Creatures that see reality as it truly is…go extinct.

That’s the provocative result of research done by Donald Hoffman, Professor of Cognitive Science at the University of California, Irvine (check him out here). In 2015, I discovered Hoffman’s work through his TED talk (now viewed over 2.2 million times), and it felt intuitively correct to me: we evolved to see the world through symbols that HIDE reality (cuz reality is so complex it would overwhelm and paralyze us). These symbols (akin to computer desktop icons) are instead optimized to help us survive and reproduce. Ok, groovy.

Listen to this interview on iTunes by clicking here.

But why did I reach out to interview him for this audio Incident Report episode? Aren’t we a medical show?

Well, although he theorizes that we don’t see reality as it is (but rather we construct it in our minds), his theory of what reality actually is will blow your mind. And it has deep ramifications for everything from medical therapies to approaching psychiatric disease to building a better EHR(!) to…well, you’re just going to have to listen to find out!

This is a nearly 2 hour discussion, and not for the faint of heart. This is a great example of a conversation I’m personally passionate about (so it may leave others scratching their heads). But for people who stick with it, I promise you may find a lot to ponder. Some in here you will certainly disagree with, and other stuff will open your mind to possibilities that I hope will lead to more thinking, meditating, and deeper investigation.

Full transcript is coming soon and I’ll annotate the sections for easy perusal. We discuss issues like, what is the fundamental currency of reality? Do we live in a simulation like the Matrix? What is the nature of Free Will? How can we solve the problem of how 3 lbs of gooey brain matter somehow creates the subjective taste of chocolate? How can we reconcile the great religious traditions with a unified scientific theory of everything? What is God?

You know, pretty trivial stuff.

Please leave a review on iTunes, and consider becoming a supporter on Facebook (your support makes content like this possible). And we’ll be posting this on Facebook so please leave your thoughts and questions for Dr. Hoffman there…cuz he’s definitely coming back (or private message me on Facebook). SHARE!

Full Show Transcript

– Hey, Z-pac, it’s your boy Dr. Z. Today is a very, very special show. First of all, it’s audio only, so just for podcast listeners. There’ll be a web posting on zdoggmd.com with links, information, and a full transcript when we get it back, so you can read through the parts and skip to the parts that you’re really interested in. The reason we’re doing it podcast only is it’s gonna be almost a two-hour discussion. And the reason we went in that degree of depth is this is a discussion that I’ve been wanting to have forever, since 2015 when I first saw this guest’s Ted Med Talk, or sorry, Ted Talk about the nature of reality and how evolution may have hid the true nature of reality from us.

There is so much to unpack in this podcast. It gets very heavy, very deep, very philosophical, very scientific. It can be hard to keep up, but bear with it because it’s worth it. Why?

Because for medicine in particular, understanding that reality itself may simply be a construction that we make that’s evolutionarily constructed to help us reproduce and not really representing the true nature of reality. By digging in deeper and figuring out what that nature is, we might be able to really have massive advances in managing everything from depression, other mental illness, cancer, to understanding the mind-body connection and the placebo effect. There’s a million things that we can get out of truly digging into what our next guest is working on.

(The other thing I want to tell you guys is you can support this podcast by going to patreon.com/zdoggmd and contributing there. You get perks in exchange; you can get t-shirts, you can get access to early content. A new way to do this is through Facebook, so if you go to facebook.com/zdoggmd and you click the become a supporter button, for 4.99 a month, you get access to live video conversations with me that I do almost every night and this small tribe of people that support the show get to discuss with me the direction of the show, get uncensored takes on episodes we’ve done, so what I would really say if I wasn’t worried that I was gonna get killed by saying it, as well as helping us to better improve the content we put on the main page as well as getting coupon codes for the store and early releases of videos that no one else can see. So it’s a great way to help us grow this movement and also to get a lot in return for yourself in terms of content and interaction with us.)

So, that being said, our guest today is Professor Donald Hoffman. He is a professor of cognitive science at the University of California, Irvine and he has joint appointments in the department of philosophy, department of logic and philosophy of science, and the School of Computer Science. This guy is a major nerd, you guys, and a lovely human being. He studies consciousness and visual perception, in particular, and evolutionary psychology, so how evolution led us to our perceptions of the world. But he’s gone even deeper than that using mathematical models and psychophysical experiments and simulations to actually explain what might be a theory that explains the true nature of reality, and when you hear it your jaw will drop. You may disagree, you may get angry, you may not keep up, you may not understand it. I had all these struggles myself, but stick with it because it’s worth it because in the end, these are the deepest questions we as humans are asking. And whether you’re a meditator, whether you’re spiritual, whether you’re religious, whether you’re an atheist, I promise you, you will get something out of this if you stick it through. So kinda sit back and absorb what he’s saying and in our web post at zdoggmd.com, we will put links, we’ll put a full transcript of this if you prefer to read it rather than listening to it, and more links to Dr. Hoffman’s stuff, and in our comments on the Facebook post, you can leave questions for when we get him back because I want to have another conversation because even in two hours we barely scratch the surface. Let’s just get into it. I humbly present and I’m honored that he would come on our podcast, Professor Don Hoffman. So let’s just dive right in. I think a lot of my audience, we’re mostly medical people, activists, patients, people who care about healthcare. Why did you get into studying perception, cognitive, quantitative psychology, and the mind-body problem? In other words, how do we generate awareness from a lump of gray matter in our brain?

[Prof. Hoffman is in BOLD]

– Yes, I was interested in this issue even as a teenager. I was very interested in the question of whether we’re machines or not. I was raised in a religious background. My dad was a Protestant fundamentalist minister, and so I got one story on Sundays and then in my scientific studies, there was the other kind of story, which suggested that physicalism is true and we’re just computational devices, and so I was very interested to understand for myself what we are. Are we machines? Or is there something more to us or not? I went to UCLA and took a class there where we studied the visual neurophysiology of the brain, and I was stunned by what we learned about how neurons have different kinds of receptive fields, that they can see edges and points of light, and bars and motion and so forth. That seemed to suggest a reductionist kind of view where the brain is just a machine that’s creating our perceptions bottom up. So, I wanted to study that further, and I then discovered the work of David Marr, who was a professor at MIT in the artificial intelligence lab and what’s now the brain and cognitive science department. So I went to MIT for my graduate work to study with him. The idea all along was to really understand what can machines do, what can artificial intelligence do? Are there any limits and could I understand what it is that we are? Are we just machines? Are we neural machines? Or is there something more to us? So that was sort of the motivation and the idea was to really study it thoroughly so that I could come to an informed scientific kind of a conclusion. So that was sort of the motivation behind it. What kind of creatures are we?

– This to me is an interesting thing because for me it was a similar path. I’m a very science-minded, innately kind of reductionist character because of my conditioning through medical school, molecular biology at Berkeley, that kind of thing. But then the empirical experience of being me, whether it’s just walking through the day or meditation, or whether it’s a psychedelic drug experience in college, you have this experience where you realize how can I derive this sense of the taste of chocolate or what it feels like to have abdominal pain from these neurons that are firing electrons and synapses and neurotransmitters. So what was interesting about your work to me was that you were combining the sort of scientific approach, the mathematical approach, with these bigger, deeper questions and going across disciplines. By the way, I want to ask you something before I forget. You said you got interested in are we machines and your father was a minister and so you had this sort of schizophrenic upbringing between science and reductionism and more spiritual transcendence, the sort of imminent and the transcendent. Was there anything else that prompted you? Did you ever experiment with psychedelics? Did you have meditative experiences? Was there any mystical experience you had that made you pursue this?

– Yeah, it’s interesting, I didn’t. It was, for me, of course very personal because I’m a human being, I’m trying to figure out what kind of creature I am, but I didn’t have any psychedelic experiences. Being raised in that Protestant fundamentalist background, it was very, very strict about what you did. I toed the line there as a teenager and so forth, but I didn’t toe the line intellectually. I wasn’t happy with being told not to ask questions, and so I wanted to go beyond just statements of faith and understand for myself. And I didn’t have any meditative practice at the time. I have now practiced meditation for the last 16 years, pretty much every day for the last 16 years, but not back then, so for me it was really just things didn’t make sense and I was trying to put the pieces together in a coherent, rational, scientific approach.

– In some way, it sounds like you were using a scientific approach to discover the nature of the transcendent or what it is in us that makes us feel like we have spirit or some animating something that isn’t reducible to physical matter.

– That’s right and, of course, the attitude within the Christian church is that there’s something beyond the physical stuff. I got that from them and I understood their point of view, but when I tried to push on that and get something rigorous, I never could get anything rigorous out of it. So as far as I could tell, it was just a fairy tale. If there’s no experimental beef behind it, it’s just a fairy tale. I really wanted to push on it. As a human being, of course, I feel like there is something special about us, but as a scientist I know that we can be self-deceived, so we have to be very, very careful to not just assume that what we believe is true because it feels good or it feels like we’ve just known that all our lives. I’ve discovered that a lot of what I believed is false or not quite the way I thought it was. One thing we learn in science, as you well know, is to be very, very careful, to test our hypotheses, to be very, very careful and precise in what we’re trying to say. That’s the direction I was going, was to go beyond hand-waves and try to really understand this. By the way, hand-waves on both sides, not just on the religious side but also on the scientific side because when I started looking at the theories that scientists were proposing about consciousness and how brain activity could cause or create consciousness, I didn’t see anything there that was impressive to me either. I didn’t see really clean theories that started with neural activity and, without any magic, gave rise to consciousness. What I saw every time I looked at these theories very, very carefully was that right at the point where the neural activity somehow creates my feeling of excitement or the taste of chocolate or the smell of garlic, right at that point a miracle occurs in the theory, and that’s not fair.

– Yeah

– There are miracles in every theory in the sense that every scientific theory makes certain hypotheses up front. These are the assumptions that you just are asked to grant up front, and then if you grant those, then the scientific theory says, well, given those hypotheses, we can now explain this range of phenomena. So that’s fair enough. I mean, no scientific theory explains everything. You always have to assume something. And the things that you assume are, for the purposes of your theory, they’re the magic. They’re what you’re not trying to explain.

– So, the constants of the universe, the speed of light, those kind of things are assumptions.

– That’s right. If you’re a physicalist, for example, you might say grant me space and time, and grant me quantum fields and if you grant me that, or grant me the Big Bang. If you grant me that, then I’ll explain the evolution of chemistry and biology and so forth, I’ll explain that. Or, if you’re a string theorist, you might say, or what they call M-theory, they might say, well, you don’t have to grant the Big Bang. Grant me these strings or these branes and I’ll show you that when two branes bang together, we can get a Big Bang. So maybe they don’t assume the Big Bang, but they’re gonna assume something else like the existence of branes. Every theory that explains something is assuming something deeper and that’s the magic for that theory. That’s gonna happen in every theory because no theory can explain everything. But what you don’t want to do is have magic coming up–

– In the middle of the theory.

– Later, exactly right. If you’re going to say that consciousness is real, then if your theory’s going to do that, you have to decide am I going to assume that up front or am I going to actually try to show from a physicalist assumption without consciousness that consciousness arises later on. If you’re going to do the latter, if you’re gonna say that I have only physicalist assumptions in consciousness, my experience of the taste of chocolate emerges from neural activity, well, you need to do that without any magic at that point. It’s just not fair to bring in magic. I’ve not seen any theory that starts with physicalist assumptions and doesn’t bring in magic when consciousness appears.

– Exactly, and that to me has been the fundamental difficulty and maybe we should, let’s back up and define a few things here before we launch into–

– Sure.

– You have sort of two aspects of your work as I see it. You have the perceptual sort of universe as a graphical user interface of the homo sapien evolution. The way we see the universe is symbols, it’s not reality and we’ll talk about that. Then, the second aspect is, well, what is fundamental reality? And that gets to our mind-body question as does the symbol aspect. When we talk about these sort of theories of consciousness, we can talk about monism, where there’s theories that it’s all sort of one thing. So, in other words, physical monism says, and correct me if I’m wrong ’cause I’m an idiot, the atoms, brain, physical matter are all that is real and consciousness magically springs from that in some emergent way that we’re just not smart enough to see yet. Brain’s not smart enough to figure out the brain. That’s a physical sort of world monism. Physicalism.

– Yes.

– Whereas a conscious monism says, no, everything is just consciousness and the physical world springs from that.

– Exactly.

– They’re two different. And then, you have things like panpsychism and dualism or certain aspects of panpsychism that say no, actually, there’s two things. There’s physical stuff and then, there’s transcendent consciousness, and I think a lot of religious beliefs say this. There’s the body and the soul, or the mind and the soul, so those are saying, well, there’s independent things and the twain meet, but they’re not reducible to each other.

– Exactly right.

– Is that correct?

– That’s right. There are monists, and you’re right, there are monists who say there’s only one kind of fundamental reality, say, physical reality if you’re a physicalist, and that’s characterized by saying that things like space-time and matter fields or bosonic fields are the fundamental reality and things like our conscious experiences and so forth then have to be explained in terms of a purely physicalist basis, so that’d be one kind of monism. Or, you could go monist the other way, where you say consciousness is fundamental and that person then has to explain how, if you have just consciousness as being fundamental in the universe, how do you get things that look like rocks and atoms and things that seem to be unconscious, so you have that problem to solve. Then, there are dualists of various stripes, and you’re absolutely right. If you’re a dualist and, for example, Descartes was a substance dualist, Rene Descartes. There was physical–

– I think therefore I am.

– Yeah, that’s right. So there’s physical stuff and then there’s this non-physical mental stuff, and then you have to explain both of those, what you mean by the physical stuff, what is it. For Descartes, anything that had extension in space was physical and mental stuff was characterized by being thought-like in its nature. Then, you have to show how these things interact. Descartes thought that they interacted at the pineal gland, although he couldn’t say exactly how they interacted. I mean, that was one of his many miracles in his theory. So, you’re right, these are the, and then there’s panpsychism, which is one of the current theories, and I think many of the panpsychists might want to characterize them as a non-dualist, but I see it as perfectly a dualist kind of theory. There are physical objects, like atoms, and they also have non-physical properties, like units of consciousness, and you have to ask how do you combine the elements of consciousness. So like an electron might have a spin and a charge, and it also has a fundamental unit of consciousness and so does a proton, and when they combine to form a hydrogen atom, then the hydrogen atom has a new kind of consciousness, which is the combination of the consciousness from the electron and the proton. The panpsychist then owes us a theory about the nature of these elementary conscious charges. What is it like to be an electron? What is it experiencing and how does the experience of the hydrogen atom relate to the experiences of the proton and the electron that make it up? Then, panpsychists have to explain when an electron and a proton come together to form a hydrogen atom, there’s something it’s like to be a hydrogen atom. How do the experiences of the electron and the proton combine to create the experience of the hydrogen atom and so forth all the way up to us? Presumably, the conscious experiences that you and I are having are very, very different than the experiential world of an electron or a proton, and so the panpsychist owes us a theory about how conscious experiences combine. That’s an interesting direction, but I think it’s a dualist direction.

– It is dualist in that there is matter, the electron, but that matter has a component almost like a charge of consciousness, and the question is how do those little charges combine to create the consciousness in our mind or even like you said, like a hydrogen atom. I’m gonna tell you this, Don. Helium atoms are total snobbish assholes. You asked what it’s like to be a hydrogen atom. It is not as good as being a helium atom because the more protons the more snotty they get. It’s like the 1%, uranium is like in the 1%.

– But lithium is laid back.

-Lithium is pretty chill, man. I’ve hung out with lithium. We’ve had a good time. Yeah, no, no. So you can see that there’s a little bit of mind warp that goes with assigning consciousness to, say, a proton, but at the same time, there’s a mind warp to trying to figure out how protons and electrons and atoms and neurons in the brain then magically emerge consciousness, and there is magic at every sort of level of these explanations as we talked about. Now the question is, you went and you have sort of two phases to how you talk about this, and the first is looking at matter and the chair and a train and a tiger and going, are those actually what they appear to be? Is reality what it seems? Maybe we can start talking about that and then that’ll help us talk about consciousness and the mind-body problem.

– Yeah, so most of my research has been in the area of perception. I’ve studied visual perception and one of the things I’ve been looking at there is… One reason why most of us are inclined to be physicalists, to think that the fundamental nature of reality is space-time and inanimate matter is because that’s what we see. We believe our perceptual systems. Why do I believe that there’s space and time? Well, that’s the way I see the world. Why do I believe that the moon exists when no one looks? Well, because I see the moon when I look up. It’s not necessarily a logically valid assumption, but it’s a psychologically compelling move that we make, that is I see the world in terms of rocks and space and time and planets and apples and so forth, and so we assume that that’s what really exists in objective reality. And so I began to wonder if that assumption was correct. So, I began to look at perception from the point of view of evolution, and we can ask a very clean question. If our senses evolved and were shaped at least in part by natural selection, what is the probability that natural selection would shape our perceptions to show us objective reality as it is? Now, not all of objective reality, right? No one thinks that we see all of objective reality. My question was what is the probability that natural selection shapes us to see any aspect of objective reality? You might say, well, how in the world could you turn that into a technical question? It turns out that evolution by natural selection can be modeled with clean mathematics. There’s a field called evolutionary game theory, which is ideally designed to study the effects of natural selection. And so with some graduate students, I began to study that. We ran simulations in which we could create arbitrary worlds and we could play god. We could put resources in those worlds, we could create the structure of the worlds as we wished, and then we could place organisms in those worlds, artificial organisms, and we could control what they saw. We could make some of the organisms see all of the reality that we created and others that saw none of the reality and were just tuned to the fitness payoffs in those worlds and we’d have them compete.

– So let me understand that a little better. So, you’ve created this godlike simulator where you create a world and these organisms either are capable of seeing that world as you’ve created it, in other words truth and veracity. This is the world and they perceive it, and I will tell you most physicalists, most healthcare people who’ve studied evolution and science feel like, well, the reason humans are so awesome is that they are perfectly tuned in a better way than most animals to see the world as it actually is and therefore, we have survived and reproduced and had sex and had gotten the best food and the best shelter because we see the world as it is. So your simulator can simulate that way of seeing the world. Or, it can simulate I’m only gonna see the things that will help me survive and things that will prevent me from surviving, so in other words, cut out the noise and just see what matters to my survival, reproduction, getting food, shelter, et cetera.

– Exactly right. You’ve summarized it very, very well. Of course, none of us believe that evolution shaped us to see all of the truth, but that we saw the important parts of the truth. We can’t see the very microscopic, we don’t see electrons, and we don’t see really big stuff and we don’t see black holes and dark matter, but what we do see is, in general, true. That’s the idea, and we can use evolutionary game theory and these simulations to actually check that. I think most of my colleagues who study visual perception and sensory perception more generally had the idea that true perceptions make you more fit. That’s the idea. Truer perceptions, or what they call veridical perceptions, perceptions that tell you the truth about the world. The truer your perceptions are, the more fit you will be. And here’s the intuitive argument that seems compelling. It goes like this, those of our ancestors who saw the world more truly had a competitive advantage compared to those who saw the world less accurately, and so they were more likely to succeed, to out-compete the others, and reproduce, and have offspring that had the genes for seeing the world more truly. So the genes for seeing the truth were more likely to spread. As a result of thousands of generations of that, we can be quite confident that we’re the offspring of those who saw more truly and we, in general, see the truth. Again, not all the truth but some of the truth.

♪ We are the champions my friend ♪

– That’s right.

– We could see exactly what was happening, so that’s the theory. People like Dan Dennett, Richard Dawkins, they both agree that we don’t see reality in its completion. We see as accurate as we can the reality that matters to our survival.

– That’s right and almost all of my colleagues studying perception as a scientific field also believe the same thing, and so I began to question that using evolutionary game theory. And what we found in our simulations first, and then we proved a theorem, is that organisms that see reality as it is are never more fit than organisms of equal complexity that see none of reality and are just tuned to the fitness payoffs.

– Let’s punctuate that. Organisms that see reality as it truly is go extinct.

– They go extinct; that’s right.

– And organisms that see reality in a shorthand hacked way that is advantageous to their survival, in other words, as a series of fitness sort of things. So if I see water, too much water is bad, too little water is bad, just the right amount of water is good. If I see water as it is in terms of absolute amount of water, I go extinct. If I see water in shades of color, where it goes from red, which is bad, to the perfect amount of water, which I see as green, to a very bad amount of water, which I see as purple, and I’m tuned to then evolve to go, I gotta seek out these green ponds, I’m gonna survive.

– That’s right, so you don’t need to see the truth. You just need to see symbols that tell you what to do to stay alive and that’s what… So I had this metaphor of a user interface that, if you’re working on your computer and you have a desktop, right? You have icons on your desktop, and suppose that you’re in a paint program, and you want to paint some image, and you grab the paintbrush icon. Well, no one would think that there’s really a paintbrush inside your computer that looks like the little paintbrush icon that you’re using–

– Wait, what? I was sure that Because I’ve been trying to grab it for years and it’s never come out of the screen.

– That’s right. Those are just a little bit of eye candy that helps you to control the complexity of the computer, all the diodes and resistors and voltages and magnetic fields, all that complexity that you don’t want to actually deal with. You would just like to paint your picture and so, you get this little eye candy, this little paintbrush icon, and it tells you what to do to get done what you want to do. And that’s what evolution has done. It hides the truth. I mean, the whole point of your desktop interface is not to show you the truth of the computer. It’s to hide the truth so you don’t have to deal with the voltages and magnetic fields. Evolution gives us a user interface. Space-time, three-dimensional space and time as you perceive them is just your desktop, so it’s a 3D desktop. And physical objects, like tables and chairs and the moon, are simply icons within your desktop. And just like the paintbrush icon doesn’t resemble anything inside your computer, a rock that you perceive resembles nothing inside the true objective reality, whatever it might be, that rock is just an icon on your desktop. The whole point of the interface is to hide the truth and give you just the kind of perceptual symbols, like paintbrushes and icons, that you need to do what you need to do to control the truth while you’re completely ignorant of the ultimate nature of the truth. We’ve made the mistake that we’ve assumed that evolution shaped us to see the truth when in fact it’s just the opposite. The selection pressures are to hide the truth because the truth is too complicated. We don’t need to know it. All we need is eye candy that guides our behavior, and that’s what we’ve got.

– Okay, first of all, if that description of reality doesn’t give you goosebumps, I don’t know what will because it feels as intuitive, and I’ll tell you why. As a healthcare professional, I’m gonna make an analogy for my fellow tribe of Z-packers. The electronic health record, Don, which kinda went live in the ’90s and has been evolving since then, if you can use the word evolving, is a desktop interface for us to do what we used to do, which is write physical notes about our patients; get data, laboratory stuff, imaging, bring it all into one place, organize it. The way that our desktop works is the opposite of the evolutionary fitness algorithm you’re talking about. The way they built an EHR is to show us everything, to put everything in our face, all the complexity, all the underlying billing codes, all the different labs that you don’t care about, and it shows it to us everyday. And what has happened, Don, is we are going extinct. As a practicing group, we can’t look at you in the eye anymore when you come to see us. We have to look at the screen because it’s dragging so much of our attention. If this were a fitness algorithm in your program, any species that saw this EHR would go extinct. Now, if you designed a graphical user interface for our care that was tailored to your specialty, so in other words, as a urologist say, I only see stuff about the male anatomy and these particular labs and this and it guides me to an answer that’s efficient and quick, I see more patients, I make less errors, more people come to me because I spend time with them, that is evolutionary success. That’s the analogy I would make, so Z-packers who feel like Don is crazy and this makes no sense, we see reality as it is, think about the EHR. Now, extrapolate that to the entire universe. If we saw reality as it was, it would be the equivalent of looking at an epic EHR screen every day while trying to figure out how I reproduce, how I find food, how I build shelter, how I raise my kids. Can’t be done, so what you’re saying is evolution, which is the most powerful force in the universe ’cause it’s had billions of years to work, or millions of hundreds of millions of years, has built us a desktop, which is our perception, the icons we see in the world.

– Exactly right. It’s given us the graphical user interface that’s explicitly evolved to hide the truth because it would take us too long to process the truth and, besides, it’s irrelevant. The nice thing about a good user interface is it lets you control your computer while being ignorant, utterly ignorant about what’s going on inside the computer. You have all the control you need without knowing what’s going on, and that’s exactly what evolution has done for us.

– Wow. And your models have shown this mathematically. So in other words, the little virtual organisms, they thrive if they don’t see everything. They thrive only if they see what matters.

– Yes, that’s right. We did it first with simulations, hundreds of thousands of random worlds. But, of course, someone can say simulations are simulations. Maybe you didn’t get the right range of simulations, and so we now have a theorem. It’s actually under review in a journal right now, but the theorem is correct. Selection pressures are uniformly against seeing reality as it is. An organism that sees reality will go extinct almost surely anytime it competes against an organism of equal complexity that sees none of reality and is tuned to fitness. So it’s not just simulations now, it’s actually a theorem. What we have is a dilemma. We can either hold to evolution by natural selection or we can hold to physicalism, but both aren’t true. It’s just simply not true that space-time is fundamental and that what we call physical objects are the fundamental nature of reality if we evolved and were shaped by natural selection. That’s the point. By the way, this is what we try to do in science. We try to take our best theories and see if we can get them to clash. If we can get them to clash, then we’re very happy because we’re about to learn something new. That’s the whole point is to be very precise in our theories so we can find out where our theories might break and then we get to the next level of a theory. Here we’ve shown that evolution by natural selection is at odds with physicalism.

– And that is a profound statement because, for decades, the thought was evolution is the fundamental manifestation of physicalism. In other words, that atoms combine to form molecules that combine to form DNA, combine to form cell walls over iterations seems, to me, the perfect expression of physicalism, but you’re saying there are no atoms and cell walls and DNA. There are only icons that evolve over time and if you look at your algorithms, the only way they can survive and be successful evolutionarily is if they do not see the fundamental true nature of reality but rather these icons, which are not real in the sense that they are species-specific, they’ve evolved to benefit that species, so there’s a bug in Australia that will have sex with a beer bottle because it looks like its mate because its graphical user interface sees that bottle as a sexy female insect. And it will go to extinction trying to have sex with this bottle because it is consistent with its iconography. It doesn’t see in reality that the bottle is a bottle.

– That’s right. The jewel beetle in the outback of Australia does exactly that. It’s dimpled, glossy, and brown, and it turned out there were these beer bottles that were also dimpled, glossy, and just the right shade of brown to get the male beetles all excited. They literally were on the bottles trying to mate and they had no interest in the real females and the species almost went extinct.

– Oh, my god, you know what? This is like a scientific case of beer goggles. Unbelievable.

– Yeah, that’s right. That’s exactly right, with a real beer bottle.

-Exactly. I know guys that will try to mate with a beer bottle at a certain level of drunkenness, so it’s no surprise that insects do it, too. But, again, this puts a point on the fact that we don’t see reality as it is. We see it as a fitness function and an icon on a desktop, and you’ve said this before, just because you don’t take the trash icon on your desktop literally, in other words, you don’t think it’s a little trash can that you throw documents in, you still take it seriously because it means something that correlates to reality. In other words, if I drag something I’ve been working on for months into the trash and delete it, it is gone and it doesn’t have to be a literal trash can. It’s because I take that icon seriously, just like I would take the icon, the human icon, of a tiger very, very seriously and would run even though I don’t think it’s necessarily that’s what it is. It’s not a tiger, it is an icon that represents some threat in reality to me.

– Exactly right. Evolution has shaped us with perceptual icons and a perceptual system that’s designed to keep us alive long enough to reproduce, so we have to take it quite seriously. If we see a tiger, don’t play with it. If you see a cliff, don’t step off. If you see a train, don’t step in front of it. We have to take our perceptions seriously, but that doesn’t entitle us to take them literally. It’s a logical leap that we make that’s just is wrong. It’s a psychologically compelling idea that because I have to take it seriously, I should therefore also take it literally, but that’s just false, as you mentioned with the trash can icon. We better take that trash can icon seriously, but we don’t take it literally.

– Right, and I’m gonna, ’cause you’ve talked in the past and you’ve given many examples, so for people who don’t believe basically what you’ve said so far, well, this is a computer simulation, that’s BS; or, now, I can still make arguments that reality is seen accurately. There is other evidence that you posit and some of that evidence has to do with our visual cortex and the fact that we have large numbers of neurons in our visual cortex, many more than it would take computationally to just depict reality as it is, but just enough it turns out to create icons and images from inputs in reality, but they are actually constructed. Is that correct?

– That’s right. The standard view in cognitive neuroscience is that the visual system, this is even the physicalist view, that the visual system is actively constructing all the shapes, colors, and motions that we see. The difference, though, is that most of my colleagues think that our constructions of shapes, motions, and colors in the visual system is in the normal case a reconstruction of the true shapes and colors of objects in the world around us. What I’m saying is we should view visual perception as a constructive process, but stop there. It’s not a reconstructive process. It’s a pure construction of the symbols we need to stay alive and those symbols are not reconstructions of a pre-existing world of rocks and tables and chairs.

– So here’s the question. That’s probably a good segue. I mean, I could talk about this topic for hours because it fascinates me in terms of perception, in terms of synesthesia and different brain conditions where people see the world differently. In other words, they taste smells or they feel tactile sensations when they taste something, and those are perceptual iconic changes, in other words, the icons we use to see reality are different in these individuals just like there might be a variant mutant in a population in evolution that is selected against over the years. But, now, maybe that new way of perceiving the world becomes an advantage so that person who can feel tastes is a better chef. And if chefs reproduce really well, then he’s gonna do better. So there’s a lot of evidence that you’re correct that we are not seeing reality as it is. We’re constructing it in a way that allows us to survive.

– That’s right. I think that synesthesia is an interesting example that evolution is not done with us, we’re continuing. About 4% of us have synesthesia of various kinds, there are dozens, scores of kinds of synesthesia, and this suggests that evolution is tinkering with our perceptual systems and seeing what the next model might be. The example you gave of… Well, Michael Watson was a gentlemen who everything that he tasted on his tongue, he felt as a three-dimensional object in space in front of him that he could feel with his hands. So mint, when he tasted mint, he would feel, and it was very compelling, it was as though there really was something in front of him, a tall, cold, smooth column of glass.

– Wow.

– Angostura bitters felt like a basket of ivy and he could feel the leaves, he could feel the tendrils, he could feel the texture of the leaves. What’s interesting here is that he was perceiving three-dimensional objects that he could feel not as a representation of true three-dimensional objects, but as a representation of tastes. This really I think is an important one because most of us have this intuition. When I see a three-dimensional object, like a basket of ivy, that could only be because there really is a basket of ivy in front of me. We now have a clean counter example of a real person, Michael Watson, who tasted angostura bitters and felt this three-dimensional object, a basket of ivy. There are many other examples. Carol Steen, for every sound that she hears, she sees a complex three-dimensional object with a surface texture and color and actually a dynamic motion. So she’s, again, using three-dimensional objects as a data structure for sounds. Michael Watson was using three-dimensional objects in space as a data structure for tastes, and so I’m saying that all of our perceptions of three-dimensional objects, the moon, rocks, tables, and chairs, these are just data structures that we’ve evolved, not to show us the truth. They’re just a convenient data structure to allow us to do what we need to do to stay alive.

– Unbelievable. And I think that is some of the most compelling information because if humans can perceive the world in that way, like you said, there’s no basket of ivy there. Basket of ivy is Michael’s shorthand for angostura bitters, the taste of angostura bitters, and so there is no angostura bitters in and of itself, although, let’s transition now to what then, what the hell if we’re hiding reality, right? And we’re getting into like, this is where Neo comes out and Morpheus says shit and he goes, “Whoa,” because it’s like are we living in the Matrix then? What’s the fundamental reality? Is this a simulation? Is this all mind generated? Is there only me, Don, and you’re an illusion of my mind? Or is there some fundamental reality beyond that that you posit? And this is where I think your theory went from interesting to absolutely absurdly fascinating. Could you tell me what the real nature of reality is that you’re proposing?

– That’s right. So all of us have the belief that we have experiences, right? That I experience a headache, I have emotions, I have tastes and smells and so forth, so we have conscious experiences and we certainly feel like we could be wrong about anything that we believe. But if we’re wrong that we have experiences, then there’s probably nothing that we know. So we have experiences, most of us believe that there’s also a physical objective reality and we’ve been trying to come up with a worldview that puts these two together. And the work that we just discussed indicates that space-time and physical objects are not objective reality. They’re just icons that we’re using, so that gave me pause. I said, so neurons don’t exist when they’re not perceived, so neurons could not be the basis of my conscious experiences.

– So in my brain right now, in my skull, I am assuming neurons exist and they’re firing and my Broca’s area is helping me speak to you and I haven’t had a stroke yet, although, I’m trying hard by eating badly and not exercising enough. And, yet, you’re saying neuron is a symbol–

– Yes, exactly.

– And in my brain right now, I’m not staring at it, so I don’t see the symbol.

– Exactly. A neuron is something, a symbol we create, when we look inside of skulls.

– But then, what is it? What is in there?

– So that’s where then, as scientific theory, I’m proposing something new. I’m going to say if… Maybe I know nothing. Maybe I’m wrong about everything I believe. But if I know anything, I know that I have conscious experiences, so let’s start there. Let’s assume that the ultimate nature of reality is that there are what I call conscious agents and these agents have conscious experiences, like the taste of chocolate, headaches, and so forth. Based on the experiences, they can make decisions about what they want to do and then they have actions that they can take. I’ve published with some colleagues several papers now where we’ve made this a mathematically precise theory. We call it the Theory of Conscious Agents. And the idea is that this mathematically precise notion of a conscious agent captures everything that there is to capture about consciousness and then we make a further assumption. We want a monistic theory. We want the universe that’s monistic, not dualistic. That’s just sort of a scientific taste. It’s Occam’s razor to keep things as simple as possible.

– A unified theory, yeah.

– A unified theory.

– By the way, I shave my back with Occam’s razor. I just thought you should know that.

– Francis Crick, in a meeting I was with him in once, said that many men have slit their throats with Occam’s razor.

– You know what? I wanna back up for a second before we go on. You just said, oh, in a meeting I was in with Francis Crick, so you’re just chillin’ out with Francis Crick. The dude who coded our DNA or stole it from that one person?

– Well, yes. We spent a lot of time together because Francis came to Southern California, I’m in Southern California, and for the last 20 years of his life, he was studying consciousness. There was a group of us. He was down at the Salk Institute in San Diego. I’m at the University of California, Irvine, about a hour north of him, and then there are other universities, like Cal Tech, that are about an hour north of me. So we would all meet once a month at Irvine. It was a secret meeting that we called the Helmholtz Club. And it was secret because Francis was in it and if people knew that Francis was in the room then we would be mobbed and we wouldn’t get anything done. It was a secret meeting every month where we brought together a dozen to two dozen of us and we discussed the neurophysiology of the brain and its relationship to consciousness. That’s what we did for about two decades studying this stuff, so it was a fun group for me to be a part of, the so-called Helmholtz Club.

– Wow! A secret society. This is like something out of a Da Vinci Code type novel.

– Right, but it was secret only because we needed to protect Francis and to get some work done. It was secret for no other reason. It would’ve been fine to have it be open, but as soon as people knew Francis was there, they were trying to get autographs and get their photographs taken and so forth.

– That’s what I would’ve wanted, a selfie with Crick. That would’ve been amazing. So was he as brilliant as everybody says?

– In his eighties he had a better memory, was more creative, and was sharper than I ever was in my twenties. He was stunning. Absolutely stunning.

– Wow. Wow, wow, wow.

– He discovered the genes and he had the best genes.

– Lucky, he just won the lottery.

– Yeah, he really did win the lottery. But he was a gentleman. He always treated me kindly and all the people in the room. Of course, when we had our scientific discussions, it was no-holds-barred.

– Right.

– He would not countenance any foolish logic or bad ideas. He was brutal and we wanted that. I mean, that’s what we’re there for, is to make progress and to have nonsense called for what it is.

– That’s amazing. So, let me, sorry on that tangent. It was just so interesting to me that these super smart people get together and talk about what I think, honestly, and I’m a doctor so I oughta feel differently. I oughta feel like well, no, it should be curing cancer. Understanding consciousness is probably our fundamental most deepest mystery that we need to solve in order to progress. I really think that and it would transcend politics, it would transcend religion, it would transcend science in itself, and incorporate those things into a grand unified theory of all that actually exists, so to me that’s the most important thing. But, again, now I’m just getting spooky. Back to conscious agents. So you devised with your colleagues this theorem of conscious agents. What is a conscious agent? How does that explain a neuron?

– So the idea then is that we propose what we call conscious realism. Conscious realism is the claim that the universe fundamentally consists only of conscious agents, so the universe is not a space-time physical thing. That’s not fundamental. Fundamentally, it’s a vast social network. Think about it as a huge social network, an infinite number of agents interacting, from very, very simple agents that literally have just what we call one bit of experience. They have only two experiences and a small set of two actions, so we call these the one-bit agents. But one-bit agents can combine to form two-bit agents and four-bit agents all the way up to, I don’t know how many bits we are, but complicated agents, and then off to infinity. There could be infinite conscious agents, so there’s this whole dynamics now. The mathematics is complicated because it’s dynamics on graphs. That turns out to be a fairly new mathematical field and it’s very, very hairy so we’re trying… I’ve got a collaborator, Robert Prentner, who’s working on simulating networks of conscious agents. We’re gonna study their properties, but the idea is conscious agents are fundamentalists, this infinite social network, and because each agent only has a finite set of capacities, a finite set of experiences, a finite set of actions it can take. It has to use an interface, a dumbed-down user interface to tame this complexity. So it’s an infinite social network, how can you not get overwhelmed by this infinity when you have only finite resources? You use space-time as your desktop. Space-time is a data compression scheme and physical objects are data structures that you use as a shorthand to guide you in this social network. That’s where physics comes in and what we’re gonna try to show is that we can get all of quantum physics, quantum field theory, and eventually quantum gravity as a data structure, a user interface, that some agents use to navigate this vast social network.

– Ah. Bro, bro, bro. So, okay, all right. And I’ll tell you, this is the part of your theory that actually got me the most interested because I’m gonna try to sum it up a little bit, I mean, for my own sort of monkey mind interface. So what you’re saying is the coin of the realm, in other words, the fundamental structure of reality, is consciousness.

– Yes.

– And that consciousness is actually kind of infinite, and in fact, even the term infinite probably doesn’t make sense because it applies our own space-time construct to something that doesn’t have it. But you’re saying it’s an infinite consciousness that’s subdivided into conscious agents, which have different levels of complexity and combinational sort of power. So you may have a very low-level conscious agent and each of these conscious agents, they’re like a one-bit conscious agent, each of these has certain things it can do. It can perceive experience. It can act in a certain way. In other words, it can do something. It lives in a particular world, which is the world of other conscious agents interacting with it, the big social network that is full of Russian bots that Zuckerberg is gonna try to control. And it’s the interaction of these conscious agents, each of which has experience.

– Yes.

– In other words, there’s something that it’s like to be a conscious agent, each of which sees the world through its own graphical user interface. That is the nature of reality and when we look at a tree, we are seeing a vastly complex network of conscious agents interacting not only with itself, but with what we call space-time, which is itself a series of conscious agents, just a data network that then we perceive and what we see through our hack to survive is green leaves, bark, and roots.

– That’s exactly right. It’s a data compression scheme, a user interface that we use because the network of social interaction of these conscious agents is infinitely complicated and we can’t deal with that. So we have to dumb it down and so we use space-time as our data compression scheme. One way to think about this concretely just to get the idea of it is just look in the mirror. What do you see when you look at yourself in the mirror? All you see is skin, hair, and eyes and the expression on your face. But you know firsthand that what you don’t see, your love of music, your aspirations, your fears, your hopes, your desires, the headache that you’re having, the rich range of all of your conscious experiences, that whole universe of your conscious experiences, you can’t see that in the icon that you’re seeing, just the skin, hair, and eyes. So here’s a case where you know firsthand that what you literally see in space and time, your face, is a portal to a huge realm of conscious experiences that cannot be seen in space and time. What I’m saying is that picture is true of everything that we see. Behind every physical object there… Every physical object is really our dumbed-down user interface symbol. Behind it is a realm of conscious agents. Now, if it–

– Ah Oh, my god.

– Which is different than panpsychism, right?

– Yeah.

– Panpsychism says the rock itself, at least some versions of panpsychism, there are many versions, but I’ll say with electron. Almost every version of panpsychism will say an electron has consciousness. I’m not saying that. I’m saying not that a rock is conscious or an electron is conscious, I’m saying these are just dumbed-down interface symbols that a conscious agent is deploying as a way of representing its interactions with other conscious agents. So it’s not that a rock is conscious or it’s not literally that my own body is conscious because my body itself is just a symbol. It’s just a user interface to this realm of conscious agents and then the mathematically precise goal is to show precisely how space-time and physics comes out of a network of conscious agents and their dynamics. We have to solve the mind-body problem the opposite way of the physicalist. The physicalist says let me start with atoms and neutrons and protons and also neurons, and I will show you how the complex interactions of neurons in these physical objects will give rise somehow to consciousness and no one’s been able to do that. So I’m saying let’s go the other way. We’ll start with consciousness. That’s our miracle, that’s fundamental. What I have to do now to solve the mind-body problem is to show how conscious agents can give rise to space-time and physical objects as user interface symbols and that is a nice technical problem, but there is no magic that’s gonna be required. It’s a hard problem, but it’s not this impossible magic that the other way has.

– Unbelievable and actually strangely intuitively it feels correct, I’m just speaking personally. That feels more correct to me than any other explanation of reality that I’ve heard, which is when I look at this tree, I’m seeing, like you said, a dumbed-down hack, an icon of what is actually a series of conscious agents interacting. And what that conscious agent is experiencing, I will not know because I can’t experience it because I have a separate point of view. In a way, I guess you can say each of these conscious agents is just a point of view of a unified consciousness. Would you say that or is that too spooky?

– That’s right. It comes out of the mathematics that when two agents interact, they do in fact form a new agent and that new agent is just as real as the two agents that are part of what we call its instantiation. Agents combine to instantiate higher-level agents and this can go on ad infinitum. You could have agents that are, conscious agents, that have an infinite set of possible experiences and now we’re getting into the realm of spirituality, which most spiritual traditions would be thinking about infinite consciousnesses, but that is usually not made precise. With the theory of conscious agents, I can state exactly what I mean by an infinite consciousness. So we can actually now, and this is the direction I’d like to go, have a mathematically precise spirituality where we can have theorems and proofs about conscious agents that are infinite. How many of them are there? Is this a monotheistic or a polytheistic kind of thing, for example? Are infinite conscious agents omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent? There are all sorts of questions that now become mathematical theorems, and so I’m very interested in eventually getting a mathematically precise notion of these things and a mathematically precise spirituality. The spiritual issue is about why are we here, what is this all about, what is the meaning of life, what kinds of creatures are we. These are the deepest and most important questions that we ask that are of central important to us personally. Religions have tried to answer these questions for thousands of years, but they haven’t had the benefit of the scientific method of precise mathematical hypotheses and strong empirical tests. And that’s what we now have the chance to do. Instead of having the letters G-O-D that are undefined and that we fight about and kill each other over because we disagree, we can now say I don’t know for sure what’s going on here, but here’s my hypothesis. I have this mathematical definition of conscious agents. Here’s the theorems that apply from that for infinite conscious agents. Now, if you disagree, then what is the mathematical structure or the aspect of this mathematical structure that you disagree with and what precisely would you like to replace it with? In other words, we can now turn some of our deepest questions about who we are into mathematically precise questions that we can then begin to use the tools of mathematics to understand more deeply who we are and address the questions that have been addressed by religion. So I see that we could for the first time in human history actually have a mathematically precise theory of infinite consciousness and therefore of spirituality, and that science and spirituality need not be at odds and they’re not like separate domains. Some of my colleagues think that science addresses one kind of questions and spirituality addresses other questions and they just have separate domains and they don’t interact and I disagree. I think that science just is our best way of trying to understand who we are and what we are and where we are. So we should use the best methods that we have to address these deep spiritual questions. I mean, if we’re going… There is a famous saying that the language of God is silence and all else is poor translation.

– Hmm.

– And that might be true. It might be that in these questions silence is the only deep point of view, but most spiritual traditions have tens of thousands of pages of writings. Tens of thousands of words and so if we’re going to talk about spiritual ideas there’s the question that we have then do we want to speak loosely and have sloppy discussions that are imprecise? Or do we want to be as precise as possible about the issues that matter most to us? Just as a human being, I would like to know what I’m talking about when I talk about spiritual things. And I want to know about them because they’re so important to me. There’s no room for sloppiness here. Let’s be as precise as we can about these spiritual questions. So I think that this theory of conscious agents, although it starts with finite conscious agents, the mathematics makes it clear to me that agents can combine ad infinitum and I will have infinite conscious agents, but I have complete mathematical control. I can analyze ’em, I can study them, and then we can have a scientific dialogue about this, so I’m quite excited about the implications for spirituality.

– Oh, man. I feel like I just went to church and it was a sermon that was amazing, but also combined integral calculus, which is so crazy I got to be honest, Don. That, what you just said, that piece that you just did, is what drew me to your work. It is the precise use of our iconography, which is science, to explain what is transcendent to us, which is this bigger spirituality. And I don’t say that in a mysterious, mystical way. I’m saying we can understand things that we fought over for millennia, that we’ve codified with our monkey minds in books and texts but really, like you said, the voice of God, the truth of God is probably much simpler and silent and we can actually describe it. Now, I want to clarify a couple things. I mean, literally, I could talk about what you just said for like 14 hours. But here’s what I want the audience to hopefully understand better. Interaction, I’ve seen your math. I understand 1% of it, but I’ll say that there’s some interesting compelling pieces in your math, in particular some resemblance to electron probability, cloud collapse functions.

– Yeah, mm hmm.

– And the fact that conscious agents combining and interacting with each other resemble a probability equation that you use to show what happens to electrons when they’re observed in probability clouds to me is an uncanny coincidence, if you will, about the nature of reality that science, especially neuroscience, medical science, has ignored the advances in physics, which is quantum mechanics. The fact that quantum mechanics basically says there is no real stuff until you look at it.

– Right.

– And why do we keep pretending there are actually neurons that are stable in space and time when it’s a construct? And so this math may actually explain how lower-level conscious agents combine in complexity to form a brain. Our brain may be consciousness all the way up and down and it’s at a certain level, that’s where our awareness is. I’ll tell you, with split brain experiments in humans who had their corpus callosum that connects the two hemispheres, how do you sort of look at their experience because it may be that we feel like we have a unified consciousness and awareness, but you can cut the corpus callosum and most people don’t notice anything. But when you study it, there are two independent conscious agents in your own mind that no longer talk to each other, but express themselves. The left side controlled by the right brain. The right side controlled by the left brain. Left visual field by the right brain. And they are often at odds with each other, like two children arguing. How does this fit your theory?

– Absolutely. That’s an excellent example of this kind of thing that we have the two hemispheres of the brain and normally they’re joined by the corpus callosum. Joseph Bogen was a surgeon who actually split the corpus callosum to help cure people that had epilepsy. As you say in many cases, we find that when we do careful experiments we find that the two hemispheres seem to be associated with two separate spheres of consciousness that could have entirely different contents. One could be seeing and experiencing the word key and the other one could be experiencing the word ring and neither is experiencing what the other is experiencing. And they have in many cases different personalities. So we have in the humans, apparently, these two personalities come together when you have an intact corpus callosum to create what I call me. And so here’s this case where we see two agents that can combine to create one agent and yet the two agents also exist, and that’s what the theory of conscious agents does entail, so the split brain is a perfect example of the kind of thing I’m talking about when we talk about agents combining. Another thing you just brought up was about the quantum mechanics and what it says about things existing and so forth. It’s absolutely the case that quantum theory entails that something called local realism is false. Local realism is the claim that physical objects have definite values of their physical properties, like position, momentum, and spin and charge. Definite values of their properties when they’re not observed, and that those values have influences that propagate no faster than the speed of light. That’s something that most of us would intuitively believe, that the world is local and realistic, that physical objects do have their positions and their momentums and so forth, even if no one looks. Quantum mechanics entails that that’s false. Local realism, according to quantum mechanics, is false and it also gives some experiments to test to see if quantum mechanics is making the right prediction. Those experiments have been done repeatedly and in every case, we find that the evidence is clear. Local realism is false. It’s just simply false to believe that objects have definite values of their properties whose influences propagate no faster than the speed of light. That’s false. That’s not the world we live in. And the other one is what’s called non-contextual realism. That’s the idea that objects have definite values of their properties; again, position, momentum, and spin; that are independent of how you measure them. And surely we think, well, a rock has its position and its momentum and whatever other physical properties independent of how I would try to observe it. Certainly, its properties just exist independent of the way I would try to measure them. Well, quantum mechanics entails that non-contextual realism is false and that has also been tested and non-contextual realism is false. Our physicalist intuitions that things exist and have their properties whose influences propagate no faster than the speed of light and exist independent of how we perceive them, that’s just false. That’s not the world we live in and that really fits in again with the conscious realist ontology that I’m proposing here.

– You call your theory conscious realism. Yes, this interacting social network of conscious agents that have these graphical user interfaces that can combine into higher entities, which means that there could potentially, and I want to bring this back to medicine in a second before I forget, but I’m gonna say this, the combination of the left and the right brain via corpus callosum or whatever that symbol corpus callosum means in reality, whatever those conscious agents are that generate the symbol of corpus callosum to our user interface, those imply that these agents can combine into higher levels of consciousness which mean, higher, quote unquote. We don’t know what that means really, but they have more maybe different range of experience, maybe different things they can do.

– Yes.

– That then directly implies that you can have stable dynamics between conscious agents in a football stadium at the Super Bowl theoretically and that combined consciousness creates an emerging consciousness that we do not participate in. In other words, we don’t feel it, but it exists as the sum of our consciousnesses or cies or whatever the plural is of that. Which then implies that could it be that even planets, galaxies, solar systems are higher-level conscious order… You know, expressions of consciousness.

– You know the symbols that we are using that are our best way of trying to understand these higher levels of consciousness, and you raise a great question and that is, one technical question that I want to solve here is how much can a single-conscious agent understand about the agents above it? So this, I’m a conscious agent, I have many agents that combine together to create me but I call my instantiation, and I’m in the instantiation of other agents that are quote unquote higher than me. What can I know about them? So it’s gonna be again a matter of theorems and proofs. How much can an agent know about the agents above it? I’m exceedingly interested to find out what the mathematics says.

– Man, that is probably one of the highest questions you can ask because you’re in a way asking what is the mind of god and can I know it. I mean that’s a shorthand–

– Right.

– In our iconography. Okay here’s a question though just before I forget. Are we living in the Matrix then, could this all be explained by a simulation theory, that this is all just in a simulator and these conscious agents are somehow a simulation of a higher intelligence or future humans or aliens?

– Well the standard kind of simulation theory that for example Nick Bostrom and others–

– Mm hmm.

– Are thinking about is a physicalist theory. So they say that we could be just a simulation of some computer scientist at a deeper level of reality than us and this could keep going recursively down until you get to some base level, and the base level they typically think of as a physical world. So there’s some race or some brilliant computer programmer at some base physical world that’s creating this all as a simulation. And so I’m denying that the base is a physical.

– Mm hmm.

– But I am agreeing though with the simulation idea in the following sense, that space-time itself is not fundamental, this is just a data structure. Space is a data structure and physical objects are not preexisting entities, they’re just data structures as well. And one thing that will help bring this home to people as not just an abstract idea is the following fact about space that is very counterintuitive. If I ask you how much data could you store into a volume of space, say I’ve got a volleyball here and I say, how much data, how many megabytes could you sort of, gigabytes could you store into this volleyball space? You say, what? I’ve got a two terabyte hard drive, I could stick that in there and maybe next year there’ll be a five terabyte hard drive and so forth. And the question is ultimately is there some ultimate limit to how much data you could stick into that region of space inside the volleyball. And it turns out the physicists know the answer. Stephen Hawking was the one who discovered the answer. And the answer is there is a limit and the amount that you can stick into that volleyball does not depend on the volume of the volleyball. The volume of the volleyball is completely irrelevant. It only matters what the surface area bounding the region is.

– Hmm. So how much space is inside that space doesn’t matter, it’s just what is the surface area of the volleyball.

– That’s exactly right. So volumes of space cannot hold information. It’s the surface areas that encode all the information. Now take that volleyball and imagine packing six smaller balls inside of it that are equal size and just fit.

– Hmm.

– If you do a little bit of math you’ll see that those six little balls have about half the volume. Because there’s gas between them, right?

– Mm hmm.

– But they have a little bit more surface area, about 3% more surface area. So if you’re a computer engineer and you’re asked, should I try to store my memory into the big volleyball or into the six smaller volleyballs, the answer is the six smaller volleyballs.

– Wow.

– Now keep doing that recursively, take each one of those six balls and pack it with six and keep doing that 20 or 30 times, you finally get to something that has essentially no volume and can hold millions of times more data. Space is utterly unlike our intuitions.

– Wow.

– Volumes of space do not hold information. It’s the surface areas. So by the way, that’s not a surprise if space is not a preexisting reality, the stage on which the drama of life is played out. Space is a data structure that conscious agents deploy as a computational device. And as for data compression and error correction. So if space is a data-compressing structure, and an error-correcting code, it’s no surprise that maybe we’ve used a dimensionless space for error correction and so we can’t use that extradimensional space for storing information.

– Wow.

– So this changes everything we believe about space. Space, we think, we deeply believe that it’s the stage on which the drama of life is played out. We come on to the stage, we leave the stage, but the stage, space-time itself, has always been there for 14 billion years. That whole framework is just wrong. Space is not something that preexists us and we pop in and out of space. Space is something that we create, space is something that we’re the masters of, we create it, and we destroy it.

– See to me that fundamental understanding opens a gateway to actually scientific pursuit of the manipulation of space-time in a way that would make Star Trek look just dumb. And that gets me to this issue of healthcare. And again, because I wanna respect your time I could talk about this for hours and I’m sure we’ve lost 97% of our audience but the 3% that are left are like okay, what’s next? So what’s next that I wanna talk about because, again, this is all true, if what you’re saying is true, the way we do medicine, the way we look at the human body, the brain, drugs, surgery, is the same way an ant would look at a human. It is so primitive and missing the bigger point which is everything we look at in our body, heart, hormones, cortisol, astrocyte, this new rose hip neuron they’ve discovered, it’s all symbols of interacting conscious agents. So when we talk about things like the mind-body connection, the placebo effect, the no-cebo effect which is the negative placebo effect, the connection to perception and anticipation with experiences such as nausea, pain, chronic pain, those sort of things. We oughta be looking at from a conscious realism perspective which is these are interacting conscious agents which means we can probably mathematically do certain predictions once the math is really figured out in advance, and we might be able to predict up and down what the higher and lower level structures are doing and manipulate them in a way that leads to better functioning of the combined entity which is us. So everything from having a stroke to depression to cancer might better be understood when we let go of the fact, this non-fact that we assume is fact, that these cells and neurons and electrons are independently existing regardless of our perception of them and they are causal agents in the world, they are not, they are symbols.

– Exactly right. I completely agree with you on this. I, as a conscious agent, have an infinite, a huge instantiation of other conscious agents that combine to form me. I don’t have the resources myself to even understand all these agents, right? ‘Cause it’s too complicated. And so I have to have a dumbed-down interface even to describe the agents that form me. So the… Very, very good. That’s right. So I as a conscious agent have a huge instantiation of other conscious agents that combined to form me and it’s very, very complicated and I don’t have the resources myself to understand all of my own instantiation. So I have to view myself through an interface. And so the highest levels of that interface which describe the higher levels of my instantiation, that’s what I experience as my moods, my emotions, my psychology. A little bit lower down is what we would describe as our biology, our neurobiology. A little bit below that we describe it as chemistry and then physics and then so forth. And so what we took to be the objective realities, physics, chemistry, biology, and so forth, these are just levels of my interface description of my own instantiation, and so this gets back to what you were saying about how we think about this in terms of medicine and psychiatry and so forth. Neurons are not preexisting entities in space-time that are causally efficacious, they’re just the symbols that we use, they’re dumbed-down user interface symbols that describe our own instantiations in terms of conscious agents in a certain kind of description. And so ultimately we’re gonna have to understand ourselves as complicated networks of interacting conscious agents and we’re perceiving that network of ourselves through the lens of neurons and moods and emotions and biology and chemistry and so forth. But we can’t take the description literally, we just have to learn how to look through our descriptions, past the descriptions in terms of the biology, back to the conscious agents that’s really going on. And that’s gonna take us some work to understand how to do that but I think it’s gonna be very important because it’s just false that neurons have causal powers. And it’s just false that neurochemistry has causal powers. So it’s important for us to know about serotonin and dopamine and acetylcholine and so forth and to understand that one level of description and how these things affect our moods and our behavior and so forth, but there’s going to be a deeper understanding of these things when we realize they’re just interface descriptions about social networks of conscious agents that are our instantiation.

– You know it’s interesting, so I was talking to my wife about this who’s a radiologist and yesterday we were having lunch and I said I’m gonna speak to Donald Hoffman tomorrow and he has this theory and I went through the discussion with her, and she said, “Why should I care about this? “How will this affect my life that these are “conscious agents and such and such?” And I said, “Well I’m not explaining it right, clearly, “because the way you just talked about it “and the way we were just having the discussion, “that’s the answer.” When we understand the real nature of how things are actually working and that these neurons are not causal, they don’t cause things, they’re symbols, then we can get to the root of how do we understand depression, why is it that antidepressants and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors have been losing efficacy relative to placebo, or has it been the placebo’s been getting stronger? Why is that? Is there some effect on conscious agents in terms of perceptual stuff, and what is the effect of a serotonin molecule which, as you say, is just a symbol of a lower-level instantiation of a conscious agent, what does that mean then to its effect on the higher-level structures in our brain? If we think about it that way, you look at a molecule like psilocybin or LSD, tiny microgram quantities of this agent can cause massive changes in conscious perception. And why would that be? Even from a neurotransmitter standpoint it barely makes sense. But from a conscious agents standpoint there’s some interaction, some hack that our symbols don’t show us. That are causing this effect. And when we understand it, we can use it therapeutically.

– Absolutely. And there’s a lot of work to be done there to make the translation between the neurotransmitter systems and their activations and the conscious agent dynamics that’s underlying. So we have a lot of work ahead. But clearly if we’re starting with the assumption that chemicals are fundamental and that chemicals have causal powers when that’s false, then we’re stopping ourselves from a certain level of progress that we would like to have further on down the line. So it has very, very practical implications. I mean, there’s the history about the study of electricity and magnetism, Faraday was just playing with these magnets and wires and so forth and you could ask what in the world good is this? And then Maxwell comes along and takes Faraday’s ideas and turns them into summary equations and people going oh, so what? Well, it didn’t have application immediately, but now all of our modern electronic communications is based on that. So once you understand the world just for the sake of understanding it, practical applications, in this case medical applications I think, will come down the line and be very, very powerful. We can’t see where it’s going to go.

– I mean, I can just think of imaging. ‘Cause right now imaging is this interesting reductionist view of neuron structures and gray matter structures, cortical structures, white matter, tracks, things like that, based on magnetic resonance. What if we could actually understand an image, a different fundamental iconography and reality that is how the mind actually works? Because like you said, you said something in this talk that I think I wanna put a very big punctuation point on which is the fact that we have experience is probably the only fact that we can say is true. Because everything else in the world is filtered through our perception but the fact that we perceive, the fact that there is something like it is to be us is a fundamental reality. So could it be that that fundamental reality of conscious awareness is the fundamental reality of the universe and that there are mathematical ways to predict how these interact and scientific ways to make predictions about higher-level structures, lower-level structures, and reality that fit into our iconography of quantum mechanics, quantum gravity, grand unified theories and so on, and if you can show that over time, this will go down as yes this was the next big advance in understanding physics, reality, medicine, and spirituality all in one.

– Yes, that’s sort of the goal. I mean, we might be wrong about everything but if we’re right about anything it’s that we have conscious experiences. And so let’s take that as our foundation and see how far we can go with it. And one objection that some people might have at this point to the argument that evolution by natural selection shows that we don’t see reality as it is and so space and time and physical objects are just symbols. And people might object, well that’s, you’re using something that’s self-refuting because evolution by natural selection assumes that there are things like DNA that exist whether or not we perceive them. And there are organisms and there are resources and there’s a physical world. And so since biological evolution theory assumes these things and then you come along and you claim well you’re using the theory of evolution to prove that space and time and physical objects don’t exist when they’re not perceived, including DNA, you’ve used the theory of evolution to refute the theory of evolution so you’ve shot yourself in the foot and this whole thing is an exercise in futility. And that is of course an objection that seems quite compelling at first, but it misses a key point. What I’ve used is what Dan Dennett and Richard Dawkins and others have called universal Darwinism. It’s the algorithmic core of the theory of evolution. Variation, selection, and retention. And as Dawkins and Dennett and others will point out, that algorithm of evolution, the universal Darwinism, can apply outside of biology, can apply, for example, they discuss memes, how ideas can grow and spread.

– Yep.

– But the idea is that any time you have variation, selection, and retention you have evolution so that’s the algorithmic core of evolution, universal Darwinism. And so when I make these simulations and then this theorem with, I should give credit to Chetan Prakash, my collaborator, who proved the theorem. We have a theorem based on evolution by natural selection, we’re using evolutionary game theory which is the mathematical formulation of universal Darwinism. So what we’re doing is we’re using the algorithmic core of evolutionary theory and we’re showing that some of the peripheral assumptions of biological evolutionary theory, namely peripheral assumptions like DNA exists when it’s not perceived. That space and time exist, that physical objects exist. It turns out that those peripheral assumptions are false and they contradict the algorithmic core of evolutionary theory. So we’re not refuting ourselves, we’re actually using the science of evolution to refine the science of evolution and to get rid of some peripheral assumptions that were false.

– That’s amazing. And I think I’ve heard that argument against what you’re doing and I sort of felt very similar about what you’re saying which is I think you’re missing that point and also the idea that again that these things are, they’re symbols and you don’t need them for the fundamental core algorithm of evolution to make sense. And in fact they’re contradictory. So one question I wanted to ask and again it has to do with time. So we talked about space. We haven’t talked about time. Time is also a construct, and that’s clear because you can warp it with relativity, you can do a lot of things to time. What do you think the fundamental nature of time is? Is it another hack?

– Yes, so space and time of course in special and general relativity are combined into space-time in Einstein’s ideas and they become one thing, you can trade out some space for some time and vice versa. But from this framework, space-time itself, including time, is just a data structure. In terms of the theory of conscious agents, each agent gets an experience and makes a decision and then takes an action. And so these are discrete. I get a new experience, now I’m tasting chocolate, now I’m hearing an alarm, and so forth. And so each agent can count in some sense its experiences, but there is no universal time in this theory, it’s all asynchronous. And so the notion of a universal time is again a user interface kind of variable. We can talk about a time variable in a space-time data compression scheme, but the conscious agent dynamics that we’re simulating is this infinite collection of conscious agents, each one only increments its counter when it gets a new experience. And we’re playing with what is this all about and what is the nature of the dynamics of conscious agents. One game that we can play is to say suppose we have a huge collection of conscious agents in our simulation, and we start them off, they each get to send one message, send one experience to some other agent. And then from then on you have conservation of experiences, you can only send a message if you get a message, you can only pass an experience if you get an experience. And see how that evolves. Is it like that experiences, conscious experiences are the coin of the realm. That’s an interesting direction. So we have to figure out what is it all about, why is there a dynamics of consciousness, is it for example, one hypothesis that a colleague of mine, Federico Feggin, has suggested.

– Oh yeah.

– Do you know Federico?

– Mm hmm, I know of him.

– Yeah he invented the microprocessor.

– Kind of a big deal, yeah.

– Yeah, yeah. He was the genius at Intel that did that when he was in his mid-twenties. So Federico thinks that maybe the conscious agents, well he calls them conscious units, are trying to come to self-comprehension to understand themselves. And that’s an interesting idea in the sense that it’s a universal truth that no system can completely represent itself. Right? If I have a computer program and my computer is trying to represent itself well it’s gonna have to build a data structure which is representing itself but in the very act of building its data structure it has become more complicated. So now it needs to build more data structure to represent that extra complexity and you get caught in this infinite loop. No system can ever completely understand itself. So is that part of the dynamics of consciousness? That consciousness, because of this incompleteness principle, you can never completely understand yourself, that there is this constant dynamics of mutual understanding that’s going on. So it’s an open question. I don’t know, to say that the fundamental nature of the universe’s consciousness opens up a whole new class of questions why. It’s the fundamental, philosophical question, why is there something as opposed to nothing? In this case, why are there conscious agents, why are they having dynamics as opposed to nothing? And I don’t know.

– You know, and this is a fundamental question, my wife was asking me this so if it’s all conscious agents, why, why, why? Why do they care, why do they try to interact with each other, why do they, and these are questions like you said, that’s gonna take, once you actually show that this is the case, then you can start exploring those deeper questions and I saw you actually do a thing with the Dalai Lama which was amazing. But one of the interesting things about that, you talked about these little quanta of experience that are exchanged, the Buddhists, and we could talk a little bit about meditation practice but in meditation practice there is this sort of mind moment theory that experience is not a continuous analog experience but it is quantized in the sense that there are these mind moments. That roughly have neural correlates so in other words the neural correlate may be a hertz refresh rate in synchronous activity in EEG leads if you’re actually measuring the external iconography correlates in our graphical user interface of what that looks like. So in deep meditation, people who are very good, who are adept meditators, and I’ve had a glimpse of this, only a glimpse, kind of like a peak experience in meditation. When you truly calm these sort of sub-minds that are constantly feeding you information so a little verbal narrating sub-mind, this is who you are, you need to do the laundry, this and this, the sensory sub-minds that say your butt hurts sitting in this chair, et cetera. When through practice you can start to tune that out and focus only on the current flow of experience, it starts to get, the breath which you’re focusing on in this particular practice gets a quantized aspect to it. Where it feels like a series of moments, beads on a string going through perception. And every 15th bead or something there’s an integrative bead that kind of ties the previous beads together into what they call a binding moment which kind of explains oh, I’m in a room here instead of just light, sound, taste, color. And this idea that maybe these are quantized as a fundamental currency of the realm like you said, as a consciousness currency of the realm can be empirically tested through meditation from a subjective side. And these people will swear that this is the experience they have and the classic Buddhist concept of cessation where you’re paying attention to the stream of consciousness and it suddenly stops, in other words there’s no served up moment of consciousness but blankness. That experience is so transformative for people because they realize the fundamental coin of the realm is awareness and its contents. And when the contents are gone, you just experience the awareness as the fundamental truth of everything. And so the mystics over years have sort of pointed to this as an empirical experience. And I don’t think it’s disconjugate with what you’re saying.

That’s quite interesting the convergence there. And I think that we’re gonna find that the various religious traditions including Buddhism have a lot of deep insights that can work together with the science of conscious realism to actually develop it into a very rigorous and testable kind of investigation of the human condition and of meditation. I’m really quite intrigued to do that and one thing that I think is also a convergence here is that one implication of the theory of conscious agents and conscious realism is that my very body is a construction. The notion of an eye is a construction. I construct everything that I know about myself because it turns out when you look at the actual formulism of conscious agents, the conscious agent has a set of experiences, based on those experiences it can make free will decisions and it can take certain actions. The space of actions is distinct from its space of experiences. That means, the formulism is saying, that unless you explicitly go out of your way to represent your actions, you’re not experiencing your actions. You’re also not experiencing your free will decisions. All you have are your experiences, so you have to use some of your experiences to construct a model of you and a model of your decisions and a model of your actions. So when I see my hand reach over and pick something up, I’m using part of my experience base to model certain of my actions. I don’t know what I’m really doing. I don’t know what my real actions are. I only know my actions under a space-time user interface description that I’m employing. So in some sense, I’m deeply mysterious to myself because I can only know myself under a description and even that self is an icon, symbol, on my interface. It’s not a fundamental reality. And I suspect that that idea resonates very, very deeply with certain Buddhist ideas and other traditions as well. That the self itself is something that we’re constructing like a string of pearls on a strand. I construct the self now, now, now. I’m constructing this model of myself because otherwise I can’t in some sense predict what I’m going to do or understand what I’m going to do.

– But despite being all symbols and not knowing ourselves, we have impact on the world and on others which means there is a fundamental reality there. Right?

– That’s right. There is a fundamental reality of conscious experiences–

– Agents, mm hmm.

– And conscious agents and also by the by I take the notion of free will as fundamental which, again, Dan Dennett and Sam Harris and others would disagree, but it’s very interesting. They will take the notion of chance as fundamental.

– Hmm.

– So in a physicalist universe, chance plays the role of you have something coming out of nothing, something novel coming out of nothing that’s unpredictable, there’s no algorithm that can predict what’s gonna happen if it’s true chance. That’s in face the definition of true chance is that there’s no algorithm that can predict the outcome. And they don’t like the notion of free will in the physicalist framework because the notion of free will would be smuggling in a dualism, right?

– Yeah.

– You have free will you have to have an agent–

– An agent, yeah. A subjective agent, yeah.

– But now in the consciousness framework it’s just the opposite so we’re starting with agents and there is this notion of novelty. Things come into the world that are unpredictable. Do I want to bring in the notion of chance? Well no because that would force me into a dualism. Now I’m bringing in a non-conscious physicalist kind of notion of chance. So instead I’m going to be going with free will. And what’s interesting is, so I have a mathematical model of free will that comes out of this conscious agent formulism. We use things called Markovian kernels to represent the free will decisions and it turns out when two agents combine, you get a new decision kernel for the higher level agent. And so you’re gonna have the free will of the higher-level agent, the emergent agent, and then the free will decisions of all the agents in its instantiation and it turns out the mathematics is really quite interesting about how the free will decisions of the lower-level agents constrain the free-level decisions, but don’t totally determine, the free will decisions above. And then the higher-level decisions of those agents flow down and influence all of the decisions of the lower-level agents. So we’re going to have this really beautiful, complicated, mathematically precise notion of free will where there’ll be bottom-up influences where the free will decisions of lower-level agents constrain the free will decisions of higher-level agents and then the higher-level agents have their own realm of free will. By the way, free will isn’t absolutely free, I mean, I can jump but I can’t jump to the moon. So we’re not talking about absolute freedom, we’re talking about freedom within a certain range. And so the free will decisions of higher-level agents will influence the free will decisions below. The mathematics is gonna be quite complicated but I think we’ll start with simulations just to see how it works out, and if we can prove theorems about it, that’ll be fun, but it’s gonna be pretty complicated. But as far as I know, this is the first time that there’s ever been a mathematically-precise theory of free will.

– I, my jaw is dropped open right now because I have always been a subscriber of Sam Harris’s concept of free will which is more of a deterministic idea that these decisions bubble up from our unconscious, unfathomable processes and are acted on by our conscious awareness in a way that feels free but is actually entirely predetermined by causes and conditions underneath. What you’re saying is those causes and conditions are all free, the ones above are all free, but they each constrain each other, and so in a way, it’s saying the same thing. It’s saying our conscious mind and experience at the high level conditions our sub-minds and subconscious agents which are free to make decisions, their decisions bubble up. We’re not really directly aware of those but they come up and then we act on them or don’t act on them and there’s a feedback loop between them. So in a way we’re free with caveats.

– Exactly.

– That’s amazing. And it feels so intuitively correct.

– It seems right and the nice thing about it is it’s a monistic theory, it’s one process at many different levels. And what we call unconscious processes are not strictly speaking unconscious, I’m just not conscious of those processes. I only know them, I describe them as neuroprocesses or whatever, but they’re just other conscious agents. I’ve given up trying to understand and see exactly what they’re doing, that’s why I call it unconscious because it’s unconscious to me.

– Hmm.

– It’s just like me talking with you, for example. I believe fully that you’re conscious, that you have conscious experiences, but I am not directly conscious of your experiences in any way. It’s just an assumption on my part. So your experiences are unconscious to me, but I would be wrong and silly to say that because I’m not directly aware of your conscious experiences therefore you don’t have any conscious experiences. That’s a mistake.

– Yeah.

– So the fact that I’m not conscious of something doesn’t mean that there isn’t consciousness there. And so when I give a, a teach a big introduction to psychology class at the University of California at Irvine, and I’ll tell all the freshmen during my lectures that 99% of our mental processes are unconscious. And that’s certainly the standard view, but what’s really going on is 99% of these conscious agent processes are unconscious to me because I just don’t have the resources to deal with them so I call them unconscious and then I’m silly and I just assume that they’re fundamentally unconscious, they’re just neuroprocesses that are going on according to the laws of physics and chemistry.

– Wow. It makes perfect sense! And I’ve actually felt that and actually it’s interesting because this book that I use for meditation called The Mind Illuminated, he talks about something called the mind system model which is his, he’s a neuroscientist turned, like, Buddhist adept, and he talks about this mind system model which is his interpretation of Buddhist scripture from back in the day plus neuroscience. And the idea is that our mind is a series of sub-minds that all interact via consciousness. So you have your verbal sub-mind, your narrating self, you have your emotional sub-mind and you have, like, sensory sub-minds. They all serve up information in quantized fashion to a boardroom, like a PowerPoint slide.

– Mm hmm.

– And consciousness can be aware of those inputs one at a time in a beads on a string fashion but it’s very fast and it feels integrated. But what’s interesting is each of those sub-minds is made up of an infinite number of other sub-minds, each of which has its own board of directors and its own consciousness.

– Wow.

– And so it’s saying exactly what you’re saying.

– Exactly.

– Yeah.

– Exactly.

– And so our so-called unconscious processes are actually their own consciousness that we’re not aware of and that means to me that we can condition them through conscious awareness at the higher levels because it filters down and it means that who we surround ourselves with, the friends we make, the people we choose to listen to, I choose to listen to Don Hoffman about consciousness, those things affect our quote unquote unconscious processes in a way that then emerge to make us who we are. And so that’s why people who are hard determinists say well we just have no control over anything. That’s not true! It’s a complex, nuanced idea about free will that says yes, the responsibility is ours because it’s this collective action of all these conscious agents and we can influence it.

– Yeah I completely agree. And the confluence between this idea and the Buddhist idea is really quite intriguing. And again, it’s a kind of thing where the two could interact and I might be able to get some very deep insight from the Buddhists and then in turn maybe provide a formulism that provides a rigorous understanding of what they’ve been saying for quite a while. Absolutely. Sam, in his book Free Will, makes the point that many times we believe that we’re making a free will decision when in fact we’re not.

– Mm hmm.

– And you know there are experiments in which you can actually get, you can trick people and people believe that they’ve made a free will decision when in fact you’ve made the choice for them. And those experiments are correct. It’s absolutely the case that people can believe that they’ve made a free will choice when they haven’t. And that’s certainly the case, and Sam is also right when he says that many aspects of my decisions are things that I’m not consciously controlling. Right? Like I choose chocolate ice cream over vanilla. Why? Because I prefer chocolate. Why do I have that preference? I don’t know. And so what I would say is that from this framework of free will there are these free will decisions of lower-level agents that are influencing me.

– Hmm.

– You know? To like chocolate over vanilla, for example. But ultimately I do get the final choice. I have a circumscribed free will at my own level but I have a genuine degree of free will.

– Mm hmm.

– At my level.

– In other words there’s possibility to make those choices. That’s open.

– That’s right. And Sam will say well look, the notion of free choice doesn’t make sense because I can’t choose what I’m going to choose. The notion of choice ends in darkness.

– Yeah.

– The explanations stop there and there’s no, I can’t choose what I’m going to choose. And he’s certainly right in the sense that when we get to the notion of free will we are coming to a primitive of the theory, although I’m able to cache it out in this very interesting mathematical, dynamical, interactive structure. But the same thing is true of what physicalists use, namely chance. Chance is also the place where explanation ends in darkness.

– Hmm.

– Explanation stops there. Chance is their miracle and so it’s not like someone who is doing, taking consciousness as fundamental and talking about free will is helping themselves to miracles that the physicalist doesn’t have to help himself to. No, physicalist has exactly the same level of miracle, they just call it chance.

– Hmm.

– And so we’re on even keel there. The difference is if I start with consciousness, I can solve the mind-body problem without a miracle. If I start with physicalism and chance, I can’t solve the mind-body problem without invoking the miracle. And so that’s why I’m going after the consciousness being fundamental.

– I think Don Hoffman that, and again, this is my bias, and I want people to come at me in the comments on the Facebook post of this, I want you to ask follow-up questions for Professor Hoffman that when we get him back on the show if he’s willing to come because we’ve only scratched the tip of the iceberg but you can see just itching a little bit of that leads to so much sort of concordance in terms of, well, we can explain a lot from a unified theory of conscious realism and you guys haven’t seen his math. Honestly I wish I were smart enough to understand it. I’m gonna leave it to Don and his colleagues to prove and disprove his math and keep exploring that and I’m hoping that this work picks up steam, that others catch on and start exploring it because again, to me it feels like the most cohesive, least magical explanation, ironically, because we’re talking about consciousness being the coin of the realm. It feels less magical than any other explanation that I’ve heard including things like integration and integrative information theory and other explanations of consciousness which we can talk about another time. So–

– Yes.

– With that, do you have any parting thoughts for my crew of healthcare practitioners? ‘Cause I wanna respect your time and we will bring you back if you’re game. Any parting thoughts?

– I would love to come back and talk more. This has been fun. I would say that if it’s false that neurons and chemicals exist and have causal powers, and they’re just symbols instead, then that’s very important to understand what those symbols are and what they are really pointing to and to understand the deeper reality because that will give us a deeper understanding of what’s guiding our behavior and causing health and illness. So I think it’s an important direction.

– I think you nailed it and I think I’m gonna put one more coda on that which is right now because of the failures of our reductionist approach, this belief that neurons and biochemicals are causal agents in the world and the final reality, that have a location in space and time and do stuff in the world, because of that failure, in other words our inability to treat depression effectively in refractory cases, our inability to cure cancer, our inability to understand chronic pain. People turn to mysticism, spooky stuff, magical thinking like alternative medicines, different things that in our evidence-based structure aren’t shown to help. What if the alternative medicine guys are right in that we’re not looking deep enough, but they’re wrong in that they’re not using a scientific method to look?

Right.

– People like Professor Hoffman are doing that and I think we as a tribe of healthcare professionals it behooves us to understand and try our best, I know it’s hard, I know we lost a lot of our audience, but for the ones who are here, cede a simple understanding with your colleagues of what this might mean and let’s explore it because I think this could be a transformative understanding and that’s why I had asked Dr. Hoffman to be on the show because it felt like even though we’re gonna lose a bunch of people who won’t be interested because I think it’s too high-level at some level and at another level it’s too counterintuitive and at a third level it makes people violently opposed to the idea. That’s what we want, we wanna do that, and that’s what’s gonna push the boundaries of this stuff. So Professor Hoffman, what an honor and a pleasure and it really got me fired up, I was jumping out of my chair at one point and like pumping my fists at stuff you were saying which means it’s probably all wrong because usually I’m wrong.

– Well it’s been a great pleasure and that’s part of the scientific experience is to be precise that you can find out precisely why you’re wrong.

– I love it, I love it. And I’m precisely wrong on most things so this has been a fun experience. Professor Hoffman, thanks, we’ll have you back. Z-pack, you guys know what to do, follow us on Facebook, become a subscriber, support the show on Patreon, check out Dr. Hoffman’s links that I will put in the web posting, share this, and we out, peace.

– Hey, Z-pac, it’s your boy Dr. Z. Today is a very, very special show. First of all, it’s audio only, so just for podcast listeners. There’ll be a web posting on zdoggmd.com with links, information, and a full transcript when we get it back, so you can read through the parts and skip to the parts that you’re really interested in. The reason we’re doing it podcast only is it’s gonna be almost a two-hour discussion. And the reason we went in that degree of depth is this is a discussion that I’ve been wanting to have forever, since 2015 when I first saw this guest’s Ted Med Talk, or sorry, Ted Talk about the nature of reality and how evolution may have hid the true nature of reality from us.

There is so much to unpack in this podcast. It gets very heavy, very deep, very philosophical, very scientific. It can be hard to keep up, but bear with it because it’s worth it. Why?

Because for medicine in particular, understanding that reality itself may simply be a construction that we make that’s evolutionarily constructed to help us reproduce and not really representing the true nature of reality. By digging in deeper and figuring out what that nature is, we might be able to really have massive advances in managing everything from depression, other mental illness, cancer, to understanding the mind-body connection and the placebo effect. There’s a million things that we can get out of truly digging into what our next guest is working on. The other thing I want to tell you guys is you can support this podcast by going to patreon.com/zdoggmd and contributing there. You get perks in exchange; you can get t-shirts, you can get access to early content. A new way to do this is through Facebook, so if you go to facebook.com/zdoggmd and you click the become a supporter button, for 4.99 a month, you get access to live video conversations with me that I do almost every night and this small tribe of people that support the show get to discuss with me the direction of the show, get uncensored takes on episodes we’ve done, so what I would really say if I wasn’t worried that I was gonna get killed by saying it, as well as helping us to better improve the content we put on the main page as well as getting coupon codes for the store and early releases of videos that no one else can see. So it’s a great way to help us grow this movement and also to get a lot in return for yourself in terms of content and interaction with us. So, that being said, our guest today is Professor Donald Hoffman. He is a professor of cognitive science at the University of California, Irvine and he has joint appointments in the department of philosophy, department of logic and philosophy of science, and the School of Computer Science. This guy is a major nerd, you guys, and a lovely human being. He studies consciousness and visual perception, in particular, and evolutionary psychology, so how evolution led us to our perceptions of the world. But he’s gone even deeper than that using mathematical models and psychophysical experiments and simulations to actually explain what might be a theory that explains the true nature of reality, and when you hear it your jaw will drop. You may disagree, you may get angry, you may not keep up, you may not understand it. I had all these struggles myself, but stick with it because it’s worth it because in the end, these are the deepest questions we as humans are asking. And whether you’re a meditator, whether you’re spiritual, whether you’re religious, whether you’re an atheist, I promise you, you will get something out of this if you stick it through. So kinda sit back and absorb what he’s saying and in our web post at zdoggmd.com, we will put links, we’ll put a full transcript of this if you prefer to read it rather than listening to it, and more links to Dr. Hoffman’s stuff, and in our comments on the Facebook post, you can leave questions for when we get him back because I want to have another conversation because even in two hours we barely scratch the surface. Let’s just get into it. I humbly present and I’m honored that he would come on our podcast, Professor Don Hoffman. So let’s just dive right in. I think a lot of my audience, we’re mostly medical people, activists, patients, people who care about healthcare. Why did you get into studying perception, cognitive, quantitative psychology, and the mind-body problem? In other words, how do we generate awareness from a lump of gray matter in our brain?

– Yes, I was interested in this issue even as a teenager. I was very interested in the question of whether we’re machines or not. I was raised in a religious background. My dad was a Protestant fundamentalist minister, and so I got one story on Sundays and then in my scientific studies, there was the other kind of story, which suggested that physicalism is true and we’re just computational devices, and so I was very interested to understand for myself what we are. Are we machines? Or is there something more to us or not? I went to UCLA and took a class there where we studied the visual neurophysiology of the brain, and I was stunned by what we learned about how neurons have different kinds of receptive fields, that they can see edges and points of light, and bars and motion and so forth. That seemed to suggest a reductionist kind of view where the brain is just a machine that’s creating our perceptions bottom up. So, I wanted to study that further, and I then discovered the work of David Marr, who was a professor at MIT in the artificial intelligence lab and what’s now the brain and cognitive science department. So I went to MIT for my graduate work to study with him. The idea all along was to really understand what can machines do, what can artificial intelligence do? Are there any limits and could I understand what it is that we are? Are we just machines? Are we neural machines? Or is there something more to us? So that was sort of the motivation and the idea was to really study it thoroughly so that I could come to an informed scientific kind of a conclusion. So that was sort of the motivation behind it. What kind of creatures are we?

– This to me is an interesting thing because for me it was a similar path. I’m a very science-minded, innately kind of reductionist character because of my conditioning through medical school, molecular biology at Berkeley, that kind of thing. But then the empirical experience of being me, whether it’s just walking through the day or meditation, or whether it’s a psychedelic drug experience in college, you have this experience where you realize how can I derive this sense of the taste of chocolate or what it feels like to have abdominal pain from these neurons that are firing electrons and synapses and neurotransmitters. So what was interesting about your work to me was that you were combining the sort of scientific approach, the mathematical approach, with these bigger, deeper questions and going across disciplines. By the way, I want to ask you something before I forget. You said you got interested in are we machines and your father was a minister and so you had this sort of schizophrenic upbringing between science and reductionism and more spiritual transcendence, the sort of imminent and the transcendent. Was there anything else that prompted you? Did you ever experiment with psychedelics? Did you have meditative experiences? Was there any mystical experience you had that made you pursue this?

– Yeah, it’s interesting, I didn’t. It was, for me, of course very personal because I’m a human being, I’m trying to figure out what kind of creature I am, but I didn’t have any psychedelic experiences. Being raised in that Protestant fundamentalist background, it was very, very strict about what you did. I toed the line there as a teenager and so forth, but I didn’t toe the line intellectually. I wasn’t happy with being told not to ask questions, and so I wanted to go beyond just statements of faith and understand for myself. And I didn’t have any meditative practice at the time. I have now practiced meditation for the last 16 years, pretty much every day for the last 16 years, but not back then, so for me it was really just things didn’t make sense and I was trying to put the pieces together in a coherent, rational, scientific approach.

– In some way, it sounds like you were using a scientific approach to discover the nature of the transcendent or what it is in us that makes us feel like we have spirit or some animating something that isn’t reducible to physical matter.

– That’s right and, of course, the attitude within the Christian church is that there’s something beyond the physical stuff. I got that from them and I understood their point of view, but when I tried to push on that and get something rigorous, I never could get anything rigorous out of it. So as far as I could tell, it was just a fairy tale. If there’s no experimental beef behind it, it’s just a fairy tale. I really wanted to push on it. As a human being, of course, I feel like there is something special about us, but as a scientist I know that we can be self-deceived, so we have to be very, very careful to not just assume that what we believe is true because it feels good or it feels like we’ve just known that all our lives. I’ve discovered that a lot of what I believed is false or not quite the way I thought it was. One thing we learn in science, as you well know, is to be very, very careful, to test our hypotheses, to be very, very careful and precise in what we’re trying to say. That’s the direction I was going, was to go beyond hand-waves and try to really understand this. By the way, hand-waves on both sides, not just on the religious side but also on the scientific side because when I started looking at the theories that scientists were proposing about consciousness and how brain activity could cause or create consciousness, I didn’t see anything there that was impressive to me either. I didn’t see really clean theories that started with neural activity and, without any magic, gave rise to consciousness. What I saw every time I looked at these theories very, very carefully was that right at the point where the neural activity somehow creates my feeling of excitement or the taste of chocolate or the smell of garlic, right at that point a miracle occurs in the theory, and that’s not fair.

– Yeah

– There are miracles in every theory in the sense that every scientific theory makes certain hypotheses up front. These are the assumptions that you just are asked to grant up front, and then if you grant those, then the scientific theory says, well, given those hypotheses, we can now explain this range of phenomena. So that’s fair enough. I mean, no scientific theory explains everything. You always have to assume something. And the things that you assume are, for the purposes of your theory, they’re the magic. They’re what you’re not trying to explain.

– So, the constants of the universe, the speed of light, those kind of things are assumptions.

– That’s right. If you’re a physicalist, for example, you might say grant me space and time, and grant me quantum fields and if you grant me that, or grant me the Big Bang. If you grant me that, then I’ll explain the evolution of chemistry and biology and so forth, I’ll explain that. Or, if you’re a string theorist, you might say, or what they call M-theory, they might say, well, you don’t have to grant the Big Bang. Grant me these strings or these branes and I’ll show you that when two branes bang together, we can get a Big Bang. So maybe they don’t assume the Big Bang, but they’re gonna assume something else like the existence of branes. Every theory that explains something is assuming something deeper and that’s the magic for that theory. That’s gonna happen in every theory because no theory can explain everything. But what you don’t want to do is have magic coming up–

– In the middle of the theory.

– Later, exactly right. If you’re going to say that consciousness is real, then if your theory’s going to do that, you have to decide am I going to assume that up front or am I going to actually try to show from a physicalist assumption without consciousness that consciousness arises later on. If you’re going to do the latter, if you’re gonna say that I have only physicalist assumptions in consciousness, my experience of the taste of chocolate emerges from neural activity, well, you need to do that without any magic at that point. It’s just not fair to bring in magic. I’ve not seen any theory that starts with physicalist assumptions and doesn’t bring in magic when consciousness appears.

– Exactly, and that to me has been the fundamental difficulty and maybe we should, let’s back up and define a few things here before we launch into–

– Sure.

– You have sort of two aspects of your work as I see it. You have the perceptual sort of universe as a graphical user interface of the homo sapien evolution. The way we see the universe is symbols, it’s not reality and we’ll talk about that. Then, the second aspect is, well, what is fundamental reality? And that gets to our mind-body question as does the symbol aspect. When we talk about these sort of theories of consciousness, we can talk about monism, where there’s theories that it’s all sort of one thing. So, in other words, physical monism says, and correct me if I’m wrong ’cause I’m an idiot, the atoms, brain, physical matter are all that is real and consciousness magically springs from that in some emergent way that we’re just not smart enough to see yet. Brain’s not smart enough to figure out the brain. That’s a physical sort of world monism. Physicalism.

– Yes.

– Whereas a conscious monism says, no, everything is just consciousness and the physical world springs from that.

– Exactly.

– They’re two different. And then, you have things like panpsychism and dualism or certain aspects of panpsychism that say no, actually, there’s two things. There’s physical stuff and then, there’s transcendent consciousness, and I think a lot of religious beliefs say this. There’s the body and the soul, or the mind and the soul, so those are saying, well, there’s independent things and the twain meet, but they’re not reducible to each other.

– Exactly right.

– Is that correct?

– That’s right. There are monists, and you’re right, there are monists who say there’s only one kind of fundamental reality, say, physical reality if you’re a physicalist, and that’s characterized by saying that things like space-time and matter fields or bosonic fields are the fundamental reality and things like our conscious experiences and so forth then have to be explained in terms of a purely physicalist basis, so that’d be one kind of monism. Or, you could go monist the other way, where you say consciousness is fundamental and that person then has to explain how, if you have just consciousness as being fundamental in the universe, how do you get things that look like rocks and atoms and things that seem to be unconscious, so you have that problem to solve. Then, there are dualists of various stripes, and you’re absolutely right. If you’re a dualist and, for example, Descartes was a substance dualist, Rene Descartes. There was physical–

– I think therefore I am.

– Yeah, that’s right. So there’s physical stuff and then there’s this non-physical mental stuff, and then you have to explain both of those, what you mean by the physical stuff, what is it. For Descartes, anything that had extension in space was physical and mental stuff was characterized by being thought-like in its nature. Then, you have to show how these things interact. Descartes thought that they interacted at the pineal gland, although he couldn’t say exactly how they interacted. I mean, that was one of his many miracles in his theory. So, you’re right, these are the, and then there’s panpsychism, which is one of the current theories, and I think many of the panpsychists might want to characterize them as a non-dualist, but I see it as perfectly a dualist kind of theory. There are physical objects, like atoms, and they also have non-physical properties, like units of consciousness, and you have to ask how do you combine the elements of consciousness. So like an electron might have a spin and a charge, and it also has a fundamental unit of consciousness and so does a proton, and when they combine to form a hydrogen atom, then the hydrogen atom has a new kind of consciousness, which is the combination of the consciousness from the electron and the proton. The panpsychist then owes us a theory about the nature of these elementary conscious charges. What is it like to be an electron? What is it experiencing and how does the experience of the hydrogen atom relate to the experiences of the proton and the electron that make it up? Then, panpsychists have to explain when an electron and a proton come together to form a hydrogen atom, there’s something it’s like to be a hydrogen atom. How do the experiences of the electron and the proton combine to create the experience of the hydrogen atom and so forth all the way up to us? Presumably, the conscious experiences that you and I are having are very, very different than the experiential world of an electron or a proton, and so the panpsychist owes us a theory about how conscious experiences combine. That’s an interesting direction, but I think it’s a dualist direction.

– It is dualist in that there is matter, the electron, but that matter has a component almost like a charge of consciousness, and the question is how do those little charges combine to create the consciousness in our mind or even like you said, like a hydrogen atom. I’m gonna tell you this, Don. Helium atoms are total snobbish assholes. You asked what it’s like to be a hydrogen atom. It is not as good as being a helium atom because the more protons the more snotty they get. It’s like the 1%, uranium is like in the 1%.

– But lithium is laid back.

-Lithium is pretty chill, man. I’ve hung out with lithium. We’ve had a good time. Yeah, no, no. So you can see that there’s a little bit of mind warp that goes with assigning consciousness to, say, a proton, but at the same time, there’s a mind warp to trying to figure out how protons and electrons and atoms and neurons in the brain then magically emerge consciousness, and there is magic at every sort of level of these explanations as we talked about. Now the question is, you went and you have sort of two phases to how you talk about this, and the first is looking at matter and the chair and a train and a tiger and going, are those actually what they appear to be? Is reality what it seems? Maybe we can start talking about that and then that’ll help us talk about consciousness and the mind-body problem.

– Yeah, so most of my research has been in the area of perception. I’ve studied visual perception and one of the things I’ve been looking at there is… One reason why most of us are inclined to be physicalists, to think that the fundamental nature of reality is space-time and inanimate matter is because that’s what we see. We believe our perceptual systems. Why do I believe that there’s space and time? Well, that’s the way I see the world. Why do I believe that the moon exists when no one looks? Well, because I see the moon when I look up. It’s not necessarily a logically valid assumption, but it’s a psychologically compelling move that we make, that is I see the world in terms of rocks and space and time and planets and apples and so forth, and so we assume that that’s what really exists in objective reality. And so I began to wonder if that assumption was correct. So, I began to look at perception from the point of view of evolution, and we can ask a very clean question. If our senses evolved and were shaped at least in part by natural selection, what is the probability that natural selection would shape our perceptions to show us objective reality as it is? Now, not all of objective reality, right? No one thinks that we see all of objective reality. My question was what is the probability that natural selection shapes us to see any aspect of objective reality? You might say, well, how in the world could you turn that into a technical question? It turns out that evolution by natural selection can be modeled with clean mathematics. There’s a field called evolutionary game theory, which is ideally designed to study the effects of natural selection. And so with some graduate students, I began to study that. We ran simulations in which we could create arbitrary worlds and we could play god. We could put resources in those worlds, we could create the structure of the worlds as we wished, and then we could place organisms in those worlds, artificial organisms, and we could control what they saw. We could make some of the organisms see all of the reality that we created and others that saw none of the reality and were just tuned to the fitness payoffs in those worlds and we’d have them compete.

– So let me understand that a little better. So, you’ve created this godlike simulator where you create a world and these organisms either are capable of seeing that world as you’ve created it, in other words truth and veracity. This is the world and they perceive it, and I will tell you most physicalists, most healthcare people who’ve studied evolution and science feel like, well, the reason humans are so awesome is that they are perfectly tuned in a better way than most animals to see the world as it actually is and therefore, we have survived and reproduced and had sex and had gotten the best food and the best shelter because we see the world as it is. So your simulator can simulate that way of seeing the world. Or, it can simulate I’m only gonna see the things that will help me survive and things that will prevent me from surviving, so in other words, cut out the noise and just see what matters to my survival, reproduction, getting food, shelter, et cetera.

– Exactly right. You’ve summarized it very, very well. Of course, none of us believe that evolution shaped us to see all of the truth, but that we saw the important parts of the truth. We can’t see the very microscopic, we don’t see electrons, and we don’t see really big stuff and we don’t see black holes and dark matter, but what we do see is, in general, true. That’s the idea, and we can use evolutionary game theory and these simulations to actually check that. I think most of my colleagues who study visual perception and sensory perception more generally had the idea that true perceptions make you more fit. That’s the idea. Truer perceptions, or what they call veridical perceptions, perceptions that tell you the truth about the world. The truer your perceptions are, the more fit you will be. And here’s the intuitive argument that seems compelling. It goes like this, those of our ancestors who saw the world more truly had a competitive advantage compared to those who saw the world less accurately, and so they were more likely to succeed, to out-compete the others, and reproduce, and have offspring that had the genes for seeing the world more truly. So the genes for seeing the truth were more likely to spread. As a result of thousands of generations of that, we can be quite confident that we’re the offspring of those who saw more truly and we, in general, see the truth. Again, not all the truth but some of the truth. ♪ We are the champions my friend ♪

– Right.

– Right, because–

– That’s right.

– We could see exactly what was happening, so that’s the theory. People like Dan Dennett, Richard Dawkins, they both agree that we don’t see reality in its completion. We see as accurate as we can the reality that matters to our survival.

– That’s right and almost all of my colleagues studying perception as a scientific field also believe the same thing, and so I began to question that using evolutionary game theory. And what we found in our simulations first, and then we proved a theorem, is that organisms that see reality as it is are never more fit than organisms of equal complexity that see none of reality and are just tuned to the fitness payoffs.

– Let’s punctuate that.

– Yes.

– Organisms that see reality as it truly is go extinct.

– They go extinct; that’s right.

– And organisms that see reality in a shorthand hacked way that is advantageous to their survival, in other words, as a series of fitness sort of things. So if I see water, too much water is bad, too little water is bad, just the right amount of water is good. If I see water as it is in terms of absolute amount of water, I go extinct. If I see water in shades of color, where it goes from red, which is bad, to the perfect amount of water, which I see as green, to a very bad amount of water, which I see as purple, and I’m tuned to then evolve to go, I gotta seek out these green ponds, I’m gonna survive.

– That’s right, so you don’t need to see the truth. You just need to see symbols that tell you what to do to stay alive and that’s what… So I had this metaphor of a user interface that, if you’re working on your computer and you have a desktop, right? You have icons on your desktop, and suppose that you’re in a paint program, and you want to paint some image, and you grab the paintbrush icon. Well, no one would think that there’s really a paintbrush inside your computer that looks like the little paintbrush icon that you’re using–

– Wait, what? I was sure that Because I’ve been trying to grab it for years and it’s never come out of the screen.

– That’s right. Those are just a little bit of eye candy that helps you to control the complexity of the computer, all the diodes and resistors and voltages and magnetic fields, all that complexity that you don’t want to actually deal with. You would just like to paint your picture and so, you get this little eye candy, this little paintbrush icon, and it tells you what to do to get done what you want to do. And that’s what evolution has done. It hides the truth. I mean, the whole point of your desktop interface is not to show you the truth of the computer. It’s to hide the truth so you don’t have to deal with the voltages and magnetic fields. Evolution gives us a user interface. Space-time, three-dimensional space and time as you perceive them is just your desktop, so it’s a 3D desktop. And physical objects, like tables and chairs and the moon, are simply icons within your desktop. And just like the paintbrush icon doesn’t resemble anything inside your computer, a rock that you perceive resembles nothing inside the true objective reality, whatever it might be, that rock is just an icon on your desktop. The whole point of the interface is to hide the truth and give you just the kind of perceptual symbols, like paintbrushes and icons, that you need to do what you need to do to control the truth while you’re completely ignorant of the ultimate nature of the truth. We’ve made the mistake that we’ve assumed that evolution shaped us to see the truth when in fact it’s just the opposite. The selection pressures are to hide the truth because the truth is too complicated. We don’t need to know it. All we need is eye candy that guides our behavior, and that’s what we’ve got.

– Okay, first of all, if that description of reality doesn’t give you goosebumps, I don’t know what will because it feels as intuitive, and I’ll tell you why. As a healthcare professional, I’m gonna make an analogy for my fellow tribe of Z-packers. The electronic health record, Don, which kinda went live in the ’90s and has been evolving since then, if you can use the word evolving, is a desktop interface for us to do what we used to do, which is write physical notes about our patients; get data, laboratory stuff, imaging, bring it all into one place, organize it. The way that our desktop works is the opposite of the evolutionary fitness algorithm you’re talking about. The way they built an EHR is to show us everything, to put everything in our face, all the complexity, all the underlying billing codes, all the different labs that you don’t care about, and it shows it to us everyday. And what has happened, Don, is we are going extinct. As a practicing group, we can’t look at you in the eye anymore when you come to see us. We have to look at the screen because it’s dragging so much of our attention. If this were a fitness algorithm in your program, any species that saw this EHR would go extinct. Now, if you designed a graphical user interface for our care that was tailored to your specialty, so in other words, as a urologist say, I only see stuff about the male anatomy and these particular labs and this and it guides me to an answer that’s efficient and quick, I see more patients, I make less errors, more people come to me because I spend time with them, that is evolutionary success. That’s the analogy I would make, so Z-packers who feel like Don is crazy and this makes no sense, we see reality as it is, think about the EHR. Now, extrapolate that to the entire universe. If we saw reality as it was, it would be the equivalent of looking at an epic EHR screen every day while trying to figure out how I reproduce, how I find food, how I build shelter, how I raise my kids. Can’t be done, so what you’re saying is evolution, which is the most powerful force in the universe ’cause it’s had billions of years to work, or millions of hundreds of millions of years, has built us a desktop, which is our perception, the icons we see in the world.

– Exactly right. It’s given us the graphical user interface that’s explicitly evolved to hide the truth because it would take us too long to process the truth and, besides, it’s irrelevant. The nice thing about a good user interface is it lets you control your computer while being ignorant, utterly ignorant about what’s going on inside the computer. You have all the control you need without knowing what’s going on, and that’s exactly what evolution has done for us.

– Wow. And your models have shown this mathematically. So in other words, the little virtual organisms, they thrive if they don’t see everything. They thrive only if they see what matters.

– Yes, that’s right. We did it first with simulations, hundreds of thousands of random worlds. But, of course, someone can say simulations are simulations. Maybe you didn’t get the right range of simulations, and so we now have a theorem. It’s actually under review in a journal right now, but the theorem is correct. Selection pressures are uniformly against seeing reality as it is. An organism that sees reality will go extinct almost surely anytime it competes against an organism of equal complexity that sees none of reality and is tuned to fitness. So it’s not just simulations now, it’s actually a theorem. What we have is a dilemma. We can either hold to evolution by natural selection or we can hold to physicalism, but both aren’t true. It’s just simply not true that space-time is fundamental and that what we call physical objects are the fundamental nature of reality if we evolved and were shaped by natural selection. That’s the point. By the way, this is what we try to do in science. We try to take our best theories and see if we can get them to clash. If we can get them to clash, then we’re very happy because we’re about to learn something new. That’s the whole point is to be very precise in our theories so we can find out where our theories might break and then we get to the next level of a theory. Here we’ve shown that evolution by natural selection is at odds with physicalism.

– And that is a profound statement because, for decades, the thought was evolution is the fundamental manifestation of physicalism. In other words, that atoms combine to form molecules that combine to form DNA, combine to form cell walls over iterations seems, to me, the perfect expression of physicalism, but you’re saying there are no atoms and cell walls and DNA. There are only icons that evolve over time and if you look at your algorithms, the only way they can survive and be successful evolutionarily is if they do not see the fundamental true nature of reality but rather these icons, which are not real in the sense that they are species-specific, they’ve evolved to benefit that species, so there’s a bug in Australia that will have sex with a beer bottle because it looks like its mate because its graphical user interface sees that bottle as a sexy female insect. And it will go to extinction trying to have sex with this bottle because it is consistent with its iconography. It doesn’t see in reality that the bottle is a bottle.

– That’s right. The jewel beetle in the outback of Australia does exactly that. It’s dimpled, glossy, and brown, and it turned out there were these beer bottles that were also dimpled, glossy, and just the right shade of brown to get the male beetles all excited. They literally were on the bottles trying to mate and they had no interest in the real females and the species almost went extinct.

– Oh, my god, you know what? This is like a scientific case of beer goggles. Unbelievable.

– Yeah, that’s right. That’s exactly right, with a real beer bottle.

-Exactly. I know guys that will try to mate with a beer bottle at a certain level of drunkenness, so it’s no surprise that insects do it, too. But, again, this puts a point on the fact that we don’t see reality as it is. We see it as a fitness function and an icon on a desktop, and you’ve said this before, just because you don’t take the trash icon on your desktop literally, in other words, you don’t think it’s a little trash can that you throw documents in, you still take it seriously because it means something that correlates to reality. In other words, if I drag something I’ve been working on for months into the trash and delete it, it is gone and it doesn’t have to be a literal trash can. It’s because I take that icon seriously, just like I would take the icon, the human icon, of a tiger very, very seriously and would run even though I don’t think it’s necessarily that’s what it is. It’s not a tiger, it is an icon that represents some threat in reality to me.

– Exactly right. Evolution has shaped us with perceptual icons and a perceptual system that’s designed to keep us alive long enough to reproduce, so we have to take it quite seriously. If we see a tiger, don’t play with it. If you see a cliff, don’t step off. If you see a train, don’t step in front of it. We have to take our perceptions seriously, but that doesn’t entitle us to take them literally. It’s a logical leap that we make that’s just is wrong. It’s a psychologically compelling idea that because I have to take it seriously, I should therefore also take it literally, but that’s just false, as you mentioned with the trash can icon. We better take that trash can icon seriously, but we don’t take it literally.

– Right, and I’m gonna, ’cause you’ve talked in the past and you’ve given many examples, so for people who don’t believe basically what you’ve said so far, well, this is a computer simulation, that’s BS; or, now, I can still make arguments that reality is seen accurately. There is other evidence that you posit and some of that evidence has to do with our visual cortex and the fact that we have large numbers of neurons in our visual cortex, many more than it would take computationally to just depict reality as it is, but just enough it turns out to create icons and images from inputs in reality, but they are actually constructed. Is that correct?

– That’s right. The standard view in cognitive neuroscience is that the visual system, this is even the physicalist view, that the visual system is actively constructing all the shapes, colors, and motions that we see. The difference, though, is that most of my colleagues think that our constructions of shapes, motions, and colors in the visual system is in the normal case a reconstruction of the true shapes and colors of objects in the world around us. What I’m saying is we should view visual perception as a constructive process, but stop there. It’s not a reconstructive process. It’s a pure construction of the symbols we need to stay alive and those symbols are not reconstructions of a pre-existing world of rocks and tables and chairs.

– So here’s the question. That’s probably a good segue. I mean, I could talk about this topic for hours because it fascinates me in terms of perception, in terms of synesthesia and different brain conditions where people see the world differently. In other words, they taste smells or they feel tactile sensations when they taste something, and those are perceptual iconic changes, in other words, the icons we use to see reality are different in these individuals just like there might be a variant mutant in a population in evolution that is selected against over the years. But, now, maybe that new way of perceiving the world becomes an advantage so that person who can feel tastes is a better chef. And if chefs reproduce really well, then he’s gonna do better. So there’s a lot of evidence that you’re correct that we are not seeing reality as it is. We’re constructing it in a way that allows us to survive.

– That’s right. I think that synesthesia is an interesting example that evolution is not done with us, we’re continuing. About 4% of us have synesthesia of various kinds, there are dozens, scores of kinds of synesthesia, and this suggests that evolution is tinkering with our perceptual systems and seeing what the next model might be. The example you gave of… Well, Michael Watson was a gentlemen who everything that he tasted on his tongue, he felt as a three-dimensional object in space in front of him that he could feel with his hands. So mint, when he tasted mint, he would feel, and it was very compelling, it was as though there really was something in front of him, a tall, cold, smooth column of glass.

– Wow.

– Angostura bitters felt like a basket of ivy and he could feel the leaves, he could feel the tendrils, he could feel the texture of the leaves. What’s interesting here is that he was perceiving three-dimensional objects that he could feel not as a representation of true three-dimensional objects, but as a representation of tastes. This really I think is an important one because most of us have this intuition. When I see a three-dimensional object, like a basket of ivy, that could only be because there really is a basket of ivy in front of me. We now have a clean counter example of a real person, Michael Watson, who tasted angostura bitters and felt this three-dimensional object, a basket of ivy. There are many other examples. Carol Steen, for every sound that she hears, she sees a complex three-dimensional object with a surface texture and color and actually a dynamic motion. So she’s, again, using three-dimensional objects as a data structure for sounds. Michael Watson was using three-dimensional objects in space as a data structure for tastes, and so I’m saying that all of our perceptions of three-dimensional objects, the moon, rocks, tables, and chairs, these are just data structures that we’ve evolved, not to show us the truth. They’re just a convenient data structure to allow us to do what we need to do to stay alive.

– Unbelievable. And I think that is some of the most compelling information because if humans can perceive the world in that way, like you said, there’s no basket of ivy there. Basket of ivy is Michael’s shorthand for angostura bitters, the taste of angostura bitters, and so there is no angostura bitters in and of itself, although, let’s transition now to what then, what the hell if we’re hiding reality, right? And we’re getting into like, this is where Neo comes out and Morpheus says shit and he goes, “Whoa,” because it’s like are we living in the Matrix then? What’s the fundamental reality? Is this a simulation? Is this all mind generated? Is there only me, Don, and you’re an illusion of my mind? Or is there some fundamental reality beyond that that you posit? And this is where I think your theory went from interesting to absolutely absurdly fascinating. Could you tell me what the real nature of reality is that you’re proposing?

– That’s right. So all of us have the belief that we have experiences, right? That I experience a headache, I have emotions, I have tastes and smells and so forth, so we have conscious experiences and we certainly feel like we could be wrong about anything that we believe. But if we’re wrong that we have experiences, then there’s probably nothing that we know. So we have experiences, most of us believe that there’s also a physical objective reality and we’ve been trying to come up with a worldview that puts these two together. And the work that we just discussed indicates that space-time and physical objects are not objective reality. They’re just icons that we’re using, so that gave me pause. I said, so neurons don’t exist when they’re not perceived, so neurons could not be the basis of my conscious experiences.

– So in my brain right now, in my skull, I am assuming neurons exist and they’re firing and my Broca’s area is helping me speak to you and I haven’t had a stroke yet, although, I’m trying hard by eating badly and not exercising enough. And, yet, you’re saying neuron is a symbol–

– Yes, exactly.

– And in my brain right now, I’m not staring at it, so I don’t see the symbol.

– Exactly. A neuron is something, a symbol we create, when we look inside of skulls.

– But then, what is it? What is in there?

– So that’s where then, as scientific theory, I’m proposing something new. I’m going to say if… Maybe I know nothing. Maybe I’m wrong about everything I believe. But if I know anything, I know that I have conscious experiences, so let’s start there. Let’s assume that the ultimate nature of reality is that there are what I call conscious agents and these agents have conscious experiences, like the taste of chocolate, headaches, and so forth. Based on the experiences, they can make decisions about what they want to do and then they have actions that they can take. I’ve published with some colleagues several papers now where we’ve made this a mathematically precise theory. We call it the Theory of Conscious Agents. And the idea is that this mathematically precise notion of a conscious agent captures everything that there is to capture about consciousness and then we make a further assumption. We want a monistic theory. We want the universe that’s monistic, not dualistic. That’s just sort of a scientific taste. It’s Occam’s razor to keep things as simple as possible.

– A unified theory, yeah.

– A unified theory.

– By the way, I shave my back with Occam’s razor. I just thought you should know that.

– Francis Crick, in a meeting I was with him in once, said that many men have slit their throats with Occam’s razor.

– You know what? I wanna back up for a second before we go on. You just said, oh, in a meeting I was in with Francis Crick, so you’re just chillin’ out with Francis Crick. The dude who coded our DNA or stole it from that one person?

– Well, yes. We spent a lot of time together because Francis came to Southern California, I’m in Southern California, and for the last 20 years of his life, he was studying consciousness. There was a group of us. He was down at the Salk Institute in San Diego. I’m at the University of California, Irvine, about a hour north of him, and then there are other universities, like Cal Tech, that are about an hour north of me. So we would all meet once a month at Irvine. It was a secret meeting that we called the Helmholtz Club. And it was secret because Francis was in it and if people knew that Francis was in the room then we would be mobbed and we wouldn’t get anything done. It was a secret meeting every month where we brought together a dozen to two dozen of us and we discussed the neurophysiology of the brain and its relationship to consciousness. That’s what we did for about two decades studying this stuff, so it was a fun group for me to be a part of, the so-called Helmholtz Club.

– Wow! A secret society. This is like something out of a Da Vinci Code type novel.

– Right, but it was secret only because we needed to protect Francis and to get some work done. It was secret for no other reason. It would’ve been fine to have it be open, but as soon as people knew Francis was there, they were trying to get autographs and get their photographs taken and so forth.

– That’s what I would’ve wanted, a selfie with Crick. That would’ve been amazing. So was he as brilliant as everybody says?

– In his eighties he had a better memory, was more creative, and was sharper than I ever was in my twenties. He was stunning. Absolutely stunning.

– Wow. Wow, wow, wow.

– He discovered the genes and he had the best genes.

– Lucky, he just won the lottery.

– Yeah, he really did win the lottery. But he was a gentleman. He always treated me kindly and all the people in the room. Of course, when we had our scientific discussions, it was no-holds-barred.

– Right.

– He would not countenance any foolish logic or bad ideas. He was brutal and we wanted that. I mean, that’s what we’re there for, is to make progress and to have nonsense called for what it is.

– That’s amazing. So, let me, sorry on that tangent. It was just so interesting to me that these super smart people get together and talk about what I think, honestly, and I’m a doctor so I oughta feel differently. I oughta feel like well, no, it should be curing cancer. Understanding consciousness is probably our fundamental most deepest mystery that we need to solve in order to progress. I really think that and it would transcend politics, it would transcend religion, it would transcend science in itself, and incorporate those things into a grand unified theory of all that actually exists, so to me that’s the most important thing. But, again, now I’m just getting spooky. Back to conscious agents. So you devised with your colleagues this theorem of conscious agents. What is a conscious agent? How does that explain a neuron?

– So the idea then is that we propose what we call conscious realism. Conscious realism is the claim that the universe fundamentally consists only of conscious agents, so the universe is not a space-time physical thing. That’s not fundamental. Fundamentally, it’s a vast social network. Think about it as a huge social network, an infinite number of agents interacting, from very, very simple agents that literally have just what we call one bit of experience. They have only two experiences and a small set of two actions, so we call these the one-bit agents. But one-bit agents can combine to form two-bit agents and four-bit agents all the way up to, I don’t know how many bits we are, but complicated agents, and then off to infinity. There could be infinite conscious agents, so there’s this whole dynamics now. The mathematics is complicated because it’s dynamics on graphs. That turns out to be a fairly new mathematical field and it’s very, very hairy so we’re trying… I’ve got a collaborator, Robert Prentner, who’s working on simulating networks of conscious agents. We’re gonna study their properties, but the idea is conscious agents are fundamentalists, this infinite social network, and because each agent only has a finite set of capacities, a finite set of experiences, a finite set of actions it can take. It has to use an interface, a dumbed-down user interface to tame this complexity. So it’s an infinite social network, how can you not get overwhelmed by this infinity when you have only finite resources? You use space-time as your desktop. Space-time is a data compression scheme and physical objects are data structures that you use as a shorthand to guide you in this social network. That’s where physics comes in and what we’re gonna try to show is that we can get all of quantum physics, quantum field theory, and eventually quantum gravity as a data structure, a user interface, that some agents use to navigate this vast social network.

– Ah. Bro, bro, bro. So, okay, all right. And I’ll tell you, this is the part of your theory that actually got me the most interested because I’m gonna try to sum it up a little bit, I mean, for my own sort of monkey mind interface. So what you’re saying is the coin of the realm, in other words, the fundamental structure of reality, is consciousness.

– Yes.

– And that consciousness is actually kind of infinite, and in fact, even the term infinite probably doesn’t make sense because it applies our own space-time construct to something that doesn’t have it. But you’re saying it’s an infinite consciousness that’s subdivided into conscious agents, which have different levels of complexity and combinational sort of power. So you may have a very low-level conscious agent and each of these conscious agents, they’re like a one-bit conscious agent, each of these has certain things it can do. It can perceive experience. It can act in a certain way. In other words, it can do something. It lives in a particular world, which is the world of other conscious agents interacting with it, the big social network that is full of Russian bots that Zuckerberg is gonna try to control. And it’s the interaction of these conscious agents, each of which has experience.

– Yes.

– In other words, there’s something that it’s like to be a conscious agent, each of which sees the world through its own graphical user interface. That is the nature of reality and when we look at a tree, we are seeing a vastly complex network of conscious agents interacting not only with itself, but with what we call space-time, which is itself a series of conscious agents, just a data network that then we perceive and what we see through our hack to survive is green leaves, bark, and roots.

– That’s exactly right. It’s a data compression scheme, a user interface that we use because the network of social interaction of these conscious agents is infinitely complicated and we can’t deal with that. So we have to dumb it down and so we use space-time as our data compression scheme. One way to think about this concretely just to get the idea of it is just look in the mirror. What do you see when you look at yourself in the mirror? All you see is skin, hair, and eyes and the expression on your face. But you know firsthand that what you don’t see, your love of music, your aspirations, your fears, your hopes, your desires, the headache that you’re having, the rich range of all of your conscious experiences, that whole universe of your conscious experiences, you can’t see that in the icon that you’re seeing, just the skin, hair, and eyes. So here’s a case where you know firsthand that what you literally see in space and time, your face, is a portal to a huge realm of conscious experiences that cannot be seen in space and time. What I’m saying is that picture is true of everything that we see. Behind every physical object there… Every physical object is really our dumbed-down user interface symbol. Behind it is a realm of conscious agents. Now, if it–

– Ah Oh, my god.

– Which is different than panpsychism, right?

– Yeah.

– Panpsychism says the rock itself, at least some versions of panpsychism, there are many versions, but I’ll say with electron. Almost every version of panpsychism will say an electron has consciousness. I’m not saying that. I’m saying not that a rock is conscious or an electron is conscious, I’m saying these are just dumbed-down interface symbols that a conscious agent is deploying as a way of representing its interactions with other conscious agents. So it’s not that a rock is conscious or it’s not literally that my own body is conscious because my body itself is just a symbol. It’s just a user interface to this realm of conscious agents and then the mathematically precise goal is to show precisely how space-time and physics comes out of a network of conscious agents and their dynamics. We have to solve the mind-body problem the opposite way of the physicalist. The physicalist says let me start with atoms and neutrons and protons and also neurons, and I will show you how the complex interactions of neurons in these physical objects will give rise somehow to consciousness and no one’s been able to do that. So I’m saying let’s go the other way. We’ll start with consciousness. That’s our miracle, that’s fundamental. What I have to do now to solve the mind-body problem is to show how conscious agents can give rise to space-time and physical objects as user interface symbols and that is a nice technical problem, but there is no magic that’s gonna be required. It’s a hard problem, but it’s not this impossible magic that the other way has.

– Unbelievable and actually strangely intuitively it feels correct, I’m just speaking personally. That feels more correct to me than any other explanation of reality that I’ve heard, which is when I look at this tree, I’m seeing, like you said, a dumbed-down hack, an icon of what is actually a series of conscious agents interacting. And what that conscious agent is experiencing, I will not know because I can’t experience it because I have a separate point of view. In a way, I guess you can say each of these conscious agents is just a point of view of a unified consciousness. Would you say that or is that too spooky?

– That’s right. It comes out of the mathematics that when two agents interact, they do in fact form a new agent and that new agent is just as real as the two agents that are part of what we call its instantiation. Agents combine to instantiate higher-level agents and this can go on ad infinitum. You could have agents that are, conscious agents, that have an infinite set of possible experiences and now we’re getting into the realm of spirituality, which most spiritual traditions would be thinking about infinite consciousnesses, but that is usually not made precise. With the theory of conscious agents, I can state exactly what I mean by an infinite consciousness. So we can actually now, and this is the direction I’d like to go, have a mathematically precise spirituality where we can have theorems and proofs about conscious agents that are infinite. How many of them are there? Is this a monotheistic or a polytheistic kind of thing, for example? Are infinite conscious agents omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent? There are all sorts of questions that now become mathematical theorems, and so I’m very interested in eventually getting a mathematically precise notion of these things and a mathematically precise spirituality. The spiritual issue is about why are we here, what is this all about, what is the meaning of life, what kinds of creatures are we. These are the deepest and most important questions that we ask that are of central important to us personally. Religions have tried to answer these questions for thousands of years, but they haven’t had the benefit of the scientific method of precise mathematical hypotheses and strong empirical tests. And that’s what we now have the chance to do. Instead of having the letters G-O-D that are undefined and that we fight about and kill each other over because we disagree, we can now say I don’t know for sure what’s going on here, but here’s my hypothesis. I have this mathematical definition of conscious agents. Here’s the theorems that apply from that for infinite conscious agents. Now, if you disagree, then what is the mathematical structure or the aspect of this mathematical structure that you disagree with and what precisely would you like to replace it with? In other words, we can now turn some of our deepest questions about who we are into mathematically precise questions that we can then begin to use the tools of mathematics to understand more deeply who we are and address the questions that have been addressed by religion. So I see that we could for the first time in human history actually have a mathematically precise theory of infinite consciousness and therefore of spirituality, and that science and spirituality need not be at odds and they’re not like separate domains. Some of my colleagues think that science addresses one kind of questions and spirituality addresses other questions and they just have separate domains and they don’t interact and I disagree. I think that science just is our best way of trying to understand who we are and what we are and where we are. So we should use the best methods that we have to address these deep spiritual questions. I mean, if we’re going… There is a famous saying that the language of God is silence and all else is poor translation.

– Hmm.

– And that might be true. It might be that in these questions silence is the only deep point of view, but most spiritual traditions have tens of thousands of pages of writings. Tens of thousands of words and so if we’re going to talk about spiritual ideas there’s the question that we have then do we want to speak loosely and have sloppy discussions that are imprecise? Or do we want to be as precise as possible about the issues that matter most to us? Just as a human being, I would like to know what I’m talking about when I talk about spiritual things. And I want to know about them because they’re so important to me. There’s no room for sloppiness here. Let’s be as precise as we can about these spiritual questions. So I think that this theory of conscious agents, although it starts with finite conscious agents, the mathematics makes it clear to me that agents can combine ad infinitum and I will have infinite conscious agents, but I have complete mathematical control. I can analyze ’em, I can study them, and then we can have a scientific dialogue about this, so I’m quite excited about the implications for spirituality.

– Oh, man. I feel like I just went to church and it was a sermon that was amazing, but also combined integral calculus, which is so crazy I got to be honest, Don. That, what you just said, that piece that you just did, is what drew me to your work. It is the precise use of our iconography, which is science, to explain what is transcendent to us, which is this bigger spirituality. And I don’t say that in a mysterious, mystical way. I’m saying we can understand things that we fought over for millennia, that we’ve codified with our monkey minds in books and texts but really, like you said, the voice of God, the truth of God is probably much simpler and silent and we can actually describe it. Now, I want to clarify a couple things. I mean, literally, I could talk about what you just said for like 14 hours. But here’s what I want the audience to hopefully understand better. Interaction, I’ve seen your math. I understand 1% of it, but I’ll say that there’s some interesting compelling pieces in your math, in particular some resemblance to electron probability, cloud collapse functions.

– Yeah, mm hmm.

– And the fact that conscious agents combining and interacting with each other resemble a probability equation that you use to show what happens to electrons when they’re observed in probability clouds to me is an uncanny coincidence, if you will, about the nature of reality that science, especially neuroscience, medical science, has ignored the advances in physics, which is quantum mechanics. The fact that quantum mechanics basically says there is no real stuff until you look at it.

– Right.

– And why do we keep pretending there are actually neurons that are stable in space and time when it’s a construct? And so this math may actually explain how lower-level conscious agents combine in complexity to form a brain. Our brain may be consciousness all the way up and down and it’s at a certain level, that’s where our awareness is. I’ll tell you, with split brain experiments in humans who had their corpus callosum that connects the two hemispheres, how do you sort of look at their experience because it may be that we feel like we have a unified consciousness and awareness, but you can cut the corpus callosum and most people don’t notice anything. But when you study it, there are two independent conscious agents in your own mind that no longer talk to each other, but express themselves. The left side controlled by the right brain. The right side controlled by the left brain. Left visual field by the right brain. And they are often at odds with each other, like two children arguing. How does this fit your theory?

– Absolutely. That’s an excellent example of this kind of thing that we have the two hemispheres of the brain and normally they’re joined by the corpus callosum. Joseph Bogen was a surgeon who actually split the corpus callosum to help cure people that had epilepsy. As you say in many cases, we find that when we do careful experiments we find that the two hemispheres seem to be associated with two separate spheres of consciousness that could have entirely different contents. One could be seeing and experiencing the word key and the other one could be experiencing the word ring and neither is experiencing what the other is experiencing. And they have in many cases different personalities. So we have in the humans, apparently, these two personalities come together when you have an intact corpus callosum to create what I call me. And so here’s this case where we see two agents that can combine to create one agent and yet the two agents also exist, and that’s what the theory of conscious agents does entail, so the split brain is a perfect example of the kind of thing I’m talking about when we talk about agents combining. Another thing you just brought up was about the quantum mechanics and what it says about things existing and so forth. It’s absolutely the case that quantum theory entails that something called local realism is false. Local realism is the claim that physical objects have definite values of their physical properties, like position, momentum, and spin and charge. Definite values of their properties when they’re not observed, and that those values have influences that propagate no faster than the speed of light. That’s something that most of us would intuitively believe, that the world is local and realistic, that physical objects do have their positions and their momentums and so forth, even if no one looks. Quantum mechanics entails that that’s false. Local realism, according to quantum mechanics, is false and it also gives some experiments to test to see if quantum mechanics is making the right prediction. Those experiments have been done repeatedly and in every case, we find that the evidence is clear. Local realism is false. It’s just simply false to believe that objects have definite values of their properties whose influences propagate no faster than the speed of light. That’s false. That’s not the world we live in. And the other one is what’s called non-contextual realism. That’s the idea that objects have definite values of their properties; again, position, momentum, and spin; that are independent of how you measure them. And surely we think, well, a rock has its position and its momentum and whatever other physical properties independent of how I would try to observe it. Certainly, its properties just exist independent of the way I would try to measure them. Well, quantum mechanics entails that non-contextual realism is false and that has also been tested and non-contextual realism is false. Our physicalist intuitions that things exist and have their properties whose influences propagate no faster than the speed of light and exist independent of how we perceive them, that’s just false. That’s not the world we live in and that really fits in again with the conscious realist ontology that I’m proposing here.

– You call your theory conscious realism. Yes, this interacting social network of conscious agents that have these graphical user interfaces that can combine into higher entities, which means that there could potentially, and I want to bring this back to medicine in a second before I forget, but I’m gonna say this, the combination of the left and the right brain via corpus callosum or whatever that symbol corpus callosum means in reality, whatever those conscious agents are that generate the symbol of corpus callosum to our user interface, those imply that these agents can combine into higher levels of consciousness which mean, higher, quote unquote. We don’t know what that means really, but they have more maybe different range of experience, maybe different things they can do.

– Yes.

– That then directly implies that you can have stable dynamics between conscious agents in a football stadium at the Super Bowl theoretically and that combined consciousness creates an emerging consciousness that we do not participate in. In other words, we don’t feel it, but it exists as the sum of our consciousnesses or cies or whatever the plural is of that. Which then implies that could it be that even planets, galaxies, solar systems are higher-level conscious order… You know, expressions of consciousness.

– You know the symbols that we are using that are our best way of trying to understand these higher levels of consciousness, and you raise a great question and that is, one technical question that I want to solve here is how much can a single-conscious agent understand about the agents above it? So this, I’m a conscious agent, I have many agents that combine together to create me but I call my instantiation, and I’m in the instantiation of other agents that are quote unquote higher than me. What can I know about them? So it’s gonna be again a matter of theorems and proofs. How much can an agent know about the agents above it? I’m exceedingly interested to find out what the mathematics says.

– Man, that is probably one of the highest questions you can ask because you’re in a way asking what is the mind of god and can I know it. I mean that’s a shorthand–

– Right.

– In our iconography. Okay here’s a question though just before I forget. Are we living in the Matrix then, could this all be explained by a simulation theory, that this is all just in a simulator and these conscious agents are somehow a simulation of a higher intelligence or future humans or aliens?

– Well the standard kind of simulation theory that for example Nick Bostrom and others–

– Mm hmm.

– Are thinking about is a physicalist theory. So they say that we could be just a simulation of some computer scientist at a deeper level of reality than us and this could keep going recursively down until you get to some base level, and the base level they typically think of as a physical world. So there’s some race or some brilliant computer programmer at some base physical world that’s creating this all as a simulation. And so I’m denying that the base is a physical.

– Mm hmm.

– But I am agreeing though with the simulation idea in the following sense, that space-time itself is not fundamental, this is just a data structure. Space is a data structure and physical objects are not preexisting entities, they’re just data structures as well. And one thing that will help bring this home to people as not just an abstract idea is the following fact about space that is very counterintuitive. If I ask you how much data could you store into a volume of space, say I’ve got a volleyball here and I say, how much data, how many megabytes could you sort of, gigabytes could you store into this volleyball space? You say, what? I’ve got a two terabyte hard drive, I could stick that in there and maybe next year there’ll be a five terabyte hard drive and so forth. And the question is ultimately is there some ultimate limit to how much data you could stick into that region of space inside the volleyball. And it turns out the physicists know the answer. Stephen Hawking was the one who discovered the answer. And the answer is there is a limit and the amount that you can stick into that volleyball does not depend on the volume of the volleyball. The volume of the volleyball is completely irrelevant. It only matters what the surface area bounding the region is.

– Hmm. So how much space is inside that space doesn’t matter, it’s just what is the surface area of the volleyball.

– That’s exactly right. So volumes of space cannot hold information. It’s the surface areas that encode all the information. Now take that volleyball and imagine packing six smaller balls inside of it that are equal size and just fit.

– Hmm.

– If you do a little bit of math you’ll see that those six little balls have about half the volume. Because there’s gas between them, right?

– Mm hmm.

– But they have a little bit more surface area, about 3% more surface area. So if you’re a computer engineer and you’re asked, should I try to store my memory into the big volleyball or into the six smaller volleyballs, the answer is the six smaller volleyballs.

– Wow.

– Now keep doing that recursively, take each one of those six balls and pack it with six and keep doing that 20 or 30 times, you finally get to something that has essentially no volume and can hold millions of times more data. Space is utterly unlike our intuitions.

– Wow.

– Volumes of space do not hold information. It’s the surface areas. So by the way, that’s not a surprise if space is not a preexisting reality, the stage on which the drama of life is played out. Space is a data structure that conscious agents deploy as a computational device. And as for data compression and error correction. So if space is a data-compressing structure, and an error-correcting code, it’s no surprise that maybe we’ve used a dimensionless space for error correction and so we can’t use that extradimensional space for storing information.

– Wow.

– So this changes everything we believe about space. Space, we think, we deeply believe that it’s the stage on which the drama of life is played out. We come on to the stage, we leave the stage, but the stage, space-time itself, has always been there for 14 billion years. That whole framework is just wrong. Space is not something that preexists us and we pop in and out of space. Space is something that we create, space is something that we’re the masters of, we create it, and we destroy it.

– See to me that fundamental understanding opens a gateway to actually scientific pursuit of the manipulation of space-time in a way that would make Star Trek look just dumb. And that gets me to this issue of healthcare. And again, because I wanna respect your time I could talk about this for hours and I’m sure we’ve lost 97% of our audience but the 3% that are left are like okay, what’s next? So what’s next that I wanna talk about because, again, this is all true, if what you’re saying is true, the way we do medicine, the way we look at the human body, the brain, drugs, surgery, is the same way an ant would look at a human. It is so primitive and missing the bigger point which is everything we look at in our body, heart, hormones, cortisol, astrocyte, this new rose hip neuron they’ve discovered, it’s all symbols of interacting conscious agents. So when we talk about things like the mind-body connection, the placebo effect, the no-cebo effect which is the negative placebo effect, the connection to perception and anticipation with experiences such as nausea, pain, chronic pain, those sort of things. We oughta be looking at from a conscious realism perspective which is these are interacting conscious agents which means we can probably mathematically do certain predictions once the math is really figured out in advance, and we might be able to predict up and down what the higher and lower level structures are doing and manipulate them in a way that leads to better functioning of the combined entity which is us. So everything from having a stroke to depression to cancer might better be understood when we let go of the fact, this non-fact that we assume is fact, that these cells and neurons and electrons are independently existing regardless of our perception of them and they are causal agents in the world, they are not, they are symbols.

– Exactly right. I completely agree with you on this. I, as a conscious agent, have an infinite, a huge instantiation of other conscious agents that combine to form me. I don’t have the resources myself to even understand all these agents, right? ‘Cause it’s too complicated. And so I have to have a dumbed-down interface even to describe the agents that form me. So the… Very, very good. That’s right. So I as a conscious agent have a huge instantiation of other conscious agents that combined to form me and it’s very, very complicated and I don’t have the resources myself to understand all of my own instantiation. So I have to view myself through an interface. And so the highest levels of that interface which describe the higher levels of my instantiation, that’s what I experience as my moods, my emotions, my psychology. A little bit lower down is what we would describe as our biology, our neurobiology. A little bit below that we describe it as chemistry and then physics and then so forth. And so what we took to be the objective realities, physics, chemistry, biology, and so forth, these are just levels of my interface description of my own instantiation, and so this gets back to what you were saying about how we think about this in terms of medicine and psychiatry and so forth. Neurons are not preexisting entities in space-time that are causally efficacious, they’re just the symbols that we use, they’re dumbed-down user interface symbols that describe our own instantiations in terms of conscious agents in a certain kind of description. And so ultimately we’re gonna have to understand ourselves as complicated networks of interacting conscious agents and we’re perceiving that network of ourselves through the lens of neurons and moods and emotions and biology and chemistry and so forth. But we can’t take the description literally, we just have to learn how to look through our descriptions, past the descriptions in terms of the biology, back to the conscious agents that’s really going on. And that’s gonna take us some work to understand how to do that but I think it’s gonna be very important because it’s just false that neurons have causal powers. And it’s just false that neurochemistry has causal powers. So it’s important for us to know about serotonin and dopamine and acetylcholine and so forth and to understand that one level of description and how these things affect our moods and our behavior and so forth, but there’s going to be a deeper understanding of these things when we realize they’re just interface descriptions about social networks of conscious agents that are our instantiation.

– You know it’s interesting, so I was talking to my wife about this who’s a radiologist and yesterday we were having lunch and I said I’m gonna speak to Donald Hoffman tomorrow and he has this theory and I went through the discussion with her, and she said, “Why should I care about this? “How will this affect my life that these are “conscious agents and such and such?” And I said, “Well I’m not explaining it right, clearly, “because the way you just talked about it “and the way we were just having the discussion, “that’s the answer.” When we understand the real nature of how things are actually working and that these neurons are not causal, they don’t cause things, they’re symbols, then we can get to the root of how do we understand depression, why is it that antidepressants and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors have been losing efficacy relative to placebo, or has it been the placebo’s been getting stronger? Why is that? Is there some effect on conscious agents in terms of perceptual stuff, and what is the effect of a serotonin molecule which, as you say, is just a symbol of a lower-level instantiation of a conscious agent, what does that mean then to its effect on the higher-level structures in our brain? If we think about it that way, you look at a molecule like psilocybin or LSD, tiny microgram quantities of this agent can cause massive changes in conscious perception. And why would that be? Even from a neurotransmitter standpoint it barely makes sense. But from a conscious agents standpoint there’s some interaction, some hack that our symbols don’t show us. That are causing this effect. And when we understand it, we can use it therapeutically.

– Absolutely. And there’s a lot of work to be done there to make the translation between the neurotransmitter systems and their activations and the conscious agent dynamics that’s underlying. So we have a lot of work ahead. But clearly if we’re starting with the assumption that chemicals are fundamental and that chemicals have causal powers when that’s false, then we’re stopping ourselves from a certain level of progress that we would like to have further on down the line. So it has very, very practical implications. I mean, there’s the history about the study of electricity and magnetism, Faraday was just playing with these magnets and wires and so forth and you could ask what in the world good is this? And then Maxwell comes along and takes Faraday’s ideas and turns them into summary equations and people going oh, so what? Well, it didn’t have application immediately, but now all of our modern electronic communications is based on that. So once you understand the world just for the sake of understanding it, practical applications, in this case medical applications I think, will come down the line and be very, very powerful. We can’t see where it’s going to go.

– I mean, I can just think of imaging. ‘Cause right now imaging is this interesting reductionist view of neuron structures and gray matter structures, cortical structures, white matter, tracks, things like that, based on magnetic resonance. What if we could actually understand an image, a different fundamental iconography and reality that is how the mind actually works? Because like you said, you said something in this talk that I think I wanna put a very big punctuation point on which is the fact that we have experience is probably the only fact that we can say is true. Because everything else in the world is filtered through our perception but the fact that we perceive, the fact that there is something like it is to be us is a fundamental reality. So could it be that that fundamental reality of conscious awareness is the fundamental reality of the universe and that there are mathematical ways to predict how these interact and scientific ways to make predictions about higher-level structures, lower-level structures, and reality that fit into our iconography of quantum mechanics, quantum gravity, grand unified theories and so on, and if you can show that over time, this will go down as yes this was the next big advance in understanding physics, reality, medicine, and spirituality all in one.

– Yes, that’s sort of the goal. I mean, we might be wrong about everything but if we’re right about anything it’s that we have conscious experiences. And so let’s take that as our foundation and see how far we can go with it. And one objection that some people might have at this point to the argument that evolution by natural selection shows that we don’t see reality as it is and so space and time and physical objects are just symbols. And people might object, well that’s, you’re using something that’s self-refuting because evolution by natural selection assumes that there are things like DNA that exist whether or not we perceive them. And there are organisms and there are resources and there’s a physical world. And so since biological evolution theory assumes these things and then you come along and you claim well you’re using the theory of evolution to prove that space and time and physical objects don’t exist when they’re not perceived, including DNA, you’ve used the theory of evolution to refute the theory of evolution so you’ve shot yourself in the foot and this whole thing is an exercise in futility. And that is of course an objection that seems quite compelling at first, but it misses a key point. What I’ve used is what Dan Dennett and Richard Dawkins and others have called universal Darwinism.

– Mm hmm.

– It’s the algorithmic core of the theory of evolution. Variation, selection, and retention.

– Hmm.

– And as Dawkins and Dennett and others will point out, that algorithm of evolution, the universal Darwinism, can apply outside of biology, can apply, for example, they discuss memes, how ideas can grow and spread.

– Yep.

– But the idea is that any time you have variation, selection, and retention you have evolution so that’s the algorithmic core of evolution, universal Darwinism. And so when I make these simulations and then this theorem with, I should give credit to Chetan Prakash, my collaborator, who proved the theorem. We have a theorem based on evolution by natural selection, we’re using evolutionary game theory which is the mathematical formulation of universal Darwinism. So what we’re doing is we’re using the algorithmic core of evolutionary theory and we’re showing that some of the peripheral assumptions of biological evolutionary theory, namely peripheral assumptions like DNA exists when it’s not perceived. That space and time exist, that physical objects exist. It turns out that those peripheral assumptions are false and they contradict the algorithmic core of evolutionary theory. So we’re not refuting ourselves, we’re actually using the science of evolution to refine the science of evolution and to get rid of some peripheral assumptions that were false.

– That’s amazing. And I think I’ve heard that argument against what you’re doing and I sort of felt very similar about what you’re saying which is I think you’re missing that point and also the idea that again that these things are, they’re symbols and you don’t need them for the fundamental core algorithm of evolution to make sense. And in fact they’re contradictory. So one question I wanted to ask and again it has to do with time. So we talked about space. We haven’t talked about time. Time is also a construct, and that’s clear because you can warp it with relativity, you can do a lot of things to time. What do you think the fundamental nature of time is? Is it another hack?

– Yes, so space and time of course in special and general relativity are combined into space-time in Einstein’s ideas and they become one thing, you can trade out some space for some time and vice versa. But from this framework, space-time itself, including time, is just a data structure. In terms of the theory of conscious agents, each agent gets an experience and makes a decision and then takes an action. And so these are discrete. I get a new experience, now I’m tasting chocolate, now I’m hearing an alarm, and so forth. And so each agent can count in some sense its experiences, but there is no universal time in this theory, it’s all asynchronous. And so the notion of a universal time is again a user interface kind of variable. We can talk about a time variable in a space-time data compression scheme, but the conscious agent dynamics that we’re simulating is this infinite collection of conscious agents, each one only increments its counter when it gets a new experience. And we’re playing with what is this all about and what is the nature of the dynamics of conscious agents. One game that we can play is to say suppose we have a huge collection of conscious agents in our simulation, and we start them off, they each get to send one message, send one experience to some other agent. And then from then on you have conservation of experiences, you can only send a message if you get a message, you can only pass an experience if you get an experience. And see how that evolves. Is it like that experiences, conscious experiences are the coin of the realm. That’s an interesting direction. So we have to figure out what is it all about, why is there a dynamics of consciousness, is it for example, one hypothesis that a colleague of mine, Federico Feggin, has suggested.

– Oh yeah.

– Do you know Federico?

– Mm hmm, mm hmm, I know of him.

– Yeah he invented the microprocessor.

– Kind of a big deal, yeah.

– Yeah, yeah. He was the genius at Intel that did that when he was in his mid-twenties. So Federico thinks that maybe the conscious agents, well he calls them conscious units, are trying to come to self-comprehension to understand themselves. And that’s an interesting idea in the sense that it’s a universal truth that no system can completely represent itself. Right? If I have a computer program and my computer is trying to represent itself well it’s gonna have to build a data structure which is representing itself but in the very act of building its data structure it has become more complicated. So now it needs to build more data structure to represent that extra complexity and you get caught in this infinite loop. No system can ever completely understand itself. So is that part of the dynamics of consciousness?

– Hmm.

– That consciousness, because of this incompleteness principle, you can never completely understand yourself, that there is this constant dynamics of mutual understanding that’s going on. So it’s an open question. I don’t know, to say that the fundamental nature of the universe’s consciousness opens up a whole new class of questions why. It’s the fundamental, philosophical question, why is there something as opposed to nothing? In this case, why are there conscious agents, why are they having dynamics as opposed to nothing? And I don’t know.

– You know, and this is a fundamental question, my wife was asking me this so if it’s all conscious agents, why, why, why? Why do they care, why do they try to interact with each other, why do they, and these are questions like you said, that’s gonna take, once you actually show that this is the case, then you can start exploring those deeper questions and I saw you actually do a thing with the Dalai Lama which was amazing. But one of the interesting things about that, you talked about these little quanta of experience that are exchanged, the Buddhists, and we could talk a little bit about meditation practice but in meditation practice there is this sort of mind moment theory that experience is not a continuous analog experience but it is quantized in the sense that there are these mind moments. That roughly have neural correlates so in other words the neural correlate may be a hertz refresh rate in synchronous activity in EEG leads if you’re actually measuring the external iconography correlates in our graphical user interface of what that looks like. So in deep meditation, people who are very good, who are adept meditators, and I’ve had a glimpse of this, only a glimpse, kind of like a peak experience in meditation. When you truly calm these sort of sub-minds that are constantly feeding you information so a little verbal narrating sub-mind, this is who you are, you need to do the laundry, this and this, the sensory sub-minds that say your butt hurts sitting in this chair, et cetera. When through practice you can start to tune that out and focus only on the current flow of experience, it starts to get, the breath which you’re focusing on in this particular practice gets a quantized aspect to it. Where it feels like a series of moments, beads on a string going through perception. And every 15th bead or something there’s an integrative bead that kind of ties the previous beads together into what they call a binding moment which kind of explains oh, I’m in a room here instead of just light, sound, taste, color. And this idea that maybe these are quantized as a fundamental currency of the realm like you said, as a consciousness currency of the realm can be empirically tested through meditation from a subjective side. And these people will swear that this is the experience they have and the classic Buddhist concept of cessation where you’re paying attention to the stream of consciousness and it suddenly stops, in other words there’s no served up moment of consciousness but blankness. That experience is so transformative for people because they realize the fundamental coin of the realm is awareness and its contents. And when the contents are gone, you just experience the awareness as the fundamental truth of everything. And so the mystics over years have sort of pointed to this as an empirical experience. And I don’t think it’s disconjugate with what you’re saying.

– That’s quite interesting the convergence there. And I think that we’re gonna find that the various religious traditions including Buddhism have a lot of deep insights that can work together with the science of conscious realism to actually develop it into a very rigorous and testable kind of investigation of the human condition and of meditation. I’m really quite intrigued to do that and one thing that I think is also a convergence here is that one implication of the theory of conscious agents and conscious realism is that my very body is a construction.

– Hmm.

– The notion of an eye is a construction. I construct everything that I know about myself because it turns out when you look at the actual formulism of conscious agents, the conscious agent has a set of experiences, based on those experiences it can make free will decisions and it can take certain actions. The space of actions is distinct from its space of experiences. That means, the formulism is saying, that unless you explicitly go out of your way to represent your actions, you’re not experiencing your actions. You’re also not experiencing your free will decisions. All you have are your experiences, so you have to use some of your experiences to construct a model of you and a model of your decisions and a model of your actions. So when I see my hand reach over and pick something up, I’m using part of my experience base to model certain of my actions. I don’t know what I’m really doing. I don’t know what my real actions are. I only know my actions under a space-time user interface description that I’m employing. So in some sense, I’m deeply mysterious to myself because I can only know myself under a description and even that self is an icon, symbol, on my interface.

– Hmm.

– It’s not a fundamental reality. And I suspect that that idea resonates very, very deeply with certain Buddhist ideas and other traditions as well. That the self itself is something that we’re constructing like a string of pearls on a strand. I construct the self now, now, now. I’m constructing this model of myself because otherwise I can’t in some sense predict what I’m going to do or understand what I’m going to do.

– But despite being all symbols and not knowing ourselves, we have impact on the world and on others which means there is a fundamental reality there. Right?

– That’s right. There is a fundamental reality of conscious experiences–

– Agents, mm hmm.

– And conscious agents and also by the by I take the notion of free will as fundamental which, again, Dan Dennett and Sam Harris and others would disagree, but it’s very interesting. They will take the notion of chance as fundamental.

– Hmm.

– So in a physicalist universe, chance plays the role of you have something coming out of nothing, something novel coming out of nothing that’s unpredictable, there’s no algorithm that can predict what’s gonna happen if it’s true chance. That’s in face the definition of true chance is that there’s no algorithm that can predict the outcome. And they don’t like the notion of free will in the physicalist framework because the notion of free will would be smuggling in a dualism, right?

– Yeah.

– You have free will you have to have an agent–

– An agent, yeah. A subjective agent, yeah.

– But now in the consciousness framework it’s just the opposite so we’re starting with agents and there is this notion of novelty. Things come into the world that are unpredictable. Do I want to bring in the notion of chance? Well no because that would force me into a dualism. Now I’m bringing in a non-conscious physicalist kind of notion of chance. So instead I’m going to be going with free will. And what’s interesting is, so I have a mathematical model of free will that comes out of this conscious agent formulism. We use things called Markovian kernels to represent the free will decisions and it turns out when two agents combine, you get a new decision kernel for the higher level agent. And so you’re gonna have the free will of the higher-level agent, the emergent agent, and then the free will decisions of all the agents in its instantiation and it turns out the mathematics is really quite interesting about how the free will decisions of the lower-level agents constrain the free-level decisions, but don’t totally determine, the free will decisions above. And then the higher-level decisions of those agents flow down and influence all of the decisions of the lower-level agents. So we’re going to have this really beautiful, complicated, mathematically precise notion of free will where there’ll be bottom-up influences where the free will decisions of lower-level agents constrain the free will decisions of higher-level agents and then the higher-level agents have their own realm of free will. By the way, free will isn’t absolutely free, I mean, I can jump but I can’t jump to the moon. So we’re not talking about absolute freedom, we’re talking about freedom within a certain range. And so the free will decisions of higher-level agents will influence the free will decisions below. The mathematics is gonna be quite complicated but I think we’ll start with simulations just to see how it works out, and if we can prove theorems about it, that’ll be fun, but it’s gonna be pretty complicated. But as far as I know, this is the first time that there’s ever been a mathematically-precise theory of free will.

– I, my jaw is dropped open right now because I have always been a subscriber of Sam Harris’s concept of free will which is more of a deterministic idea that these decisions bubble up from our unconscious, unfathomable processes and are acted on by our conscious awareness in a way that feels free but is actually entirely predetermined by causes and conditions underneath. What you’re saying is those causes and conditions are all free, the ones above are all free, but they each constrain each other, and so in a way, it’s saying the same thing. It’s saying our conscious mind and experience at the high level conditions our sub-minds and subconscious agents which are free to make decisions, their decisions bubble up. We’re not really directly aware of those but they come up and then we act on them or don’t act on them and there’s a feedback loop between them. So in a way we’re free with caveats.

– Exactly.

– That’s amazing. And it feels so intuitively correct.

– It seems right and the nice thing about it is it’s a monistic theory, it’s one process at many different levels. And what we call unconscious processes are not strictly speaking unconscious, I’m just not conscious of those processes. I only know them, I describe them as neuroprocesses or whatever, but they’re just other conscious agents. I’ve given up trying to understand and see exactly what they’re doing, that’s why I call it unconscious because it’s unconscious to me.

– Hmm.

– It’s just like me talking with you, for example. I believe fully that you’re conscious, that you have conscious experiences, but I am not directly conscious of your experiences in any way. It’s just an assumption on my part. So your experiences are unconscious to me, but I would be wrong and silly to say that because I’m not directly aware of your conscious experiences therefore you don’t have any conscious experiences. That’s a mistake.

– Yeah.

– So the fact that I’m not conscious of something doesn’t mean that there isn’t consciousness there. And so when I give a, a teach a big introduction to psychology class at the University of California at Irvine, and I’ll tell all the freshmen during my lectures that 99% of our mental processes are unconscious.

– Mm hmm.

– And that’s certainly the standard view, but what’s really going on is 99% of these conscious agent processes are unconscious to me because I just don’t have the resources to deal with them so I call them unconscious and then I’m silly and I just assume that they’re fundamentally unconscious, they’re just neuroprocesses that are going on according to the laws of physics and chemistry.

– Wow. It makes perfect sense! And I’ve actually felt that and actually it’s interesting because this book that I use for meditation called The Mind Illuminated, he talks about something called the mind system model which is his, he’s a neuroscientist turned, like, Buddhist adept, and he talks about this mind system model which is his interpretation of Buddhist scripture from back in the day plus neuroscience. And the idea is that our mind is a series of sub-minds that all interact via consciousness. So you have your verbal sub-mind, your narrating self, you have your emotional sub-mind and you have, like, sensory sub-minds. They all serve up information in quantized fashion to a boardroom, like a PowerPoint slide.

– Mm hmm.

– And consciousness can be aware of those inputs one at a time in a beads on a string fashion but it’s very fast and it feels integrated. But what’s interesting is each of those sub-minds is made up of an infinite number of other sub-minds, each of which has its own board of directors and its own consciousness.

– Wow.

– And so it’s saying exactly what you’re saying.

– Exactly.

– Yeah.

– Exactly.

– And so our so-called unconscious processes are actually their own consciousness that we’re not aware of and that means to me that we can condition them through conscious awareness at the higher levels because it filters down and it means that who we surround ourselves with, the friends we make, the people we choose to listen to, I choose to listen to Don Hoffman about consciousness, those things affect our quote unquote unconscious processes in a way that then emerge to make us who we are. And so that’s why people who are hard determinists say well we just have no control over anything. That’s not true! It’s a complex, nuanced idea about free will that says yes, the responsibility is ours because it’s this collective action of all these conscious agents and we can influence it.

– Yeah I completely agree. And the confluence between this idea and the Buddhist idea is really quite intriguing. And again, it’s a kind of thing where the two could interact and I might be able to get some very deep insight from the Buddhists and then in turn maybe provide a formulism that provides a rigorous understanding of what they’ve been saying for quite a while. Absolutely. Sam, in his book Free Will, makes the point that many times we believe that we’re making a free will decision when in fact we’re not.

– Mm hmm.

– And you know there are experiments in which you can actually get, you can trick people and people believe that they’ve made a free will decision when in fact you’ve made the choice for them. And those experiments are correct. It’s absolutely the case that people can believe that they’ve made a free will choice when they haven’t. And that’s certainly the case, and Sam is also right when he says that many aspects of my decisions are things that I’m not consciously controlling. Right? Like I choose chocolate ice cream over vanilla. Why? Because I prefer chocolate. Why do I have that preference? I don’t know. And so what I would say is that from this framework of free will there are these free will decisions of lower-level agents that are influencing me.

– Hmm.

– You know? To like chocolate over vanilla, for example. But ultimately I do get the final choice. I have a circumscribed free will at my own level but I have a genuine degree of free will.

– Mm hmm.

– At my level.

– In other words there’s possibility to make those choices. That’s open.

– That’s right. And Sam will say well look, the notion of free choice doesn’t make sense because I can’t choose what I’m going to choose. The notion of choice ends in darkness.

– Yeah.

– The explanations stop there and there’s no, I can’t choose what I’m going to choose. And he’s certainly right in the sense that when we get to the notion of free will we are coming to a primitive of the theory, although I’m able to cache it out in this very interesting mathematical, dynamical, interactive structure. But the same thing is true of what physicalists use, namely chance. Chance is also the place where explanation ends in darkness.

– Hmm.

– Explanation stops there. Chance is their miracle and so it’s not like someone who is doing, taking consciousness as fundamental and talking about free will is helping themselves to miracles that the physicalist doesn’t have to help himself to. No, physicalist has exactly the same level of miracle, they just call it chance.

– Hmm.

– And so we’re on even keel there. The difference is if I start with consciousness, I can solve the mind-body problem without a miracle. If I start with physicalism and chance, I can’t solve the mind-body problem without invoking the miracle. And so that’s why I’m going after the consciousness being fundamental.

– I think Don Hoffman that, and again, this is my bias, and I want people to come at me in the comments on the Facebook post of this, I want you to ask follow-up questions for Professor Hoffman that when we get him back on the show if he’s willing to come because we’ve only scratched the tip of the iceberg but you can see just itching a little bit of that leads to so much sort of concordance in terms of, well, we can explain a lot from a unified theory of conscious realism and you guys haven’t seen his math. Honestly I wish I were smart enough to understand it. I’m gonna leave it to Don and his colleagues to prove and disprove his math and keep exploring that and I’m hoping that this work picks up steam, that others catch on and start exploring it because again, to me it feels like the most cohesive, least magical explanation, ironically, because we’re talking about consciousness being the coin of the realm. It feels less magical than any other explanation that I’ve heard including things like integration and integrative information theory and other explanations of consciousness which we can talk about another time. So–

– Yes.

– With that, do you have any parting thoughts for my crew of healthcare practitioners? ‘Cause I wanna respect your time and we will bring you back if you’re game. Any parting thoughts?

– I would love to come back and talk more. This has been fun. I would say that if it’s false that neurons and chemicals exist and have causal powers, and they’re just symbols instead, then that’s very important to understand what those symbols are and what they are really pointing to and to understand the deeper reality because that will give us a deeper understanding of what’s guiding our behavior and causing health and illness. So I think it’s an important direction.

– I think you nailed it and I think I’m gonna put one more coda on that which is right now because of the failures of our reductionist approach, this belief that neurons and biochemicals are causal agents in the world and the final reality, that have a location in space and time and do stuff in the world, because of that failure, in other words our inability to treat depression effectively in refractory cases, our inability to cure cancer, our inability to understand chronic pain. People turn to mysticism, spooky stuff, magical thinking like alternative medicines, different things that in our evidence-based structure aren’t shown to help. What if the alternative medicine guys are right in that we’re not looking deep enough, but they’re wrong in that they’re not using a scientific method to look?

– Right.

– People like Professor Hoffman are doing that and I think we as a tribe of healthcare professionals it behooves us to understand and try our best, I know it’s hard, I know we lost a lot of our audience, but for the ones who are here, cede a simple understanding with your colleagues of what this might mean and let’s explore it because I think this could be a transformative understanding and that’s why I had asked Dr. Hoffman to be on the show because it felt like even though we’re gonna lose a bunch of people who won’t be interested because I think it’s too high-level at some level and at another level it’s too counterintuitive and at a third level it makes people violently opposed to the idea. That’s what we want, we wanna do that, and that’s what’s gonna push the boundaries of this stuff. So Professor Hoffman, what an honor and a pleasure and it really got me fired up, I was jumping out of my chair at one point and like pumping my fists at stuff you were saying which means it’s probably all wrong because usually I’m wrong.

– Well it’s been a great pleasure and that’s part of the scientific experience is to be precise that you can find out precisely why you’re wrong.

– I love it, I love it. And I’m precisely wrong on most things so this has been a fun experience. Professor Hoffman, thanks, we’ll have you back. Z-pack, you guys know what to do, follow us on Facebook, become a subscriber, support the show on Patreon, check out Dr. Hoffman’s links that I will put in the web posting, share this, and we out, peace.