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Previous Contests

Wandering Towards a Goal
How can mindless mathematical laws give rise to aims and intention?
December 2, 2016 to March 3, 2017
Contest Partner: The Peter and Patricia Gruber Fnd.
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Trick or Truth: The Mysterious Connection Between Physics and Mathematics
Contest Partners: Nanotronics Imaging, The Peter and Patricia Gruber Foundation, and The John Templeton Foundation
Media Partner: Scientific American

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How Should Humanity Steer the Future?
January 9, 2014 - August 31, 2014
Contest Partners: Jaan Tallinn, The Peter and Patricia Gruber Foundation, The John Templeton Foundation, and Scientific American
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It From Bit or Bit From It
March 25 - June 28, 2013
Contest Partners: The Gruber Foundation, J. Templeton Foundation, and Scientific American
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Questioning the Foundations
Which of Our Basic Physical Assumptions Are Wrong?
May 24 - August 31, 2012
Contest Partners: The Peter and Patricia Gruber Foundation, SubMeta, and Scientific American
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Is Reality Digital or Analog?
November 2010 - February 2011
Contest Partners: The Peter and Patricia Gruber Foundation and Scientific American
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What's Ultimately Possible in Physics?
May - October 2009
Contest Partners: Astrid and Bruce McWilliams
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The Nature of Time
August - December 2008
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FQXi ESSAY CONTEST
October 19, 2017


2016 Wandering Towards a Goal Winning Essays


First Prizes

A Tale of Two Animats: What does it take to have goals?
Larissa Albantakis

Essay Abstract
What does it take for a system, biological or not, to have goals? Here, this question is approached in the context of in silico artificial evolution. By examining the informational and causal properties of artificial organisms (“animats”) controlled by small, adaptive neural networks (Markov Brains), this essay discusses necessary requirements for intrinsic information, autonomy, and meaning. The focus lies on comparing two types of Markov Brains that evolved in the same simple environment: one with purely feedforward connections between its elements, the other with an integrated set of elements that causally constrain each other. While both types of brains ‘process’ information about their environment and are equally fit, only the integrated one forms a causally autonomous entity above a background of external influences. This suggests that to assess whether goals are meaningful for a system itself, it is important to understand what the system is, rather than what it does.

Authors Bio
Larissa Albantakis is an Assistant Scientist at the Wisconsin Institute for Sleep and Consciousness, at the University of Wisconsin—Madison. She obtained her Diploma in physics from Ludwig-Maximilians University in Munich in 2007, and her PhD in Computational Neuroscience from Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona in 2011. She has been at the University of Wisconsin since 2012, working together with Giulio Tononi on Integrated Information Theory, and has recently been awarded a ‘Power of Information’ Independent Research Fellowship by the Templeton World Charity Foundation.

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Meaning and Intentionality = Information + Evolution
Carlo Rovelli

Essay Abstract
Notions like meaning, signal, intentionality, are difficult to relate to a physical word. I study a purely physical definition of "meaningful information", from which these notions can be derived. It is inspired by a model recently illustrated by Kolchinsky and Wolpert, and improves on Dretske classic work on the relation between knowledge and information. I discuss what makes a physical process into a "signal".

Authors Bio
Carlo Rovelli is a theoretical physicists working at the University of Aix-Marseille in France. His main interest is in quantum gravity.

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Von Neumann Minds: A Toy Model of Meaning in a Natural World
Jochen Szangolies

Essay Abstract
The question of meaning, or intentionality, is plagued by the homunculus fallacy: postulating an 'internal observer' appraising mental representations leads to an infinite regress of such observers. We exhibit the structure behind this problem, and propose a way to break it down, by drawing on work due to von Neumann. This allows to eliminate the dichotomy between a representation and its user, eliminating the infinite regress. We briefly comment on how the resulting model handles other problems for a naturalistic account of meaning, such as the problem of error and the frame problem.

Authors Bio
Jochen Szangolies studied physics in Siegen and Düsseldorf, recently completing and defending his PhD-thesis. He has worked on the phenomena of quantum contextuality, the detection of quantum correlations, and their application in quantum information tasks.

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Third Prizes

Origin Gaps and the Eternal Sunshine of the Second-Order Pendulum
Simon DeDeo

Essay Abstract
The rich experiences of an intentional, goal-oriented life emerge, in an unpredictable fashion, from the basic laws of physics. Here I argue that this unpredictability is no mirage: there are true gaps between life and non-life, mind and mindlessness, and even between functional societies and groups of Hobbesian individuals. These gaps, I suggest, emerge from the mathematics of self-reference, and the logical barriers to prediction that self-referring systems present. Still, a mathematical truth does not imply a physical one: the universe need not have made self-reference possible. It did, and the question then is how. In the second half of this essay, I show how a basic move in physics, known as renormalization, transforms the ``forgetful'' second-order equations of fundamental physics into a rich, self-referential world that makes possible the major transitions we care so much about. While the universe runs in assembly code, the coarse-grained version runs in LISP, and it is from that the world of aim and intention grows.

Authors Bio
Simon DeDeo is external faculty at the Santa Fe Institute, and assistant professor in the Department of Social and Decision Sciences at Carnegie Mellon University, where he runs the Laboratory for Social Minds. http://santafe.edu/~simon

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Agent Above, Atom Below: How agents causally emerge from their underlying microphysics
Erik P Hoel

Essay Abstract
Some physical entities, which we often refer to as agents, can be described as having intentions and engaging in goal-oriented behavior. Yet agents can also be described in terms of low-level dynamics that are mindless, intention-less, and without goals or purpose. How we can reconcile these seemingly disparate levels of description? This is especially problematic because the lower scales at first appear more fundament in three ways: in terms of their causal work, in terms of the amount of information they contain, and their theoretical superiority in terms of model choice. However, recent research bringing information theory to bear on modeling systems at different scales significantly reframes the issue. I argue that agents, with their associated intentions and goal-oriented behavior, can actually causally emerge from their underlying microscopic physics. This is particularly true of agents because they are autopoietic and possess (apparent) teleological causal relationships.

Authors Bio
Erik P Hoel is a postdoctoral researcher at Columbia University. He received his PhD in neuroscience working under Giulio Tononi at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. Having grown up in his family’s bookstore, he occasionally writes fiction and essays for various publications. His scientific research involves applying measures of emergence and consciousness to the cortex.

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World without World: Observer-Dependent Physics
Dean Rickles

Essay Abstract
The viewpoint expressed in this essay is that a pressing problem of physics is to recognize that our role as observers is more deeply embedded in our theories and laws than is often realised. This is developed by looking at two possible observer-inclusive approaches to physics.

Authors Bio
Professor Dean Rickles is Professor of History and Philosophy of Modern Physics and Australian Research Council Future Fellow at the University of Sydney, where he is also co-director of the Centre for Time. He has written several books, including most recently A Brief History of String Theory and Philosophy of Physics.

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The role of the observer in goal-directed behavior
Ines Samengo

Essay Abstract
In goal-directed behavior, a large number of possible initial states end up in the pursued goal. The accompanying information loss implies that goal-oriented behavior is in one-to-one correspondence with an open subsystem whose entropy decreases in time. Yet ultimately, the laws of physics are reversible, so entropy variations are necessarily a consequence of the way a system is described. In order to reconcile different levels of description, systems capable of yielding goal-directed behavior must transfer the information about initial conditions to other degrees of freedom outside the boundaries of the agent. To operate steadily, they must consume ordered degrees of freedom provided as input, and be dispensed of disordered outputs that act as wastes from the point of view of the aimed objective. Broadly speaking, hence, goal-oriented behavior requires metabolism, even if conducted by non-living agents. Here I argue that a physical system may or may not display goal-directed behavior depending on what exactly is defined as the agent. The borders of the agent must be carefully tailored so as to entail the appropriate information balance sheet. In this game, observers play the role of tailors: They design agents by setting the limits of the system of interest. Their computation may be iterated to produce a hierarchy of ever more complex agents, aiming at increasingly sophisticated goals, as observed in darwinian evolution. Brain-guided subjects perform this creative observation task naturally, implying that the observation of goal-oriented behavior is a goal-oriented behavior in itself. Minds evolved to cut out pieces of reality and endow them with intentionality, because ascribing intentionality is an efficient way of modeling the world, and making predictions. One most remarkable agent of whom we have indisputable evidence of its goal-pursuing attitude is the self. Notably, this agent is simultaneously the subject and the object of observation.

Authors Bio
Ines Samengo has a PhD in Physics, after which she switched to computational neuroscience, with a HFSP postoc with Prof. Alessandro Treves (Trieste), and then an Alexander von Humboldt fellowship with Prof. Andreas Herz (Berlin). She presently works in Bariloche, Argentina, as an independent researcher of CONICET, applying information-theoretical tools and dynamical-systems theory to the analysis of neural activity in behaving animals, aiming at disclosing the relevant features in the encoding and transmission of sensory information. She is also a professor in Instituto Balseiro, in charge of “Probability and Stochastic Processes” and “Information Theory” in Engineering in Telecommunications.

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From Athena to AI: the past and future of intention in nature
Rick Searle

Essay Abstract
This essay attempts to link the pre-Socratic philosophers who created science with current work in bio-physics and cognitive science to answer the question of how goals and intentions can arise from mindless matter and mathematical laws.

Authors Bio
Rick Searle is a writer and educator who focuses on the ethical aspects of science and technology. He is a member of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technology and an essayist in 2014 FQXi book "How should humanity steer the future?".

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Wandering Towards Physics: Participatory Realism and the Co-Emergence of Lawfulness
Marc Séguin

Essay Abstract
Q-Bism’s champion Christopher Fuchs recently wrote: “Since the advent of quantum theory, (…) there has always been a nagging pressure to insert a first-person perspective into the heart of physics.” As a tribute to the “participatory universe” idea put forward in the late 1970’s by John Archibald Wheeler, he proposes to call “participatory realism” this general way of dealing with the thorny issues of the interpretation of quantum mechanics. This article presents an approach I call “co-emergentism”, which combines participatory realism and the hypothesis that abstract structures constitute the fundamental level of reality. In every day life, we experience the first-person perspective of being a conscious agent (with intentions, goals and at least apparent free will) in a community of conscious agents, embedded in a physical world that obeys strict (yet probabilistic) laws with implacable regularity. Co-emergentism proposes that, within the infinite, mostly chaotic and lawless “Maxiverse” of all abstract possibilities, abstract structures that correspond to conscious agents “resonate” with each other, and with abstract structures that correspond to stable, regular physical environments. This process delineates coherent domains within the space of all possibilities, and insures that most conscious observers that are sophisticated enough to run essay contests about the fundamental nature of reality find themselves in worlds that are surprisingly large, long-lived and extremely regular.

Authors Bio
Marc Séguin holds two master's degrees from Harvard University: one in Astronomy (under the supervision of David Layzer) and another in History of Science (under the supervision of Gerald Holton). He teaches physics and astrophysics at Collège de Maisonneuve, in Montréal, and is the author of several college-level textbooks in physics and astrophysics. YouTube channel: http://youtube.com/ThisIsPhysicsChannel

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Fourth Prizes

The Man in a Tailcoat
Tommaso Bolognesi

Essay Abstract
In an attempt to prevent an unwholesome action and a deadly increase of local entropy, the author engages in a ‘singular’ nightly conversation with a silent interlocutor, trying to convince him that External Reality is only made of interacting computational mechanisms that populate a hierarchy of levels of emergence, and that purposes, conversely, are an illusory business. In biology, for example, goals are just a narrative trick for describing, a-posteriori, features of mechanisms that darwinian evolution developed without any a-priori blueprint. More generally, goals are a convenient product of human knowledge meant to offer practical, concise, easily understood and easily communicated representations of the mechanisms we produce and/or observe. The conversation touches upon program specification (goal) and implementation (mechanism), entropy reduction in a sorting algorithm and in cellular automata, and provides experimental evidence that cooperation, as opposed to individual action, may help keeping ‘life’ parameters within a safe region, at least for some individual (not for the Man in a Tailcoat, in this case).

Authors Bio
Tommaso Bolognesi is senior researcher at ISTI, CNR, Pisa. His research areas have included stochastic processes in computer music composition, models of concurrency, process algebra and formal methods for software development, discrete and algorithmic models of spacetime. He has published on various international scientific journals several papers in all three areas. He obtained prizes in the FQXi Essay Contests of 2011, 2014 and 2015.

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God's Dice and Einstein's Solids
Ian Durham

Essay Abstract
What role does chance play in the universe? Quantum theory suggests that randomness is a fundamental part of how the universe works and yet we live mostly intentional, ordered lives. We make decisions with the expectation that our decisions matter. How is it possible for this directed and seemingly deterministic world to arise from mere randomness? In this essay I suggest that an answer to this question may lie in the seemingly mindless world of combinatorial mathematics and I discuss the implications of this for the concept of free will.

Authors Bio
Ian Durham is a physicist and occasional mathematician who has recently gotten the geology bug. Several members of his department have accused him of being a philosopher. As punishment, they keep electing him chair.

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No Ghost in the Machine
Alan M. Kadin

Essay Abstract
The prevalent pre-scientific paradigm for understanding nature focused on design or intention, even for inanimate objects. This approach was debunked by Newton for physics, and by Darwin for biology. But belief in the unique supernatural nature of human intelligence is still widespread. I argue that biological intelligence is due to simple evolved structures based on neural networks, without the need for any new physical mechanisms (quantum or classical) or a “ghost in the machine”. Humans see agency and intent everywhere, because we are programmed to do so. The conscious mind may turn out to be a virtual reality simulation that is largely illusory. Furthermore, these structures may be emulated in artificial neural networks, to create true artificial intelligence.

Authors Bio
Alan M. Kadin is a physicist and engineer with a Ph.D. in Physics from Harvard on superconducting devices. Following a career in both academia and industry, Dr. Kadin is now an independent technical consultant. One of his current projects is exploring the future of computing as part of the IEEE Rebooting Computing Initiative. He has been submitting essays to FQXi since 2012. For further information, see his LinkedIn page.

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I think, therefore I think you think I am
Sophia Magnusdottir

Essay Abstract
Conceptual clarity is the foundation of scientific discourse. Therefore, I wish to propose a new way to speak about and quantify consciousness. This new definition is based on the ability of a system to accurately monitor and predict its environment and itself. While I am at it, I will also explain philosophical zombies, free will, and the purpose of life.

Authors Bio
Sofia is a philosopher of science at the University of Gothenburg.

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The Tablet of the Metalaw
Cristinel Stoica

Essay Abstract
Reality presents to us in multiple forms, as a multiple level pyramid. Physics is the foundation, and should be made as solid and complete as possible. Suppose we will find the unified theory of the fundamental physical laws. Then what? Will we be able to deduce the higher levels, or they have their own life, not completely depending on the foundations? At the higher levels arise goals, life, and even consciousness, which seem to be more than mere constructs of the fundamental constituents. Are all these high level structures completely reducible to the basis, or by contrary, they also affect the lower levels? Are mathematics and logic enough to solve these puzzles? Are there questions objective science can't even define rigorously? Why is there something rather than nothing? What is the world made of?

Authors Bio
Theoretical physicist. Research interests: foundations of physics, gauge theory, foundations of quantum mechanics, singularities in general relativity. Interested especially in the geometric aspects of the physical laws. ArXiv: http://arxiv.org/a/stoica_o_1 Blog: http://www.unitaryflow.com/

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Bio from Bit
Sara Imari Walker

Essay Abstract
Understanding the origin(s) and nature of life poses a perplexing problem for physics. On the one hand our approaches to physics are incredibly adept at describing the material world. On the other hand abstractions such as what we commonly describe as information are important in biology, but their role in the physical world is not yet fully understood. In this essay I discuss how information (as we understand it in biology) is a window into causal structures that bridge counterfactual histories (and futures) and allow the possible for transitions between histories. It is this multiple realizability that is one of the most distinctive properties of living systems. It also leads to some of their most interesting – and difficult to explain – features, such as their apparent goal directedness.

Authors Bio
Sara Walker is an Assistant Professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University. Her research focuses on the origins and nature of life.

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Finding Structure in Science and Mathematics
Noson S. Yanofsky

Essay Abstract
One can view the laws of nature as having goals and intentions to produce the complex structures that we see. But there is another, deeper, way of seeing our world. The universe is full of many chaotic phenomena devoid of any goals and intents. The structure that we see comes from the amazing ability that scientists have to act like a sieve and isolate those phenomena that have certain regularities. By examining such phenomena, scientists formulate laws of nature. There is an analogous situation in mathematics in which researchers choose a subset of structures that satisfy certain axioms. In this paper, we examine the way these two processes work in tandem and show how science and mathematics progress in this way. The paper ends with a speculative note on what might be the logical conclusion of these ideas.

Authors Bio
Noson S. Yanofsky has a PhD in mathematics (category theory). He is a professor of computer science in Brooklyn College and The Graduate Center of CUNY. In addition to writing research papers he also co-authored “Quantum Computing for Computer Scientists”(Cambridge University Press, 2008) and is the author of “The Outer Limits of Reason: What Science, Mathematics, and Logic Cannot Tell Us” (MIT Press 2013). The second book is a popular science book that has been received very well both critically and popularly. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and four children.

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Special Community Prize

Wandering Towards a Goal: The Key Role of Biomolecules
George F. R. Ellis

Essay Abstract
The key link between physics and life is provided by bio-molecules, such as voltage gated ion channels. They enable logic to emerge from the underlying physics. They can only have come into being via the contextually dependent processes of natural selection, which selects them for their biological function.

Authors Bio
George Ellis is a cosmologist and relativist, who has recently turned to the study of complexity and the mind. He has published a major book on how the combination of bottom-up and top-down causation underlies the emergence of truly complex systems such as life.

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