Large Grants
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Previous Programs

2018 Agency in the Physical World
2018 Awardees

2016 Physics of the Observer
2016 Awardees

2015 The Physics of What Happens
2015 Awardees

2013 Physics of Information
2013 Awardees

2010 The Nature of Time
2010 Awardees

2008 Foundational Questions in Physics and Cosmology
2008 Awardees

2006 Foundational Questions in Physics and Cosmology
2006 Awardees

John Barrow
University of Cambridge


Marianne Freiberger, University of Cambridge; Rachel Thomas, University of Cambridge

Project Title

The Mathematics of Agency in the Physical World

Project Summary

Many things in the world seem to be striving for purpose or be directed economically towards some goal by some guiding intelligent agent - the flocking of birds, the evolution of societies, or the emergence of consciousness in networked brain cells. Do they act on the world in order to further specific goals? Do they display what philosophers call agency? Or is their apparent agency a subtle illusion that hides new types of self- organising complexity? This project will probe examples of real and apparent agency in the physical world, showing how these concepts help us understand complicated physical systems containing living participants. They raise new questions about intelligence, consciousness and information changes to model laws of Nature. Mathematics provides simple models to elucidate complex interactions, reveal the hidden couplings that create apparent agency and generate testable predictions. Through accessible, engaging articles, interviews, and podcasts published on Plus (, we will enable the public and students to better understand research on this subject funded by FQXi. Topics may include examples of systems in which apparent agency is just an illusion, synchronization, the emergence of intelligence and consciousness, and free will, and coverage of other FQXi grant holders in this grant programme.

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