We have NO CLUE how consciousness emerges from 3 pounds of wet goo. Cognitive scientist Donald Hoffman takes us deep into his research that makes a bold claim: we’ve been attacking the problem BACKWARDS.
The implications of his theories just may change everything you think you know about reality and our place in it. Take the Red Pill and see how deep the rabbit hole goes…
And DEFINITELY check out his book as it really lays out his case beautifully.
In this extended interview we dive into the Interface Theory of Perception (how evolution hides the truth about reality in favor of a dumbed down user interface that only shows us “fitness” payoffs that help us survive), the “Hard Problem of Consciousness” and how we simply have no idea how consciousness could emerge from physical matter, the theory of Conscious Realism (how reality is really a mathematically-definable social network of conscious “agents” and our perceptions are simply the interface by which we exchange experience with other conscious agents), the math behind conscious agent theory, implications for artificial intelligence (AI), what happens when we die, the limitation of resources in the universe, synesthesia, psychedelics, spirituality, medicine, and much much more.
Prof. Donald Hoffman, apart from being a brilliant scientist, is a wonderful and warm human being in person. Check out our first audio-only conversation from 2018 here, and my take on his theory of consciousness here.
Click here for easier navigation through this show’s key topics.
1:22 Are we machines? Don’s motives for studying reality & his background in artificial intelligence & mathematics
6:38 Evolutionary game theory and how organisms are tuned to see fitness payoffs, not objective reality
11:46 The “Grand Theft Auto” analogy of perception as interface/symbolic representation
14:41 Solipsism & why we don’t just see SOME objective reality, we see NONE of it
21:06 The hard problem of consciousness and WHY it’s hard from a physicalist perspective
28:38 Conscious agent theory: consciousness is fundamental (rather than emerging from matter)
39:36 Challenging perceptual psychology; Piaget and object permanence
7:06 Amplituhedron and projecting quantum mechanics and relativity from conscious agent theory
50:42 Impact this theory can have on modern medicine and our limited understanding of mental health disorders
01:01:44 Deeper down the rabbit hole, and what happens when we die?
01:08:40 Artificial intelligence as a way to open new interfaces into the conscious agent realm
01:27:58 Examining Evolutionary Psychology; its relation to consciousness and resource limitation
01:40:30 Psychedelics and meditation as tools to hack our perceptual interface and experience other conscious agents
01:47:02 Synesthetes as a glimpse into interface theory, evolution, and more
[Zubin] What’s up everybody? It’s Dr. Zubin Damania, AKA ZDoggMD, and I am just an icon, okay. And, that will be explained, by watching this episode. I’m here with Professor of Cognitive Sciences at the University of California, Irvine. And a personal intellectual hero of mine, no bias here, Dr. Donald Hoffman. Professor, welcome to the show.
[Don] Thank you so much, Zubin. It’s a pleasure to be here, and thanks for inviting me.
[Zubin] Man, it’s really crazy to have you in my garage, because I’ve seen your TED talk, I’ve been to workshops with your. I’ve read your book, “The Case Against Reality: Why Evolution Hid the Truth from our Eyes.” And I have to be honest with you, I’m like, to the extent that a scientist can be a fanboy of another scientist, I am a fanboy! Because what you’ve kind of proposed, and again, we may be wrong here, but it’s the one thing that’s actually felt right to me about the nature of reality, that we don’t see it, as it actually is. In other words, we don’t see truth, we see a graphical user interface, that is a series of icons, that are tuned to keep us alive and reproducing, but not tuned to show us the truth. And the underlying truth that is there, may be much more interesting than we think. So.
[Zubin] Let’s start with that. How did you even get interested in studying this?
[Don] Well, I was interested in perception and artificial intelligence, and the question, are we machines? Are people just machines, or is there something more to us than just machines? And so I was, as a teenager, I was very interested in these questions. I was programming, so I knew what programs could do, a bit. And, but I was also, you know, my dad was a fundamentalist minister, so there were all these other aspects of spirituality or religion that were interesting about human nature. And I was trying to put all this stuff together. So I would, on the one side with the programming, and the new kinds of capacities of artificial intelligence, it was looking like, we might be machines. On the other hand, there’s supposed to be something about us that’s beyond the machine. And so, I was very, very curious, and so I started. I went to UCLA and did an undergraduate degree in which I was studying computer science, mathematics, with a major in psychology. And then I went to MIT, where I went to the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, and what’s now the Brain and Cognitive Science department. And so I was able to then study both the brain and cognitive science’s aspect of human nature, and the artificial intelligence kinds of models of intelligence. Trying to put together a picture of who we are, what is human nature, what are we? Are we just machines? Are we just biological machines? Are we just computers? Or is there something beyond the space time physical machine? And, I wasn’t sure, but I kept pursuing the mathematical models. And in 1986, my collaborators and I, actually had a mathematical model. And studying it, talking with my collaborators, I realized that the mathematics was saying to me, what you are seeing may not be the truth. And I still remember the moment, when I realized what the math was saying. I wasn’t trying to get there with the math. It was just, I was just trying to get a general theory of perception mathematically. And when I realized the math was saying, you don’t necessarily see the truth, I had to sit down. It was such a shock to the system. And so, that was 1986, that was 33 years ago. I’ve been now following that thread for 33 years, and seeing where it takes me, and it’s pretty interesting.
[Zubin] So, basically, that math was like a red pill, back then.
[Don] I took the red pill, or at least, it was put in my mouth. I don’t know if I swallowed it completely, but I was concerned enough that I wanted to look into it.
[Zubin] Do you ever feel like you wish you were back, you’d never taken it, and you were just like everybody else?
[Don] Oh, no, no. The blue pill is boring, and so I don’t wanna be there. I want to actually, whatever reality might be, if it’s uncomfortable, I’m ready to go, and find out what it’s like, so yeah.
[Zubin] So, you know, and that brings me to how I first got introduced to you. So, Tony Hsieh who I used to work with at Zappos, I think had sent me, he’s the CEO of Zappos. He had sent me a TED talk, and he’s like, Zubin, you’re interested in consciousness, you should check this out. And so, I looked at it, and it was your TED talk.
[Don] Okay. Where you were saying, you know, it was about not seeing the truth. And I watched it, and I said, oh, here’s a scientist, so this is interesting, visual perception, and how we don’t really see things as they are. They’re constructions of our mind, and not only that, but they’re not even close to reality. They are purely iconic to help us survive, and we’re not seeing the underlying reality at all. And you present this really interesting case, and I remember having this moment. It was a red pill moment.
[Zubin] Where right towards the end, I was like, I was just riveted, and at the end, I said, oh my gosh, so what is reality? And you just said, I have a couple theories of what the world actually is, but we’ll get to that another time, or something like that. And I was like, what, no! So, then I went down the Don Hoffman rabbit hole, and watched a lot of your lectures on what the theory is. So, maybe we should back up and go, you know, you study visual perception. Why is it that you’re saying, and in this book, “The Case Against Reality.” You actually do this, you build a case, chapter by chapter by chapter. Starting with things like split brain experiments. Like, how is it that you can cleave conscious experience in two.
[Zubin] All the way up to how, you know, insects can go extinct by trying to have sex with a beer bottle, because it fools their system into thinking that’s a female.
[Zubin] And all the way into quantum mechanics, general relativity, up to, okay, everything we see is not what’s actually happening. Take us on this ride a little bit, in the way you describe it.
[Don] Right, and also, the reason why I take this ride. I actually published a book in 1998 called “Visual Intelligence.” In which I actually put out the idea that this is all just a user interface. So, the book.
[Zubin] In ’88?
[Don] 1998. And in that book, the first nine chapters are sort of standard modern cognitive sciences approaches to visual perception, but in the last chapter, I go after this idea, that we’re seeing just an interface, not the truth. And my colleagues used the book as a textbook in various universities and so forth. They liked the book except that last chapter. They go, you know, Hoffman goes off the rails in the last chapter.
[Don] And I realized that there was only one way I was gonna convince my scientific colleagues to at least take the idea seriously. Maybe not convinced that I’m right, but take the idea seriously. And that was to use evolution by natural selection. If I could show that evolution by natural selection does not favor organisms that see reality as it is, then I would get their attention. And I thought immediately that maybe it would be because the truth is too complicated, and it would take too much time and energy.
[Don] And it turns out that that’s correct, but it’s not the real, deep interesting reason. So, as I explored evolution by natural selection, I realized there was a deeper reason that I’d never understood before. And the reason is this, that fitness payoffs, which are like. Evolution is like a video game. In a video game, you have to go running around in the screen as quickly as you can, grabbing points to try to get enough points to get to the next level. If you do, you get to the next level. If you don’t, you die. In evolution, you’re grabbing what they call fitness payoffs. But they’re like the game points. And you know, grabbing fitness payoffs, that you know, food, the right mates, and so forth. But if you get enough, you don’t yourself to go the next level, it’s your genes that go to the next level, and your offspring. And what I realized is, I started studying this with my graduate students, Justin Mark and Brian Merrian. We discovered that, what’s really going on is that the fitness payoffs themself, which is what we’re gonna be tracking. That’s what our senses are gonna be telling us about. It turns out that the fitness payoffs themselves, in general, do not carry information about objective reality. They just tell you, you’re about to die, you’re about to get something that, you’re good, you’re bad, don’t eat this, eat that.
[Zubin] Have sex with this, don’t have sex with this.
[Don] That’s all they’re telling you, they’re not telling you about the truth. And I can say that more mathematically, they’re not homomorphisms of reality. So, for mathematicians, generically fitness payoff functions are not homomorphisms of structures and objective reality. But intuitively it’s just that, fitness payoffs aren’t about the truth, they’re about what you need to do, to stay alive. And that secured it for me, that was a surprise to me that I learned around 2008, 2009. That evolution was even further against seeing the truth, than I’d ever imagined. And so, I published a paper in 2010, in The Journal of Theoretical Biology with my two graduate students. Where we announced the results of the simulations, we did hundreds of thousands of simulations. And we found that organisms that saw the truth in the simulations, went extinct. When they competed against organisms and saw none of the truth and were just tuned to fitness. This is equal complexity organisms. And so, I proposed then, that it was a theorem. 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 fitness payoffs. And I went to a mathematician, Chetan Prakash, a long time friend. Who was actually there in 1986, when we were working on that mathematics. And I proposed this theorem to him, and he’s a genius mathematician, and he was able to prove it. So he actually, so we actually have a theorem. And then we’ve done further mathematics where we actually show, yeah, in general, fitness payoffs, destroy information about the structure of the world. And so, it’s a theorem. Organisms that see reality as it is, cannot out compete, organisms of equal complexity that see none of reality and are just tuned to fitness payoffs.
[Zubin] Okay, so let me reiterate this, cause it’s important. By the way, for people who wanna get a more broad overview of all this, listen to the first show I did with Don, which was an audio only podcast, where we went through this whole arc of this. So we’re gonna go deeper in this episode, so this is for people who care deeply about the nature of reality, how we perceive it, consciousness, and things like that, from a scientific standpoint. So, what you’re saying is that, if an organism sees the world as it is, it will go extinct, relative to an organism, that only sees the world in a dumbed down way, that hides most of what’s actually going on, but only shows the organism. What it needs, the bare minimum it needs to survive and to reproduce.
[Don] Absolutely. So if you waste any of your perceptual time and energy on the truth, you are wasting your time and energy. It’s not gonna help you to stay alive. And you will not be able to out compete organisms that spend none of their perceptual time and energy on the truth, and only spend it on looking for the payoff points that help you win the game. So, it’s like in a video game. If some guy is playing a video game, and he’s just there looking around, enjoying everything, and trying to figure out how it works, and so forth. Looking at the pixels and so forth, he’s gonna lose to some other woman, who is, you know, focused on the points.
[Zubin] On the game.
[Don] On the game points and trying to get them and getting to the next level. So, you know, if you’re dawdling around with anything but the payoffs, you lose.
[Zubin] Right, and that makes perfect sense, because it’s the same thing trying to understand than a video game, if you’re looking at, you know, Grand Theft Auto.
[Zubin] You’re going so, what I’m seeing here is a car, and a bad guy, and a this and that.
[Don] Right, right.
[Zubin] Is that really what’s there? And the, you know, some people would say, yeah, no that’s there, because they’re deluded, but then, scientists would say, no, that’s not what’s there, don’t be stupid. What’s there, take out a magnifying glass and look at the screen. There’s pixels there.
[Don] Right, right.
[Zubin] So what’s really there, are pixels. And then if you go back even deeper, you know, it’s the little tinier pixels.
[Don] Right, and then if you go behind the screen, you’ll see it’s circuits and software that are hidden behind the whole screen itself.
[Zubin] And is that, in that analogy is that the true nature of reality there, is that base reality?
[Don] Well that shows the difference between what we’re perceiving and whatever objective reality might be.
[Don] So it’s a good metaphor, to help break us from the idea, that of course we’re seeing the truth. When we see an apple on the table, or you know, we see the moon, it’s just natural to think, oh, of course I’m seeing the truth, my friends see it, and they can see it when my eyes are closed, so of course I’m seeing the truth. And I’m saying no, no, this is all just a headset, a virtual reality headset that we’ve got on, and I look at the moon, I render it, just like in virtual reality, I look over in Grand Theft Auto, with a virtual reality hat on. I look at my steering wheel, and so I’m rendering a steering wheel, now I look over there, I’m no longer rendering a, there is no steering wheel, because I’m not creating a steering wheel. There is still in that metaphor, the circuits and software and all the program of Grand Theft Auto, that I’m not seeing at all. I’m just seeing the stuff that I render, as I look around, I see cars and steering wheels and so forth.
[Zubin] And not only that, but if you saw the circuits, if you saw the base reality objective, the thing in and of itself.
[Zubin] You would not be able to play or survive in the game.
[Don] Right, the guy that just sees the, the steering wheel and the gas petal and so forth, will beat me, if I’m in there trying to toggle voltages in the computer, to try to win the game, good luck. I won’t be able to do it quickly enough.
[Zubin] Now, it’s important to understand this. There’s a few things you said here, that will make people go, wait, it made Einstein go, wait. So you’re saying the moon doesn’t exist when I don’t look.
[Don] That’s exactly right. Space and time themselves do not exist, independent of us. So most of us think that space time is fundamental reality, and all the objects inside space time are part, are on the stage, this preexisting stage of space time. And I’m saying that, that whole idea is wrong, that space time is something that you create in this moment. You’re the author of space time, you’re not a bit player, that’s shown up 14 billion years later, after the stage was set. So we are the authors of space and time, and all the objects that we see. We’re not bit players in space time.
[Zubin] Space and time are constructs of our interface.
[Zubin] Now, but here’s the. So this is where it becomes very solipsistic, if you’re not careful. So, solipsism meaning that, no, I am the only thing that exists, and I create the world, and everybody else is a figment of my imagination and so on. How is this different than that?
[Don] Yes, I’m not a solipsist, so. A solipsist would say that, as you said, that, yeah, we’re creating all of this, and there’s nothing but me and my creation. And, I’m saying, that there are other consciousnesses out there. I’m talking with you, I believe that you’re not just a figment of my imagination.
[Zubin] Why, thank you. Means a lot to me.
[Don] That’s right. And I’m not a figment of your imagination, and that, you know, that puts certain responsibilities on me. Even though what I perceive as just an icon of Zubin, I need to be very, very careful how I treat that icon. Because in interacting with that icon, I could literally cause pain to the consciousness of Zubin, and you could cause pain to me. So our interface gives us a genuine portal, to other consciousnesses. All human consciousnesses, my cats, are my icons, but I believe that my cat icons, are portals to real conscious creatures, that again, I don’t want to hurt. And, a mouse, ants, and so forth, it goes. The interface, I claim, as all to other consciousnesses, but the interface is like a visualization tool. And of course a visualization tool is there to sort of hide the complexity and dumb things down and so forth. Because we don’t, we’d be overwhelmed by all the consciousnesses out there. And so, that’s what space time is, it’s a visualization tool.
[Zubin] Okay, so there’s a lot there, but one thing I wanna ask, because I know this comes up a lot. Well why, Don, and again, for people who really wanna go deep in this, read the book. Why Don, is it that, why can’t you just say, you know, yeah, okay, we’re not seeing the truth. Maybe we’re just seeing part of the truth, maybe we’re seeing a dumbed down version of what’s actually there, maybe there is a Don in space and time, but we’re only seeing enough of it, that we need to see to survive, we don’t see infrared, we don’t see microwaves, we don’t see X-rays. I can’t see it, you know, microscopic, you know, quark-level, but this stuff exist, we’re only seeing some of it. And wouldn’t that help us survive?
[Don] And that’s what most of my colleagues would say. They would say, of course evolution didn’t shape us to see all of the truth. It only shaped us to see those parts of objective reality, that we need to stay alive. And so that’s the standard view. And what I’m saying is, that if you look at the mathematics of evolution. Very, very carefully. It’s called evolutionary game theory. We don’t have to wave our hands about this, so to my scientific colleagues who are thinking intuitively about evolution, of course they know, evolutionary game theory is a precise mathematical model. And when you look at that mathematics, it says very, very clearly, that it’s not the case that we’re seeing just those parts of the truth that we need, we’re seeing none of the truth, almost surely. We’re seeing entirely a user interface. And the whole point of a user interface. Like, for example, again, Grand Theft Auto, right. The whole point, there’s nothing in what you see in Grand Theft Auto, that in any way resembles the circuits and software and voltages, that in that metaphor is the reality. There’s just no resemblance whatsoever. And, that’s not a problem, that’s in fact, an advantage. It allows you to control the reality, even though you’re completely ignorant about its true nature. And that’s what evolution has done for us. I’m saying, we’re not seeing just little bits of the truth that we need, we’re seeing none of the truth, and that’s what allows us to control the truth, effectively. Because we don’t know anything about the truth, it’ll be too complicated. And it’s just not what we, we need simple eye candy, that let’s us do what we need to do.
[Zubin] So the truth is very complicated, in order to survive and utilize what actually exists in reality. Because you’re saying, stuff exists.
[Zubin] Stuff meaning, let’s put that in quotes, There is a world.
[Zubin] It’s not a figment of our imagination, it is a construction, in other words, it’s like desktop on a computer, it’s a good analogy you use, you see a trash icon, you can do things to that trash icon, you can throw away stuff that you wanna throw away, you can accidentally delete something, and effectively die.
[Zubin] Because the stuff is gone, so you don’t take the trash icon literally, you don’t say, oh there’s actually there’s a trash icon there, but you take it seriously.
[Zubin] But, behind that trash icon, are zeros and one’s and voltage gates, and quantum engineering, you know. This microscopic level that you don’t see. And if you saw it, you wouldn’t be able to compose an email.
[Don] Absolutely. And we pay good money for these interfaces to hide the truth. There are all these engineers at these high tech companies that are spending untold hours, thousands upon thousands of hours to simplify, give us this user interface so that we don’t have to deal with all dials, and resisters, and voltages.
[Zubin] That’s right. And then there’s organizations like Epic Systems, that makes a big electronic health record, that spend hours and hours and hours making it more complicated. More difficult to use.
[Zubin] So, that being said, okay, so let’s say we’re not seeing the truth at all, we’re seeing a fitness function. We’re seeing a user interface that we generate, in a species specific way. So, in other words, a cat, that we see as an icon, of this furry thing. We cannot really get into it’s conscious experience. Because the icon we see is kind of just enough of the cat, for us to survive, we know we can’t really eat it, usually.
[Don] Right, right.
[Zubin] We can pet it, it’s gonna be, it has claws that could hurt us, but it’s also very affectionate which is a fitness payoff for stress reduction.
[Don] Right, right.
[Zubin] So we see all those things, but we can’t dig into its mind, and go, oh, what’s its experience of the taste of cat food, or of being brushed, or whatever. And that, but we can kind of guess, because we can see when its unhappy or upset or angry. But when you get to the level of this bottle of water.
[Zubin] Now, you’re telling me, of right now, that this is an icon.
[Zubin] I see it as wet, if I drink it, I’m probably gonna do okay, if I’m thirsty.
[Zubin] Etc. But this is where I think now, so you’ve talked about what the world isn’t. The world isn’t exactly what we see.
[Zubin] That’s a fitness payoff set of icons, okay. So interface theory of perception is what you talk about in the book.
[Zubin] The theory that you have of that, no, we’re not seeing things as they are. And that dates back to your experience early on with the math of that. But then, there’s a parallel thing that you talk about in the book.
[Zubin] Which is, and they’re related, they come together, but it’s this. How is it, that we are aware of anything?
[Zubin] How is it that a mass of goo in our brain, these neurons, gives us the taste of chocolate, or the smell of an orange, or the feeling of love? And no one has ever been able to explain that in any meaningful way.
[Zubin] And so, how does that relate to this whole thing, because one thing that people would say, Don is like well, we’re just living in the matrix then, it’s someone’s simulation. It makes perfect sense, of course we’re seeing icons.
[Zubin] It’s a simulation. But the base reality is there somewhere.
[Don] Right, and so that’s called the hard problem of consciousness. And it’s widely acknowledged, it’s one of the big open problems in science today. We have all these correlations between brain activity, and conscious experiences, like if I take a magnet, and use it to inhibit area V4, in the right hemisphere of your brain, visualery V4, you will lose all conscious experience of color in your left visual field.
[Zubin] So the color just drains.
[Don] It just drains away, everything that you see the objects, but it’s like a black and white television image. And then I turn off the magnet, and the color comes back. And we have dozens of these, so called, neural correlates of consciousness. So we know that brain activity and consciousness experiences are correlated. But scientists, my colleagues, and my good friends, have been trying for decades, very, very hard, to come up with a scientific theory about how brain activity could cause conscious experiences. That’s the standard view, and they’ve not been able to do it.
[Zubin] And this is not for lack of trying.
[Don] Oh, right.
[Zubin] So, then, the information and theory, you have Tononi, you have even folks like Dan, Dan had another saying that consciousness is a kind of elaborate illusion. Others saying that it has to do with the quantum collapse, and neural microtubules.
[Zubin] And it seems like in most of these sort of physicalist interpretations, their assuming something, and this is how it relates to your original line of reasoning.
[Zubin] They’re assuming that there’s a physical world.
[Zubin] Of matter, that exists. That atoms build up, molecules build up, cells build up. Neurons. And these neurons are causal.
[Zubin] They actually cause something to happen, in a physical world, that somehow emerges the taste of chocolate, the feeling of love, this objective experience.
[Don] That’s right.
[Zubin] And that, if you give me that, right, then I can spin you up a world, and somewhere we’ll figure out at some point, how that leads to consciousness. We’re just not smart enough, maybe we will never be smart enough to figure it out. Maybe these theories are on the right track, etc. But, the truth is, we’re not even close.
[Zubin] Starting with physical matter. In other words, assuming what you’ve already said, is that not a valid assumption? Which is that the world exists as we see it. In other words, matter is real, atoms are real, electrons are real, as such, neurons are real. So, the failure of a lot of scientists who have been working on this, including people like Crick.
[Zubin] And others who you have worked with, who are, you know, colleagues of yours. It’s been a struggle, and so this the hard problem of consciousness. Let’s just work on it more using a physicalist basis, which is atoms exist, neurons exist. But you’re saying, what if we’re just wrong, and we’ve made a rookie mistake.
[Zubin] And what’s that about?
[Don] That’s right. So we’ve assumed that neurons exist, even if they’re not perceived. And that neural activity causes our conscious experiences, or neural activity in an embodied brain, right. So it’s your brain and your body interacting with an environment. And, most of my colleagues, I’d say, 95 to 99% of my colleagues working on this hard problem of consciousness are assuming, of course that’s the form of the solution. Neural activity, somehow will cause our conscious experiences. But, as you’ve pointed out, we’ve been utterly unable to come up with a scientific explanation for even one conscious experience. So I, and these are all my friends, I mean, Stuart Hameroff who does the neural microtubules idea, we’re buddies. But when we get on stage, at a conference, I’ll ask him, so, Stuart, we’re interested in doing science here, can you use your collapse of neural microtubules quantum states to explain any particular conscious experience, the taste of vanilla, the smell of a rose, a headache, any one, is there any conscious experience that you can explain this way, and he’ll say no. And I say, well, next year I’ll ask you the same question. And that’s the problem, I’ll sit with integrated information theory. I’ve asked Julio Tononi, you know, a couple of times. Can you use your theory, to give a integrated information circuit, that cause all circuit, that is, or causes, the taste of chocolate, or anything, and he can’t do it. And so, until we can actually have a scientific theory that actually makes specific predictions, this is the circuit, or this is the microtubules collapse, that has to be the taste of chocolate, it could not be the smell of garlic, and these are the principal reasons why. Until then, there’s not enough science on the table to actually even like falsify these things. What they’re really proposing are, there are these interesting correlates, and it’s true, that there are very interesting EEG correlates, complexity correlates, of consciousness. And there may be neuronal tubules collapse of quantum state correlates, I’m good with that, I’m not disputing that. The question is not about these correlations, the question is, where is the theory? Sure these things are correlated, that’s fine. Where is the theory that says, what is causing what? Or if its an identity theory, you’re saying, no, no, its not the activity in the brain that’s causing the. The activity is the conscious experience in the brain. And so that’s one gamble that they’ll take, fine. Give me precisely the class of neuronal activity that is the taste of chocolate, and tell me why it could not be identical to the taste of vanilla. Until we’re doing that, we again, are not doing science. And there’s nothing on the table there. So, that’s why it was realizing that these really brilliant colleagues, and they’re good people, they’re brilliant, they’re trying very, very hard. And it, you know, it’s a framework, physicalism is a framework that’s worked for three centuries. It’s done a lot of good stuff, so they’re not stupid to use that framework. It has given us all sorts of insights and modern technologies, so, it’s actually a smart move on their part. But I don’t think it’ll work. I don’t think you can start with unconscious ingredients, and boot up consciousness. It’s just that simple.
[Zubin] Okay, let me say that again. Don does not think you can start with unconscious ingredients and boot up consciousness. So either, if that’s true.
[Zubin] It means, either, there is unconscious ingredients.
[Zubin] And some outside consciousness.
[Zubin] You know, whether it’s soul or spirit or consciousness, whatever you call it.
[Zubin] And that’s a dualistic–
[Don] Right. Kind of philosophy.
[Zubin] And so, panpsychism, is one philosophy that says, oh, no you’re right Don, you cannot boot up consciousness from non-conscious ingredients. So, this bottle, is both a bottle, it’s a physical thing. It’s full of atoms and H2O. But it also has a valance of consciousness, that’s kinda tacked on and associated with that.
[Zubin] And what, what’s wrong with that theory? I mean, is there anything wrong with that, is that?
[Don] Well, so I also have good friends who are, you know, who take that theory quite seriously. They’re panpsychists, and it. Russel, Bertrand Russel, the very famous logician and philosopher, was one of the first to propose this kind of thing. He pointed out that the laws of physics, are quite good, at describing what matter does. But they don’t tell us what matter is, intrinsically. And so, he proposed, and others as well, that maybe, what matter is, intrinsically is conscious experiences. And it’s and interesting philosophical idea. But what’s happened is, it has never been turned into science. So panpsychism is a philosophical stance, and an interesting one. But no one has been able to turn it into a mathematically precise scientific theory. So as a scientist, there’s nothing on the table for me. And, most versions of it are as you say, dualist. And most scientists, are not on board with dualism. We want a simple a foundation to scientific theories, as possible. Something we call accom’s razor, make your assumptions as simple as possible in trying to explain, the phenomenon of science. And the two experiments are, or I’m sorry, two theories can explain the same phenomenon, but one is simpler in it’s premises than of course choose the simpler theory. And so, most scientists, myself included what we call a monistic theory, where we only have one kind of assumption. There is, for example, only physical stuff. So a physicalist is a monist. And so they’re obeying accom’s razor, except that they can’t solve the problem. So accom’s razor only applies if you can solve the problem. So their theory cannot solve the problem. And I, so you could be a dualist, panpsychism as a dualism, but it’s not a scientific theory. It’s a philosophical position. And that I’m proposing, just go with consciousness. Let’s have a mathematically precise theory of consciousness that starts as simple as possible, and then we have to boot up what we call space time, and the physical world, as, conscious experiences, within conscious agents, that they’re using as an interface, a simplifying interface to help them interact with other conscious agents.
[Zubin] So, you’re monism, you’re keeping with accom’s razor, and keeping it as simple as possible. Saying, okay, the materialists, are saying everything is physical matter, and somewhere in from the big bang up through evolution, a miracle emerges, and that’s consciousness.
[Zubin] That we can’t explain yet. You’re saying, well, maybe this is just a rookie mistake.
[Zubin] We’re mistaking our interface, which sees physical things.
[Zubin] Which are physical, because they’re hard when we feel them, in other words the experience of holding this bottle is a pressure, solidity, liquidity, color, luminance, these kind of things. And so, of course, since that’s how I see the world, I’m gonna assume, this is fundamental reality.
[Zubin] And it turns out for the last 300, 400 years, that’s worked really well.
[Zubin] We can build, ipad’s and microphones, and transmit 4K video signals, based on our manipulation of our icons in our desktop interface. So, it makes perfect sense, until you go well, but then how do we boot up consciousness?
[Don] Right. Why is it that quantum mechanics in general relativity don’t really mesh?
[Zubin] Why is it that quantum mechanics is so strange? In other words, why is it that the idea of local realism. In other words, that something exists when it isn’t observed, in a particular spin or you know, momentum, or whatever. And that, you know, entangled particles can somehow interact in a way that violates locality, meaning things, communicating less fast than the speed of light.
[Zubin] Let’s shelf that and say that physicalism is true and we get a miracle of consciousness and we get the mystery of quantum mechanics.
[Don] Right, right.
[Zubin] If that make sense. What you’re saying is, and this is what compelled me. You’re saying, scientifically, science is not a dogma, it’s a method of study.
[Zubin] You can study this looking at the other way, the rookie mistake is well we confused our interface with reality. What if we said, reality was the thing we’re trying to explain, which is consciousness. Everything is consciousness, exchanging experience, experiences, the currency of everything.
[Zubin] And from that fundamental building block, the smallest conscious agent, you can spin up the interface, reality, quantum mechanics, every conscious experience.
[Don] That’s right.
[Zubin] Everything from near death experiences, to different levels of consciousness, to higher instantiation of consciousness, all that. Is that correct?
[Don] Absolutely. So I’m saying that consciousness is fundamental. So I’m gonna try to do it as you say, a scientific theory in which I precisely state, with mathematical precision, exactly what I mean by, what I call a conscious agent. So it’s a mathematically precise term. And I can talk about how conscious agents interact, how they share experiences and how as they interact, they create new conscious agents. And so I get a dynamical system. Think about it as, a vast social network. Like the Twitterverse. These conscious agents are passing experiences and receiving experiences, like tweeting and following. And, just like in the Twitterverse, there’s tens of millions of Twitter users and billions of tweets, and lots of stuff trending. No one could really grasp that the whole richness of that, of the Twitterverse. And whenever we have overwhelming social media data, what we do with big data is, we find visualization tools. To allow us to grasp what, the just of what’s going on there. And that’s what we have in space and time and what we call the physical world. That’s just a visualization tool that some conscious agents use, to deal with this vast social network of conscious agents. And we’ve made the rookie mistake of mistaking our visualization tool for the final reality.
[Zubin] So space and time are desktop. They are a, to some extent they are a data compression tool.
[Don] That’s right.
[Zubin] So by having three dimensions of space, you get a little extra error correction.
[Zubin] Because all you really need are two dimensions, cause the holographic principle, which we talked about on the past show too.
[Zubin] Says that, really all you need is a two dimensional space with bits of information, and you can encode, three dimensional truth, or experience. So, what if the fundamental bits of information are experience, consciousness awareness. Outside of space and time, space and time is our construct. And in order to, then it starts to evolve over time, so you have these one bit conscious agents.
[Zubin] That can then combine and instantiate, that’s the term we use, higher level conscious agents that evolve, compete in this vast social network, by exchanging experience, and it turns out the way humans exchange experiences is in a 3D space time, desktop video game.
[Zubin] Where the Don icon, who’s facial expressions, are such that, I’ve evolved to be able to read.
[Zubin] To the degree that I can.
[Zubin] Assuming you’re not trying to deceive me.
[Zubin] And, it works very well, for us. It dumbs down everything else. We see a rock as a rock.
[Zubin] But in your conception then, we see this rock. And this is where people get really upset, when I talk about this theory they get angry, they’ll like, you telling me a rock is conscious, bro? That rock doesn’t know me, okay, I’ve thrown rocks, now I feel guilty.
[Zubin] That’s not really what you’re saying. What are you saying about a rock?
[Don] That’s right. So, I’m not saying that a rock is conscious. And in fact, I’m not saying that, when I look at you, the icon that I’m perceiving, I’m perceiving your face and your body, but those are my perceptions, it’s my icon. That icon is not conscious. Zubin Damania, the conscious agent, is conscious. I don’t see, Zubin Damania, the conscious agent. I just see skin, hair and eyes, and that’s my, my portal. In my interface, into the consciousness of Zubin Damania. When I see a cat, I’ve got a portal, that’s not as clear, right, into the consciousness of my cat. When I see an ant, my portal is really giving up. And when I see something, I call a rock, I am interacting with conscious agents. But my interface has to give up, that’s the whole point of the interface, is dumbing things down. So of course at some point, I’m gonna get no clue into the realm of conscious agents from my interface. That’s the whole point. At some point you’re saying it’s too much, it’s too complicated, I’m just gonna ignore all that aspect of objective reality of consciousness. So, just like my Zubin Damania icon is unconscious, the rock is unconscious, but my Zubin Damania icon, is a portal into the consciousness of the real Zubin Damania. That allows Zubin to interact with my consciousness and me to interact with Zubin’s consciousness. Whereas with a rock, the portal is closed. I am interacting with conscious agents, but the portal is closed, there’s no way that I know what I’m doing with them. And I don’t see them really doing too much to me.
[Zubin] So, let me see if I can understand this with my monkey mind. In my interface, all right. So a rock, we’re seeing. I’m constructing, when I look in the direction of a rock, and when I even say direction, I’m talking in space time language.
[Zubin] Which is our interface. So we’re sharing that interface. By the way, the reason you see the rock and I see the rock, the same way, is that we evolved in similar space time interface.
[Don] That’s right.
[Zubin] And we’re interacting with the same objective reality.
[Zubin] So people who say, well, my car, you know, is my interface, it’s not yours, no, no, no. We have the same species specific in a race. To a large extent.
[Don] To a large extent.
[Zubin] If we talk about extent exceptions to that, cause they actually prove the rule. We agree there’s a rock there, because we’re looking at the same conscious agent, the same icon that’s pointing to this. But it turns out that evolution hid the truth, about that rock.
[Zubin] From us, because if I actually saw what it was, first of all, it won’t help me reproduce, it won’t help me survive. What helps me survive, is seeing it as a rock.
[Zubin] Because in my space time interface, there’s a certain energy it takes to pick it up, I can use it as a tool perhaps.
[Zubin] Maybe I can pulverize it into it’s constituent icons.
[Zubin] Manipulate my icons to build, concrete.
[Zubin] So, that’s helpful. But I don’t need to know what’s the actual experiential substrate of it.
[Don] That’s exactly right. I am doing something, when I take a rock, and I crack it in half. I am doing something in the realm of conscious agents, but I’m utterly ignorant about what that is. Whereas in the case of the Zubin Damania icon, there’s a lot of course, that’s going on in your consciousness that I’m unaware of. But I am genuinely aware, unless of course, you’re trying to fool me. I am genuinely aware of some of your emotions, some of your thoughts, and some of your feelings. So there’s a genuine portal there. Whereas the portal into the realm of consciousness, it’s very, very obscure with a rock. And one reason why we’re so stuck on these objects, why, you know, we say, look, there’s a rock there, you see a rock, my friend sees a rock. If I don’t look, I can go touch it, and I can feel the rock, so there really is a rock there. The reason we, objects like the rock and the moon, and trees and so forth, have such a grip on our imagination. It is something that Piaget called object permanents. By the time we’re 18 months of age, he points out, before 18 months of age, Piaget said, if you show a baby a doll, it’ll play with a doll. And then you take the doll and you put it behind a pillow, and for the baby that’s not yet 18 months of age, they act as though the doll ceased to exist. And, but after the age 18 months, then Piaget said, you get object permanence. And you put the doll behind the pillow, and now the baby is looking for the doll behind the pillow if they wanna play with it. And later research show, that Piaget, his techniques were too crude, actually we get object permanence maybe around four months of age. But the point is, that we’re built to have this assumption, that objects exist, and are real, even when we don’t perceive them. And that’s just automatically built into our psychology, to our perceptual psychology, before we’re at the age of reason. Before we can even argue about it. So by the time you come to the age of reason, that’s just one of the deep assumptions that we bring to the world. It’s not an assumption we question. And so, that’s why its so hard for us to question that. We’ve always believed it, from the time we could ever even start thinking. We’ve always believed that objects exist, and are real, and don’t depend on us for their existence. And so, I’m challenging something that was built into us, before we could reason against it.
[Zubin] And therein I think, lies the challenge in this theory. I think a lot of people intuitively reject it.
[Zubin] It’s like kinda being shown the red pill, and saying, I wanna go back in the matrix, this makes no sense to me.
[Zubin] Everything I intuit about the nature of reality is that physical objects exist in space and time. Now, again, I wanna double down on making clear, that you are not saying there isn’t a reality, you are not saying we create objective reality.
[Zubin] You’re saying we create a representation.
[Zubin] Of what is objective reality, and that objective reality consists of a vast social network of conscious agents interacting with each other, and exchanging experience.
[Don] Absolutely. I have life insurance. And that’s a bet, that there is a reality that exists. And we’re like, my wife’s consciousness could persist, even if I’m dead.
[Don] And, so I’m betting that there is an objective reality that exists even if I don’t perceive it, so much of your experiential world right now is a reality, and I’m not perceiving but a tiny little part of your experiential reality, the part that you’re letting me see. And even if you try to let me see most of it, I could never experience all the colors and emotions and things that you’re experiencing. So, I’m, you have an objective reality. And every person on the planet, has a conscious objective reality, that doesn’t depend on my perception for it to exist. So I’m not a solipsist, there is an objective reality. But, space and time and physical objects, those are my virtual reality. We have a headset on. This is all a virtual reality headset. And as I move around, I’m rendering the chair, I’m rendering a bottle, I’m rendering a table. And them I’m garbage collecting, as I move around. The conscious agents that I’m interacting with, are still there. Whether or not I’m rendering anything. But, all I can do is to render my interface as my way of interacting with those conscious agents.
[Zubin] That’s pretty awesome. See to me, that makes perfect sense, and it actually, it feels more valid than a physicalist interpretation.
[Zubin] Because at, now, there’s a lot of weirdness in this.
[Zubin] That we could talk about for hours, and I think we should make this point, that there are quite a few physicists now, that are saying things like, space time as a objective reality is doomed. It’s not, it doesn’t make sense.
[Zubin] And, looking at, and you do this in the book very well. Going through quantum mechanics and saying, hey, what’s going on here? This actually doesn’t make sense, if you’re trying to say that objects exist in and of themselves in space and time. Then you have to kind of say, well quantum mechanics isn’t right, but all experimental evidence shows, that it is right. And it’s weird in a way, that it’s more consistent with the conscious agent theory, than it is with the physicalist theory. Am I wrong about that?
[Don] No, you’re right in the following sense, that, experiments have shown that local realism is false. So the joint claim that, objects exist and have definite values of their properties, like position, momentum and spin. And that those properties have influences that propagate through space and time, no faster than the speed of light. So the joint of those two, has been shown that, which is local realism. That’s shown to be false. Now, some physicists will then go and say, well look, I still wanna keep the realism. Like David Baum, for example.
[Don] He’d propose that. Electron has a position, and momentum, even when its not observed a definite value. But that there’s these non local influences. But there’s another aspect, another theorem about, what’s called non-contextual realism. Which says, and non-contextual realism, it turns out. Non-contextual realism contradicts, quantum theory. So, if you’re a quantum theorist, you have to say that non-contextualism realism is false. And that says, both that realism, so it’s realism, but also that the properties, like position, momentum, and spin, have values that don’t depend on how you look at them. How you observe them.
[Zubin] Doesn’t depend on the context. Doesn’t depend on the measurement.
[Don] That’s the claim of non-contextual realism. And non-contextual realism is false. And notice, that’s false independent of local, locality issues. So, I think non-contextual realism is the real tough one here for our idea of realism. To say that a physical object has definite positions and other properties, momentum spin and so forth. That don’t depend on how we observe them, that is false. And that gets really closer to the heart of saying, well, now the realism is the really bad thing here. But then you pointed out that, that state of the art physicists, like Nima Arkani-Hamed, at the institute for advanced study at Princeton. They’re saying, look, when we try to bring general relativity, and quantum field theory, the standard model of physics together into some kind of, you know, theory of everything, or unified theory. We’re finding that we’re gonna have to let go of space time. That physics, for the last three centuries has been about what happens inside space and time. And now, we’re going to have to let go of space time. It’s not fundamental, there’s something else, that’s more fundamental from which space time arises as an emergent concept or property. And they don’t know what that deeper thing is. He’s dealing with something called, that he calls the amplituhedron. And what he’s finding is, in the large hadron collider, when they, you know shoot particles and smash them into each other, and you start having these interesting events, like two glue-ons, smashing into each other and four glue-ons spraying away. You try to write down the probabilities, what they call the scattering amplitudes. But the probabilities are for things to happen. All these smashing and scattering events. And you find if you do it inside space and time, so you do al this calculations in space and time. The math is nasty, you get hundreds of pages, even a thousand pages of algebra that you have to compute. And they’ve discovered, you miss certain symmetries in the data, that are there, but cannot be expressed in space time. But if you go to this deeper, geometry, that he calls the amplituhedron. You capture these deeper symmetries that are not expressible in space time. And the math becomes trivial. You can write it on the back of an envelope and calculate it by hand. And so, these two things start to convince physicists that, hey, space time has had a good run, it was a great horse, for 300 years. It’s been really, really good. But that doesn’t mean it’s the truth. It was a really good vehicle for our thoughts, for several centuries. Now it’s come to the end of its usefulness. We need something deeper. And they don’t know what the deeper thing is. And the really, brilliant thinkers, at the state of art aren’t worried about that. For them this is like, holy smoke, fabulous, there’s something new to learn here. The old guys and their space time, they did a good job, but us young guys, are gonna do something even more fun. So what’s behind space and time? And how does it give rise to space and time. Whatever the new theory is, it will be constrained by our old theories. Whatever the new theory is, when we project it into space time. We better get back general relativity, or generalization of it. And also the standard model, or a souped up version of it. So we can’t throw away what we’ve done, we don’t wanna throw away what we’ve done. In fact, it’s a good, all the work that we’ve done in the physicalist space time science, is great work. It is a constraint on any deeper theory we have, it better project back in space time to our current scientific theories. And the same is true of my models of consciousness. I will be able to test them as I develop the theory of conscious agents and get the mathematics of the evolution of consciousness. One constraint of my theory will be, when I project it back into space and time. I better get back all of modern science. Evolution by natural selection. General relativity, quantum field theory. Or hopefully, even generalizations of those theories. If I can’t do that, I’m wrong. And, if I’m not smart enough to figure out, what the dynamics of consciousness is about. Then what I will probably do, or my team, is to look at the dynamics that we know about in space and time. Pull it back from the interface, into the realm of conscious agents, and ask, what kind of dynamics would give rise to the dynamics in space and time.
[Zubin] Reverse engineering.
[Don] Reverse engineering, and then go, oh so, that’s what consciousness is about. So, I hope to do it from first principles. But if I can’t, then I’m gonna fall back to, okay, let’s you know, I’m just not bright enough to figure it out, so we’ll try to pull it back in reverse engineering.
[Zubin] In which, you know, the Chinese are very good at this.
[Zubin] They’re pretty smart, so.
[Don] It works.
[Zubin] Yeah, it works. Okay, all that is, again in my, I’m a doctor. I’m just a medical doctor, Don. I’m very, very limited in my icon, in my desktop understanding of this, but I’ll say this, that physics and that sort of. And I’m gonna argue this, medicine has hit a wall.
[Zubin] And so, we’ve been on a tear for centuries, like you said, and it’s because we’ve really figured out in fine grain detail how to master this space time icon desktop that we have. So we’re really good at manipulating icons.
[Zubin] Surgery is manipulating icons.
[Zubin] We’re not playing, we don’t understand conscious agents or anything underneath it. We’re like, I remove appendix to outside of this physical space, patient doesn’t die.
[Zubin] I take gallstone out of this tube, patient doesn’t die, or have pain. So actually there’s an experiential connection, right. Patient no longer experiences pain.
[Zubin] If I move this icon here. But now we’re at a wall, where we’re like, how do we explain schizophrenia? Our reductionist, materialist approaches, are no longer working. We’re finding that things like the placebo effect, the sort of mind body integration, these kind of ideas. We can’t explain them properly, because we’re using a physicalist framework.
[Don] That’s right.
[Zubin] We’re mistaking our interface for reality, and we’re running up to the boundaries of that.
[Zubin] We’re now, well, how do you explain this? Well, what I think about your theory is, you’re saying well, okay, this is the next iteration now. Let’s reframe all this, same science, you don’t throw anything out.
[Don] Right, right.
[Zubin] You transcend and include, and say, yeah, of course.
[Zubin] In our interface that makes perfect sense. Here’s what’s beyond the interface, maybe now we can solve these bigger problems of, how it is that all these. And you gonna, we’re gonna have to get in to how it is that conscious agents even work, so. Maybe that’s a next part of this conversation, yeah. But so, I think that’s where the opportunity is, with your theory, if it’s true, you have a mathematical model of how conscious agents exert dynamics with each other.
[Zubin] How they instantiate higher levels of conscious, more complex conscious agents. So, in that world, you and me are both perceive, decide, act, that’s what we’re able to do.
[Don] Right, exactly.
[Zubin] But we’re made up of smaller conscious agents.
[Zubin] That are nested, that also do that. That feed up experience to us at the higher level, and we feed down to them, and it’s this dynamic relationship that creates a human.
[Zubin] And also, keep psychotherapists employed.
[Don] That’s right.
[Zubin] It’s our unconscious mind is actually nested conscious agents that are in their own way conscious. But that we can’t directly access that.
[Don] That’s right. And, I think there’s a good, as we get into the realm of conscious agents and talk about how they’re nested, and so forth. I think it’s good to step up, just for a second, and say that, as you were just saying a moment ago. We’ve gotten very, very good at the interface. We’re like, in the Grand Theft Auto example, that we’re using. We were like, we’ve become wizards at playing Grand Theft Auto. And its, we’ve been, become stunningly good. We used to be really bad at playing our interface, and we died from not being able to take out, you know, problems, in the body and so forth. And now we’ve gotten really, so we’re wizards at Grand Theft Auto. But now imagine someone, who discovers that, Grand Theft Auto, that’s just a program on the screen, that you’re seeing. There’s all this circuits and software, and they actually get access to the code. And they realize that they can hack the code. They can start to do stuff to Grand Theft Auto, that the wizards are gonna go, that is magical, I had no idea that you could do that. So the wizards themselves will be left in the dust. And that’s what this new level of seeing the conscious agents beyond objective reality is gonna open up a Pandora’s box. It will be allowing us to get behind the screen. And get into the source code of the game. And even change the parameters, perhaps of space and time. So, this is going to be the technology that comes out of this, is going to be truly, truly stunning. We’ve, all of our science, are scientific tools, and our theories have been about the interface, and how it works. We’ve been wonderful at that. The tools of science are up to the job, of going beyond the interface, and looking at this realm of conscious agents that are behind the interface. And then reverse engineering that whole thing, and playing our interface. So this is gonna bring a lot of responsibility to us, because it’s gonna open up. Once we understand the mapping from conscious agents into our space time interface. We understand how to hack it. Who knows what kind of technologies are gonna open up. This is great for science fiction. To think about the possibilities. But it will be, it’ll leave current scientific technology in the dust. It’s gonna be a whole new level. But now we can go after the, what I think, right now, my ideas are about this conscious agents realm. And I should say, what you described, is exactly how I’m thinking about it. That you can have these simple one bit agents, and its really asteer, conscious realm. I mean, there’s only two experiences that this consciousness has. What would it be like to be such an asteer conscious agent, you know it’s hard to put myself into the shoes of that conscious agent. When they interact, you can have 2-bit agents and 4-bit agents and all the way up to infinity. So you could have infinite conscious agents. And, this opens really interesting technical questions. How many infinite conscious agents are there? Is there one, biggest, all inclusive, infinite conscious agent. I mean, this is going to be a matter of theorems now. I don’t know the answer. Maybe there are a bunch of infinite conscious agents, and what not, one at the top. Or maybe there is, just the one. In which case we’re all conscious agents that are part of this one big conscious agent, but we’re all genuinely single conscious agents ourself, interacting with the one. So, these kinds of issues which are obviously in this spiritual realm now. When we talk about infinite consciousness and so forth, we’re talking about things that various eastern and western spiritual traditions have tabled about. But, we’ve only used words. For the first time, we can use mathematics. And my definition of conscious agent is probably wrong, and my definition of. So I could propose, a definition of God. It’s the one infinite conscious agent. So for the first time, I’ve proposed a mathematically precise theory of the word God. Of course I’m probably wrong. That’s not the point. The point is to have something precise on the table, so now, science can start. Because once you got something precise on the table, then people can jump on it and say, well I think it’s wrong because of that, and if we do this experiment, we’ll show you that you’re wrong. Now, we can actually start to evolve our ideas. And so that’s what I want as one feature out of this theory, is that we can get a scientific spirituality. The biggest and deepest questions, the most human and personal questions, that for thousands of years, we’ve only had, words. Lectures. But no mathematically precise statements and predictions. Why shouldn’t we use the best tools of understanding that we have, namely the scientific method. To address the questions that are the most important to us, as human beings. Science is up to the task. And so, what I want to see is, an interaction between the. I think the genuine ideas that the spiritual traditions have come up with. And the new methods of science, that take those ideas, make them absolutely precise, make rigorous predictions that we can test. And then go back and forth. That’s how we find out, which of our ideas are the genuine insights and which are just nonsense. And of course, we have both. And spiritual traditions have both, they have genuine insights, and they’ll have nonsense. And, how do we figure out which is which? We start to use a scientific method to make all of our ideas precise and then test them, and then see what works and what doesn’t. So I’m very interested in those potential outcomes in science and spirituality, to break down, what is a bit of a animosity right now between the two.
[Zubin] Non-overlapping magisteria.
[Don] That’s right. As Stephen Jay Gould said, right.
[Zubin] And you’re arguing, no, you can use the scientific method, to have a scientifically precise spirituality that has to do with. It starts with consciousness agent theory, and boots up everything. Because higher agents than us, maybe classically, have been called angels.
[Zubin] Higher agents than that, may have classically, been called gods.
[Zubin] Higher agents that that, may have classically, been called God.
[Zubin] And you can actually start to talk about it in a way, where people don’t look at you like you’re insane. Because you’re not, it’s not based on belief, it’s based on, well, let’s test this.
[Don] Absolutely. And by the way, the ideas that I’m putting out here, I’ll be the first to say, I’m probably wrong. So, what I believe is that the ideas I’ve got now are better than the physicalist ideas. Which doesn’t mean that I believe I’m absolutely right. I think I’m on a better track, and we’ll see. So, belief gets in the way. When dogmatism gets in the way, it’s best to hold all of our ideas very tentatively. But on the other hand, you can’t be too tentative. In the sense that you do need to invest enough, emotionally in them, to really pursue them, right. If I, as a scientist, you have this balance. On the one had you don’t want to be dogmatic. I don’t wanna be dogmatic, on the other hand I need to find the idea exciting enough that I’m gonna invest my valuable time, trying to write down the mathematics, and pursue it. I think it’s, I think its good enough lead to follow. So, there’s this balance that we have to have, between the two.
[Zubin] Man, I tell you. This is the reason I became such a fan of yours, and to be honest, everything, all the stuff you just said in general, is an answer to the question that I sometimes am faced when I talk about this stuff. Which is, who cares?
[Zubin] So, in other words, why do I care that everything is reality is consciousness, or matter or why do I even care about consciousness, it doesn’t get me through the day. Well, A, if you can hack into the source code, the technology changes.
[Zubin] B, we’re stuck, on so many scientific fronts and have been for a couple of decades now. So maybe we’re missing something, that could help us progress.
[Zubin] And, three, the fundamental thing that makes us human is our desire to understand our place.
[Zubin] And so, like you said, I think you’re not supposed to, you know, fall prey to belief, but you have to be passionate enough.
[Don] Passionate enough.
[Zubin] You now it’s funny, cause I, you know, I went to like a three and a half hour workshop of yours at this conference in San Jose, which I talked about previously on my show. And, you know, you took people on this journey, like we’re not really doing that here, we’re kind of hitting all these different points, kinda. In the book you do it, and it’s like, okay, let me make this case, that everything we believe about reality, is based on an interface, and a rookie mistake.
[Zubin] And here’s the deeper truth. Here’s the math, here’s what a conscious agent looks like, here’s how that relates to different things, we’ve done like, split brain experiments.
[Zubin] Turning a single conscious agent into two independently conscious agents that argue with each other, in the same scull.
[Zubin] By cutting this meat, called the corpus callosum, which we may presume, is not meat, but some icon pointing to how conscious agents are exchanging experience.
[Zubin] And when you cut that physically, physically, meaning you do something to this conscious agent. You now have two instantiatians of awareness, they’re independent. And this is shown in experiment, to actually be experientially true. So, you took us on this journey in this conference, and you have scientists there, you have spiritual kind of people that are like, hey man, the crystals man, is this like drugs, man. And these guys called you like the guy who like invented the graphical user interface for the Mac is there. And these guys. And I’m just sitting there. And by the end, it was like, you get this feeling of emotion and I’m speaking for myself, where I felt like, you know what, what you’re saying, even if it’s not exactly correct. Is more correct, than anything I’ve ever felt, and I’ve studied science all my life. I do medicine, I take care of people, It’s like, that’s when I said, okay, anything I can do to help promote this understanding discourse dialogue expansion, refutation of this idea, I have to do. And that I think is how the intersection of science and inspiration and emotion and the human condition.
[Don] Right, absolutely. I agree that, it’s relevant, because these are the questions that drive us, we are curious. Why are we here? What is life about? What happens when I die? These are the big, big questions that we would like answers to. And we have a chance with the tools of science, to take the spiritual insights and fashion them into something so precise, that we can get precise answers to these questions.
[Zubin] What happens when we die Don? In your theory.
[Don] Well one interesting option is this, and I’ll give you a metaphor, that sort of spells it out. Suppose that you, go with some friends to a virtual reality arcade, and to play virtual volleyball at the beach. So you put on your headset and bodysuits, and you’re immersed in the beach scene, with a net and palm trees, and seagulls and so forth. And you see the avatars of your friends, and you start playing volleyball. And then one of your friends, you know, Tom, at one point says, I’m thirsty, I need to get a drink, I’ll be back in a minute. He takes off his headset and bodysuit and his avatar collapses motionless in the sand. To you, in the interface, in the VR interface, it looks like, Tom is dead. But he’s not dead, he just stepped out of the interface. And, perhaps, death is like that. We see the body, dead, cold, sitting there, lying there. But that’s just the avatar. That wasn’t the consciousness in the first place. What I see, right now, in front of me, when I look at Zubin. I’m seeing an avatar that I create. I’m not seeing the true consciousness of Zubin. So if that, if that avatar ceases to function, that doesn’t mean that your consciousness, is necessarily dead. So, I’m want to explore in the mathematics of this conscious agent theory. What does happen, the theory absolutely allows, that consciousness persists after what we call, physical death. Absolutely allows it. The technical questions for me are, so how much of the I, how much of the memories, how much of my personality, how much of all those things, persist. And those are gonna be very interesting technical questions, that I don’t know the answer to. So I’m really gonna be interested to pursue that.
[Zubin] If. If we are the sort of nested, conscious agents, and we have access at a particular instantiation. In other words, we are the sum total of all these unconscious agents. Unconscious. All the conscious agents, at this particular level, where we are aware, we’re not exactly able to access directly the conscious agents underneath us.
[Zubin] Or the conscious agents above us. But both of them exert influence.
[Zubin] So, we are, you know, our conscious agent that’s responsible for auditory perception, is probably a nested consciousness that does something with experience out in the objective world of conscious agents that feeds it up to this particular level, that we then experience, so. Death is an interesting thing.
[Zubin] Because, what is it? Maybe the stepping back down, through the instantiations, or a stepping out into a higher.
[Don] Absolutely, and I don’t know the answer to that, that’s gonna be very, very interesting to ask that question. But the interesting this is, it should be a precise question, and the mathematics should allow us to give precise answers, or we’ll need to enhance the mathematical framework. So that’s. So the mathematics that I have to learn, is Network Information Theory.
[Don] It’s a fairly new branch of mathematics that’s really come on because of the internet, and wireless, and so forth. We’ve, so, fortunately, because of all this new technology, we’ve had to solve these problems. So it turned out that mathematics, graph theory, related to, you know, agents interacting, is a new and well developed and developing branch of mathematics. So, I and my team are gonna be learning this mathematics, and using the theorems to try to understand how conscious agents interact, and understand. So, to try and answer the types of question you were asking, when we die, do we somehow interact with lower level conscious agents, higher level, what’s going on there? So the graph theory is gonna be very, very interesting. So we’ll go after this. But it’s non trivial math I must say.
[Zubin] Any math for me, is non trivial math.
[Don] Me too, I go to the mathematicians.
[Zubin] Yeah, when I looked at your stuff, I read one of your source papers that you published, and looking at Marcavian kernels and this kind of thing. And it gave me chest pain. But I also enjoyed it, because it was a fun ride, to try to wrap my particular interface around. So, see, this kind of thing, and then the question of artificial intelligence.
[Zubin] How does artificial, so we talk about artificial intelligence the way we think about it now, is there’s some ghost in the machine, there’s a machine that’s physical, that we create that either approximates or somehow attains consciousness or at least is behaving intelligently.
[Zubin] But you’re saying, something differently. First of all, there’s not a machine.
[Zubin] We’re saying, we can tweak within our interface something, that might open a portal.
[Zubin] Into the realm of consciousness agents that we currently don’t have, can you explain that?
[Zubin] Cause this will melt people’s heads, cause it melted mine.
[Don] That’s right. So, I’ve been involved in artificial intelligence since 1979, when I went to the AI Lab at MIT, and I’ve been very interested in it. And the question of, could AI’s. Of course we can make them smart, they are beating us at all sorts of stuff now. So that’s not an issue. The issue is, could they actually have genuine experiences. Could, an AI, feel love? Could it taste vanilla, and actually enjoy the taste of vanilla? Could silicon circuits and software, do that? Most of my colleagues, think, yes. They think that somehow, programs, sophisticated programs are in fact, what consciousness is, although they can’t tell me the program and they can’t say, so they, it’s just an idea, right now, it’s a philosophical idea. There is no scientific theory on the table. But in general what they’re saying is that somehow with these unconscious circuits and unconscious software, we will boot up real conscious experiences. So that’s the question typically about could AI’s be conscious. The question is, could the circuit somehow, that originally were unconscious, could they become conscious? Are they complex enough. I’m saying that’s the wrong way to think about the problem. We’re assuming that circuits in space and time are objective reality. But in fact, that’s just a user interface. And we know, that our user interface, as you’ve said, gives us portals, into consciousness. My icon of Zubin Damania, has given me a portal, into the experiences of Zubin Damania. Very, very small portal, but a genuine portal. So for me the, the question is this. Once we understand, the realm of conscious agents, with mathematical precision. And we understand the mapping between conscious agents, and their dynamics, and our space time interface. So that we understand it well enough to hack it. Will we be able to open new portals, in our space time interface, into the realm of conscious agents. Perhaps using technologies, like silicon, and circuits, and software. Will we be able to understand that technology, in a deeper way, that allows us to open portals into this preexisting realm of conscious agents. For what it’s worth, I think the answer is yes. And I say that both, with excitement and trepidation. Because that’s unbelievable power. And it’s not clear, what we’re going to meet, on the other side. And I don’t know, if all those conscious agents out there are what we would call nice, I just don’t know. So, I think the, so but notice, it’s not could unconscious circuits and software boot up consciousness. It’s rather, will we understand our interface well enough, and what’s behind the interface, so conscious agents. Well enough, that we can rejig our interface, perhaps he’s using silicon and germanium, and other circuit kinds of materials. And open a new portal into the preexisting realm of conscious agents. So that’s on kind of answer, I think the answer is yes. There’s, but in that case we’re not, creating new consciousnesses, we’re opening portals to them. So there’s another question here. Once we understand this technology, could we create new consciousnesses, in the realm of conscious agents. And, if we look at what we can see in our interface right now. We do see, cases where it looks like new consciousnesses are being created. Reproduction. Sexual, or asexual. When cells divide, we may be in our interface, getting a pointer to a birth of a new kind of conscious agent. When two parents reproduce sexually, and have a kid. We believe that we’re being introduced to a new conscious agent. And that I, that new conscious agent is having conscious experiences that I don’t have direct awareness. So, the mother, the father have their consciousnesses. They come together, they have a child, which has a consciousness, that is opaque to them. They have to interact through an interface. The body of that child, to see what’s going on with the child’s consciousness. So we seem to have hints, in our interface, of technologies, for creating new consciousnesses. Now, if that’s right. If that’s the right way of reading the interface, and maybe I’m reading it wrong, I mean that’s one thing I’ll have to find out, when I get through the conscious agents more worked out, and the projection. I’ll be able to see, am I reading the interface wrong? But suppose, that’s not wrong. That we really are seeing new conscious agents being created, when we reproduce sexually or asexually. That would mean, that there are technologies, within our interface, that we can use, to create new conscious agents. The technologies we have are crude, we’re not having sex, I mean, that’s not a high tech thing. But it works.
[Zubin] Speak for yourselves.
[Don] Yeah, but eventually we, once we understand it, we may be, and we understand, you know, asexual reproduction, you know, and just mitosis. We then may be able to understand, how to use our interface to create new consciousnesses. So, the answer, you know, the AI thing, we may just open new portals into existing consciousnesses with the new technologies, or we may get to the point where we’re creating new consciousnesses. But it’s in different way than the AI folks are thinking about it. They’re saying, we take unconscious, fundamental reality, and make it complicated enough, and it creates consciousness. And I’m saying, no, no, no. Reality is conscious all the way down, my interface is hiding most of it, but my interface is giving me tools to play with the realm of conscious agents. Will it give me the tools to, actually open new portals to consciousness and perhaps to create new consciousness. And I think the answer might be, yes.
[Don] It’s a different way of thinking about it.
[Zubin] I really like that. One interesting thing is, consciousness, like energy, the question is, can it neither be created nor destroyed, is there just an infinite, out of space out of time, conscious pool, and you’re subdividing it, and so a child is like a little split off, and it you know, starts to evolve out, which gets to the question of the evolution of conscious agents.
[Don] Right, right.
[Zubin] Complexity, yeah.
[Don] That’s getting to the limits of my brain some.
[Don] But here’s how I’m thinking about it. And I’m hoping to have a new generation of younger researchers that can you know, help push these ideas further. I don’t think that there’s a limited pool of consciousness. I think it’s endless. And there’s some dynamic, that will never end. And one reason I think that it’s something that’s called, Godel’s incompleteness theorem.
[Zubin] Yeah, explain that.
[Don] So Godel was this brilliant logician, mathematician, logician. Who did some of the most profound research and logic of the 20th century. He was a friend of Einstein, they hung out together, at the Institute for Advanced Study, And one of the, among the many contributions of Godel, was this, that if you have a mathematical system, that has a set of premises, axioms. You can, in a sophisticated enough to say do arithmetic. Then you can, as a mathematician, you can grind out all the theorems, you know, use the axioms to prove all these various theorems. And what he showed, what Godel showed was, all the theorems that you get, like grinding, through the axioms, mechanically. Will not get you to all the truths, there are truths that can’t be proven. Now, that truth that escapes your current set of axioms, may be if you increased your set of axioms or change your axioms, you could get to that truth, but then there would be new truths, that you couldn’t get to, by your proof. And this, I think pairs on science. Science, starts with, every theory starts with premises, assumptions. These are the magic, the miracles of the theory. No theory in science, explains everything. There’s no theory of everything. Every scientific theory says, please grant me these one or two or three handful of assumptions. If you grant me those I can explain all this other stuff. But Godel seems to be saying, to us, is, no matter how, a lot of assumptions of scientific theory has, there will the truths, that escape that scientific theory. And, when I think about this now, from the point of view in which I say, consciousness is the fundamental reality. That’s all there is. How does mathematics fit into that? The way I think of it is, that mathematics is like the bones, within consciousness, it’s the structure of consciousness. When we actually study consciousness, in a field called psychophysics. We actually have, more many decades, studied with precision, conscious experiences in the lab. And they’re structured, we can write down mathematics. Math and consciousness are not alien, they’re not separate. It’s rather they’re really integrated, like flesh and bones. Into one unit. That’s why, think about, like mathematics, is the structural bones of consciousness. It’s not the whole of consciousness, but it’s an essential and ineliminable part, of consciousness. And given that, now, Godel’s theorem is telling us something very important. First my assumption is that, all that there is, is consciousness, so all the math and structure is about, consciousness. There’s an infinite variety of structures, and Godel’s theorem is telling us, the exploration, of this mathematical structure, and therefore of the consciousnesses with that structure, is never ending. Never ending. It cannot come to a halt. There is no halt. It’s provable, that this never halts. Is that the deepest dynamic of consciousness. The endless exploration of all the possibilities of consciousness and its structure. That’s the best idea I’ve got so far. It’s like, the kid in the candy store, but the candy store is infinite and there’s all sorts of chocolates and other things that you couldn’t even imagine are out there. And, go for it, kid, explore, it’s never stopping. That’s what Godel’s theorem seems to be saying to us. And so that’s seems to be saying to me, that there’s no end to the proliferation of consciousnesses, it’s never going to stop. And so, it’s pretty exciting, it’s very, very exciting. So, that’s the best idea I have so far. And that may be the deepest dynamic.
[Zubin] Wow, man. That is a beau. If that’s true, it’s beautiful.
[Don] I hope it’s true.
[Zubin] It’s as beautiful thing as I’ve heard, and I have to say maybe that, if that’s true, and everything again, consciousness is primal. Math is the bones of it, these theorems say that it doesn’t end, it’s gonna constantly keep spinning out and evolving and we’re a kid in a candy shop, just making it happen. People ask about the meaning of life. I can’t think of a better meaning of life than that.
[Zubin] Explore. Grow. Evolve.
[Zubin] That’s the currency of everything. And, love each other too. Because we are all connected.
[Zubin] And, so here, and this is where all the scientists tune out. Okay, he said love, we’re out.
[Zubin] The interesting thing about, you know about all of that is, does it ultimately get up the dynamics of conscious age and evolution, that there is a deep drive even, that, you know, because anthropy says things go to disorder and so on.
[Don] Right, right.
[Zubin] But yet, evolution, seems to be this, it’s not truly an exception, cause the system still goes to disorder, but you’re creating increasing complexity. Maybe conscious agents really just want to connect, and exchange and–
[Zubin] Get more complex.
[Don] I think that’s a very, very good point. It’s in the interaction of conscious agents that you get new conscious agents. And so the exploration continues, and so. I could imagine that the genesis of new agents comes from partly the interactions, the love, hopefully all love, we’ll see. The interaction between conscious agents, leading to new ones. And maybe some, I may have to partial it, also de novo, new conscious agents, just appearing. We’ll have to see, you know, what, I won’t do that if it’s required, but one of the minimum magic, in any scientific theory. So it’ll be interesting to see where that goes, and, but it does, I think, that the notion of love may play a role in the sense that, it is the connections within conscious agents, the interaction between conscious agents, that does give rise to new conscious agents. So, yeah, I’m on board with that.
[Zubin] Man, and this the thing, like people will talk about this stuff, for millennia right, but they’ve never talked about it, with a scientific precision, with the actual theorems.
[Zubin] And I think what I thought was so interesting about your work again is, that you’re bringing that to it. And even if they’re wrong, at least we’re trying, that’s interesting, and if you’re going down the wrong route, we’ll find that out Cause those theorems will be disproven, or you’ll find something incompatible with it, and then you’ll have to alter it. That’s science.
[Don] That’s right. I think the, we all want to understand who we are, we want to understand what this is all about. And dogmatism gets in the way. Assuming that you know the answers. Means that, if you happened to be wrong, you’re stuck. And so it’s best, to hold our beliefs, very, very loosely. Have enthusiasm, but be open to be wrong. And the point about science is to be precise. So you can find out precisely, why you’re wrong. And hopefully quickly, it’s better to be disabused, of your wrong ideas earlier, rather than later. So that you can move on. So, it’s hard for us, because we like, dogmatism seems to come natural to us. Its seems to be part of our nature to say, I believed this since I was five, you’re not gonna dissuade me of it. But that really closes us off to, new ideas, and new exploration, and so that may be part of this whole dynamic too, maybe. There’s an infinite amount to explore and part of the exploration is letting go of what we think we already know. That may be part of what this whole dynamic of consciousness is about, is this letting go of dogmatism, is part of what it takes, to be the kid in the candy shop, that gets to do all this exploring. Hey look kid, if you stick with your dogmatism, you only get to see these candies over here. You get all these other candies are forbidden to you, unless you’re willing to let go, and open up to a broader perspective.
[Zubin] Ha, ha, ha this man, Don Hoffman, you speak my language you know, these are the only things I am interested in any more, in life are these questions, which is strange. Cause I’m getting older, and these are the things, you know, I’m supposed to be interested in the, my new show of medicine and all that, and I’m like, just manipulating icons. I wanna know what’s behind the icons [Crosstalk] Okay, now there’s a lot, oh, man, where to even, gosh, is so good, could talk to you for like 30 hours. So, I wanna at least get into. All right, let me ask you this question. You’re talking about closing off the candy shop, because dogma. We evolved reason.
[Don] Right. Right.
[Zubin] Not to find truth, we evolved reason to persuade others in our tribe, that we’re correct. It’s like our Conamin’s, Daniel Conamin. Talking about system one and system two. Jonathan Haidt talking about Elephant and Writer, our mind is really two minds. We have this very conscious, deliberate, strategic, high energy requiring mind that does logic and reasoning and math and verbal and that sort of thing. And then you have this unconscious emotional, intuitive heuristic mind that, operates in the background. In your conscious agent theory actually, this actually might, might unfold and that you have this level of conscious agents emerging in your current awareness. And that’s system one, like you can be thoughtful and deliberate but that emotion you feel or that threat you feel, or that fear you feel, let’s your quickeristic all the agents underneath feeding up to you.
[Zubin] And influencing your quote on quote, fee will.
[Zubin] So in your estimation, like each of these agents has its own kind of ability to perceive, decide and act.
[Zubin] Based on its world that its encountering, which is the conscious agent, social network. The experience that it has, and the action it wants to take. And, but the lower agents kind of constrain what the higher agents can do, and the higher agents feed back and constrain. So your mind is this constant dynamic between processes unconscious to you.
[Zubin] And processes that you’re conscious off, and maybe even higher processes when you go into a football game and you feel that connection, or you go to a church or a monument, and you see art with other people and you’re all too. And I was at your conference everybody was like this, and there was on sort of, you can almost feel an emergent understanding, right. And so, it’s this constant sort of dynamics, I don’t know what I’m getting at with this beyond this is me thinking out loud about how our own minds work, and how I can think about Elephant and Writer and Conamin, system one system two.
[Zubin] In the conscious agent framework.
[Don] Right. It’s a very, very good point you’re bringing up, and I think its an important issue. You’re right that, from evolutionary psychology, it appears the best understanding form evolutionary psychology is that logic and reason in some sense evolved as a social tool of persuasion. This is the thesis of Dan Sperber and Hugo Mercier, and others. And this, you know, it’s controversial. But it’s very, very interesting. And there seems to be a lot to it. That we evolved logic and reason to persuade others about what we already believe. I mean, I think the right way to take down that wooly mammoth is this way. And we’re gonna need all 17 of us guys to do it this way, together. Cause we can’t do it, I can’t do it by myself. And someone else say, no, no, I think the right way to take down a wooly mammoth is this other way, you should run it off a cliff or something. And so, it’s not the dispassionate search of truth tool, that we might think it is. It’s rather the social persuasion tool, and some evidence that that’s the case comes from, we are best at our logic and reason when we’re in a social debate. We find that ideas come quickly, we’re quick on our feet, and so forth. And a lot of my research is done, in a group with other researchers, where we’re talking, because it’s in that social setting, that the logic and reason. That’s its native ground, that’s where it evolved to hunt. And so I get together with my team, and we hunt ideas together, because that’s where the logic can reason evolve to this kind of hunting of ideas. And the back and forth. But now, at a deeper level, so that’s evolutionary psychology. And I love evolutionary psychology. It’s an incredibly powerful tool. So I’m not putting it down at all. In fact, I talk about evolutionary psychology in my book. But, I think there’s a deeper point of view, outside of space and time. Evolutionary psychology is a theory within our interface. And there’s really, there’s an interesting assumption that goes into evolution. Limited resources. If resources were not limited, there would be no need for competition. And there’d be no need for evolution. We could all just have everything we wanted. It’s the limited resources. And I have to think. Is the, belief or the idea or the experience, that we have limited resources an artifact, of our interface? And not an insight into reality.
[Don] Reality itself, resources may be totally unlimited. And maybe in the realm of conscious agents, it’s not an issue. I don’t know, I don’t know. If that’s the case though, then there would be a deeper dynamics. And when we project it into an interface and which it looks like resources are limited, then we get this, sometimes bloody, competition, for resources. That leads to evolution by natural selection. So I want a deeper framework, in which we understand evolutionary psychology as a projection of a deeper dynamics of consciousness. So it’s sort of getting what you talking about, this whole dynamics of consciousness, how does it relate to evolutionary psychology, I think it’s gonna be again, we’ll have to have a deeper dynamics of conscious agents. And maybe when we project in an interface where we have this appearance of resource limitations, we’re gonna get a lot of the features of evolutionary psychology coming out.
[Don] This idea of resource limitation to me, I’ve sat and thought about this. By the way, so were you talking about social connection being facilitative towards reasoning and thoughts, a 1000%. And I just wanna put a point on that, in medicine, in healthcare. One of the great tragedies of the last decade or so, has been the silicification of our communication. So instead of getting in a room in a doctor’s lounge, your in a nurse’s station, exchanging ideas about patients with specialists and people taking care of them at all different levels. We go behind the computer interface, and we send staff messages.
[Zubin] And it’s not the same.
[Don] No, no.
[Zubin] And so, a lot of that fluidity, a lot of the creativity, a lot of humanity and a lot of the brilliance of medicine has been sucked into algorithms and checklists, and things that we think using a computer model, of thinking, of the brain is a computer, we should think more like a computer. We’re missing the underlying, reality, the conscious experience of our patients, the internal experience, and how it affects this physical icon of their. And it’s been a tragic thing, so, we need to get away from that, or at least use the tools where they’re useful, and use what we are uniquely human about, which is connecting with other humans.
[Don] That’s right.
[Zubin] More effectively. Now, resource limitation is fascinating, because it’s the central driver of everything.
[Zubin] In our current, universe interface. The lack of energy.
[Zubin] And constantly having to budget. If we had unlimited resources. In other words, we have to hack into Grand Theft Auto, where you have unlimited life points or whatever.
[Don] Right. Right.
[Zubin] Suddenly it’s not much fun of a game, I’ll tell you that.
[Zubin] Cause you’re just doing whatever you want. But, all that competition, all the strategy, all the effort that goes into being frugal, into, you know, making sure that you know, maybe space time that evolved as an interface because it tells me how many experience points I need to get to that apple over there, means it’s gonna cost me this much calories. Why do we even need calories? So, it’s interesting, if you’re gonna dive into the fundamental nature of an infinite conscious universe. Why is there finer resources.
[Don] Absolutely. Absolutely. And it may just be an illusion. That the appearance of finenites may be an illusion, I’m not secure on that point, I mean, and I’m not saying that, that I’m absolutely sure. When I go out this realm of conscious agents itself, I may find resource limitations there as well. But I’m not sure that I will. And this idea from Godel theorem that there’s endless exploration, and there’s no limit to it, makes me think that maybe, it’s unbounded, in its potential.
[Zubin] So maybe at this level, there’s limitation. So, I think you mentioned in the book, and I think this is an important point to make that, there are limited resources involved in being able to have experiences, in other words, having a large repertoire of conscious experiences, is somehow costly. It takes effort and energy.
[Zubin] And so, we dumb it down by–
[Zubin] By definition. And our particular instantiation of complexity.
[Zubin] We can’t overdo it, or we run out of steam.
[Don] That’s right.
[Zubin] It’s kind of like we’re using system two, and we’re trying to overthink things.
[Zubin] It gets exhausting and we rely on our gut.
[Don] That’s right.
[Zubin] And so, you know, this idea of, again, getting at this sort of limited, then again this is a conversation for another time. But I have to make sure. By the way, any comment on that? Beyond what we’re talking about?
[Don] Yes, I think that what you’re saying, is exactly the right way to think about it, from an evolutionary point of view.
[Don] That’s exactly the right way to think about it. And the question is, is this resource limitation. So for example, the argument that I’ve given. That we have to have this interface that dumbs things downs, and so forth. The assumption I was making is, let’s assume space time and matter, and evolution by natural selection. The reason I did that was, that’s where my colleagues are. Those are premises that they will accept. So, let me start with premises in a scientific theory that my colleagues will accept, and show that it means that we’re not seeing the truth. This is just, a dumbed down user interface. And so I was able to. Now, given that I’ve done that. I can now, step back and say, well, but I don’t need to commit myself to space time. And I don’t need to commit myself to evolution by natural selection, being the final true theory. That was just the best theory we have so far. And I can use that theory, to bring my colleagues, hopefully along to a new way of thinking about things. But now, when I go to this deeper theory of conscious agents, I don’t yet know whether the notion of limitation applies there or not. And that’s really weird, I mean, when Einstein wrote down general relativity, he didn’t know that it was going to entail, black holes. So that’s the thing about scientific theory. That’s why we do the math. The theory is smarter than you. At some point, the theory teaches you, and you become a student of your theory. And I expect that there are all sorts of implications in the theory that I’ve written down. And by the way, when I say my theory, I have, I should mention my colleagues Chetan Prakash, Chris Fields, Manish Singh, Robert Pridner, Frederico Vishine. I’m working with, so it’s not just me, it’s a whole group. A whole team, Shanana Dobson. So we’re all working on this together. So, but the math is smarter than any of us. And there’s, you know. There’s some pretty smart mathematicians in that group, and the math is smarter than them. And so, it’ll be fun to study what it entails. Are there limited resource implications, or not?
[Zubin] So, and you know one thing I gotta say, every time I listen a little bit before. Nobody really funds this kind of research.
[Zubin] And it’s just like I forget it was Shaun Caroller, he was on Rogen’s show recently, and he was talking about, studying the fundamental foundations of quantum mechanics.
[Zubin] And this idea that no one wants to pay for that, because nobody cares.
[Zubin] What they care about is, what can you build using the current interface.
[Zubin] And so, one think I wanna makes sure that people understand is that, you know, there’s people out there, that independently, philanthropically fund research. They should look at the kind of research you’re doing, because it is, in my mind, the most important thing we can possibly study. And then, I wanna make sure that I mention this, because this came up as soon as we started thinking about this. And at the conference as well, which is. So, you are someone that, and you’ve told me, privately and publicly. You’ve never done psychedelics.
[Zubin] You’ve never smoked a cigarette.
[Zubin] You’re a pretty straight shooter. You’re father’s a Methodist fundamentalist.
[Zubin] Is it not how you roll?
[Zubin] You’re not some like, you know, yogi in India, sitting on a mat all day, doing psychedelics and saying, the nature of consciousness is there is only consciousness.
[Don] I’m a geek.
[Don] What’s that?
[Don] I’m a geek.
[Zubin] Like me.
[Zubin] And so, now the thing is, someone who had dabbled in college in psychedelics, and whose talked to other people who’ve, who have done them. It seems clear, from anyone I talked to, I talk about this theory. They say, oh yeah, of course, whether I’ve done 5-MeO-DMT, or whether I’ve done, that comes from a toad, or whether I’ve done psilocybe, which comes from a mushroom, or whether I’ve done LSD, which comes form, you know, a synthetic ergot, I mean. Ultimately form a bulb I think. All those things seem to do, is open a different interface, that now we encounter. And one of the common things that people say is, it’s an overwhelming experience, that feels as real as our current, maybe more real, than our current interface. That they feel like the’re seeing things that are there always, but that we are, have no access to.
[Zubin] And that, they’re able to make these sort of experiential have these experiences that, again, feel like maybe their experiencing plant, you know, reality, or fungal reality, or something like that. And they have truly, quote on quote, mystical experiences.
[Zubin] Is it possible that something in these, and these are microgram quantities of chemicals. If chemicals are an icon.
[Zubin] Could it be that your somehow moving some sort of conscious agent that interacts with your network of conscious agents and some network affected, oh, changes the interface, so that transiently, you can experience something, even, people say they’re outside of space and time. They’re eternal.
[Zubin] You know, Sam Harris, said in his book, “Waking Up.” Talks about, spending an eternal communion with a redwood tree, while on acid.
[Zubin] That’s one of his earlier experiences. He says, one thing to think about this, it’s another thing to experience it. And it’s, inevitable, you can’t put it in words, because it doesn’t make sense in our current interface. Again, you haven’t done these drugs. Do you think that’s possible, in this?
[Don] Yes I think this whole framework allows that, psychedelics, may be a technology, perhaps an initial and crude technology. By which we can hack our interface. And either, open up the interface to have a more direct perception of conscious agents, or to transition to other interfaces. This theory allows an infinite variety of interfaces. There’s an infinite variety of exploration of different kinds of interfaces. And there is an infinite variety of conscious experiences that various conscious agents can have. Color, vision, tastes, smell, touch, emotions. These are our limited range of experiences. The theory says, there’s an infinite variety, of kinds of sensory modalities. Not just colors, but sensory modalities. That are utterly alien sensory modalities to explore. And so I would think that as we make progress on understanding the realm of conscious agents and our interface. We will develop technologies, that allow us, to systematically, go beyond our interface, and perhaps enter different interfaces and play in different interfaces. And that, we will go back and recognize that the psychedelics were the first very, very crude technology. We didn’t know what we were doing, it’s like, when you first start playing with fire and then eventually we have rockets that go to the moon, right. But we had to start playing with fire, before we could send someone to the moon. And, so that may be what’s going, you know. The crude technology, but eventually, we will be, not just spychonauts, but we will be in you know, in the realm of conscious.
[Zubin] In reality. We’ll be in reality.
[Don] We’ll be in reality.
[Don] And we’ll we going through the realm of consciousness agents and exploring there. And maybe even, going beyond all interfaces. And experiencing, what is it like to, be a conscious agent without an interface, without a self. And I think this is all fun to explore. I think science fiction should explore this, and then hopefully the science will catch up. With the imagination of science fiction, our mathematics can catch up.
[Zubin] Yeah. Do you remember the movie, “Brainstorm.” With Natalie Wood?
[Don] No I don’t.
[Zubin] Oh, it’s one of these early VR movies of 1979. And Natalie died in the middle of it, but it was a technology where you could put on a device and experience someone else’s experience.
[Don] Oh, okay.
[Zubin] And someone dies wearing the device, and recording.
[Zubin] And so people have this experience of death. It’s really, really interesting.
[Don] I’ll look at that.
[Zubin] If you have time. Yeah, so these ideas of like opening these portals. And this idea of, this idea of, consciousness without self, experience. These are ancient spiritual ideas.
[Zubin] You can access these things through meditation. I’ve had glimpses of these experiences in meditation. So a selfless conscious awareness, that’s just a still silent awareness as maybe even the substrate, of what awareness is.
[Zubin] You can experience that. And I think. We were talking earlier about Rupert Spira, and other people who are more of that sort of mentors, of how to discover this type of meditation. And it doesn’t require drugs, and it doesn’t require–
[Don] Right, right.
[Zubin] Anything like that. But I have this idea this is kind of primitive technology, like fire!
[Don] Right, right.
[Zubin] You know, I used to make this, you know smoking marijuana. It’s like being hit on the head.
[Zubin] It shifts your interface slightly.
[Zubin] And for some people. This is my theory. For some people who are innately anxious or restless, or something’s wrong. It shifts the interface slightly, so they can actually get by.
[Zubin] For others, like myself, it shifts it to be slightly more paranoid.
[Don] I see.
[Zubin] Tastes are different, everything’s a little bit turned up and some things are turned down. And sleep is disrupted and this and that. So, again, thinking about it from an interface theory.
[Don] I see.
[Zubin] The effect of drugs make a lot a more sense, than even thinking about it from a mechanistic causal. The brain is causal.
[Don] Right, right.
[Zubin] As opposed to a correlat, an icon.
[Don] Right, right.
[Zubin] How do we make, how does a tiny compound, make the brain somehow create this brand new insane experience.
[Zubin] Makes much more sense that it’s a rejiggering a little bit of our interface.
[Zubin] That makes me wanna ask you this. Again, I don’t know that we have the answer to this. How are our interfaces passed on? What’s encoding them?
[Don] Oh wow. That’s a really interesting question. And it’s a big open problem for me and my team. What is DNA? What is genetics? That is an interface symbol. What is it point to, in the realm of conscious agents? And why is it when we reproduce, we reproduce a consciousness that’s very, very similar to us.
[Zubin] Personalities are the same. [Crosstalk]
[Don] So, that’s gonna be a really. So, I really want to reverse engineer this, our interface, to find out what is the DNA, what is that technology doing? Why would conscious agents in the realm of conscious agents tend to create new conscious explorers that are similar to them. Maybe it’s like it’s a systematic search that’s going on right. So, of course there are tens, hundreds, of millions of different creatures that have been on earth. And so, since then there’s been a wide range of exploration that’s going on. And maybe it’s just, you know, and I search procedure, were searching this part of the search space, and so, we’re creating. Our children are really just new conscious agents, searching more in the same part of the consciousness search space that we were in before. So that might be, but how that cashes out in terms of DNA, and understanding DNA, in the realm of conscious agents. I am really eager to solve that problem, that’s gonna be really fun.
[Zubin] Ah, it’s hugely interesting to me, because the genetics beyond DNA.
[Zubin] But what does it mean again. What is it pointing at really, if we believe this to be–
[Zubin] The correct, this sort of interface–
[Zubin] Theory. And by the way, for people who don’t still believe that this is just an interface. That he example of sinisteed.
[Zubin] People who has synesthesia. They are mutants.
[Zubin] In the interface.
[Don] That’s right.
[Zubin] They’re variants, where they may see tastes, or feel tastes, so you give great examples in the books, of people who do this.
[Don] Right. And one example, so, about 4% of us, are sinisteeds. So it’s not a small fraction. And it looks like it’s from an evolutionary point of view, evolution is tinkering with the interface. And that’s no surprise, we’re mutating all the time. And that’s how, you know, we adapt to new situations. And, synesthesia, is a really good example for one of the problems that most of us have. Most of us think that, when I see a bottle, there is a bottle. I see the moon, there is a moon. Physical objects have a real grasp of our imagination, it’s hard for us to imagine that when I see a bottle, that it could be anything other than just seeing the truth. It really is a bottle. And so sinisteeds are helpful, because there are some sinisteeds that experience three dimensional objects for things that are not three dimensional objects. So, Michael Watson. Everything that he tasted on his tongue. He felt a three dimensional object in space, in front of him, with his hands. And he could feel all the way around it. It had a temperature, a surface shape, a texture, it could be plieable. It had a weight. And so mint, the taste of mint also made him feel in three dimensional space with his hands, a tall cold smooth column of glass. Somehow that seems right to me.
[Zubin] It does right, yeah.
[Don] I don’t know why. It does seem right.
[Zubin] So he spun up three dimensions.
[Don] Three dimensions.
[Zubin] From a taste.
[Don] From a taste. And a mint does not resemble a tall cold smooth column of glass, and a column of glass is not the right way to do mint, right. It might be.
[Zubin] That’s right.
[Zubin] So in an evolutionary sense.
[Zubin] In the future it might be.
[Don] Absolutely. If for example, we were in a world which, women, really prized men who could really cook. It turned out, because Michael Watson had this extra dimension of taste, he felt it in 3D, as 3D objects. He was a great cook, so he could cook in ways, with subtleties that most of us. So if turned out that women really loved men who could really cook, then that, his genes could have passed on and we would all, every time we tasted something, we would not only taste it on our tongue. There would be all these rich three dimensional objects, in front of us, that we would feel with our hands.
[Zubin] How heritable is synesthesia.
[Don] Oh it runs in families.
[Zubin] So it does. So, we’re seeing this heritable interface, right.
[Don] That’s right.
[Zubin] Again, what is it? What is DNA pointing to? And what is the other embryologic development factors that, you know, we’re anthology, phylogeny. We have gills and a tail, right.
[Don] Right, right. Lots to explore.
[Zubin] I know.
[Don] And these are gonna be endless clues that if we’re not smart enough to figure out from first principles what’s going on in the realm of conscious agents. These are the clues, that we’ll pull back. We’ll reverse engineer, to help our imagination, go where it couldn’t go.
[Zubin] Man, it’s an exciting time, I’m telling you. I hope, I really hope that there’s more research along the lines of what you’re doing. That your own research is well funded–
[Don] Thank you.
[Zubin] And publicized. Listen, the one think you guys can do Z Pac, is get this book and read the F out of it. It is fantastic. And it takes you on a journey. And look, if you get to a part about visual perception, and you are like, this is too heavy. Just skip ahead, there’s so much stuff. And the last chapter is about conscious agents, he saves it all of the end. He’s like, oh by the way, here’s the nature of reality. I’m like, what! That’s the whole book. That’s like 30 books, in and of itself. So.
[Don] The next book.
[Zubin] The next book. I don’t know Don, was there anything else you wanted to discuss as we pull up on. How long have we going?
[Zubin] Victoria. It’s been a while. We’re at 12:30 right now, so.
[Don] No, I think we’ve covered it pretty well.
[Zubin] I think we, yeah.
[Don] I think so.
[Zubin] Although I could talk for another couple of three hours.
[Don] It was endlessly fun. And what we’ve pointed out, there’s centuries of work ahead, in this framework. Centuries of work.
[Zubin] It’s exciting. Now people are gonna be like, it’s all BS, and screw you guys, I’m going home. That’s cool. But I will say this. This topic of discussion is something that has provoked the most outrage from my audience. They get viscerally angry when I talk about this stuff.
[Don] Why, why?
[Zubin] And then there’s a contingent, maybe, let’s say, 15% that are like, this is the only reason I watch your show.
[Don] I see.
[Zubin] And they’re like really, this is a field of inquiry that, that they really care about, and I think, again, as the science starts to evolve. It’s gonna be exciting to bring you back and keep talking.
[Don] That would be fun, absolutely.
[Zubin] And anything we can do to promote your work, let us know. Again, get the book, I think the book is so important, to really understanding, the path that gets you to the realization that, okay, first of all, this is all, a construct. Second of all, what’s underneath? And if you don’t believe conscious agent theory, then come up with a theory of your own.
[Don] Right, right.
[Zubin] But one thing, you cannot believe, is that this stuff is real. I just don’t think you can. Look at the science and believe that. That being said, Don Hoffman. Thank you so much for coming on the show, man.
[Don] It was a great pleasure, Zubin. I’m really, thank you for having me on.
[Zubin] Thank you, all right. We out!