Neuroscience and Buddhism Agree: Consciousness is Everywhere

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A new theory in neuroscience suggests consciousness is an intrinsic property of everything, just like gravity.

The theory, called Integrated Information Theory, states that consciousness appears in physical systems that contain many different and highly interconnected pieces of information. Based on that hypothesis, consciousness can be measured as a theoretical quantity, which the researchers call phi.

The theory treats consciousness as an intrinsic, fundamental property of reality.

Buddhists have a similar belief in what we in the West call ‘panpsychism’ — the belief that consciousness is everywhere and that we have to reduce the suffering of all conscious creatures.

The idea of universal consciousness, is a prominent thought in Buddhism. And it has been largely dismissed by modern science — until recently.

There are already pressing and practical needs for a way to measure consciousness. Doctors could use phi to tell if a person in a vegetative state is effectively dead, how much awareness a person with dementia has, when a foetus develops consciousness, how much animals perceive, or even whether a computer can feel.

This is perhaps the more urgent task with the birth of computer intelligence. We need to be able to answer the question of whether a machine is conscious. Does it feel anything? If so, what rights does it have? What will be our ethical obligations towards it?

These may seem arcane questions, but as machine intelligence gets more sophisticated we’ll need to have a rigorous ethical framework to answer these questions. Integrated Information Theory may just offer us this approach.

For a perspective on how systems can acquire consciousness, see the idea on Ideapod, If Consciousness Emerges From Physical Systems, It Will Emerge From Artificial Systems Too. There’s a flourishing conversation happening around the post.

Originally published on The Power of Ideas, Ideapod’s blog.