22 September 2010

Giulio Tononi's Theory of Consciousness

The New York Times recently did a piece on University of Wisconsin neuroscientist Giulio Tononi, which like most mainstream treatments of science failed to penetrate at all closely to the core. Instead, one would need to read this 2004 paper by Tononi to understand a bit of what Tononi wants to achieve.

Tononi has collaborated with Nobel Prize winning scientist Gerald Edelman on a number of books and studies. So you might think that Edelman's theory of consciousness would have influenced the younger Tononi's development of his own theory of consciousness.

There are bound to be similarities between Tononi and his mentor Edelman, but Tononi seems to be cutting his own path through the wilderness of consciousness. Unlike Edelman or Antonio Damasio -- another famous cognitive scientist -- Tononi does not appear to be as aware of his own body and the crucial role the body plays in generating consciousness.

Tononi's theory of consciousness penetrates more deeply into neurobiological realities than the philosophical work of David Chalmers and than the computational neurophilosophical work of Paul or Patricia Churchill. Yet it seems as if Tononi remains largely "stuck in his head" when attempting to tease the roots of consciousness.

Consciousness is extremely complex, but it is often made far more complicated than it needs to be. One of the favourite bugaboos of "philosophers of mind" is "qualia," or experiential quanta. Philosophers such as Chalmers enjoy riding mental merry-go-rounds such as qualia, because it provides them with arcane areas of expertise and plenty of material to publish -- regardless of any lack of practical significance in the real world. Academia is academia, and "publish or perish" says nothing about grounded relevance to the actual world. (For an interesting "party crashing" of some of the sensory phenomena related to qualia, see this [via commenter Loren])

And yet consciousness cannot mean anything unless it is indeed grounded to the real world. And consciousness cannot ground to the world by means of words. Even the best verbal metaphors of mentation cannot connect consciousness to physical existence. This failure of words is often the takeoff point for computational neurophilosophers and neuroscientists and theoreticians of sophisticated computational neural networks including Bayesian approaches.

But to be brutally honest, most scholars of consciousness do not even give lip service to the bare necessities of the physical underpinnings of conscious awareness and higher level consciousness. What about Tononi? I'm not sure yet. He showed a lot of promise in his earlier collaborations with Edelman. His "Integrated Information" theory of consciousness suggests some interesting possibilities, but so far I have not seen the necessary connecting, or grounding, of the mental processes with the bodily processes -- which are absolutely crucial.

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