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Theory of Conscious Experience

What is the compelling question or challenge?

Discovering models of conscious experience -- not neurological models of how the brain generates conscious experience, but rather more abstract theoretical models of consciousness.

What do we know now about this Big Idea and what are the key research questions we need to address?

Much of today’s scientific research on consciousness focuses on its neurological basis. This work has sometimes been criticized as not addressing what are often called the “hard problems of consciousness”; for example, it is not clear how any work along these lines could possibly explain why there is something it is vividly *like* to be me right now. Whether this criticism is well founded is controversial. But we may also wonder whether we can make progress in other ways. To see why, consider that our understanding of the neurological basis of intelligence is still very limited, but this has not stopped artificial intelligence (AI) researchers from making progress. It is easy to argue that as a result of AI research, we now have a far better conceptual understanding of intelligence in general than we used to -- specifically, what types of problems we might expect intelligence to solve, and what some of the pathways to doing so are. Might we hope for a similar development in the study of consciousness? Can we deepen our understanding of conscious experience even if we fail to make progress on understanding its neurological basis? (This is of course not to say that there could not be fruitful interaction with researchers who work on the neurological basis of consciousness; after all, similar interaction has been very helpful for artificial intelligence.)

There are reasons to be skeptical. One is that it is famously difficult to agree on what exactly we mean by “consciousness.” But definitions of “intelligence” are also controversial, and AI research has taught us that our previous conceptions of the meaning of “intelligence” were often misguided. Indeed, many AI researchers hesitate to produce a definition of “intelligence,” preferring to make progress on concrete problems instead.

Perhaps the bigger concern is whether we will be indeed able to make concrete progress. Scientists in particular often have the impression that, perhaps excepting some progress made on the neurological side, the topic of consciousness is the territory of philosophers, who are making little real progress as they talk past each other and have no way to settle who is right and who is wrong. First, I think this is an unfair characterization of the philosophical work; there in fact continues to be progress there, especially where it concerns clarifying what questions we really face. But progress has been slow compared to that in (say) computer science. I believe that, building on both philosophical insight and new technologies, we can make progress in new, scientific ways.

Such progress may well fail to (completely) resolve some of the hard problems; perhaps these can be sidestepped. For example, in computational complexity theory, progress is often made not by completely resolving how hard a computational problem is to solve, but rather by drawing relationships between different problems -- if we had an efficient algorithm that solves problem A, then we could also use it to solve problem B. I suspect that a similar approach may be fruitful in new theoretical approaches to studying consciousness. We may not know how to generate conscious experiences from scratch, but if we are willing to assume that they exist in certain forms -- e.g., we are comfortable stipulating that a human being with functioning eyesight has certain visual experiences -- then we may ask which other conscious experiences we can create under that assumption, for example by using virtual reality technology, AI-generated images, or even direct stimulation of the brain.

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