Understanding Perception, Spirituality, And Consciousness With Donald Hoffman

Our perceptions accurately tell us true statements about the world. In this episode, host Diane Hamilton talks with Cognitive Sciences expert Dr. Donald Hoffman about perception, spirituality, consciousness, and AI. Dr. Hoffman received his PhD from MIT and joined the faculty at UC Irvine in 1983 where he is a professor of Cognitive Science. He is an author of over a hundred scientific papers and three books including Visual Intelligence and his new book, The Case Against Reality. Today, he dives deep into the importance of perception, what objective reality is, the relationship between science and spirituality, and so much more.

TTL 618 | Understanding Perception


I’m so glad you joined us because we have such a fascinating show. We have Donald Hoffman here. He is from UC Irvine. He’s a professor of Cognitive Sciences. We are going to get into the most fascinating discussions, everything about perception, spirituality, consciousness, AI. It’s going to be fascinating. He’s one of the more interesting people I’ve ever spoken to.

Listen to the podcast here

Understanding Perception, Spirituality, And Consciousness With Donald Hoffman

I am here with Donald Hoffman who received his PhD from MIT and joined the faculty at UC Irvine in 1983 where he is a professor of Cognitive Science. He is an author of over a hundred scientific papers and three books including Visual Intelligence and his new book, The Case Against Reality. I’m so excited because I read that book and I loved it. It’s so nice to have you here.

Thank you very much for having me, Diane.

I was so excited because I listened to the book because I’m not reading them. I’m thinking about how our eyes and how we perceive things and if we need brighter eyes or duller eyes. You go into some interesting things I had never thought about when we think about perception and reality and how we perceive things in general. A lot of people could learn so much from your work. I’ve authored some scientific papers but hardly a hundred. Do you do anything but research?

The university keeps you pretty busy.

I got to read some of them because I’m sure they’re very fascinating. Your book was excellent. I’m interested in, what is reality? How we perceive things, what we see and how other people see it. I wrote my dissertation on emotional intelligence. Empathy and the ability to put yourself in somebody else’s shoes fascinates me. I don’t think we’re good at that in a lot of ways. First of all, I want to ask you, is perception reality?

Most of my colleagues in the cognitive neurosciences would say that our perceptions tell us truths about the world. They accurately tell us true statements about the world. For example, if I look and I see an apple, I see a real object that would exist even if no one were there to perceive it. The shape is the correct shape. The color is the right color. The reason that they’ll argue if that’s the case is on evolutionary grounds. They’ll argue that it’s more fit to see the world more accurately. The idea is that those of our ancestors who saw the world more accurately had a competitive advantage in the big activities of everyday life, the feeding, fighting, fleeing and mating. They had a competitive advantage in those activities and were therefore more likely to pass on their genes that code for the more accurate perceptions.

We can be confident that we’re the offspring of those who saw more accurately and that we in the normal case see quite accurately. It’s not that we see all of objective reality. We see only those aspects that we need to survive. Those aspects of reality, we do see accurately. It seems like a very intuitive and compelling argument. I argue that it’s completely false. It turns out that evolution by natural selection is now a mathematically precise theory. We have the tools of evolutionary game theory. I’ve worked with my graduate students and colleagues. We’ve run simulations of evolutionary games. We’ve also approved a theorem. The result is quite simple and organism that sees any aspect of reality as it is never more fit than an organism of equal complexity that sees absolutely none of reality and is just tuned to the fitness payoffs. Put simply, seeing the truth will drive you extinct. It’s that simple.


[bctt tweet=”Seeing the truth will drive you extinct.” username=””]

For a couple of reasons. First, seeing the truth gets in the way of seeing fitness.

When you say fitness, what do you mean exactly by fitness?

For example, fitness is a technical term in evolutionary theory. The way to think about it intuitively is like a video game. Suppose you’re playing a video game and you have to as quickly as you can, grab as many points as you can to try to stay alive and get to the next level like Super Mario. If you get enough points, you survive and you get to the next level. They up the levels and it’s harder, but you tried to collect points and get to new levels. If you don’t get enough points, you die. In evolution, it’s very similar. Instead of getting gain points, you’re getting what they call fitness payoffs. The payoffs can be positive. For example, for a hungry lion looking to eat, a hunk of beef has high fitness payoffs. For a rabbit, a hunk of meat has no payoffs at all if it’s hungry. You can see intuitively what we mean by payoffs that it depends on the organism, like a lion versus a rabbit. Its state whether it’s hungry or not and the action, whether it’s trying to feed or mate or whatever it might be.

A hunk of beef is not going to be much use to a lion that wants to mate. The fitness payoffs depend on not just the organism but the situation on the action. The idea is that you can think of evolution intuitively as you’re going through life collecting as many fitness payoffs as possible. If you get enough, you don’t go to the next level, but your genes get passed through your offspring to the next generation. That’s the idea. The fitness payoff can be a complicated thing. For example, oxygen. Take the idea of oxygen for us. Oxygen concentration can go from 0% to 100%. Anywhere between 0% and 19.5% is bad for us. Pretty much you’ll die. Anything from 22.5% to a 100% is also bad for us and we’ll die.

There’s this narrow range from 19.5% of 22.5%, the sweet spot. Here’s a concrete example to see why seeing the truth is not good for fitness. Suppose that you are an animal that only has two colors that you can perceive, red and green. Suppose you want to use those two colors to tell you as much truth as you can about the amount of oxygen. In that case, you would like to use red, where it means a low oxygen concentration, say from 0% to 50%. Green is a high concentration from 50% to 100%. That way you’d be using your perception to tell you as much truth as possible about the amount of oxygen concentration.

Suppose you want to use it instead to code for fitness payoffs. You might want to use green say for 19.5% to 22.5% concentration which means that’ll keep you alive and red for everything else, which means it will kill you. Red is dead. Notice now, if you see red, you have no idea how much oxygen there is. You don’t know if it’s 0% or 100%. You just know that you’re going to die and that’s all you need to know. That’s what evolution has done for us. We don’t need to know the truth. We don’t need to know the absolute levels of oxygen concentration. We just need to know am I good or am I dead? That’s how our systems of perception are coded. It’s in terms of fitness payoffs and whether they’re good for us or not. This leads to a radical view that our perceptions of space and time and physical objects are not a window on the truth.

They’re more like a user interface, like the desktop on your computer where you have icons. If you’re writing an email and the icon for your email is blue and rectangular and in the middle of your screen. That doesn’t mean that the email itself and your computer is blue and rectangular, that’s just representative. That’s the point. On the computer, we don’t want to see the truth, those diodes and resistors and all those voltages. If you had to see the circuits and toggle voltages, your friends would never hear from you. You couldn’t craft an email. The truth gets in the way. Truth doesn’t help your fitness. It gets in the way. We have an interface on our desktops to hide the truth and just give us eye candy that lets us control the truth without knowing what it is. That’s what evolution did for us. Spacetime is our desktop and objects are the icons.

Are we hooked up to the matrix? Are we seeing things or is this reality? Do you get that deep into it?

It’s spacetime and physical objects. We normally think of spacetime as the foundational reality. Until lately, physicists had been saying that physics is the basic reality. Physical objects like quantum field or apples are our fundamental reality. I’m saying that absolutely not. These are just an interface to whatever reality is. They’re not the reality. They’re just our user interface. Just like the desktop on your computer, all the pixels and nice little beautiful icons. That’s not the reality of your computer. That’s just a nice little user interface that stands between you and all the circuits and software between you and the reality and hides the reality. That’s what we’ve got. There is a deeper reality behind space and time but it’s utterly unlike space and time and anything inside space and time. What our theorem shows is that the very language of shapes and colors and space and time is simply the wrong language to describe objective reality.

TTL 618 | Understanding Perception
Understanding Perception: Evolution by natural selection is now a mathematically precise theory.


Is it like ones and zeros that we just don’t see how computers are computing? Is it to that level? How do you know all this?

“Could I be wrong?” “Absolutely.” Any scientists worth their salt would say, “These are the best theories we’ve got so far. We’ve always overthrown our theories in the past. Surely we will overthrow our current theories.” The way to think about what I’m saying is I’ve taken one of our best current scientific theories, evolution by natural selection. If, for the sake of argument, we accept that theory, then it follows that none of our perceptions track the truth. They only track fitness payoffs. Now we might then say, “Given that, I want a better theory than evolution because I want to keep the truth.” We might say, “So much for the truth and so much for evolutionary theory.”

The problem with saying so much for evolutionary theory is it’s an incredibly beautiful theory. It’s incredibly powerful. It explains a lot and we don’t have a substitute. If you throw it away, you’re left without any theory to understand biology. What scientists do is they say, “We take evolutionary theory as just the best work in progress we have so far. If that theory entails that we don’t see reality as it is, we may want to look for a deeper theory.” It’s interesting, the bit about we don’t see the truth is not an extraneous aspect of the theory, it’s integral to the very core of it. If we want to keep the truth, we will have to radically change evolutionary theory.

What percent of people do you think believe in evolutionary theory?

Among scientists, that’s 99.99%. I don’t believe any scientific theories including my own. I think that belief is not a useful attitude. A deep understanding of the theory, a real technical understanding of theory, appreciation of their beauty and appreciation of what they can predict, that’s all very powerful. I’m all for it. My attitude is we should always try to be iconoclastic. Can we figure out where our current theories fall down and try to come up with something new? When I say I don’t believe in evolutionary theory, I say it in a very different way than many people would say it. I’ve studied the theory, it’s incredibly beautiful, it explains so many of the things, we have no better theory that can explain the thing. That’s as good as it gets right now. Whatever new theory we come up with, we’re not simply throwing away evolution by natural selection. We need to have a theory that, in some sense, captures what evolution when natural selection captures plus it goes a step further. It’s not like throwing it away. It’s like Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. We don’t throw away Newton’s Physics. We include it as a special case and go deeper and that’s what we’re going to have to do.

I listen to Neil deGrasse Tyson’s book a lot and Death by Black Hole is one of my favorite books. They’re trying to get a theory of everything and they can’t get it to work. You’re going to have to prove something that doesn’t work some time along the way or we’re missing something to make these puzzle pieces fit that don’t fit. A lot of people don’t look into all these things because they just go with belief and faith. You’re not a belief in faith guy. You’re saying you want to continue to explore, right?

That’s right. As a scientist, it’s much better to even take your own theories with a grain of salt. You need to have enough excitement about them and enough confidence in them to pursue them to see where they can go. You should be ready as new data come in or new ideas come in to radically revise your theory or drop it and come up with something new. Belief gets in the way. Understanding is a good attitude, trying to understand, trying to critique and then trying to break. Good scientists try to break our best theories. You pointed out that right now in our quest in physics for a theory of everything, we run into a huge problem that general relativity and quantum field theory just don’t play well together. They’re incompatible. It’s not trivial in compatibility. It goes to the core assumptions that are built into the two theories. They’re fundamentally incompatible.

You can’t figure out dark matter or anything else until you figure that out.

[bctt tweet=”Fitness is a technical term in evolutionary theory.” username=””]

Quite possibly, we could be quite hamstrung. One of the things that has come out in physics, at least since Newton, is we have assumed that space-time is fundamental. Even with Einstein, spacetime is the fundamental reality. In quantum field theory, the quantum fields are defined over space and time. We’ve taken spacetime to be fundamental but there’s been some work in physics that’s leading several physicists including Nima Arkani-Hamed, Ed Witten and David Gross to say that spacetime is doomed. The idea is that spacetime has had a good run. It’s been the foundational concept for several centuries, but it’s over.

Do they suggest something to replace it?

Nima Arkani-Hamed is looking at something that he calls the Amplituhedron. It’s a geometric object that is not inside spacetime. It’s outside of spacetime. He doesn’t know what space it is. He doesn’t know what this is, but it has symmetries that cannot be manifested directly in spacetime. They can only be projected into spacetime. There are deeper symmetries in reality. He’s forced to this conclusion by looking at the results of particle collisions like in the large Hadron Collider. When they look at two gluons smash into each other and four gluons come spraying out, you can look at the probabilities for various kinds of what they call scattering events. They call them scattering amplitudes because they are doing complex amplitudes instead of probabilities.

What they find is if you force yourself to think and compute in spacetime, the math is ugly and it’s messy. It’s so ugly that you can’t compute it in real-time. It would be impossible to do the experiments in real-time and you’re missing some deep symmetries. If you let go of spacetime, you find that there are these deep symmetries and the math becomes trivial. Nature is telling us something, spacetime isn’t the deep reality if there’s something deeper. I’m proposing that spacetime is a user interface that we use to represent the fitness payoff.

Is that why we can’t figure string theory or any of these others? Do you think?

We’ve assumed that the spacetime and quantum fields or the generalization to strings and brains are the end theory. We’re still trying to take the same kinds of concepts we had with spacetime and quantum fields and generalize them to strings and brains in higher dimensions. We’re going to have to have a fundamentally new framework. The amplituhedron that Nima Arkani-Hamed is pursuing and other similar approaches that say spacetime is doomed or on the right track, especially when you see symmetries that you cannot find in spacetime. That’s a huge clue.

This is also fascinating to me because there are so many people who think they know the answers to everything in life. I see it as a speck of sand, like an ant, trying to do complex calculus or something. Do you think we’re capable of ever figuring all this out or is it just fun trying to figure it out?

That’s a good and deep question. You mentioned before the theory of everything. That idea that we’re going to get a theory of everything misunderstands fundamentally how science works. What do we mean by a scientific theory? A scientific theory is always in the following form, “Please grant me the following assumptions. Grant me that spacetime exists. Grant me that there are quantum fields. If you grant me that or grant me these equations, then I can explain all this other stuff. I can explain chemistry and biology.” No theory in science has ever tried to explain everything. No one’s even tried. There’s always a set of assumptions at the start of a scientific theory. From the point of view of the theory, those are miracles. They’re magic because the theory cannot explain them. It doesn’t try to explain them. It says, “Assume this.” There’s no scientific theory ever that could explain everything. Every scientific theory is always going to say, “Grant me these assumptions and I’ll explain everything else.” What science is about is going after deeper and deeper assumptions, but we’ll never get to the bottom.

In my research in curiosity, one of the things I’ve found that hold people back or their assumptions. You can see why it would. We come up with these ideas, “This is what it is,” but it’s not necessarily what it is. The whole idea of what we see versus what is real fascinates me, what we think versus what is real. What is real if we can’t even determine what is real? Everybody has a different thing. I remember a friend of mine who’s color blind said he doesn’t know that if it’s green, it looks like red to him. You hear these things and it makes your head hurt. Does your head hurt a lot thinking about all this?

TTL 618 | Understanding Perception
Death By Black Hole: And Other Cosmic Quandaries

Yes, it’s not just been a geeky intellectual adventure. It’s been quite an emotional adventure because we’re deeply programmed to just believe that we believe our eyes. We believe our senses. We take them as telling us the truth. In fact, as you will know, Piaget pointed out what he calls object permanence. When we’re very young, he thought maybe eighteen months old, but later research shows that we get object permanence when we’re even just three or four months old. That’s the deep belief that the objects that we see exist and are real even if we can’t see them. We’re programmed to believe that. The classic example that Piaget and his colleagues would get was this before eighteen months of age, you have a little infant on the bed and you have a little doll and it’s playing with the doll. You take the doll and you put it behind the pillow while the child is looking. Before a certain age, say seventeen or eighteen months, once you put it behind the pillow, they go on as though there was no doll.

Piaget interpreted that as saying, “Up to a certain age, out of sight, it doesn’t exist.” After the age of eighteen months, you put it behind the pillow and the child goes looking for it. It still exists. We call that object permanence. Later, experiments showed that this notion of object permanence, you can show evidence for it even as early as four months of age. Piaget’s experiments weren’t sensitive enough to find the younger age. Now, I’ll put on the evolutionary hat. I’ll incorporate everything in evolutionary mode. We’re programmed by natural selection to assume that what we see as the truth and that assumption comes into us around four months of age. We’re not rational. We’re not able to question it. We’re not able to reason about it. It’s just there. By the time we reached the age of reason, we’ve lived all of our lives with that assumption. It’s hard for us to step back and ask the question, “Is the moon there when no one looks?” That’s hard.

It reminds me of a joke, “Is a man still wrong if his wife complains and it’s not there?”

If a man says something in a forest and there’s no woman there to hear them, he’s still wrong. It’s better to be like that.

Is the moon still there? In your ideas of what you’re studying, are you saying it is or it isn’t? What’s reality was the hallucinations we all agree upon. Do you agree with that?

We tend to agree. There are two questions. One is do I think this is reality and do we agree about it? I’ll be very clear. I think that spacetime itself is not objective reality. We make it up. In other words, the standard physics view is spacetime came into existence 13.8 billion years ago with the Big Bang. It expanded and it was inanimate or lifeless for who knows how many hundreds of millions of years. Life came on later and then much later consciousness. In the last few seconds of geologic time, Homo sapiens have appeared on the scene. We’re tiny bit players’, latecomers on the preexisting stage of spacetime. That’s the standard view. I’m turning the whole thing around. I’m saying “No, we’re not bit players on this ancient stage of spacetime. We’re the authors of spacetime. We created on the fly as we need.” It’s a data structure. I’m done now thinking in evolutionary mode. It’s a data structure that we use to represent fitness payoffs and how to get them. Physical objects are also data structures that we use to represent fitness payoffs and how to get them. The data structures that we use have no resemblance at all to whatever objective reality might be.

Will we ever know what objective reality is?

First, you did ask, do we all see the same thing? The answer is we don’t. 4% of us have synesthesia.

[bctt tweet=”Always try to be iconoclastic. Figure out where our current theories fall down and try to come up with something new.” username=””]

Which is?

Synesthesia is an interesting phenomenon. There’s 4% of us, so it’s not that rare. It’s where people have experiences that are very different from the rest of us. I’ll be concrete. There was a guy named Michael Watson. Everything that he tasted on his tongue, he felt a three-dimensional object in space in front of him. He could feel it with his hands. He could put his hands all the way around it. It had a temperature, it had weight, it had a texture, it had sponginess. He uses three-dimensional objects as a data structure to represent tastes. Mint was, for Michael Watson, a tall, cold, smooth column of glass. He could put his hands all the way around it in 3D. He could feel the texture, he can feel the temperature, he could feel the weight of it. On the stir of bitters was a basket of Ivy. He could feel the leaves of the ivy, down to the tendrils. He could feel the sponginess of it in three dimensions. Caramel syrup was a bucket of bee bees. He could fill the bee bees in the bucket with his hands.

It’s such a strange assortment of things.

That’s right. Although the mint being tall cold, smooth glass somehow seems right to me.

Is it almost like our brain creates what it should be based on our experiences or what he turns it into?

From an evolutionary point of view, I would say that what we see with Michael Watson is that we’re taking something like a taste like the taste of mint. That taste doesn’t have a shape. It doesn’t have a color, it doesn’t have a mass, it’s a taste. He’s representing it with a three-dimensional object that has a shape, a texture, a mass and a temperature. None of those things are intrinsic to tastes but it turned out, it was a very useful user interface for him. He was a fabulous cook. He had this extra way of dealing with tastes and flavors that the rest of us don’t have. He was able to use it to be a great cook. That’s the point from an evolutionary point of view. It’s not about the truth, it’s about having different representational schemes that allow us to do things that could be useful for survival and for our fitness.

All these things are important to what I do with and what I’m interested in terms of how much our perception affects. What if we don’t see the truth? How can we understand what other truths people see, what other truths are and how can this affect us? Especially in work situations. As I mentioned, I studied EQ. We’ve always studied IQ and they’re studying CQ for cultural quotients. I see perception and work of how we perceive each other and how we make decisions and all that type of thing. It’s a combination of IQ, EQ, CQ, maybe our curiosity quotient as well. I think a lot of it is the cultural quotient. The ability to think critically and it put it all together to get kind of a PQ or perceptive quotient. How do you see it at work? How do people get along in how important perception is?

We do differ radically in our emotional worlds and in our perceptual worlds. It’s often not safe to assume that the way I see things and the way that I emotionally experience things is necessarily the way that the people around me experienced them. Often, we will project onto others what is true for us and it may not be true for them. It’s very difficult because if someone is living in a different emotional world from me, it may take a while for me to even expand my horizons and my concepts to be able to understand that other person. Having an attitude of openness and not assuming that I know what’s going on but talking with a person and finding out what’s going on as best I can.

Having curiosity about them.

TTL 618 | Understanding Perception
Understanding Perception: Synesthesia is an interesting phenomenon. It’s where people have experiences that are very different from the rest.


Having curiosity as opposed to assuming that you know is very critical and it doesn’t come naturally. Most of us just assume, “The way I perceive the world and the way I experienced it, that’s the way everybody does it.” You’re probably aware that there’s some debate but there’s quite a bit of literature on the average differences in the emotional roles of men and women. There are differences that we have just because we’re men and women statistically.

People would be interested in hearing about that. That’s an interesting thing in the workplace. 

It is. There is some controversy. Some of the data of this is interesting. James Fallon who’s a professor of anatomy here in neuroanatomy in UC Irvine showed me some work that he’d done. They showed men and women pictures that were quite emotional like death masks of faces. They found that a lot of our emotional responses are correlated with activity and a part of the brain called the amygdala. You have an amygdala on the left hemisphere of the brain and amygdala on the right hemisphere. It took them several experiments because they couldn’t understand what they were getting until they realized, “We need to separate the men and the women data.” When they did that, they found that all the men had activity, I believe it was in the right amygdala and all the women were in the left. It was a complete difference in which side of the brain, what we call lateralization.

What does that tell us?

He said that the amygdala itself is a complex structure with lots of sub-nuclei. The sub-nuclei that were active in women were almost entirely different than the sub-nuclei that were active in men. What he said to me was that effectively, the neuro-processing of emotional information in the brain is 95% different between men and women. It would be no surprise if our style of emotional responses is very different. If someone gets upset in this situation or they say something and I say, “I understand them. I’m going to try to figure out what would I have to be thinking and what would I have to be feeling if I behaved that way.” It’s very likely that if a man does that, he will get the wrong answer for a woman.

He can’t have empathy because of how he thinks.

He’s going to have to have a deeper kind of empathy. The knee jerk reaction that we normally have, which is to say, “This is what I would have to be thinking and feeling to act that way.” We’re going to have to go even deeper and say, “What would that person possibly be thinking and feeling?”

It’s like empathy squared.

[bctt tweet=”Out-of-body experiences can be induced even when you’re not dead.” username=””]

In other words, not everybody is in the same box that I’m in. I can’t shoehorn everybody into my box. I’m going to have to first say, “Here’s what I would be thinking and feeling to act that way.” This person might be utterly different. For example, it’s a classic thing among a lot of men and women that men don’t want to share their feelings. If a man shares his feelings, it’s only in general because he’s at the end of his rope. He needs help. I’m talking straight guys right now. If a straight guy comes to me and tells me some of his feelings, that’s a cue to me that he wants some advice because otherwise he wouldn’t be telling me this stuff. Many cases for a woman, if she tells you your feelings, that may not be that she wants to have advice, it might be. In many cases, that doesn’t mean that she wants advice and she might be upset if someone gives her advice. For a man, that would be a point of misunderstanding in many cases. I gave her advice, she’s upset about it, what’s up? We have to go, as you say, empathy squared, not just what would I be thinking and feeling, but how might this person be thinking and feeling in a way that’s different from me, that’s not natural for me. Can I learn to try to get into their world which is different from my world?

That might explain the success of John Gray’s Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus because there is so much that we have different. You don’t know what you don’t know and that’s what frustrates me. When I talk to people sometimes and they’re just like, “This is the way it is.” They’re unyielding and we see that. Don’t you see that with the majority of people or is it just me?

We tend to be programmed it seems to take our current beliefs as the truth and it’s very hard. Dogmatism seems to come very natural to us.

We’re taught religion as a child or some spirituality. What is the relationship between science and spirituality?

It’s very deep. They’re filling a different part of the elephant so to speak. They both have something different to offer. Science has a wonderful method. The method of science is to state your ideas precisely. The idea being once you’re precise, we can figure out precisely where you’re wrong. We can find experiments and data that will find out precisely where you’re wrong and that way we can revise the theory. Individual scientists are as dogmatic as anybody on the planet, but science as a social institution is non-dogmatic. It will find the problems in the theories because it pits one scientist against another. I’m not going to be trying to essentially to show my theory is wrong, but I’ll be trying to show your theory is wrong. That’s wonderful.

Sometimes we prove ourselves wrong in the process.

If you’re a good scientist, you’ll get there first and prove yourself wrong before others prove you wrong. That’s a good scientist. The non-dogmatic and precise approach to ideas is a big part of the puzzle that science has. On spiritual traditions, many of the spiritual traditions have been telling us for centuries, even millennia, that spacetime is not fundamental but there’s a deeper reality outside of spacetime. They’re on to something. Now, physicists are saying spacetime is doomed and there is something deeper. The two need to get together. Spiritual traditions have let go of spacetime in many cases, not all but many of them.

They also are asking the big questions that are very important to us. Why are we here? What is life about? Is there life after death? Many in the scientific community have said those aren’t scientific kinds of questions. We can’t talk about what’s the meaning of life and I think they’re wrong. Science is a method of inquiry. We should use that method of inquiry to inquire into our most interesting questions. Why are we here? What is life about? What’s the meaning of life? What’s good and what’s not? We want to take the best tool we have and address the spiritual questions.

TTL 618 | Understanding Perception
Understanding Perception: The method of science is to state your ideas precisely.


The subjectivity of all of it is interesting. I teach a lot of ethics courses. I find that fascinating. What’s good for me might not be good for you. That’s important in work. When you get the Enrons and the things in the world or you work in a company and you open a branch in another country, whose ethics do you go by, the US?

That’s exactly right. In the spiritual traditions, we have our ideas about what’s right and wrong, Christianity, Buddhism and Islam. I’ve never seen a theory of right and wrong, the theory of morality that is deep enough. Here’s what I would want. I’ll give you an example. There’s a bird called the blue-footed booby. That’s a funny name. The mother always lays two eggs and the chicks, when they hatch, their first item of business is to fight to the death. One will either peck the other one to the death or packet and put it out in the sun and it’ll bake to death. It’s cruel. The mother watches and does nothing to save her offspring. She killed her sibling. From an evolutionary point of view, the situation seems to be that in the niche we’re this the blue-footed booby lives, there are enough resources to raise one chick but not enough to raise two. There was a dilemma; either extinction or siblicide. Those are the alternatives. Evolution has gone with siblicide over extinction.

From the human point of view, siblicide, killing your brother or sister, is just flat out appalling. It seems terribly wrong. It’s natural to fight but it’s unnatural to fight to the death. Whatever deep theory of morality we come up with, I won’t be happy until it applies and helps us understand the behavior of all species, not just Homo sapiens. I want a theory of morality that goes very deep and explains right and wrong in a very deep way. I don’t have it. I don’t have a theory of morality that I’m satisfied with and I’ve studied a lot of theories of morality and I’m not satisfied with any of them.

Do you think that that’s possible when we all have such unique perceptions of the world to ever come up with something like that?

That’s an open question. I’ll put it this way. It might be that we can’t but that that’s a bad working assumption. If you assume that you can’t do something, then you don’t try. It’s always with eyes wide open. My own attitude about all the work that I do is I’m probably wrong. Who knows if I can ever come up with a theory of morality? Who knows if I can ever come up with the correct theory of objective reality? We’ve got to give it the good old college try and be precise. This is the key thing in science. We have to be precise and say exactly what experiments you could do to show me wrong. That’s the key move. That’s where we let go of dogmatism. Dogmatism is death. We’ve got to let go of dogmatism.

When we talk about all this and we go back to the booby. Is there a free will then if we have this instinctual thing that we don’t even know we have?

Most of our colleagues in the neurosciences would say absolutely not. There is no such thing as free will. Your behavior is determined by the neural activity in your brain. We have experiments, as you all know. In certain experiments, we have a person in the lab and we have to make a choice between pushing this button or pushing that button. You have the person take note of the time when they consciously made the choice. “I’ve pushed the left button or the right button.” You can specify the exact time when you consciously made the choice. It turns out if you look at their EEG’s, the electroencephalograms, look at their brain activity in certain motor cortical areas. You can tell up to seven seconds before the person is consciously aware of what they’re going to do. You can know what they’re going to do with almost perfect certainty. Many neuroscientists will say that proves that the brain activity is in charge and you’re not making any free will choices. I think that’s too fast. The fact that you can predict with a brain activity what the person’s going to do, it doesn’t mean that the brain activity causes the choice or forces the choice.

For example, if you look at a train station, you’ll notice, a bunch of people assemble at the platform and then a few minutes later a train arrives. It’s quite systematically that in a very strong correlation, a bunch of people arrived at the platform and a few minutes later a train arrives. Does that mean that the people assembling at the platform caused the train to arrive? No. There’s a deeper reality, a third thing namely, in this example, a train schedule that’s coordinating the behavior of the people and the train. In the case of the brain activity and our choices, when I say that spacetime is not fundamental, the spacetime is just a data structure, that means everything inside spacetime, and that includes brains. I’ll be very precise and very blunt. Nothing in spacetime exists if it’s not perceived. All of it is a data structure that we create on the fly. The moon doesn’t exist when it’s not perceived. The moon that I see is the moon that I create and the moon that you see is the moon that you create. What this means in terms of neural activity and this is where my colleagues in the neurosciences go wide-eyed when I give colloquia to neuroscientists. Neurons do not exist when they’re not perceived.

[bctt tweet=”Intelligence is something that you can define functionally; consciousness isn’t.” username=””]

What if you get hit by that train that you don’t see?

A lot of people say, if you’re coming down the tracks is just an icon in your interface. It’s not objective reality. Why don’t you step in front of it? After you’re dead, you will know that the train was real and it can kill. I wouldn’t step in front of the train for the same reason. I would carelessly drag that blue icon for the paper that I’m writing or book I’m writing. I wouldn’t carelessly drag that blue icon to the trashcan icon. Not because I take the icon literally, the file in the computer is not blue and rectangular, but I do take the icon seriously. If I drag the icon to the trashcan, I could lose all my work. That’s the point. From an evolutionary point of view, we evolved all these objects like snakes and trains to keep us alive. We have to take them seriously. That does not entitle us to take them literally.

Are you saying that the train is not literally there?

Exactly right.

It literally will kill you, right or not?

That then raises the question of what is death.

I would love to know that.

From the physicalist point of view, spacetime is fundamental. You are nothing but the atoms in your body and your consciousness is nothing but what your brain activity does. Your consciousness is what your brain does. Your mind is what the brain does. If your brain dies, that’s it. You’re gone. There’s no survival afterwards. Think of it in a different way. If spacetime and physical objects aren’t the fundamental reality, they’re just an interface. Think of it as a virtual reality. Suppose you go to a virtual reality arcade to play, say virtual volleyball, with some friends. You go to the arcades, you put on your headset and bodysuits and you’re immersed in a beach volleyball scene with palm trees and sand and the net. You play volleyball with your friends for a while.

One of your friends says, “Tom, excuse me just for a minute, I’m on thirsty. I’m going to get a drink. I’ll be right back.” He takes off his headset and bodysuit and his avatar collapses on the sand. From the point of view of the virtual reality, he’s dead but he’s not dead, he just stepped out of that interface. This is where my point of view seems to dovetail with certain spiritual traditions. If spacetime is not fundamental, stepping out of the spacetime doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re dead. I’m not proving that there is life after death. I’m saying that the physicalist assumption that death is the end of everything need not be true. I’m working to see where my theory takes me about life after death.

TTL 618 | Understanding Perception
Understanding Perception: With the standard view of artificial intelligence in terms of technological capabilities, it’s inevitable that we’re going to be beaten by AIs.


I would love to follow that. I had somebody on my show who died and said she could see her body and the things in the room and all that. Do you believe in those kinds of things that people who have their heart stop and they’re physically dead can actually see the room and explain things that they couldn’t have seen and their eyes were sealed closed and they couldn’t tell that there was a table in the room and all that stuff? Where does that fit with you?

A couple of things to say on that. One is the out of body experiences can be induced even when you’re not dead. If I take a transcranial magnetic stimulation device, a TMS device, and touch it to the right side of your head near the temporal-parietal junction, the TPJ and inhibit there, you will have an out of body experience.

You can see things whether your eyes are open or not? Can you see what happens in the room?

What you have is a subjective experience that you’re outside of your body. The next question is do you get new information that you couldn’t have gotten otherwise? There’ve been a number of experiments that have tried to carefully test that. Right now, the evidence suggests no. That there are a few stories here and there where people claim that one, but you do a careful experimental test. There’s no reliable evidence that they get new data that you couldn’t have gotten otherwise. On the other hand, the experience of being out of body appears to be a real experience. You can also induce it by taking various psychedelics, ayahuascas and mushrooms. The experience is a real experience, it’s not a surprise to me because from my point of view, even my own body is just an icon. It’s not the truth. It’s just an icon.

We can do this in virtual reality. You have a person with a headset on. You have a camera, say ten feet behind the person, and the camera has got a picture of the person. You’re seeing yourself in front of yourself in the virtual reality world. You see an image of yourself ten feet in front of yourself. Now someone comes up behind you and starts stroking you on the back. You feel it on your back but in virtual reality, you see it in the avatar image ten feet in front of you. After you do that for a little bit, all of a sudden you jump out of your body and you jump into the avatar. You have an out of body experience.

I had Todd Maddox was on my show. He was talking about some of this stuff that you can do. It’s fascinating to me if can put yourself into a female body and see what it’d be like. I’ll have to introduce you to him. You two would have plenty to chat about. AI is such a hot topic right now. I know you had looked into a little bit of Nick Bostrom’s work. I’m curious what you think about some of that, because we’re talking about a superintelligence and some of this AI stuff that’s out there. Do you want to touch on AI quickly and a superintelligence and where we’re heading?

Yes, and also it got a simulation theory.

What do you think of that?

[bctt tweet=”The face is a portal into the consciousness of a person.” username=””]

With the standard view of artificial intelligence, first, in terms of technological capabilities, it’s inevitable that we’re going to be beaten by AIs. The best poetry, the best music, the best literature, will be written by AIs.

Will they let us live?

That’s a tough one. I know that there are very bright people on both sides of the issue. I know that Steve Pinker is not too worried about that. Elon Musk and others are. The current generation of AI, not to worry. Very soon, there’s AI that that can go rogue. If you look up Boston Dynamics in Google, you can see videos of robots that can now do gymnastics. They can do backflips and parkour. You’ll want to see that. When you have AIs that can do that, they are faster than us that are more nimble than us and eventually are going to be smarter. Here’s the deal. Right now, AIs, as smart as they seem, they’re incredibly stupid. Even the ones that can beat us at Go, they’re deep down incredibly stupid. They’ve just learned a bunch of correlations and they’re very brittle. You change the situation a little bit and, in many cases, they completely fall apart. That’s just an artifact of our current AI technology. We’re about to fix it.

There’s work by Judea Pearl and many of his collaborators in causal reasoning. They have now worked out the mathematics of causal reasoning. We didn’t have a mathematical theory of causal reasoning 25 years ago. We now have it and we’re about to give it to the AIs. When we do that, it’ll take us maybe ten years to fifteen years to develop causal reasoning and give it to the AIs. When we do that, that’s when it’s game over for us. They have more horsepower than us. They can have infallible memory and now when they can do causal reasoning, they will no longer be brittle. Once you get that in Boston Dynamics robot that can do parkour, then there’s an existential threat. The issues that we were talking about earlier, about ethics and morality, that will now come to the fore. We have some ants in my house and I don’t think anything about it. If there are ants on the kitchen table better getting in the way of me fixing my meal, I don’t even think twice about getting rid of them.

Moral questions don’t even come up. Will it be the same way with AIs? Will we be like the ants? In terms of super-intelligence, the current generation, people will say the current AIs, they’re not going to do it. I absolutely agree. The current AIs with deep learning and compositional networks, it’s not going to do it. If they can beat us at little things like go and they can see correlations that we can’t. It’s good. That’s very helpful stuff but it’s not going to beat us at flexible AI. That’s coming within 20 or 25 years with the work of Judea Pearl and his colleagues. Now, there’s a question of consciousness in AI, which is a different question. Intelligence has something that you can define functionally. Consciousness is something you can’t define functionally. In my experience of the taste of chocolate or the smell of garlic or my experience of a headache, these are all that I mean by consciousness.

The question for AI, could we somehow by getting a complicated enough program in a computer, in an AI, could the magic of having experiences, having headaches and smelling chocolate, could the computer have those experiences? The answer depends on your theoretical framework. If you’re a physicalist and you say that objective reality is fundamentally unconscious and circuits and software are fundamentally in the simple case, they’re unconscious. If you want to say the AIs could be conscious, you have to claim that somehow these unconscious circuits and software, when they have the right algorithms, the right complexity, the right integrated information or the right collapse of microtubules or whatever it might be, somehow conscious experience happens and that doesn’t work. I’ll put it very bluntly. You cannot start with unconscious ingredients and boot up consciousness. It can’t be enough. This can’t be right.

As you would say, you could be wrong.

I could be wrong. What I like to do is start with consciousness. The theory I’m working on is I’m proposing that consciousness is fundamental and I have a mathematical model of consciousness with my colleagues. From that point of view, the AI question is very different. The standard question is, how could unconscious circuits and software suddenly or gradually become conscious? I have a different point of view. Suppose the consciousness is fundamental, again, I could be wrong but at least I’m making a mathematical model. Our user interface, space and time and physical objects give us portals into the realm of consciousness. For example, if you look at your own face in the mirror, what you literally see is just skin, hair and eyes. You know firsthand that what you don’t see, what’s not visible in the mirror, your beliefs, aspirations, hopes, dreams, headache, love of music, the sights, smells and sounds that you’re experiencing. That whole rich world of your conscious experience is hidden behind your face. Your face is a simple symbol.

TTL 618 | Understanding Perception
The Case Against Reality: Why Evolution Hid the Truth From Our Eyes

When I look at a person, I see their face, I’m creating the face that I see but that face is a portal into the consciousness of the person. If I see the person’s smile, I see their face smile, I can fallibly but fairly reliably guess that they’re feeling happy or some positive emotion. If they’re frowning, I can guess it’s something about their conscious experience. In other words, there are physical objects like faces that serve as portals into this deeper realm of consciousness. When I look at my cat, I also believe that I’m interacting with a consciousness. I wouldn’t want to abuse my cat because I believed that the cat wouldn’t feel pain. It is conscious and it would be absolutely cruel for me. The cats are not a machine that are unconscious, they are conscious. What I’m saying then is that the cat icon that I create is a portal into a realm consciousness. It’s a consciousness that’s alien to mine, but nevertheless, I can figure out that my cat likes this food and doesn’t like that food and likes to be pet. When I see something that I call an ant or a mouse, my portal is much dimmer. I think I’m interacting with a consciousness.

All of that is prelude to the AI question. The question is this, if we understand this realm of consciousness, that is deeper than space and time mathematically, and we understand how it projects into space and time, then could we reverse engineer our interface and open new portals into the realm of consciousness? It wouldn’t be necessarily creating a new consciousness but opening new portals. For what it’s worth, I think yes. When we get a mathematically precise theory of what I call the realm of conscious agents. I think of it this way, think of the fundamental of universe and this theory, it’s like the Twitter-verse. It’s this vast social network. There are tens of millions of Twitter users, billions of tweets, lots of stuff trending. If you were trying to understand all of that, you couldn’t see all of the tweets superintelligence couldn’t interact with all the Twitter users, it would be overwhelming.

What do you do when you have overwhelming social media complexity? We use visualization tools to dumb it down and to make it so that we can understand what’s going on. That’s what space and time and physical objects are. What we thought was the fundamental reality. Spacetime was fundamental. The moon and the sun are fundamental. These are a visualization tool that we’re using to interact with this vast social network of interacting conscious agents which is a deeper reality. Once we understand that, we understand that dynamics of consciousness mathematically, understand our interface, how it works, then we can hack it. We can hack new portals into the realm of conscious agents and open up. We might be able to use the technology of Silicon and circuits to do that, in which case we would be saying we have an AI that’s conscious. It wouldn’t be taking unconscious ingredients and somehow putting a consciousness, it would be using our interface with new technologies to open up portals through the interface into the realm of consciousness. It’s a completely different way of thinking about things.

It’s just so interesting to talk to you. I would be able to keep you on the phone for the rest of your life with my questions. I know that everybody wants to read your book though because I enjoyed it. We didn’t get to go into any of this stuff that you even get into in the book. I hope everybody takes some time to check it out because I found this stuff about how our eyes of how we perceive people, neck or whatever it was. All the different things that why we see things the way that we do. It’s so fascinating. A lot of people would love to find out more about your work and read your books. Is there some site or something you’d like to share?

The book is called The Case Against Reality. If you Google that, you’ll find it. All of my papers and podcasts and videos are linked on my website. If you Google Don Hoffman, my home page at the University of California, Irvine is one of the first things that comes up. I have my Vita. There’s a link called Vita and it has pretty much everything I’ve done with links to free online sources for anybody who wants to see my podcasts, videos or papers.

What class do you teach in case anybody wants to take it?

I’m teaching a large class of 450 undergraduates. It’s just psychology fundamentals. It’s an introduction to psychology. I’m teaching a class on the mind-body problem, how consciousness is related to brain activity for graduate and undergraduate students.

This is so much fun, Don. Thank you so much for being on my show. I learned a lot and I love all the work you’re doing. I find it fascinating and I appreciate you being on the show.

Thank you so much Diane. Thank you for inviting me and it was wonderful to talk.

You’re welcome.

I’d like to thank Don for being my guest. We get so many great guests. If you’ve missed any past episodes, please go to DrDianeHamilton.com, you can go to the blog there to read it or the radio show to listen to it. We’re on all the different outlets. You can find us just about everywhere, iTunes, iHeart and Roku. I hope you enjoyed today’s episode and I hope you join us for the next episode of Take The Lead radio.

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About Donald Hoffman

TTL 618 | Understanding PerceptionDonald Hoffman received his PhD from MIT, and joined the faculty of the University of California, Irvine in 1983, where he is a Professor of Cognitive Sciences. He is an author of over 100 scientific papers and three books, including Visual Intelligence, and his new book, The Case Against Reality.

He received a Distinguished Scientific Award of the American Psychological Association for early career research, the Rustum Roy Award of the Chopra Foundation, and the Troland Research Award of the US National Academy of Sciences. His writing has appeared in Edge, New Scientist, and Scientific American and his work has been featured in Wired, Quanta, The Atlantic, and Through the Wormhole with Morgan Freeman. He has a TED Talk titled “Do we see reality as it is?”

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