Is the Mind Electromagnetic Energy?
A new science paper argues that if consciousness is best understood in terms of integrated information (a somewhat popular idea) then the mind is probably electromagnetic in nature. Most of the paper is pretty technical, although the core idea is fairly accessible. Here’s how it works.
Scientists and philosophers have long questioned the place of the mind in nature. Whether the mind is just another part of the physical world — however complicated and well organized — or whether it stands in some way outside the rest of the world is a debate emblematic of a perennial philosophical question.
For much of the twentieth century, the bulk of scientists and philosophers developed a pretty materialistic theory of mentality. The mind isn’t anything extra special in nature. Everything in nature is material — maybe with exceptions for abstract mathematical objects like sets and their ilk.
Quantum mechanics and quantum field theory pressed the conceptual envelope and convinced some people that ordinary things weren’t really material in the old fashioned Early Modern sense. If you were thinking the world is made up of anything like miniature Lego blocks or tiny billiard balls crashing into each other imperceptibly, you were old school. Science said the universe is made out of waves of energy, particles were perturbations in fundamental fields, and so on.
Philosophers, for the most part, followed the fruitful ideas of their scientist colleagues. If materialism was out, that was fine. But that just meant physical stuff was a little weirder than everyone thought. The world could still be nothing more than physical stuff, even if it is wavier and less particle-like than everyone had thought. Philosophers started calling themselves physicalists or naturalists. Nowadays, when a philosopher says she’s a materialist, it’s usually understood that she probably means to be a proponent of physicalism, broadly construed.
The quantum turn didn’t relax the pressure to view the mind as just another physical thing in the world. There was a conviction that the mind was the last deep puzzle in nature and that just like the subject matter of biology, medicine, and physical cosmology before it, what was once seen as totally mysterious — even magical — would soon come to be explained in a decisive manner characteristic of the natural sciences.
Developments in the field of computing and artificial intelligence further supported the notion that the mind is physical. People were starting to view the mind as a complicated machine, not like a clockwork as some had analogized it to in the late nineteenth century, but as a computing machine. The notion of computation was clearly defined, and by the 70’s or 80’s computers could already perform calculations so fast and efficiently, they could solve a narrow range of problems much faster than even the smartest human. It seemed like magic, and the only way to go was up.
But of course, it wasn’t magic at all, and that was the beauty of it. A computer is an understandable machine. Maybe the mind was as well. For that to be true, the mind would have to be a physical thing that worked like a computer. Maybe the mind just is the computations performed by the brain, a rough statement of the computational theory of mind (CTM). Or maybe the mind and the brain are literally identical, one and the same physical things. Philosophers call the idea that the mind just is the brain and its processes the Mind/Brain Identity Theory (MBIT).
Then along came the field of neuroscience with advances in imaging technology such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans. Neurobiology was beginning to be understood. Maybe the mind really was a kind of computer after all — a complicated biological computer made of billions of interconnected neurons hosting and processing information via electrochemical signals. Specific regions of the brain were even identified that correspond to various psychological states such as attention, memory, auditory processing, vision, and so on. These advances made MBIT and CTM look pretty attractive to philosophers.
The research program to reduce the mind to natural processes occurring in the meaty substrate of the human brain was looking pretty good. Debates were had about whether CTM or MBIT was more fundamental, but a lot of people were pretty convinced that either one or the other or maybe some very similar third view had to be right. There was just one vexing problem left.
The Philosophical Quandry
The basic problem with the attempt to explain the mind wholly in terms of physical processes is this: there isn’t anything it feels like to be a physical process. At least, that’s what most people tend to believe. Rocks, it is generally thought, don’t have experiences. There’s nothing it’s like to be a rock.
If the mind is a result of, or maybe identical to, physical processes, in what sense is it more than a complicated rock? If rocks don’t have experiences, why do brains? This isn’t the same as asking what makes a brain a thinking thing and a rock a non-thinking thing. Thinking is easier to explain than experience. Possibly, thinking just is certain computational operations, perhaps directed toward a certain goal if the thinking process is a rational one. But experiences seem to be different than thoughts in the computational sense. In addition to having structural, quantitative properties, experiences seem to have qualitative aspects or properties, what philosophers often refer to as qualia. Qualia, if they really do exist in a substantive way, are the metaphysical elephant in the room.
The inner experience — the what it is like — of human minds is perhaps the most mysterious feature of the universe. It’s a marvel there is such a thing at all. Moreover, this inner experience, what goes by the name of phenomenal consciousness (or just ‘consciousness’), is conceptually independent of behavior or even, on some accounts, thought. This point has been vividly made by Australian philosopher David Chalmers and his now infamous thought experiments involving zombies.
Chalmers asks us to imagine a being exactly like a human being in all external behaviors but which lacks any inner experiences. Such a philosophical zombie would be indistinguishable from a human being by all appearances and could answer questions, go to bars, and have all sorts of conversations. Anyone would be forgiven for thinking the zombie was conscious just like you and me and everyone else, but, Chalmers stipulates, the zombie is not conscious. There is nothing it is like to be the zombie. If it stubbed its toe, it would cry out in pain like everyone else, but there would be no experience of pain for the zombie. The lights are off. Nobody is home.
Whether or not philosophical zombies are physically possible is not at issue. Nobody really thinks zombies are a genuine physical possibility. The question is one of conceptual possibility. If it’s even possible to imagine that there could be a being who behaved exactly like a human without being conscious, it is thought, then this shows that consciousness is not reducible without remainder to physical processes.
At least that’s one thought. But even if this reasoning doesn’t work and consciousness really is reducible to, or explainable wholly in terms of, physical processes, a candidate for such a reduction has, for the most part, not been forthcoming. After all, any attempt to ground consciousness in physical processes has the problem of explaining how it is that brains create conscious experiences but rocks do not.
One way to ground consciousness in physical processes without worrying about the apparently gigantic gap between physical things like brains and physical things like rocks is to simply deny that there is a gap. If it turns out that every physical process or object (or at least a substantial fraction of those bearing relevant structural features) is conscious, then there is no problem explaining how physical processes managed to “produce” conscious experiences. The experiences were already there to begin with!
This idea, called panpsychism, a word that comes from Greek, meaning “everywhere mind,” is more defensible than you might think. Despite some marked criticism, it has been held and defended by contemporary philosophers such as Galen Strawson (who calls it “real physicalism”) and more recently by Philip Goff, although the general idea of panpsychism has an extensive pedigree in the history of philosophy and science.
But besides being at odds with most of our ordinary intuition, panpsychism has a number of conceptual problems, which various philosophers have tried to solve. One is called the subject summoning problem, which is the question of how it is that a collection of individually conscious or proto-conscious parts of a human brain come together to form a single, unified, subjective point of view, what we would consider a self. Related to this problem is another more general worry: the combination problem. The combination problem is analogous to other philosophical problems concerning composition. At what point do the individual molecules of my couch come together to make up a couch? How do many things come together to be one unified thing rather than just a heap of smaller parts? For panpsychism, the problem is basically: how does a myriad of “small” individual conscious objects come to create a single “big” unified conscious experience?
The subject summoning and combination problems are difficult, and proposed solutions to them tend to get technical, so we will skip over them here. But here’s a thought that is useful. The problems partially seem to rest on the issue of what sort of stuff physical stuff is and how it could or couldn’t be “put together” in the right way so as to be unified. It just doesn’t seem like ordinary physical stuff could come together in the right way.
Integrated Information Theory
One of the leading theories of consciousness in the neuroscience community is something called Integrated Information Theory, or IIT. This research project, espoused initially by Guilio Tononi, posits that consciousness is a measurable quantity, Φ, which can be stated in precise mathematical terms. The quantity Φ (pronounced ‘phi’ from the Greek alphabet) is a measure of the integration of physical information in a system.
IIT has the potential to resolve at least the problem of how it could be that ordinary physical stuff becomes unified or put together in the right way for complex subjects of inner experience to emerge, since the stuff in question is information, and there are precise mathematical ways of talking about how information can come to be integrated and thereby unified. This goes some way towards making sense of the combination and subject summoning problems, although it’s important to acknowledge that it doesn’t obviously solve those problems all by itself.
Because consciousness according to IIT is a measure of integrated information, its value depends on the complexity of the system being measured and the extent to which the information represented within that system is interdependent. If little information from the system would be lost by breaking the system apart into independent subsystems, then the system wasn’t very integrated in the first place. On the contrary, the higher the degree of integrated information a system has, the more difficult it would be to split the system into component subsystems without a significant loss of information.
One nice feature of this idea is that consciousness, as measured by Φ, comes in degrees. IIT gets a lot of the benefits of panpsychism, by defining consciousness in terms of physical information (which is all over the place), without committing itself to the idea that rocks are just as conscious as human beings. Rocks may have a little measure of consciousness according to IIT, but their information will be very minimally integrated, and so the degree of consciousness corresponding to a rock or a subatomic particle will be extremely minimal and austere.
But what about the title of this post? What does all this have to do with an electromagnetic theory of mind?
In a recent paper in Neuroscience of Consciousness ( Volume 2020, Issue 1, 2020, niaa016), Johnjoe McFadden argues that Integrated Information Theory alone is not sufficient to represent physically integrated information unless the information being integrated is carried by fields of energy such as electromagnetic radiation.
The idea is fairly simple in general, though the paper gets pretty technical. According to classical IIT, information is physically integrated in such a way as to produce the measurable quantity Φ. However, this raises a problem for IIT. According to McFadden, nearly all the examples of physically integrated information mentioned in the literature are cases of neural or computational information integration that are not really physically integrated across space. The types of information mentioned in the literature are mainly cases of information being integrated across time.
How this works is that information is generally thought to be integrated causally through time so that a single output is correlated with many inputs. Imagine a logic gate such as AND. How AND works is that two inputs are given — either (1,1), (1,0), (0,0), or (0,1) — and the gate will give an output of either a 1 or a 0 depending on what the inputs jointly were. In this case, AND will return a 1 only if both of the inputs were 1 (i.e. if the input state was (1,1)).
It’s true that AND integrates information since at some time there are two bits given to AND which are then integrated into a single output, either a 1 or a 0. What McFadden notes, however, is that this kind of information is not integrated across space. In other words, while the system that employs AND integrates information over time, from previous states to later states, it’s not true that there is a neat measure of the integration of the system’s information at a given time.
Problematically, it is the integration of information of a system (like a brain) at a time, and across space, that is supposed to account for consciousness, since consciousness is supposed to be something that could in principle be measured at a given time by Φ.
To be physically integrated information, McFadden thinks information must be spatially rather than simply causally/temporally integrated. Intuitively this is right. If I want to know how much information is integrated within a rock, say, I don’t care what will happen to the rock five minutes from now or whatever processes it will undergo. I care about what it is physically like right now.
Next, McFadden shows that while information can be integrated non-spatially over time by computers and simple neural processes, it can only be spatially integrated by things such as force fields. The details here can get technical, but one way to think about it is that the information encoded in an electromagnetic field, for example, is integrated across space so that the state of the information can be measured or observed from many different places without changing the information. McFadden gives an analogy. Imagine, he says, two people with radio television sets watching the same program. There is no problem receiving the same information from two different television sets located apart. This is a result of the fact that the information encoded in the electromagnetic radiation of the television broadcasting network is physically integrated across space.
With this in mind, McFadden suggests an electromagnetic theory of physically integrated information as a theory of consciousness, which he calls cemi field theory (‘cemi’ stands for conscious electromagnetic information). He goes on to show how a cemi field could implement algorithmic computation in a spatially integrated way, and he identifies the mind with the brain’s “global electromagnetic field”.
The details of cemi field theory are too complex and dense for this article, but if you’re interested, I recommend reading the original paper, which you can find for free here:
Neuroscience of Consciousness, Volume 2020, Issue 1, 2020, niaa016, https://doi.org/10.1093/nc/niaa016
McFadden’s cemi field theory of consciousness looks to be a promising expansion of the idea of Integrated Information Theory in general, and it’s a worthwhile scientific project, even if the project turns out to be unworkable. It provides the basis for a physically based approach to solving some important problems that face panpsychist theories of consciousness.
However, it should be clearly noted that neither IIT nor cemi field theory has solved the combination problem or the subject summoning problem — something those theories may not be able to do all by themselves. Nor has IIT or cemi field theory in any sense reductively explained the existence of qualia in terms of purely physical processes. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Perhaps qualia cannot be so reduced. Or maybe illusionists about consciousness are right and there just are no such things. At least IIT and cemi field theory have opened up a space for the discussion of such issues. Scientists and philosophers have more work to do, and that’s exciting!
If you would like to read more about the combination and subject summoning problems, or more about panpsychism in general, I recommend Philip Goff’s books, Galileo’s Error and Consciousness and Fundamental Reality. Even if you disagree with Goff as some vociferously do (e.g. Massimo Pigliucci and Patricia Churchland), Goff is a clear communicator of the ideas.
Another good resource for learning more about consciousness, qualia, panpsychism, and the philosophical underpinnings of computation, neurobiology, etc, is the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy online, which I absolutely cannot recommend highly enough.