Consciousness can be defined as the capacity to have a sentient experience, where sentience refers to the ability to feel, to perceive through sensations and feelings. Despite its familiarity to each of us, consciousness remains largely a mystery.
Science has no explanation for the nature of feelings; no clue as to how electrical activity in the brain can give rise to sensations and feelings. Philosophers have coined the word quale (plural, qualia) to indicate what a particular experience feels like.
Until recently, consciousness has been primarily studied by philosophers, cognitive scientists, and psychologists, while basic science has largely ignored the subject, considered outside the scope of objective inquiry, and also beyond the capacities of the available instruments.
During the last 20 years, new technologies such as fMRI have allowed neuroscientists to study how particular conscious states are represented within the brain. These neural correlates of consciousness (NCC) have shown that consciousness requires certain complex brain states to occur. NCC however cannot explain how qualia arise; they can only show the brain electrical and metabolic activity associated with particular conscious states.
It is generally assumed that consciousness is produced entirely within the human or animal brain as a function of its electrical-chemical activity. However, there is not even a shred of explanation of how consciousness may arise from such activity.
There is no known physical principle that can translate electrical activity in the brain or in a computer into sensations or feelings. For example, almost everybody would agree that a sophisticated robot behaving in a human-like manner would have no consciousness; it would be a zombie going through its paces without feeling anything, unaware of itself and of its actions.
To say that a complex system will somehow become conscious when the brain complexity reaches a certain level is certainly not a satisfactory explanation. And yet that’s exactly the pseudo-explanation that is generally given when consciousness is explained as “an emergent property of a complex information processing system.”
If that were a cogent explanation, we should by now be able to make a conscious computer. Yet our computers, which are more than ten billion times more powerful than the computers of the late fifties, when such an idea was first proposed, are not one bit more conscious than them. In fact, the current laws of physics cannot explain why we are conscious. They may be able to explain how our bodies work, but then we should just be zombies because there isn’t anything in such laws that can predict the emergence of consciousness; the emergence of qualia.
There is however another possibility that must be investigated, a hypothesis that is usually eliminated a priori on account that everything that exists must be material. This hypothesis has its roots in Eastern spiritual traditions where consciousness was considered an irreducible property of nature. Based on the recent cosmological theories, where the nature of reality appears ever more abstract, there is no reason to discard this hypothesis, yet there is almost no funding for consciousness research where such hypothesis is explicitly acknowledged.
The Foundation provides startup funds to perform theoretical and experimental consciousness research under the assumption that consciousness is irreducible rather than an epiphenomenon of the operation of the brain. The primary focus is currently on the development of a mathematical theory of consciousness capable of producing testable predictions that can either falsify or extend the prediction of the existing physical theories beyond the range of their applicability.
Federico and Elvia Faggin are husband and wife. They emigrated to the US in 1968, and live in Silicon Valley, CA. Federico Faggin graduated in physics in 1965 from University of Padua, Italy, and worked for Fairchild Semiconductors and Intel before becoming a serial entrepreneur… Read More >