An Ancient Philosophical Concept Gets Some Scientific Backing

The concept of consciousness — broadly speaking, the state of being aware of one’s self and the external world — is so complicated that a clear, universal definition is difficult to pin down. Indeed, the consensus within neuroscience seems to be that we will likely never have a solid, totally provable theory of consciousness — though one idea does come close, and it validates an observation made over two millennial ago.

As Quartz reports:

In 2008, neuroscientist Giulio Tononi at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Center for Sleep and Consciousness put forward his “integrated information theory,” which is currently accepted as one of the most compelling explanations about what consciousness is.

One of the central claims of the theory is that, for consciousness to exist, it must have “cause-effect” power on itself.

Neurologist Melanie Boly, a resident at UW’s School of Medicine and Public Health who has worked with Tononi, explains that for anything to exist, it must be able to have an effect; it must be able to make some small difference to something else.

“Consciousness exists for itself and by itself”, says Boly. “Thus it should have cause and effect on itself”.

Boly is currently working with other researchers to develop a mathematical framework to test the predictions of integrated information theory.

The neurologist goes on to note that this promising theory they are working on testing follows a stream of conjectures going back at least to Plato, the famous fourth century B.C.E. philosopher. As he wrote in the dialog Sophist in 360 B.C.E.

“My notion would be, that anything which possesses any sort of power to affect another, or to be affected by another, if only for a single moment, however trifling the cause and however slight the effect, has real existence; and I hold that the definition of being is simply power.”

So if integrated information theory remains the most credible explanation for consciousness, as many neuroscientists believe is the case, we will have yet another example of pre-scientific philosophical conjecture managing to get at the fundamental nature of humanity and the metaphysical. Very interesting stuff, to say the least.

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