Philosophers divide the problem of consciousness into two parts: An easy part, which involves explaining how one can become aware of something in the sense of being able to make use of it in one’s rational behaviour. And a hard part, which involves explaining why certain types of brain activity should actually give rise to feels: for example the feel of “red” or of “onion flavor”. The “hard” part is considered hard because there seems logically no way physical mechanisms in the brain could generate such experiences.The sensorimotor theory (ORegan, 2011) has an answer to the “hard” problem. The idea is that feel is a way of interacting with the environment. The laws describing such interactions, called sensorimotor contingencies, determine the quality of how a feel is experienced. For example, they determine whether someone experiences a feel as being real or imagined, as being visual or tactile, and how a feel compares to other feels. The sensorimotor theory provides a unifying framework for an understanding of consciousness, but it needs a firmer conceptual and mathematical basis and additional scientific testing.
To do this, a first, theoretical goal of the FEEL project is to provide a mathematical basis for the concept of sensorimotor contingency, and to clarify and consolidate its conceptual foundations. A second goal is to empirically test scientific implications of the theory in specific, promising areas: namely, color psychophysics, sensory substitution, child development and developmental robotics. The expected outcome is a fully-fledged theory of feel, from elementary feels like “red” to more abstract feels like the feel of sensory modalities, the notions of body and object. Applications are anticipated in color science, the design of sensory prostheses, improving the “presence” of virtual reality and gaming, and in understanding how infants and possibly robots come to have sensory experiences.