Formalizing falsification for theories of consciousness across computational hierarchies

Jake R. Hanson, Sara I. Walker

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

5 Scopus citations


The scientific study of consciousness is currently undergoing a critical transition in the form of a rapidly evolving scientific debate regarding whether or not currently proposed theories can be assessed for their scientific validity. At the forefront of this debate is Integrated Information Theory (IIT), widely regarded as the preeminent theory of consciousness because it quantified subjective experience in a scalar mathematical measure called φ that is in principle measurable. Epistemological issues in the form of the "unfolding argument"have provided a concrete refutation of IIT by demonstrating how it permits functionally identical systems to have differences in their predicted consciousness. The implication is that IIT and any other proposed theory based on a physical system's causal structure may already be falsified even in the absence of experimental refutation. However, so far many of these arguments surrounding the epistemological foundations of falsification arguments, such as the unfolding argument, are too abstract to determine the full scope of their implications. Here, we make these abstract arguments concrete, by providing a simple example of functionally equivalent machines realizable with table-top electronics that take the form of isomorphic digital circuits with and without feedback. This allows us to explicitly demonstrate the different levels of abstraction at which a theory of consciousness can be assessed. Within this computational hierarchy, we show how IIT is simultaneously falsified at the finite-state automaton level and unfalsifiable at the combinatorial-state automaton level. We use this example to illustrate a more general set of falsification criteria for theories of consciousness: to avoid being already falsified, or conversely unfalsifiable, scientific theories of consciousness must be invariant with respect to changes that leave the inference procedure fixed at a particular level in a computational hierarchy.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numberniab014
JournalNeuroscience of Consciousness
Issue number2
StatePublished - 2021


  • automata theory
  • computational modeling
  • consciousness
  • integrated information theory
  • theories and models
  • unfolding

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Clinical Psychology
  • Neurology
  • Clinical Neurology
  • Psychiatry and Mental health


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