Sunday, 14 June 2020

Every Subatomic Particle Must Go

i) Introduction

ii) Ernst Cassirer’s Structuralism
iii) Essential/Intrinsic Properties?
iv) Individuals?
v) Particles as Package-deals

Ontic structural realism is the position that (in physics at least) structure is all there is. That means that reality has no nature underneath its observed structure. Ontic structural realism is primarily influenced by 20th century physics; specifically by quantum field theory. It can also be argued that certain early-20th-century physicists held the same view (such as Arthur Eddington and Herman Weyl). 

Max Tegmark takes such structuralism further with his mathematical universe hypothesis. Tegmark argues that if our universe is only a particular structure, then it is no more real than any other structure.

Ontic structural realism has been called “the most fashionable ontological framework for modern physics”.

These piece is primarily a commentary on the ‘Ontic Structural Realism and the Philosophy of Physics’ chapter of James Ladyman and Don Ross’s book Every Thing Must Go: Metaphysics Naturalized. There are also a handful of references to — and quotes from — other parts of that book.

Ernst Cassirer’s Structuralism

James Ladyman and Don Ross’s (L & R) philosophy of physics is primarily motivated by the findings of quantum mechanics. Elements of their position can be traced back to — among others — Ernst Cassirer. (Cassirer died in 1945.) Indeed Ladyman and Ross have much to say about Cassirer. For example, they write the following:
“OSR [ontic structural realism] agrees with Cassirer that the field is nothing but structure. We can’t describe its nature without recourse to the mathematical structure of field theory.”
What L & R say about Ernst Cassirer’s position on objects is almost exactly the same as their own. Indeed it was also quantum mechanics (QM) which provided Cassirer with the motivation to reject “individual objects”. L & R write:
“Ernst Cassirer rejected the Aristotelian idea of individual substances on the basis of physics, and argued that the metaphysical view of the ‘material point’ as an individual object cannot be sustained in the context of field theory. He offers a structuralist conception of the field.”
One can firstly ask whether or not a commitment to the existence of objects is also automatically a commitment to “individual substances”; as well as to intrinsic (essential) properties. After all, the metaphysical bundle theory (among other theories) rejects the notion of substance; though not that of an individual.

We can also ask whether or not these positions are equally applicable to objects in the “classical” (or macro) world. Let’s put it this way. Ernest Cassirer’s and L & R’s positions are far more acceptable when applied the the quantum world than when applied to the classical world. More precisely, all this is far easier to swallow in the “context of field theory” than it is in relation to, say, human beings, cups or houses.

Essential/Intrinsic Properties?

It does seem strange (intuitively) that all “quantum elementary particles of a given type” are deemed to “have the same mass, size, and shape (if any), charge, and so on” — at least that’s how Ladyman and Ross see things. As it is, mass, size and charge are seen as intrinsic or essential properties. (Distinctions have been made between what is intrinsic and what is essential.) In fact it’s hard to imagine elementary particles having other (contingent/inessential) properties. After all, we’re not talking about the macroworld here. One can easily imagine a natural kind (such as a cat or lump of gold) having essential properties; though, in a particular instance, also having contingent properties. Can we also imagine an elementary particle having contingent properties? If such particles don’t have such contingent properties (due to the nature of the micro-world), then it may literally be the case that mass, size, charge and spin together is all there is to them. Thus essentialism of some kind may be an easier option to uphold for particles than it is for macro-objects such a water or monkeys.

However, Ladyman and Ross do cite examples of what can be taken as “accidental” properties. They cite “velocity or position at a particular time”. However, don’t physicists take a particular velocity — or at least mean velocity — of a particle to be pretty essential to it? On the other hand, do physicists care at all about the essential/contingent distinction?

From what’s just be said, it’s therefore no surprise that different particles of a particular type can be seen as “indistinguishable”. (See John Archibald Wheeler and his one-electron universe.) However, particles may still have properties which aren’t intrinsic. That is, properties which are relational or extrinsic. Ladyman and Ross cite “spatio-temporal or other state-dependent properties” as examples.

In terms of spatio-temporal properties. Does that mean that particles are even more likelier candidates for being 4-dimensional objects that macro-objects? As for state-dependent properties — this means that the nature of a particle must necessarily depend on the parallel (or corresponding) nature of the “state” (or system) to which it belongs.


Ladyman and Ross give a very concrete example of the physics which underlies the problematic nature of seeing elementary particles as single entities. Firstly they put the position of classical physics:
“[C]lassical physics assumed a principle of impenetrability, according to which no two particles could occupy the same spatio-temporal location. Hence, classical particles were thought to be distinguishable in virtue of each one having a trajectory in spacetime distinct from every other one.”
Clearly, in quantum mechanics, many — or all — the assumptions in the classical picture are rejected. (Or, at the least, on some readings of QM all these assumptions are rejected.)

Firstly, the “principle of impenetrability” is either questioned or rejected. On the classical picture, if particles are impenetrable, then that means that “no two particles could occupy the same spatio-temporal location”. However, if they’re penetrable (or if the notion of impenetrability doesn’t make sense), then one can conclude that two particles “could occupy the same spatio-temporal location”. Thus one can immediately ask the following question:
If two particles occupy the same spatiotemporal location, then is it correct to talk about two particles in the first place?
In consequence, the second part of the classical picture is either rejected or questioned. That second part (which follows from the first) is that
“classical particles were thought to be distinguishable in virtue of each one having a trajectory in spacetime distinct from every other one”.
Clearly, if the penetrability argument is true and two particles may occupy the same location, then each particle can’t be seen to have its own trajectory in spacetime. In other words, it will share that trajectory with other particles. This has the result that the Leibnizian picture breaks down (at least according to L & R) in the case of QM. Or as L & R put it:
“Thus for everyday objects and for classical particles, the principle of the Identity of Indiscernibles is true…”

Particles as Package-deals

It can be seen that the quantum-mechanical notion of a field plays an important part in L & R’s philosophy. The central argument is that fields and particles are intimately connected. Indeed they’re so strongly connected that a distinction between the two hardly seems warranted.

Firstly, there’s the problem of distinguishing particles from the states they ‘belong’ to. Thus, in an example given by L & Ross, we can interpret a given field/particle situation in two ways:
i) A two-particle state.
ii) A single state in which two “two particles [are] interchanged”.
Since it’s difficult to decipher whether it’s a two-particle state or a single state in which two particles are interchanged, L & R adopt the “alternative metaphysical picture” which “abandons the idea that quantum particles are individuals”. Thus all we have are states. That means that the “positing individuals plus states that are forever inaccessible to them” is deemed (by L & R) to be “ontologically profligate”.

L & R back-up the idea that states are more important than individuals (or, what’s more, that there are no individuals) by referring to David Bohm’s theory. In that theory we have the following:
“The dynamics of the theory are such that the properties, like mass, charge, and so on, normally associated with particles are in fact inherent in the quantum field and not in the particles.”
In other words, mass, charge, spin, etc. are properties of states, not of individual particles. However, doesn’t this position (or reality) have the consequence that a field takes over the role of an individual (or of a collection of individuals) in any metaphysics of the quantum world? Thus does that also mean that everything that’s said about particles can now be said about fields?

On Bohm’s picture ( if not on L & R’s) “[i] t seems that the particles only have position”. Yes; surely it must be a particle (not a field) which has a position. Indeed particles also have trajectories which account for their different positions.

To Bohm (at least according to L & R), “trajectories are enough to individuate particles”. It’s strange (prima facie) how trajectories can individuate. Unless that means that each type of particle has a type of trajectory. Thus the type trajectory tells you the type of particle involved in that trajectory.

L & R spot a problem with Bohm’s position. That problem is summed up in this way:
If all we have is trajectory (as with structure), then why not dispense with particles (as individuals at least) altogether?
This is how L & R explain their stance on Bohm’s theory:
“We may be happy that trajectories are enough to individuate particles in Bohm theory, but what will distinguish an ‘empty’ trajectory from an ‘occupied’ one?”
Here again L & R are basically saying that if all we’ve got are trajectories (which are part of the structure), then let’s stick with them and eliminate particles (as individuals) altogether.
L & R go into more detail on this by saying that
“[s]ince none of the physical properties ascribed to the particle will actually inhere in points of the trajectory, giving content to the claim that there is actually a ‘particle’ there would seem to require some notion of the raw stuff of the particle; in other words haecceities seem to be needed for the individuality of particles of Bohm theory too”.
If L & R’s physics is correct, then what they say makes sense. Positing particles seems to run free of Occam’s razor. That is, Bohm is filling the universe’s already-existing “ontological slums” with yet more superfluous entities (to use two metaphors).

One way of interpreting this position is by citing two different positions. Thus:
1) The positing of particles as individuals which exist in and of themselves.
2) The positing of particles as part of package-deals which include fields, states, trajectories, etc.
Then there’s L & R’s position.
If there are never particles in splendid isolation (i.e., apart from fields, etc.), then why see particles as individuals in the first place?
L & R are a little more precise as to why they endorse the position directly above. They make the metaphysical point that “haecceities seem to be needed for the individuality of particles of Bohm’s theory too”. In other words, in order for particles to exist as individuals (as well as to be taken as existing as individuals), they’ll require “individual essences” in order to be individuated. However, if the nature of a particle necessarily involves fields, states, other particles, trajectories, etc., then it’s very hard (or impossible) to make sense of the idea that it could have an individual (or indeed any) essence.

In very basic terms, a specific particle — and indeed all particles — is part of a package-deal. Particles simply can’t be individuated without reference to external, extrinsic or relational factors. Thus particles simply aren’t individuals (or things) at all.

Friday, 12 June 2020

Why (Many) Analytic Philosophy Papers are Pretentious and Hard to Read

This is a critique of many (i.e., not all) analytic philosophy papers. Indeed it mainly focuses on the papers of postgraduates and young professional analytic philosophers. That’s those people who feel a strong need to display their academic credentials.

So one qualification I’ll make about this piece (as just hinted at) is that the more well-known (or even famous) an analytic philosopher becomes, the more likely he’ll take liberties with his prose style. Postgraduates and young professional analytic philosophers, on the other hand, will take the least liberties with their prose style. (In at least certain respects, that’s a good thing.) This basically means that if a philosopher has gone through the academic mill and displayed his credentials, then he can relax a little in terms of his prose. (For example, he can use the word “I” rather than the royal “we”.)

In any case, what often happens (in simple terms) is that analytic postgraduates and young philosophers attempt to write like older academics and the contemporary philosophers they’ve only just read. In that sense, they’re simply ingratiating themselves into a professional academic tribe.

Academics involved in analytic philosophy will, of course, say — and justifiably so — that academese is required for reasons of objectivity (or “intersubjectivity”), clarity, the formal requirements of academic research, stylistic uniformity… and whatever. However, there’s clearly much more to it than all that.

So don’t get me wrong. I don’t believe that academic research is a bad thing. And I’m not keen on unstructured stream-of-consciousness philosophy in which the writer doesn’t seem to be aware of what other philosophers have said on the very same subject. This mean that there must be a happy medium between infinite footnotes, references and endless name-doping (see later section) and, on the other hand, a philosophical free-for-all. Having said that, some of the greatest papers in analytic philosopher don’t have any footnotes or references. Indeed some don’t even refer to other philosophers. (For example, Bertrand Russell’s ‘Existence and Description’, Max Black’s ‘The Identity of Indiscernibles’, David Lewis’s ‘Possible Worlds’, etc.)

What Philosophers Have Said on X

Sometimes I get the impression that far too many academic philosophy papers are simply long lists of what philosophers have said on subject x in the last 100 years or so. Or, if the academic is a postgraduate or young philosopher, then they’ll list of everything academically fashionable that’s been said on the subject in, say, the last 20 or 30 years. This means that most postgraduates pride themselves on being up-to-day. In these cases, then, not much will be referenced that’s more than 15 years old. And even when it comes to obscure areas of philosophy, there’ll still be a lot written on that subject.

As I’ve just said, what academics often do is comment on what Philosopher A said on subject x, then on what Philosopher B said on subject x, then on what Philosopher C… Sure; each time the academic does that he’ll offer a tiny opinion on what’s just been said by Philosopher A, Philosopher B, Philosopher C, etc. However, there’s still no deep thread of argument because the academic concerned endlessly moves from what one philosopher said to what another philosopher said. This approach is, after all, a display of the academic’s “research skills”. Thus I presume that it is seen as being arrogant, naive and… well non-academic to philosophise for too long without referencing other philosophers.

At its most extreme, a postgraduate paper on problem/subject x amounts to no more than commenting on what every philosopher under the sun has said on x. And then such an academic will offer a tiny tweak on x. So is that modesty and “academic standards”? Or, on the other hand, is it part of a long production line of academic papers? 

Since the academic concerned is simply offering an endless citation of other philosophers’ comments and positions, then he doesn’t have to do much thinking himself. Nonetheless, he does (as stated) have to do a tremendous amount of research. And it is through that research that he displays his academic and (future) professional credentials. Hopefully (for the academic at least), all that research may well secure him “academic tenure” (i.e., a well-paid job and career security).

That’s the focus on what philosophers have said on x. What about x itself?

Postgraduate students and young analytic philosophers usually focus on a fashionable (or up-to-date) “problem”. Then they read the fashionable (or up-to-date) papers on that problem — even if such a problem is simply a new stylistic variation of what older and dead philosophers have already said. Indeed it has been said (e.g., by A.J. Ayer way back in the 1950s) that many postgrad students rarely read anything that’s older than twenty-years old. That’s mainly because many postgrads are so convinced that what is new is always better than what is old that they don’t feel at all guilty about their fixation with the very-recent academic past. (Note: this present-mindedness has rarely anything to do with accommodating new findings in science.)

As just stated, what postgraduates of analytic philosophy and young philosophers tend to do when they write a paper is focus on an extremely narrow problem; as well as an extremely-narrow take on that extremely-narrow problem. (I suppose that this is the exact antithesis of Hegelian “system-building”.) Then they’ll read everything that’s been written on that subject (at least by the big or fashionable players) in the last five or ten years. They’ll then make notes on — and collect quotes from — everything they’ve read. Thus the resultant paper will also be chockablock with references and footnotes; though not necessarily chockablock with quotes. It will also be written in as academic (or dry) style as possible: indeed, self-consciously so. That will also mean that there’s often a gratuitous use of symbols, lots of numbered points, schema, and other stylistic gimmicks.

Now for more on the academic prose style itself.


Professional analytic philosophers pride themselves on their “clarity”. Yet the writings of such academics are often not very clear at all. True, such philosophers offer arguments and “conceptual clarifications”. However, these things don’t — in and of themselves — bring about clarity. Indeed they often do the opposite. In addition, they can encourage a degree of pedantry (which I’m also prone to).

It can also be said that the notions clarity and “explicit explanation” may simply be relative to specific analytic philosophers and what they take these things to mean. In other words, analytic philosophy may only be clear to other (professional) analytic philosophers. And the explicit explanations found in analytic philosophy may only work as explanations when it comes to other analytic philosophers. This means that those on the outside (including educated people) will not appreciate (or even recognise) that supposed clarity or take the explanations to be explanations. Of course this is a sceptical view. Nonetheless, even if clarity and explicit explanation are relative only to analytic philosophers, it’s surely still the case that most analytic philosophers have the goals of clarity and explanation in mind… Well, not always.

Following on from that.

There’s usually — i.e., almost every time — absolutely no effort to make what’s discussed as simple as possible (though no simpler). In fact quite the opposite. That’s because there is indeed an “academic style”. Sure; each discipline has its own academic style. So just as many philosophers on the Continent will write in one way, so many analytic philosophers will write in another. And such prose styles will be equally academic.

One thing I’ve also noted is that many academics are simply bad at writing decent English. For example, they often don’t seem that keen on commas and even full stops. This can result in very long and convoluted sentences. Indeed sometimes this stylistic trait often seems to be deliberate. Now why is that? It’s often because if the academic’s ideas were put in the simplest manner possible, then that would show how simple his ideas or arguments are. And that will also show how trite, obvious or dull his ideas/arguments are.

The other thing that can often be noted is the extremely long paragraphs and a lack of subheadings. It’s as if the academics concerned are displaying how dense and esoteric their thought-processes are. Perhaps this is because they believe that subheadings are for amateurs or popular-science books.

Now for those damned footnotes and references.

Often there are numerous references and footnotes in the papers of analytic philosophers. Indeed sometimes there are so many footnotes on the page that they take up more space than the main text. (Click this link for an example of what I’m talking about.) And this, of course, is extremely off-putting if the reader is only reading the main text. (For that reason, aren’t notes best placed at the end?) Yes; one’s flow is constantly being broken by a postgraduate or young philosopher displaying his research credentials (rather than doing philosophy). Finally, doesn’t this excessive use of long — and many — footnotes verge on academic exhibitionism?

Other stylistic gimmicks include the gratuitous use of symbols. (Most of the symbols used are logical; though sometimes they’re very peculiar to the academic concerned.) Schematic representations of positions or arguments are also used. And there may even be pointless graphs.

Then there’s the superabundance of technical terms. Sure, in all disciplines technical terms are required. Having said that, they aren’t required in each and every case. So sometimes a technical term is used when a everyday term will do the job just as well. This means that such terms are often used for reasons of pretentiousness or so the writer can display his academic credentials.


Criticising bad writing, technicality and sheer pretentiousness, however, doesn’t also mean that all work on the difficult minutia of philosophy should be shunned or limited in any way. Of course not. Some papers are bound to be complex and difficult. That’s not necessarily because of the subject’s difficulty; but simply because the issues and problems will be technical in nature and therefore include a high number of unfamiliar terms. Yet the use of technical terms can often be gratuitous (though it depends on the academic concerned).

Thus academese can disguise what is often banal.

A lot of analytic philosophy is “trivial” (to quote what David Hugh Mellor said about much Continental philosophy). It’s also the case that some analytic philosophers hide that triviality under prose which is “willfully obscure” (another quote from Mellor, this time he was referring to Derrida). Then again, such analytic philosophy won’t be trivial or willfully obscure in the same way in which, say, Jacques Derrida’s work is. That is, it won’t be poetic and oracular. Instead, analytic triviality is hidden within forests of jargon, schema, symbolic letters, footnotes, references, “backward Es” (to quote Hilary Putnam), words like ceteris paribus and the like. In other words, such academic prose will be used to hide all the trivialities.

Thursday, 4 June 2020

Giulio Tononi on the Structure of Consciousness

i) Introduction

ii) What is an Experience?
iii) An Experience of a Blue Book
iv) An Experience of a Blue Book in a Bookcase
v) An Experience of the Word ‘Because’
vi) The Speed and Length of an Experience
vii) The Binding Problem

I first came across a relevant philosophical reference to the word “structure” (i.e., within an analysis of consciousness) in a work by David Chalmers. In his ‘Facing Up to the Hard Problem of Consciousness’ (1995), Chalmers tells us that
“we can use facts about neural processing of visual information to indirectly explain the structure of colour space”.
(Note the word “indirectly”; which, in what follows, proves to be important.)

Chalmers then says that “the structure of experience will also be explained”. Nonetheless, Chalmers adds:
“There are properties of experience, such as the intrinsic nature of a sensation of red, that cannot be fully captured in a structural description.”
Prima facie, it seems odd to say that “[c]onsciousness is structured”. It intuitively seems like a Rylean “category mistake”. That is, the American philosophers William James and Wilfrid Sellars (as well as many others) argued that consciousness is “grainless”. (James also referred to the “stream of consciousness”; which is a related idea.)

In simple terms, Giulio Tononi tells us that “consciousness has composition”. That means that consciousness (or a particular experience) is composed of different things. What things? Tononi says that these things include “color and shape”. These components “structure visual experience”. Indeed it’s this structure which “allows for [the] various distinctions” made in this piece.

What is an Experience?

Does Tononi try to make things a little too neat and tidy? This may especially be the case since he’s ostensibly attempting to be doing a (new) kind of phenomenology; even if that phenomenology is (eventually) anchored to neuroscience.

What is a single experience anyway? Is there such a thing? (The same goes for a single mental state.) If it’s difficult to think in terms of a single experience, then Tononi’s “axioms” of each experience are, by definition, problematic. Can we say — as Tononi does — that “each experience is irreducible to non-interdependent, disjoint subsets of phenomenal distinctions”? Do we have this “integration”, as Tononi calls it?

Similarly, what is “a whole visual scene”? Where or what are its boundaries? Indeed does it have boundaries?

Tononi justifies his belief in an integrated single experience (or “visual scene”) when he says that he experiences “not the left side of the visual field independent of the right side (and vice versa)”. It’s difficult to understand what that means. Why can’t one experience be the left side of a visual scene and then the right side of that visual scene? If such a visual scene is defined as including both a left side and a right side then, by definition, that experience (or scene) must include both sides. Wouldn’t this be a question of definition and not one of phenomenology? The scene may have both a left and a right side; though why must the experience (or visual scene) be the same as the description of that scene? In more detail, a table has a right side and a left side; though must the experience itself (of that table) also include a left and a right side?

This may all depend on how cognitively enriched an experience is taken to be. On a Kantian reading, experiences are cognitively enriched with concepts, categories and cognitive activity. They’re more than mere “sense impressions”, “sense-data” or “sensory information” (depending on the jargon one chooses). Strictly, one (non-consciously) applies the concept [table] to a table. In that sense, perhaps one also applies [table legs], [table top], etc. to a table. Either way, that experience is cognitively enriched.

An Experience of a Blue Book

Tononi says that “each experience is composed of multiple phenomenological distinctions, elementary or higher-order”. What does that mean? Tononi writes:
“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.”
This is tricky. What exactly do we do when we “distinguish a book, a blue color, a blue book, the left side, a blue book on the left”? Distinguishing x from y (or even x in itself) is surely a cognitive act. (An act of mental volition, as it were.) Do we make these discrete distinctions in experience — or in every experience? Do we distinguish at all?

We have an experience of a blue book “which is on the left”. However, that’s not the same as saying that these elements are cognitively distinguished as being separate from one another. In a sense we have a solid and grainless experience of a blue book — which is indeed on the left. We don’t (necessarily) distinguish the blueness of the book and its being on the left side. We could do so. However, a pure or simple experience of a blue book on the left side doesn’t demand or require any cognitive act of distinguishing x from y (i.e., a blue book from its surroundings).

Tononi makes a similarly case — one of a specific experience (or visual scene) not being capable of being reduced to its individual components — when he talks about “seeing a blue book”. This too is “irreducible” to “seeing a book without the color blue, plus the color blue without the book”. At first this is difficult to decipher and a little strange. The science writer John Horgan expresses this position when he says that “[e]xclusion [Tononi’s technical term] helps explain why we don’t experience consciousness as a jumble of mini-sensations”. True, when we experience a blue book, we don’t — cognitively — separate the blueness of the book from the book itself. The blue book is, therefore, a single package (or, in Tononi’s jargon, “irreducible”).

What must we conclude from this?

We can cognitively distinguish the book’s blueness from the book itself. (We can also distinguish the front cover from the whole book itself.) Nonetheless, Tononi is saying that the phenomenological experience (or visual scene) isn’t like that. Thus even though Kantian experience (or perception) can be — or is — cognitively enriched, that’s not the same as saying that the book’s blueness is distinguished from the book itself in a experience — or perception — of a blue book. That distinction can be made, of course, though it’s not part of the experience of a blue book itself. The distinction will come later (i.e., if it follows at all).

Despite this ostensible agreement with Tononi, what must we conclude from all this? Specifically, what is the blue-book experience’s relation to its “physical postulates”? How does the purity and grainlessness of that experience take us to Tononi’s physical postulates?

An Experience of a Blue Book in a Bookcase

Prima facie, Tononi seems to be making the same points about what he calls “exclusion” as he made earlier about another technical term of his — “integration”. This time, instead of the blueness of a book and that book making a single package, he now says that when we experience a bookcase which has a blue book within it, we don’t make an experiential distinction between that bookcase and that blue book.

Tononi also emphasises the “distinction blue/not blue”. More precisely, in this experience of a bookcase (rather than a blue book), that experience is
“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”.
This use of positives and their negations is puzzling. Tononi appears to be saying that part of this experience of a bookcase (with a blue book in it) includes “the phenomenal distinction blue/not blue, or colored/not colored”. That is, this experience doesn’t “lack[]” that precise “phenomenal distinction”. Yet earlier it seemed to be the case that basic experiences don’t have any phenomenal distinctions — they’re grainless. Making distinctions between blue and not blue — as well as between coloured and not coloured — are surely acts of cognition; which were seemingly excluded when Tononi talked about “integration”.

It can of course be said that an experience which makes “the phenomenal distinction blue/not blue” isn’t cognitive in nature. More precisely, that phenomenal distinction between blue and not blue isn’t cognitive at all — it’s “phenomenal” (or experiential). I simply see or experience that the aforesaid book is blue: I don’t experience that it’s not not-blue. That may mean that the phenomenal reality is pure or non-cognitive; though the analysis of this experience (which includes a distinction between blue and not blue) is evidently impure — it’s cognitive in nature. How could it not be? Tononi is breaking down the experience of a blue book (in a bookcase) into its constituents (as it were) after the fact. This isn’t done during the actual experience; only after.

An Experience of the Word ‘Because’

There are other justifications of Tononi’s position on integration. He cites the example of
“the experience of seeing the word ‘BECAUSE’ written in the middle of a blank page”.
His phenomenological (if it is phenomenological) analysis of this is that our experience of the word BECAUSE is “irreducible to an experience of seeing ‘BE’ on the left plus an experience of seeing ‘CAUSE’ on the right”. That may happen; though surely it’s not definitive of an experience of the word BECAUSE in the middle of a page. Though we don’t ordinarily distinguish the ‘BE’ from the ‘CAUSE’. Perhaps if we did, we’d also distinguish the ‘B’ from the ‘E’, the ‘E’ from the ‘C’ and so on.

Even if we don’t distinguish the ‘BE’ from the ‘CAUSE’ — what is that fact meant to tell us? Unless it tells us something about right- and left-eye vision working together. That is, the left eye (or the right-side of the brain) distinguishes the grapheme ‘BE’; and the right eye (or the left-side of the brain) distinguishes the grapheme ‘CAUSE’ — at one and the same time. Perhaps Tononi’s analysis is shown to be true by the neurophysiology that’s responsible for such grainlessness. But would that be an analysis of a phenomenological experience of the word ‘BECAUSE’?

The Speed and Length of an Experience

The axiom of exclusion includes some pretty bizarre properties. True, they’re properties which exclude other properties. Thus if “my experience flows at a particular speed”, then it can’t flow at another speed. Tononi even cites a speed (or, at the least, a possible speed) when he says that “each experience encompassing say a hundred milliseconds or so”. Is Tononi mixing up (or fusing) speed and length here? For example, say that one experiences a bus moving at 30 miles-an-hour for two minutes. Here the speed and the length that speed is maintained are two different things; though, in this case, they’re connected to one another.

In any case, the axiom of exclusion tells us that this particular experience is not minutes or hours long. Though it may be that a particular experience can be minutes or hours long.

How are these speeds measured? I doubt that they’re measured phenomenologically. Thus do neuroscientists, psychologists or cognitive scientists measure them? If so, how do they do so? And if the neuroscientist (or cognitive scientist) has to tell us the speed and length of an experience, then surely this isn’t phenomenological data. Yet Tononi (or Integrated Information Theory) is supposed to move from the phenomenology (or the “axioms of consciousness”) to the the physical postulates. Of course it may be the case that Tononi’s IIT fuses phenomenological data with neuroscientific data at such points. Though even if that’s the case, it can’t be (strictly speaking) a journey from consciousness (at time t) to the physical (at time t1).

The Binding Problem

Many people have heard of the binding problem.

Tononi claims (or does he?) that he moves from consciousness to the physical when dealing with the structure of consciousness. In terms of structure, this concerns, for example, the fact that a “simple experience like viewing a cue ball unites different elements such as color, shape, and size”. (We can also call this “the unity of conscious experience”.) Thus “any theory of consciousness will need to make sense of how this happens”. True; though surely only neurophysiology can answer this question; not a phenomenological analysis of consciousness (e.g., the analysis of an experiene of a cue ball).

How can the binding problem be solved in an a priori manner? Yet this is surely the way a phenomenological analysis would need to proceed. That is, we’re meant (in IIT) to move from the axioms of consciousness — as well as from the structure of experience — to physical postulates. It seems, however, that when it comes to the binding problem, we would need to move in the opposite direction — from neurophysiology to consciousness.

However, the direction of the arrow may not matter that much — or at all. It may not matter if we move from consciousness to the physical or from the physical to consciousness. What matters is that both consciousness (specifically phenomenology) and the physical (or the brain) are included in the analysis. Though that would mean that we don’t have a pure phenomenology here. Perhaps that doesn’t matter either. Tononi, after all, doesn’t claim to be a new Edmund Husserl or even that he’s a phenomenologist; just as he doesn’t claim to be a Cartesian when he talks about the “given nature of the axioms of consciousness”. What he does say is that both phenomenological analysis and an acceptance of the Cartesian givens (i.e., axioms) — i.e., not only neuroscience — are important for any theory of consciousness. Some would say that this is evidently so.



Giulio Tononi’s prose style doesn’t help us here. It’s highly technical and, well, a little lifeless. (At least in the pieces I’ve relied on.) He doesn’t make much of an effort to simplify what it is he’s saying. Perhaps that’s not required of academic works.

He doesn’t seem to offer arguments either. Instead, he makes statements. True, arguments may have led to his statements; though where does that leave the layman? The same is also true of Tononi when seen on video or giving a seminar. He makes lots of statements and offers very few arguments.

John Horgan (mentioned above) also takes this position. He says that “[o]ne challenge posed by IIT is obscurity”. Indeed, according to Horgan, Tononi “acknowledged that IIT takes a while to ‘seep in’”. Thus he concludes that “[p]opular accounts usually leave me wondering what I’m missing”. That statement doesn’t seem to be correctly articulated, however. That is, the academic prose on IIT is obscure; though the popular accounts “leave [us] wondering what [we’re] missing”.


Horgan, John (2015) ‘Can Integrated Information Theory Explain Consciousness?’ (Scientific American).
Tononi, Giulio (2015) ‘Integrated information theory’.