Award News: Award Gifts Time to Study a Moment in Time

January 07, 2021

Congratulations to Department of Philosophy professor, Holly Andersen, on her recent award from The Foundational Questions Institute (FQXi). The grant will allow Andersen to extend her ongoing research in the temporal structure of experience and the moment of consciousness to connect it to her other research on mathematical explanations.

The 2020 Consciousness in the Physical World FQXi Award (project description here) supports Andersen’s research proposal to determine how we can quantify measurement of temporality as a tool to test theories of consciousness, especially the Integrated Information Theory of Consciousness (IITC). She will explore whether mathematical formulae can be identified as ‘time signatures’ of consciousness and if these can then be used for identification and prediction of consciousness in systems. 

The Temporality of Consciousness

Consciousness is unique as it’s always consciousness of something— and that something is always now. No matter what we are conscious of, that experience is now for us, and always changing in some way through time. Consciousness may also be impossible without spanning some small duration of time. And our consciousness always seems to involve the passage of time; we can choose to move in space, faster or slower, but we cannot change anything about the movement of time. But what is it about this time that is specifically unique to consciousness?

Consciousness as an Integrated Information System

“Experience is never just a single instant, it is always something slightly longer or with more depth,” explains Andersen, who plans to explore this by approaching consciousness as an integrated information system.

Using the IITC as a mathematical framework, she will examine whether the temporal features of consciousness can be expressed by or predicted from the mathematics of the theory alone, without going through neuroscience first. The ability of the IITC to predict, or fail to predict, temporal features of consciousness can serve as a confirmation or disconfirmation of the IITC as a theory of consciousness.

Testing the IITC

In essence, Andersen proposes to use her findings to test the IITC as a viable theory applicable to consciousness, that can explain or fit with its temporal features.

According to Andersen, “A really great outcome would be to discover that not only is there a characteristic behavior for the time variable(s) in integrated informational systems, but that this both matches phenomenological descriptions for human consciousness AND could be given a general mathematical description.”

A finding like this would give some validation as a generalized measure of consciousness - not just for humans, but for any system. For example, it could be used for AI, to see if candidate conscious AI had the characteristic time signatures indicating conscious experience.

“A non-biologically based criterion to ID consciousness, just using temporal features of consciousness, would be great,” she says, before noting that achieving a final version of this would be unlikely for a project this short.

Temporal Structure in the Integrated Information Theory of Consciousness involves the intersection of theories of consciousness, with phenomenology (or, the study of the intrinsic features of experience itself, as such, without asking about whether or not those experiences are accurate representations of anything outside of experience), and with mathematical physics, in the form of information theory.

Gift of Time

The FQXi awards aim to support foundational and unconventional research that might otherwise miss out on funding. The institute’s mission is to enable projects that are speculative and non-mainstream. Andersen will work with research assistants (RAs) to develop computer models that explore the mathematics involved in conjunction with considering philosophical issues in consciousness theory and the phenomenology of time consciousness. She hopes to derive a set of identifiable and mathematically formulated time signatures that are indicative of consciousness.

And in the same way that consciousness may be impossible without time, so is research. The award provides not only financial support for RAs but also a teaching release, gifting Andersen, who is also the department’s Graduate Chair, the time to study time. Support for research is extremely valuable.

“I am glad to be able to contribute so much service and teaching, but having this grant is a way of carving out more time to make sure my own research does not fall by the wayside,” Andersen says.

Philosophy IRL – Capture the Fleeting Moment, AI and Aliens

So where would something like this find a home in real life? If you’re not up-to-speed in philosophical research on time, consciousness and building equations that capture a fleeting moment, you’re probably wondering where this fits in with day-to-day life.

Andersen directs us to think less human and more machine, or even off world. If it were possible to identify a set of mathematically formulated time signatures that are indicative of consciousness, this could potentially drive identification of new instances of consciousness, such as in artificial intelligence.

“The most real-life impact would be the possibility of finding a characteristic time signature in terms of integrated informational connectivity in systems that would allow us to have some chance of diagnosing consciousness in deeply alien systems,” she says. “Like AI, or, if we are getting very un-real-world, like potentially conscious alien systems in a moon of Jupiter.”

As Andersen notes, “Finding flags for these ‘time signatures’ of consciousness could broaden the search to recognize conscious systems that may look very different than the human brain.”

Professor Andersen is teaching the following courses this year.


Future courses may be subject to change.