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In Neuroscience Flap, Science Media Tackle “Pseudoscience” Claim

As the leading theory of consciousness is tarred by neuroscientists as “pseudoscience,” science media struggle to outline just WHAT science is

As a child, I remember hearing a proverb, “When thieves fall out, honest men come by their own.” It means roughly: If you are overhearing loud, angry accusations, you may suddenly realize for the first time what really happened during many puzzling events — and hear honest statements of some Top People’s agendas. For example, it took a huge uproar around the top neuroscience theory, Integrated Information Theory (IIT), for some of us to realize how the “Keep abortion legal!” agenda dominates many neuroscientists’ concerns. That turn of events is hardly something that would have jumped out at most of us.*

Girls eye with paint and earth

As noted here earlier, IIT is now under attack as “pseudoscience,” with top journal Nature covering the fight. And now other science media are weighing in on the issues, including Scientific American and Nautilus.

A key slam against IIT is its panpsychist leanings. That is, faced with a choice between “Nothing is conscious” and “Everything is conscious,” panpsychists lean toward the latter. Otherwise, in their thinking, even science can’t be real because it depends on consciousness.

On Monday, Scientific American featured a report by science writer Dan Falk — offered without any apparent ridicule — on a scholarly workshop looking at panpsychism. He noted, among many other things,

…panpsychism runs counter to the majority view in both the physical sciences and in philosophy that treats consciousness as an emergent phenomenon, something that arises in certain complex systems, such as human brains. In this view, individual neurons are not conscious, but thanks to the collective properties of some 86 billion neurons and their interactions—which, admittedly, are still only poorly understood—brains (along with bodies, perhaps) are conscious. Surveys suggest that slightly more than half of academic philosophers hold this view, known as “physicalism” or “emergentism,” whereas about one third reject physicalism and lean toward some alternative, of which panpsychism is one of several possibilities.

-Dan Falk, “Is Consciousness Part of the Fabric of the Universe?,” Scientific American, September 25, 2023

In short, the physicalism that dominates popular science media — “one of these days, science will explain (away) consciousness” — was not the only intellectually reasonable option, as we were so often told. Recall the proverb, “When thieves fall out… ”

One neuroscientist at the workshop, Anil Seth offered an intriguing comment:

Physicalism, he says, still offers more “empirical grip” than its competitors—and he laments what he sees as excessive hand-wringing over its alleged failures, including the supposed hardness of the hard problem. “Critiquing physicalism on the basis that it has ‘failed’ is willful mischaracterization,” he says. “It’s doing just fine, as progress in consciousness science readily attests.”

-Falk, “Fabric of the Universe?”

Well, what is the progress, exactly? Currently, we are dealing with a major flap in which consciousness research may be only one of many areas getting tarred as “pseudoscience.”

It may have been a happy accident that Scientific American had an article on panpsychism scheduled just this week but, in any event, Anil Seth also weighed in for the public at Nautilus yesterday. He noted that the consciousness theory under attack, Integrated Information Theory, could contribute to the sciences even if it is wrong.

That shouldn’t really be a surprise. For thousands of years, religious authorities wisely told people to wash their hands frequently, even though no one had evidence of microorganisms. For many centuries, the Ptolemaic system of astronomy enabled correct forecasts of movements in the heavens even though that theory was based on the incorrect premise that the other visible bodies circled Earth. The relationship between sound ideas and available fact bases is often complex. Anyway, back to Seth; he points out that now-derided IIT has in fact been very popular in recent years:

A survey conducted at the main conference in the field—the annual meeting of the Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness—found that nearly half of respondents considered it “definitely promising” or “probably promising,” and researchers in the field regularly identify it as one of four main theoretical approaches to consciousness.

-Anil Seth, “The Worth of Wild Ideas,” Nautilus September 27, 2023

So, while he doesn’t quite say it, the current tantrum (“a doom spiral of accusation and recrimination”) reflects badly on the field as a whole. He offers an interpretation of the theory’s basic commitments:

In IIT, the amount of consciousness a system has is tracked by a mathematical quantity called Phi, and, according to the theory, wherever there is non-zero Phi, there will be consciousness, at least to some degree. This implies a restricted form of panpsychism, since instances of non-zero Phi can be found beyond brains, and even in non-biological systems. Some very simple systems can be conscious according to IIT, such as grids of inactive electronic circuitry in a computing device—though the kind of consciousness involved may be very minimal. But many other things—whether simple or complex—will lack consciousness entirely, because they don’t integrate information in the right way. For example, according to IIT, things like tables and chairs wouldn’t be conscious, and neither would artificial intelligence systems in which signals can only flow in one direction.

-Seth, “Worth”

If so, just for the record, the score is: Yes to humans (possibly unborn ones?), Maybe to trees, but No to tables and laptops. So the panpsychist still faces off with the eliminationist, for whom, come what may, all consciousness is an evolved illusion.

The stakes are high. If eliminationism tumbles, the whole materialist structure built on it collapses. Even so, speaking as a critic of IIT, Seth warns against just trashing it:

If we banish IIT to the wastelands of pseudoscience, dismissing it in part because of its strangeness, we risk stifling exactly the kind of creative thinking that we may need. The theory is indeed a bit bonkers, but it is a brave attempt to say something genuinely new. And who knows, it could even be on the right track.

-Seth, “Worth”
Heap of dirty clothes and laundry basket

The question comes down to this: If materialism collapses, what will science look like? Will the people who are interested in science today continue to be so? Will the same people continue to dominate?

One thing for sure: A lot of things will come tumbling out in the wash.

*In my experience, the abortion issue has mostly been Catholic and other grannies vs. abortionists. If, like David Chalmers, you are inclined to take bets, bet on the grannies.

You may also wish to read: If panpsychism is now mainstream, is fine-tuning next? In his new book, panpsychist Philip Goff argues for fine-tuning of the universe and cosmic purpose. Can Goff get science gatekeepers to accept fine-tuning simply by slamming traditional religion? If he does, we will certainly know that things are changing.

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.

In Neuroscience Flap, Science Media Tackle “Pseudoscience” Claim