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Consciousness in the Physical World
An International Request for Proposals

Theme and Example Questions

The types of research covered by this RFP are fairly broad, but unified by the overall topics of Consciousness, by the mission of FQXi to support foundational research, by the core intellectual orientation of FQXi, and by the desire to support daring yet intellectually rigorous research that can potentially produce genuine progress.

To point toward the types of research FQXi hopes to support, we provide below a set of example top-level and example sub-questions, which could provide goals for supported research, assuming the appropriately creative and rigorous research tools, methods and personnel.  This list is by no means exhaustive!

  • Can we usefully break down consciousness into components, and relate these to the physical world?

    • E.g.  consciousness has aspects of perceptions, of awareness, of self-awareness, and of modeling.  Is this a relatively complete breakdown or are there more top-level components or a better set?

    • For each component, what do physics and adjoining fields say about (a) why this capability is possible at all; (b) what can make this effective or optimal in a physical system; (c) what are the ultimate limits to this capability? (See the table below).

  • Is there a theoretical — and preferably mathematical — framework that can in principle determine which physical systems will be associated with consciousness and which will not? (The “pretty hard problem” of consciousness.)

    • Integrated information theory  (IIT) is potentially such a framework.  Can it be improved or extended? What about time dependence? Can it be made easier to calculate?  How can it be empirically tested or falsified?

    • What other mathematical frameworks exist along these lines?  How do they compare with IIT and each other, and where do they make different predictions or claims?  What are the desiderata in a mathematical framework? What are the foundations or axioms of different approaches?

  • What — exactly, and with as much rigor as possible — is the connection between quantum mechanics and consciousness?

    • Are there places where quantum versus classical physics has fundamentally different implications for consciousness, i.e. even in the limit of zero Planck constant?

    • Does large-scale quantum coherence play a role in biological mental functioning? 

    • What role does consciousness play in various modes of quantum interpretation?

    • Are there “consciousness as collapsing agent” theories worth taking seriously?

  • What are the roles of indexical information, which is information connected with the particular subjective viewpoint of the universe an agent has, in cosmology and fundamental physics?

    • In considering cosmological questions that for self-consistency require conditioning on the existence of the observer, what sort of observer?  Is consciousness necessary and if so what sort and level?

    • The “quantum factorization problem” (out of all of the possible factorizations of Hilbert space, why is the particular factorization corresponding to classical space so special) appears intimately related to the nature of an observer.  How should we think about it?

  • What are the necessary, and what are the contingent, links between consciousness and other mental qualities/processes such as choice and agency, intelligence, feelings and emotions, moral weight, “free will” and responsibility, etc.?  

    • Is consciousness a necessary concomitant to sufficient levels of intelligence?  Are arbitrarily high levels of intelligence (as ability to achieve goals) possible by non-conscious agents?

    • Is it meaningful to have a conscious being without positive- or negative-valence feelings? Would such a being still have moral weight?  

    • Are there ways to evaluate these questions using mathematical frameworks or concrete models, rather than in purely psychological or philosophical terms?

  • How do we better study consciousness in humans?  

    • Are there techniques of “mapping qualia” that could leverage understanding from physics, data science, machine learning, etc., to better understand the interior mental landscape of humans — and the dramatic variations it takes from person to person?

    • Are there opportunities to leverage the highly-trained introspection of, e.g. long-term meditators, combined with sophisticated psychology models, to better understand consciousness models “from the inside”?

  • How do we study consciousness outside of humans?  

    • A major constraint outside of humans is our inability to receive reports of internal experience.  But can some aspects of consciousness, such as primitive self-awareness or self-modeling, be investigated in simple biological or computational systems?

    • We infer consciousness in nonhuman biological systems largely by analogy and common developmental history.  Is it possible to repeat this analogy (or dis-analogy) by comparing and contrasting biological and machine mental systems?

    • Can we go beyond the Turing test to probe the presence of consciousness directly, rather than just intelligence?

The table below gives examples questions at the intersection of physical constraints and components of consciousness.

Capability What makes it possible? What makes it effective? What are the limits?
Perception How can a conscious system gain knowledge of the outside world? What couplings between systems must be present to allow perception? How much information must be transmitted for a perception of an outside world? What is the simplest system that can perceive itself?
Awareness How does an entity become aware of an external world? How can a small system become aware of the nature of a larger system? How complex must an entity be to exhibit awareness of the external world?
Self-awareness How can an entity become aware of itself as an entity? What forms the bounds of what an entity perceives as itself or of something that is “other”? How much knowledge of the world is required to separate a self from the other? Is there a simplest self-aware entity? What is the simplest “other” that can be understood separately from the self?
Modeling What information is needed to form a model of the self? Does a model of the world have to split into a “self” and the “other”? Is modelling the world a physical process? Can an entity truly model itself in sufficient detail to understand itself? How accurate must a model of reality be to be useful to an entity? Do conscious systems require a minimum information content to model?
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