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Consciousness Wars: Researcher Tries Negotiating a Truce

Witch hunts against leading theories are bad for a discipline’s reputation; Johan Storm thinks that all the prominent theories of consciousness are a little bit right

University of Oslo neuroscientist Johan Storm moves to the center of the storm around theories of consciousness, trying to calm the waters.

Last year, the leading theory, Integrated Information Theory (IIT), was attacked — charged with “pseudoscience” — in an influential letter signed by a number of prominent neuroscientists.

The controversy is easier to understand if we keep in mind that, while we are all conscious, no one has the least idea what consciousness is. Thus, during the last century, researchers were discouraged from even studying the subject. The dominant theory in psychology, behaviorism, prompted a focus on behavior instead.

But the development of powerful new neuroimaging tools in recent decades has encouraged many researchers to take another look at the field. New theories developed. More than twenty such theories are still taken seriously.

The two leading theories are Integrated Information Theory (IIT), as above, and Global Neuronal Workspace Theory (GNWT), which recently became the subject of an unusual contest .

At Science Norway, Ingrid Spilde interviewed Dr. Storm, who explained these two theories in non-technical language:

Integrated Information Theory (IIT), championed by Allen Institute’s Christof Koch, is “very ambitious” in his view:

Very simply put, IIT says that consciousness arises when there is both a high information content in the brain and at the same time a very high degree of interaction – or integration – between the information in the different elements of the brain.

“This kind of interaction means that the sum of integrated information is very large, and that the system as a whole is much larger than the sum of information in the individual parts,” he says.

Ingrid Spilde,“Why do we have consciousness? Researchers are deeply divided,” Science Norway, June 11, 2024 Translated by Ingrid P. Nuse

What about the chief competitor, Global Neuronal Workspace Theory (GNWT), championed by Stanislas Dehaene?:

“The core idea here is that what becomes conscious is information that is important enough to be broadcast to many parts of the brain,” says Storm, elaborating:

Even though the brain is constantly being bombarded with enormous amounts of impressions, most of it never reaches consciousness. They’re not important enough to be spread to the whole brain.

But some information is significant enough to cross a threshold that ignites a kind of explosion of activity in the brain – causing the information to be broadcast throughout the system, so that we have a conscious experience.

Spilde, “Deeply divided

GWNT is based in part on information theory.

What happened when the two theories were pitted against each other?

These two theories went head to head in an unusual contest that started five years ago, sponsored by the Templeton World Charity Foundation. The results, announced at the 26th meeting of the Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness (ASSC) in New York City, were moot. Neither theory won but then neither lost either. As Elizabeth Finkel noted at Quanta,

The event has received mixed reviews. Some researchers point to the failure to meaningfully test the differences between the two theories. Others highlight the success of the project in driving consciousness science forward, both by delivering large, novel, skillfully executed data sets and by inspiring other contestants to engage in their own adversarial collaborations.

Elizabeth Finkel, “What a Contest of Consciousness Theories Really Proved,” Quanta, August 24, 2023

But that’s no deterrent to further research; far from it. Rather, the contest results were drowned out by the conclusion of the 25-year wager between Koch and philosopher of mind David Chalmers. During that quarter century, no one had found the “consciousness circuit” in the brain that Koch had predicted. So, in an unexpected result, the philosopher won.

It wasn’t the contest of theories that started the war

Shortly after that momentous 2023 conference wrapped up, the field of consciousness studies erupted in an attack on Koch. The issue was whether Integrated Information Theory strengthens panpsychism (it does) and/or the pro-life view on abortion (that too, yes).

Charting Consciousness.

But, as many observers pointed out at the time, witch hunts against leading theories are bad for a discipline’s reputation. Hence Dr. Storm’s effort to calm the waters, via an open-access article in Cell.

Storm invited a number of consciousness researchers to explain the basics of their conflicting theories, observing that they don’t necessarily contradict each other: “Here, we consider unifying, integration-oriented approaches that have so far been largely neglected, seeking to combine valuable elements from various theories.” Or, as Spilde puts it, everyone is a little bit right.

We would add, clearly, no one has the big picture. The fate of the discipline may depend on how committed researchers are to finding out the facts vs. how committed they are to protecting a materialist view of consciousness (the mind is just what the brain does).

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 Immortal Mind: A Neurosurgeon’s Case for the Existence of the Soul (Worthy, 2025). She received her degree in honors English language and literature.

Consciousness Wars: Researcher Tries Negotiating a Truce