Conscious Agents – A Theory of Consciousness, Donald Hoffman

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In 1869, Thomas Huxley wrote: “[H]ow it is that anything so remarkable as a state of consciousness comes about as a result of irritating nervous tissue, is just as unaccountable as the appearance of the Djinn, when Aladdin rubbed his lamp.” In the years since Huxley, neuroscience has learned much about brain activity and has cataloged many ways in which brain activity and conscious experiences are correlated. But these correlations remain as mysterious today as they were to Huxley. Most neuroscientists assume that brain activity causes conscious experiences, but they have not yet proposed a scientific theory—or even a remotely plausible idea—about how this might happen. I argue, using evolutionary game theory, that brain activity cannot cause our conscious experiences or our behaviors. The mystery of how brain activity causes conscious experiences has not yet been solved, and never will be solved, because brain activity does not and cannot cause conscious experiences. If we want to have a scientific understanding of consciousness, and of the many well-documented correlations between brain activity and conscious experiences, then we cannot start with brain activity or physical dynamics of any kind. We must start with a brand new, but rigorous, foundation. I propose a new foundation which models consciousness as interacting networks of conscious agents. I motivate and present this new theory of consciousness, and use it to solve some of the open problems in the field of consciousness, such as the problem of combining conscious experiences to create a new conscious experience, and the problem of combining conscious subjects to create a new conscious subject. I then consider how we can try to understand the correlations between brain activity and conscious experiences by using the theory of conscious agents to derive generalizations of supersymmetric quantum theory.

Donald Hoffman Ph.D., Cognitive Scientist and Author, has authored more than 90 scientific papers and three books, including Visual Intelligence: How We Create What We See. He received his BA from UCLA in Quantitative Psychology and his Ph.D. from MIT in Computational Psychology. He joined the faculty of UC Irvine in 1983, where he is a professor in the departments of cognitive science, computer science and philosophy. He received a Distinguished Scientific Award of the American Psychological Association for early career research into visual perception, and the Troland Research Award of the US National Academy of Sciences for his research on the relationship of consciousness and the physical world.

This talk was recorded at SAND15 US


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