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A bit on Integrated Information Theory, a theory of consciousness

I ran across a theory of consciousness called Integrated Information Theory (IIT) and found the axioms of consciousness fascinating. This heavily reminds me of Sartre’s work in phenomenology.

Anyway, I figured I’d do a quick write-up on the axioms, hopefully making it more clear to people unfamiliar with some of the academic language used.

Integrated information theory (IIT) attempts to identify the essential properties of consciousness (axioms) and, from there, infers the properties of physical systems that can account for it (postulates). Based on the postulates, it permits in principle to derive, for any particular system of elements in a state, whether it has consciousness, how much, and which particular experience it is having. IIT offers a parsimonious explanation for empirical evidence, makes testable predictions, and permits inferences and extrapolations. ~ Source: Scholarpedia.

In other words, we‘re certain that we’re conscious and have experiences. What we are not certain about is what Consciousness is. IIT is an attempt to identify what Consciousness by analyzing the shared commonalities all experiences appear to have. These commonalities in experiences will be referred to as axioms, which is the term IIT uses. These axioms are thought to be self-evident [1], and they are essential to conscious.

With consciousness’ axiom’s defined, IIT can begin hypothesizing what a physical structure needs to look like to be conscious.

Physical structures have the benefit of being objectively measurable. Consequently, we can begin looking at various physical structure we think are conscious and measure how much consciousness it has, make testable predictions about it, and make further hypothesizes.

The 5 Axioms of Integrated Information Theory.

Axiom 1. Consciousness really exists [1]. There’s no denying that you or I have experiences [2].

Axiom 2. Every experience is structured; it’s organized. IIT uses the word aspects when talking about structures. For example, I can see my table: one aspect of it is that it has a left side; another aspect is its colour, it’s made of wood, it’s in my room, etc. Every experience has countless aspects.

Axiom 3. Every experience has intrinsic information about it. This information is unique to that moment, i.e., an experience is what it is because of how it’s information is structured right there and then. Another way of phrasing this is: out of the millions of possible ways this experience could have been structured, you’re experiencing it this way, and it’ll never be this way again. Another way: I could have seen my table (example above) in a different light, or from its other side, and while it’s the same table, and I’m the same me, the way that I experienced that table is always different than the time before or how it will be experienced later.

Axiom 4. Every experience we have is unified or consciousness unifies experiences [3]; all of the aspects of our experience are presented to us unified. For example, when we talk with someone we experience the meaning of words and the sounds of words simultaneously, unified; we don’t hear a word and then understand it’s meaning as two separate events. Likewise, the table’s left side and white colour is experienced unified.

Axiom 5. Every experience is unique to the subject experiencing it. You’re the only one having your experience. I’m the only one having mine. When we’re looking at the same sunset at the same time we are having two unique experiences. When we walk into our room and experience our room it’s unique no matter how many times we experience it.

Side-note: Dr. Giulio Tononi, if you read this, I really hope I accurately represented your position! If I have made an error, please correct me and I’ll make revisions.


[1] Def, self-evident: a proposition known to be true by understanding its meaning; can be realized through reasonable reflection; not needing proof.

[2] I haven’t come across anyone discussing the problem of the existence of other minds when discussing Torino’s work.

[3] I’m hesitant saying consciousness unifies experiences because it could have some semantic implications about consciousness Torino is not making, however, I think it brings clarity to the axiom.