named “intelligent design”. They seem to have agreed about that, even if they can’t agree about anything else.

            Wonder what would happen right now if I said, “I believe in Intelligent Design.”

          • Ted Heistman | Nov 28, 2013 at 8:48 am |

            yeah, people get crazy. But when it comes down to it, most people believe there is order to the universe and that there must be some purpose and intelligence behind it.

          • by the way. I believe I owe you an apology for jumping the gun awhile back. I appreciate your restraint in giving me a pass on that.

          • Ted Heistman | Nov 28, 2013 at 9:42 am |

            Its OK. I can’t remember!

      • Ted Heistman | Nov 24, 2013 at 3:15 pm |

        I think your dissertation sounds interesting though

  2. DeepCough | Nov 24, 2013 at 10:52 am |

    I think another variable needs to be considered within the theory of Integrated Information Theory–the ability of an integrated system to disintegrate another system. Think of this as something to mull over when Skynet has become self-ware.

  3. If this is the case, then mycologist Paul Stamets’ theory on mycelium as a sort of Gaian neurological membrane (“Earth’s natural Internet”) gains some credence and has some interesting implications:
    (cued up at 25:13, lasts until about 32:19…entire talk is worth a listen, though)

    That being said, Koch’s definition of where consciousness “arises” is still limited to defining systems as separate from each other – as opposed to the organism-environment continuum that all life is (where seemingly individual manifestations of consciousness are still expressions of the entire system, like bubbles being obvious/concentrated/surface representations of the all-permeating heat in boiling water). Alan Watts crystallizes the point with incredible clarity:

    To put it in one other way, the whole of reality/existence is the sufficiently complex organization that makes consciousness possible. If you believe that you are conscious, then you believe the universe is; literally the entirety of it needs to exist to support “you.” We (and other sufficiently “complex organisms”) might be the conscious tip of the iceberg, but you don’t poke your head out of the water without the rest of the berg beneath you lifting you up.

  4. “Any system with integrated information different from zero has consciousness. Any integration feels like something.”

    The really tantalizing question is “why?” Any organism is fundamentally just a deterministic, biochemical machine that would behave quite the same, regardless of whether or not it “felt” its existence. The fact that there *is* feeling seems to suggest that our perception of reality is somehow lacking a dimension.

  5. “Consciousness arises within any sufficiently complex, information-processing system.”

    I’m inclined to agree with this, but this is a statement of faith until some way is found to demonstrate this experimentally.

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