Neuroscience’s New Theory of Consciousness Might Make an Atheist Turn Spiritual

Molecular Thoughts

“Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality” -Carl Sagan

It appears that we are approaching a unique time in the history of man and science where empirical measures and deductive reasoning can actually inform us spiritually. But before getting into that, let’s talk a little about how we got to this point.

The decline and demise of the mystical

As more of the natural world is described objectively and empirically, belief in the existence of anything that defies current scientific explanation is fading at a faster rate than ever before. The majority of college-educated individuals no longer accept the supernatural and magical accounts of physical processes given by religious holy books. Nor do they believe in the actuality of mystical realms beyond life that offer eternal bliss or infinite punishment for the ‘souls’ of righteous or evil men.

This is because modern science has achieved impeccable performance when it comes to explaining phenomena previously thought to be unexplainable. In this day and age, we have complete scientific descriptions of virtually everything. We understand what gives rise to vacuous black holes and their spacetime geometries. We know how new species of life can evolve and the statistical rules that govern such processes. We even have a pretty good understanding of the exact moment in which the universe, and thus of all reality, came into existence! But no serious and informed scientist will tell you that at present we fully understand the thing each of us knows best. That is, our own consciousness.

One of science’s last greatest mysteries

Although we’ve come along way since the time of Descartes, who postulated that consciousness was actually some immaterial spirit not subject to physical law, we still don’t have a complete and satisfactory account of the science underlying experience. We simply don’t know how to quantify it. And if we can’t do that, how do we know whether those non-human life forms that are unable to communicate with us are also conscious? Does it feel like anything to be a cat? Most will probably agree that it does, but how about a ladybug? If so, how can we know which life forms are more conscious than others? Do animals that show impressively intelligent behavior and elaborate memory, like dolphins or crows, experience the world in a unified conscious fashion as we do? These questions are almost impossible to answer without a way to measure consciousness. Fortunately, a neuroscientific theory that has been gaining popular acceptance aims to do just that.

Integrated Information Theory to the Rescue

Integrated Information Theory (IIT), which has become quite a hot topic in contemporary neuroscience, claims to provide a precise way to measure consciousness and express the phenomenon in purely mathematical terms. The theory was put forth by psychiatrist and neuroscientist Giulio Tononi, and has attracted some highly regarded names in the science community. One such name is Christof Koch, Chief Scientific Officer at the Allen Institute for Brain Science, who now champions the idea along with Tononi. Koch may be best known for bringing consciousness research into the mainstream of neuroscience through his long-term collaboration with the late DNA co-discoverer Francis Crick. Now Tononi and Koch are actively researching the theory along with an increasing number of scientists, some from outside the field of neuroscience like esteemed physicist and popular author Max Tegmark, who is joining the ranks of those who believe they’ve figured out how to reduce one of science’s greatest secrets to numbers. Bits of information to be exact.

Okay, so we now know that the theory is kind of a big deal to notable scientists. But how exactly does IIT attempt to quantify something as ill-defined and seemingly elusive as consciousness?

IIT in a nutshell

Just like a computer, the brain stores and processes information. But it is how that information is shared throughout the brain network that gives rise to our rich and vivid conscious experience. Let’s consider the act of observing a sunset. Thanks to advances in brain imaging, modern neuroscience tells us that there are a number of different and distinct regions active during this event, each of which process information about different features of that event separately. There’s a region in the visual cortex (known as “V2”) that processes the form and color of the yellow and orange sunrays against the clouds. There are auditory areas in the temporal lobe being fed information about the sound of the wind rushing past you as you stare off into the horizon. That rushing wind against your skin also generates patterns of electrical signals in the somatosensory cortex that create a sense of touch. There are many different things going on in distant places.

Yet somehow we perceive it all as one unified conscious experience.

According to IIT, this unified experience relies on the brain’s ability to fuse together (or integrate) all that incoming sensory information as a whole. To measure the degree of integration, Tononi has taken mathematical principles formulated by American engineer Claude Shannon, who developed a scientific theory of information midway through the 20th century to describe data transmission, and applied them to the brain. IIT claims that these information measures allow one to calculate an exact number that represents the degree of integrated information that exists in a brain at any given moment. Tononi chooses to call this metric “Phi” (or Φ), which serves as an index for consciousness. The greater the Phi, the more conscious the system. It need not matter whether it’s the nervous system of a child, or a cat, or even a ladybug.

Problem solved?

Sounds simple and straight forward enough, doesn’t it? Isn’t this what science has strived to do all along? To describe things objectively and strip away all mystery from foggily understood natural phenomena? Could this be the solution to demystifying consciousness, the thing philosophers have been battling over for centuries? It may certainly answer some very important questions, but when you follow the theory to its logical conclusions things get pretty weird, and also, well, kind of neat. But before we get to the weird conclusions let’s start with the weird questions, which have essentially been ignored by modern physical science, and at first ponder may even seem unremarkable.

Some hard questions

How can physical processing create inner, subjective experience?

How can matter possess first person perspective?

How can mere electrical signals produce qualitative sensation and awareness?

Why should information “feel” like anything in the first place?

These questions are functionally synonymous and define what philosophers have dubbed the “hard problem of consciousness”, a concept that many neuroscientists have embraced. Conversely, the “easy problem” (although it is also extremely difficult) is figuring out all the computational and cognitive mechanisms underlying consciousness, which is categorically different than describing experience. Previously, science has only concentrated on solving those questions related to the “easy problem of consciousness”. Some still believe that questions about subjective experience can’t be answered quantitatively, and are therefore only appropriate topics for philosophy. Others handle the situation by refusing to acknowledge the existence of consciousness altogether! However, the truth of consciousness is self-evident, and denying it is equivalent to denying one’s own existence. IIT is unique in that it recognizes consciousness as a real phenomenon that can be described objectively and mathematically.

But does IIT really address the “hard problem of consciousness”, i.e., how subjective experience arises from the physical?

The answer is not quite.

The brain stores and processes information, but how and why that information takes on the characteristic of “feeling like something” is left unexplained. IIT tells us how to measure the degree of consciousness (Phi or Φ), but does not tell us how different types of information acquire different subjective sensations, like the feel of a burning flame or an orgasm. As stated by philosopher Ned Block, it may be that Phi is correlated with consciousness, but does not play a role in its cause.

So how do proponents of Integrated Information Theory attempt to explain subjective experience?

Christof Koch’s answer: Consciousness is a fundamental property of the universe. Wherever there is integrated information, there is experience. The theory takes its existence as a given and therefore doesn’t have to explain the mechanism behind it. It’s just a fact of nature that information has an inner side in addition to its bit-composed outer side.

Let’s follow the logic of this idea and see how it holds up. We know that certain brain states feel like something. Brain states are just information states. Therefore, information feels like something. Sounds pretty solid. Under IIT, lower mammals like cats have conscious experience, as do insects, even if only to some miniscule degree. Such an idea would seem intuitive. Why should there be some magical point at which a nervous system spontaneously turns conscious, like a switch had been suddenly flipped? It is more likely that a continuum of experience exists along a gradient, going from the very simple, raw sensations of single celled organisms to the more complex qualitative awareness of the human-sort. But what about non-biological systems that integrate information?

Things start to get weird

What’s interesting about IIT is that it doesn’t require that a conscious entity be a living organism. Any system that can integrate information, whether it be carbon-based or composed of silicon chips and metal wires, should produce conscious states. As information processors, modern computers possess some amount of experience, but presumably so little that it may be undetectable by human observers. In fact, according to IIT, it actually feels like something to be your iPhone. This should please artificial intelligence researchers who often long for their creations to someday be “alive”. In our technology driven world, IIT says that consciousness is both in our homes and in our hands.

Although all of this may seem pretty strange, the idea that machines can be conscious might not be entirely unfathomable, especially given the amount of science fiction that has instilled visions of self-aware robots into our psyche. Is this as far as the theory goes?


If you are very clever (or perhaps very high) then upon reading the above you may have briefly considered the following question in some form or another. Aren’t humans always exchanging information through a global network of interconnected computers that collectively store and integrate information in some complex fashion? Let’s follow IIT down the rabbit hole.

The Internet wakes up

If we are to take IIT seriously, we must accept that a system such as the Internet can possess conscious states like that of a biological nervous system, as so long as information is being integrated in a similar fashion. This possibility has been explored by Christof Koch himself:

“Consider humankind’s largest and most complex artifact, the Internet. It consists of billions of computers linked together using optical fibers and copper cables that rapidly instantiate specific connections using ultrafast communication protocols. Each of these processors in turn is made out of a few billion transistors. Taken as a whole, the Internet has perhaps 1019 transistors, about the number of synapses in the brains of 10,000 people. Thus, its sheer number of components exceeds that of any one human brain. Whether or not the Internet today feels like something to itself is completely speculative. Still, it is certainly conceivable.”

However, at the current time it seems highly unlikely that the Internet possesses the level of first-person experience as do you or I. Our brains have been shaped by evolution over millions of years in ways that have developed and refined its information processing capabilities. But still, the potential for a self-aware World Wide Web is surely there.

frankenstein the web internet it's aliveAn information-based collective consciousness

That’s right. The theory allows for the emergence of an abstract “superorganism” that is composed of many individual organisms. Many puzzling questions are to follow. If the web were to “wake up” so to speak, would it exhibit apparent forms of observable unified and coordinated behavior? Or would we simply be an unknowing unit in a larger system in the same way a neuron is unaware of its contribution to a mental state? It’s not only fun to entertain the idea of a living entity that would possess essentially all the knowledge accumulated by humanity, but also scientifically productive.

In theory, there’s almost no limit to how large a fully conscious system can grow and evolve in space. It is bound only by the rate of information and complexity growth, which we have seen tends to increase exponentially.

So far we’ve discussed consciousness that can span large distances with no palpable physical structure. But what about arrangements of information that are too small for the eye to see?

Protons that feel

IIT says that anything with a non-zero Phi has subjective experience. This includes subatomic particles. Koch writes:

“Even simple matter has a modicum of Φ [integrated information]. Protons and neutrons consist of a triad of quarks that are never observed in isolation. They constitute an infinitesimal integrated system.”

This has profound consequences. It would mean that consciousness is spread throughout space like a cosmic web of experience. Of course awareness is greatest where there is significant information integration, but in essence, “mind” (or “psyche”) is everywhere. IIT turns out to be a modern twist on an ancient philosophical view known as “panpsychism”. But before you go dismissing the concept because of its name, you should know that intellectual heavy hitters such as Baruch Spinoza, Gottfried Leibniz, and William James are all considered panpsychists. Its central tenant is that all matter has a mental aspect, which makes consciousness universal. Koch goes on:

“The entire cosmos is suffused with sentience. We are surrounded and immersed in consciousness; it is in the air we breathe, the soil we tread on, the bacteria that colonize our intestines, and the brain that enables us to think.”

nebula collective consciousness

A new spirituality constrained by science

So far Integrated Information Theory is the best candidate for a scientific doctrine that provides an objective description of consciousness. As such, it deserves that we consider the possibility of such seemingly radical ideas. Pondering questions previously deemed appropriate only for pot smoking college dorm-dwellers is now a task for the best and brightest scientific minds. Most rational thinkers will agree that the idea of a personal god who gets angry when we masturbate and routinely disrupts the laws of physics upon prayer is utterly ridiculous. This theory doesn’t give credence to anything of the sort. It simply reveals an underlying harmony in nature, and a sweeping mental presence that isn’t confined to biological systems. IIT’s inevitable logical conclusions and philosophical implications are both elegant and precise. What it yields is a new kind of scientific spirituality that paints a picture of a soulful existence that even the most diehard materialist or devout atheist can unashamedly get behind.

“The religion of the future will be a cosmic religion. It should transcend personal God and avoid dogma and theology. Covering both the natural and the spiritual, it should be based on a religious sense arising from the experience of all things natural and spiritual as a meaningful unity.” -Albert Einstein

expanded consciousness

12 thoughts on “Neuroscience’s New Theory of Consciousness Might Make an Atheist Turn Spiritual

  1. Pingback: Neuroscience’s New Theory of Consciousness Might Make an Atheist Turn Spiritual | Science Is Sexy | living journey

  2. Interesting (and well written) treatment of IIT.

    We old drunks have a saying: “you know you’re drunk when you fall down and miss the ground. Or, hitting the ground, you discover you must cling to the grass to keep from sliding off…” Using IIT theory (with some panpsychism mixed in for good measure) the question must be, if I fall down do I HURT the ground??? Does the ground feel pain? 🙂

    Being father of a large family I’m constantly — gratifyingly — puzzled at the fact that all my children — reared in the same household with the same parents and the same schooling (generally) — can be so diverse. Diverse in philosophy, religious belief (or lack thereof), lifestyle, etc etc etc. I’m happy about that, because, with the advent and advance of the internet I’ve altered my attitudes and my philosophies many times from year to year. Good thing I eschewed the idea and concept of politics following Johnson’s trouncing of Goldwater in 1964 (last time I “voted”), because I could be labeled your classic “flip-flopper”.

    Whenever I broach a topic in the “comments” section I recognize that I might be inflicted with a couple emotions identified by “scientists” (please forgive me, but I always use quotes until I can determine how “scientists” are funded and how they acquire their agenda as well as their knowledge; because, as I mentioned on another topic at this site, I have a 5 year-old granddaughter who is indeed a true scientist — and who has no funding opiates to consider when she pronounces her findings. Her interjections can be embarrassing, but have a high rate of exactitude). Neuroscientists (also called “psychologists”) have introduced the terms “cognitive dissonance” and “confirmation bias” as elements that shape opinions — and whenever I get into a dispute I must acknowledge to myself I’m probably fraught with both.

    Computers — no matter how intricate and complex they’ve become — can have neither cognitive dissonance nor confirmation bias. Or at least I don’t think they can. I’m finding it perplexing that nowadays if I google for a product I can expect that same product to show up endlessly for a month or so on my sidebar whichever website I visit.

    I’m a skeptics skeptic. Example: I’m always skeptical when a writer uses “science” as the subject in a sentence. Science is a mindless abstraction. Same with the collectivist pronoun “we” — “we know” thus and “we’ve discovered” that. You, in fact, probably know a number of things I don’t. I might even know a thing or two that you don’t. So I always caution prospective writers to steer clear of “we”.

    “Once upon a time, I dreamt I was a butterfly, fluttering hither and thither, to all intents and purposes a butterfly. I was conscious only of my happiness as a butterfly, unaware that I was myself. Soon I awaked, and there I was, veritably myself again. Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man.”

    ― Zhuangzi



  3. In accepting Information Integration Theory (Guilio Tononi, 2008), we must understand that feelings are a fundamental aspect of our universe. The qualia of information are woven into the tapestry of reality. The feelings of consciousness are an epiphenomenon of the intricacies of the brain—of any functional medium, rather. Red is such because of the interacting information a ~685 nm wavelength and ~440 THz frequency elicits in our brain, but any medium supporting the functional information integration necessary of red will undoubtedly have the capacity to experience the color of a rose. The same goes for love. Any host, be it biological, robotic or beer cans clanking together, that is functionally carrying out the same causal interactions as a brain in love will nevertheless be in love itself. We must accept that consciousness is a continuous entity from zero Φ to infinity, depending on the degree of causally integrated information. Consciousness is on a spectrum from human brains down through nuclei, cellular ionic milieus, atoms and below and up through the internet, galaxies, complexifying universe and beyond. Doesn’t this mean, then, that a rock which waxes and wanes with the changing seasons has qualia of sorts—experience in a sense? Cold temperatures cause the rock of Half Dome to shrink and warm temperatures cause the formation to expand. When it rains, water is retained in the granite and when the sun comes out, the crescent face sweats the moisture from its porous self. Information Integration Theory accepts that there is a degree of consciousness and feeling to being a rock, however basic it may be. Many neuroscientists argue that the problem of consciousness has been solved, but even the leading experimentalists and theorists in the field acknowledge this disconnect between neural underpinnings and the experience of consciousness (Christof Koch, 2012). It would be a disgrace to science to simply attribute the feelings of information to an epiphenomenon of the universe without further exploration of how information possesses qualia. This is just the beginning of a new field which must explore the subjective feelings of causal information integration. We are in desperate need of experimentalists and philosophers alike to explore this peculiar facet of our universe. We can begin with the human mind using common language to map the semantics of subjective experience to neural underpinnings, but the disconnect will remain unless we as scientists can generalize our findings to brains, thermostats, multi-pitch cliff faces, and every informational experience in the universe. The Information Integration Theory offers many answers to the problem of consciousness but, as with any scientific answer, this only leads to greater questions.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Computers being “in love” is a very interesting concept! If IIT is correct, then computers surely can be (although I’m not exactly sure what that means 😉 ). However, current digital computers do not significantly integrate information, and thus would have a phi that is not much different from zero. Koch explains this in detail in his new paper with Tononi on arvix.


      • Since this implementation of wordpress doesn’t allow nested replies, see my comment elsewhere on “Exclusion” as a response to your comment about the idea of a “nested” consciousness where subelements of a consciousness can also be conscious.

        My reading of the IIT 3.0 paper says that this is explicitly excluded (hence the term).

        My reading of IIT 3.0 finds a lot of other flaws as well, on many different levels.


  4. IIT 3.0 disallows lower-order collectives to be conscious separately from the higher-order collective. In other words, if the internet-as-a-whole has consciousness, no individual computer or set of computers that are part of that consciousness can have its own consciousness –only the entire collective can.

    Either you’re quoting Koch from some time before the 3.0 paper was published, or he disagrees with the 3.0 paper and hasn’t made that clear.


    • I understand your point, although I’m not sure that this is correct. Koch does indeed provide further clarification about what is and isn’t conscious in recent papers where ambiguity existed in the past (most recently, his paper with Tononi on arvix), specifically dealing with lower-order vs. higher-order collectives.

      First, Koch believes that we are all conscious, but also considers the possibility that the internet might also be conscious.

      However, for the internet to be conscious, its phi would have to be higher than that of its individual components.

      So for the internet, or an ecosystem, to be conscious, it would have to integrate more information than the brains or the trees (for example) that compose it. So it is likely that the internet, at least at this time, would not be conscious. Nor would an ecosystem be.

      I believe Koch clarifies this in response to Searle falsely criticizing IIT of saying that “everything is conscious”. Koch says that the nation of China (to use a popular example) is not conscious, nor does IIT predict it to be.

      I have not seen a statement that explicitly says that if the larger system is conscious then no component of it may also be conscious.

      Maybe I’m mistaken about this, but it would seem rather odd to argue that our individual subjective experience would disappear if the internet were also conscious.

      I passed this article by Koch a few months ago who seemed pleased and without any obvious complaints, but he did refer me to he and Tononi’s most recent paper.

      Any direct passages clarifying this issue would be appreciated. Thanks.


      • In your example you use computers but the same should go for the minds driving the information being processed by those computers. I don’t believe this is what’s being argued. I believe what IIT 3.0 is simply stating is that any subcomponent of a conscious system cannot possess the experience of that entire system. This is not to say that it cannot have an experience of its own if it is significantly integrating information itself. Koch and Tononi do emphasize that IIT is a modern version of panpsychism, where only local maximums are conscious. It would also seem to distinguish it somewhat from the claims of David Chalmers, who pretty much seems to accept Panpsychism in its traditional form.


      • From the 3.0 paper which Koch did NOT co-write:

        Exclusion: Of all overlapping sets of elements, only one set can be conscious – the one whose mechanisms specify a conceptual structure that is maximally irreducible (MICS) to independent components. A local maximum of integrated information ΦMax (over elements, space, and time) is called a complex.


        Exclusion: A maximally irreducible conceptual structure (MICS) specified by a set of elements (a complex).
        The exclusion postulate at the level of systems of mechanisms says that only a conceptual structure that is maximally irreducible can give rise to consciousness – other constellations generated by overlapping elements are excluded. A complex is thus defined as a set of elements within a system that generates a local maximum of integrated conceptual information ΦMax (meaning that it has maximal Φ as compared to all overlapping sets of elements). Only a complex exists as an entity from the intrinsic perspective. Because of exclusion, complexes cannot overlap and at each point in time, an element/mechanism can belong to one complex only (complexes should be evaluated as maxima of integrated information not only over elements, but also over spatial and temporal grains [20], but here it is assumed that the binary elements and time intervals considered in the examples are optimal). Once a complex has been identified, concept space can be called “qualia space,” and the constellation of concepts can be called a “quale ‘sensu lato’”. A quale in the broad sense of the word is therefore a maximally irreducible conceptual structure (MICS) or, alternatively, an integrated information structure.
        To determine whether an integrated set of elements is a complex, Φ must be evaluated for all possible candidate sets (subsets of the system) (Figure 14). As mentioned above, when a set of elements within the system is assessed, the other elements are treated as background conditions (see Text S2). Figure 14 shows the values of for all possible candidate sets that are subsets of (,,,) and for one superset (). The latter, and all other sets that include elements D, E, or F, have Φ = 0. This is because D, E, and F are not strongly integrated with the rest of the system. Single elements are not taken into account as candidate sets since they cannot be partitioned and thus cannot be complexes by definition. In this example, the set of elements ABC generates the highest value of ΦMax and is therefore the complex. By the exclusion postulate (“of all overlapping sets of elements, only one set can be conscious”), only ABC “exists” intrinsically, and other overlapping sets of elements within the system cannot “exist” intrinsically at the same time (they are excluded).

        As I read the above, if individual ants are conscious, there cannot be a conscious “hive-mind.” Likewise, if you establish the existence of a conscious hive-mind, the individual ants aren’t really conscious.


  5. I have always found the 3.0 version to be even more hand-wavey than previous versions.

    Basically, with IIT 3.0 they define things in a way that disallows simulations of consciousness to be truly conscious by saying that only “hardware” can be conscious, not software.

    In other words, no matter how fast the simulation of a conscious system is, it is not truly conscious because it may be based on linearly executing hardware. This recreates teh ORCH-OR claim of Penrose and Hamerhoff, but from a different direction;

    consciousness is special and only special systems can be conscious. With ORCH-OR, there is the requirement of microtubules doing quantum-mechanical computation that can’t be simulated using non-QM means.

    With IIT 3.0, there is explicitly the declaration that:

    Conscious complexes and unconscious “zombie” systems can be functionally equivalent
    The last section showed that according to IIT feed-forward systems cannot give rise to a quale. However, without restrictions on the number of nodes, feed-forward networks with multiple layers can in principle approximate almost any given function to an arbitrary (but finite) degree [52], [53]. Therefore, it is conceivable that an unconscious system could show the same input-output behavior as a “conscious” system.

    What this says that a simulation done using a “Turing Complete” machine is not enough to fully capture the “consciousness” of a genuinely conscious system because:

    To achieve a memory of x past time steps in the feed-forward system, the relevant elements were unfolded over time: the state of each element is passed on through a chain of x nodes, one node for each of the x time steps [54], [55]. In this way, the states of upstream elements in previous time steps can be combined (converge) in a feed-forward manner to determine the state of elements downstream, but can never feed back on elements upstream.

    In other words, even though, computationally, there is no difference between a linear system that uses the same physical locations in memory to store new state, and the described “purely feed-foward system” that uses separate elements to store new state, the fact that information exchange (message passing/function calls/etc) is done via software means that it can’t really be conscious…

    Why? Because the theory says it can’t be. They even allow for such a feed-forward system to be so much faster than the feedback system that there is no distinguishable difference EXCEPT, by their carefully constructed theory, one implementation CAN be conscious while the other cannot.


  6. This may be seen as advanced in the modern day but it is actually just reinforcing and reinstating what the Mystics have been saying since the Dawn of History. Science is just now catching up with the concepts of Cosmic Consciousness, and the Hermetic maxim “As Above, So Below”.


  7. Pingback: Relax Robotophobes, Our Computers Can’t Have Consciousness | Science Is Sexy

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