Earlier this week, a letter signed by over 100 researchers, including several philosophers, was published online, calling a popular theory of consciousness, integrated information theory (IIT), “pseudoscience.”
Others, including some who themselves have criticized IIT, have called the letter “so bad” and “unsupported by good reasoning.”
On both sides of the dispute are concerns about the reception of ideas beyond those researching them. The authors of the letter are concerned about the damaging effects that taking IIT seriously might have on certain clinical and ethical issues, while the critics of the letter are concerned about the damaging effects that accusations of pseudoscience might have on the whole field of consciousness studies.
The letter, published at PsyArXiv, is a response to publicity about IIT following the recent resolution of a bet made in 1998 between David Chalmers and Christof Koch. The bet was over whether, within the next 25 years, someone would discover a specific signature of consciousness in the brain, with Koch betting yes and Chalmers betting no. Chalmers was recently declared the winner of the bet, based on recent testing of two theories of consciousness, global network workspace theory (GNWT) and IIT.
The letter’s primary authors are a group of scientists, but the signatories include several philosophers, including Peter Carruthers, Patricia Churchland, Sam Cumming, Felipe De Brigard, Daniel Dennett, Keith Frankish, Adina Roskies, Barry Smith, and others.
The letter writers take issue with the reported status of IIT as a leading theory of consciousness:
The experiments seem very skillfully executed by a large group of trainees across different labs. However, by design the studies only tested some idiosyncratic predictions made by certain theorists, which are not really logically related to the core ideas of IIT, as one of the authors himself also acknowledges. The findings therefore do not support the claims that the theory itself was actually meaningfully tested, or that it holds a ‘dominant’, ‘well-established’, or ‘leading’ status. [citations omitted throughout]
They then go on to label it as pseudoscience:
IIT is an ambitious theory, but some scientists have labeled it as pseudoscience. According to IIT, an inactive grid of connected logic gates that are not performing any useful computation can be conscious—possibly even more so than humans; organoids created out of petri-dishes, as well as human fetuses at very early stages of development, are likely conscious according to the theory; on some interpretations, even plants may be conscious. These claims have been widely considered untestable, unscientific, ‘magicalist’, or a ‘departure from science as we know it’. Given its panpsychist commitments, until the theory as a whole—not just some hand-picked auxiliary components trivially shared by many others or already known to be true—is empirically testable, we feel that the pseudoscience label should indeed apply…
Our consensus is not that IIT and its variants decidedly lack intellectual merit. But with so much at stake, it is essential to provide a fair and truthful perspective on the status of the theory. As researchers, we have a duty to protect the public from scientific misinformation.
They are also concerned about the impact of the view on other issues, including “clinical practice concerning coma patients,… current debates on AI sentience and its regulation,… stem cell research, animal and organoid testing, and abortion.”
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.
Hoel goes through the popular press coverage of the study cited in the letter to argue that those articles do not exaggerate the empirical support for IIT, and thus that there is no “scientific misinformation” to protect the public from. The articles don’t even call IIT “dominant” or “well-established,” he says. “It’s like it comes from some alternative reality in which IIT is taken as gospel, all the media celebrate it instead of presenting it along with other theories, and all its specific problems.”
More substantively, he argues that while IIT may imply some counterintuitive possibilities, it is not suitably characterized as making untestable or unscientific claims:
Cerebral organoids are bits of cloned human brains grown in petri dishes—saying they might have consciousness is not wild at all! In fact, regulatory agencies have strongly considered the possibility. The idea that plants might be conscious is not popular, but it is definitely not untestable, unscientific, or “magicalist” (not a word). The idea that early-stage fetuses might have some sort of stream of consciousness is imaginable to, well, a lot of people frankly, and thus all the political debate.
The only example that might be truly counterintuitive is the “inactive grid of connected logic gates” being conscious. But it’s worth noting that IIT does not claim such a grid of logic gates would have an interesting consciousness—it would be more like an abstract bare spatial awareness and nothing else. And the particulars depend on the example and the version of IIT.
In a comment about the dispute on X (Twitter), David Chalmers writes:
IIT has many problems, but “pseudoscience” is like dropping a nuclear bomb over a regional dispute. it’s disproportionate, unsupported by good reasoning, and does vast collateral damage to the field far beyond IIT. as in vietnam: “we had to destroy the field in order to save it.”
(Field is “consciousness studies” he clarifies.)
He also says, echoing concerns of others about the effects of such accusations on funding for the field: “from the perspective of a policy maker: when you say ‘IIT is pseudoscience’ loud enough, many people hear/infer ‘consciousness research is pseudoscience’.”
And then, of course, there’s this remaining problem.