// In Conversation with Donald D. Hoffman
Updated: Oct 14, 2020
Donald Hoffman is Professor of Cognitive Sciences at University of California, Irvine, and author of The Case Against Reality.
This is a transcript of a conversation Don and I had that took place in February, 2020.
Interviewer: I was wondering if you could speak to the connections between theory interface perception and the amplituhedron and Nima Arkani Hamed’s work.
Don: He's discovered that there's a structure prior to space and time that doesn't even use the language of space and time, more of quantum mechanics. And he's discovered that this structure can give rise to quantum mechanical and space time. And the connection is that I think that the mathematical model that I have been developing with my team using a markovian dynamics of conscious agents, if we look at the asymptotic, the long term behaviour of our dynamics that we will, that will actually map into the amplituhedron that you started with. So that we would then have a mathematical connection all the way from our theory of consciousness through the asymptotic behaviour of our conscious agents through his effort to heat run through to space time and quantum mechanics.
Interviewer: Does the amplituhedron speak, at all, to what is beyond the veil of what we know and are familiar with as space-time?
Don: He's just saying that as a physicist that space time is doomed based on fundamental and just deeper structure of the amplituhedron is the first mathematical clue that he's got as to what might be behind space time but the weird thing is he doesn't know what it's about. So he's just using that mathematics to guide him, but he doesn't know what the mathematics is saying about reality and what, you know, if that realm isn't about space time, what is it about? And he doesn't know.
Interviewer: Right, I see. Okay.
Don: So that's why this could be a really useful connection because even if I'm wrong, at least I'm offering an idea about what it might be about. And the idea that would be that it's about a social network of conscious agents and their dynamic so it'd be a network, a multi graph dynamics of conscious agents would be the idea and if I could show that that gives rise precisely to that amplituhedron I could actually say what aspects of conscious agent dynamics gives rise to specific scattering amplitudes like two gluons coming in and four gluons going out. Then that's why he might be interested in talking.
Interviewer: Right. Once there's some sort of concrete description linking the two.
Interviewer: I know you've done interviews with Psychonauts, they are kind of an obvious connection when you're talking about complex geometries and so forth. There's a lot of connections and beauty. Tell me about some of the interviews that you have with those people.
Don: I've talked with several people who are quite intuitive, including Bill Atkinson, who's the guy who invented the basic ideas of the user interface for Apple. And he describes five MEO DMT and the trips that he's had on that, as well as the guy named James Nevin has been telling me about his trips on five, and they go to a place that's beyond space and time. And they're literally out of their body, they're out of themselves, they're out of space and time, they're out of this universe and they find themselves connected to a realm that they can only describe as pure love. And that they come back, you've really transformed. I'm not done it myself but that's what they describe on some other DMT trips, you know, that I've studied, they'll have geometric experiences, and they'll see guides and so forth. So it depends, there's lots of variants of DMT like the variant will lead to different types of trips.
Interviewer: Have you had any intuitive thoughts around the geometric descriptions of some of the environments that you encountered?
Don: It may not be so exciting in the following sense that these kinds of geometric descriptions come up even when you have so called visual migraines and so forth. They seem to be if you just perturb the visual system a little bit, a lot of people in a lot of situations will get those kinds of visual, you know, geometric thing. So, there may be something interesting there. But it may also just be that, you know, from a physiological point of view, we're just seeing some of the look, we might just think are the elementary properties of the visual neurophysiology. So it's hard to know. I'm not dismissing it, but I'm just saying that there's another explanation that's less exciting.
Interviewer: Right. And both exist as possibilities.
Interviewer: I guess it's interesting to me because I haven't done it myself, either[DMT]. I've only read about it, and obviously like what you just described about just tweaking the visual system and seeing those similar types of things. I haven't had the thought that when we talk about what is the objective reality is something that you said that this object is there, but the thing is that it's nothing my objective reality. And so the question obviously from that is, what is your objective reality?
Don: Well, my guess would be that if we just missed for the moment just the, you know, perturbing the visual system interpretation then I think that they would be perhaps just new interfaces, not again the insight into reality as it is because I think that the reality is it is has no shape or colour. And so these would just be new interfaces like the work that I've been doing does predict that there would be a countless variety of interfaces that could be used to interact with, you know, this network of conscious agents even though conscious agents themselves have no shape or colour or position in space or emotion or smell or anything like that. There could be an infinite variety of graphical user interfaces that we can use to to interact with them. So it's possible that there, you know, in some sense, I've thought about that idea a bit that maybe the DMT trips aren't just, you know, messing up the system, but are perhaps giving us insights into other interfaces that are, you know, in some sense close to ours.
Interviewer: And if that's a way of tweaking the interface or using the interface that's obviously something that falls in the category of truth vs fitness. Is that right?
Don: Well, depends how far away from our space time framework these things go because if it's pretty close to our own space on framework, then yeah, the evolutionary model of fitness may still apply absolutely. But I could imagine interfaces that...and then frameworks in which evolution natural selection itself no longer applies.
Interviewer: Right. I see. A completely different interface.
Don: Right. That would mean...I don't know that's the case. But I have to allow that possibility right now until I, you know, rule it out. It may be that there's some generic feature of interfaces that the very fact of compressing things down from the full reality of the network of conscious agents exists into any interface necessarily entails that things look something like evolution by natural selection. That could be an interesting theorem. But I don't have that theorem. So I've entertained the possibility that evolution by natural selection may not be what things look like and some of the interfaces.
Interviewer: Seems to me that some of our greatest leaps forward in tech have come from inspirations via psychedelics/tweaking the interface?
Don: Right. Well, yeah, apparently Steve Jobs, for example was into LSD and had some of his most creatives doing that as well. So I'm told.
Interviewer: I'm just curious why you use miracles as opposed to axioms? It was a contentious point in your interview with Sam and Anika Harris.
Don: Right. So Anika and I are good friends and we get together periodically and have lunch and chat and so forth. So she'd actually mentioned that idea to me before over lunch and suggested that I not use the term miracles, that she’s doing in the spirit of trying to help me communicate the ideas in a way that will get broader acceptance. I understand the spirit which is offering them in. I still persist in calling them miracles because - but it's very easy when we just talk about certain assumptions that theories are making and the fact every theory makes assumptions. It's not obvious to most people when they hear that like this is where the theory no longer explains anything. These are things the theory assumes it says, please just grant me this. And so there are places where explanation for that theory absolutely stops. And I think most people, they hear a assumptions they go, you know - boring, but when you hear miracles that gets them they stopped going to homes you call that a miracle and the point is that from the point of view of the theory, its assumptions cannot be explained. And so the point of view of the theory they are the miracles and the foundation of the theory. So, I do that because people think they hear about what we're getting a theory of everything and that suggests to most people that we will just understand everything without any miracles happening. And I want to make it very, very clear that that's not going to happen. And the other reason I do it is because when I was talking about consciousness being fundamental, they go, “So you're saying you're just assuming conscious experiences exist, you're not explaining them. Well, that's a miracle." So I need to go on to say yes, but then I need to make the point that every theory is making miracles. So I have to make the point because it's a point, it's against my theory and people think that that is only not a problem with my theory, but not theories in science more generally. So those are the reasons.
Interviewer: Right. That word grabs people's attention.
Don: It does. And it's the word you're going to throw up my theory anyway when they understand that I'm assuming conscious experiences. I'm not trying to explain them from, you know, the complex interactions of matter. I'm trying, obviously, at the foundational level, you're not doing science, scientists don't have miracles. So I need to actually point out what science really does every time. So that's why I have to do that.
Interviewer: I think it's a great word to use and it also makes me think of also the connection that that you're trying to make between spirituality and science. I just wonder what your goals are around trying to bring science and spirituality together. Because I think a lot of people who are talking about science from the level of academia and so forth, you don't really hear about that too much from people at your level and it's something that really is inspiring because those two words have been at odds, and to see someone like you even using the word spirituality in the same presentation as the stuff you're talking about is quite striking.
Don: Right. Well, I've looked at the arguments that some of my colleagues give for saying why science and spirituality have separate domains and they're doing separate things and they don't overlap and I completely disagree with the arguments that spirituality is a domain that science couldn't, you know, profitably move into and also that, spirituality is a domain that couldn't profit from science. On that point, I agree with Dawkins. Dawkins also says that spirits traditions make existential claims. And as soon as you're making existential claims, you're on the turf of science. But as you will know, there's this huge history of antipathy between the two. And I realize myself looking at my background in science and like, my dad was a Protestant Christian fundamentalist minister so I had plenty of experience in that domain as well. I realized that each has little piece of the puzzle, and each has some nonsense. So if we can take the bits of the puzzle that both sides have, get rid of the nonsense, we could actually do something quite synergistic that could be really helpful to humanity. It also sort of just fell in my lap when I was looking at the theory conscious agents. I wasn't planning theory spirituality. But one of the things that mathematics told me was that agents can combine to make more complex agents of this in principle could go to infinite conscious agents. And so I realized the mathematics itself was saying there is theory spirituality here as well. So you get some sense of, you know, it's partly my background, but partly, just with the math itself was saying.
Interviewer: I guess it's really hard to say but I wonder if you would have come to the same idea or thought or maybe even any of this if you didn't have the background and you had growing up?
Don: I'm sure everything plays a role. It was partly my background both in science and the protestant fundamentalism of my dad growing up that made me understand both camps and wonder about you know, since they were saying such contradictory things, it put the burden on me to try to figure out for myself, you know what I thought about it. So it sort of forced the issue for me. Also, I think, you know, one time one of these Christian ministers that I talked to told me to stop questioning and just believe, that was sort of a big warning flash to me as I was like, okay, that's really wrong. So there needs to be - by the time I was in my even just 17 or 18 I already knew that I had to, you know, figure this thing out because the answers I was getting from the church weren't satisfactory.
Interviewer: So by that age you were already hearing this stuff in the church which I think probably a lot of people myself included question pretty deeply even at a young age. But you were already thinking about this stuff from a scientific mathematical perspective at that point?
Don: Yeah, I was hoping to be able to do a scientific, mathematical study of this kind of thing. I was an early programmer, I was programming back when they were not even punch cards when we had to do them by hand with a pencil. So, I was a very early adopter of programming and so I knew that machine intelligence was going to be a formidable thing and I also wondered, you know, are we just machines? Can we answer the question is all the amazing ability of human beings just, you know, essentially what we now call artificial intelligence? But I soon found out when I went to UCLA, did my bachelor's at UCLA, and by the time you know, I was in my upper division work I knew about artificial intelligence and so I-
Interviewer: And how old were you at that point?
Don: Well, 21 or something like that.
Interviewer: And what year was that?
Don: So I graduated...So I was born in say it's in 1956, the very end of 1955. So, and I graduated from UCLA in, you know, June of 1978.
Interviewer: So you were pretty on the cutting edge.
Don: Yeah, I worked for Hughes Aircraft Company.
Interviewer: You did simulation programming for them, or?
Don: I did pretty much everything. I did machine code programming, literally the ones and zeros. I did assembly language programming. I did high level language programming and so I worked on the fighter jet cockpit displays, programmed up the stuff pretty literally a flight simulator with a with a small team, there were like four or five pilots who knew this microprocessor machine code. We used the machine code to program an entire flight simulator. So I was forced to really, before I went to graduate school, I was doing all this stuff and then I took a year off from school before I went to MIT, took a year off and just worked full at Hughs...I was a research scientist. Remember the technical staff at Hughes and doing a lot of programming. So I was really, you know, pretty much up to date on the programming that was available at the time and then when I went to MIT, I did my dissertation research on L isp machines, which were the state of the art machines for artificial intelligence at the time.
Interviewer: And I know at MIT you worked with David Marr and that's what led you to where you are today.
Don: Right, yeah. His work and vision transformed the field and I was really lucky to get to work with him for 15 months or 14 months or something like that before he died. But I continued to work with the team that he'd assembled there at MIT. So I got to see what the best and brightest minds in artificial intelligence were doing. They were right there at MIT. They were at Stanford, at the time it was MIT and Stanford. That was it. That was the state of the art. So I was very, very lucky.
Interviewer: what's kind of fascinating to me about your story and just being so clearly was something probably from a very young age you've been thinking about this your entire life. But it's a brand new thought. It's a brand new way of looking at reality as we know it. There's something quite profound about where you've ended up and it's clearly been a lifelong journey. What inspires me is that you pursued this path - I can only imagine against all odds. There must have been so many points along the way I'm sure where maybe where you questioned or you wondered why you were doing it. It sounds like you could have done any number of things especially with the skills that you had. What made you keep going to the point where you're at now?
Don: Well I was able to...Well, the reason I kept going was because of my interest and definitely when I went to UC Irvine as a professor, I made a conscious choice to forego money and pursue this line of work. Hughs Aircraft put me through MIT, they paid my whole way and they expected me to come back, and they told me they wanted me to come back and be the head of the Artificial Intelligence Division in Malibu. So, I was going to come back to a really big paycheck and a really big job there you at Hughs - but when it came down to the crunch, I decided that I would rather make a lot less money and have the freedom to pursue these questions, than to make a lot of money and have to pursue the questions that other people gave me. So that that was a huge choice point for me because I actually made when I went to UC Irvine as a professor, I made a lot less money than I was making at Hughs Aircraft company working with just a bachelor's degree. So my salary could have tripled or quadrupled easily if I had gone the other way. So it was really, really a big choice, point. And much as I made a choice that I did look back, I had to of course play the tenure game, but when you're at university you can't just completely do what you want. You've got to get out papers every year, and I had to balance focusing directly on what I was interested in versus getting out the papers that would be recognized by my peers and so forth like that, because I didn't do that then I would also lose the job at UCI and then I wouldn't have anything so I knew I had to do it - it was the university option to give me the most flexibility not as much as I wanted, but more than Hughs would have given me. So that's why I went there. And then I, you know, went after it. But I always hedge my bets by doing what we call bread and butter work as well. So I'd always be doing the work I really love but also doing some papers that my scientific peers would recognize as legitimate work, so that way I can keep going.
Interviewer: But you knew all along that you were pursuing this ultimately.
Don: Yep, yeah. I knew even when I was in graduate school at MIT I wrote a little paper on a general theory of perception. I was trying already to get a general mathematical theory of perception, like, I gave it to David Marr and he actually gave me some comments on it, commenting on the math and basically saying I needed to have more sophisticated mathematical framework for what I was doing, and he was absolutely right. But I went to UC Irvine and I connected with a couple professors of mathematics who then helped me to get more sophisticated about medical framework.
Interviewer: Right. What I'm getting at I suppose is you must have had a deep intuition about what you were going after, like very deep.
Don: Right. No, I really did from my early 20s. But when I was 22, yeah, I was already pretty clear what I wanted to do. And the thing I gave to David Marr was when I was maybe 24, 25.
Interviewer: When I read your book, I read it last April and one thing that struck me was the inclusion of some quotes from literature and from popular culture throughout the book that supported chapters ahead with statements. Then of course the deep science that book is based on. But there's something about the way that you explain your theory that to me is just so intuitive. I don't think I've ever come across anything at least in science in popular culture, where it feels I just remember thinking, I don't think I've heard anybody with these levels of qualification and say this, it's almost something that I think a lot of people in your field try to stay very far away from.
Don: Right. Yeah. You have to be very, very careful. It's very easy to get dismissed as a crank, or woo woo and so forth. So I've been very, very careful to avoid that kind of problem. I mean, I still even on Twitter, there are people who say all sorts of nasty things, you know, just because I've been on the stage with Deepak Chopra or the Dalai Lama or something like that, they'll dismiss you. But I've made it so that the work itself was such that my colleagues couldn't dismiss it. But yeah, it's been a fine fine line to walk, I must say. It's been a very, very difficult line to walk in.
Interviewer: In my opinion it's very honourable. It's work that is very difficult to communicate and to stand behind. I can't imagine what you've come through in terms of I know you talked a lot about the criticism that you had early on, but that's something else that I found inspiring about your story. The level of criticism must have just been insurmountable at times. It's just very inspiring that you've managed to stay the course and get it out there.
Don: Yeah. One thing that helped me was I teach this class called introduction to psychology. I've done it pretty much every fall for the last 36 years. And it's, you know, class of usually four to 500 freshmen and sophomores. So 18 and 19 year olds. And so that class, you have to take the scientific ideas and make them engaging to a group of students who would rather be on their iPhones or doing anything else, surfing the net. So that really was a good discipline for me to learn how to communicate the ideas to that group of students so they would understand it and enjoy it. And that I think was the training that helped with the book. But ultimately, it was the one thing that really helped in not being dismissed was that I was using mathematics. And so it's one thing to just be waving your hands and talking about these things and even doing experiments, it's another thing to actually have a mathematical theory on the table and some mathematical theorems. In fact this interface idea I published it back in 1998 in my book, visual intelligence. It's very, very clear that I have a whole chapter on it. The last chapter of the book is all on it.
But I noticed that none of my colleagues picked up on this, they like the book, except for the last chapter and they dismiss the last chapter. The first nine chapters were you know, some good standard stuff and I was explaining the standard views about visual perception and so forth, but the last chapter I gave this interface theory…but then I realized after about five or six years, that if I really wanted my colleagues to take the idea seriously, I was going to have to up my game. I knew what I had to do. I would have to actually use evolutionary game theory and prove that natural selection will not show us or will not shape our senses to show us true perceptions. So … we did simulations and then with another colleague kicked off to prove the theorem. So that was the turning point. I did that in 2008. I realized this stuff was just going to be ignored. The only way to get anybody to pay attention or anybody in the sciences to pay attention was to prove it and it was a whole new arena I had to learn, but we did it. And it was successful beyond my wildest dreams. It really has blown the thing wide open and make my colleagues have to take it quite seriously.
Interviewer: Yes. Something that comes to me that I think is interesting is that while a lot of people in the scientific community, probably everybody in the academic community would dismiss something like that. I think almost everybody who's in a spiritual community might accept it immediately.
Don: Right. So I do get emails from people from lots of different spiritual disciplines, saying that this fits exactly with their view on Buddhism or Hinduism or Jewish mysticism, or even Christian mysticism. And I'm quite ignorant actually, of the details, I'm not a scholar of Buddhist or Hindu or Jewish mysticism. But I have friends and so I will talk with them about it. At some point you can't do everything. At some point I would like to study those disciplines a little more but right now, I think, for me, the way forward is to really understand this work by Nima Arkani Hamed. And if I can show that this theory of conscious agents can explain where scattering amplitudes and space time come from - that will then wake up a whole new segment of scientists who will take this seriously. So I woke up a lot of people with the theory of evolution, the natural selection. Now I want to get the real heavyweight. I mean, the people whose IQ is so much higher than mine, I can't even understand them. Those are the people working on this. And so, but I have to give them something that will get them excited.
Interviewer: Why is it important that people in the scientific community get on board with this?
Don: Couple of reasons. First, just on a pragmatic level. If I want this theory to develop and I'm interested to see where it goes, I need help. I mean, you know, I'm already 64 years old, I would like some help to push this theory forward quickly so I can see, look, I'm just plugged. I'm like a little kid who wants to see where it goes. So I'm like, help that way but a deeper reason though is, you know, humanity if this is right, has been living under an illusion. And it's time for us to wake up from the illusion. And second, if this is right, and we understand how space and time is just an interface, and we get to the point where we can reverse engineer the interface we're affecting the technologies that that's going to open up are going to make hydrogen bombs look like firecrackers. So it's a complete game changer. It will be a first time to our species has used science to step out of the interface, would be the first time that we wake up as a species to who we truly are. Wake up from the thinking overhead set off, realize that we went this morning a VR headset all lives and didn't know it. The reason why I'm going after this is because I think it can be a watershed moment for the species.
Interviewer: Of course, it would change life as we know it.
Don: Right. And we can also change our view of ourselves for who we are.
Interviewer: I'm curious what your predictions or intuitive thoughts are around the future of the research. Because I know this work is decades long work, it's years and years of chipping away, long arduous work. But you must have thought about the future and also over that matter, when I started thinking about a lot of this stuff I start wondering if linear time is even going to matter?
Don: Right. In the deep sense of the conscious agents there is no time there is no space. Those are just interface variables. So yeah, I think that in some sense waking up, as the theory evolves, we'll find out that this kind of waking up is just an inevitable aspect of the whole drama that's playing out. I don't know. But I guess the reason I personally pushing so hard is because I'm just really eager to know. It's like I want to know and we have the tools for the first time and a way forward that looks like it can give the answer. And so for me, it's just like pure excitement. So that's for me the honest emotional answers is just I'm spending hours every day studying quantum field theory and various abstract branches of mathematics. I'm not that good at math. It's very hard for me but I'm so eager that I'm just willing to spend as many hours as it takes to get this stuff in my brain so I can think creatively about it.
Interviewer: Do you see it as possible that a breakthrough moment is imminent?
Don: Yeah. I actually have an idea where that breakthrough piece will be.
Interviewer: What's that?
Don: It’s going to be some mathematics but I'll say it: at the very foundation of Nima’s work of building of space time from something deeper. He goes through various things called positive geometries to something called the amplituhedron to then finally, just permutations. And I think that I can tell him where those permutations come from. And so if I make that connection and it works, that will be a breakthrough moment. And literally, I know exactly where I'm looking to get the breakthrough moments and I know what I'm expecting it to be and I'm now working to learn the math to make it happen.
Interviewer: Have you two talked at all?
Don: No, I'm not going to waste his time. When I'm worth his time then I will bother him, but I'm not worth his time yet.
Interviewer: And you know when that moment will be?
Don: Yeah, I'll know when that moment is. I'm sure he's got plenty on his table. He doesn't want some cognitive scientist wasting his time until I've got really something to say. So he gave a class last fall of 27 lectures at Harvard, each is an hour to an hour and a half and you can get...it's for graduate students. So it's really laying out how you get space time from these deeper structures that he's after. So, I feel it's my duty if I'm going to talk to him. I'm taking his class. So I'm actually studying all of his lectures, I'm going to try to work through the problems and when I feel like I know his language, I’ve taken his class and I have a precise connection that I want to propose. First I'm going to be working on it with...I have my own mathematicians. So I've got two mathematicians and physicists working with me. So I already have real first rate thinkers, which I'm really grateful for, who are working with me. And they're, you know, they're pretty excited about the prospects here as well. And once we have something that these first rate mathematicians that I'm working with right now think is worthwhile, then I'll go and talk with Nima, but I'll probably also have a real physicist and a real mathematician with me. So that's surely going to happen when he asks a question that I don't yet know the answer to I'll be able to rely on my colleagues who are working with me to answer those questions.
Interviewer: Do you see at some point in your lifetime anything happening that's information that will just go beyond publishing like scientific paper or anything like that?
Don: Well, I plan to write another book. Another popular style book like the one I just did. But I plan to do that, not right away, maybe if I'm lucky and this stuff really pans out quickly, maybe in three or four years. I may also, I cannot say too much about this because I'm under a nondisclosure but I contracted with a Hollywood producer to be a scientific advisor on a new TV series that's going to explore these ideas. That would be okay but that's all I can say about of course, because I'm nondisclosure.
Interviewer: Can talk about any of the most interesting conversations you've had with Federico Faggin?
Don: Yeah. So, Federico is...he's brilliant. He's also a force of nature. There's an obvious reason why he was the genius that invented the microprocessor. He's pushing 80 and he has more energy now than I've ever had. I have no idea. I mean, the guy's stunning. He’s brilliant. He's very Italian. He speaks with his hands, very emotional. And we you know, we've had lots, he and I have been friends and colleagues now for six or seven years.
We've had so many conversations over the last seven years. He has his own theory of consciousness and he has a book that he's published. It's not mathematical. It's only out in Italian. But he's a rock star in Italy and he just did a book tour last fall. And he sold lots of books and had scores and scores of events that were well attended and so he has his own theory which is broadly similar to mine, but we have some serious disagreements as well about the right way forward on a mathematical theory. We're in fact getting together. Federico and I and four or five other of our, you know, close collaborators get together twice a year in Half Moon Bay, a little coastal village just south of San Francisco. And we get together for three days and just morning till night we go at it. And so we're going to be going out of he and a guy named Mario Doriana, who is one of the…I would say, one of the five top quantum information therapists in the world. He's part of our team and they're pushing for the formalism has to be quantum for the basic definition of a conscious agent and pushing for that idea because they think that to deal with something about the reason why our experiences can't be shared why I can't feel exactly what you're feeling, even if you tell me what you're feeling, your feelings are yours and mine are mine. That's what we call the privacy of qualia. So the privacy of qualia, they want to say is due to the fact that the fundamental nature of these conscious agents is quantum and quantum bits can't be cloned so there's something called the no cloning theorem. And so Mario doesn’t like my idea of markovian dynamics being fundamental. He thinks that that's too simplistic. And so that's going to be a really...we've had this conversation for a year and a half now, and we're going to be going at it again in March, middle of March. So that's one of the big ones.
Interviewer: That's a fundamental difference between your theory of consciousness agents.
Don: But this is more at the level of the right formalism our intuitions at top level are pretty much aligned. But of course, to get a scientific theory, the formalism has to be just right. So this is absolutely essential as we make the move from intuition to precise claims about the mathematical formalism we're going to use. This is absolutely essential and so that's going to be a fun discussion and you know, the idea that the realm behind space time that Nima is pursuing also does not have any quantum mechanics. And that's what Nima is talking about that space time and quantum mechanics both are doomed. Both aren't fundamental. There's a deeper realm. And so that's one...I mean I didn't want a quantum formalism to begin with, I didn't think it was appropriate but with Nima’s work, it's clear to me that, yeah, if we're going to let go space time, we're also letting go of quantum mechanics, the formalism for conscious agents if its going to be more fundamental has to show us where the language of quantum mechanics comes from. It can't itself assume the language of quantum mechanics, it has to be deeper than quantum mechanics. And so that's going to be as you can see, that's foundational. Well, it's close to as foundational as you can get in terms of the discussion. So yeah, I'll be...so that's one of the things and you know, Federico and Mario they're both Italian. They get quite emotional. So it was fun.-
Interviewer: It’s emotional stuff!
Don: Yeah, it's emotional stuff.
Interviewer: We're talking about space time - everything that we've known for all this time is completely different.
Don: That's right. And Federico is often worried that I'm jumping into the math too quickly, I need to think more deeply about the fundamentals of consciousness itself. And, of course, I'm absolutely open to thinking very deeply about the fundamentals consciousness and revisiting the math, and so forth. So that's going to be...That's part of a little fun of the whole thing that says pretty neat.
Interviewer: And you're retiring in July, right?
Don: That's right.
Interviewer: And so you're going full time on this?
Don: On this, that’s right. I'll be able to, of course, I can do this work anywhere. So I'll still have an office in the lab at the University. But my wife has plans for us to travel. And so we'll be travelling around a bit as well. But I can do this work anywhere.
Interviewer: So you plan on leaving California and working elsewhere?
Don: Well, no. We're going to stay. So I live on campus at UC Irvine. And we're going to continue to stay, you know, live there, but we do plan to do a weeks here and there elsewhere.
Interviewer: I see. And do you do a lot of this work on your own, then?
Don: Well, yeah. Right now...the thinking of it?
Don: Yeah. So the way it works practically is our team we're spread out around the world, you know, some are in Italy and some are in the East Coast, some are on the west coast. And so what we do is we meet roughly once a week, once every other week by Zoom or Skype or something like that, and we'll meet for an hour to two hours to, you know, catch up on what each is doing and to share ideas. We have the meetings twice a year, you know, for three or four days that are really intense, and then, Chetan, on, like this Friday, Chetan, who's the mathematician and Shanna Dobson, who's the mathematician, and a new member of our team, Rashid, who is a brilliant young mathematician. And Robert Printer who's my postdoc, he's got a PhD in physical chemistry and philosophy of mind, two PhDs. So the five of us. Plus, then we're going to bring in Chris and Manish by video. But the five of us will be physically in my lab at the University. So we have whiteboards, we're going to spend the entire day on Friday. We're just going to go at it doing math and thinking about this stuff all day Friday, and bring in, you know, Manish and Chris, who aren't close enough by two to join us in person.
Interviewer: Is your team pretty much there's obviously other people working on this stuff, maybe on some level, but as far as you know, is there anybody else who's doing this research that with the level of intensity that you are? It just seems like something that has fallen through the cracks in an almost tragic sense, or maybe it was supposed to be like this and do you know what I'm getting at?
Don: Yes, well, the reason why it's fallen through the cracks is the people who think that space-time isn't fundamental, and that consciousness is fundamental, are typically not scientists and scientists don't countenance the idea that space time isn't fundamental. So it's very rare to find someone who's a scientist and realizes that space time isn't fundamental and that consciousness is. So that's why there's no one else working on it. When I give talks and I explained my point of view and I tell my colleagues, look, I'm saying that brains do not exist when they're not perceived. The brain causes none of our behaviour and none of our conscious experiences. If it were, you know, 500 years ago, I'd be burned at the stake kind of thing. So for my scientific colleagues it's a bitter pill. This just seems to be inconceivable what to say that the brains don't exist to cause none of our behaviour, because space time itself isn't fundamental and nothing inside space time is objective reality. That's just such a big thing for them to bite off.
Once you get over that hump, then it's pretty smooth sailing. Is getting over that hump that most people can't do. There's a lot of hard mathematical work but the path forward is fairly clear once you get over that hump. So there are lots of people much much smarter than me working on consciousness. Again, the scientists, Christof Koch, Giulio Tononi, and Graziano at NYU, and so forth. These are really really smart guys, but they're stuck in either a physicalist paradigm or a duelist paradigm. Christof Koch is stuck in a duelist thing where you have particles that are also conscious. So it's like a panpsychist kind of thing. So that's my goal because I know these guys are really, really bright. If I can just get them over the hump to think out of this space-time box, this thing will explode because they do have the, you know, the horsepower, the mental horsepower to do this. So that's my goal is to just help push my colleagues over the hump and get them going on this.
Interviewer: In regards to the future of all of this and just the future of everything of the world of humanity, do you ever get freaked out about where we're going or what might happen when we do figure some of this stuff out for real and it's no longer conjecture and all of a sudden we're faced with this completely different reality and we're not prepared for it?
Don: Right. Yeah, I've been thinking about that. It does seem to me that we could open up technologies that are, you know, completely game changing, but also, there's nothing in the theory that tells me that the agents on the other side are necessarily going to be nice. I don't know. I mean, so if we are able to open up new portals into this realm of conscious agents and have new contacts with them we may not like what we see. So that's another reason why I'm very eager to pursue the mathematics of this just to see what I can expect humanity might find on the other side if we get the technology to literally start to have more direct contact with other conscious agents that have been hidden from a spire interface. So yeah, I-
Interviewer: When you say, hidden from us by our interface, you mean literally conscious agents that existing inside space time or outside?
Don: Outside of space time.
Interviewer: Outside of space time.
Don: Yeah, absolutely. So we have little headset on. That's what we call space and time. We can only see stuff that gets projected into that headset. Almost all conscious agents are projected into our headset, we're seeing almost nothing.
Interviewer: Is that something that you take the headset off? To your current understanding or predictions, is that something that would look like if you're in a virtual world and you have a headset on and you take it off, and there's another world that's literally right in front of you?
Don: Well, what I am guessing is that it won't be like that. It will be...we may find more richer interfaces that we can use, that will give us greater access, or we may be able to retool our current interface and have it open up new portals, we will still see the new agents, you know, as objects in space and time, because that's our interface. But we would actually have access to new conscious agents that we didn't have access to. We would still cram them into our space time format and see them that way, even though they themselves, you know, are not spacetime entities and they have no shapes and colours and so forth. So we could either, you know, rejig interface just opened up new little portals, or we could maybe fundamentally rejig the interface and change the very format, maybe we'll be able to see in 10 dimensions, literally 10 dimension instead of just four, and have new kinds of experiences in addition to our five basic senses, maybe we'll be able to open up what we would call brand new senses that the we'd never had before. So, that's going to be part of the potential of this that I'm interested in exploring. But yeah, I think that-
Interviewer: It's scary. It does feel scary on some sort of deep existential level.
Don: Yeah, that's right. So that, you know, one of the big questions to answer is what is consciousness up too? If there's a dynamics of consciousness, why is there a dynamics of consciousness? What is consciousness doing? And what is the whole game that's being played? And that's one of the big...you know, I've got some ideas on that. And so tracing out those ideas mathematically and then seeing what implications they might-
Interviewer: -you have ideas on - what is the game that's being played?
Interviewer: What are some of those ideas?
Don: Well, the deepest one is comes from something called girdles incompleteness theorem. Have you heard of that before?
Don: That seems to be the deepest idea that might be a plausible source of the motivation for dynamics and that is that consciousness, if it's the only thing in the universe then mathematical structure is only about consciousness by that hypothesis. And so if mathematical structure is all and only about consciousness then Girdle’s theorem says there's literally unending exploration of mathematical structure, no matter how much you explore, you will have never begun. And that's a stunning theorem, right? No matter how much sophisticated mathematics you explore you've effectively done nothing because there's so much more to explore. And so that seems like the-
Interviewer: that seems about right…
Don: It seems about right that consciousness is about this endless exploration.
Interviewer: And at that point, I suppose. At that point do you ask the question, why bother with any of this stuff?
Don: Well, I bother because...No, I never actually I never get to that point. And the reason I never get to that point is because I don't take my own ideas too seriously. And I could probably be wrong. And so I need to keep exploring, because I'm probably making a mistake somewhere. So even if I can't come to a conclusion that makes it seem like well, maybe there's no point well, maybe that's just because I made a mistake. So I've always thought maybe it's my personality, but I'm just endlessly curious.
Interviewer: It makes sense even just to satisfy your own curiosity on the level of just what you're working towards right now, I would see no reason to stop. I guess just on some other level of ultimate purpose for life and what it all means in the end. But I guess the exploration is the means in that sense anyway.
Don: Right. And this notion may be the meaning...but it may also lead me to a deeper insight of the meaning that I would never have gotten if I just gave up the exploration. And what I have found is that having this attitude of exploration has always been rewarding. I'm always discovering new things I didn't know before and I'm enriched. So even the process itself is by itself worth the effort.
Interviewer: How big of a role meditation has played in your sense of discovery?
Don: Well, I'd say it didn't play any role until I was 46. Because I didn't meditate at all. And then since for the last 17 and half years, I think it has played a role and it probably has helped me to be more intuitive.
Interviewer: And what do you mean by that?
Don: Well, it takes you...Often it'll be while I'm in meditation that an idea will pop into my head, for example. So you get into a very quiet space and interesting stuff happens and so I think that it's really the calmness that comes from that it helps you to explore a space that you might not explore otherwise.
Interviewer: Do you feel like you're connecting to some different space or some different-?
Don: Yeah. But nothing I can put my finger on. I have a sense that I'm being restructured from the inside out. So deep restructuring of my entire personality is happening. But I have no idea to what end. I don't know how exactly it's happening. I just know that my only role is to not resist the process. So in meditation, I've learned not to resist the process, let myself be, you know, go through this transformation in my personality.
Interviewer: You mean the restructuring from the inside out in terms of that's happening while it while you're meditating or?
Don: Yeah, it's happening all the time in fact. It's like I just feel it feels like a metamorphosis that's going on, that change, that I have no idea where it's headed and why and why, and I didn't actually ask for it as far as I know, but it feels like - maybe it's just as simple as I'm letting go of deep childhood anxieties. It might just be that simple. That's great letting go of those.
Interviewer: The change, the transformation. When did you feel that start to happen like?
Don: When I was 46.
Interviewer: And you first started meditating.
Don: Right, yeah. Absolutely. I felt like I had to meditate. And so this process sort of just came and so maybe it's just as simple as you know, the lifetime about the anxieties and so forth. You know, my body had to, you know, meditate and restructure to get rid of something. It could be just as simple or it could be something more profound.
Interviewer: I've never heard anybody describe any experience during meditation in that way.
Don: I found one guy who has...He's got a book called Open Mind Open Heart. He was a Cistercian monk. I forget his name but his book is called Open Mind Open Heart. And he does describe it that way himself for his own process that that is sort of a restructuring of the personality and I think it's not that uncommon for people who are heavily involved in meditation to say it's not just like learning to relax. There's something deeper going on, it's a restructuring, a deep restructuring. But I don't feel qualified at all at this point to actually understand the nature of that restructuring and, or even where its leading to all I know is that I meditate, I change, I like how I'm changing and I get ideas on the process. And so I keep doing it.
Interviewer: Do you have any sense that it's connected to the work that you're doing in any way?
Don: Not directly, but I also have a sense that things are all connected somehow. So it's probably not an accident. And it does feed into the work, right? It feeds into, I think, a greater intuitive sense of my part as I study consciousness. And also, you know, spending more time being with my own consciousness with my own experiences, and letting them go in meditation. So there is this more direct first person, you know, encountering of consciousness, that may also be helpful.
Interviewer: In doing meditation.
Don: Yeah, right.
Interviewer: Have you been meditating for 16 years then?
Don: Almost 18, almost 18.
Interviewer: I mean that's a long time to be meditating.
Interviewer: You do it every day?
Don: Yeah. I would, in fact, at least three hours.
Interviewer: How do you find that time? When do you meditate?
Don: Well, it depends. I mean, it varies from day to day. Sometimes I'll meditate when I need to. I'll meditate in the morning. I'll meditate in the afternoon. You know, if I do some work, teach some classes, half an hour, relax, meditate for a while. I meditate always before I go to bed. And then sometimes wake up in the middle of the night and meditate. So when I put it all together each day it's at least three hours.
Interviewer: Yeah. I mean, I think some of the greatest scientific discoveries in the history of humanity have been connected not necessarily to meditation exactly, but perhaps to spirituality in general. Nikola Tesla and others.
Don: I haven't read his biography. I should probably read that.
Interviewer: And I think quite a few scientists. I can't think of all a lot of other examples off the top of my head, but Nikola Tesla, in particular. But it's interesting.
Don: I'll read a little biography of his-
Interviewer: Just where some of that information kind of comes where some of these seeds come from.
Interviewer: We don't really know.
Don: We don't know. And it's pretty humbling to also not really know what's going on in meditation. But that's part of the interesting aspect of the whole process is letting go.
Interviewer: I also just for fun wanting to ask a lot of a very popular thing over the past number of years, there's been a simulation theory.
Interviewer: And your theory kind of doesn't really allow that. Is that-?
Don: Well, yeah. So the difference between, like Nick Bostrom's simulation theory, and what I'm saying is that Nick is assuming that there is some bottom world to the simulation, right? There's some ultimate programmer who started the whole chain of the virtual worlds. And that ultimate programmer is in a physical world. So his framework is physicalists at the foundation, and the foundational world, but the second problem they've got is that the they're assuming that a computer program could create consciousness that you know, the creatures in the simulation are conscious because of a program and there's no evidence at all that programs, you know, running on unconscious computers could create consciousness. So there's two places where I differ fundamentally with the simulation hypothesis. I think that if you're going to...if you think that there really is such thing as consciousness, you will not be able to boot it up from unconscious ingredients or unconscious programs. It's just not possible. And so I think that their whole framework can't work. It literally can't work.
Interviewer: Is that - sorry go on.
Don: - but the idea that what we're in right now isn't the final reality its just a virtual reality that we do share, I mean that insight is similar between you know, Bostrom simulation hypothesis of what I'm saying.
Interviewer: But in the simulation hypothesis the fundamental reality is physical list.
Don: Right, yeah. The base reality some programmer in the real physical world.
Interviewer: That's also mistaking consciousness for intelligence or something like that too.
Don: Right, yeah. The idea that you could create it from a programme, even though it might not be an intelligent program, but it might be like the Giulio Tononi theory that is just some kind of integrated information property on the program. Even if it's not necessarily intelligent, but if it has integrated information, then it would have consciousness. But those theories have not...there's nothing on the table that can explain even one conscious experience. And I think that they won't ever be able to do it. I think it's a principle failure. So that's why I think that, you know, that's a huge difference between the simulation hypothesis what I'm seeing couldn't be bigger.
Interviewer: What's your next number of years will look like? Like what are your biggest goals or what's your highest hope, your biggest dream for your work in the next while?
Don: Well, I think that my initial goal is, I'm hoping within the next two years to really ramp up this connection with Nima’s work. And if I can show how the long term behaviour of these conscious agents gets expressed a scattering amplitudes in the Large Hadron Collider, you know, scattering processes. That would be the big connection that I'm looking for. It's not the only connection one could try to make. There's all sorts of levels I could try to connect with neuroscience. I could try to connect with chemistry, with biology, there's all sorts of ways you could try to make a connection and make predictions that would wake people up and say there's something here. I'm going for the scattering amplitudes because I think it's the simplest connection that's available to me. It doesn't sound like the simplest, but I think it is. I mean, basic level physics is so well worked out because things are much, much simpler there than elsewhere. And so that's why I'm going after it. Sounds like we're going after the hardest, but I'm really going after scattering amplitudes because it's the easiest, and it's the most constrained and the mathematics is the most precise.
Interviewer: It's becomes very provable.
Don: That's right. So I'm going after that, but it has the nice thing that just so happens that field is also high status and so getting a splashy result there will get a lot of attention for it as well. So that seems to me to be the unique solution to this problem. I mean, I have no interest in scattering processes and large hadron colliders I have no interest in scattering amplitudes. You know, I would be happy to read a little Scientific American article about them now and then, but now I'm jumping all in because that seems to be the place where I can get the big test. And the other thing is that it can work the other way that if the connection I make isn't quite right, then the mathematics of scattering amplitudes may then feed back and say, oh, well, you need to make this change in your mathematics of conscious agents. Now go and think about what that change in the mathematics of conscious agents means about consciousness. So that could actually feedback and give me insights that I didn't have. And so I'm hoping that it goes...well, yeah, of course be nice if I just had it right the first time, but that's very unlikely. So then the nice thing about a highly constrained field like scattering amplitudes is then you're…the right or wrong and it's pretty cut and dried. And so if I'm a little bit off I’ll see that, and then I'll have to go back and see what I need to change in the theory of conscious agents. And that's a very, very useful process.
Interviewer: So ultimately your goal is to have something locked bulletproof-
Don: In a couple years, yep.
Interviewer: -so that you can just start seriously presenting this and working on it with like you said, the heavyweights.
Don: That's right. Well, and of course the real heavyweights I mean, I would be giving me something to say that I'd be working with them but I would basically just maybe turn their attention to this and then they would run off. They wouldn't do any work so I'm not in their league.
Interviewer: Bringing people into the world of the theory of conscious agents
Don: Absolutely right. That's right. And that so that's my goal. And then I'll be at that point, frankly, I'll be happy to kick back because when the real heavyweights are doing this, then there's very little chance that I will be able to contribute at a level that would be something that they wouldn't do at that point.
Interviewer: It seems to me that you are a heavyweight in terms of you're the only person who's taking this seriously to this point to bring it to the entire world.
Don: Well, I've been very interdisciplinary, that may be the strength I’ve got, as being interdisciplinary. But now once the connections between disciplines are made, and people see that there's this new framework, then, I mean, when I was at MIT, I was surrounded by people that I realized were so smart, like I wasn't smart enough to figure out how smart they were. I got to see firsthand there are these other people that are aliens among us. Just absolutely stunningly brilliant. And so I know once those people are in on this, you know, I might have some ideas here and there but they're the heavyweights. So I'll probably just kick back at that point and if they want to talk with me great, but I wouldn't be surprised if they didn't want to talk with me.
Interviewer: Interesting that no one else has come to this in such a big way. It's shocking to me.
Don: Yeah, I think the only thing I can say on that is I think we're-
Interviewer: Because it seems so logically to me like the next step for…I mean otherwise, seems like there's nowhere else to go.
Don: Right. I Agree.
Interviewer: In some sense without this we've reached a point I guess there's space travel, there's artificial intelligence. But this theory puts all of that, including artificial intelligence in a completely brand new context that seems a lot more open in some sense and to think that you've reached some end point, just seems foolish in a way.
Don: Yeah, I think the paradigm shift that we need at this point. I think it seems like a very promising paradigm shift. As soon as the paradigm shift catches on, then all these geniuses can just run in there and take off with it. But yeah, I think the thing that held us back is, it's very hard for us to give up the idea that what we see isn't the truth. That's the big stumbling block.
Interviewer: And makes us very small too.
Don: Yes, this does. That's right. And vulnerable.
Interviewer: It makes us very small and vulnerable. I think a lot of people are really scared of it.
Don: Right. Instead of saying, you know, is there any intelligent life out there? Maybe we're the only - there’s this vast universe, and we're the only and the smartest thing that's ever happened in this universe is rather no, no: There are countless other intelligent conscious agents out there, and we've just never seen them because we've been stuck in our little headsets. It's a complete change, complete change of everything we believed. All of our stories have to change. Big Bang is wrong. Space-time is not the final reality. All the stories we've told ourselves have to change and that's why there's not been a push to go here. We believe these stories too deeply.
Interviewer: Well, thanks a lot for taking the time. It's been great to talk with you and I really look forward to seeing where all this goes. I’m not there doing the work, but I'm as excited as you are, I think.
Don: Well, thank you very much. Appreciate your great questions and if you have other insights, let me know. I'd love to hear.
Interviewer: Well, thanks so much Don.
Don: Thank you. Take care.
Interviewer: Okay, bye.
Don: Bye. Bye.