We intend to do to consciousness research what Chemistry did to Alchemy.
We’re working on decisively solving consciousness, fixing the field of mental health, and ultimately helping usher in a golden age of the mind.
State of the field
Most phenomenological research falls into one of two extremes:
- Neuroscience that ‘solves’ phenomenology by denying that it’s real- e.g., “consciousness is a ‘god of the gaps’ & something to be explained away”;
- First-person introspection that ‘solves’ phenomenology by putting it beyond third-person knowledge- e.g., “trying to make the subjective objective is a type error.”
Neither view solves the problem, yet there’s some truth in how each view critiques the other: Neuroscience without phenomenology moves the goal-posts and becomes less than, an obstinate refusal to address the phenomenological elephant in the room. Likewise, phenomenological introspection without connecting results to the physical world becomes a safari with no map, a castle in the sky.
In short- to have knowledge about phenomenology, we need places to put knowledge about phenomenology, and neither the eliminativist nor subjectivist paths allow this.
Alchemy to Chemistry: systematizing phenomenology
What does a solution look like? At minimum, a good theory of consciousness will:
- Be clear about what knowledge about phenomenology is, and provide a theoretical scaffold in which to put it.
- Explain everyday experience, and make internally-consistent, testable predictions about scenarios outside of everyday experience.
- Map the formal state space of qualia.
- Help build mid-level abstractions that can bridge the low (neurobiology) & the high (psychology), and also the objective & the subjective.
- Help understand the structure of human intelligence, and how we use qualia to solve problems.
- Help reverse-engineer specific qualia. One particular desirable quale to reverse-engineer is emotional valence.
QRI’s “full stack” approach to phenomenology leads to firm, objective, testable solutions to these tasks. Our approach assumes the following:
- Physicalism: it looks like we live in universe whose causal structure is described by physics. This sets certain strict bounds on theories of consciousness.
- Qualia Formalism: “for any conscious experience, there exists a mathematical object isomorphic to it.” We can study phenomenology by figuring things out about this object, and vice-versa.
- Qualia Structuralism: there’s a lot of interesting mathematical order in phenomenology; plenty of deep structure to be identified, low-hanging fruit to be found.
- Valence Realism: emotional valence (pleasantness vs unpleasantness) is a natural kind; all phenomenological experiences have a well-defined valence, even if it’s not always easy to report.
More speculatively, we also offer
- The Symmetry Theory of Valence (STV): “given a mathematical representation of a phenomenological experience, the mathematical property of this representation that corresponds to the experience’s valence is its symmetry.”
Without these assumptions, consciousness is an endless hall of mirrors, literally impossible to systematize. With them, not only can we systematize qualia, but we can also make a lot of novel predictions and offer blueprints for a lot of useful things. For more on this, check out Our Research.
Why us, why now?
People have been trying to solve consciousness- and failing- for centuries, perhaps millennia. What’s different today, and at QRI?
- External factors: better research ecosystem. There’s been a lot of great progress in neuroscience, physics formalisms & information theory. IIT, clearer QM formalisms & interpretations, less confusion about what an observer is, better knowledge of relevant math, and so on, mean we have ways of looking at the problem that past theorists never had.
- Internal factors: better key assumptions. Lots of physicists & biologists have tried to start from existing science, and identify “the key principle” behind consciousness. Others have come from first-person introspection, and tried to ground their experience in some type of shared ontology. With a few notable exceptions (IIT, some Eastern practices), neither of these have produced much in the way of actual formalisms. Part of this failure is that systematizing is hard, especially when there’s substantial metaphysical uncertainty. But another big part is that neither of these may be the correct places to start from.
The generative move, that nobody else seems to be making, is that we can “start in the middle”. I.e., if we assume that there exists a mathematical representation of phenomenology, then we can distinguish between (1) how do we generate this representation? and (2) how do we interpret this representation once we have it? — It seems insanely powerful to split the problem in two like this, especially since we can cleanly decompose each of these problems further.
The Symmetry Theory of Valence is also a surprisingly critical piece of this, giving us
- A place to start interpreting how Qualia Formalism cashes out in terms of concrete predictions- the first line of the Rosetta Stone of consciousness;
- A heuristic for understanding what kind of thing pleasure-seeking is, and thus what kind of dynamical system the brain is;
- A consistency-check for the rest of our framework.
A good formal theory of phenomenology will make the world better
The promise of qualia research as a pre-scientific field is that there may be a huge amount of low-hanging fruit just laying around. We expect progress systematizing qualia can and will lead to rapid progress on the following:
- Effective cures for chronic pain & depression built from first-principles;
- New Schelling Points for shared meaning;
- Identification and hedonic evaluation of all sentient creatures;
- Cognitive enhancement based on mood & motivational enhancement;
- Understanding the nature of human qualia & human intelligence;
- Systematic tools for reliably navigating qualia space (“patternceuticals”) much safer and more precise than pharmaceuticals.
If you want to help us build this future, get in touch and join our mailing list.