Integral Thinking in Cutting-Edge Neurophysiology

Yes, Virginia, Consciousness DOES Go All the Way Down! (Part 1)

Michael Zimmerman
August 6th, 2012
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Although the apparent confirmation of the Higgs Boson, the so-called God particle, has been attracting attention recently, the most vexing problem in science and philosophy remains the mind-body problem: What relation is there between material brain states and conscious, first-person experience? In the past few years, as we shall see in a moment, some neurosciences have now arrived at an answer that was anticipated by Ken Wilber’s version of integral theory. According to Wilber, meager versions of interiority—the antecedents of consciousness—are found at the atomic level, as Alfred North Whitehead suggested in the early 20th century.

For much of the 20th century, however, in part because of the enormous influence of behaviorism, consciousness was not even considered a fit topic for natural and social science. Until relatively recently, natural science maintained that consciousness is a late arriving, highly improbable, and accidental phenomenon belonging solely to humans. Animals were not considered conscious. Possession of self-consciousness, a trait that humans have developed to an exceptional degree, is regarded as at best a mixed blessing. While making possible knowledge that allows for some control of nature, consciousness also makes humans aware of their mortality and eventually of their absurdity in a godless universe, bereft of any significance apart from the pathetic prattling of utterly insignificant humans on a tiny planet in the middle of nowhere. In the face of this nihilistic view, we are encouraged to keep a stiff upper lip while leading a life “as if” it really meant anything.

In the past few decades, however, many neurophysiologists have concluded that we can infer that any organism with sufficient neural complexity has some measure of consciousness. Many researchers now believe that no account of human “mind” could be complete without explaining the nature and possibility of first-person experience.  This re-awakened interest in consciousness occurred in the context of narratives about cosmic evolution from its birth in the Big Bang. According to the so-called anthropic principle (better put, the life principle), organic life could have evolved only if the basic laws of the universe were extraordinarily finely tuned to be life friendly. Holmes Rolston III has written that if the first Big Bang was the explosion from which space-time and matter-energy emerged, and if the second Big Bang was the emergence of organic life, then the third Big Bang was the development of consciousness. More than a few respected scientists and philosophers maintain that perhaps it is no accident that self-conscious life evolved; indeed, perhaps the universe has become conscious of itself through humankind. 

Consciousness may be an emergent phenomenon that showed up 12 billion years after the first Big Bang. Yet, an even more striking possibility is that proto-consciousness came into being along with other basic cosmic constituents shortly after the Big Bang occurred.  Consciousness would then not be an accidental “add on” that never quite fits in a material universe, but instead would be a primary feature of the universe that occurs at all levels of reality, right down to that of quarks.

The Four Quadrants

One of the most significant recent contributions to this view of consciousness has been made by Christof Koch and Guilio Tononi. In Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist (MIT Press, 2012), Koch lays out the elements of their “integrated information theory “ (ITT) of consciousness.  Koch, a professor of biology and of engineering at Cal Tech, and chief science officer at the recently established Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle, is a world-renowned neuroscientist.  For almost twenty years, Koch worked closely with Nobel laureate Francis Crick on the problem of consciousness.  Despite coming up with one or another well-grounded account of what neurophysiological structures and functions were involved in generating consciousness, Koch and Crick were not able to explain exactly how the magic happened, that is, how first-person conscious experiences arose with or were correlated with those complex structures and functions.

After Crick’s death, Koch began with working with Tononi, another brilliant brain-consciousness researcher, who postulated that information theory could shed light on consciousness. In their accessible co-authored essay, “Can Machines Be Conscious?” Koch and Tononi write: “Information is classically defined as the reduction of uncertainty that occurs when one among many possible outcomes is chosen.” Relatively simple systems can be in an astonishing number of states, but such systems do not achieve consciousness because those states are not integrated. “According to IIT, consciousness implies the availability of a large repertoire of states belonging to a single integrated system. To be useful, those internal states should also be highly informative about the world.” Achieving high levels of integration in neural networks is difficult.1  “The more integrated and differentiated the system is, the more conscious it is.”2 (128) 

ITT “not only specifies the amount of consciousness, Φ, associated with each state of a system. It also captures the unique quality of that experience.” Hence, “A nervous network in any one particular state has an associated [correlated] shape in qualia [experiential] space.” For humans, the neural network state and the correlated experiential state are extraordinarily complex, as they would have to be in order to account for the manifold ways in which people can be conscious. Koch uses the term “crystal” to describe a physical system that is “mapped onto a shape in this fantastically multidimensional qualia space.” Each conscious experience involves its own topology, which allows for different experiences: seeing green vs. seeing red. (130)

Although correlated with neural (that is, material) states, consciousness is not reducible without remainder to such states.  Eliminative materialism is the term of art for the kind of reductionism that says there are only brain states and thus that consciousness is nothing but brain states. In contrast, Koch adheres to a sophisticated version of what philosopher David Chalmers has called the dual-aspect theory of reality. There are material phenomena and conscious phenomena, neither of which can be reduced to the other, although they are closely correlated. Corresponding to the mathematical complexity of the material system is the geometrical complexity of the experiencing crystal. “The crystal is the system viewed from within. It is the voice in the head, the light inside the skull.” (130)

The [experiential] crystal is not the same as the underlying network of mechanistic, causal interactions, for the former is phenomenal experience whereas the latter is a material thing. [ITT] postulates two sorts of properties in the universe that can’t be reduced to each other—the mental and the physical. They are linked by way of a simple yet sophisticated law, the mathematics of integrated information. (130)

According to Koch, this law will make possible development of a “consciousness-meter.”

This gadget takes the wiring diagram of any system of interacting components, be it wet biological circuits or those etched in silicon, to assess the size of that system’s conscious repertoire. The consciousness-meter scans the network’s physical circuitry, reading out its activity level to compute Φ and the crystal shape of the qualia that the network is momentarily experiencing. A geometrical calculus will need to be developed to determine whether the crystal has the morphology of a painfully stubbed toe or of the scent of a rose under a full moon. (131)

As indicated by his reference above to circuits in wetware or silicon, Koch adheres to a kind of functionalism with regard to consciousness. That is, what counts is not what the system is made of, but whether it functions in a way that makes possible integrated information. Always arising with such integrated information is some measure of interiority. That is to say, the universe is constituted by a hierarchy of integrated systems that not only have an exterior but an interior as well. The universe is conscious—that is, has some measure of experience or interiority--all the way down. According to Koch,

Any system whose functional connectivity and architecture yield a Φ value greater than zero has at least a trifle of experience. This holds not only for the biochemical and molecular structures of organic cells, but “also encompasses electronic networks made out of solid-state devices and copper wires.  

No matter what a thing is composed of, whether it is an organism or rolls on wheels:

If it has both differentiated and integrated states of information, it feels like something to be such a system; it has an interior perspective. The complexity and dimensionality of their associated phenomenal experiences might differ vastly, but each one has its own crystal [interior] shape.

[…] Even simple matter has a modicum of Φ. Protons and neutrons consist of a triad of quarks that are never observed in isolation. They constitute an infinitesimal integrated system. (131, 132)

With the rise of digital artifacts in the past few decades, vast numbers of low-level centers of interiority were added to that of trillions of organisms on planet Earth. When isolated computers and smart phones are tied together in the Internet, the level of integrated complexity attained suggests that the Internet is already conscious at some level. Koch and Tononi are confident that humans will eventually be able to create conscious artificial intelligence (AI), although AI consciousness will not necessarily have all the features associated with and required by the human form of consciousness.

In his book, Koch bravely steps out in a way rarely done by many neuroscientists. He asserts that he adheres to a version of panpsychism, because he holds that consciousness is “a fundamental feature of the universe, rather than emerging out of simpler elements….” (132) Koch praises Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a name that rarely appears in the context of neurophysiology (!), for having affirmed a version of panpsychism in his famous book, The Phenomenon of Man. The evolution of humankind makes possible the rise of the noosphere, a new layer of reality that covers planet Earth with “incandescence,” Teilhard writes. Koch takes seriously Teilhard’s speculation that the Omega Point will be achieved “when the universe becomes aware of itself by maximizing its complexity, its synergy.” (134) At this point, Koch notes that ITT goes beyond panpsychism in attempting to specify the causal processes involved in integrating information. Moreover, he concedes that ITT has a long way to go before being considered a “final” theory of consciousness, but it is a good start in that direction.

Koch is a reductionist because he believes that science will ultimately comprehend what gives rise to consciousness and will be able to create machines that are conscious. Consciousness does not come from some otherworldly source. He is a romantic reductionist because of his on-going interest in the spiritual dimensions of reality.  He writes: “I’m optimistic that science is poised fully to comprehend the mind-body problem. To paraphrase from Corinthians: ‘For now we see through a laboratory darkly, but then we shall know.’”    

Raised Roman Catholic, Koch took his faith seriously for many years, although he finally abandoned it because he could not square Christianity’s mythic content with scientific knowledge. In the final chapter of his book, Koch respectfully explores the limitations of Biblical religion and theism in general, but he is unwilling to surrender his surmise that there is something profound at work in the cosmos, something signifying more than the intense interactions of matter-energy. In effect, Koch is an his way to being an integral theorist.  In affirming the interiority of all levels of reality, he wants to leave open the possibility of a mysterious depth to the origins and consequences of the universe. Just before concluding his book with a psalm from the Dead Sea Scrolls, Koch waxes philosophically:

I do believe that some deep and elemental organizing principle created the universe and set it in motion for a purpose I cannot comprehend. I grew up calling this entity God. It is much closer to Spinoza’s God than to the God of Michelangelo’s painting.  The mystic Angelius Silesius, a contemporary of Descartes, captures the paradoxical essence of the self-caused Prime Mover as “Gott ist ein lauter Nichts, ihn rührt kein Nun noch Hier.” (God is a lucent nothing, no Now nor Here can touch him.)

Koch’s religious roots must have played some role in his openness to developing a sophisticated version of panpsychism. Nevertheless, he arrived at this position by way of lengthy, careful scientific research. This fact indicates that the integral Zeitgeist is gaining in influence, if by “integral thinking” we mean the view that consciousness starts all the way down and then proceeds to go all the way up via cosmic evolution.

The title of this essay promises a lot: There is consciousness all the way down. Koch has not proven this, as he is well aware. In Part Two of this post, I take a more critical look at current developments in AI and consciousness research. In his excellent new book, You Are Not a Gadget, Jaron Lanier—a key player in development of virtual reality in the 1980s—warns that researchers in Silicon Valley are redefining AI in a way that both changes and lowers the bar for what counts as machine “consciousness.” In the process, those gurus are encouraging us to lower our own mental capacities to comply with what all those seductive (but limited) gadgets can do. According to Lanier, leaders in Silicon Valley are using their profits not merely to line their pockets or to invest in better digital consumer goods, but primarily to enable the emergence of a self-conscious Internet via hive mind or to bring about some other form of AI that goes well beyond human intelligence. Here, we may ponder the adage: Be careful of what you wish for!

2 According to Koch, “Leibniz would have been very comfortable with integrated information.” (131) Leibniz, the 17th century German polymath and co-inventor (with Newton) of the calculus, postulated that the world is constituted by complex and integrated matrices of monads, or centers of experience. In human beings, a dominant monad integrates the contributions of countless other monads operating at various levels.


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I've followed some of the basic ideas of this conversation since reading Teilhard's Phenomenon of Man many years ago. Keeping in tune with the idea that literally everything evolves, I find that the evolution of philosophy is interesting, and so my open question to anyone who might be interested in that as well is ... who did Teilhard get some his ideas from? If he pulled the idea of the nooshere out of thin air, and that all forms of matter had some form of elemental consciousness in them as part of the very fabric of Creation, then he really would seem to have been making a quantum leap over his peers. Or was he influenced by someone else? Clearly to me, Teilhard "got" complexity theory (and emergence) many decades before the Santa Fe Institute got started in an effort to define and explore it.

Tracing back these lines of thought is not only interesting to me to see who influenced whom, but it plainly demonstrates the evolution of consciousness.

As a keen-eyed observer of the genealogical element in various approaches to conscious evolution, you must be knowledgeable in the many continuities between different branching streams of insight. However, where have you noticed was appears to be the most abrupt transitions, the greatest degree of novelty, the most apparently discontinuous production of this sort of intelligence?

Layman, wow it took me a long time to find my way back to this comment and post.  Sorry.

I hope I'm answering your question when I point out that one element that seems to be missing from the articles posted about consciousness and the recent scientific inquiries into AI, as well as just trying to define consciousness, is that despite the title of this article and the statements about consciousness going "all the way down" they all seem to be oblivious to the fact that all of the work and speculation is done with the presumption that only humans are conscious and all conscious models or theories have to "look" human.  It seems incredibly Anthropocentric.

In a subsequent discussion on AI becoming conscious, the problem it seems to me isnt about when or how it achieves "consciousness" but how do you make that call?  Based on what criteria?  The criteria I see so far being discussed is all done through the perspective of human consciousness.  I would assert that a machine could become conscious, but that it's never going to be exactly like human consciousness because human consciousness is organic, and machine based consciousness would presumably be based on some sort of computer network, in other words "machine based consciousness."  They could upon close examination share a lot of the same properties (because we designed it that way intentionally), but most likely they would never sync up enough to be considered the same, in my opinion.

Also, another perplexing problem that I think has to be solved when trying to define consciousness is found when we look at the world around us and make statements about that which is conscious and that which (obviously to some) doesnt appear to be.  Right now, only humans seem to be "conscious" ... and I ask "REALLY!?!?!"

At which point I go back in time and think "so tell me given our biological evolutionary path as we currently understand it, and define for me which proto-human species was conscious and which ones were not?"

Obviously, thats a lot of unanswered, or unanswerable questions.  Which is my point.

Although I resonate with your questions (and with their possible un-answerableness) don't you also think that once we understand that an omnipresent minimal subjective-potential is perhaps amplified in various unique styles of consciousness, in accordance with a panoply of different levels and types of complex evolutionary structures, that we still have no pragmatic option but to disregard most everything except the human-like consciousness which is of interest to us? 

After all, rocks & computers both may be said to have a certain awareness but we are legitimately not interested -- anthropocentrism being both necessary and appropriate for the methods being applied by anthropos.

In fact, one suspects that we are not (and should not be) interested in all kinds of human consciousness when it comes to evaluating the status of cybernetic systems, but only that which falls within a certain sub-region of the consciousness spectrum... excluding not only most of the other sentient animals but also many seemingly sapient humans as well.

Sorry, this got posted twice, and I dont see a "delete comment" button.  Geeez, and here we're talking about consciousness.  The irony is brutal.

Great work, Michael.

After a decade of conference participation I've come to see how the problems of consciousness are problems of description. Unfortunately we cannot reduce consciousness to physics or math or religion or even to biology, psychology, sociology, or information theory, all of which are just modes of description for certain kinds of phenomena. The field of Consciousness Studies requires its own terminologies with its own methods of analysis, logic, description, measurement, etc.(ergo its own way of thinking) and until we are ready and willing to formulate these (independent of the preferred methods of the other sciences) consciousness will remain an apparent mystery. And until there is a subject-relevant basis for the explanation of consciousness, saying something like “it goes all the way down” will actually mean very little. (What goes all the way down? The physics? The math? The psychology? etc.).

The mind/body dilema is the result of an assumption that the two methods of description involved (cogntive and biolgical) must somehow have a reductively common denominator.

One way to broach this problem of description is to start with a limited range of analysis and work outwardly from there. Once we have a description of a creature-awareness of a self/world boundary, creature-awareness of an ability to utilize a specific corpus in a specific environmental domain, creature-awareness of the spatial/temporal/causal parameters of a specific environmental domain, (for easy examples) we will finally have a rudimentary basis for understanding consciousness in relation to living systems and we can then determine the difference in terms of non-living systems (such as in atoms and the in cosmos, etc) which would have very different manifestations of consciousness (i.e. not determined by or influenced by biological survival). For living systems the mind and body are inextricably linked (the same thing).

In short, the thing is that to develop an appropriate description/analysis we have to start from scratch and so far most everyone is assuming we can borrow the descriptive and analytical tools of preexisting fields of endeavor.

@ layman;
I am by no means pooh-poohing religion when I say that your desire to subsume all other fields of interest under the aegis of a grand religious outlook is very much the same as what science does for other reasons (subsume all of reality into classical and quantum description). I assume your reason for wanting to do so is to restore a unity that science has had a way of inadvertently destroying (by reduction, by separation into observer and observed, and by the overweening need for control and certainty). That’s great. However… it might be better to admit that our means of description (scientific, spiritual, psychological, mathematical, etc) are each inspired by unique purposes (control, unity, integration, order, respectively) and are not at all objectively neutral. And because various aspects of awareness, intention, and cognition are involved in the processes behind each purpose it would be fairer to say that the endeavor to understand consciousness is the only one that can subsume these different sub-specialties under one unified vision. Yet, for the sake of get-along-ability I would suggest that we merely see each endeavor as a unique map of one portion (or vision) of reality, composed for a unique purpose, applicable in unique situations. The desire of those with singular visions of reality to subsume all else under the rightness of their unique vision is proving a troublesome dynamic in both the field of conscious studies (where a war of world-views has arisen) and in the world at large (where a war of world-views has been long underway). Each world-view perspective attributes the noblest reasons to itself and attributes debased reasons to the ‘other’ way(s) of thinking. Alas they are all just ways of thinking, and although I fully align with your desire to create and experience unity at a global scale, it is not the same thing as consciousness studies, which, to be effective, will have to be a more purpose-neutral affair.

What's that? You're pooh-poohing religion??? Sorry -- my hearing's not so good.

Insofar as science DOES subsume all reality into its description to that degree it should be essentially understood as a "religion". So I am not motivated by an idea that science has reductively separated reality for control purposes, etc., but rather than the conventional way of speaking about science and religion (inter alia) carries on a general human tendency to omit the category of a unifying cultural enterprise (which is constantly trying to resurrect itself) alongside the very valuable habit of dividing ourselves into distinct sub-fields of study.

Our descriptions of these various, possibly uniquely-motivated, domains of study should be understood to be both divergent (unique) and convergent ("religious"). Which seems roughly what you're also saying -- that the endeavor to understand consciousness is a generalizing field. From my view however, this is the heart of religion. Why add this extra idea? Only because it creates historical continuity and implies that consciousness studies are not simply a field of academic endeavor but also has soteriological and social-repatterning aspects to it.

Certainly you are correct that "consciousness studies" has a kind of contemporary pragmatism to it, a "clean and humble" presentation whose putative neutrality lowers the risk of upsetting both those people who fear singular visions and those people who wish to impose singular visions. Yet all the while it will continue to function as a nest for the production of religion in its most natural and planetary sense.

Yes! (@Layman again) Perhaps the most important and far-reaching function of Consciousness Studies will be to illustrate in what way we are truly interconnected. In the pursuit of suitable descriptors for consciousness we will have to give weight, validity and legitimacy to meanings, purposes, relationships, associations of meanings (concepts), etc. that do not show up in the physicist’s description of reality (the current source of our culture’s shared world-view). In the process of formulating a reality re-description that can comfortably accommodate cognitive phenomena it will be apparent that we are inescapably interrelated and inter-accommodative beings (fully interconnected via awareness, intention, mirroring, and common purposes, into an obvious sociological unity).

Yet, it is a concern of mine that we of a spiritual predilection not assume or proclaim that this unusual awakening, though by far the most important thing that could possibly happen, is anything other than just one use (or interpretation) of the findings. It is not the full scope of what consciousness studies is intended to do. It can also illuminate physics, psychology, biology, sociology, philosophy, etc. etc. in equally brilliant and revolutionary ways. Those without a shred of spiritual awareness can still hugely benefit from the conceptual reorientation that consciousness studies can ultimately provide (and thus we oughtn’t characterize the endeavor in such way that would constrict those kinds of results, ifyouseewhatImean, &Igatheryoudo). Thanks for the lovely exchange.

(A heart-felt shout out here to Vincent Fruchart who married the beautiful Sophie DeMay last week and who set me up with a trial month membership here. Cheers, SuperV.!)

As I am reading your comment I have just finished going through a paper by Tononi on his "phi" theory of consciousness as the quantity of integrated information. The natural supplementation of such an approach (based so strongly on the surplus effects of harmonious correlation) is to view it as a very sophisticated external correlate (or description) who goes alongside our subjective and intersubjective lives. And to extend even this to say that "religiosity" (or whatever we like to call it) is a quantitative intensity related to the integration of of various cultural enactments of different approaches to information in general.

However, this kind of talk is likely to scare a lot of good consciousness researches back into their shell. It is only welcome in a handful of avant-garde faculty lounges and pubs-near-the-university.

While consciousness studies is working to appear in the world with its own unique dignity and make independent observations which lay the infrastructure to relate the many domains of human life with each other, while this is happening we have a curious kind of twin duty. First we must give it space, tone ourselves down sometimes, let it grow its own terms without the prior interference of our assumptions. Second we must also contextualize historically and in terms of personal spiritual experience... not losing sight of how familiar it is, how it fits in, what its long range function is and how it relates to the omnivorous "spirit" and political (or whatever) needs of an emerging planetary wisdom sensibility which absolutely must exert a patterning influence of every other aspect of human life.

Lovely talking with you as well...

I am a spokesman for the movement to define religion as total cultural activity. It is the field of consciousness studies, traditionally, except that it is not limited to "study" any more than it is limited to any one of the -ologies. Although tremendous scientific empowerment is needed in today's religiosity, we also have to watch for the tendency of those studies "the subject" to keep their own subjective experiments separate from their field of inquiry. But when that membrane is more permeable -- as it must be to get certain types of data -- the regeneration of religion begins again. This is highly desirable.

The problem of religion has been largely one of "description".

So I join you in looking forward to an independent dignity (and effective contemporary set of terminological tools) for the scientific enterprise of consciousness studies, my own interest is in how that might come to function as an adjunct to the new planetary religiousness.

Although, I suspect my ability to distinguish myself from you might also be a problem of description.

in good cheer,
layman pascal.

panpsychism has had a huge revival in philosophy in the past 10 years (see I share some of it's basic intuitions. two of the most difficult issues with panpsychism (as I know it) yet to be resolved remain (sorry for the length btw.):

1. panpsychism has only a very vague and unfortunately purely quantitative notion of "degrees" of consciousness. (thus the binding problem)

i.e. most panpsychists I know - the above mentioned chalmers is the best example - imagine "less" to mean something like "less vivid", "less intense", "fewer qualia". in a way that's true. but in another sense it obviously is not. "concepts" (in the kantian sense) e.g. have often been taken to be much "less" vivid than the "impressions" (kantian sense again) they operate on.

this - the lack of vividness and plurality - lead philosophers like hume or nietzsche to turn the hierarchy upside-down and claim that concepts are not "higher" but actually "lower" degrees of consciousness (they don't exactly use these terms, be careful, only my generalization).

yet people like kant and husserl argued that concepts are a "higher" degree of consciousness than impressions insofar as they operate on impressions but not vice versa. or as husserl puts it, concepts go beyond merely "subjective" (i.e. merely first-personal and private, incommunicable) impressions and form them into "objective" (i.e. second-personal communicable meanings) "units of meaning" (bedeutungseinheiten) with new qualities not to be found in mere impressions.

higher order consciousness in husserl and kant further not only experiences random subjective (again, meaning merely first-personal) values and emotional states, it has what has been called "secondary" values, i.e. values about values, emotions about emotions, that can become objective, i.e. cross-subjectively binding mutual "obligations". as husserl once put it, higher order consciousness experiences emotions such as guilt; these are emotions directed at other emotions, i.e. "about" other emotions. further it knows emotions such as pride, also directed at other emotions. you can feel guilty for hating someone. guilt, as uncomfortable as it might feel, in husserl (and kant) is a "higher" emotion than mere undirected fancy "having fun". so is pride.

of course, here again nietzsche would completely disagree and turn the hierarchy again upside down...

you might agree with husserl and kant against hume and nietzsche or vice versa.

(!) but panpsychism unfortunately lacks a developmental scheme of interiority altogether. it doesn't even see these important qualitative distinctions. (!)

2. leibniz already distinguished true "units", i.e. the monads, from mere "aggregates", i.e. heaps. many panpsychists - chalmers included - often don't see the important difference and often treat everything that merely appears to be a unit, i.e. even systems - which according to luhman are mere ASCRIPTIONS coming from the observer and no "thingies" or "intrinsic units" - are treated as if they were atom-like building-blocks of reality.

when you hit an aggregate apart, it falls apart into two aggregates of the same kind. you get two stones out of one. but if you hit my brain apart, luckily you don't get two versions of tinier me's.

what are "real" units? that's a difficult question I have no answer to. wilber suggested to treat as "real" unit only those "thingies" that show the behavioral tendencies described by the twenty or so tenets. telephone nets, galaxies and even computer programs show several of these tendencies, but never all of them. therefore they are no real units and not conscious AT ALL.

(!) this approach is very vague, yet it is a better start than simply to treat everything that "appears" to have a boundary as a simple "thing" having an own locus of consciousness. (!)

nice article, thanks for sharing!
greetz from austria (yes, the country mighty schwarzenegger is from; never seen a kangaroo here!)

Dear Arnold,

You are so mighty. I both loved and hated the way you psyched out Lou Ferrigno in "Pumping Iron".

i agree -- less vivid, fewer qualia MIGHT mean less conscious but it is also misleading. and we should not hastily believe that concepts are less intense than impressions or "higher". our conclusions should at least be relativistic.

tell me,
what do you think the relationship between nietzsche "will-to-power" and the intensity of consciousness might be?

Hi Michael,

This is a great piece and I found your treatment of recent developments in the study of consciousness really useful–especially the references to Christof Kotch, his work, and his recent turn to panpsychism.

This last item, Kotch's move to a panpsychic view, I find especially interesting. I've been pondering the 'consciousness all the way down' view in Integral and its relationship to the implied panpsychic basis on which it rests. If as Wilber says 'the meaning of a statement is the mode of its enactment' then I'm not convinced any reference to, or reliance on, a panpsychic view can support a fully integral worldview. My concern, and it may be mostly a semantic one (but no less important for this) is that any reference to 'psych' or 'mind' or perhaps even 'consciousness' will always signify a kind of homuncular stance to modernists and postmodernists–that is, that we are sneaking in a metaphysical 'spirit' or all knowing mind that introduces a form of causality not reified through material existence. The mode of the meaning of 'panpsychism', in its essence, then will always be uncomfortable for modern (reductionists)/postmodern (subtle reductionists) types and therefore not meaningful enough to constitute the enactment of a practically effective Integral worldview–one that can get real and widespread traction in the formation of a planetary civilisation. The word 'spirit' has a similar and much stronger effect, and basing a view of spirit on even a 'sophisticated' panpsychism just seems to compound the problem. Shifting to Whiteheads concept of panexperientialism as a form of 'weak' panpsychism might help or even protopanexperientialism, but even these terms don't seem to be quite right as signifiers of what we are trying to articulate as integralists to the modern and post modern levels.

This is true even with non dual and post metaphysical qualifiers where we state that 'consciousness' is fully integrated or not-in-fact-separat from matter (non dual) and that on that basis we can develop a post metaphysical stance because we are not positing a purpose or 'telos' in this consciousness, it is evolving from the big bang forward and making complex form up as it goes.

My feeling is that Integral Spirituality as it is generally enacted currently within the Integral community, for all of its powerful meaning making within the Integral community, signifies a worldview based on a view of 'ultimate concern' that cannot truly include materially orientated modern and post modern folk. To be honest, it doesn't feel like it really includes the modern and post modern parts of me–not fully anyway.

This subject is all bit new to me, at least at this level of detail, but it has become a major preoccupation. Ultimately I think we need to develop a view that makes our non dual, post metaphysical stance meaningful to folk inhabiting all the major worldviews. This view could in turn support an integral spiritually that might evolve to look quite different to what we have now– one that would engage modern and post modern folk in a meaningful way. Kotch's approach to the problem of assigning a level of consciousness based on a measure of physical systemic geometries sounds like it could well be heading in a fruitful direction. It feels like there is a relationship here with the early or original Buddhist idea of mutual causality, where a view of dynamic complex relationality is assigned the fundamental existential role. While IIT gives us a measure and Buddhist doctrine of mutual causality perhaps gives us a workable view (or basis for one) we still lack a mechanism, which, I think is a requirement. If it is true that material and consciousness aspects of reality are truly 'not two' then where there is evolving consciousness there must be mechanism we can point to. A convincing mechanism would go a long way towards the kind of meaning making post/modern folk need to get on board any kind of integral approach to spirituality.

Thanks again for a great post. I'm very interested in Part 2.


and let me guess... it looked like, uh, the coffee shop? the park bench? a particular hat on a particular day? something you ate for breakfast? the wind in the trees? the taste of avocado chocolate pudding? and in general, that sort of thing?

Doesn't "There are material phenomena and conscious phenomena, neither of which can be reduced to the other, although they are closely correlated." just replicate Descartes and his dualism?

I will wait for part 2, but but I an guessing we will again see the AI hopes of replicating the human mind in a computer turns out to be far more complicated than we thought. It is not just a matter of replicating a neuron as an on off switch and modelling the neurons in the brain. There are just about as many processes going on in an individual neuron, many of which are quantum effects as at the level of the brain. especially if we link to ideas like Sheldrake's morphic field, Laszlo's A field or Stuart Hameroff's ideas ideas on consciousness emerging through the tubules of a cell, then AI has a long way to go.

There are so many avenues of new exploration, many of which will turn our to be dead ends. If Integral jumps on to the band wagon with too many ideas different from the mainstream that turn out to be dead ends, we may find people throw out the baby with the bathwater.

"just replicate Descartes and his dualism?" cartesian dualism was not descartes' fault. apart from his indeed very questionable and vague notion of "substance", what I believe he rightly saw was that "experiences" have very different properties than observed natural objects

- and therefore require an own method of investigation.

he himself believed to make contributions ONLY to the science of external material objects; a science of consciousness he believed not to be possible or necessary, as consciousness to him was fully aware of itself anyway - he had no notion of unconscious consciousness. that's why he must have found consciousness to be a rather boring phenomenon - there is no mystery to it all, in being conscious we know all about consciousness there is to be known.

yet descartes set the set the stage for a science of consciousness to be enriched by other guys. these are the much later to be methodologically fully fleshed out "geist sciences" (geisteswissenschaften) that up to the present day use different methods than science.

it is due to these methods of investigating consciousness that we owe such concepts as "rights", "duties" and "institutions". locke was heavily influenced by descartes. and locke as an investigator of basic structures of consciousness - not locke the scientist - was the great contributor to the american constitution.

today we have gone even beyond this methodological dualism, as it evidently cannot describe social facts such as institutions or cultural facts such as obligations. none of this, science can describe using its own methodologies.

i.e. I see the problem in methodological dualism not in not being a "monism" but rather that
it is not specific enough and "two" methods are by far not enough to capture the range of phenomena we can be aware of prior to already commiting ourselves to only one specific method of investigation.

best wishes

Hi Corey,

I also think this is a great piece by Michael. If you're interested in the mind/body problem, then the authors, books and papers mentioned here are real gems all on their own, and they do take us right up to the leading edge. But, I think the fact that Michael is pointing in this direction, in terms of integral inquiry, might be even more significant. I think this holds generally, re the question of panpsychism and how that will ultimately fly with modern and post modern world views (which I'll comment on in reply to Michael's post itself) and it's also true for specific topics like AI.

It feels like we are on the cusp of the development of a major game changer in relation to human culture and society through AI. I've wondered about the same sort of 'evolutionary requirement' in the development of AI and I wanted to run this view by you. I'm not sure AI will ever go through or be capable of going through the same evolutionary process that lead to human consciousness. If it was to do that it would might take a very long time–perhaps not as long as the 12 odd billion years it took to get to human consciousness, but it may just be that evolving complex consciousness at this level takes that sort of time. So, AI will always effectively be 'jumping off' at the level of evolved human consciousness; any shortening of the time it might take would then be due to some degree of this 'stepping off' advantage. Which brings me to my view on AI, how I feel it will play out and what effects it will most likely have. This view is provisional of course and it will probably change as things in AI and the wider world change and in turn change my view- my standard disclaimer about not really being able to know much about the future ect., but having a go anyway.

I don't think AI will come about by evolving through the same stages as human consciousness. I see AI in human society the same way I see a snail with its shell. The biologically evolved squishy thing inside the shell–the snail–creates its shell out of chemical components in its environment. The shell doesn't have to through the same evolutionary process as the snail in order to become an integrated and essential part of what we think of as a 'snail'. Similarly, we humans are creating a noospheric 'shell' of sorts from chemical/molecular components we find in our environment. As such, I don't think, AI will ever have the kind of consciousness that you and I have: deeply biologically evolved consciousness. That being the case I don't think human type subtle energies or chakras will ever come into it. Whatever subtle level energies are at work will be at the (complex) molecular level. I think it will be useful (in fact, incredibly useful), but that it will always be 'artificial' and lack consciousness in the way we normally think of it. AI interiority, such as it is will be limited to 'chemical/molecular' level interiority on its own, which won't get it very far–as in a silicon wafer with lots of tiny switches on it will never develop complex conscious all on its own. AI will get whatever kind of advanced interiority we humans can impart to it, but this will only ever be a part of what we evolved the hard way, so to speak. I think this speaks to the lowering of the bar of machine consciousness that Michael referred to. Despite all the resources and very serious intent to create human like machine consciousness, it is proving to be far harder than was originally thought and 'how the magic happens' re high order interiority is actually very illusive. So, we learn to live with the limits of AI as a human artefact and not a 'conscious' entity in its own right (at least not as we ordinarily think of it). But, having an AI shell, will I think enhance the consciousness that we humans already have and give us capacities that radically change our behaviours and capacities in the mental realm, similarly to how a snails shell gives it radical new capacities in the biological realm. For me, AI will become an integrated part of what we think of as a 'human being'–I think it already has–and that it will give us game changing capacities, but the realisation of independent machine consciousness will prove very hard to achieve. It will only ever be an analogue and suffer the same limitations of any analogy–only ever similar, but never the same. There will be stuff that intelligent machines just never get and therefore on their own they are unlikely to ever be a match for a human or humans in tandem with an equivalent intelligent machine AI shell. So, any kind of Singularity proposition really has to deal with how a machine is ever going to be a match for a human and a machine.

Just what independent evolved machine consciousness, with these limitations, but also with the advantages of stepping off from humans into silicon, might look like and what capacities it may eventually develop is another story. I'd be interested in hearing your thoughts on that.


Another awesome piece, Michael, thank you so much! I can't wait for Part 2 and explore the implications you see for artificial intelligence--and more importantly, digital consciousness.

The more we understand about how consciousness works in lower holons ("turtles all the way down"), the more predictions we should be able make about the consciousness of potentially more complex substrates ("turtles all the way up"). As I mentioned to Michael in an email, something I think about often is whether or not AI would ever really be able to fully break through without some better understanding of subtle energies. That is, if Ken's hypothesis about subtle energies proves to be correct--their correlation with interior awareness and the way various degrees complexity of physical gross matter conducts those energies (see this article)--then the main questions for me would be:

Would computational algorithms of sufficient complexity also be able to conduct these different types of subtle energy?

Could these informational algorithms then be linked together in a holonic relationship (digital chakras?) in a way that is somehow analogous to the multi-holon/multi-energetic makeup of our own consciousness?

Otherwise, aren't we trying to essentially create human-level consciousness out of atoms and molecules, while "skipping" all the wet squishy stuff of biological evolution?

To what extent can those biological structures and corresponding subtle energies be simulated and conducted digitally?

Without some sort of breakthrough in subtle energy research, could androids ever truly dream of electric sheep?

Biological organisms already represent systems whose conductivity of subtle energies is enabled by computational algorithms of which reach the threshold of "computational equivalence" (the tao?).

Taking Hegel's "geist" in the form of "the subtle" we would find it coming through minds and societies into a mutational hybrid with the gross realm. This is analogous to the manner in which the subtle stage melds together the subtle and gross personalities. Taking this image as a guide (which I do) I anticipate the so-called singularity epoch to be one in which the subtle is technologized through a mathematics of the configuration styles that correlate to the activities of massless energies within mass-bearing fields (the physical universe).

However the pre-existing history of material forms operating as complex computations shows that its patterns of emergence draw in simultaneously from multiple domains. So I would not expect computational theorists to arrive on their own but to enable the processing of massive amounts of correlated data from every domain in which we find strong subtle indicators. Essentially the good, true & beautiful in all their formats... perhaps loosely collected around the idea of naturalness (as a idealized set of computational aesthetics rather than a mere designation of whatever "nature" does for good or ill) could be such a project.

Development from threshold to threshold, and harmony between simultaneously existing experiential domains, all rest upon flowing processes enabled by particular configurations and ratios. These are formal and functional. Provided they are arranged properly they will likely provide a site for the appropriate flows.

Neuro-aesthetics, genetic aesthetics, biospheric asethetics, mining for complex algorithms, Reichian-style laboratory testing on the varieties of subtle energy and the developmental AND restorative-therapeutic access to personal subtle experiences (which can, on that basis, enter into forms of reality mapping which make a space for theorizing on this topic... particularly in the form of new basic assumptions to explain the panoply of behaviours in contempory physics) can -- I'm sure -- converge into subtle energy machines of all kinds.

I almost feel like I've already SEEN it...

and let me guess... it looked like, uh, the coffee shop? the park bench? a particular hat on a particular day? something you ate for breakfast? the wind in the trees? the taste of avocado chocolate pudding? and in general, that sort of thing?