Why Is The Most Popular Theory Of Consciousness Being Scrapped By Scientists?

A consortium of experts has now ditched the most widely accepted theory of consciousness by branding it 'pseudoscience.'

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | October 11, 2023

Consciousness, the essence of our subjective experiences, remains one of the grandest mysteries of modern science. According to a 2022 paper published in Nature Reviews Neuroscience, four dominant theories have risen, attempting to demystify this complex phenomenon:

  • Higher-order theories (HOTs). These suggest that our thoughts become conscious when basic perceptions transform and resurface at higher brain levels, especially within the prefrontal cortex.
  • Global workspace theories (GWTs). Here, the mind is likened to a theater. Conscious thoughts are the activities spotlighted on stage at a given moment, though this mental "spotlight" is scattered across certain brain regions rather than confined to a single space.
  • Integrated information theory (IIT). At its core, IIT emphasizes how brain parts interplay to birth a singular experience. It seeks to quantify this integration mathematically, with more interconnected and synthesized information implying greater consciousness. Remarkably, IIT doesn't limit consciousness to brains. If the IIT holds water, any sufficiently complex system could, in theory, be conscious.
  • Re-entry and predictive processing theories. Central to these theories is top-down signaling. Higher brain regions feed lower ones with information and expectations, refining our perceptions based on sensory inputs from our surroundings.

However, a consortium of experts labeled integrated information theory as "pseudoscience" in an open letter published on September 16. This accusation is controversial as a significant section of the scientific community believe that the experts' stance is unsubstantiated. Here are the highlights of the ongoing debate.

1. Why Do Some Experts View The Theory As Pseudoscience?

Integrated information theory has been a provocative voice in the consciousness discourse since 2004, when neuroscientist Giulio Tononi introduced it as a framework to quantify and understand consciousness. Rooted in the idea that consciousness emerges from intricate information networks, it attempted to provide a bridge between subjective experience and objective neuroscience. Its uniqueness lay in its approach, suggesting that not just the human brain, but any system exhibiting a high degree of integrated information—whether organic or artificial—could harbor conscious experiences. However, as its implications began to be understood (especially considering the generative AI industry boom we are seeing today), it drew both admiration and skepticism.

Its detractors, in the recently published open letter, contend it's more "metaphysical speculation" than science. These critics pinpoint three main issues:

  1. It presents claims deemed unfalsifiable. In science, a theory's strength often lies in its ability to be tested—and potentially disproven.
  2. There's a perceived lack of empirical evidence supporting the theory. This is a fundamental requirement for any theory's validation.
  3. The theory asserts that even rudimentary systems might possess consciousness. This challenges both neuroscientific findings and prevalent intuition.

This trio of concerns prompts a portion of the scientific community to label it as "pseudoscience," suggesting that, for them, the theory hasn't sufficiently bridged the gap between hypothesis and verifiable scientific theory. The fact that the theory has achieved widespread (but, arguably, half-baked) media coverage, the experts claim, is a dangerous situation for the study of consciousness, but also science in general.

2. What Are The Counterarguments To The Pseudoscience Claim?

The supporters of integrated information theory defend it as a rigorous and testable theory that offers a novel and comprehensive account of the nature and origin of consciousness. They argue that the open letter misrepresents and misunderstands the core claims and implications of the theory. They also point out some of the strengths and achievements, such as:

  • The theory is based on phenomenological axioms, which are self-evident truths about the nature of consciousness that any theory should respect and explain.
  • It provides a mathematical framework to measure the amount and quality of consciousness in any physical system, based on its causal structure and information integration.
  • It makes falsifiable predictions and has been tested empirically in various studies, such as those involving brain stimulation, anesthesia, sleep, coma and disorders of consciousness.
  • It explains some of the puzzling features of consciousness, such as why it is unified, intrinsic, private and graded.
  • It has inspired new developments and applications in neuroscience, artificial intelligence, philosophy and ethics.

3. How Does This Impact The Study Of Consciousness And Science In General?

As with most debates, the solution likely lies somewhere in between the extremes. The controversy surrounding the theory in question challenges researchers to refine their methodologies and to be more discerning in their claims.

Such disputes, while divisive, can stimulate advancements by encouraging rigorous verification and fostering open dialogue. For the broader scientific community, it serves as a reminder of the importance of peer-review and the dangers of prematurely embracing nascent theories. It underscores the need for balance between innovation and skepticism.

Equally, the media's role in shaping public perception emphasizes the necessity for responsible reporting that is both accessible and accurate. Ultimately, as we venture into complex territories like consciousness, it is essential to tread with caution, ensuring that the pursuit of knowledge is grounded in empirical evidence and open, constructive discourse.


The fervor surrounding this debate underscores its profound significance, especially in an era where artificial intelligence challenges our traditional notions of consciousness. Ensuring that both sides are thoroughly heard is imperative. As we delve into the complexities of consciousness and its potential intersections with AI, it demands time, deep consideration and collaborative inquiry. In this journey, patience and open dialogue will be our most valuable guides, ensuring that we approach the truth with both rigor and respect.