YHouse Research

The main theme of YHouse research is the study of the origins and nature of awareness.  Awareness is an umbrella term that includes consciousness, cognition, intelligence, and similar terms that have more specific meaning in particular academic fields, and sometimes rather different meanings in different fields.

Consciousness is clearly correlated with brain states, but is it produced by brains?  If so, it's very different from the way an organ like the liver produces a compound like bile.  What does it actually mean to use the word production to talk about consciousness?  It can be easy to fall into the trap of thinking about consciousness as a kind of subtle substance.

Cognition is a term that covers more than consciousness, applying to unconscious processes that lead to knowledge.  But it is also less complete in other ways; typically studying consciousness from the outside, from a third-person view, leaving out the perspective of first-person direct experience.

Intelligence is often seen as highly successful logical inference, as in the term artificial intelligence, thereby excluding notions such as emotional intelligence, or street smarts – behaviors that can be associated with intelligence, but in a way that cannot be easily quantified or formalized.

Five Modules

What should a university look like in the 21st Century?  Part of the YHouse mission is to explore that question, to find a better way to do research, and to help grow a brand new generation of thinkers.  At YHouse, modules are not traditional departments, they are low-walled zones of focus, specifically designed to foster abundant interdisciplinary collaboration, coexisting beneath one physical roof.

Individual modules have a strong disciplinary core of three senior researchers carrying out top-level disciplinary work together but also pioneering explorations in novel interdisciplinary directions across modules.  A larger number of early-career researchers and postdocs divide their efforts according to their interests at any given time, either focused within specific modules or linking across few or even many.

In their investigation of awareness, Modules 1, 2, and 3 represent the three main stages of biosphere evolution: from the origins and major transitions of life, to culture, and to technology.  These stages date back, roughly speaking, to four billion, forty thousand, and forty years ago, spanning the first living cell, the first cave paintings, and the first practical applications of artificial intelligence.

Modules 4 and 5 reflect on the similarities and differences between the structures studied in the first three modules, in pursuit of the origins and nature of awareness, as well as the nature of the transitions between those modules.  Module 4 focuses on philosophy, in the widest sense of the word, while module 5 has more directly practical aims; bringing science, philosophy, and wisdom to bear on the major problems currently facing the world.

Module 1 – Nature: origins of cognition

Understanding the origins of cognitive life, from the first single cells, through the development of neurons and the emergence of brains, to the development of human cognition. 

There is a deep interconnection between the phenomenon of life and the phenomenon of mind, but they are most often studied separately and employ very different modes of explanation. Whereas life refers to the biological constitution of organisms and is studied by looking at physical properties of macromolecular interactions, mind refers to the functional relationships between agents and their environment and is studied by looking at patterns of adaptive behavior in different contexts. It remains unclear how to balance these perspectives, and explain how mental processes and decision-making emerges from the chemical reactions that take place within biological agents and their interactions with the environment.

At YHouse, we attempt to bridge the gap between these approaches by studying examples of minimal biological agents, both in the lab and in artificial life simulations, while investigating both their underlying chemistry and their environmental behavior. We ask, what are the necessary conditions for life that still maintain the capacity for adaptive behavior, and how do the underlying processes give rise to this capacity? Computational models of biological systems that demonstrate basic adaptive behaviors will be used to guide an experimental program, and experimental results will inform the further development of computational models. This will draw upon diverse sources such as molecular biology, evolutionary theory, artificial life, complex systems theory, and phenomenology.

Starting with an investigation of the relation between biological processes in individual cells, we are extending the insights gained to multi-cellular organisms, and from there to organisms with nervous systems. Over time, these approaches will cross-fertilize more and more, while we are working toward a more unified framework in which to study the emergence of both life and mind.

Eric Smith talks about the Nature module of YHouse.



Related Projects: 
⇢ Origins of Agency
⇢ Origins of Cognition 
Protocell Evolution
Life as Information
Biosphere Evolution
Origin of Neurons

Module 2 – Culture: emergence of societies

Exploring the way in which intersecting networks shape, and are shaped by, individual actors, within a wider context of publics that allow dynamic switching between networks, thereby facilitating the creation of new categories and identities. 

Some aspects of human awareness can be studied on an individual basis by neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists in their laboratories. They may also study specific interactions between a small number of individuals. But for all of us, our human awareness has a dominant social dimension, simply because we develop in the context of pre-existing social and cognitive networks formed and determined by society, culture, community, and family. And these networks, in turn, are not pregiven, but highly dynamic, with the actors as nodes influencing the networks and the networks shaping the actors.

In addition, networks are dynamically shaped in what can be called publics on various scales, from small gatherings to national and international institutions.  Publics, like niches in biology, can act as catalysts, enabling individuals to switch between networks, using their awareness of choice to create interweaving interactions that act as a cultural extension of the ecological interactions in the biosphere.

At YHouse, we explore all aspects of the dynamics that are at play within the social dimensions of awareness. We investigate the mutually interdependent development of individual and collective forms of awareness with an eye toward facilitating more inclusive and democratic cultures of civility in the age of globalization.

Eiko Ikegami talks about the Culture module of YHouse.

Module 3 – Technology: future of humanity

In awe of the vast range of near-future potential developments in artificial intelligence, machine learning, and robotics, we explore how technology can develop its own life and culture, as a third cognitive sphere beyond the biosphere and the sphere of human culture.

The mind-body problem has been studied for thousands of years.  And even though scientific understanding of the human body has progressed rapidly in the last century, a detailed understanding of the workings of the human brain is only now beginning to emerge.  In parallel with these developments, stunning progress in artificial intelligence, in particular in machine learning, forces us to enlarge the puzzle.  We are now facing a body-mind-machine problem.

Even though there is much speculation about future developments, from the question of whether machines can ever become conscious, to the promise of finding ways to "upload" our own consciousness onto a machine, sober reflection shows that there are still important steps that need to be taken before we can address such speculations, even on the level of determining whether they are well posed or not.

We have no idea yet how much time it will take to find out which steps are necessary.  Researchers at YHouse are critically following these developments, partaking in them while also developing more inclusive ways of viewing the connections between progress in technology and philosophical and practical considerations.  In dialogues with experts in the other four modules, our aim is to develop new voices in the burgeoning dialogues about the future of AI and neuroscience, in the widest possible human and cultural contexts.

Brian Cantwell Smith talks about the Technology module of YHouse.

Module 4 – Reflection: philosophy

Philosophy, in its original meaning of love of wisdom, far exceeds the typical range of debate offered in academic philosophy departments.

While the first three modules focus on the origin and nature of awareness within the context of nature, culture, and technology, occurring in a timeline from past to present to future, the next two modules take a more meta stance, focusing on reflection and action.

The fourth module reflects on the evolutionary developments of novelty studied in the first three modules, as well as the problems that have occurred during the transitions between natural, cultural and technological evolution.  The philosophical reflection employed here uses inspiration from European and Asian, as well as other sources, recent as well as ancient, analytical as well as contemplative.

It is an open question to what extent this approach to philosophy can lead to a view of human wisdom that is more universal than the current approaches to philosophy in terms of largely separate schools and cultures.  For example, will it be fruitful to experiment with elements of the scientific method in exploring the creation of an "experiential science", perhaps starting with a more phenomenological approach? 

And what about extracting insights from the various ancient Asian traditions that are currently veiled in cultural embeddings that are hard to meaningfully translate into forms that can play a role in modern discussions?  Just like astrology gave birth to astronomy, and alchemy gave rise to chemistry, we might be able to use the insights and experiential data base of phenomena gathered by different traditions over millennia to inform modern developments in cognitive science.

At YHouse, in dialogues between phenomenologists and cognitive scientists from many different disciplines, we explore how phenomenological approaches can make contact with the great progress in neuroscience, artificial intelligence, and many other aspects of studies of cognition.

In addition, we study a variety of traditions. We invite scholars studying these traditions, and also practitioners trained in the same traditions, together with cognitive scientists in a number of different disciplines, to engage in comparative studies and dialogues, leading to systematic investigations and resulting in publications, workshops, and outreach activities.

Steven Tainer talks about the philosophy module of YHouse.

Module 5 – Action: resolving inaction

Investigating ways to transform the mindsets that currently lead to inaction on many scales, in the light of the greatest problems that humanity, and more broadly the biosphere, is currently facing.

No matter how successful YHouse is in finding new ways to investigate the origin and nature of awareness, ultimately the value of such studies lies in their practical application.  Insight and wisdom remain sterile if not utilized: helping guide everything from individual lives to humanity’s multi-generational planetary influence.

YHouse approaches this application of knowledge differently.  Overall our research is not driven by its immediate practical utility, or by shortsighted goals.  Most breakthroughs in science occur through the pursuit of “useless knowledge”.  Curiosity-driven pure science opens the door for new avenues into applied science.  In that spirit, the first four YHouse modules are vigorously pursuing knowledge for its own sake; effectively exploring the rise of novelty in the specific areas of nature, culture, technology -- as well as from a more reflective, meta, perspective.

The work of our fifth module, too, is knowledge-driven, but focuses on applications of all the insights gained in the first four modules in an attempt to answer the central question now facing humanity: why, with all of our accumulated scientific, technical, social, political and economic knowledge, are we not able to make more progress toward a more responsible way of dealing with the ecological challenges of our planet?

We are exploring how to adjust the mindsets that we currently operate with.  These mindsets are inherited from age-old biological and cultural roots, and are evolving further because of rapid technological developments.  It is these mindsets that present the largest obstacles to a responsible use of humanity’s still accumulating knowledge.

The fifth YHouse module is devoted to resolving the problem of inaction, caused by outdated ways of using our awareness.  While not advocating any particular course of action, by addressing inaction we are identifying ways that action can be achieved in critical areas: from living habits to planetary resources, governance, education, and our integration with technology.