What examples of attempts to formalize a principled physical basis for consciousness and/or a general theory of the mind exist?

I read a fascinating ArXiV preprint last year called Consciousness as a State of Matter. In this paper, physicist Max Tegmark proposed a formalization of consciousness in terms of a distinctive state of matter he termed perceptronium. Tegmark concludes that we may identify conscious systems by use of six principles, which he bases on Tononi's integrated information framework (Tononi, 2008), which I provide primarily for illustration:

  1. Information: A conscious system has substantial information storage capacity.
  2. Dynamics: A conscious system has substantial information processing capacity.
  3. Independence: A conscious system has substantial independence from the rest of the world.
  4. Integration: A conscious system cannot consist of nearly independent parts.
  5. Autonomy: A conscious system has substantial dynamics and independence.
  6. Utility: An evolved conscious system records mainly information that is useful for it.

(More accessible introductions may be found here and here.)

Formalizing consciousness and the mind?

Tegmark's theory is prototypical of a number of recent jabs at a viable, general theory of the mind defined as what we might call the physical system which causes behavior that I am very excited about. I am also familiar with the somewhat related How Can the Human Mind Occur in the Physical Universe? (Anderson, 2007) as well as the general field of ecological psychology and radical embodied cognitive psychology, e.g. Chemero (2009). Because the content theory behind all of these are so qualitatively different, I would say the common denominator is more methodological and scope-related than strictly empirical, however.

Specifically, these jabs appear to represent a move away from the near-universal dependence on linear models and non-overlapping research scopes, and towards more unifying theories of mind, cognition and behavior. I have some limited awareness of strictly methodological articles such as this recent Psych Methods article which proposes topology as a general tool for the purpose (Butner et al., 2014).

I find that these theories and methodologies, while often flawed in obvious ways (though not necessarily more-so than any others are), raise difficult questions that traditional theories and methodologies do not seem to allow for (Butner et al., 2014 discusses this in some detail). I would be very interested to know more about both general theories and methodologies similar to what I have referenced here, which I hope is sufficient to clarify this complex question.

Formal generalizations allow us to see our fields' otherwise isolated findings in a wider perspective, and allow us to identify the forest we may otherwise miss for the trees. For example, an extremely interesting question raised by Tegmark's formalization is the following quote from the the Medium article:

Tegmark points out that any information stored in a special network known as a Hopfield neural net [a type of neural network which Tegmark deems to satisfy his principles] automatically has this error-correcting facility. However, he calculates that a Hopfield net about the size of the human brain with 10^11 neurons, can only store 37 bits of integrated information.

I think this is a difficult problem for Tononi's content theory to solve in other ways than by claiming Tegmark is somehow not fairly representing the theory, and this line of reasoning potentially has serious implications for all information-based theories. It is often asserted that the brain has incredible computational power ... but we rarely formalize our understanding of what this means. What if we have it all wrong, and it's simply physically and/or mathematically impossible for such a computational system to exist?


What examples of attempts to formalize a principled physical basis for consciousness and/or a general theory of the mind exist?

(Please don't feel discouraged from giving answers based on anything I have referenced. I would not say the information I have provided for anything besides Tegmark's theory constitutes a remotely sufficient answer, so they are fair game.)

Related questions


  • Anderson, J. R. (2007). How can the mind exist in a physical universe.
  • Butner, J. E., Gagnon, K. T., Geuss, M. N., Lessard, D. A., & Story, T. N. (2014). Utilizing Topology to Generate and Test Theories of Change.
  • Chemero, A. (2009). Radical embodied cognitive science. Cambridge, MA: MIT press.
  • Tegmark, M. (2014). Consciousness as a State of Matter. arXiv preprint arXiv:1401.1219.
  • Tononi, G. (2008). Consciousness as integrated information: a provisional manifesto. The Biological Bulletin, 215(3), 216-242.

1 Answer 1


Note: This is not intended to set a verbosity standard for answers, but to give a comprehensive example of what kind of information I am looking in order to further clarify the question. An answer including only a parallel of the principles of ecological psychology subsection would be sufficient, for example.

Ecological psychology

Ecological Psychology (EP) is an extended cognition theory of the mind which draws on and massively extends Gibsonian ideas of direct perception into a full theory of behavior. EP rejects both representationalism and the idea that behavior is organized because some other entity (such as the brain) is organized, in favor of the idea that the cause of behavior is an organized physical system unto itself, called the mind. It therefore rejects that an organism can be described meaningfully in isolation from its environment. Instead, behavior, intelligence and consciousness are theorized to emerge from observable physical dynamics and interactions (Turvey and Carello, 2012).

The rules that govern behavior are not like laws enforced by an authority or decisions made by a commander: behavior is regular without being regulated. The question is how this can be. — James J. Gibson, The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception (1979/1986).

An ecological ontology

Ecological psychology proposes that the meaningful scale of analysis for behavior is not the organism, but the organism-environment system. These systems comprise agents (goal-directed autopoietic systems), affordances (opportunities for action), effectivities (action capabilities) and a niche (the set of affordances). Behavior emerges from dynamical organism-environment interactions, which are called perception-action cycles. An illustrative example from the literature is the matter of explaining the outfielder problem, i.e., of catching a ball in the air (Fink, Foo and Warren, 2009).

Principles of ecological psychology

Richardson, Shockley, Fajen, Riley and Turvey (2008, see chapter 9) proposed six influential principles of ecological psychology, which I will cover here, but two special issues of the journal Ecological Psychology also dealt with the search for physical intelligence from first principles in depth (first and second special issue) if you want more information.

  1. Organism–environment systems are the proper units of behavioral analysis.
    • Organisms cannot exist without an environment or vice versa; one term implies the other. Attempts to understand an organism or an environment as separate from the other are therefore meaningless.
  2. Environmental realities should be defined at the ecological scale.
    • A theory of behavior entails a theory of environments. Substances, surfaces, places, objects, and events define the environment for ecological psychology, and therefore define opportunities for action.
  3. Behavior is emergent and self-organized.
    • The mind is a lawfully nonlinear system which exhibits macroscopic emergent properties that do not reduce to local interactions between components.
  4. Perception and action are continuous and cyclic.
    • Perception entails action and action entails perception. The perception-action cycle is understood as a continuous relation between the flow of an information array and the forces an organism produces as it acts.
  5. Information is specificational.
    • Perception is direct rather than approximated or mediated by inferential processes. Understanding behavior will require going O-E system by O-E system, task by task, and empirically identifying the relevant specificational information—unique 1:1 correspondences in those O-E systems.
  6. Perception is of affordances.
    • The distinction between conception and perception is false. Knowing is a relation between organism and environment, and affordances are perceived by identifying lawful information that invariantly specifies capabilities of a particular agent in relation to features of a particular environment state.

Concluding remarks

Ecological psychology is a unique way to conceive of the mind, or perhaps it just seems that way to me subjectively because my background is predominantly cognitive. It fascinates me that their principles have drawn ecological psychologists in a completely different direction compared to cognitive psychologists, tending to focus on movement and locomotion rather than starting with memory and reasoning.

EP is a theory that I urge every cognitive scientist should familiarize themselves with, not so much because I think it's going to replace cognitive theory any time soon, but because it's truly a fundamentally different way to conceptualize behavior. It raises many important questions that are not often considered in the study of behavior, and gave me cause to critically consider some of my assumptions about the mind I did not realize I held.


  • Fink, P. W., Foo, P. S., & Warren, W. H. (2009). Catching fly balls in virtual reality: A critical test of the outfielder problem. Journal of Vision, 9(13), 14.
  • Gibson, J. J. (1986). The ecological approach to visual perception. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum. (Original work published 1979)
  • Richardson, M. J., Shockley, K., Fajen, B. R., Riley, M. A., & Turvey, M. T. (2008). Ecological psychology: Six principles for an embodied–embedded approach to behavior. Handbook of cognitive science: An embodied approach, 161-187.
  • Turvey, M. T., & Carello, C. (2012). On intelligence from first principles: Guidelines for inquiry into the hypothesis of physical intelligence (PI). Ecological Psychology, 24(1), 3-32.
  • $\begingroup$ Does EP weigh in on consciousness? (I'm a bit confused about the scope of the question. I thought the original question was about theories of consciousness). $\endgroup$
    – Josh
    Apr 30, 2015 at 14:06
  • $\begingroup$ @Josh (1) "What examples of attempts to formalize a principled physical basis for consciousness and/or a general theory of the mind exist?" -- I mainly changed the question title for aesthetic reasons, because I thought "Consciousness and the mind as a state of matter or physical system" rolled awkwardly off the tongue. $\endgroup$ Apr 30, 2015 at 14:22
  • $\begingroup$ @Josh (2) EP is a general theory of behavior and weighs in on everything, but they don't have 'room' for distinct systems in the sense Fodor's ontology does. I believe the question as now written leaves better room for every approach. $\endgroup$ Apr 30, 2015 at 14:24
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ I'd be curious to see a treatment of consciousness from a EP perspective. $\endgroup$
    – Josh
    Apr 30, 2015 at 18:45
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @Josh I would recommend chapter 9 of Anthony Chemero's Radical Embodied Cognitive Science (2009). $\endgroup$ Apr 30, 2015 at 19:00

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