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Zenith Grant Awardee

Sean Tull

Topos Institute


Quanlong Wang, University of Oxford and Topos Institute; Johannes Kleiner, Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich; Bob Coecke, University of Oxford

Project Title

Categorical Theories of Consciousness: Bridging Neuroscience and Fundamental Physics

Project Summary

The relation between consciousness – ‘what it is like to experience something’ – and the physical world is one of the greatest foundational problems in science. In the recent decades, researchers have begun to tackle this age-old question, and a number of major scientific theories of consciousness have been proposed. However, each of these theories is presented using very different mathematics and on the face of it they address different aspects of consciousness, making them difficult to compare and test. In this project, we aim to unify the major existing theories of consciousness using category theory, a highly powerful and general mathematical language for describing interacting processes. Our team comprises world experts in applications of category theory, which today is used in biology, physics, computer science and beyond. This work will greatly clarify each of these theories and their relation with fundamental physics such as quantum mechanics. Already we have successfully reformulated one of the leading theories of consciousness, Integrated Information Theory, and this work formed the cover story of a recent edition of New Scientist. More broadly, our project aims to foster an international community of mathematical consciousness scientists, having previously organized numerous workshops and even a major conference in Oxford devoted to this exciting new field.

Technical Abstract

The goal of this project is to apply the powerful mathematical language of category theory to re-formulate and ultimately unify each of the major scientific theories of consciousness. Previous work by our team has already led to a successful reformulation of Integrated Information Theory. We propose to continue this work to provide a categorical formulation of two further major neuroscientific theories of consciousness, namely Predictive Processing and Global Neuronal Workspace Theory, as well as the idealist framework of Conscious Agent Networks. By casting each of these theories in the categorical framework of process theories, we will be able to compare their core structural ingredients, and combine them with fundamental physics such as quantum mechanics. Ultimately, such a coherent view of these theories may allow them to be unified into a single, mathematically precise theory of consciousness. More broadly, our project aims to foster the new growing international research community on mathematical approaches to the mind-matter relation. This continues previous work by our team in organising seminars as well as a major conference on this topic, and will here include hosting a dedicated workshop on the use of category theory in consciousness science.

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