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A Noteworthy Project

Written by Jeff Drake
11 · 07 · 20
The question, “What is consciousness” remains at the top of a list of the 12 or so most important scientific questions that remain to be answered. As a result, there are a lot of people working on trying to find an answer to this question in a variety of fields: neuroscience, physics, philosophy, psychology, computer science, to name a few. I find this fact alone to be exciting. The more minds working on it, the better, as far as I am concerned.

There is, of course, another important related question that also remains unanswered: “What things might be conscious?” Putting all jokes aside regarding people we have met whom we might define as not conscious at all, it’s still a given that we humans are conscious beings. But certainly other things are conscious, too. Animals, for instance. Right? And suddenly we are off and running! Are all animals conscious? Are insects conscious? Microbes? Trees? Yep. Definitely a slippery slope, although these are valid questions.

I was very excited to read this week that a new science project is forming, a project that is the first of its kind on the topic of consciousness. The idea is to try and scientifically find solutions to these questions. What makes me excited about this project is that it is using science to find answers. While philosophy is absolutely required to help define the parameters of consciousness, it will take science to prove any theory that appears. Without scientific proof, what have you got? Just another theory. At this point you might be saying, “Wait. What?” “How can science prove a theory of consciousness?” I think the answer is, “Very methodically.”

First, the project isn’t starting with some pie in the sky mystical (or quantum) theory of consciousness, so the scope is necessarily narrow. Specifically, this project is going to be a competition of sorts between the two current theories of consciousness that have been deemed by experts to be the theories most capable of being analyzed and tested scientifically: Integrated Information Theory (IIT) and Global Workspace Theory (GWT).

The purpose of this project is to drag these two theories of consciousness out of the dark corners of various science and philosophy departments and push them into the light where we can see them tested, poked and prodded, and where one will eventually (hopefully) be seen as superior, or at least better than its opponent theory – based on experimental evidence.

The project is being funded by the Templeton World Charity Organization,[1] has a budget of $20 million, which is not chump change, and will employ a new method of scientific inquiry into difficult problems; In the past, proponents of each theory would focus on promoting their theory ad nauseum and would tear down any opposing views that stand in their way. This project is a bit more chill, as researchers from both sides will collaborate up front, come to an agreement on what to publish in advance regarding how the experiments will be conducted (transparency); and in the end, both sides will agree to accept the outcome. Wow, what a concept! LOL!

David Potgieter, a program officer at Templeton, says that this is just the beginning and is planning several more projects on this topic over the next five years. He appears to be realistic in his expectations, saying: “I don’t think we are going to come to a single theory that tells us everything about consciousness,” “But if it were to take a hundred years to solve the mystery of consciousness, I hope we can cut it down to fifty.”[2]

So what the hell is the Integrated Information Theory (IIT) of consciousness? And what about the Global Workspace Theory (GWT)? GWT sounds like some kind of warped office design project! What has consciousness got to do with a workspace anyway?

The following is a very high overview of each of these theories. (By the way, neither of these theories are considered to be merely the chalkboard meanderings of bored scientists. There are years of thought and research behind each of them. Yeah, books on each theory, too!)

Integrated Information Theory (IIT)

According to Wiki: “Integrated information theory attempts to explain what consciousness is and why it might be associated with certain physical systems. Given any such system, the theory predicts whether that system is conscious, to what degree it is conscious, and what particular experience it is having.”[3]

As you can see, this is the nebulous 10,000 foot view of IIT. No detail at all. But even in this high-level description you can see the hooks that the scientific method can latch onto. First, there’s a theory in play that consciousness is associated with certain physical systems. Hmm. How to prove this? By experiment, trial and error, of course! But first we have to define what is required for a physical system to have consciousness. Just what are the properties of such a system?

Fortunately, two men have spearheaded the IIT theory and effort: Guilio Tononi[4] and Christof Koch[5]. As you can see from the footnotes, neither of these guys can be considered a “lightweight.” And they have, in fact, defined the necessary properties for such physical systems.

Regarding the question, “To what degree is something conscious?”, these scientists have also developed a method that can be used to calculate the amount of consciousness a physical system contains. They chose to use the symbol “Phi,’ as the symbol for integrated information. represented by the Greek letter (Phi): Φ.[6] How much consciousness a physical system has is reflected by its Phi number. I can imagine that in the future, rather than ask someone, “What’s your sign?”, people will be asking, “What’s your Phi?”

The philosopher in me immediately recognized all of the future water-cooler arguments that will ensue over questions like, “Do all physical systems that have a phi level greater than zero have rights?’ If not, “How much phi is required before we give them rights?” You get the picture. LOL! Seriously, though, these are questions this theory will force us to ask and answer.

By the way, in case you missed it, this theory refers to “physical systems”, not “biological systems”. In other words, this theory of consciousness is “substrate independent”, which means that the emergence of consciousness has everything to do with the organization of the physical system, not its biology (or lack thereof), thus opening the door to so-called machine consciousness. I’ll discuss this in another post, as there is more to this story than meets the eye.

Global Workspace Theory (GWT)

The Global Workspace Theory is the brainchild of Bernard Baars.[7] Whereas the IIT theory purports that consciousness emerges based on the way a physical system is organized and is measured by the amount of information in that system, the Global Workspace Theory claims to define a “cognitive architecture” fit for consciousness. This is a fancy phrase that refers to a theory about the structure of the mind.

I find it interesting that both theories seem focused on structural organization, or architecture, if you will. However, this is, I think, the point at which the two theories begin to diverge and head into different directions.

I have to stop here and admit to you that I am not very familiar with GWT and although I am also somewhat new to IIT, I have a better grasp of IIT than I do GWT. I’ve simply spent more time reading about it. So, you’re lucky, my description of GWT is going to be brief.

When describing GWT, the analogy of a theater is often used. The architecture defined by GWT involves talk of a “theater of consciousness,” which as I understand it, corresponds to the “workspace” in the theory title, where consciousness resides, and a “spotlight of selective attention”. that shines its light on various things in consciousness. In fact, the model usedf apparently resembles theories of working memory. The contents of consciousness apparently enter into and out of this workspace area in our brains, like actors in a play. I could go on from here, but I’m not going to do that. To be honest, my initial reaction to the GWT theory is that it should be testable with the use of high-end technology, MRIs, etc. To what end, I cannot say. But to be further honest, I definitely favor the Integrated Information Theory of consciousness over Global Workspace Theory, but you may have picked up on this already. I’m not going to go into this theory any further at this point.

I will follow this post up with another focused just on IIT, because I think it’s an important theory and I have a feeling this theory is going to get some press in the near future. I will be following this exciting project as it evolves. I’ll also continue looking into GWT. If I find something that makes me change my opinion of it, I’ll let you know.



[2] “Neuroscience Readies for a Showdown Over Consciousness Ideas,” Quanta Magazine article by Philip Ball, March 6, 2019.

[3] Wikipedia.

[4] Giulio Tononi is a neuroscientist and psychiatrist who holds the David P. White Chair in Sleep Medicine, as well as a Distinguished Chair in Consciousness Science, at the University of Wisconsin. Wikipedia.

[5] Christof Koch is a German-American neuroscientist best known for his work on the neural bases of consciousness. He is the president and chief scientific officer of the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle. From 1986 until 2013, he was a professor at the California Institute of Technology. Wikipedia.

[6] “Phi” is pronounced with a long “I”, so it rhymes with “pie”. Some have noted that the Greeks pronounce Phi as “fee”, but the Greeks also pronounce “pi” as “pee”, so go figure.

[7] Bernard J. Baars is a former Senior Fellow in Theoretical Neurobiology at The Neurosciences Institute in La Jolla, CA., and is currently an Affiliated Fellow there. He is best known as the originator of the global workspace theory, a theory of human cognitive architecture and consciousness. Wikipedia.

Let us know what you think…


1 Comment

  1. Michael B Connolly

    Thanks Jeff. VERY interesting!


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Jeff Drake

Retired IT consultant, world-traveler, hobby photographer, and philosopher.