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Zenith Grant Awardee

Adrian Kent

University of Cambridge

Project Title

Connecting Experiential Aspects of Intelligence and Fundamental Physics

Project Summary

You are conscious of sights, sounds, smells, taste, where your limbs are, your emotions, thoughts, and imagination. All the evidence suggests this marvelous "window" on the external world and on your interior state is generated by your brain. As your brain state changes (for example, as you develop memories, when you dream, take drugs or are ill) so does your mind state. Although familiar, this is very puzzling. Brains are just large collections of atoms. What is it about them that makes them conscious, when (we suspect) tables, rocks and stars are not? And why is consciousness apparently so useful? We seem particularly likely to be aware of important information: whether we are hungry, or being pursued by a bear, or getting on well with our fellow humans, for example. Consciousness seems important for our survival, suggesting that evolution must have developed it along with our eyes, ears and other faculties. Yet current physics seems to tell us that we would behave in the same way even if we weren't conscious of any of these things. This project will look for simple models that explain these puzzles, by finding new models of physics that can explain the evolution of consciousness.

Technical Abstract

One influential view of consciousness is that the phenomenon poses a hard and unsolved scientific problem for fundamental physics. In this view, consciousness is a fundamental natural phenomenon, which is strongly emergent from the known laws of physics. In other words, there is no reductionist explanation of consciousness available within known physics. This motivates the search for new and relatively simple laws that characterize the degree and type of consciousness associated with any given physical system. However, as James first pointed out, if such laws are purely epiphenomenal, this poses another problem: how and why have we evolved so that our consciousnesses give us the appearance of accurate high-level narrative about our physical and mental states and environment and the appearance of executive control over our actions? Any evolutionary explanation requires that consciousness must somehow influence dynamics. This motivates us to investigate the scope for toy models in which simple dynamical laws involving consciousness give an evolutionary explanation of some of its familiar and familiarly puzzling features. We propose to elaborate on existing ideas in this direction, to generate new models, and to investigate the possibility of testing these ideas empirically.

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