(Image obtained from: link)
Gaining insight into the phenomenon of subjective consciousness from the perspective of brain function is one of the final frontiers of science. It is not clear yet for example how our subjective experience of redness arises from neural activity when we see something red.
Recently, Integrated Information Theory has been gaining popularity, a theory that accounts for consciousness as integrated information. Without going deep into the theory itself (you can check the following links for more information about it: link 1; link 2), I will address what I consider de main problem of the whole theory.
Now imagine the case in which we take the following picture with a camera:
The camera has multiple photodiodes, each contributing to an specific part or aspect of the whole picture, but taking each separately we cannot make a sense of what is in front of the camera, that is, we cannot account for the picture as a whole:
Now, if we integrate them, we would have the complete picture and thus we can make a sense of the image the photodiodes are forming. The thing is, the photodiodes are not connected to each other in an integrated way, so for the camera, even if it could “know” anything, it could not make a sense of the picture, but this is different in the case of a person looking at the picture in the camera. For in this scenario, consciousness only makes sense for the person who sees the picture, the photodiodes as a whole are not conscious of it. But what is the conceptual difference between our receptors and neurons processing the image and the photodiodes? The difference would be that the brain, unlike the photodiodes, is formed of interconnected parts, neuronal groups have intricate connections with each other, which forms a net of integrated information, a net that can differentiate between things and states and that has higher amounts of possibilities than its parts taken separately. For Tononi (2008) consciousness refers to integrated information, and thus any system that has a level of integrated information has a level of consciousness. This looks appealing as a theory but it has an important issue: what it mean for two parts to be integrated or connected, and whether this makes any difference in order to “make sense” of the image as in the example mentioned. What I argue is that there is no such integration or even communication as it is commonly though at the level of the brain and thus the notion of integrated information does not really help in explaining the subjective experience: the qualia.
We must understand this, an image has meaning in reference to an entity that captures it, the image we see is conscious for us, we express awareness of it. We can say that the camera captures the image but to the extent that there is no integration of photodiodes, the image would not make sense as something conscious, but it would be the case for a person. Now, what is the difference between the camera and the brain? The answer would seem to be in the integration. But before we elaborate a complex explanation of how that could happen, I will say that it is not possible based on the notion of integration, such fact is impeded by what I call the “atomic notion of the brain”. In my work “Proposiciones” (in English: “Propositions” – see the book publications menu), I talk about this subject and give several examples. In the book I mention the following example:
Imagine that the brain as a peculiar university lecture class, where each student represents a node of information processing, or if we wanted to reduce it further, simplifying (without being completely realistic): a neuron. In this class, each student has limited perception of the room, some can see in a certain direction that others cannot and vice versa. Some can hear what happens in a certain place while others cannot. On the other hand, some are only allowed certain movements and actions. Together they can carry out a discussion with the teacher and with each other thanks to the fact that they can communicate with each other. This represents a network of connected information, where each student has a reduced space of action, in a motor or perceptive way. However, this group cannot perceive their environment in unison, as a single integrated experience, but each element responds and communicates with others, causing others to change their behavior, independently or separately. What a group of students or a student can perceive cannot be perceived by others or another. This is the nature of the brain when I say that it is governed by an “atomic notion”: each element is independent, separate, although “communicated” with others (in the sense that some groups can activate others). In this scenario, an integrated experience of consciousness is not possible in the way it is thought, in terms of a unified subjective experience based on integration specifically (although this contributes to a unified experience), since integration does not imply “giving an account” or generating an awareness of the image in unison, globally, as it would be proposed under a model of consciousness as integrated information, so this notion is not able to explain the subjective dimension, the qualia.
My position is that we need to speak of a sense of identity and a unitary means on which to establish such an identity, this is the real basis of consciousness. In this way, that fact that a higher level of neuronal integration might be associated with something conscious is not indicative that consciousness is integrated information, but it would seem to contribute in something, in my opinion in the unification of qualia (which are already such without integration). To some extent, the neural connections could officiate or produce the unified unitary space from which we would place ourselves in a sense of identity (this location as identity would be the basis to explain the qualia, the subjective experience), that is why consciousness would be associated with that, but consciousness would not be integrated information, but identity with such integrated information (integrated here implies that one neuronal group activates another under the atomic notion). Information that is not fully integrated or of low levels of integration would still present qualia, since an identity can be established with that. Integration does not explain the manifestation of qualia, that refers to identity, it would only contribute to explain how that something unified and unitary would occur, which requires consciousness as an identity (you can read more about my statement about consciousness as identity in my work “Proposiciones” as previously mentioned).
In this way, nothing in the brain activity is transmitted in the sense of a passage and capture of what a neuronal pattern refers to, such as the perception of an object, but each pattern activates other patterns, each one is a universe in itself, to put it in a way, which prevents a subjective experience from being captured or perceived as such by the brain, if we wanted to argue that as a form in which qualia exists. In any case, the only thing that this experience could do would be to activate neuronal patterns, and from these a particular behavior would be carried out, but everything seems to indicate that the brain activity is primary, that is, the perception of an object for example, with the associated subjective experience, begins with the neuronal activity generated by the object with a certain neuronal pattern associated to it, out of this activity, other patterns that relate to behavior are activated. It is unnecessary to add an entity that represents the subjective experience that has to go back and activate neural patterns when these can already and perfectly activate other patterns. Notice how we cannot say anything about a particular quale, we can only reflect on several qualia, but we cannot say anything about the color red itself, in the same way that a neuronal pattern that refers to such a color is only activated, we can have red associated with other things, in the same way that such a neuronal pattern of red is activated together with other patterns and is associated with them. In this way, the subjective experience and our reflection of it is reflecting the brain functioning and its atomic quality, indicating that it is possible to reflect on subjective experience based on brain activity, that is, within this level. In this way, taking into account the atomic notion of the brain, if one nucleus (neuronal group) activates another, there is no perception of it, so to speak, which would impede the brain’s ability to account for the experience in the brain. To account for the experience, analyzing or processing its subjective character, what happens is that one thing activates another. What happens is activation of brain patterns, a pattern activates another, but does not perceive it, receives nothing from it, each one is a universe in itself, independent, making it impossible for brain regions to experience or give an account of the subjective experience manifested by other patterns, that is, that such kind of reflection at the cerebral level is carried out, as well as trying to explain consciousness through integration.
In summary, the idea of integrated information can help us to understand why we experience qualia in an integrated way, not because there is a real communication (my proposal is that with “communication” unified qualia are formed under the same entity), but the theory of integrated information cannot explain qualia itself, that is, subjective experience or consciousness.
As we see in this way, even though the mental aspect was in a sense of identity the neuronal patterns themselves, and not another type of entity in parallel and produced by brain activity, the dimension of subjective experience, the qualia, is irrelevant to brain functioning, what it is are patterns that activate others. This would have repercussions regarding our idea about the usefulness of subjective experience. There is a mental experiment that refers to this aspect, that of Mary’s room, also known as Mary the super-scientist proposed by Jackson (1982). In this, a scientist knows everything about the color red, in terms of its physical aspects, but has never seen the color in a subjective way. It is used to exemplify an anti-physicalist position, where the material knowledge of things would not provide a total description of a mental phenomenon. But the experiment of the red color does not exemplify in my opinion the need to speak of a mental or subjective entity, in that the brain already refers to the red pattern, independently of its qualia, and with such a pattern the behaviors and responses are organized and carried out. In the case that qualia exists, the experiment would not seem to take into account that to speak of the knowledge of red implies qualia, everything that the person perceives by other means implies qualia, but what the scientist does not present is the neuronal pattern that refers to that color first of all, that is one more knowledge, and the crucial one, the important thing is that this physical aspect can be present, the neural pattern, which Mary lacks, and that is part of reality, it is something physical, but it is not in this way necessary the quale of red, because reality seems to show that a system like the brain that contains that pattern is enough to explain everything and nothing else is required, like a quale, I am saying here that the brain and people could do everything they do, even talking about the subjective experience of the color red, without qualia.
But how can neuronal activity result in reflections on something like subjective experience if this activity does not refer to that experience in itself? Well, as I indicated in “Proposiciones”, if the brain reflects on it, this apparently would mean that the subjective is the neuronal activity itself and not a result of it, but this may not be a problem. When reflecting on subjective experience, this reflection has in any case a certain expression in the dimension of neuronal activity. Think about the subjective experience of a color, it is simply that certain neuronal patterns are activated when we perceive that color. To talk about the subjective experience of the color red, is to talk about the manifestation of neuronal activity that refers to the red. And if “we ask the brain” if it has a subjective experience of red, it has to have associated that with this we refer to the manifestation of red, which in the brain refers to a certain neuronal pattern, and in fact when we talk about subjective experience we refer to manifestations of qualia, the brain associates the question with the manifestation of the neuronal activity of red, the one that refers to the spectrum of light of such color, and the answer would be if it has or not such an experience, if we ask if it experiences red, but because it activates patterns that refer to that color, nothing more is needed.
Jackson, F. (1982). Epiphenomenal qualia. Philosophical quarterly, 32(127), 127-136.
Tononi, G. (2008). Consciousness as integrated information: a provisional manifesto. The Biological Bulletin, 215(3), 216-242.