Christof Koch declares himself a panpsychist in this interesting piece, but I don’t think he really is one. He subscribes to the Integrated Information Theory (IIT) of Giulio Tononi, which holds that consciousness is created by the appropriate integration of sufficient quantities of information. The level of integrated information can be mathematically expressed in a value called Phi: we have discussed this before a couple of times. I think this makes Koch an emergentist, but curiously enough he vigorously denies that.
Koch starts with a quotation about every outside having an inside which aptly brings out the importance of the first-person perspective in all these issues. It’s an implicit theme of what Koch says (in my reading at least) that consciousness is something extra. If we look at the issue from a purely third-person point of view, there doesn’t seem to be much to get excited about. Organisms exhibit different levels of complexity in their behaviour and it turns out that this complexity of behaviour arises from a greater complexity in the brain. You don’t say! The astonishment meter is still indicating zero. It’s only when we add in the belief that at some stage the inward light of consciousness, actual phenomenal experience, has come on that it gets interesting. It may be that Koch wants to incorporate panpsychism into his outlook to help provide that ineffable light, but attempting to make two theories work together is a risky path to take. I don’t want to accuse anyone of leaning towards dualism (which is the worst kind of philosophical bitchiness) but… well, enough said. I think Koch would do better to stick with the austere simplicity of IIT and say: that magic light you think you see is just integrated information. It may look a bit funny but that’s all it is, get used to it.
He starts off by arguing persuasively that consciousness is not the unique prerogative of human beings. Some, he says, have suggested that language is the dividing line, but surely some animals, preverbal infants and so on should not be denied consciousness? Well, no, but language might be interesting, not for itself but because it is an auxiliary effect of a fundamental change in brain organisation, one that facilitates the handling of abstract concepts, say (or one that allows the integration of much larger quantities of information, why not?). It might almost be a side benefit, but also a handy sign that this underlying reorganisation is in place, which would not be to say that you couldn’t have the reorganisation without having actual language. We would then have something, human-style thought, which was significantly different from the feelings of dogs, although the impoverishment of our vocabulary makes us call them both consciousness.
Still, in general the view that we’re dealing with a spectrum of experience, one which may well extend down to the presumably dim adumbrations of worms and insects, seems only sensible.
One appealing way of staying monist but allowing for the light of phenomenal experience is through emergence: at a certain level we find that the whole becomes more than the sum of its parts: we do sort of get something extra, but in an unobjectionable way. Strangely, Koch will have no truck with this kind of thinking. He says
‘the mental is too radically different for it to arise gradually from the physical’.
At first sight this seemed to me almost a direct contradiction of what he had just finished saying. The spectrum of consciousness suggests that we start with the blazing 3D cinema projector of the human mind, work our way down to the magic lanterns of dogs, the candles of newts, and the faint tiny glows of worms – and then the complete darkness of rocks and air. That suggests that consciousness does indeed build up gradually out of nothing, doesn’t it? An actual panpsychist, moreover, pushes the whole thing further, so that trees have faint twinkles and even tiny pieces of clay have a detectable scintilla.
Koch’s view is not, in fact, contradictory: what he seems to want is something like one of those dimmer switches that has a definite on and off, but gradations of brightness when on. He’s entitled to take that view, but I don’t think I agree that gradual emergence of consciousness is unimaginable. Take the analogy of a novel. We can start with Pride and Prejudice, work our way down through short stories or incoherent first drafts, to recipe books or collections of limericks, books with scribble and broken sentences, down to books filled with meaningless lines, and the chance pattern of cracks on a wall. All the way along there will be debatable cases, and contrarians who disbelieve in the real existence of literature can argue against the whole thing (‘You need to exercise your imagination to make Pride and Prejudice a novel; but if you are willing to use your imagination I can tell you there are finer novels in the cracks on my wall than anything Jane bloody Austen ever wrote…’) : but it seems clear enough to me that we can have a spectrum all the way down to nothing. That doesn’t prove that consciousness is like that, but makes it hard to assert that it couldn’t be.
The other reason it seems odd to hear such an argument from Koch is that he espouses the IIT which seems to require a spectrum which sits well with emergentism. Presumably on Koch’s view a small amount of integrated information does nothing, but at some point, when there’s enough being integrated, we start to get consciousness? Yet he says:
“if there is nothing there in the first place, adding a little bit more won’t make something. If a small brain won’t be able to feel pain, why should a large brain be able to feel the god-awfulness of a throbbing toothache? Why should adding some neurons give rise to this ineffable feeling?”
Well, because a small brain only integrates a small amount of information, whereas a large on integrates enough for full consciousness? I think I must be missing something here, but look at this.
“ [Consciousness] is a property of complex entities and cannot be further reduced to the action of more elementary properties. We have reached the ground floor of reductionism.”
Isn’t that emergence? Koch must see something else which he thinks is essential to emergentism which he doesn’t like, but I’m not seeing it.
The problem with Koch being panpsychist is that for panpsychists souls (or in this case consciousness) have to be everywhere. Even a particle of stone or a screwed-up sheet of wrapping paper must have just the basic spark; the lights must be at least slightly on. Koch doesn’t want to go quite that far – and I have every sympathy with that, but it means taking the pan out of the panpsychist. Koch fully recognises that he isn’t espousing traditional full-blooded panpsychism but in my opinion he deviates too far to be entitled to the badge. What Koch believes is that everything has the potential to instantiate consciousness when correctly organised and integrated. That amounts to no more than believing in the neutrality of the substrate, that neurons are not essential and that consciousness can be built with anything so long as its functional properties are right. All functionalists and a lot of other people (not everyone, of course) believe that without being panpsychists.
Perhaps functionalism is really the direction Koch’s theories lean towards. After all, it’s not enough to integrate information in any superficial way. A big database which exhaustively cross-referenced the Library of Congress would not seem much of a candidate for consciousness. Koch realises that there have to be some rules about what kinds of integration matter, but I think that if the theory develops far enough these other constraints will play an increasingly large role, until eventually we find that they have taken over the theory and the quantity of integrated information has receded to the status of a necessary but not sufficient condition.
I suppose that that might still leave room for Tononi’s Phi meter, now apparently built, to work satisfactorily. I hope it does, because it would be pretty useful.