Past Workshops

The Beyond Center has a long record of successful, focused, invitation-only workshops exploring the cutting edges of science and philosophy.  Participants forego the normal practice of simply reporting on their current research and really drill down into the conceptual foundations of their subject matter. Are we thinking about this or that problem the wrong way? What hidden assumptions underlie the conventional approach that might be challenged? What is the main sticking point when a specific problem is declared intractable?  These workshops involve a wide-ranging discussion in an informal round-table interdisciplinary atmosphere and are designed to be inclusive, lively and interactive. The goal is to concentrate on deep conceptual and foundational themes and to facilitate new collaborations and identify specific experimental and theoretical projects that significantly advance our understanding of the subject.

  • Other Minds Workshop - April 4-5th, 2024
    The focus of the meeting will be on the nature of mind as it manifests in animal cognition, as it might manifest in technology and the possibilities for alien minds. An obvious observational feature of the world to any of us is the existence of our own minds, as we consciously experience the world around us. However, objectively studying minds from the outside has proven difficult – there is no consensus on whether the subjective nature of our conscious experience is measurable from the outside, and if so, what the relevant observables must be. In light of the challenges of building testable theories for human subjects, the challenge of extending a concept of mind to animals and other organisms or intelligent technologies seems even more significant. Even further away seems a generalizable theory that could apply to minds not yet encountered – for example, the kind we might contact if searches for extraterrestrial intelligences are one day successful. This workshop aims to bring leading thinkers together across a broad range of topics from neuroscience, to animal cognition, collectives, artificial intelligence, theoretical physics, and philosophy to contrast diverse approaches tackling different aspects of the problem across candidate biological, technological or alien examples.

  • Mathematics: Evolved or Eternal - November 13-14th, 2023
    The focus of the meeting will be on the deep relationships between mathematics and reality. Currently, mathematics is the most powerful language we have for describing the natural world. But why does math work so well? Was math invented or discovered? Traditionally these questions have been considered from the perspective of math as a property of the physical world, e.g., from the perspective of mathematical physics or the study of pure mathematics. However, one could take an alternative perspective that math is itself an outcome of the evolution of intelligence on Earth and treat it as a problem in the study of life and mind. Evolution builds minds as well as bodies, and in the case of one species at least, terrestrial evolution has produced sentient beings with sufficient mathematical ability to unravel some of the most profound secrets of nature. Was this outcome simply a happy accident, or the product of a deep linkage between abstract descriptions of nature and evolutionary pathways? Could we then ask whether there is a new physics that might describe mathematics itself as a physical system? This perspective raises new questions about the relationship between our minds, mathematics, and reality.

  • Do Plants Compute? - April 26-28th, 2023
    There has been increasing interest in the ability of plants to monitor their surroundings, communicate within and between species, and respond in optimal ways. This is sometimes described as plant intelligence or even plant cognition. But are these epithets a case of us anthropomorphizing, or do plants really acquire and process information in a manner similar to animals? If so, how and where is the information processed and does it constitute computation in the Turing sense? How can studying plants bring into focus more general issues associated with understanding the role of computation in living matter?
  • Quantum Gravity: Testable or Forever Out of Reach? - February 4-5, 2023
    Quantum gravity has long been a purely theoretical subject. But with new experimental capabilities in hand, the time is right to ask whether the quantum nature of gravity could finally be within experimental reach. Are there specific predictions of the quantization of gravity that are experimentally testable? In this workshop, a small gathering of theorists and experimentalists will meet to discuss this important question.
  • Infinite Turtles or Ground Truth? - May 2-4, 2022
    The focus of the meeting was on the nature of reality and explanation in science. Is physical existence rooted in an ultimate ground, and if so, what? Such discussions often allude to the famous ‘tower of turtles’ metaphor, in which each entity or concept in a chain of explanation demands a more basic entity, and so on ad infinitum. Alternatively, if existence is grounded in a ‘bottom level,’ what is it, and what would be the justification for that level? It is a conundrum long debated by theologians and philosophers, but it is today thrown into sharp relief among scientists engaging in discussions of final theories, complete unification, multiverse cosmological models, observorship in quantum mechanics and the role of mathematics in describing the world.

  • Uncovering the Laws of Life - October 11-13 2021
    The focus of this meeting was on identifying what new fundamental physics might be lurking in living matter. The central theme to be addressed is what are the most promising theoretical ideas and how can we map those to experiments? Although our Center’s main research interest in this area concerns the transition from the non-living to the living state, the workshop will have a broader theme, encompassing foundational topics.

  • Living in the Pandemic Age: Designing effective strategies in light of lessons learned from
    Covid 19 – September 7-8, 2021

    A follow-on to the previous successful Covid workshop. Since then, much progress was made in modelling the disease, particularly in respect of mitigation and management strategies. This workshop was held to review progress and identify lessons learned.

  • Beyond Laws – May 10-13, 2021
    Physical science as we normally practice it is usually based on the notion of fixed laws and evolving states, typified by initial value problems and second order differential equations. Although this conceptual framework is powerful, and has been exported to fields as diverse as economics and ecology, it has inherent limitations, and it may even fail for certain important problems, for example in cosmology or in describing the nature of life. The question then arises of whether alternative conceptual schemes might be worth exploring. Are there other ways of organizing facts about nature that might provide new insights or lead to discoveries unlikely to emerge from the traditional framework?

  • Emergent Spacetime and Gravitation – November 5-6, 2020
    The meeting addressed the question of whether spacetime might emerge from some more fundamental substructure, such as pre-geometry, networks, graphs or discrete units. Several different approaches were discussed and their limitations investigated.

  • Beyond COVID-19: modeling sustainable exit strategies – May 28-29, 2020
    The coronavirus pandemic emphasized the significance of good theoretical modeling. So far, most attention has been given to analyses of measures designed to ‘flatten the curve.’ Although this is of obvious short-term importance, many medium and long term issues
    remain. Exit strategies from sweeping public health measures need to be devised that avoid a sudden resurgence or a series of stop-go lockdowns. Countries that eliminated the virus but were quarantined needed to re-connect with the rest of the world. COVID-19 may remain an ongoing threat for years or may even become a perennial problem like influenza. New pandemics will undoubtedly arise in the future.

  • Panspermia – January 24, 2020
    The purpose of the meeting is to rigorously re-examine the scientific case for natural panspermia, and also to assess panspermia as a vehicle for encoding and disseminating messages around the universe.

  • Workshop on Cancer and Embryo Development – January 17-18, 2020
    Meeting on the role of oncogenes in development and the deep evolutionary roots of cancer.

  • Physics of Living Matter – March 21-22, 2019
    The focus of this meeting was on understanding how meaningful information emerges from meaningless bits. The central questions addressed were whether meaning can be quantified and if so, how it might inform our understanding of the emergence of living organisms as meaning-making and interpreting systems.

  • Quantum Gravity: Back to Basics? – February 17-18, 2019
    The aim of the workshop was to identify, through focused discussions, what we have learned about the quantum nature of space, time, and gravity, and how we can proceed to obtain further insights.

  • Quantum Criticality and the Secret Electric Life of Cells – November 5-7, 2018

  • Tracing the Deep Evolutionary Roots of Cancer – April 23-25, 2018

  • Biological Complexity: Can It Be Quantified? - February 1 – 3, 2017

  • Information and non-equilibrium thermodynamics – April 18-20, 2017

  • Power of Information – March 21-23, 2016

  • Nature as Computation – May 4-6, 2015

  • Information, Causality and the Origin of Life – September 30-October 2, 2014

  • Information, Complexity & Life - February 24 - 25, 2014

  • Workshop on Complex Systems Theory and Cancer Biology – February 22-23, 2014

  • Engines of Life: Thermodynamic Pathways to Metabolism – May 6-8, 2013

  • Is Energy Positive? – January 26-27, 2013

  • The Nature and Origin of Biological Information – May 10-11, 2011

  • Why Quantum Mechanics? – December 12-13, 2011

  • Homochirality in biology – May 6-8, 2010

  • Cancer Forum – February 10-12, 2010

  • Evolution of Complexity – December 10-12, 2010

  • Open Questions of Gravity – January 17-20, 2009

  • The Nature of the Laws of Physics – December 15-17, 2008