Phenomenology-first versus third-person approaches in the science of consciousness: the case of the integrated information theory and the unfolding argument


Assessing the scientific status of theories of consciousness is often a difficult task. In this paper, I explore the dialectic between the Integrated Information Theory (Oizumi et al. PLoS Comput Biol, 10(5), e1003588, 2014; Tononi et al. Nat Rev Neurosci, 17(7), 450-61 , 2016) and a recently proposed criticism of that theory: the ‘unfolding argument’ (Doerig et al. Consciousness and Cognition, 72, 49-59 , 2019). I show that the phenomenology-first approach in consciousness research can lead to valid scientific theories of consciousness. I do this by highlighting the two reasons why the unfolding argument fails: first, phenomenology-first theories are grounded, not circular. Second, falsificationism does not provide an adequate demarcation criterion in philosophy of science. I conclude that this specific debate has significance for how, in general, consciousness researchers test and criticize theories of consciousness, and how dismissing the phenomenology-first methodology in favour of a third person-based methodology means endorsing a position in philosophy of mind that has already been challenged.

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  1. 1.

    In this paper, I will use the term ‘phenomenology’ as synonym for experience, or phenomenal consciousness.

  2. 2.

    Importantly, this does not mean that there cannot be association of consciousness with specific functions (or reports). Rather, the idea is that there is no necessary connection between consciousness and functions.

  3. 3.

    For the original version of the argument, see (Doerig et al. 2019, p. 53).

  4. 4.

    Note that the original version has the form of a dilemma (causal structure theories are either false or unfalsifiable). To apply this dilemma here, P2 can be expressed as following: “IIT is true iff two systems, one feedforward, the other recurrent, can have the same input-output behaviour despite differing with respect to consciousness in virtue of their different internal causal structure”. If P2 is accepted, IIT is unfalsifiable; if denied, IIT is false.

  5. 5.

    This is not quite right, since IIT does not deny that behavioural functions can be indicative of consciousness in paradigmatic cases.

  6. 6.

    The paradigm described here can be thought of as no-report paradigm. Note that there is an underlying assumption here: under normal conditions, healthy subjects are conscious of unmasked suprathreshold stimuli. This assumption is commonly made in consciousness science and it seems to be made by IIT proponents as well, for example Haun et al. (2017); as such, whereas this assumption may be problematic, it is not a problem for IIT only. Under this assumption, the similarity between stimuli can be considered as a proxy for the similarity between conscious experiences. Note that if IIT does not accept this methodological assumption, it would indeed be quite unclear how to test it.

  7. 7.

    For this point, see (Bayne 2018) and (Tononi and Koch, 2015).

  8. 8.

    As per previous discussion, such a move, in order to be progressive, would need a clear way to distinguish and practically test these lower level properties.

  9. 9.

    For a textbook explanation of stimulus-response functionalism, see Braddon-Mitchell and Jackson (2007), p. 114.

  10. 10.


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The author thanks Jakob Hohwy, Thomas Andrillon, Tim Bayne, Naotsugu Tsuchiya, and all the members of the Cognition & Philosophy Laboratory and the Melbourne Monash Consciousness Research group for the excellent comments and discussions on earlier drafts of this paper.

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Correspondence to Niccolò Negro.

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Negro, N. Phenomenology-first versus third-person approaches in the science of consciousness: the case of the integrated information theory and the unfolding argument. Phenom Cogn Sci (2020).

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  • Integrated information theory
  • Consciousness
  • Phenomenology-first
  • Unfolding argument
  • Demarcation problem