Reading: “Phi: A Voyage from the Brain to the Soul” by Giulio Tononi

Language continually asserts by the syntax of subject and predicate that “things” somehow “have” qualities and attributes
Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity
Gregory Bateson

Phi: A Voyage from the Brain to the Soul  by Giulio Tononi is an odd introduction to “Integrated Information Theory” (IIT). I came to it having read some of Tononi’s work and the collaborations with Koch and Edelman, so I was hoping to gain a more intuitive feel for how they want to constitute an axiomatic construction of how the experience consciousness arises from brain activity based on information theory and integration.

I can’t really recommend the book as either an introduction or as an aid to understanding IIT intuitively. It’s written poetically, as a series of vignettes involving Galileo being guided by cognitive echoes of figures in philosophy and neuroscience. Echoes, as in Tononi’s vague re-imaginings of them in his own mind rather than real historical figures grounded in the thought and social context of their own time and place. There are notes that provide some explanation and context, but the whole thing reads as a way to avoid simple, straight explanation of the theory.

I did find the book useful as an introduction to some of the fundamental relationships between brain and consciousness. In the vignettes, Tononi nicely describes the mosaic nature of consciousness, distinguishing the difference in the experience of being in the dark (where there is visual world without content) and being cortically blind (where the visual world is actually missing from consciousness). When I was in medical school, cortical blindness was compared to “what it looks like behind your head”. There’s no vision there; it’s not black or unclear, it just isn’t. Similarly, there are vignettes on dementia, development and “brain in a vat” thought experiments that are useful in determining the size and shape of mind.

Maybe ITT is just dressed up dualism

In the end, I find ITT totally unconvincing. I actually think it’s really just dualism masquerading as a theory of emergence. When Tononi writes this, he gives the game away:

How can we be responsible for our choices, if how we choose is determined by brain and circumstance?

As the Bateson quote at the top puts it better than I could, we are used to a world of things, so want mind to “exist” some how. We want free will to be mind controlling brain, when the truth is that mind is what brain does, so there’s no way a process of a thing can control the thing. It is the thing. IIT tries to bring mind into existence , like trying to bring a baseball game into existence when there are just the players, field, bats and balls. Sure we want to say “I saw a baseball game” when it’s more accurate to say “I went to the stadium to watch baseball players play nine innings.”

Bateson and others accurately point out that this experience of mind actually occurs out when the brain interacts with the world, a world that includes some what miraculously other brains of almost the same construction. Brain inhabits a physical world of chemicals and planets and energy and things, but it also inhabits a semantic world of language, emotion, baseball and blogs.

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