Winning Bet: Consciousness Still a Mystery


In 1998, after a day lecturing at a conference on consciousness, neuroscientist Christof Koch (Allen Institute) and philosopher David Chalmers made a bet.

They were in “a smoky bar in Bremen,” reported Per Snaprud, “and they still had more to say. After a few drinks, Koch suggested a wager. He bet a case of fine wine that within the next 25 years someone would discover a specific signature of consciousness in the brain. Chalmers said it wouldn’t happen, and bet against.”

It has now been 25 years, and Mariana Lenharo, writing in Nature, reports that both of the researchers “agreed publicly on 23 June, at the annual meeting of the Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness (ASSC) in New York City, that it is still an ongoing quest—and declared Chalmers the winner.”

One thing that helped settle the bet, Lenharo writes, was the recent testing of two different theories about “the neural basis of consciousness”:

Integrated information theory (IIT) and global network workspace theory (GNWT). IIT proposes that consciousness is a ‘structure’ in the brain formed by a specific type of neuronal connectivity that is active for as long as a certain experience, such as looking at an image, is occurring. This structure is thought to be found in the posterior cortex, at the back of the brain. On the other hand, GNWT suggests that consciousness arises when information is broadcast to areas of the brain through an interconnected network. The transmission, according to the theory, happens at the beginning and end of an experience and involves the prefrontal cortex, at the front of the brain.

Six labs tested both of the theories, but the results did not “perfectly match” either of them.

Koch reportedly purchased a “a case of fine Portuguese wine” for Chalmers.

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Grant Castillou
8 months ago

It’s becoming clear that with all the brain and consciousness theories out there, the proof will be in the pudding. By this I mean, can any particular theory be used to create a human adult level conscious machine. My bet is on the late Gerald Edelman’s Extended Theory of Neuronal Group Selection. The lead group in robotics based on this theory is the Neurorobotics Lab at UC at Irvine. Dr. Edelman distinguished between primary consciousness, which came first in evolution, and that humans share with other conscious animals, and higher order consciousness, which came to only humans with the acquisition of language. A machine with primary consciousness will probably have to come first.

What I find special about the TNGS is the Darwin series of automata created at the Neurosciences Institute by Dr. Edelman and his colleagues in the 1990’s and 2000’s. These machines perform in the real world, not in a restricted simulated world, and display convincing physical behavior indicative of higher psychological functions necessary for consciousness, such as perceptual categorization, memory, and learning. They are based on realistic models of the parts of the biological brain that the theory claims subserve these functions. The extended TNGS allows for the emergence of consciousness based only on further evolutionary development of the brain areas responsible for these functions, in a parsimonious way. No other research I’ve encountered is anywhere near as convincing.

I post because on almost every video and article about the brain and consciousness that I encounter, the attitude seems to be that we still know next to nothing about how the brain and consciousness work; that there’s lots of data but no unifying theory. I believe the extended TNGS is that theory. My motivation is to keep that theory in front of the public. And obviously, I consider it the route to a truly conscious machine, primary and higher-order.

My advice to people who want to create a conscious machine is to seriously ground themselves in the extended TNGS and the Darwin automata first, and proceed from there, by applying to Jeff Krichmar’s lab at UC Irvine, possibly. Dr. Edelman’s roadmap to a conscious machine is at https://arxiv.org/abs/2105.10461

Meme
Meme
Reply to  Grant Castillou
8 months ago

This comment sounds very familiar…

Daniel Cappell
8 months ago

The article doesn’t mention it, but they did indeed double down during the event.

J.A.M.
8 months ago

Perhaps I’m lost but what is “specific signature of consciousness in the brain” supposed to mean? To say that there is some discrete thing or part or property of the brain that is consciousness or that it emits a certain signal seems to yield too much to naive conceptions of consciousness. It seems a scientific explanation of consciousness should not expect to find anything so neat in the tangle of neurons.

This is outside of my range of knowledge, so if anyone knows how this bet could’ve been won by Koch without finding something like the folk concept of consciousness, I’d be interested to hear. Otherwise I would take the bet as ill-formed, and think the 25 years of failure seem to speak more to the inadequacy of our concept of consciousness rather than evidence that neuroscience is incapable of learning important truths about consciousness.

Kenny Easwaran
Reply to  J.A.M.
8 months ago

The term “neural correlates of consciousness” is often used here. We’ve identified various neural correlates of visual experience, neural correlates of being awake, neural correlates of moving your arm, etc. In some of these cases, we think the neural activity is caused by the relevant things, in some cases we think it causes them, and in some it’s plausible that there is an identity relation. But we don’t need to agree on that level of analysis to agree that we’ve found a neural correlate of the particular mental activity. I think (though I’m not an expert) that what’s going on here is that the participants agreed that there is no solidly established neural correlate of consciousness per se, as opposed to these other related concepts.

Jeff H
Jeff H
Reply to  J.A.M.
8 months ago

I’m also not an expert, but it seems to me that the betters — in deciding Chalmers won — aren’t committed to the claim that “neuroscience is incapable of learning important truths about consciousness,” or that a neural correlate of consciousness must realize exactly the pre-theoretical thing, if there even is one thing, that the folk call “consciousness.” It’s enough that they agree that there’s a workable difference between psychological activity that is (also) consciously experienced, on the one hand, and psychological activity that is not consciously experienced, on the other; and that the NCC is whatever about the brain accounts for what makes it one and not the other. So, to modify two of Kenny’s examples, raising your arm and visually detecting that there’s a wall up ahead can, in principle, be either consciously experienced or not, and the bet is about whether neuroscience has isolated the aspect of the brain (could be a part, a function, or whatever) that makes it the former. To me, at least, that seems like a well-formed bet.

david
8 months ago

you have been looking in the wrong place for Consciousness… It’s not in the head it’s all around us…. Part of the brain works as a limiter for Consciousness 

Chris Crawford
8 months ago

The notion of consciousness is the modern secular version of the notion of the soul. It is an expression of human vanity, not an objectively observable phenomenon. We still don’t even have a rigorous definition of consciousness — proof that we’re kidding ourselves. There are no behavioral traits of consciousness that cannot be explained with simpler hypotheses. And the fact that we hold consciousness to be unique to humanity comprises further proof of the vanity inherent to the notion.

Gordon
Gordon
Reply to  Chris Crawford
8 months ago

Strikingly rampant physicalist friendly types here. nothing wrong about that:) but in fact consciousness is phenomenological datum as obvious as anything else is. i just observed it now when I reflect! You can too. If consciousness is an illusion, then everything is in doubt since everything we believe we know or have reason to believe is mediated by consciousness. [not sure that is a good argument.. but i just came up with it]. Also consciousness is quite simple–something else you can discover when you reflect.

It seems this debate is really based on what one takes to fundamental, first person experience or a mythical view from nowhere world

Chris Crawford
Reply to  Gordon
8 months ago

Gordon, you write with regard to consciousness that “i just observed it now when I reflect!” Might I suggest that what you actually observed was your own reflecting? My point is that everything we call “consciousness” can be explained by simpler hypotheses. Occam’s Razor requires us to reject the notion of consciousness until we can find some mental phenomenon that cannot be explained without reference to consciousness — an impossible task without a rigorous definition of consciousness.

The human mind is correctly described as the most complex phenomenon known. That doesn’t make it magical or profoundly different from the minds of other animals. We do not need this imaginary concept to understand the mind — and the self-congratulatory tone attached to the notion should incite the greatest skepticism on our part.

Gordon
Gordon
Reply to  Chris Crawford
8 months ago

I think we are indeed starting from two radically different assumptions. I take the existence of consciousness to be a given. It is not a theoretical entity that is proposed to explain this or that phenomena. it is a phenomena, in my view the most fundamental one but even if I am wrong about that, which is likely, I don’t think I am wrong in holding that consciousness is the most basic phenomenological fact, even if it is not central to reality as us idealists like to think. But maybe the word “consciousness” is used differently. You write that when I think I am aware of consciousness reflectively that I am really aware of my own reflecting—I agree, sort of . Reflecting occurs when consciousness is directed towards consciousness..so it is consciousness (my scruple would be that we need to distinguish between the reflecting and reflected on consciousness as Sartre put it.

Chris Crawford
Reply to  Gordon
8 months ago

That’s very interesting… you seem to be saying that, for you, the existence of consciousness is a matter of faith rather than deduction. I’m taking the stance of the skeptical scientist, trying to consider the issue from the most objective point of view. I think that we’ve reach the point of De gustibus non est disputandem — which is always the ideal end point of any disagreement.

Another Philosopher
Another Philosopher
Reply to  Chris Crawford
8 months ago

Chris: I don’t think we need to compare Gordon’s position to faith claims at all.

Any deduction must start with some premises, that is true for the most hard-nosed skeptical scientist too. And if they doubt some of the premises in deductions, they can of course try to come up with some arguments for them too, but that process must ultimately come to an end.

I understand Gordon to be saying that consciousness is the datum to be explained by our theories, not something that needs to come out of them.

I also take issue with your claims of human vanity or self-congratulation, or that believers in consciousness believe in something magical.

I think, for example, that it is quite plausible that many animals are conscious, at least in some way, and that consciousness does fit somewhere into a scientific and naturalistic conception of the world—I just don’t know how.

A phenomenon isn’t “magical” just because it is currently unexplained by our best theories.

Gordon
Gordon
Reply to  Chris Crawford
8 months ago

not faith, reflection, which is a kind of observation. I mean you know what you are thinking now, how? via reflection, thought directed on itself if you like.

Name*
8 months ago

The naivety of the consciousness debate is depressing. I suppose one day someone will explain why so many academic thinkers refuse to study mystcism, which is the study of consciousness. Is there any literature explaining or justifying this ideologically blinkered approach? I’ve never found any. I guess it’s ‘not invented here’ syndrome. At any rate, it makes the views of most consciousness researchers look astonishingly ignorant.

Jason Brennan
Reply to  Name*
8 months ago

I’m sure this really helpful post will help convince us to stop being so naive and to instead study mysticism!

Ned Block
8 months ago

The Science article on the issue is more detailed and more accurate than the Nature article: https://www.science.org/content/article/search-neural-basis-consciousness-yields-first-results