[The words “experience” and “consciousness” are used interchangeably in this piece; even though they aren’t synonyms.]
i) Introduction ii) Experience and Information iii) What is Information? iv) Panpsychism v) A Thermostat and its Experiences vi) The Appeal of Simplicity & Complexity vii) What is Simple Experience?
As some people (pedants?) have said: “If everyone is brave, then no one is brave.” The point being made here is that a term only makes sense if it can be distinguished from non-examples. However, my example is an adjective (“brave”) applied to human persons. The word “information” is a noun. So saying “information is everywhere” is roughly equivalent to saying “atoms are everywhere”.
Information is surely extracted from things, events, conditions, etc: rather than a thing in itself. However, none of this may matter. A prima facie problem with the omnipresence of information may fade away on seeing what David Chalmers — and other “information theorists” — have to say about information.
Experience and Information
If, as Chalmers argues,
“experience itself as a fundamental feature of the world, alongside mass, charge, and space-time”
then, by definition, experience can’t be exclusive to humans or animals generally. Something that’s a “fundamental feature of the world” must literally be everywhere; just as Chalmers says about “mass, charge, and space-time”. This means that Chalmers’ linkage of experience to information is thoroughly non-biological.
Chalmers also links experience — therefore information — to thermostats. A thermostat isn’t alive; yet it can still be seen as a (to use Chalmers’ words) “maximally-simple” information system.
“[IIT] unavoidably predicts vast amounts of consciousness in physical systems that no sane person would regard as particularly ‘conscious’ at all: indeed, systems that do nothing but apply a low-density parity-check code, or other simple transformations of their input data. Moreover, IIT predicts not merely that these systems are ‘slightly’ conscious (which would be fine), but that they can be unboundedly more conscious than humans are.”
Here again it probably needs to be stated that if experience (consciousness) = information (or that information — sometimes? — equals experience), then experience (or consciousness) must indeed be everywhere. However, there’s this remaining question:
Is it the case that information actually is experience or is it that information brings about experience?
If it’s the latter, then we’ll simply repeat all the problems we have with both the emergence of one thing from another thing and the reduction of one thing to another thing.
There’s also hint of this problem when Chalmers asks us “[w]hy should this sort of processing be responsible for experience?” Here Chalmers uses the word “responsible” (as in “responsible for experience”). In other words, firstly we have processing - then we have experience. So it seems — in this context at least — that processing isn’t the same thing as experience. (It is responsible for experience.) And if processing is responsible for experience, then so is information. Thus information and experience can’t be the same thing. This may simply be, however, a grammatical fact in that even if information is experience, it can still be grammatically correct to say that “information is responsible for experience”.
What is Information?
The word “information” has massively different uses; some of which tend to differ strongly from the ones we use in everyday life. Indeed we can use the words of Claude E. Shannon (the “father of information theory”) to back this up. He wrote:
“It is hardly to be expected that a single concept of information would satisfactorily account for the numerous possible applications of this general field.”
The most important point to realise is that minds (or observers) are usually believed to be required to make information… information. However, information is also said to exist without minds (or observers). Some philosophers and physicists argue that information existed before human minds; and it will also exist after human minds disappear from the universe. This, of course, raises lots of philosophical and semantic questions.
It may help to compare information with knowledge. The later requires a person, mind or observer. The former (as just stated), may not.
Now if we move away from David Chalmers, we can cite the neuroscientist and psychiatrist Giulio Tononi as another example of someone who believes that consciousness (or experience) simply is information. Thus, if that’s an identity statement, then we can invert it and say that
information is (=) consciousness.
Yet consciousness (or experience) doesn’t equal just any kind of information; though any kind of information (embodied in a system) may be conscious (at least to some extent). Indeed, according to Tononi, the mathematical measure of that information (in an informational system) is φ (i.e., phi).
In addition, not only are systems more than their parts: those systems have various degrees of “informational integration”. The higher the informational integration, the more likely that informational system will be conscious. Or, alternatively, the higher the degree of integration, the higher the degree of consciousness.
The problem (if it is a problem) with arguing that consciousness (or experience) is information, and that information is everywhere, is that (as has just been said) even basic objects (or systems) have a degree of information. Therefore such basic things (or systems) must also have a degree of consciousness. Or, in IIT speak, all such things (systems) have a “φ value”; which is the measure of the degree of information (therefore consciousness) in the system. Thus Chalmers’ thermostat may also have a degree of experience. (Or, in Chalmers’ case, “proto-experience”.)
Clearly we’ve entered the territory of panpsychism here. Not surprisingly, Tononi is happy with panpsychism; even if his position isn’t identical to Chalmers’ panprotopsychism.
Interestingly enough, David Chalmers — in one paper at least — doesn’t really tell us what information is or what he means by the word “information”. He does tell us, however, that “information is everywhere”. He also tells us about “complex information processing” and “simpler information-processing”. I suppose that in the case of a thermostat, we can guess what information is. Basically, heat and cold are information. Though are heat and cold information for the thermostat? Indeed does that matter? Or is it the case that the actions which are carried out on the heat or cold (by the thermostat) constitute information? Perhaps more likely, is it the physical nature (its mechanical and physical innards) of a thermostat that constitutes its information?
To slightly change the subject for a second.
The American philosopher John Searle has a problem with the overuse of the words “computation” and “computer”. He cites the example of a window as a (to use Chalmers’ words again) “maximally-simple” computer. Searle writes:
“[T]he window in front of me is a very simple computer. Window open = 1, window closed = 0. That is, if we accept Turing’s definition according to which anything to which you can assign a 0 and a 1 is a computer, then the window is a simple and trivial computer.”
Searle’s basic point is that just about anything (or any thing) can be seen as a computer. Indeed computers are everywhere — just like Chalmers’ experience. Does this tie in with Chalmers’ position on information and maximally-simple information-processing? In other words, does a window contain information? By that I don’t mean the information that may exist in a window’s material and mechanical structures. (According to many, a window — being a physical thing — must contain information.) I mean to ask whether or not a window — like a thermostat — has information qua a technological device which is designed to be both opened and shut? Searle will of course conclude that this is an example of information-for-us.
Searle also has something to say about information (not just computers). He writes:
“[Christof Koch] is not saying that information causes consciousness; he is saying that certain information just is consciousness, and because information is everywhere, consciousness is everywhere.”
This appears to be the same as Chalmers’ position. Needless to say, Searle has a problem. He concludes:
“I think that if you analyze this carefully, you will see that the view is incoherent. Consciousness is independent of an observer. I am conscious no matter what anybody thinks. But information is typically relative to observers.  “These sentences, for example, make sense only relative to our capacity to interpret them. So you can’t explain consciousness by saying it consists of information, because information exists only relative to consciousness.”
As for thermostats, Searle has something to say on them too. He writes:
“I say about my thermostat that it perceives changes in the temperature; I say of my carburettor that it knows when to enrich the mixture; and I say of my computer that its memory is bigger than the memory of the computer I had last year.”
This means that this is a Searlian way (as with Dennett) of taking an intentional stance towards thermostats. We can treat them — or take them — as intentional (though inanimate) objects. Alternatively, we can take them as as-if intentional objects. The as-if-ness of windows and thermostats is derived from the fact that these inanimate objects have been designed to perceive, know and act. Though this is only as-if perception, as-if knowledge, and as-if action. (Indeed it’s only as-if information.) Such things are dependent on human perception, human knowledge, and human action. Perception, knowledge and action require real — or intrinsic — intentionality: not as-if intentionality. Thermostats and windows have a degree of as-if intentionality, derived from (our) intrinsic intentionality. However, according to Searle, despite all these qualifications of as-if intentionality, as-if intentionality is still “real” intentionality; though it’s derived from actual (or real) intentionality.
To get back to Searle’s position on information.
For one, it’s certainly the case that some — or even many — physicists and mathematicians don’t see information in Searle’s strictly semantic way. In addition, Integrated Information Theory’s use of the word “information” also receives much support in contemporary physics. This support includes how such things as particles and fields are seen in informational terms. As for thermodynamics: if there’s an event which affects a dynamic system, then that too can read as being informational input into the system. Indeed in the field called pancomputationalism, (just about) anything (or any thing) can be deemed to be information. In these cases, that information can be represented (or modelled) as also being a computational system.
Information may well become information-for-us to such physicists. However, it’s still information before it becomes information-for-us.
Perhaps most of these disputes simply boil down to the definition of the word “information”. The way that some physicists define that word will make it the case that, in Searle’s terms, information needn’t be “observer-relative”. On Searle’s definition, on the other hand, the word “information” is defined in such a way as to make it the case that information must be — or always is — relative to persons (or minds).
Is there anything more to this dispute that rival definitions? Perhaps not. However, in one sense there must be one vital distinction to be made. If information (sometimes) equals experience, then information not being dependent on human beings makes a big difference. It means that such information is information — and therefore experience — regardless of what we observe or think. However, this is the panpsychist’s view; and the physicists just mentioned (those who accept that information needn’t be observer-relative) don’t necessarily also accept that information is the same as experience. (I suspect that most physicists don’t believe that.) Thus we now have three positions:
i) Information is relative to observers. (Searle’s position.) ii) Information exists regardless of observers; though it isn’t equal to experience. (The position of some physicists and philosophers.) iii) Information exists regardless of observers and it is also equal to experience. (Chalmers’ position.)
A Thermostat and its Experiences
Firstly, let me offer Wikipedia’s definition of a thermostat:
“A thermostat is a component which senses the temperature of a system so that the system’s temperature is maintained near a desired setpoint.  “A thermostat exerts control by switching heating or cooling devices on or off, or by regulating the flow of a heat transfer fluid as needed, to maintain the correct temperature.”
What does Chalmers himself mean by the word “information” when it comes — specifically — to a thermostat? He writes:
“Both [thermostats and connectionist models] take an input, perform a quick and easy nonlinear transformation on it, and produce an output.”
As previously stated and in terms thermostats at least, information is information-for-us; not information for the thermostat itself. After all, thermostats respond to temperature because we’ve designed them to do so. Nonetheless, whatever it’s doing (even if designed), it’s still doing. That is, the thermostat is acting on information. When it’s hot, it does one thing. And when it’s cold, it does another thing. Thus does a thermostat have as-if information (to use Searle’s term, which is usually applied to intentionality)? Or does it have real (first-order) information? In other words, does the fact that a thermostat is designed by human beings automatically stop it from having experiences which are themselves determined by its informational innards? After all, humans are also — in a strong sense — designed by their DNA and we certainly have experiences. Thermostats are designed by humans: do they have experiences?
“NETTALK, then, is not an instantiation of conscious experience; it is only a model of it.”
We can now rewrite that passage in the following way:
A thermostat, then, is not an instantiation of conscious experience; it is a model of it.
The question is, then, whether or not Chalmers has (as it were) mixed up models with realities. NETtalk is certainly more complex than a thermostat. However, Chalmers has often argued that complexity in itself (in this case at least) may not matter.
The Appeal of Simplicity & Complexity
Chalmers plays up simplicity. He also plays down complexity. For example, Chalmers writes that “one wonders how relevant this whiff of complexity will ultimately be to the arguments about consciousness”. He goes further when he says that
“[o]nce a model with five units, say, is to be regarded as a model of consciousness, surely a model with one unit will also yield some insight”.
I presume that a thermostat has more than “one unit”; though we’d need to know what exactly a unit is.
Chalmers also makes what seems to be an obvious point — at least it seems obvious if one already accepts the information/experience link. He writes:
“Surely, somewhere on the continuum between systems with rich and complex conscious experience and systems with no experience at all, there are systems with simple conscious experience. A model with superposition of information seems to be more than we need — why, after all, should not the simplest cases involve information experienced discretely?”
Can we go simpler than a thermostat? Perhaps we can if this is all about information; though that would depend on our position on information. What about a dot on a piece of paper which is then made completely blank (i.e., at a later stage when the dot has been erased with a rubber)?
Chalmers also gives a biological (or “real life”) example of this phenomenon. He writes:
“We might imagine a traumatized creature that is blind to every other distinction to which humans are normally sensitive, but which can still experience hot and cold. Despite the lack of superposition, this experience would still qualify as a phenomenology.”
At a prima facie level, it does indeed seem obvious that complexity matters. After all, many theorists have made a strong link between the complexity of the brain and consciousness. Chalmers himself acknowledges the (intuitive) appeal of complexity. He writes:
“After all, does it not seem that this rich superposition of information is an inessential element of consciousness?”
Chalmers then rejects this requirement for complexity.
Having said all that, we can also quickly consider Phillip Goff’s argument here. He argues that there may be “little minds” (or seats of experience) in the brain, and all of them, on their own, are very simple. Now, of course, we have the problem of the “composition” (or “combination”) of all these little minds in order to make a big mind.
What is Simple Experience?
When Chalmers says that
“[w]here there is simple information processing, there is simple experience, and where there is complex information processing, there is complex experience”
what does he mean by “simple experience”? What is a simple experience? How simple can a simple experience be? Can we even imagine (or conceive) of such a thing? I suppose I can imagine a very simple pain. (Pain can certainly be experienced.) Or would that only be a mild pain; rather than a simple pain? (Some philosophers have argued that there needs to be more than phenomenology for a pain to be pain.)
What about a simple visual experience?
Well, a thermostat can’t have such a thing. So what simple experiences can a thermostat have? A thermostat is designed to physically react to the temperature. However, does it feel the temperature? (We can think of feels which are either strongly dependent on physical sense organs or feels which are purely mental or experiential in nature.) Does a thermostat experience its innards working? That is, does it experience itself taking in information and then responding to that information? But what could that possibly mean? In order to experience itself taking in information, perhaps the thermostat would need to be both an “it” and also an it capable of experiencing itself as an it. That, surely, goes way beyond simple experience.
What has just been said may also apply to a single-celled organism. Does it experience taking in information and then responding to it? Can it feel that information? It can’t see or touch it. So what is the experience of information (or the taking in and responding to it) when it comes to a single-celled organism? Sure, causal things happen within a cell. However, things happening within a cell don’t — in and of themselves — tell us that it has an experience of things happening within it.
Now what about a mouse?
A mouse has a brain and sensory organs. So, obviously, it’s vastly different to a single-celled organism and a thermostat. Nonetheless, the very idea of a very-simple experience is still problematic.