Qualia Research Institute: History & 2021 Strategy

by andzuck15 min read25th Jan 202111 comments

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Key Points

  • Theoretical & empirical work on emotional valence is Qualia Research Institute’s core research focus. At a high level, Qualia Research Institute (QRI) works to formulate universal theories of valence[1], test those theories experimentally, and build non-invasive neurotechnology that reliably produces large positive valence effects.
  • QRI has formed partnerships to work with clinical data from psychedelic studies at King's College London, Imperial College London, and the National Institute of Mental Health of the Czech Republic.
  • QRI is collaborating with researchers from Harvard Medical School and the Emergent Phenomenology Research Consortium to analyze electroencephalographic (EEG) data from jhana meditation sessions.
  • QRI fills an important niche in the consciousness research, psychedelic research[2], and Effective Altruist ecosystems.
  • On the present margin, QRI is more constrained by funding than by talent.
  • We’re confident that we could put $1.5M to good use over the next two years.
  • With further funding, QRI would pursue its research agenda and expand its team by hiring a signal processing engineer, a computational neuroscience PhD, and a software engineer.
  • QRI’s 2021 research agenda includes empirically exploring the Symmetry Theory of Valence (STV) on high-valence data sets, developing non-invasive neurotechnology that produces large positive valence effects, building out our psychophysics toolkit and using it to collect data, publishing open-source neuroimaging software, and investigating how to generalize the Connectome-Specific Harmonic Wave (CSHW) framework into a scale-free form.
  • You can donate to QRI on our website or reach out to Mackenzie Dion, Director of Operations & Development, at mackenzie@qualiaresearchinstitute.org
  • You can keep up with our research by subscribing to our newsletter or following us on Twitter

Why Does Qualia Research Institute Exist?

Isn’t it perplexing that we’re trying to reduce the amount of suffering and increase the amount of happiness in the world, yet we don’t have a precise definition for either suffering or happiness?

As a human collective, we want to create good futures. This encompasses helping humans have happier lives, preventing intense suffering wherever it may exist, creating safe AI, and improving animals’ lives too, both in farms and in the wild.

But what is happiness? And what is suffering?

Until we can talk about these things objectively, let alone measure and quantify them reliably, we’ll always be standing in murky water.[3]

The core question remains the same:

How do we objectively measure and quantify properties of conscious experience?

Qualia Research Institute’s Mission

Qualia Research Institute (QRI) is a non-profit research center operating outside of academia. We are a small team of independent researchers studying consciousness in a consistent, meaningful, and rigorous way.

Our goals are ambitious yet realistic:

  1. Develop a precise mathematical language for describing consciousness
  2. Understand the nature of emotional valence (pain and pleasure)
  3. Build technologies to improve people’s lives in meaningful ways, at scale

As far as we know, we are the first and only research group that uses a qualia formalist[4] approach to consciousness, cares about valence, and takes the phenomenology of altered states of consciousness seriously.[5]

How We Expect To Make Progress Toward Our Mission

Developing an accurate and precise ‘valence meter’ is one of QRI’s north stars. This goal is similar to (though distinct from) Integrated Information Theory researchers’ attempt to invent an accurate ‘consciousness meter’.

We intend to make progress towards this goal by generating theories of valence that are universal in their explanatory power, attempting to experimentally corroborate our theoretical models with state-of-the-art techniques in neuroscience, and building non-invasive neurotechnology that can reliably produce large positive effects based on our developing theory of valence.

In addition to our valence-specific research plans, we believe that mapping out exotic properties of consciousness will provide valuable clues about how consciousness fundamentally works. An analogy is that ignoring exotic states of consciousness is similar to pre-enlightenment scientists trying to understand energy, matter, and the physical world just by studying it at room temperature while disregarding extreme boundary conditions like the sun, black holes, plasma, and superfluid helium. Ignoring these states may be equivalent to refusing to look through Galileo's telescope.

Finally, we intend to become a hub for all types of high-valence biological data, including fMRI data from our academic partners, subjective reports of extremely blissful states, and genomic data of people who report a high degree of baseline happiness. Alongside this data collection, we aim to create an environment that fosters dialogue between researchers studying AI, neuroscience, meditation, and psychedelics.

QRI History & Past Work

Core Team Intro

The core QRI team now consists of:

Michael Edward Johnson - Co-Founder and Co-Director of Research at QRI. Mike is the author of Principia Qualia and blogs at opentheory.net.

Andrés Gómez Emilsson - Co-Founder and Co-Director of Research at QRI. Andrés has a Master’s Degree in Computational Psychology from Stanford, co-founded the Stanford Transhumanist Association, was first place winner of the Norway Math Olympiad, and blogs at qualiacomputing.com.

Andrew Zuckerman - Executive Director at QRI. Andrew studied computer science at Harvard, co-founded the Harvard Undergraduate Science of Psychedelics Club, was a board member of Harvard College Effective Altruism, and founded the Harvard Giving Pledge.

Quintin Frerichs - Director of Engineering at QRI. Quintin graduated from Washington University in St. Louis, where he studied computer science and PNP (Philosophy-Neuroscience-Psychology) and worked as a network security engineer for a Seattle-based firm.

Mackenzie Dion - Director of Operations & Development at QRI. Mackenzie is a Morehead-Cain Scholar and senior at UNC where she studies Psychology and Neuroscience. Prior to QRI, Mackenzie worked for several startups and nonprofits in alternative proteins, including the Good Food Institute (GFI) and Aleph Farms.

Sean McGowan - Research and Development Coordinator at QRI. Sean is a recent graduate from Dartmouth College where he studied Cognitive Science and Mathematical Physics.

Timeline of QRI

Timeline of QRI

Timeline of QRI including key works published.

For the full timeline breakdown, see Appendix A.

Board of Advisors

Our newly created Board of Advisors include: Wojciech Zaremba (co-founder of OpenAI), Dr. Robin Carhart-Harris (head of the Centre for Psychedelic Research at Imperial College London), Scott Alexander (writer of Slate Star Codex and Astral Codex Ten), David Pearce (philosopher, author of The Hedonistic Imperative), and Dr. Shamil Chandaria (strategic advisor at DeepMind).

Strategic Advisors

Our current strategic advisors are Romeo Stevens (QRI co-founder), Milan Griffes (writer of Psychedelic Update and co-founder of Argo Health), and Trey Jennings (venture investor at Norwest Venture Partners).

How We’ve Used Money So Far

Since its inception in 2018, QRI has used approximately $125k total, or about $62.5k / year. That money has paid for Quintin’s full-time annual salary, a part-time salary for Sean, stipends for interns, prototyping equipment, software, and travel costs.

What We’ve Accomplished

QRI Is More Constrained by Funding Than by Talent

Today, QRI is not struggling to find research directions. We have a backlog of ideas, both theoretical and experimental, that we’d like to work on. We have been approached by multiple leading academics requesting to collaborate and we don’t have capacity to take on many of the opportunities we encounter. Inside our personal networks, there are talented engineers and data scientists that we would hire (and who have expressed mutual interest in working with us). All we need is the funding to do so.

What We Would Do With More Funding

Pay Our Existing Team

With additional funding, the first thing we’d do is begin paying core team members. These core roles are:

  • Executive Director: Andrew Zuckerman
  • Co-Director of Research: Andrés Gómez Emilsson
  • Co-Director of Research: Michael Edward Johnson
  • Director of Engineering: Quintin Frerichs
  • Operations, Development, and Research Coordination (1 FTE): Mackenzie Dion & Sean McGowan

Expand Our Team

We are confident that the following three roles would bring tremendous value to our research agenda:

  1. An engineer with a background in signal processing to continue developing our non-invasive neurotech which is already producing large effect sizes.
  2. An experienced computational neuroscientist (PhD or postdoc level) who can assist with foundational research and writing academic papers. This person will help us explore the technical implications of our ideas in greater depth and will accelerate our publication process.
  3. A software engineer with a strong mathematical background to continue to build out new research tools that we can use for experiments and data collection.

We have already identified candidates for these roles that we would like to hire.

Invest in Compute

Computing power is another core bottleneck that is slowing down our research. For example, in the past few months, several of our fMRI data analyses have each taken over 7 days to finish processing. With more funding, we would invest in compute to speed up this processing by 10x.

Physical Location

We’ve noticed that much of our best work occurs when we’re working together in the same physical location where information can flow freely from team member to team member. We are interested in setting up a physical location for the research team to work together (as the pandemic allows).

2021 Strategy

2021 Research Agenda

  • Our 2021 Research Agenda will focus on the following projects:
  • Empirically exploring the Symmetry Theory of Valence (STV) on high-valence MDMA data sets with in-house algorithms based on our CDNS framework
  • Developing non-invasive neurotechnology with a focus on reliably inducing positive valence and emotional processing
  • Publishing a research paper that argues for STV on theoretical and empirical grounds Releasing open-source neuroimaging analysis software and publishing corresponding research based on that software
  • Adding new tools to our Psychophysics Toolkit and getting institutional research board approval to begin collecting data from altered states of consciousness that involve perceptual changes
  • Figuring out how to generalize the CSHW framework into a scale-free form—building a model of scale-free resonance in the nervous system and how breakdowns in this system lead to various sensory, emotional, motivational, and hedonic problems

Significant Organizational Transformations

We will also be investing in important organizational upgrades. Quality research doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and we know that a smoothly operating ecosystem is needed to create the conditions for doing good research.

Upgrading Organizational Capacity

We are implementing tighter feedback loops for team members, implementing work-tracking, task-management software, setting quarterly OKRs, creating onboarding material for new hires, and building better systems to track our monthly and yearly expenses.

Increasing Scientific Standards

We will continue to increase contact with outside researchers at academic institutions and neuroscience research centers, finding professional researchers that can review our methods. We will also release preprints of our research on sites like PsyArXiv.

Emphasizing Clarity

Inspired by Olah & Carter’s “Research Debt”, which describes the importance of research distillation, we will experiment with producing high-quality visualizations of our research to increase its legibility. We want to make it easy for busy researchers to understand our contributions and feel comfortable citing our work.

Building Professional QRI Publishing Pipeline

Some of our research won’t be written for academic publication, yet we want to make sure those pieces reach the right audiences. We are creating a professional publishing-first site to host our research. For these works, we will use internal feedback systems to ensure that this content also maintains high standards.

Create a Top-Down Hiring System

We are focusing on top-down hiring to continue to build out a strong research organization. In the past, we have received many requests from volunteers looking to help QRI. We will aim to sustain this organic interest through a newly created r/QualiaResearch subreddit in addition to the Qualia Computing Networking Facebook group that has served as a hub in the past. We will also update our website to reflect the changes in our approach to volunteering. Once we have sufficient funding, we will advertise for new roles on our website, reach out to relevant candidates in our networks, and contact talented postdocs whom we would be excited to hire.

Why We Are a Nonprofit Research Group

Even though we are developing technology at QRI that could lead to for-profit spin-off companies, we believe that a for-profit structure does not provide the optimal incentives for our current work. We are interested in focusing on fundamental and foundational research without rushing to find product-market fit.

For similar reasons, QRI exists outside of the academy. Many research ideas that we explore come from new paradigms, and our current view is that academic pressures leave little room to fruitfully engage with this territory. For example, we don’t expect to publish high-quality trip reports in academic journals, yet we believe that such reports are important puzzle pieces for reverse-engineering consciousness.

Some of our research will be publishable in academic journals, and we are excited to begin doing this. In the future, we hope that our neurotechnology research leads to practical, commercializable treatments. But right now, a non-profit structure is what makes the most sense for what Qualia Research Institute is trying to accomplish.

Fundraising Goals

We are currently raising $1.5 million USD to support our existing team and make the three hires discussed above: a signal processing engineer, a computational neuroscientist, and a software engineer. Combined with our current reserves, raising this amount would give us 2 years of financial runway to pursue our research agenda and experiment with incubating for-profit initiatives.

Budget Breakdown Breakdown of Budget

Much More Room to Grow

While the budget we’re presenting here would pay for a baseline Qualia Research Institute, we believe that we could put an influx of additional funding to great use over the next five years. Consciousness research is still an extremely neglected cause area, and we have ideas for developing this discipline with more engineers, neuroscientists, physicists, philosophers, and mathematicians. Some of these visions have been outlined in Emilsson’s “The Super-Shulgin Academy: A Singularity I Can Believe In” and “Peaceful Qualia: The Manhattan Project of Consciousness”.

The Importance of Understanding Valence

Even though the many practical outcomes of successful consciousness research weren’t discussed in detail in this piece, it is important to stress the incredible value that would come from a mechanistic understanding of valence.

In line with our goals to reduce suffering, improve baseline well-being, and reach new heights of bliss, a full understanding of valence would:

  1. Help us find first-principles solutions to hard-to-treat mental health & chronic pain conditions.
  2. Allow us to build better neurotechnology by precisely articulating the brain states we would like to target.
  3. Create more rigorous measures of philanthropic & economic utility and upgrade imperfect measures of well-being such as the QALY (Quality-Adjusted Life Year), which could drastically improve economic policymaking and the efficiency of our resource allocation.
  4. Help us more accurately measure the quality of life of animals and non-linguistic humans
  5. Improve social coordination by helping people operate from the same basic understanding of what is real and what is valuable.
  6. In the field of AI alignment – make progress on the value-loading problem (what values we should instill into an artificial general intelligence).
  7. Ensure that future neurotechnology is safe and doesn’t induce negative experiences in the short or long-term, degrades cognition or rationality, or makes people more uncaring.

How to Donate to QRI

If you are interested in supporting Qualia Research Institute, you can donate to us here. For larger donations, please reach out to Mackenzie Dion, Director of Operations & Development, at mackenzie@qualiaresearchinstitute.org. We have a slide deck that we are happy to share by request.

Additional Gratitude

Although their names weren’t directly included in this announcement, QRI would not be what it is today if not for the following people. Thank you for all for your support: Margareta Wassinge, Anders Amelin, Winslow Strong, Lawrence Wu, Patrick Taylor, Kenneth Shinozuka, Hunter Meyer, Elin Ahlstrand, Wendi Yan, Marcin Kowrygo, Ross Tieman, Jeremy Hadfield, Bar Lehman, Kushagra Sharma, Tanvi Antoo, Jasmine Wang, Mira Guetzow, Benjamin Martens, Alex Zhao, Robin Goins, Boian Etropolski, and Bence Vass. Thank you to all of our past donors. Thank you to all of our other supporters, both in-person and online. Thank you Rethink Priorities for your 2020 Impact and 2021 Strategy which helped inspire this piece. And thank you Quintin, Mackenzie, Mike, Sean, Andrés, Milan, and Daniel Segal for feedback on drafts of this announcement.

Appendix A: Timeline of QRI

2015-2018: Andrés Gómez Emilsson independently writes about consciousness on his blog Qualia Computing

2016 - 2018: Mike Johnson independently writes about consciousness on his blog Opentheory.net

2017: Romeo Stevens joins Mike and Andrés to help advance their research

December 2018: Romeo, Mike, and Andrés incorporate QRI as a 501c(3) non-profit

May 2019: QRI holds its first internship with three interns (Andrew Zuckerman, Quintin Frerichs, and Kenneth Shinozuka)

July 2019: Quintin joins QRI full-time as the first employee

January 2020: QRI hosts a small fundraiser to keep Quintin on salary, Sean McGowan volunteers to help set up the fundraising event

April-May, May-July 2020: Andrew helps QRI organize two ‘work-sprint’ internships with 15 interns working on technical, content, and organizational projects

August - November 2020: Andrew, Sean, and Mackenzie Dion (a 2020 summer intern) continue to work part-time for QRI

December 2020: Andrew transitions to Executive Director, QRI builds a Board of Advisors and adds Strategic Advisors, Romeo transitions to Strategic Advisor

Appendix B: How Our Research Interfaces with Psychedelic Research

We believe that our work will help make psychedelic science more rigorous, explain why certain substances are effective or ineffective, help lower the dose of particular drugs like MDMA and ketamine (which are neurotoxic and organ toxic, respectively) while maintaining their intended effect, create tools that help clinicians and researchers analyze and monitor psychedelic experiences in real-time, and improve the drug development process.


  1. Universal meaning that the theory retains its explanatory power no matter where we are in the universe and no matter what brain architecture an organism has. ↩︎

  2. See Appendix B. ↩︎

  3. Mike Johnson, co-founder of Qualia Research Institute, wrote about this dilemma back in 2015 in “Effective Altruism, and building a better QALY” and we’re excited to see Rethink Priorities pick up the baton in their recent exploration for alternatives to QALYs and DALYs. Yet even these upgraded metrics don’t measure the ground-truth of subjective experience itself. They also don’t comment on the experiences of animals and non-communicative conscious beings. ↩︎

  4. Qualia formalism is the hypothesis that the internal structure of our subjective experience can be represented precisely by mathematics. ↩︎

  5. Other labs do focus on some of these (like Tononi’s lab taking qualia formalism seriously), but to our knowledge, none care about all three. ↩︎

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11 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 5:15 PM
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While QRI is only occasionally talked about on LessWrong, I personally continue to think that they're doing the most exciting research that exists today, provided you take a utilitarian perspective. I've donated to Miri in the past, in part because their work seems highly non-replaceable. I still stand by that reason, but it applies even more to QRI. Even if there is only a small chance that formalizing consciousness is both possible and practically feasible, the potential upside seems enormous. Success in formalizing suffering wouldn't solve AI alignment (for several reasons, one of them being Inner Optimizers), but I imagine it would be extremely helpful. There is nothing approximating a consensus on the related philosophical problems in the community, and positions on those issues seem to have a significant causal influence on what research is being pursued.

It helps that I share most if not all of the essential philosophical intuitions that motivate QRI's research. On the other hand, research should be asymmetrical with regard to what's true. In the world where moral realism is false and suffering isn't objective or doesn't have structure, beliefs to the contrary (which many people in the community hold today) could lead to bad alignment-related decisions. In that case, any attempts to quantify suffering would inevitably fail, and that would itself be relevant evidence.

Isn’t it perplexing that we’re trying to reduce the amount of suffering and increase the amount of happiness in the world, yet we don’t have a precise definition for either suffering or happiness?

Not nearly as perplexing as how I just made crepes without a precise definition of what a crepe is. If only there were crepes in Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations, one of the seminal works I might recommend to someone confronting issues like these.

I know it's a huge thing to ask, but I seriously urge you to rethink your philosophical commitment to finding a precise formal definition of consciousness, etc. Try to do things that look more like "normal" neuroscience of consciousness (in scare quotes because the field is very heterogeneous, but as an example of work that solves interesting problems orthogonal to formally defining consciousness, I like the experimental philosophy presented by Ned Block in this talk: https://youtu.be/6lHHxcxurhQ ).

Hi Charlie, I'm glad to point to our announced collaborations with JHU, Harvard, ICL, and some of the other more established centers for neuroscience, as well as our psychophysics toolkit, which you can check out here. I find that many times people operate from cached impressions of what we're doing and in such cases I try to get people to update their cache, as our work does now encompass what most people might call "normal" neuroscience of consciousness and associated markers of legitimacy (as inspired and guided by our theoretical work).

I highly appreciate Wittgenstein's notion of language games as a nigh-universal tool for dissolving confusion. However, I would also suggest an alternate framing: "have you tried solving the problem?" -- has anyone tried to formalize emotional valence before in a way that could yield results if there is a solution? What could a 'solution' here even mean? What would this process look like from the inside? What outputs should we expect to see from the outside? Is there a "fire alarm" for solving this problem? -- In short I think "dissolving confusion" is important for consciousness research, but I don't think that's necessarily the only goal. Rather, we should also look for 'deep structure' to be formalized, much like electromagnetism and chemistry had 'deep structure' to be formalized. I feel skeptics (analytic functionalists) risk premature optimization here -- skepticism isn't a strong position to hold before we've 'actually tried' to find this structure. (I say more about the problems I see with analytic functionalism / eliminativism as positive theories here.) 

QRI is predicated on the assumption that, before we give up on systematizing consciousness, we should apply the same core formalism aesthetics that have led to progress in other fields, to consciousness -- i.e. we should 'actually try'. From both inside-view process and outside-view neuroscience outputs, I'm confident what we're doing is strongly worthwhile.

That's good news to me, and I'm sorry for making a sweeping generalization based on your older work. The marker of legitimacy I am particularly interested in is whether your empirical investigations are still useful in the case that consciousness is not at all amenable to simple formalization.

Appreciate the crepe joke! My preference is sweet over savory.

On the topic of language, I strongly support Mike's reply which pushes in the direction of finding the 'deep structure' of consciousness. Johannes Kleiner also has written about ways to approach this problem in his paper "Mathematical Models of Consciousness" (https://arxiv.org/pdf/1907.03223.pdf).

To respond to your ask for us to rethink our philosophical commitments... if you were alive before the period table of elements was discovered, would you similarly urge Mendeleev to rethink his commitment to exploring the structure of matter / finding precise definitions for elements like 'gold' and 'iron'? What reasons or evidence would you need to make research into the structure of matter seem worthwhile? What similar reasons or evidence would we need to decide the same for qualia? A priori, why should we expect that qualia does not have deep structure but matter does? Given the information that colors have certain structural relationships (leading to the CIELAB Color Space: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/CIELAB_color_space), does that make you more or less confident that there is something real and precise here to be studied?

I haven't watched that talk by Ned Block. Thank you for sharing it and I'll check it out!

The way I see it, the crux is not in a deep structure being definable - functionalism is perfectly compatible with definitions of experience on the same level of precision and reality as elements. And the research into the physical structures that people associate with consciousness certainly can be worthwhile and it can be used to resolve ethical disagreements in the sense that actual humans would express agreement afterwards. But the stance of QRI seems to be that resulting precise definition would be literally objective as in "new fundamental physics" - I think it should be explicitly clarified whether it's the case.

Neuroscience and philosophy are not physics and chemistry. I don't expect there to be an "atomic theory of color qualia" or anything like it because of a combination of factors like:

Cultural and general interpersonal differences in color perception.

The tendency of evolution to produce complicated, interlinked mechanisms, including in the brain, rather than modular ones.

Examples of brain damage and people with unusual psychology or physiology that have dramatically different color qualia than me.

Animals and artificial systems that use color perception to navigate the world but don't seem to converge to similar ways pf perceiving color.

The evidence of absence of a soul or other homuncular center of perception, which necessitates understanding perception as an emergent phenomenon made of lots of little pieces.

The causal efficacy of color perception (i.e. I don't just see things, I actually do different things depending on what I see) tying colors into all the other complications of the human mind.

Complications that we know about from neuroscience, such as asymmetric local centers of function, and certain individual clusters of neurons being causally related to individual memories, motions, and sensations.

Our experience with artificial neural networks, and how challenging interpreting their weights is.

--

If we compare this with atoms, atoms do indeed have some local variation in mass, but only within a suspiciously small range. Rules like conservation of mass appear to hold among elements, rather than there being common exceptions. We didn't already know that atoms were emergent phenomena from the interactions of bajillions of pieces. We did not already have a scientific field studying how many of those bajillions of pieces played idiosyncratic and evolutionarily contingent roles. Et c.

Some sorts of knowledge about consciousness will necessarily be as messy as the brain is messy, but the core question is whether there's any 'clean substructure' to be discovered about phenomenology itself. Here's what I suggest in Principia Qualia:

--------

>Brains vs conscious systems:

>There are fundamentally two kinds of knowledge about valence: things that are true specifically in brains like ours, and general principles common to all conscious entities. Almost all of what we know about pain and pleasure is of the first type – essentially, affective neuroscience has been synonymous with making maps of the mammalian brain’s evolved, adaptive affective modules and contingent architectural quirks (“spandrels”).

>This paper attempts to chart a viable course for this second type of research: it’s an attempt toward a general theory of valence, a.k.a. universal, substrate-independent principles that apply equally to and are precisely true in all conscious entities, be they humans, non-human animals, aliens, or conscious artificial intelligence (AI).

>In order to generalize valence research in this way, we need to understand valence research as a subset of qualia research, and qualia research as a problem in information theory and/or physics, rather than neuroscience. Such a generalized approach avoids focusing on contingent facts and instead seeks general principles for how the causal organization of a physical system generates or corresponds to its phenomenology, or how it feels to subjectively be that system. David Chalmers has hypothesized about this in terms of “psychophysical laws” (Chalmers 1995), or translational principles which we could use to derive a system’s qualia, much like we can derive the electromagnetic field generated by some electronic gadget purely from knowledge of the gadget’s internal composition and circuitry.

How is "clean substructure" different in principle from a garden-variety high-level description? Crepes are a thin pancake made with approximately equal parts egg, milk, and flour, potentially with sugar, salt, oil, or small amounts of leavening, spread in a large pan and cooked quickly. This english sentence is radically simpler than a microscopic description of a crepe. As a law of crepeitude, it has many admirable practical qualities, allowing me to make crepes, and to tell which recipes are for crepes and which are not, even if they're slightly different from my description.

A similar high-level description for consciousness might start with "Conscious beings are a lot like humans - they do a lot of information processing, have memories and imaginations and desires, think about the world and make plans, feel emotions like happiness or sadness, and often navigate the world using bodies that are in a complex feedback loop with their central information processor." This english sentence is, again, a lot simpler than a microscopic description of a person. It is, all in all, a remarkable feat of compression.

Of course, I suspect this isn't what you want - you hope that consciousness is obligingly simple in ways that cut out the reliance on human interpretation from the above description, while still being short enough to fit on a napkin. The main way that this sort of thing has been true in physics and chemistry is when humans are noticing some pattern in the world with a simple explanation in terms of underlying essences. The broad lack of such essences in philosophy explains the historical failure of myriad simple and objective theories of humanity, life, the good, etc.

Hi Charlie,

To compress a lot of thoughts into a small remark, I think both possibilities (consciousness is like electromagnetism in that it has some deep structure to be formalized, vs consciousness is like elan vital in that it lacks any such deep structure) are live possibilities. What's most interesting to me is doing the work that will give us evidence which of these worlds we live in. There are a lot of threads mentioned in my first comment that I think can generate value/clarity here; in general I'd recommend brainstorming "what would I expect to see if I lived in a world where consciousness does, vs does not, have a crisp substructure?"

Not nearly as perplexing as how I just made crepes without a precise definition of what a crepe is.

That is an area where I am more constrained by talent than by funding.