Can a Contest Solve Human Consciousness?

The Templeton Foundation is funding competitions between rival theories about human consciousness. Here’s how it will work.

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One of the first movies I remember going to see at the little Uptown Theatre where I grew up was the hilarious Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines.  Set in 1910, it tells the story of an eccentric British newspaper owner who offers a substantial financial prize for an airplane race across the English Channel.

The Daily Mail really did award more than twenty aviation prizes between 1909 and 1930.  The tradition continued into the 70s when Paul MacCready won the Kremer Prizes for the first human-powered aircraft and later for the first such aircraft to cross the English Channel.

This cut-throat approach to research and development has driven many scientific achievements.  You could even think of the space race in these terms. Researchers call it adversarial collaboration. It was applied to an unlikely field this week. 

Templeton always thought that there should be a Nobel Prize for spirituality

Sir John Templeton was a wealthy financier.  He also gave a lot of money away.  Templeton always thought that there should be a Nobel Prize for spirituality, and he set the funding up to create such a prize that would forever pay more than a Nobel.  It now stands at $1.7 million.

The Society for Neuroscience met in Chicago this week.  The Templeton Foundation announced at the meeting that it is providing $20 million over five years to organize a series of head to head contests about theories of human consciousness. The idea is to separate the wheat from the chaff among the speculative ideas in this area.  They want to limit the field to only those theories that can stand up under experimentation.

Here’s how it will work.  The foundation will hold a series of workshops, each bringing together two competing hypotheses about how human consciousness works.  They will then identify predictions the two theories make that can’t both be true.  After that, the foundation will fund a collaborative research study that pits one concept against the other, based on the scientific method.

The foundation will fund a study that pits one concept against the other

The first two theories to be tested will be the Global Workspace Theory (GWT) and the Integrated Information Theory (IIT).  Global Workspace Theory says that our minds work like me watching that movie about flying machines.

The screen is lit up like our human consciousness and our selective attention.  As with the subconscious mind, the audience sits in the dark.  Nobody can see the projectionist, the ticket takers or the ushers.  Yet, the show couldn’t go on without them.  They are like our executive functions.

Traditionally, scientists take the known laws of physics and try to apply them to our brains to explain what produces the experience of our mind.  In the Integrated Information Theory, they do it the other way. 

Six labs in the US, UK, Germany and China will conduct experiments on over 500 people

They accept that human consciousness exists.  After all, everyone experiences consciousness every waking hour.  IIT researchers look for ways to explain its existence.  Some scientists don’t like IIT because it explains why, rather than how consciousness exists.  That makes it hard to falsify.  Skeptics feel that it’s more philosophy than hard science.

IIT is called “integrated” because it views every experience as one whole unified event.  Going to the movies involves watching the entire screen at once, not the various parts of the scene.  It also consists of the crowd, the darkness, the popcorn and the folding seats.  Everything is integrated information.

The Templeton Foundation has provided $5 million to pit these two ideas against each other.  Six labs in the US, UK, Germany and China will conduct experiments on over 500 people.  They’ll do tasks related to human consciousness.  While they do this,  scientists will scan their brains.  They will be given an MRI, an EEG and a similar technique that brain surgeons call electrocorticography. 

For example, when subjects first become aware of an image, GWT predicts that their frontal lobe will light up like the movie screen.  IIT says the cerebellum at the back of the head will be consistently active.  The studies will do a range of other tests along these lines.

They’ve agreed to admit that their theory is at least partially wrong

The scientists behind these two theories are Stanislas Dehaene of the Collège de France in Paris for GWT and Giulio Tononi of the University of Wisconsin in Madison for IIT.  They have each predicted what the results should look like in detail if their ideas are correct.  They’ve also agreed to admit that their theory is at least partially wrong if that’s what the findings show.

We will never grasp what our humanity really is without understanding what makes up our human minds.  For instance, Eleanor Roosevelt led a committee to produce the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. They found it hard to prove that we are all entitled to certain fundamental rights.  They ended up by declaring that we are all “endowed with reason and conscience” in the final text.

We need to go further and get to the bottom of what that endowment entails and how it works in practice.  Human consciousness is the link between mother nature and human nature as well as one of the biggest remaining gaps in science.

We always have more to learn if we dare to know.

Learn more:

Templeton World Charity Foundation
Science Magazine (AAAS)


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