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Life has a unique ability to be shaped by the past, anticipate the future, and to respond to what may happen next. A simple example is a bacterial cell swimming up a gradient to reach food. Life also exhibits the capacity to model its environment more abstractly and/or itself: for example, in the goal-directed process of embryogenesis. But, how can possible futures causally influence the present? This question underlies some of the most important challenges in arriving at a theory of physics that can accommodate life. It speaks to the fact that life, while not eluding the known laws of physics to date, nonetheless seems to obey a radically different causal narrative. Our project will illuminate this new physics.
(a) Core themes: We will build a new theory of goal-directedness in physics, manifested in chemistry, that addresses how it is that agents can construct themselves from mindless matter.
(b) Need: We do not know how we came to be, nor do we understand how purpose is built into the fabric of reality. The theory we propose will shed light on our place in the cosmic story, and elevate each of us as unique causes in the unfolding story of our universe.
(c) Big questions: What is life? How do agency and purpose emerge from mindless matter? What forces drive the increase in complexity of life over time?
(d) Activities: We will develop a new theory, models and experiments explaining agency and goal-directedness as an intrinsic drive in the universe to explore what is possible.
(e) Deliverables: A new theory for what life is, that includes an explanation for teleology and purposefulness as fundamental features of reality. An experimentally validated ‘Turing Test’ for Goal-Directedness, allowing identifying goal-directed behaviors in Nature.
(f) Impact: A transformation in our understanding of life, with profound ramifications for theoretical physics, how we view ourselves and our place in the universe, and how we search for other systems like us.