Information and consciousness

Abstract: I show how Surimposium, a theory of consciousness based on complexity, encompasses existing positions on information and consciousness, that of philosophers, physicalists, and new panconscious theories including Tononi’s integrated information.

Three positions

Three positions on information and consciousness:
1) Classical philosophical: information is relative to a conscious observer (Searle).
2) Classical materialist: information exists in itself, independent of any observer, and is not equivalent to consciousness.
3) Panconscious: information exists in itself and is equivalent to consciousness —or its processing is consciousness (Chalmers, Tononi).

Within parties

Position (1) includes phenomenologists, who refuse to see consciousness reduced to information or any other quantification. Classical philosophy can be described as a dualistic wait-and-see attitude: the phenomenon is kept apart until a satisfactory explanation is proposed. Some think the explanation is impossible.

Position (2) includes eliminativists, who make consciousness an illusion generated by neural processes. But what is an illusion? Elimination is not an explanation.

Position (3) is the most heterogeneous. It hosts both:
panpsychism, where consciousness is seen as a universal aspect of reality, added to its material aspect, to be considered independently of physicalist information,
-quantum consciousness (Penrose, Hameroff), where the brain is seen as a quantum computer, with an equivalence between quantum coherence and consciousness,
integrated information (Tononi), where consciousness is equivalent to the depth of information processing.

Beware of the term ‘panpsychic’

Let us avoid confusing panconsciousness and panpsychism. Panpsychism feeds on many religious mysticisms while integrated information is a physicalist information theory. The common point of the panconscious positions is monism: consciousness is intended integrated into the material world and not eliminated (materialism) or considered as an insoluble problem (by some philosophers).

Integrated information

The 3 positions feed of course on the absence of a consensus theory on consciousness and the deficiencies of each attempt to explain all the experiences about it. Tononi’s integrated information is the theory most resistant to criticism. Some critics wanted to discredit it by saying that it made a government administration a conscious being. It is not understanding the difference between amassed and integrated information. Integration means that no information has meaning without the presence of others. Even Christof Koch, who took up Tononi’s theory, misinterprets it by assuming that the internet might be conscious. The web is a multiplication of autonomous information and its classification, not its integration.

However, integrated information fails to explain consciousness in its aspect of phenomenon. It does not satisfy the classical philosophical position, which refuses to see the phenomenon reduced to a pure physicalist theory. How, then, to decide between the 3 positions on information and consciousness? Can Surimposium, a theory more ambitious than integrated information, decide?

Surimposition of qualitative levels

Surimposium is indeed a panconscious theory, not a panpsychic one. It does not see a “psyche in matter” but makes it emerge. It differs from other essays on an essential statement: consciousness does not exist in matter in a way that we can recognize or experience. It is only perceptible for a process located at the same level of information. In Surimposium consciousness is not a quantifiable phenomenon, unlike Tononi who measures it with his Phi factor. Consciousness is an integration of qualitative levels, each relatively independent of the others. The concept of relative independence is this: a level exists only on top of that of its constitution, but forms a qualitatively independent layer of information.

I use the term ‘surimposition’ rather than integration. Integration refers to the information specific to each level of reality, the set of relationships between its elements. This integration forms the overlying level, which is qualitatively surimposed on the underlying. Surimposition is a physical reality. It is not an epistemic artifice, a tool of the mind to better grasp reality. Surimposition is experienced by any entity capable of recognizing the quality of the level created, i.e. belonging to the same level.

Crossing a level of complexity

In Surimposium elemental consciousness arises from the reversal of the surimposed level on its own constitution —I explain how in the book. Surimposition and constitution are two sides of the same coin. Indissoluble. Consciousness is therefore neither a “field” nor a “force” nor information but a crossing of a level of complexity, the appearance of an emergent level of information in the system of related elements. The crossings make complexity a true physical dimension, of a different variety of space and time.

Each crossing creates a new qualitative fusion, a unique phenomenon. Surimposed on the previous ones, therefore relying entirely on them, but unique as their fusion. This hypothesis perfectly explains the two paradoxical aspects of the experienced phenomenon, both fusional and pointillist —in conscious fusion is perceived the layering of the underlying conceptual elements.

Computation does not appear in nothingness

The main difference between Surimposium and other panconscious theories is its verticality. Classical theories are horizontal, that is, they make reality a vast physical system of which consciousness would be a component, in the same way as a particle or a field. Complexity is seen as a property of this system, intrinsic to the mathematics that describes it. Even Tononi conceived his theory as computational, complexity as an emerging phenomenon from information processing.

Surimposium is different. This theory sees the complex dimension as fundamental and mathematics as a language describing it. The dimension has two axes, horizontal specific to each system of interacting elements, vertical linked to the appearance of emergent properties, making the systems the elements of a higher system. Complex verticality is the staging of these qualitatively independent systems.

Satisfy the phenomenologist

It is therefore impossible to compare the consciousness of atoms, cells, a motor neural network and integrating neurons of the global workspace. Each of these levels experiences its own consciousness, qualitatively independent, but entirely based on the surimposition of the underlying. Here we find the requirement of classical philosophers: no phenomenon, no qualia, is reducible to others or to its micromechanisms. Each inscribes its own existence on a floor —rather an attractor— of the complex dimension. Elaborate biological and digital consciousnesses are possible, can perform the same tasks, while being phenomenally different.

Satisfy the physicalist

The physicalist position is respected: no perceptible consciousness in matter because it is impossible to substitute for processes to perceive it. We can model the process or measure it with our instruments, but not experience it. Elimination becomes the observation of our limits and not an explanation of reality.

Satisfying the speculative

The different panconscious positions fit easily into this pattern. Spiritualist panpsychism is lodged at the top of complex verticality, a mental space largely open to the world, capable of hosting all speculations. Their existence as highly complex neural configurations is undeniable. It remains to be seen whether they represent something else in reality. The characteristic of a representation is to seek oneself in the world, sometimes in vain…

Integrate fully

Integrated information is an excellent ontological theory but must be part of the complex verticality instead of seeing out of it, in the process of modeling it, which effectively excludes the mind that models. Remnant of the world of Plato’s ideals, which still encourages many scientists to situate their thought in an alternative world, whose presence their science has never confirmed. We all have in mind a philosophical theory without knowing ourselves to be philosophical.


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