Michael Johnson

Michael Johnson


The nature of consciousness has been one of the longest-standing open questions in philosophy. Advancements in physics, neuroscience, and information theory have informed and constrained this topic, but have not produced any consensus. What would it mean to ‘solve’ or ‘dissolve’ the mystery of consciousness?

Part I begins with grounding this topic by considering a concrete question: what makes some conscious experiences more pleasant than others? We first review what’s known about the neuroscience of pain & pleasure, find the current state of knowledge narrow, inconsistent, and often circular, and conclude we must look elsewhere for a systematic framework (Sections I & II). We then review the Integrated Information Theory (IIT) of consciousness and several variants of IIT, and find each of them promising, yet also underdeveloped and flawed (Sections III-V).

We then take a step back and distill what kind of problem consciousness is. Importantly, we offer eight sub-problems whose solutions would, in aggregate, constitute a complete theory of consciousness (Section VI).

Armed with this framework, in Part II we return to the subject of pain & pleasure (valence) and offer some assumptions, distinctions, and heuristics to clarify and constrain the problem (Sections VII-IX). Of particular interest, we then offer a specific hypothesis on what valence is (Section X) and several novel empirical predictions which follow from this (Section XI). Part III finishes with discussion of how this general approach may inform open problems in neuroscience, and the prospects for building a new science of qualia (Sections XII & XIII). Lastly, we identify further research threads within this framework (Appendices A-F).

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