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Attack on Top Consciousness Theory Springs From Abortion Politics

If that sounds surprising and unscientific, read on. Pro and con, they make it clear

Perhaps publications like Nature were taken by surprise when well over 100 leading neuroscientists signed a letter denouncing Allen Institute neuroscientist Christof Koch’s leading Integrated Information Theory (IIT) as “pseudoscience.” The most interesting part of the story is that, while the signatories’ main complaint was the panpsychist origins and implications of the theory — consciousness is widespread through the universe — Nature’s writeup did not mention that…

Among those who weighed in shortly afterwards was well-known science writer John Horgan. He begins by defining IIT theory in a comprehensible way:

Integrated information theory, or IIT, which I’ve tracked for years, holds that consciousness arises in any system whose components exchange information in a certain mathematically defined way. Neuroscientist Giulio Tononi invented the theory two decades or so ago, and it has been championed by neuroscientist Christof Koch and treated respectfully by philosopher David Chalmers, among others.

– John Horgan, The Brouhaha Over Consciousness and “Pseudoscience,” Cross-Check, Sep 23, 2023

Science Writer: Lots of Claims in Physics Are Pseudoscience

Horgan tells us that he regards IIT — and all general theories of consciousness — as pseudoscience. And then he goes on to say that physics, the “most rigorous of disciplines,” is “riddled with pseudoscience.” He goes after quite a few pop science favorites: inflation theory, multiverse theory, string theory, matrix theory (“a stoner experiment pretending to be science”) …

These are large cans of worms he is spilling out… what about science’s overall reputation?

Abortion is a Big Consciousness Issue

Human fetus with internal organs, 3d illustration

Horgan, like Nature, doesn’t mention panpsychism directly (though a commenter takes it on). But he does say, that he feels “chastened” by the vehemence of the signers of the letter:

After all, the more sentience we impute to something–like a week-old human embryo—the more rights we should grant it. Yes, we’re talking about abortion. With “so much at stake,” the letter-signers state, “it is essential to provide a fair and truthful perspective on the status of [integrated information] theory. As researchers, we have a duty to protect the public from scientific misinformation.” Science journalists have the same duty.

So the rights of unborn children are a third rail for Horgan, just as they are for the letter’s signers. And what’s really interesting is that all these neuroscientists see panpsychism as just as much of a threat to easy abortion as traditional monotheistic ethics is. Who knew?

IIT Supporter: No Current Theory of Consciousness is Scientific

Meanwhile, neuroscientist Erik Hoel has just weighed in at IAI News to tell us that “No theory of consciousness is scientific” — but his specific purpose is to challenge that “‘pseudoscience’ objection.” He has been, he says, a “close collaborator” of Giulio Tononi. Like Horgan, he does not mince words:

I am not a fan of this letter. Everyone who signed it acted irresponsibly. Why? There’s an issue beyond its specific content. I’ve been saying for years that as a fledging science, consciousness research should worry about hanging out too much dirty laundry. If too much is hung out, then petty infighting can destroy an already fragile field. My greatest fear is that we get another “consciousness winter” wherein just talking about consciousness is considered pseudoscientific bunk. This was the state of affairs throughout most of the 20th century, and it set neuroscience back decades.

– Erik Hoel, “No current theory of consciousness is scientific,” IAI News, 25 September 2023.

If that sounds, at first, like just another pass-the-popcorn, stay tuned; Hoel goes on to say something quite significant:

“Scientific misinformation” has become a loaded word. It’s been used to describe the lab leak theory of Covid back when it was banned, as well as climate change denial. Using the politically-charged “scientific misinformation” term to describe the reasonable articles that the letter cites is — and I’m not going to mince words here — Machiavellian. Unless merely saying anything about IIT should be forbidden, which is what the claim of the letter appears to be.

– Erik Hoel, “No current theory”

Interesting parallel. The top government war on the lab leak theory was a classic: tarring a reasonable theory simply because it was politically inconvenient for Western powers to admit that they had been funding dangerous gain-of-function research in up-country China — which blew up in everyone’s face. That story is not great PR for the “Trust the Science!!” crowd. Still, in fairness, virus research is probably in better shape than consciousness theories.

Hoel downplays the panpsychism part:

First, IIT is not really “panpsychist” in the classic sense, which John Searle described as when consciousness is “spread like jam” over the universe. Most things are not conscious in the theory, just sets of interactive mechanisms (like neurons) with the greatest degree of integrated information (like brains). Consciousness, according to IIT, might be more widespread than we think, but it is neither universal nor arbitrary.

– Erik Hoel, “No current theory”

Then, like John Horgan, he comes to the point about the signers’ single biggest concern:

Are the signees actually endorsing what this sounds like: that a theory of consciousness concluding early-stage fetuses might have some degree of consciousness should be considered scientific misinformation due to political considerations? If they aren’t endorsing this, I’d like to know, because that’s what it reads as.

– Erik Hoel, “No current theory”

Well, Erik, you know what they used to say: If that’s what it reads as, take it as read. Leading neuroscientists seem to be more strongly governed by keep-abortion-legal politics than by any quest for knowledge or truth.

And, just think, they imagine that their enemies are at the gates… No. Their enemies are inside themselves. That’s only just becoming clear.

You may also wish to read: Leading consciousness theory slammed as “pseudoscience.” Huh? Integrated Information Theory’s panpsychist leanings are the 124 neuroscientist critics’ real target. Curiously, the coverage at Nature doesn’t address the critics’ concerns about IIT’s panpsychism. But it’s at Nature’s doorstep whether or not it’s noted.

Denyse O'Leary

Denyse O'Leary is a freelance journalist based in Victoria, Canada. Specializing in faith and science issues, she is co-author, with neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist's Case for the Existence of the Soul; and with neurosurgeon Michael Egnor of the forthcoming The Human Soul: What Neuroscience Shows Us about the Brain, the Mind, and the Difference Between the Two (Worthy, 2025). She received her degree in honors English language and literature.

Attack on Top Consciousness Theory Springs From Abortion Politics