Academy

What is consciousness?

Consciousness is any experience, any feeling – of seeing, hearing or tasting something. It can accompany emotions – like love or hate – or thoughts and deliberations. Whenever a mental process includes a qualitative, accessible experience, we would consider that process conscious. It could be as basic as tasting a slice of old pizza or as bitter as knowing that eventually all feelings will end. We are also conscious when we sleep, i.e., when we have dreams. Consciousness is not in the foundational equations of physics, quantum mechanics, general relativity, or the periodic table of chemistry, yet we are conscious. We have a very intimate relationship with consciousness. For us, from the inside, its presence is undoubtable. We know very well when it is lost, such as when we fall in deep sleep, or go under anesthesia. Yet, quite paradoxically, though we have immediate knowledge of our consciousness, studying it empirically poses a huge challenge. First and foremost, due to the subjectivity gap: while I can be certain about my experiences, I cannot be certain about the experience of others. Because we are made of the same biological substance, and our behavior is fairly similar, we attribute consciousness to other fellow humans, but what about animals, plants, or computers? Despite this subjectivity gap, scientists and scholars have been trying to understand consciousness for centuries. The origin and nature of our experiences, sometimes referred to as qualia, have been a mystery from the earliest days of antiquity right up to the present. The question we aim to understand is the relationship between physical systems such as our brain and consciousness Why do certain systems like brains have it while other systems such as the liver do not appear to have it? Understanding consciousness has medical, ethical, and societal consequences. Medical treatment is given or withdrawn upon the assessment of someone’s state of consciousness. Similarly, legal decisions depend on whether consciousness is attributed to the offender, e.g., was the offense committed under an altered state of consciousness?

References:

Christof Koch, The feeling of life itself: Why consciousness is widespread but cannot be computed

Stanislas Dehaene, Consciousness and the Brain: Deciphering how the brain codes our thoughts


Why Open Science?

Open science refers to practices in which all aspects of the research process are open to the general public: from idea generation, to protocol development, to research data, to code for analysis, to publication, including open peer review. The rationale behind open science is to improve efficiency, creativity, democratization of knowledge and stakeholder empowerment. Scientific knowledge, and especially that funded by taxpayer money, is conceived as a public commodity which is owned by the community at large, and that can and should be used at no cost. Open science implements two out of the 3 R’s principles: reuse and reduce. It enables rational and efficient use of funds, as scientific outputs can be reused to fuel further discoveries. At the same time, it makes research cost effective as knowledge is not lost and efforts do not need to be duplicated. While desirable, there are ethical and technical challenges to this approach. Firstly, concerns over data privacy should not be underestimated and require constant ethical and societal debates as to what we consider useful to share, while not impinging on the liberties and well-being of the research participants. Secondly, current developments in information and communication technologies have enabled sharing of large datasets, including code. Yet, this effort requires a technologically minded researcher with a skill set beyond what is currently taught at universities. Hence, scientific practices are undergoing a transformative process which should be embraced and understood by all the agents involved: researchers, institutions, policy makers, publishers, businesses, and society in general. We believe successful automation of sharing principles and reproducible data organization have educational value, improve research quality and secure sustainable translational drive. If successful, the open science movement will become the new norm, and ‘open science’ will then be simply called ‘science’.

References:

Open science training Handbook

Open science, communal culture, and women’s participation in the movement to improve science


Why Adversarial Collaboration?

Science seeks to find laws that explain natural phenomena – it seeks to understand how and why things are the way they are. To get closer to the truth, scientists device hypotheses and run experiments to test their theories. Typically though, this is an individual endeavor – theories develop in parallel, and predictions are tested within theory, rather than between theories, pitting opposing contradictions against each other. Adversarial collaboration is a practice by which two theories are simultaneously put to the test, in a joint effort of the adversaries of the two theories. The main aim is to adjudicate between the two theories: to know which one explains the studied phenomena better. This practice necessitates identifying contradictory predictions between the theories, i.e., to have a thoughtful disagreement and to devise experiments that can test those contradictory predictions. A prerequisite to engage in this practice is to let go the need to be right and to be open minded about the outcome. As such, adversarial collaboration seeks to work through disagreement in the search for answers. This practice has been popularized by the Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman, but it was already used over 100 years ago by Eddington in an experiment to test predictions of the General Relativity Theory. As a consortium we value diversity, we seek the most thoughtful people who see things differently. We believe that in embracing and respecting diversity, in understanding and disagreeing with others, we will understand what consciousness is and how it fits into the universe.

References:

Mellers, Hertwig, Kahneman (2001)

The Eddington Experiment