One Big Misconception About Consciousness – Christof Koch

Christof Koch (Allen Institute for Brain Science) discusses Shannon information and it’s theoretical limitations in explaining consciousness –

Information Theory misses a critical aspect of consciousnessChristof Koch

Christof argues that we don’t need observers to have conscious experiences (other poeple, god, etc), the underlying assumptions behind traditional information theory assumes Shannon information – and that a big misconception about the structure of consciousness stems from this idea – assuming that Shannon information is enough to explain consciousness.  Shannon information is about “sending information from a channel to a receiver – consciousness isn’t about sending anything to anybody.”  So what other kind of information is there?

The ‘information’ in Integrated Information Theory (IIT) does not refer to Shannon information.  Etymologically, the word ‘information’ derives from ‘informare’ – “it refers to information in the original sense of the word ‘Informare’ – to give form to” – that is to give form to a high dimensional structure.



It’s worth noting that many disagree with Integrated Information Theory – including Scott Aaronson – see here, here and here.


See interview below:

“It’s a theory that proceeds from phenomenology to as it were mechanisms in physics”.

IIT is also described in Christof Koch’s Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist’.

Axioms and postulates of integrated information theory

5 axioms / essential properties of experience of consciousness that are foundation to IIT – the intent is to capture the essential aspects of all conscious experience. Each axiom should apply to every possible experience.

  • Intrinsic existence: Consciousness exists: each experience is actual—indeed, that my experience here and now exists (it is real) is the only fact I can be sure of immediately and absolutely. Moreover, my experience exists from its own intrinsic perspective, independent of external observers (it is intrinsically real or actual).
  • Composition: Consciousness is structured: each experience is composed of multiple phenomenological distinctions, elementary or higher-order. For example, within one experience I may distinguish a book, a blue color, a blue book, the left side, a blue book on the left, and so on.
  • Information: Consciousness is specific: each experience is the particular way it is—being composed of a specific set of specific phenomenal distinctions—thereby differing from other possible experiences (differentiation). For example, an experience may include phenomenal distinctions specifying a large number of spatial locations, several positive concepts, such as a bedroom (as opposed to no bedroom), a bed (as opposed to no bed), a book (as opposed to no book), a blue color (as opposed to no blue), higher-order “bindings” of first-order distinctions, such as a blue book (as opposed to no blue book), as well as many negative concepts, such as no bird (as opposed to a bird), no bicycle (as opposed to a bicycle), no bush (as opposed to a bush), and so on. Similarly, an experience of pure darkness and silence is the particular way it is—it has the specific quality it has (no bedroom, no bed, no book, no blue, nor any other object, color, sound, thought, and so on). And being that way, it necessarily differs from a large number of alternative experiences I could have had but I am not actually having.
  • Integration: Consciousness is unified: each experience is irreducible to non-interdependent, disjoint subsets of phenomenal distinctions. Thus, I experience a whole visual scene, not the left side of the visual field independent of the right side (and vice versa). For example, the experience of seeing the word “BECAUSE” written in the middle of a blank page is irreducible to an experience of seeing “BE” on the left plus an experience of seeing “CAUSE” on the right. Similarly, seeing a blue book is irreducible to seeing a book without the color blue, plus the color blue without the book.
  • Exclusion: Consciousness is definite, in content and spatio-temporal grain: each experience has the set of phenomenal distinctions it has, neither less (a subset) nor more (a superset), and it flows at the speed it flows, neither faster nor slower. For example, the experience I am having is of seeing a body on a bed in a bedroom, a bookcase with books, one of which is a blue book, but I am not having an experience with less content—say, one lacking the phenomenal distinction blue/not blue, or colored/not colored; or with more content—say, one endowed with the additional phenomenal distinction high/low blood pressure. Moreover, my experience flows at a particular speed—each experience encompassing say a hundred milliseconds or so—but I am not having an experience that encompasses just a few milliseconds or instead minutes or hours.

So, does IIT solve what David Chalmers calls the “Hard Problem of consciousness”?

Christof Koch  is an American neuroscientist best known for his work on the neural bases of consciousness. He is the President and Chief Scientific Officer of the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle. From 1986 until 2013, he was a professor at the California Institute of Technology.

This interview is a short section of a larger interview which will be released at a later date.