What questions should a real theory of consciousness encompass?

Well, now! The consciousness field is all atwitter! A letter has been published, with 124 signatories, claiming that one prominent “theory of consciousness” – the Integrated Information Theory proposed and developed by Giulio Tononi, Christof Koch and colleagues over several years – is “pseudoscience”. That’s a serious charge to level in print, and one that I presume the authors of the letter did not make lightly. 


The letter was a response to some of the media coverage around the COGITATE study – an adversarial collaboration which purports to test the predictions of several theories of consciousness in an open and fair way. (You can see here, from Hakwan Lau, some commentary on whether it is actually designed and executed appropriately to achieve that). The letter seems to reflect the growing exasperation of some researchers in the field with the perceived hype and misrepresentation of IIT, its claims, and the results of the COGITATE study, which apparently came to a head and prompted this drastic action.


I’m not working in this field and don’t have a dog in this fight. I don’t know whether publishing such a letter was warranted or will turn out to be helpful or damaging to the field. I will say it’s not a good look. But then neither is the hype or the indulgence of theories that are not actually scientific. My own feeling is that it’s not so easy to say what is and what isn’t scientific. When it comes to IIT, I think some aspects of it are specific enough to be testable (or at least people think they are), while some lead to metaphysical positions I personally find absurd, such as panpsychism, which are not testable and not, in fact, scientific, in the operational sense (nor are they intended to be).


Anyway, all of that is preamble. What I really want to say here is that we do not have any “theories of consciousness”. We have a bunch of different theories relating to different aspects of consciousness (very specific aspects, in some cases). From the outside, it seems to me that many of the supposed disagreements in the field arise because these theories are really talking about different things.


For those keeping track, these include the aforementioned IIT, the Global Neuronal Workspace Theory, Higher-Order Thought theories, the Attention Schema Theory, Drive Theory, Unlimited Associative Learning Theory, Beast Machine Theory, and many others (reviewed nicely here). People in this field do seem to like naming their ideas!


Even in the very limited domain of visual perception (which hugely dominates the field), different theories may be related to different sub-questions. Why does only some sensory information reach consciousness? How is that information bound together? Where is the information actually held? Does it all pass to some higher-order areas or are the details maintained in lower levels?


These kinds of questions have been the major areas of focus in the field – so much so that they can seem like what consciousness science is about. (Just like the field of decision-making often turns out to be just about whether monkeys can tell if a bunch of dots on a screen are moving more to the right than the left). But these questions were selected mainly because they can be operationalized and are experimentally tractable. In my view, the theories that deal with these paradigms are just not theories of consciousness more broadly.


A real grand theory of consciousness, will, in my view, have to take elements from all the current micro-theories. And then plenty more, if we are to answer the kinds of questions listed below. And, even if such a theory can’t currently answer all those questions, it should at least provide an overarching framework (i.e., what a theory really should be), in which they can be asked in a coherent way, without one question destabilising what we think we know about the answer to another one.


So, here goes – from my conscious brain to yours – a non-exhaustive list of questions that occur to me that a theory of consciousness should be able to encompass:



What kinds of things are sentient? What kinds of things is it like something to be? What is the basis of subjective experience and what kinds of things have it?


Does being sentient necessarily involve conscious awareness? Does awareness (of anything) necessarily entail self-awareness? What is required for “the lights to be on”?


What distinguishes conscious from non-conscious entities? (That is, why do some entities have the capacity for consciousness while other kinds of things do not?) Are there entities with different degrees or kinds of consciousness or a sharp boundary?


For things that have the capacity for consciousness, what distinguishes the state of consciousness from being unconscious? Is there a simple on/off switch? How is this related to arousal, attention, awareness of one’s surroundings (or general responsiveness)?


What determines what we are conscious of at any moment? Why do some neural or cognitive operations go on consciously and other subconsciously? Why/how are some kinds of information permitted access to our conscious awareness while most is excluded?


What distinguishes things that we are currently consciously aware of, from things that we could be consciously aware of if we turned our attention to them, from things that we could not be consciously aware of (that nevertheless play crucial roles in our cognition)?


Which systems are required to support conscious perception? Where is the relevant information represented? Is it all pushed into a common space or does a central system just point to more distributed representations where the details are held?


Why does consciousness feel unitary? How are our various informational streams bound together? Why do things feel like *our* experiences or *our* thoughts?


Where does our sense of selfhood come from? How is our conscious self related to other aspects of selfhood? How is this sense of self related to actually being a self?


Why do some kinds of neural activity feel like something? Why do different kinds of signals feel different from each other? Why do they feel specifically like what they feel like?


How do we become conscious of our own internal states? How much of our subjective experience arises from homeostatic control signals that necessarily have valence? If such signals entail feelings, how do we know what those feelings are about?


How does the aboutness of conscious states (or subconscious states) arise? How does the system know what such states refer to? (When the states are all the system has access to).


What is the point of conscious subjective experience? Or of a high level common space for conscious deliberation? Or of reflective capacities for metacognition? What adaptive value do these capacities have?


How does mentality arise at all? When do information processing and computation or just the flow of states through a dynamical system become elements of cognition and why are only some elements of cognition part of conscious experience?


How does conscious activity influence behavior? Does a capacity for conscious cognitive control equal “free will”? How is mental causation even supposed to work? How can the meaning of mental states constrain the activities of neural circuits?



If we had a theory that could accommodate all those elements and provide some coherent framework in which they could be related to each other – not for providing all the answers but just for asking sensible questions – well, that would be a theory of consciousness.



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