Donald Hoffman Transcript

Donald Hoffman # 549 – BATGAP Interview  by Rick Archer

May 10, 2020

{BATGAP theme music plays}

>>Rick: Welcome to Buddha at the Gas Pump. My name is Rick Archer. Buddha at the Gas Pump is an ongoing series of conversations with spiritually awakening people, and also people who have some expertise in the field of consciousness and very often the field of science and how it interrelates with consciousness or spirituality.

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My guest today is Donald Hoffman.

>>Donald: Thank you very much, Rick, good to be here.

>>Rick: Yeah, good to have you. Donald Hoffman received a Ph.D. from MIT and is a professor of cognitive sciences at the University of California, Irvine. He is the author of over 120 scientific papers and 3 books, including The Case Against Reality: Why Evolution Hid the Truth From Our Eyes, which I’ve been reading this week.

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 Scientific American, New Scientist, LA Review of Books, and Edge, and his work has been featured in Wired, Quanta, The Atlantic, Ars Technica, National Public Radio, Discover Magazine, and Through the Wormhole with Morgan Freeman. He has a Ted Talk titled, “Do We See Reality As It Is?”

So, Don, I’ve spent a really enjoyable week – I often say this but this week was really great! – listening to many, many hours of your various interviews and talks and reading most of your book. And you know, I just want to say to those who are watching this interview that if you find this interview a little challenging in terms of the technicalities we get into and all, and the concepts that are expressed, hang in there because you’ll grow a lot of brain cells if you really sort of try to understand what we’re saying here, and I think it’s very relevant to spirituality, which is what most of the people watching this show are interested in. So that will become clearer as we go along.

Um, Don, in one of your interviews I heard you say that you’ve been practicing meditation for 17 years, kind of an average of 3 hours a day, or so. My first question is: Do you feel that meditation practice in some way informed or inspired the work you do professionally?

>>Donald: Well I think it does in the sense that it opens you up to noncerebral ways of experiencing the world, and recognizing that reason and logic have their place but they also at times need to be set aside and be open to reality just as it is, without a filter of thoughts and concepts.

And I find it an extremely healing process, to be in silence, and to be with what is without concepts. And it’s also I think a very relaxing kind of process, so that just in a practical way with everyday life, you know, all of us with our jobs there’s stress and lots of hard work, and you know, dealing with the stress and dealing with destressing is an important daily practice to stay healthy and to also be at our peaks. So I found that it’s really useful in a variety of ways: spiritual growth but even just as simple as destressing.

>>Rick: Absolutely! Um, I was impressed with the fact that you didn’t actually learn a formal practice of any sort, you just sort of did it on your own and yet, you know, you’re doing it 3 hours a day and at times you were doing it 6 hours a day and it really seems to work for you.

I think if I had tried to learn meditation just on my own – in fact, I did try in various ways before I formally learned – but I think my mind would have just wandered and I would have ended up not knowing what I was doing. So I was kind of impressed that you just took to it like a fish in water and seemed to have really done well with it (chuckles).

>>Donald: Well, for me it’s not about rules; it’s a new form of exploration. It’s an exploration without concepts but it is – and I view it almost like an experimentalist. It’s like saying, “Okay, I’m not going to be put in any box. I will listen, of course, to everybody. I’m very, very open to people who’ve had far more experience than me will have insights that I can learn from and so I will try that, and I also suspect that what works in this moment might not work in 10 minutes.”

It’s really an open exploration but unusual in the sense that it’s not about reason and concept and logic; it’s about exploring, being emotional, and being with what it.

>>Rick: Yeah. Do you have times during your meditation where you seem to enter a state of deep transcendence, where there’s actually no thoughts and mental activity and yet you’re awake or aware or maybe even there’s a sense of vastness or unboundedness?

>>Donald: Definitely many times which there’s deep silence and sometimes it’s attached with emotion, with, you know, something profound. More often than not it’s just deep silence and a sense of peace, and also a sense of letting go, at deeper and deeper levels.

The way it really feels to me is that my entire personality is being restructured.

>>Rick: Hmm, hmm.

>>Donald: It’s not a minor palliative; it’s from the ground up, a complete restructuring of the personality. It’s … the best analogy I can think of for me, in terms of my own experience of it is, it’s much like, well, I could imagine it’s like for a caterpillar going through metamorphosis to become a butterfly.

On the science side, it turns out that the immune cells of the caterpillar bite the cells that are responsible for transforming it.

>>Rick: The imaginal cells.

>>Donald: That’s right. And so … but eventually, the immune cells of the caterpillar get overwhelmed, and then much of the structure of the caterpillar gets liquified. Now that cannot be pleasant, right! That cannot be pleasant, you know, liquefaction while you’re still alive, and then having those raw materials be turned into something else that you have no prior concept [of] – how could a caterpillar know what it means to fly and how to be a butterfly?

And that’s what I feel. It’s just, I’m a caterpillar, and often in the meditation, my own caterpillar immune cells are resisting like crazy, but eventually I let go at a deeper level and a deeper level of transformation takes place and I come out of it a different person. And I’m still enough of a caterpillar that I really don’t know what’s going on, but I do know that whatever it is it’s profound and it’s humbling. It’s humbling to my scientific conceptual systems and so forth, and it challenges me as a scientist to eventually try to come up with a deeper conceptual system that might help me understand what’s going on.

>>Rick: That’s a great metaphor. I can totally relate to it. I used to do a lot of long meditation retreats, especially back in the 70s, you know, sometimes for 6 weeks or even 6 months, and there would be, kind of, that resistance thing where you think, “God! I don’t want to sit here any longer. I gotta get up and go for a walk. I gotta watch something or eat something,” but you just stick to it and after a while, you feel like, well, there’s the caterpillar analogy and I’ve used the one of Jell-O; it’s like you feel like freshly poured Jell-O that could be formed into any mold.

And so on those courses, we would actually come down from our meditation very, very slowly, carefully, so as to sort of coalesce the personality again into a functional form. And there were a couple of occasions where I came down too quickly and it took me months to integrate. I felt like that Star Trek thing where they get beamed up, but they don’t get totally beamed up, and they’re sort of in this half-beamed and half not-beamed – it took a while to get balanced!

{Irene heard in the background}

Yeah, my wife says I’m still half-beamed! (laughter)

>>Donald: Yeah, I completely understand that. It’s very difficult because we have the perspective of the caterpillar. I mean, we’re starting to get a little bit of the butterfly, but I don’t think I have that much of the butterfly; mostly of the caterpillar, and so it’s resisting quite a bit of time. And you know what’s striking to me too is, I’ve spent a lot of hours and still, I have no idea how far along in the process of transformation I am. You know, as far as I know, I’m only 1% through – as far as I know! You know, it could be a very, very profound transformation that’s going on.

>>Rick: Yeah. I think that’s a good attitude. I think that if one has kind of a static terminus point in mind, one might mistakenly feel one has reached it or something and you know, rest on one’s laurels. I think it’s good to have an open-ended attitude of like, “Well, this is an ongoing process and I’m just going to keep at it and …” you know?

>>Donald: I agree.

>>Rick: Yeah.

>>Donald: I agree that that’s what it really is about: It’s not about arriving, it’s about being good with the process, and the same thing I think is true of science. And here’s where the science has actually helped me on this because as I’ve done more and more science I realize that, you know, I greatly respect current scientific theories, I think they’re fabulous and they can explain a lot, and I think that each of them – even our best theories – is profoundly wrong in deep ways that need to be addressed. And my own guess is this: that we’ll get new scientific theories that address those problems, and then have new ones.

And I think that even science itself is an endless … we’re not going to get the final static theory of everything; we’re going to have this endless exploration. And that’s part of the deal, is being good with not having arrived but being good with being in the process all the time and being open to, in some sense, the excitement, the pleasure, the discovery of going where you don’t know you’re going to go.

>>Rick: Yeah, again, sort of hints of Star Trek there!

>>Donald: That’s right!

>>Rick: Yeah. Another thing I listened to in one of the interviews – you were being interviewed by Sam and Annika Harris. Sam Harris was sort of gently encouraging you to try psychedelics, and I’d like to gently encourage you not to, not that I haven’t tried them, you know, back in the 60s.

But you know, I interviewed Michael Pollan who wrote How to Change Your Mind and one of the metaphors he uses is of shaking the snow globe. And he sort of argues that you know, you’re in middle age and you’re getting kind of um, calcified in your orientation to life and maybe it’d be good to shake up the snow globe and sort of like see things afresh.

But I think that somebody who is doing a regular practice, like you are, has been shaking the snow globe a reasonable amount on a regular basis and there’s no need to shake the hell out of it, you know? It’s working for you. You’re in pretty good shape, why play Russian roulette with your brain?

>>Donald: That’s … I agree with the Russian roulette thing, and of course, Sam and others that I’ve talked to will assure me that it’s pretty low risk there and the payoff is higher. I haven’t done it, I have no plans to do it, partly just for health reasons. And you know, as I get older I’m less inclined to mess with things because the resilience of the body to bounce back becomes less as we get older, and you know, I’m already way out there anyway, so yeah.

>>Rick: And of course, you know, speaking of older people doing it, they have used psilocybin with cancer patients on their death beds and it’s been a great solace to them and so on, so those things have their purposes, I’m not dismissing them entirely, but I think it’s a … I don’t know, I just have this attitude of “safety first” and not shaking things up in ways where you might not know the outcome.

>>Donald: Right, yes, yes. I certainly understand and I haven’t taken them …

>>Rick: You’ve never smoked a cigarette or been drunk either, so that’s great!

>>Donald: Right, right, yeah! Well, my dad was a smoker for much of my early life, so I did enough passive smoking to make me realize that it wasn’t for me. I probably have enough lung damage just from that, so I didn’t inflict my own.

But I do, you know, I understand the perspective of those who say being shaken up that way can really open up your mind to new ideas and possibilities that you might not have had otherwise. And out of respect for that, I do read the written experiences of people who have done this and are very, very good at expressing where it’s taken them and also explaining where the language fails. And so I do want to gain those insights. So I’m not dismissive of it but there is, as you say, this balance between opening up to new insights and keeping the brain cells that you’ve got.

>>Rick: Yeah. Oh and believe me, if you were to do it, you know, high dose, you’d be astounded, but whether that would be conducive to your evolution in the most assured and safe fashion is debatable.

Anyway, here are some discussion points I thought we might cover today. Let me read them to you and perhaps you’ll suggest some others that you feel are essential.

One is that consciousness is fundamental, it’s all there is. You often say, “Space-time is doomed; there’s a more primordial ground,” so we can get into that.

Another is, “We do not see the world as it is, we see a user interface. Evolution shaped our perceptions to hide the truth and guide adaptive behavior, it favors long life and procreation.” And I think it’d be interesting to get into the word ‘evolution’ a little bit because in spiritual circles it’s used in a different sense than the Darwinian sense.

Another is the whole ‘science and religion’ topic. Just this morning I was listening to a conversation you had with your fundamentalist Christian minister father and I thought it was fascinating.

Another is the question of free will. And besides those four, are there any key points that you think you’d really like to cover today?

>>Donald: Those are the big ones, and of course there’s lots of details that we can go into on those, but I’m happy to go where you want.

>>Rick: Yeah, good. We’ll see where we end up going and probably people will send in some questions that might take us to other places.

So let’s start with the first one, consciousness being fundamental, not only being fundamental but actually being all there is, and the notion that space-time is doomed, and that consciousness is a more primordial ground than space-time itself. Let’s play with that for a while. I’ll let you go ahead and start with it.

>>Donald: Right. I’ll start with the space-time is doomed part, which is quite fascinating. Various spiritual traditions have said that for a long time, that space-time and what we call the physical world isn’t fundamental. It’s maya, or an illusion, or whatever. And scientists and physicists for the last 3 centuries, at least, since Newton certainly, and before, have assumed that space-time is fundamental.

Physics has been about what happens in space and time, or space-time. And it’s been great, right? You know, there’s no denying the success of Newtonian physics and then Einstein’s special and general relativities and quantum mechanics, quantum field theory, which is the quantum fields are defined over space and time.

So it’s been enormously successful, and the very ability that we have right now to use the Internet and microphones and all this stuff, is testament to the astounding success of that scientific paradigm, and yet, I think it’s deeply false and physicists themselves are coming to that conclusion, not on spiritual grounds, on technical scientific grounds. And the phrase space-time is doomed is not mine; it’s from physicists themselves. Ed Winton has said that (he won the Fields Medal for Mathematical work in physics), David Gross has said that (he won the Nobel Prize for his work in quantum theory), and Nima Arkani-Hamed, who is a professor at the Institute for Advanced Study in Physics at Princeton, is saying that.

And people can Google – if you Google “space-time is doomed,” you can actually see videos from Nima where he explains precisely. Some of them are for a broad audience, so I highly recommend him. He’s got some very nice videos that are accessible to a broad audience, but I’ll summarize the idea: You cannot within space-time make certain measurements that physicists want to make.

Quantum mechanics and Relativity theory entail that if you wanted to measure things smaller and smaller and smaller … so I like to look down at my hand and see the cells of my skin and my hand, and then go and look at the chemicals inside them, and then go down and look at the atoms, and then look down at the quarks, and so I would just get a bigger and bigger microscope to look smaller and smaller and smaller. And in principle, you would think, “Well I should just be able to keep looking smaller and smaller and smaller.

And it turns out that within our current frameworks of quantum mechanics and gravity there is a fundamental limit. The very notion of space, space-time, ceases to make sense, it ceases to be empirically to make anything that you could measure. Right there it is in principle not measurable down beyond roughly 10 to the minus 43 centimeters – what’s called the Plank scale.

So it’s not that there are pixels of space-time, it’s that space-time itself ceases to be a sensible concept. So one argument that they’ll make – Nima and the others will make – is that what we’ve learned in our sciences is a concept that in principle can’t be subject to experiment you know, there’s nothing that you can do to measure it – is not fundamental. It is only approximate, it’s only emergent from something else. So that’s one reason that they give.

And the reason why you can’t measure it …. I should just mention why you can’t measure it; it turns out that as you measure smaller and smaller you need to use more and more energy. It’s much like if I want to use a light microscope and to resolve finer and finer things I have to use light with a smaller and smaller wavelength because you need smaller wavelengths of light to see smaller details. If you have really big wavelengths of light then you can’t resolve small details.

Well, it turns out that the energy of the light increases with the wavelength. As the wavelength gets smaller, the energy goes out. So the problem is when you get down to around 10 to the minus 43 centimeters, the energy involved is so much in such a small area, that you create a black hole. You literally destroy the very thing that you’re trying to measure …

>>Rick: Including yourself, I should think, if you create a black hole!

>>Donald: Well, I would stay far away! I wouldn’t be in the room, it’s bad for your health. And if you say, “Well, look, I’ll just try to look even more closely, maybe if I add more energy I can get past that barrier.” No. What happens is as you add more energy to try and look smaller and smaller and smaller, the black hole just gets bigger and bigger and bigger, so the problem gets worse.

So that’s in some sense one reason, perhaps from the physicists’ point of view, the most obvious and most sort of trivial reason why space-time can’t be fundamental, but it’s a real reason.

A second reason is that in quantum theory you have to separate the universe into the observer who is observing, and the rest of the world, and a particular system that you’re looking at. And we have this saying in quantum physics that’s very, very famous, that you only get statistics, right? You only get probabilities, you can’t get the position, the momentum exactly, that you can only get probabilities and so forth.

So already it means that to get the probabilities exact, you have to do an infinite number of measurements, right? And we don’t have an infinite amount of time, so already there’s a fundamental limit, once again, to what we can measure in space-time because we can only do a finite number of measurements.

Now in practice that’s not a very, very big deal. We can say, “Look, we can get to 10 to the 50 decimal places,” whatever you want, you know, there’s plenty, but there’s an even more deep reason that they bring up and that is that the measuring instrument itself is a quantum mechanical instrument; it’s got its own uncertainties, its own fluctuations, and to minimize those you have to keep increasing the degrees of freedom of that system, essentially, in fact, to infinity.

You have to have an infinite measuring apparatus to get an absolutely precise measurement in space, space-time, and once again, for a couple reasons you can’t do that. If you’re in a room and you try to make a measurement in a room, as you make your apparatus bigger and bigger with more degrees of freedom, eventually, once again, you’re going to collapse and make a black hole, so once again you have this problem.

And they’ll point out that with the universe as a whole now we’ve discovered that it’s not only expanding, but the rate of expansion of the universe is accelerating, and that imposes a fundamental finiteness on our universe. We’re seeing all that we could ever see, and things are going off our cosmic horizon and there are objects that are disappearing in the sense that we, well, let’s put it this way …

>>Rick: We’ll never catch up with them because the speed of light has its limitation and those things are starting to … they’re expanding too fast.

>>Donald: Yeah. Actually, because space is expanding, galaxies that are very, very far away from us are literally moving away from us faster than the speed of light. We might see their light today, so we can see them, in fact, 97% of the galaxies that we can see we can never get to, even if we could go at the speed of light.

>>Rick: Right, because of the rate of expansion.

>>Donald: Yeah. It’s this big expansion and that means that there’s a fundamental finiteness to our universe, which means that in principle, quantum mechanics is telling us that we can’t measure any … there are not what they call “local observables” in space-time. There’s nothing inside space-time that you can measure precisely, which means that space-time itself is just an approximate concept, and that’s the mind-blowing thing for physicists, right? And they’re very explicit about it, Nima’s very explicit about it.

He says, physics has been about what happens in space and time, so if space-time is not fundamental, it’s not really clear what physics is about, so this is a big one.

>>Rick: Yeah. I think there might be another reason, and maybe you’re said this but let me put it in simple terms – and maybe you haven’t – but spiritual traditions, if you read the Bhagavad Gita or whatever, and spiritual teachers throughout all the ages have all said that you can’t really know the Self, the ultimate Self, one’s true nature, by standing apart from it and observing it as we do with all other things because it is the observer.

And so the only way it can be known is for, let’s say as the Yoga Sutras say, for the fluctuations of the mind to diminish and then it becomes revealed unto itself, as a singularity, as it knows itself not as a separate object, but just be a sort of a unified self-recognition if you will.

>>Donald: Yeah.

>>Rick: And in a similar sense, if we’re trying to sort of, let’s say, “detect” the unified field with the old observer-process of observation-observed triad, we’ll never do it because it’s not an object that can be observed from afar, it subsumes or includes everything. And so it can’t be known as a particle could be known, or any other thing that science observes.

So the scientific method sort of melts at that point and objective observers can’t function as such, at that level of observation, even if they had the tools to do so.

>>Donald: Right. So I think that the physicists are to the point where they recognize that this separation between the observer and the observed is a problem and that it’s leading to the kinds of problems that make it impossible to measure local observables inside space-time precisely. There are no such local observables.

The state of play among them right now is that they’re looking for deeper mathematical structures, so they’re using mathematics as the flashlight into the dark behind space-time. Now we’re going outside space-time, we’re going into something that’s, you know, science hasn’t really gone there before and so it’s not clear how to go, and so they’re using the mathematics that we do have as a guide.

I think that the spiritual traditions have some very, very good insights here that may eventually be very, very helpful, that the separation between the observer and the observed is fundamentally misguided. I myself, on the scientific side of things, have come to that conclusion in my own modeling of space-time itself.

So most of us think of space-time, and most physicists have thought of space-time as this pre-existing stage, the ancient stage, 13.8 billion years old on which the drama of life and consciousness has played out, but that the stage was there before there was even any life, much less any consciousness, right? That’s the standard big-bang cosmology, that at the big-bang there was only space-time and energy, and then matter, that there was no life and there was no consciousness, that those came hundreds of millions, billions of years later, and so consciousness from that point of view is not fundamental.

But space-time is doomed, so that whole story has something deeply, deeply wrong with it. And from evolutionary arguments that we’ll go into later, I’ve concluded that natural selection arguments entail that space-time is simply a – I use a computer science term – a data structure. It’s just a data structure that we use to represent fitness payoffs. It’s not separate from us. It’s much like a headset, a virtual reality headset that we use.

So space-time isn’t separate from us, it’s part of us. We create space-time and we create physical objects, so the separation between the observer and the observed, as the spiritual traditions have said, is false because in some sense there’s an issue of what it is that’s creating all this – the “I”, or if you want to call it “the ego” that’s creating all this – but the separation between what I call myself and space itself, and the sun and the moon and stars and my body, they’re all equally just symbols that are just being created and none of them is separate from any other. They’re all within one field, which itself is being created by me.

>>Rick: Yeah. You know, so many spiritual traditions say that the ultimate reality is oneness – a totality, a wholeness that is indivisible, and that it appears to bifurcate and multiply into many, many, many parts, but if you get right down to the essence of it there’s just a oneness or a wholeness or a unity, so the very word ‘space-time’ is dualistic. You know, there’s space which has what, 3 dimensions, and there’s time which … so it’s a dualistic reality and a dualistic concept.

And so if indeed the essence or the foundation or the ultimate reality of things is unified, then space-time has got to be an emergent property, it can’t be ultimate.

>>Donald: Right. And I would just mention, by the way, just to be clear, that since Einstein, at least relativistic theories, there’s not been a duality between space and time.

>>Rick: Right.

>>Donald: They’ve not been dual. They’ve been merged into one structure called Minkowski’s Space and it’s a 4-dimensional unified structure, so we don’t want people to dismiss what we’re saying on those grounds.

>>Rick: That even then it has dimensions.

>>Donald: It has dimensions, that’s right.

>>Rick: So that itself is diversified, to an extent.

>>Donald: Right. The duality between the observer and the thing observed, that duality is one quantum physicists, like Nima, recognizes that it seems to be a source of huge problems. So there they would absolutely agree that that subject object duality is a big problem, but they don’t know yet how to use the tools of science to create a non-dualistic theory.

And you did raise the issue of, is this an indication of the limits of science, right? And it’s certainly an indication of limits of a certain idea about how science should work, and in that idea, there is an objective observer and an objective external reality with external objects that are completely separate from the observer, and these are public objects, so, the moon – it’s a public, physical object.

You see the moon, I see the same moon, we have a touchstone of reality, and as a result, I can make my measurements about the moon – it’s position and momentum, you can make your measurements, and because we have this touchstone of an objective reality, the one moon that we’re both interacting with, we can then get verified experiments that test our theories, and so forth.

>>Rick: Yeah, we can both use a computer to predict eclipses for the next 10,000 years, or whatever.

>>Donald: Right. And then we can both look at exactly the same eclipse, the exact same physical object. This is the idea of third-person science: there are real, public, physical objects in a real space-time, and you and I both have access, not, of course, complete, but genuine access to these real, physical objects, and so we can compare.

I think that that framework is fundamentally wrong. Space-time itself is not objective, the sun moon and stars and tables and chairs are simply data structures that we create; it’s like a virtual reality interface. So like if you’re playing virtual reality, a game, say some race car game in virtual reality, and you’re driving a race car and you’ve got a nice steering wheel in front of you and you can see a green Mustang and a red Ferrari. And you have others… it’s a multiplayer game, people around the world over the Internet are playing with you and they all agree that, “Oh yeah, there’s a green Mustang and a red Ferrari.” Well, the fact that they all agree doesn’t mean that there’s any real green Mustang or red Ferrari.

The reality in this game is just, in this metaphor, it’s just a supercomputer that’s feeding pixels to headsets and as a result of those pixels coming to your headset, your own visual system creates a green Mustang, you create a red Ferrari. And when I look over there I see the green Mustang, when I look over there (looking away from it, in the other direction) I destroy the green Mustang, there is no green Mustang, literally no green Mustang. That Mustang only exists when I look, and I see it. It exists only as a form of my perception.

Now I look over here and I see the red Ferrari – it only exists as a form of my perception. Even the headset only has pixels that are being flashed at me. In the objective reality, there is only the supercomputer.

So here’s a case where we seem to have consensus. We can all say, “Oh yeah, the green Mustang is going 180 miles an hour, the red Ferrari is only going 160 – it’s going to lose.” We can all agree we have this appearance of third-person perspectives and objective science and so forth, and it’s all an illusion, it’s all subjective agreement. And so science, I think, will have to be re-understood. There is no objective space-time, physical objects – there are no public, physical objects.

What we have to do is understand that the essence of science is understanding how we seem to come to these kinds of subjective agreements, and the other aspect of science is precision. There’s a question about what makes science different from other forms of inquiry. In the philosophy of science, this is called the demarcation problem: “what is it about science that might make it a better source of knowledge?” – if it is a better source of knowledge.

And it’s been famously difficult. No one has been able to lay down a clean set of principles that demarcate good science and scientific knowledge from everything else that’s inferior, and so the idea that it’s about public, physical objects that we can all independently test, I think that idea is wrong. I think the heart of science is really taking our ideas and trying to be precise in our statement of the ideas so that others can figure out precisely why they’re wrong. It’s this precision, with the goal being to state our ideas so precisely that we can figure out where they’re wrong and move on. So it’s an anti-dogmatic attitude.

So the mathematical precision and an anti-dogmatic attitude, I view as really going hand in hand. It’s not about dodging and weaving and protecting my ideas, it’s about saying, “These are the best ideas we have so far. Of course, we’re probably wrong, but let’s be precise so that as quickly as possible we can figure out where we’re wrong,” and that I think is a key aspect of science.

The other aspect is … so non-dogmatism and precision, that’s critical, and I think we also want that ultimately in our spiritual explorations, right?  We of course want to go without concepts, without language, and just be with what is, but when we step back from that we have ideas about what just happened, right?

I’ve had discussion with some spiritual leaders before and one said to me, “Rumi” – the famous spiritual teacher, “Rumi said, ‘The language of God is silence, all else is poor translation.’” And the idea was, science is necessarily not about silence, it’s about writing down mathematical theories and that’s not the language of God, the language of God is silence. And so science is forever banned away, it’s not going to be allowed to do this.

And my attitude is I would absolutely respect a mystic who said, “The language of God is silence, all else is poor translation,” and then being consistent and says nothing else. And I’m not trying to be facetious, I mean I would absolutely respect that, you know? I meditate and I understand someone who meditates and then just says, “Do it for yourself,” and leaves it at that. “Go explore yourself, I’m not going to try to tutor you,” and then just remains in silence. But that’s not what spiritual traditions do, right? Hundreds, thousands of pages of writing.

So now my attitude is, if we’re going to say something, we need to be humble about what we’re saying. My attitude is not, “I know the truth, I’ve been there, just listen to me and learn,” it’s rather, “I’m a fellow explorer just like you. These are the best insights I think I’ve had from my journey. Of course they’re fallible, of course I’m probably wrong. Even though it was me in the experience, my interpretation of this is very, very fallible. So let’s work together, let’s try” – this is now where scientific spirituality can be very, very useful – “let’s try to be as precise.”

I mean, by the way, no one has to do this. If you don’t want to do science of spirituality that’s perfectly fine. Silence is perfectly fine, just go with it, but if we’re going to talk, if we’re going to make statements, and we don’t have to but if we’re going to, then I think we have to do it in utter humility, and that utter humility is a complete step away from any form of dogmatism whatsoever, and a complete acknowledgment that everything that I think about my experience could be wrong, that nothing that I believe – it is quite possible that nothing that I believe from my experience is anywhere near a good description.

And in that spirit, I write down as precisely as I can, hopefully with mathematical precision, what it is I think that I’m saying. And then with that kind of precision, we’re no longer trying to dodge and weave and protect ourselves and, “This is my theory and no, you can’t prove me wrong.” It’s rather this humble aspect of saying, “This, I think, as precisely as I can state, what I learned from that spiritual experience, what do you think? … Oh! It’s different! Wow, okay, that’s wonderful! I’m glad that it’s different, so now let’s try to understand the difference,” and that’s what science is really about.

So it’s not fundamentally about this observer and observed separation, and the reason why I can say that is that the scientists themselves are realizing that their own scientific theories are teaching them that, right? When these physicists say, “Wow! This separation that quantum mechanics is making between the system that’s being observed and the observer, it leads to these mathematical problems, therefore, that separation can’t be right!”

That’s what science is really about, it’s the precision in stating our ideas so that that we can learn that what we thought was science isn’t science. The observer-observed distinction is not essential to science, what is essential is a humility that expresses itself in precise statements that can be tested, and that other people can say, “No, that’s not what I see, here’s why.”

So that’s what I think the heart of science is, and if you look at it that way, then science and spirituality really have a deep kinship; it’s about a humble exploration. The thing that’s new in science on this is the precision. The humility is expressed in precision, and that’s where I think the spiritual traditions can learn from this new idea in science, that it’s not about subject-object separation, it’s not about third-person objective science, it’s about a humble precision in our statement of our ideas.

>>Rick: Beautiful! It’s all music to my ears.

Few thoughts let me bounce off you based on what you said. I think it was Bertrand Russell who said, “What is wanted is not the will to believe but the wish to find out,” which is the exact opposite.

And this thing about the language of God is silence, I would say that, yeah, but the language of God is also dynamism because look at the universe, and if we’re going to relegate God to merely the field of silence and completely ignore the creation which is infinitely dynamic, we’re kind of you know putting God in a little sort of cubby, in a little corner, and we’re denying that God – and we may be needing to define ‘God’ – is omnipresent throughout all creation. And if we actually look closely at anything, He apparently is not, He’s staring us in the face, you know, hiding in plain sight, the incredible Intelligence involved in every little thing we observe.

I think that science came along as an essential corrective to the state of affairs prior to its birth, I mean you know, guys like Giorgio Bruno were being burned at the stake for suggesting that the stars in the sky were perhaps other worlds, other stars like our won and that there could be planets around them with beings on them. And you know, Galileo was threatened with the rack and assigned to house arrest for the rest of his life for suggesting that the sun was the center of the Solar System and not the earth.

And so there was – you mentioned the word ‘dogmatism’ – there was this dogmatic insistence on certain misguided beliefs as being true and science came along to sort of end that way of thinking, for the most part, I mean it’s still alive and well if you look at our politics.

But then science – you mentioned the word ‘humility’ a lot – science got a little carried away with itself a being … as thinking of itself as the only way, arbiter of truth, the only way of knowing anything and anything which was outside of its sphere of knowledge was questionable of bogus. I think that’s hubris.

>>Donald: Right.

>>Rick: But I think what you said is very true, that science and spirituality can be very complementary to one another if we perhaps – and maybe one way that can be so is if we incorporate the human nervous system as an experiential methodology, an exploratory instrument for discerning and discovering more fundamental levels of creation. Because if you think of it, in many ways the human nervous system is far more sophisticated than the Hubble space telescope or the Large Hadron Collider, even a single cell is, in many respects. And perhaps what the mystics had gotten onto was the ability to fine-tune the nervous system so as to enable them to directly cognize deeper mechanics of creation and the ultimate reality of creation in a way which science will never do – hearkening back to our discussion of 15 or 20 minutes ago.

Couple more points here then I’ll throw it back to you.

I think one concept that’s handy to throw in here is the notion that reality and knowledge are different at different levels. In terms of knowledge, we can say at different levels of consciousness, in terms of reality, you know, like you said, space-time is doomed. And perhaps in the same way that Einstein and quantum physicists doom Newtonian physics, but that doesn’t mean that Newtonian physics isn’t legitimate on its own level. If you doubt that, try stepping off the edge of the Grand Canyon. So each field of knowledge like that has its domain and it may not be ultimately true but its conditionally true, in a way.

There’s a term in Vedanta called ‘mithya’ – m-i-t-h-y-a, and let’s say you’re in India and you go into a shop that sells clay pots, so there’s all these hundreds of pots. And you can go in there and you could say, you could truthfully say, “There are no pots in this shop, it’s all just clay,” and that’s true, that’s true in a fundamental way but it’s not true in a practical way because obviously there are pots. You can buy them, you could put beans in them or use them as drums, or whatever you wanted to do with them. So these different levels of reality, each of them have their relevance at their own level. And even though they may be sort of invalidated at a deeper level, that is not to say they’re not valid at their own level. So that’s enough for now, throw it back to you.

>>Donald: Yeah, you’ve raised a lot of very interesting and good points there. So you’re right that there were … you mentioned Galileo and Giordano Bruno and the split between science and Catholicism, science and Christianity, but science and spirituality more fundamentally. And at the time it was the dogmatism of the spiritual traditions, right – “the Bible is true, every verse is absolutely infallible,” and that dogmatism is of course anathema to inquiry, right? If they can’t possibly be wrong then what are you going to study?

And so Galileo and the early scientists were saying, we need to be free to challenge everything and look for ourselves. Now it ended up of course taking … it was in its first baby steps and it took space-time as fundamental and it took a reductionist point of view as a result, so reductionism has been a huge aspect of science from early on.

And the sort of more modern forms of it are that micro-physical particles, quarks and electrons are the fundamental constituents of objective reality, and if we understand their properties and how they interact, then everything else will follow, It will follow as just emerging from the basic laws, that’s why science has talked about getting a theory of everything. If we get the theory of exactly how the reductionistic foundation works – the quarks and leptons how they work – then everything else will follow. And so people have identified …

>>Rick: I think they may be right, but they’re not going deep enough. Keep going.

>>Donald: Well, the reductionism was I think really mixed up as a central idea in science for centuries. Of course, scientists have always talked about emergent properties as well, I mean but emergent in a way from the reductive fundamentals. And what they’re discovering now, when they say that space-time is doomed and that the notion of smallness … you know, going smaller and smaller in space-time doesn’t even make sense after a point, I mean it’s not there are pixels of space-time, it’s that it literally ceases to make sense. That means that the whole reductionist paradigm is wrong. There is no smallest entities that are the foundation of everything, that whole framework of trying to find the smallest things and then build them up from that, at least the things in space-time.

Now there may be conceptual foundations, but they’re not small things in space-time, it’s going to have to be more sophisticated. There’s not little you know microphysical particles and their properties; it’s going to have to be a deeper conceptual kind of idea that’s foundational in the science.

So reductionism is not essential to science, the assumption that space and time are fundamental is not essential to science, what is essential is precision and humility and careful observation. And so this gets to another point that you raised which is, part of those observations should be of ourselves! In meditation, that’s absolutely a legitimate area for us to observe and to explore.

>>Rick: Yeah, and what if in meditation, one settles to the state of samadhi and discovers experientially that you know, “I am Brahman,” as the Upanishads say, and then opens one’s eyes and that state is so established that one sees, “Oh, and all this is that also” (states it in Hindi). Then the human nervous system has served as a tool to not only cognize the ultimate reality but to consciously live as the ultimate reality, for that to become a living reality.

And what if that’s the same ultimate reality that we’re alluding to in terms of what science is seeking, that consciousness is the foundation of everything, “we are that,” and the whole universe emerges from that, or appears to, and then we can get into the mechanics of how it would do so. How could, if there’s but consciousness, where did all this “stuff” appear to come from?

>>Donald: Yeah, I agree that those kinds of experiences blow open our preconceptions about what kind of stories we need to tell, right? They open us up to a new framework in which space-time might not be fundamental. Maybe it’s consciousness somehow that’s fundamental, but again, my attitude is, even there, I want to be humble, so what exactly do I mean by that, right?

And again, not everybody is a scientist and I’m not saying that if you want to have a spiritual practice you need to be a scientist, I’m not saying that at all.

>>Rick: Not all scientists are scientists.

>>Donald: That’s right, that’s right, yep!

But what I am saying is that to the extent that we want to make knowledge claims we need to be humble. What we can say is, “The best understanding I have so far of my spiritual experience is to express it this way.” If we then tack on the next phrase which is, “Of course I’m probably wrong, we are all explorers here,” that I think is the healthy attitude that we then have to say, “Okay, what was your experience? Let’s go back and forth. What are we really saying here?”

Now someone might say, “Look, humility is great but precise statements will never get you anywhere,” one could say that, that’s a different interpretation of the Rumi statement “The language of God is silence.” The interpretation of it might be to say, “Look, even if consciousness is fundamental and is dynamic, the tools of description of science, precision, will never, ever be up to the task, even in a tiny little failing way, they will never be up to the task.” That’s one attitude you can take, and I don’t think that’s right, but I can’t dismiss it out of hand, I can’t dismiss it away.

>>Rick: Well it’s an interesting question, I mean maybe science just has its niche, you know, maybe it has its area that it’s relevant in and beyond that it’s just not a relevant tool, or, maybe somehow the scientific method can be applied to spiritual experience and spiritual exploration. But then it gets tricky because every nervous system is different and we’re dealing with subjective experiences that we can’t really articulate in a meaningful way, any more than we can articulate the taste of an orange – has to be something that the other person can also experience.

And there are neurophysiological correlates, but they are very imprecise, it’s like, what do they actually indicate? – and so on. So it’s like, can spiritual development or spiritual practice ever become as rigorous scientifically as we would like them to be, and of course even psychology has had this problem over the years, you know, it’s kind of a soft science, it’s not really very easy.

>>Donald: Yeah, I’m on board with all these comments that you’re making. The way I think about science is that it’s really just a form of human exploration.

>>Rick: M-hmm, it’s a tool.

>>Donald: It’s a tool. And when we – even putting science aside – when we start to talk about our spiritual experiences, we’re forced to use concepts, we’re forced to use words that we hope we have shared meaning among other people that we’re talking with, that they know what those words mean. So for me, the only difference between that and science is the effort of science to be as precise as possible.

In other words, even when we’re just talking informally about our experiences, we’re doing what I might call “proto-science,” we’re saying, “We’re putting our experiences into concepts, we’re sharing them with others and we’re comparing notes,” so I would say that science is a very human activity.

The only thing that science has said is, “Look, we make more progress if, number one, we’re humble, and number two, we’re precise, and number three, if we say, ‘Here’s what you could do to show me wrong! This is an experiment you could do that would show my idea is wrong,” and that, I think, is a fundamentally important move whenever we put out our ideas.

It turns out psychologically, this is from evolutionary theory, evolutionary psychology, we have a tendency to use our reason and logic not in pursuit of truth, but as a tool of persuasion – to persuade others about what we already are sure is true. So there’s two problems: first, we tend to be sure that we’re right, and we tend to use reason and logic not to find out where we’re wrong, but to persuade others that we’re right.

So that’s the human condition, and if you think about your interactions with people you’ll see that reason and logic in political discussions and informal discussions, even about how to spend the family budget; reason and logic is both mostly to support what you already know to be true. So science is basically, I would say, is just taking this what we do in spiritual traditions – if we’re going to try to think about them we have to use concepts, we try to tell other people to write down what we think it means, and so forth. All science is saying, essentially, is – this new form of science I’m talking about, not the reductionist science … observer, observed, separation, not that – this really stripped down to the essential aspect of science is: let’s be humble in our statements, as precise as we know how, and try to figure out what we could do to show that we’re wrong! That’s what I would say … so when I say a “scientific spirituality,” that’s all I mean: humility, precision, and saying what someone could do to find out you’re wrong, and of course that’s what we want to do if we’re really seekers.

If we’re trying to be merely persuaders about what we already know, quote on quote “know,” then, of course, you don’t want to do this, but if we’re really seekers who say, “Even though I’ve spent tens of thousands of hours of meditation and I think I’ve all these insights, it’s quite possible that I’m still at square zero. It’s quite possible that I’m at square zero and that the fundamental reality far transcends anything that I could even imagine so far. My guess is, in fact, that that’s the case.”

>>Rick: Yeah.

Speaking of this point, there’s something I thought I might want to share with you from the Rig Veda, this great little series of verses towards the end of the tenth mandala, it goes like this: “Who verily knows and who can here declare it, whence it was born and whence comes this creation? The gods are later than this world’s production, who knows then whence it first came into being? He, the first Origin of this creation, whether He formed it all or did not form it, whose eye controls this world in the highest heaven. He verily knows it, or perhaps He knows not.”

>>Donald: Right. That humility of saying, “Maybe it’s this way, but maybe …

>>Rick: Maybe even God doesn’t know!

>>Donald: That’s right, and I think that that’s a really healthy attitude. We should explore, I think it’s part of human nature to explore and who knows, maybe exploration is part of what this is all about, I mean that’s certainly possibly in the cards, and I’ll tell you why I think it might be that way. One of the most profound results in all of mathematics, perhaps the most profound result in all of mathematics is something called Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem, and maybe you sound like you know about it?

>>Rick: Well I’ve heard you talk about it and I’ve heard it in the past. I couldn’t actually tell you what it is right now, but I’ve heard people like you talk about it.

>>Donald: Right. I won’t go into any technical details, partly because you know, the technical details … the mathematics is beyond me, it’s really deep stuff. But intuitively what it means is quite clear, that no matter how much mathematical structure you create there’s always, Gödel shows us, an infinite expanse of other mathematical structures that you haven’t yet seen.

No matter how much we explore in structure, we’ve essentially never started; that’s what it’s saying. And the reason I think that that’s relevant here – you know, mathematics is mathematics, consciousness is consciousness, so what are you talking about? Why are you talking about the two and the same? It turns out … one area of research that I’ve done in science is something called psychophysics, and it’s the scientific study of consciousness, of sensory. In fact, scientists since 1850 have been studying conscious experiences very, very systematically in laboratory settings – studying color experiences, heat, shape experiences, all these sensory experiences with great, great precision.

And there’s a lot to say but the fundamental thing is, every conscious experience that we’re studied is structured. There’s a mathematical structure associated with each conscious experience. It’s not that consciousness is mathematics, there are some who would say that, like Max Tegmark and others would say that mathematics is the final reality and everything else is just mathematics. My attitude is more that the relationship between consciousness and mathematics is like the living organism and the bones. Without the bones, the organism can’t work, but the organism is not just its bones. Consciousness is this living thing, but it has structure, the bones of mathematics.

And in this sense, what Gödel is telling us is that there’s an infinite variety of structures for consciousness, and that means that no matter how much we explore consciousness, we’ll never get anywhere but just the beginning. We’re always just beginners. So I call this “Gödel’s candy store theory of consciousness.” So consciousness is this infinite candy store that consciousness itself has not explored yet because it can’t!

Gödel tells us that it’s impossible to fully explore this. It’s hard to wrap our heads around it but that’s what his theorem is telling us. Here’s one theory about … and again, I’m just putting this out as a humble idea to be tested and to be explored, that the fundamental dynamic of consciousness is exploration, and the reason why it continues to go on is because in principle, it can never stop, and it’s always only at the beginning. So that’s why we would always need to take all of our current understanding and all of our current concepts as this is step zero, and we’ll always be at step zero, but we can enjoy the ride, we can enjoy exploring.

>>Rick: Yeah, and you know, if we remind ourselves that when we refer to consciousness we’re not just referring to individual consciousness – human consciousness or cat consciousness or something like that, but we’re referring to consciousness as a fundamental reality of … and as actually the totality of everything, then what we’re really saying when you say that the … how did you phrase it, that the consciousness is eternally exploring?

>>Donald: Yeah.

>>Rick: So it’s actually consciousness that’s eternally exploring itself.

>>Donald: Yes.

>>Rick: And this actually gives rise to an interesting theory about how the creation may have arisen, which is that if consciousness is the foundation, then at that level it’s the only thing down there, there’s nothing for it to be conscious of other than itself, so it does that. It becomes conscious of itself but in so doing it sets up a triad.

Consciousness is a singularity and yet in becoming conscious of itself we have an observer, and observed, and a process of observation, and that process continues to bifurcate. And there’s a term in physics called ‘sequential spontaneous symmetry breaking,’ where things just kind of … the symmetry gets more and more fragmented and diverse and complex as things go on, and so what if consciousness does that? That the whole universe is the expression of the self-interacting dynamics of consciousness, through its self-observation creating more and more and more diversity and complexity?

That’s a whole other thing that books have been written on by some friends of mine that you might be interested in. I actually shared an article with you back in January I think, I don’t know if you had a chance to read it but anyway, that’s it in a nutshell.

>>Donald: I would love, by the way, for pointers to those books.

>>Rick: I’ll send it to you again and I can actually put you in touch with a couple of people if you feel like having discussions with them, who can discuss this much more intelligibly than I can.

>>Donald: Well, it’s interesting because what you just described is precisely the scientific theory that I’m working on right now.

>>Rick: Excellent!

>>Donald: And again, it’s in the same spirit of, “Of course I’m probably wrong but hey, you’re got to be precise and see where it goes.” And the idea is what you said that consciousness itself is fundamental – not just my consciousness or a bird’s consciousness but consciousness itself is fundamental.

>>Rick: Yeah, yeah.

>>Donald: And what it’s up to is this process of self-exploration and spinning off new protocells to do more exploration. And I’m literally with a team, we’re writing down mathematical models of this dynamics.

>>Rick: Yeah. There’s another wrinkle to it which is that consciousness contains the potentiality of everything that we now see as the manifest universe, so everything exists in sort of seed form. And there’s another verse in the Rig Veda which goes something like, “richo akshare parame vyoman yasmin deva adhi vishve nisheduh” … and it goes on but what it’s saying is that the richas or the impulses of intelligence that give rise to creation reside in kind of an unmanifest, latent form in the transcendental akasha – in the field of consciousness – and that they then, through this process of self-interaction, begin to assume more and more active roles in the manifestation and orchestration of creation.

So what we’re saying here is that consciousness is not just a plain vanilla kind of field, but it’s actually a field of all possibilities – to borrow a term that Deepak is fond of using. So all the beauty and complexity and dynamism and everything that we see in creation is pregnant within the unmanifest field of consciousness and then from there it just sort of explodes out. And it’s not just something that happened 14.7 billion years ago or 13.7, it’s something that’s happening continuously, even now, because all these levels from unmanifest to most manifest exist simultaneously and are continuing in a continual state of manifestation.

>>Donald: That’s exactly the kind of idea that I’m exploring with my science, absolutely, trying to take that idea and write down a specific dynamics. Now one goal would be to then show that if I could get a precise theory of this dynamics of consciousness and then a precise model of how it maps into what we call space and time.

So the idea would be, I have this thing I call ‘conscious agents’ – it’s an analytic tool I use, so consciousness is itself a kind of what I call a conscious agent but as you said, it spins off all this spontaneous symmetry, it spins off all these other conscious agents

>>Rick: Yeah, it’s the big daddy conscious and then all these little offshoots!

>>Donald: All these other conscious agents, but in fact, they’re always unified as well, so they’re separate but they’re also one, and it checks out …

>>Rick: Exactly.

>>Donald: And mathematically it turns out to be exactly right. They’re separate and yet they’re all one, mathematically too, which is really cool.

>>Rick: Right, because how can one become many if it can actually change into something diversified? Then what happens to it, you know? Does it lose its oneness? It couldn’t, so there has to be sort of one and three simultaneously. And that’s another little wrinkle is that because of this one and three thing there’s an infinite frequency as it goes back and forth between them, and that creates the sort of infinite dynamism of creation.

>>Donald: Right, right.

>>Rick: Yeah.

>>Donald: And there’s a branch of mathematics that I’m going to start to explore, it’s called ‘infinity category theory,’ which also gives tools for dealing with this kind of dynamism where you don’t want to have strict equalities; it’s more similarities. So infinity categories give us a way of talking about how the one could be constantly changing and yet quote on quote “the same.”

>>Rick: Yeah, yeah. Excellent.

>>Donald: So the one consciousness. But what we ultimately want to do then, it’s of course great fun to be thinking at this high level but how do we get it to say something where we could be wrong? Ultimately, we would like to be able to turn this into something where we can go do an experiment and see if we’re right or not, in the experiment.

>>Rick: Yeah. So about being wrong, I mean sure, science wants to have testicle … testicle! (laughter) Okay, depends on which science! Testable hypothesis that you know, can be disproven, and we have to have the humility to welcome that, but at the same time, does science get wronger and wronger as it goes along, or does it actually gain more and more verifiable knowledge and yet at the same time realize that the extent of what it knows is probably continually dwarfed by the extent of what it doesn’t know?

>>Donald: Right, so as science progressed from one theory to another we typically want the new scientific theory to either show why the previous theory was deeply wrong in some way or to include the previous theories as a special case.

So in the case of like Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, it does change Newton’s Theory of Gravity and Motion, and so forth – accelerations and forces – in a fundamental way. The notion of mass in Einstein is really fundamentally different than the notion of mass in Newton. Mass for Einstein can change with your velocity, that’s not the case for Newton.

>>Rick: Right, but it’s not a problem if you fly in an airplane.

>>Donald: Right, you have to go pretty fast to have that mass change be an issue for you. And so you can show in some sense that Newton is a special case of Einstein as the speed of light in Einstein’s theory goes to infinity. So if you assume the speed of light is infinite, then you can get an approximation of Einstein that looks a lot like Newton, and so you can sort of think of Newton as a special case of Einstein.

You can also think of Newton sort of as a special case of quantum mechanics as something called Plank’s Constant goes to zero. Not exactly, but you can sort of see the relationship between them. And so as science progresses, in some cases, we just throw away … there was a theory called phlogiston, and when we moved on we just threw it away, there was nothing to be saved.

So sometimes there’s nothing to be saved and sometimes know there are deep insights but what you want is a deeper framework, and then you realize that there was some good in that prior theory but that even the very conceptual framework. The notion of time in Newton is different than the notion of time in Einstein. The notion of space in Newton is different than the notion of space-time in Einstein – mass and so forth, and so there’s a change in your conceptual framework that’s required.

But we don’t know, I mean philosophers and scientists are divided about whether is science is progressing toward ever more true theories or whether it’s in some sense just storytelling that doesn’t ever really get anywhere.

There are realists about scientific theories and anti-realists, my own attitude is that I’m a realist in a sense that I think it’s a legitimate goal of science to try to come up with true theories, so I’m a realist in that sense, but I’m an anti-realist in the sense that I say no scientific theory has yet succeeded, and I suspect that we never will, partly because of Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem – there will always be an endless exploration so that we’ll just continue to explore and we’ll have to be good with that exploration.

But we do want … it’s still possible to be deeply wrong, right? We may not be right, but we can be deeply and profoundly wrong in the sense that our … I mean if I have a theory of gravity that says it’s fine to jump off the Empire State building, well that theory of gravity has some serious bad problems, right, so I don’t want to do that.

So there are tests that we can put to our scientific theories and that’s I think in a spiritual context as well. When we have a theory that says consciousness is fundamental and that new conscious agents are being spun off all the time and they’re exploring and so forth, as a scientist, we want to say, “Exactly what do we mean by ‘they’re exploring’? What can we write down with mathematical precision what we mean by exploring? How are they exploring? What are they exploring? Can we write that down with mathematical precision or are we going to just be stuck with a handwave? (moving his hands in expressive circles) Just sort of imprecise … and that’s perfectly fine, I mean not everybody has to be a scientist, right? I’m absolutely not saying that, but I’m saying that to the extent that we’re taking our stories about our spiritual experiences seriously, then we do want to be precise.

If we just want to take our stories as our stories that’s perfectly fine, and we’re humble about them and say, “This is the way it seems to me, of course, I’m probably wrong” – if we put it out in that spirit that’s perfectly fine. But if we want to say, “No, I want to really test my ideas,” then that’s a different game, then it’s being absolutely precise d then saying, “Here’s what you could do to show me wrong,” or “Here’s what I could do to show myself wrong” – that’s a completely different game.

Now I’m not saying everybody has to play that game, I’m just saying that is the science game. And not everybody has to be a scientist but if you don’t play the science game then what you should be is absolutely humble about what you’re saying: “This is not tested. I haven’t shown you how you could prove me wrong so I’m probably wrong, and here are my ideas. And in the spirit of sharing ideas, that’s how I’m sharing my ideas.”

So how could we do the science game on this? Well, it turns out we can, I think, even though all of science so far has pretty much been a study of space-time and its contents, right? And I just said space-time is doomed, right? So we might go, “Well all that work of the sciences was for nothing” – absolutely not. It was exceedingly valuable.

>>Rick: Sure, it eradicated smallpox and gave us all kinds of wonderful things.

>>Donald: Absolutely!

>>Rick: And yet at the same time, it may have brought us to the brink of extinction, so it’s obviously incomplete if human flourishing and the flourishing of other forms of life is the goal of science and every other human endeavor.

>>Donald: Agreed, agreed. And that’s another topic we can talk about which is, the best tools that science has on that side is the tools of evolutionary psychology, and that by itself is a very profound discussion about the evolutionary psychology of why we’re in the fix that we’re in, like with climate change and the human condition more generally, the problems that we have.

And so understanding why we behave the way we do and understanding in a principle way how we can change the structure of society and the structure of our relationships to bring out what some evolutionary psychologists like Stephen Pinker call “the better angels of our nature.”

There are “good aspects” of our nature and there are the dark sides, and understanding why we have both – like in an evolutionary framework – and how the dark side or the better angels can be triggered, can really help us in a non-hand-wavy way, in a very precise way, to craft new social and political systems that can bring out the best in human nature, but that’s a completely different topic. But the issue of …

>>Rick: Just before you get off that topic, quickly. There is a verse in the Gita which says something like, “For many-branched and endlessly diverse are the intellects of the irresolute, but the resolute intellect is one-pointed,” and I think science itself is kind of many-branched and endlessly diverse, and people specialize way off on the little twigs of branches without really having a holistic overview of the whole picture, nor without having any connection to the foundation, which we’ve been discussing is consciousness.

And I think if people in general and scientists, in particular, could be grounded in the foundation, in that resolute intellect, while yet pursuing their specialized knowledge off on some branch, then it could perhaps render the whole enterprise of science much more benign, much more beneficial and well-coordinated so that we don’t inadvertently create disasters when we’re trying to solve a particular problem or accomplish a particular thing in one particular area.

>>Donald: I agree, and I think that’s an issue partly of how we educate our scientists, that we need to educate our scientists not just to be brilliant in their own little area in which they’re studying – which you need to be, I mean to understand how to build a vaccine for the Covid-19 thing, you better be really good. You’ve got to know a lot of molecular biology and to understand that takes years and an IQ of astronomical and so forth to even do that, but I think you’re right, that in addition to all that detailed expertise you need in this tiny, tiny little niche, it’s good in our education to make sure that we also have a big picture – some grounding in the humanities, for example.

>>Rick: Yeah, well experiential grounding in consciousness which is, as we’ve been discussing, the foundation of the whole thing. And it’s not an either-or proposition; the one doesn’t handicap you in the area of the other, just a matter of sort of learning to maintain broad awareness while focusing on specific boundaries.

>>Donald: I couldn’t agree more, absolutely.

>>Rick: Now I kind of interrupted you. You were about to launch into something, and I said, “Well let’s cover this first.” Do you remember what that was?

>>Donald: Sure, yes, so how could we test this theory of consciousness, that consciousness is fundamental, and potentially be wrong, right? That’s the whole point, is if we want to say consciousness is fundamental and is doing this exploration then we have to be precise: how is it exploring? In what way does it explore? And how can we show that we’re wrong – in principle that we’re wrong in what we’re claiming about consciousness?

Well, it turns out that all the work that science has done in space-time, like Einstein’s theory of Special and General Relativity, Quantum Field Theory, String Theory, Darwin’s Theory of Evolution of Natural Selection, and this modern mathematical reformulation, these are all only theories essentially within space-time, but what’s great about them is they’re really well-developed theories, they’re highly tested and they’ve passed a lot of tests, which doesn’t mean that they’re true, it just means that a lot of tests have been done and they’ve passed a lot of tests.

So the idea is what we have to do is get a mathematical model of consciousness – if we want to do the science – its dynamics and show a particular projection of that theory of conscious dynamics into the space-time perceptions of certain consciousnesses.

You and I are certain kinds of consciousnesses which happen to use space-time as the way we perceive. Well, we’ve studied that way of how we perceive, that’s what science has done. We understand … I’ll put it this way, it’s our virtual reality. Space-time is the virtual reality that certain consciousnesses use. We understood that headset. We understood that headset. So now we need to project our theory of consciousness outside our headset, propose how it projects into our particular headset of space-time, and then make predictions of what we should see in the headset.

Well, there we’ve made great progress in the last three centuries! We know how the headset works quite well! And so whatever projection we get from our theory of consciousness into our space-time interface, if it doesn’t give us evolution by natural selection, general relativity, quantum field theory, and so forth as a special limiting case – projection case – then we’re wrong.

Conversely, suppose that we have this theory of consciousness but we’re not really sure – you know, we have this idea about what it’s up to but we’re not really sure, maybe we’re just not smart enough to figure it out, maybe this Gödel’s candy store idea that I put out there and that there’s constant exploration, maybe that’s just totally wrong; it’s something else that consciousness is up to, some other dynamics.

And so I find out that I’m wrong about the Gödel’s candy store thing and so now I’m lost, you know, what is the fundamental dynamical principle of consciousness? I need an idea. If I’m not smart enough, what I can do is say, “Look, let me propose a mapping from consciousness, whatever it’s doing, into our headset of space and time. And now, once I’ve got that proposed projection, let me take like evolution of natural selection and pull it backwards, I’ll unproject it back into consciousness.”

So I have this dynamic of evolution by natural selection, I have this dynamics of quantum field theory when I pull them back out into this realm of conscious agents, what would the conscious agents have to be doing to make it look like evolution, to make it look like quantum mechanics? And that would then give us some new ideas that might be game-changers for what we think about consciousness.

So it can go both ways: we can use a theory of consciousness in this dynamics to make a projection into space-time to see if it’s right. If we’re wrong and we’re not smart enough to figure out what to do, then we can use what we see in space-time and try to pull it backwards through, mathematically, into this realm of the conscious dynamics and see what kind of dynamics it might suggest.

So this is how we … notice again the humility that’s required in this. We’re saying, “We’re trying to be precise. Gödel’s candy store is a nice, precise idea but it might be wrong, so here’s how we’d say if it is wrong and I’m not smart enough to get myself out of that hole, then here’s how I might get some new ideas going the other way.” And that’s sort of what we need to be in the process.

I don’t want to convince you I’m right; I want to make clear what my ideas are and of course, I’m probably wrong and we’re in this adventure together. If we think we’re right, we won’t explore, we will never learn. That’s the key. So don’t ever … I guess the bottom line is, never believe you’re right. Always believe that you’re in the process of learning.

>>Rick: Beginner’s mind.

>>Donald: That’s right, a beginner’s mind. We’re all neophytes, all the time.

>>Rick: Or as the Firesign Theater put it, “We’re all bozos on this bus!”

>>Donald: (laughing)

>>Rick: You know, one interesting thing, I think this relates to what you just said: What if Jesus really did walk on water? What if St. Joseph of Cupertino and St. Teresa of Avila really did levitate? What if all the different siddhis Patanjali talks about in the Yoga Sutras actually could be performed if one knew how to do it? And what if there were people currently – which I have actually yet to meet – who could do these things predictably and measurably? What would that say about the nature of consciousness vis-a-vis for instance the laws of gravity?

It could actually strongly suggest that consciousness is more fundamental than gravity because somehow or other these people who are so intimately familiar with consciousness are able to do something that doesn’t violate the laws of gravity any more than an airplane does, but kind of overrides them or uses them or sort of counteracts them in a way that enables them to do this kind of stuff.

And I have another friend who wrote a book – a big, thick book – just on the idea of being able to levitate, and there are hundreds of examples of people throughout history who supposedly had done this. What if those are real? What does it imply?

>>Donald: Right. I think that the idea that consciousness is fundamental, and that space-time is just a headset, it’s just a virtual reality headset that we’re using, it’s not the final reality, means that the limitations that we see within space-time are our fictions, they’re just fictions.

>>Rick: Yeah.

>>Donald: Now that doesn’t mean that I buy every extraordinary experience that’s purported, right?

>>Rick: Oh no.

>>Donald: By no means, in fact, probably most of them are not true. I believe that, for example, it’s possible for a human being to run a 4-minute mile, many have done it.

>>Rick: Yeah, but for a long time it was thought they couldn’t.

>>Donald: Right, and if an average Joe comes up to me and says, “I can run a 4-minute mile” I don’t believe them! Right? Right. Not because I think it’s in principle impossible but it’s very, very unlikely that you can run a 4-minute mile.

>>Rick: But it’s testable.

>>Donald: Yeah, it’s in principle possible.

>>Rick: Yeah, go ahead and do it, I’ll watch.

>>Donald: Absolutely, absolutely. So if someone, you know, could repeatedly do it, that’s as a scientist I would pay very, very close attention. But there’s two important points on this: one is, if we develop a science of consciousness and it works, we actually can develop a model of this dynamics of consciousness, how it projects into our space-time interface, and show how it gives rise to what we call “quantum mechanics” and “general relativity” and “evolution by natural selection,” we’re going to be able to develop technologies that will make any of these levitation claims look trivial. We’ll be able to warp space-time.

Well, it’s like this … it will be so … we won’t need these things. We will be playing with our physicalist ideas in ways that would persuade everybody that there’s something far deeper.

>>Rick: Yeah.

>>Donald: It would be like … suppose that you’re a genius player at Grand Theft Auto – you’re a wizard. You know all the rules of the game, you can do everything, everybody’s just astonished at you. But then there’s this one geek who doesn’t really know how to play Grand Theft Auto very well but learns how to hack the code in the supercomputer. And that … she can go in there and empty the tank of the wizard, or make the road bend in weird ways, or have trees fall down in front of him, or just give it four flat tires.

Well, the wizard is powerless. The geek has all … and that’s what I’m saying. If one we – and by the way, if people are scared when they hear me saying this, I think that’s a reasonable response. If we actually reverse engineer our space-time interface in terms of a theory of consciousness, we’re going to unleash technologies that from our current perspective will appear absolutely miraculous, just like if I showed a cell phone to somebody in 1750, it would look like an absolute miracle, an act of God! Why can we do that? We got a deeper understanding, from science, of our interface.

This would be even more profound; this would be a deeper understanding outside our interface; we could play with the very parameters of space and time themselves. So this will be … so we won’t need, you know, levitation and so forth; this will be far more profound.

Now let me go the other way. Suppose it turns out that every act of apparent levitation and so forth is all fake, that none of this is true, would that count against consciousness being fundamental? Absolutely not!

Suppose that there’s no violation of our known laws of physics -no problem for me. Consciousness is still fundamental, why? Because the laws of physics just are our simplified way of describing the dynamics of consciousness. It’s all about consciousness. So if there are no violations of gravity that we can detect, that’s just because we have a good interface. Gravity is how – in a dumbed-down fashion – we describe the dynamics of consciousness.

I have good friends who are studying parapsychology and studying these things. Smart people, good friends, well-intentioned, but my attitude is that deep down what they really … their framework is this: the universe is fundamentally a machine, it’s a space-time machine, but, there is a ghost in the machine, and I can prove that there is! But it’s a wimpy ghost – I have to do these experiments and at the eighth decimal place I can get … if I do it a thousand times or a million times I can get a significant small effect at the eighth decimal place, so there is a ghost, but it’s a pretty wimpy ghost.

So that’s a dualist framework. The machine, the physicalist’s machine, is fundamental, but there’s a ghost in the machine – that’s a dualism, and I’m saying something far more radical than that. I’m saying there is no machine. What we call the machine is just our virtual reality headset that we’re using to understand the realm of conscious agents.

It’s much like this: our view that there’s all these conscious agents out there and consciousness is fundamental, think about it like a vast social network, like the Twitter-verse. So right now there’s tens of millions Twitter users, literally billions of tweets, and lots of stuff trending. There’s no way that a Twitter use – you and me – could ever read all the tweets or interact with every one of those twitters – we just can’t, it’s overwhelming. The social media data is just too big, the social network is too complex.

So what do we do if we want to really grasp what’s happening in a social network like the Twitter-verse? We build visualization tools, like a VR, so I can like use little colored objects and their motions to see what’s trending in London, what’s happening in New York, what’s happening in California. So I use little, simple graphics that I can understand, of course, it’s not showing me the billion tweets, it’s not showing me the 10 million users, it’s showing me a summary of the long-term interactions of all those users and what’s trending.

That’s what space-time and what we call “the physical world” is. It’s a visualization tool. We’re visualizing this vast social network of conscious agents. Of course, you don’t see the Twitter users in your headset right? If you have a visual you see color graphics, you’re not seeing the individual users, you just see colored graphics.

Now if you were really naïve you’d go, “Oh, there’s nothing but what I see in my headset” and you just could ignore the whole Twitter-verse … “The reality is just what I’m seeing as I move my headset around!” Well, that would be a rookie mistake, and that’s what physicalism is. Science, physicalist science has made a rookie mistake: we’ve mistaken space-time, which is just our headset, for the reality. It’s just a headset that we’re using as a visualization tool for this vast network of conscious agents.

So if the headset turns out to be really good and our visualization tool has no exceptions – no levitation, no extra-sensory stuff going on in it – perfectly fine with me, it just means it’s a good headset! So I don’t need for these parapsychology results to come out to still claim that consciousness is fundamental. If they don’t come out that’s perfectly fine.

>>Rick: I think the parapsychology results – the kind of stuff that Rupert Sheldrake does and the kind of stuff that Mark Gober has been summarizing is actually good evidence for consciousness being fundamental, but I just want to reflect on your Twitter analogy.

The servers at the Twitter company – however it works, presuming there’s some big servers there which handle all the tweets, and then we out here sending a tweet, reading a tweet, are using these visualization devices to see what’s happening with the Twitter-verse in London and so on, we’re just kind of using a user interface to dip into a little tiny bit of what those servers know.

So I think by the same token we can think of ourselves as sense organs of the Infinite – and little tiny sense organs at that, by comparison with what is out there in the whole universe. But like any sense organ, we are connected at our root, at our basis, with consciousness. And not only connected with it, we are it. So on some deep level, we contain within ourselves all of the … we are the server at Twitter that contains all the tweets. We contain within our deepest self, we can say or use the term “home of all knowledge,” “home of all the laws of nature.” We sort of are the repository of all. We are the intelligence which gives rise to the universe, speaking of our universal self, of our deepest nature. But in terms of our individual self, we couldn’t handle that much information, we’re not designed to.

There are some verses in the 11th Chapter of the Bhagavad Gita where Arjuna wants Krishna to show him his Divine form. He wants to see, “Okay God, what are You really? What is the reality from Your perspective?” And Krishna says, “You can’t handle it. Don’t ask for this.”

And Arjuna persists, so Krishna shows it to him and then the rest of the chapter he’s begging him to take it away because it’s too much. So you know, we don’t know everything, we can’t know everything, as individual units, but we can be sort of rooted or grounded in that level which is the home of all knowledge. And if we align with that clearly enough, our individual lives can sort of function in a way that takes advantage of that omniscience if you will, without actually being omniscient. What do you think of that?

>>Donald: I like that idea a lot! Absolutely. In fact, that kind of idea is informing the mathematical model I’m building of these conscious agents and it was one reason why I went after this kind of model. It’s the idea that in some sense I have a limit, like I only see things in space and time, and I have profound limits, for example, if I ask you to imagine a specific color that you’ve never seen before. Like nothing happens, right?

Talk about limits! I can’t even imagine one specific color that I’ve never seen before! That is a profound and humbling limit. So when I see those limits right there in my face, then I know that I have profound limits as a conscious being. On the other hand, there is some way, as you said, that I’m connected with everything and part of everything – the deepest consciousness.

So as a scientist now, I want to take those intuitions which are onto something and say, “Okay, how can I make that idea into something precise that I can then explore mathematically” – that’s actually what my team is up to. So the very idea that you said is at the very, very core of the mathematics that we’re developing.

>>Rick: Excellent! Well as I say, I’ll introduce you to some people.

>>Donald: Yeah.

>>Rick: So some really good questions came in. I’m having so much fun talking with you I’ve been neglecting to ask them, but I’ve scanned all four of them and they’re really good, so let’s do it. And we can’t give 15-minute responses to these or we just won’t have that kind of time, but let’s give a pithy response to these questions.

So first it’s Ravi from the United Arab Emirates who asks, “Can scientific theories of the Truth (capital T) of Reality (capital R), such as String Theory or your version of the “desktop user interface evolutionary approach to reality”, help one subjectively experience the Truth, similar to a spiritual epiphany or nirvana? The two approaches seem tangentially opposed: subjective versus objective, surely we can’t reconcile the two or can we?”

>>Donald: Great question. I think that there are two aspects of inquiry, two aspects of exploration: there’s the personal meditative kind of exploration, and then there’s the stepping back and asking, “What have I learned in that process of exploration?”

So I go without concepts, just being with what is, and then sometimes when I step out of that I reflect and ask, “What just happened? What could I learn from it? What should I learn from that?” So there’s going to be this interaction between concepts on the one hand – science, and pure experience that goes beyond any conception.

So I think that they will inform each other. There’s one pithy thing … quantum computing. On the one hand, you have to use absolute precision to set up the quantum bits and gates. Absolute clean, hard-nosed science. Once you set them up and start the computation going, you cannot look. If you look at what’s going on in a quantum computation you destroy it.

>>Rick: Ah! Cause you collapse the function or something?

>>Donald: That’s right, you collapse the superpositions and so forth, you wipe out the entanglements and so forth.

So what happens with quantum computing is a really interesting metaphor, it shows this synergy: absolute precision on the one hand – you couldn’t build the gates and circuits without absolute precision, and then you have to let go completely – you cannot look at all when you start the computation.

If you don’t look, you open up this incredible flood of computational power – we don’t understand it, if you look, you destroy it. So if you don’t look, you get this huge flood of computing power that comes out, and then at the very end, you can look at the bits and gates to get little trickles of that huge, thunderous, roaring waterfall of computation that happens.

>>Rick: So you don’t destroy it retroactively if you look at the end?

>>Donald: Well you destroy, but if you look carefully, the little trickles that you get are informative about the whole computation. That’s the best we can do.

>>Rick: You just peak with one eye!

>>Donald: That’s right! You get a little bit at the very end there.

So this quantum computation seems to be telling us that there’s this really interesting dance between precision and tight concepts. By the way, there’s no reward for sloppy thinking, right? Sloppy thinking gets you killed, your science experiments don’t work, you fall off cliffs, the whole bit. Sloppiness …

So what seems to be going on: absolute precision, and then no concepts whatsoever. So, complete no-concepts, and then absolute precise concepts – that seems to be where the sweet-spot is, for whatever reason.

>>Rick: I think what you just said is perfectly applicable to spirituality too. There’s no place for sloppy thinking. There’s a great quote, Padmasambhava, he said, “Although my awareness is as vast as the sky, my attention to karma is as fine as a grain of barley flour.”

>>Donald: (laughing) That’s pretty funny!

>>Rick: (laughing) Yeah! And really, this thing about sloppy thinking, there are so many people who crash and burn because somewhere along the spiritual path they get sloppy, or they get lax, or they assume – they lack humility, like you’ve been emphasizing. They assume that they’re much more enlightened than they actually are, and they begin to justify all kinds of behaviors and whatnot that end up destroying them.

>>Donald: Yes, yes.

>>Rick: Yeah, so it’s razor’s edge.

>>Donald: I agree it’s a razor’s edge in the following … because you have to have the humility that anything that you think and propose could be wrong, on the other hand, you have to have enough interest and hope in what you’re doing to be energetic to pursue it, right?

>>Rick: Yeah, it’s a balance.

>>Donald: So you want to be excited to pursue it and yet on the other hand not be dogmatic about it, and that’s the balance, the razor’s edge.

>>Rick: Yeah, and I think the key thing is that if you’re actually making genuine progress, there’s experiential verification at each step of the way, which is a scientific thing, you know? So it’s not like you’re just totally lost and full of doubt and you never get any kind of reward for your efforts, but again, it’s that there’s never going to be ultimate absolute certainty, I don’t think, or else … and yet it’s the most rewarding thing one can pursue in life.

>>Donald: I agree.

>>Rick: Yeah.

Okay, here’s a good one from Abbey in Denmark who asks, “Regarding the concept that space-time is doomed, who am I looking at in the mirror? Or can science ever lead to the answer to ‘who am I and my purpose in this body?’”

>>Donald: Very, very profound questions. Of course, the right answer is I don’t know, at this point, but I can tell you the direction I’m pursuing, and the idea is that our headset – space-time is just our headset and we use our headsets to come up with things we call our bodies. And what you see when you look at your face in the mirror …

When you look at your own face in the mirror you know that what you see first-hand – skin, hair, and eyes – is not the real you. What you can’t see in the mirror – your hopes, your dreams, your aspirations, your love of music, your headache – all that rich world of your conscious experiences is just hidden behind this very simple thing of face, skin, hair, and eyes.

So what we know first-hand is that what we can see of our bodies and so forth is not at all definitive of who we are, we transcend that. We’re this whole realm of conscious experiences. This body, my face, is just a user interface symbol, it’s just an icon on my interface.

When I look at you I see an icon – I see skin, hair, and eyes – I believe firmly that behind what I see is the whole rich world of your conscious experiences. I believe it so profoundly that I would not in any way try to use my talents to hurt you, to hurt your icon, because I believe I would actually affect your conscious experiences, so that’s how deeply I believe that.

So I’m committed to this realm of conscious experiences beyond what I can see in space and time, but what am I? The question was, “What am I beyond that?” The best answer I can give right now is I’m a conscious agent, looking at all the other conscious agents through a headset and I’m participating in the exploration. But I’m also not divorced from all those other conscious agents and so there’s a lot I don’t understand; I’m working on the math on that. So the answer is I don’t know but those are some ideas.

>>Rick: Yeah … and in terms of the answer you just gave, “I’m a conscious agent looking at other conscious agents and not divorced from them,” I would say that relatively we are conscious agents with our space-time limitations, and absolutely or more deeply we are consciousness and everything is consciousness, so we’re all one at that level of consciousness.

And in fact, many people reach a stage of unity consciousness where when they look at something they’re actually seeing themselves, they’re not themselves individually – I don’t look at the rock and see Rich Archer’s face there, but they see it all in terms of the Self (capital S) ultimate level of consciousness; everything is that and that ultimately can become a living experience.

Yeah, okay, here comes another one.

Really good questions … this one is from Matt in Toronto who asks … he has two parts to this; the second part is small. The first part is: “If we take the interface theory of perception fully, would it follow that psychological states, thoughts, intuitions, and feelings themselves are also evolved interfaces that guide adaptive behavior? If so, do you have any ideas about how the structures of feelings, thoughts, or intuitions – as we know them – map on to the activity of the network of conscious agents?”

Sounds like this guy has read your book.

>>Donald: Yeah, it’s a very, very good question. So the answer [to the] first is yes. I believe that our experiences, our emotions, for example, are also part of this interface, and so we can use the tools of evolutionary psychology to explore the logic of those emotions and to ask within the framework of evolutionary psychology why do we have those emotions? Why do we feel anger when we think someone is cheating? Why do we feel attracted to someone when their pupil is dilated?” and so forth.

We can actually give precise scientific answers to these kinds of questions, and we can use them to answer deeper questions like how can we devise a society in which we bring out the better aspects of human nature? Positive, altruistic behaviors as opposed to selfish and destructive kinds of behaviors?

So absolutely yes, those are part of the interface and we can develop scientific theories of them. Remind me of the other parts of his question?

>>Rick: Well let’s see, “If so, do you have any ideas about how structures of feelings, thoughts, or intuitions – as we know them – map onto the activity of the network of conscious agents?” And I’ll throw in his second question here too, you can answer that as well: “How would you describe mental illness by way of conscious realism?”

>>Donald: Right, so yeah, in terms of “how do these map onto the dynamics of conscious agents – all these emotions that we have”, that’s a really profound question. So in the interface, we have evolutionary psychology and we have an evolutionary model that gives us one kind of explanation, in fact, the only precise explanation humans have ever come up with for the logic of human emotions. So that’s the best tool we have so far, there’s no tool that comes anywhere close to the power of evolutionary psychology for giving the deep logic of human emotions.

Now how does that story which is in space and time pull back to this theory of conscious agents? I don’t know, but one possibility is that evolution requires limits, limited resources, limitations of various kinds. If there were no limits of resources there would be no need to compete, there’d be no need to be more fit, and the whole game of evolution just wouldn’t be played.

So the question … this person from Toronto, the question really comes down to: When we do this theory of conscious agents, will there also be limits in that realm or not? If it turns out that in some sense there are no limits, then we’re going to have to show that whatever the dynamics of consciousness is, when we project it into an interface that has … that imposes limits – the interface itself imposes limits – then you get what looks like evolution by natural selection and you’re forced to see the dynamics of consciousness through this lens of competition and the emotions that come out of competition, and so forth.

So the ultimate answer is I … the question he has just asked is one that I’m asking, and I’ve been asking for several years, and I intend to try to address it in my theory of consciousness and its dynamics. And I don’t know if it’s going to end up being that the emotions are an artifact of the limits of our interface, that’s one possibility, that it’s just an artifact because our interface is limited, or, is this telling us something deep about the dynamics of consciousness itself? I’m leaning toward thinking it’s an artifact of the interface, but I don’t know, so that’s an open scientific question, it’s the kind of thing exactly that a mathematical model is going to play with, going to play with that idea. Great question.

>>Rick: Okay, I won’t presume to conjecture on that one.

Okay, here’s a question from a dear friend of mine, we’ve been friends for almost 50 years … 45 years. His name is John, he’s from Salt Spring Island and he actually helped me prepare for this interview, we’ve been bouncing …

>>Donald: Salt Spring Island?

>>Rick: Yeah, Salt Spring Island up in Canada.

>>Donald: Canada! Okay.

>>Rick: Yeah, you know, it’s kind of near Vancouver Island on the west coast. Anyway, John says, “Is the idea that we will always be seekers? In the Vedic tradition, enlightenment means you are not a seeker anymore; you are a seer. Science may never end but direct experience, if deep enough, should lead to the ultimate ultimate, not understanding but being the goal?” Does that make sense to you?

>>Donald: Yeah, that’s an interesting idea. I mean I could, I could understand that it may not be contradictory in the following sense, that if it’s true that exploration is endless, suppose it’s true that consciousness is about endless exploration – Gödel’s candy store, being aware of that and being good with that could be this other sense of just being.

I’m being, I’m content – content knowing that I don’t know, and I’ll never know, but that’s what I know, is that I don’t know, and also being good with the endless exploration. So again – and of course I haven’t read that particular kind of writing that he’s referring to, sounds pretty interesting, but it may be that they’re not contradictory.

>>Rick: Yeah, I think you’re right. John and I have had discussions about this and I’ve talked about it on these interviews, but in the Vedic tradition which he refers to there’s a notion of kalas, which are supposed to be levels of evolution and they’re supposed to be 16 of them, and human evolution – by evolution I don’t mean Darwinian but spiritual development – is supposed to occupy maybe the 4th through the 8th kala. So then, you know, if that’s true, then the greatest sages who ever walked the earth are still relative beginners compared to what is possible.

Now they may have glommed onto the ultimate reality in terms of their direct experience – you know, feel the pure consciousness that we’ve been talking about, but to what extent do they embody it? To what extent? In the relative field, how much can they know? How much can they do?

And it’s thought that there are higher forms of life which are mythically referred to as “gods” and so on but are actually thought to be much more powerful conscious agents – in your terminology – which have vast capacities for knowledge and action, which can know and do far more than a human being ever could. So you know, maybe souls evolve into those once they reach the ultimate level of human spiritual evolution.

>>Donald: It’s quite possible. I’ll just say that the Gödel’s candy store theory says that there’s not just 8, 10, 50 billion levels; there are countless levels.

>>Rick: Zillions … countless!

>>Donald: And that it’s literally countless, that even if you were infinite, you’re still a baby beginner, that’s the weird thing, so it stretches our imagination to the breaking point, which is good. It’s literally saying that if you have some finite number of levels, that’s probably not it. That’s just the first baby steps and it’s literally endless.

And I mean, I’m not saying that the Gödel’s candy store is right but what I’m saying is that’s what that theory would entail, is that there’s no small number of steps and then you’re there, it’s that you cannot ever get there. In principle, the reality is that you can never get there no matter how long you pursue, so just enjoy the process. Enjoy the process and enjoy, in some sense, the profound consciousness.

The entirety of consciousness will be profoundly ignorant compared to its future potential, always, and no matter how much it expands into that potential, it will be always not having begun. That’s how profound Gödel’s theorem is. It’s saying, no matter how far you go, you really haven’t begun, and that’s hard to wrap our heads around … we would like to say that we can grasp.

Gödel is saying, Gödel is absolutely saying, you cannot grasp it. In principle, it cannot be grasped, even by an infinite. An infinite intelligence, an infinite consciousness could not grasp it; the infinite consciousness is still a baby beginner and will always be.

>>Rick: Huh. Yeah, you know, I could think of rebuttals to that but on the other hand, I’m not committed to them. It’s one of these both-and things, where I think you can sort of fathom the infinite nature of consciousness and live as that, and certainly not feel any sort of lack or emptiness or you know, unfulfillment, and at the same time, there’s still an infinite … I mean the field of consciousness itself is infinite, and if it contains all the potentiality, infinite potentiality, then that field alone offers the opportunity for endless exploration.

You know, it’s said that the Vedic rishis who cognized the Veda – the Vedas are said not to have been written down or conceived by human minds but to have been some kind of primordial reality that can be cognized – even they can only cognize a certain portion of it and other rishis cognized other portions of it.

So, you know, you can sort of have it all, you can sort of have your cake and never stop eating it! (laughter)

>>Donald: These are the deepest, deepest questions, absolutely, and of course I’m probably wrong!

>>Rick: Yeah! And probably me too, but we’re having fun.

You have time for another one? Another question?

>>Donald: Sure.

>>Rick: Okay, this is from Michelle Romero and I don’t know where she’s from: “Regarding the idea of always being at zero” – this is just what we were talking about – “as we explore consciousness and the relationship with mathematics to consciousness as structures to dynamic organism, reminds me of form in relationship to the formless. My question is: are we always at the beginning or zero because just as we can’t add to or reach the speed of light because it is a fixed constant, we can never fully experience consciousness because it is infinite and formless?” Just what we were talking about.

>>Donald: Yeah, in a word, yes. What Gödel’s theorem is saying is so hard to grasp, that no matter how much you explore, you’ve literally not begun compared to what there is to explore. It’s almost like a train that is building the track just one more track length ahead, and just keep going, and we’re just building tracks as we go … we have trains [going everywhere]. There aren’t pre-existing tracks; we’re just building, and there’s an infinite number of ways to have it going so we’re just building it as we go. It’s hard to wrap our heads around it. This is one where smoke starts coming out of my own ears. (laughing)

>>Rick: (laughing) Kind of reminds me of Jeremy, the nowhere man in Yellow Submarine, he kept sort of creating things as he learned and he said, “So little time, so much to know.”

>>Donald: Right. Exactly, exactly.

>>Rick: Okay, let me see, John just added a follow-up question. Let me see if it makes sense.

Okay, I think I can get this. John said, “I mean not end to the expressions but a complete experience of the Source.” And I think we were both saying that yeah, you can completely experience the Source but even there, I mean, okay, let’s theorize two ways. One is, you can completely experience the Source by becoming that and still have endless expressions of the Source to explore, and another way of looking at it is within the Source itself, which actually the whole universe is contained within because it’s the totality.

Well this gets tricky because I mean, we can think of the Source as being unmanifest and we can think of exploring within the unmanifest all the possibilities that are latent within it – “the Source” meaning consciousness – but at the same time from that perspective, if we’re really living that, then the whole universe is within us. And so when we’re exploring the universe in a way that others would perceive as outwardly, we’re actually not outward, there is no “outward. We’re exploring within the self because the self engulfs everything – consciousness is the totality. Does that make sense?

>>Donald: It’s certainly … it’s a wonderful idea, it’s a wonderful idea, it’s worth really pursuing. In some sense, I’m not divorced from the Source …

>>Rick: Can’t be.

>>Donald: I can’t be, right, but I wonder if the Source itself is constantly reawakening to new possibilities.

>>Rick: I think it is, you know, because again, it’s sort of this eternal self-interacting dynamics of consciousness which goes on and on and on and continues to churn out universes and infinite possibilities.

>>Donald: Right. That would be my best guess right now, would be that the Source itself is constantly surprised by the new possibilities.

>>Rick: Yeah, yeah, yeah! It’s like, “Wow! Look what I can do now!”

>>Donald: That’s right, and that’s the experience of delight at being surprised, trying a new chocolate in the candy store.

>>Rick: That’s funny, an email just came in advertising chocolate just as you said that. (laughter)

>>Donald: (laughter)

>>Rick: There’s a synchronicity for you!

>>Donald: That’s right, so again, I mean, these are … this is pretty heavy ground and there’s all sorts of ways to be wrong, deeply, and profoundly wrong. But on the other hand, we have to be bold enough to explore and go in these ideas even if they seem way out there and crazy.

We have to boldly explore and then later on we have to pull back and say, “Okay, what have we really done? Can we make those ideas precise” – if we want to do this scientifically. So you have to have this creative time like we’re doing right now, where we just go out there and let our ideas go wild, and then a second phase where we go back and say, “Okay! That was nonsense, no, but that one, that’s interesting. Okay, what did we really mean by that one? Let’s try to pull that down, make it precise, make predictions.

And that’s sort of the game we play, and that may be a picture of the whole process here, of fun exploration then, “What have I really learned?” More exploration, what have I really learned, and this whole process of exploring.

>>Rick: Yeah. This thing of the Creator or the Source of creation or something being endlessly creative and just surprising Itself with Its creations. You kind of … maybe it’s just an assumption but you can sort of see in looking at nature. You know, all the different fish, and birds, and unusual things, and giant tubeworms living at the bottom of the ocean living around thermal vents, and there seems to be no end to the creativity.

>>Donald: That’s right.

>>Rick: Yeah, and then this is just one measly little planet, I mean what else is out there?

>>Donald: Exactly, oh absolutely, that’s right, yeah, yeah. It’s almost like someone showing off, “Look what I just came up with. Bet you’ve never thought about that was possible!”

>>Rick: (laughter)

>>Donald: And then again, all in good humor, right? It’s sort of there’s a funny side to this whole thing. There’s a levity. There’s a seriousness but also a levity in the exploration.

>>Rick: Yeah!

>>Donald: It’s fun to explore but there’s also the serious side of it’s easy for us to be self-deceived, so we need to be serious about getting rid of the nonsense.

>>Rick: You know the term ‘lila’?

>>Donald: No.

>>Rick: It means play, and the whole creation is said to be the Lord’s lila, He’s having fun, it’s play.

>>Donald: Oh! Okay. Well, that’s a nice congruence of ideas, absolutely.

>>Rick: Yeah. Alrighty. Well God, I’ve just so much enjoyed talking to you and preparing to talk to you, it’s been quite a week for me, and this is really the icing on the cake – having this conversation.

>>Donald: Thank you, Rick, it’s been a great pleasure. It’s just been a wonderful conversation and I really thank you for giving me this chance to talk with you.

>>Rick: Yeah, I don’t know if you remember when I first suggested that we’d do this, but we were standing at nearby urinals at the Science & Nonduality Conference and I said, “Hey, do you want to …”

>>Donald: I do remember, right, that’s right! (laughter)

>>Rick: (laughter)

>>Donald: That was a couple of years ago, back when we could actually have a conference.

>>Rick: It was actually last October but it seems like an eternity ago.

>>Donald: It was just last October, wow. Just before this whole thing just clamped down. The Science & Nonduality meetings can’t be in person this year.

>>Rick: No, they’re canceling it this year. There’s a virtual one coming up shortly after I release this video, so maybe people can catch that if they wish.

Alright, well thanks so much, Don. I really appreciate having had this conversation and I’m sure we’ll have another one, one of these days, you know, and we can sort of like pick up where this one has left off. And it’ll be interesting to see how your research progresses because I think you’re really onto some really good, basic, important, fundamental stuff, which is not by any means just a kind of intellectual game you’re playing.

I think the understanding of consciousness as fundamental and not as merely an epiphenomenon of brain functioning is the ultimate paradigm that needs to be turned on its head – or the materialist paradigm needs to be turned on its head in order for the huge changes to take place in the way we interact with the world, that need to take place if we’re going to continue to live in the world.

>>Donald: I absolutely agree. If we can get these brilliant physicists on board, watch out – we’re going to learn so quickly! I’m hoping to get these physicists who are beginning to realize that space-time is doomed to start exploring the idea that consciousness is fundamental. There are some really high IQs out there, this thing could really take off. (laughter)

>>Rick: Oh yeah, it could, great.

Well thanks, and thanks so much to those who’ve been listening or watching, I hope you’ve hung in there with us cause you know, personally, as you can tell, I find this whole conversation to be fascinating and I really have enjoyed speaking with Donald. And there’s plenty more of him online. If you want to listen to some more of his talks and lectures just look on YouTube, and I think there’s an index to those on your website also, which I’ll be linking to from your page on BATGAP.

>>Donald: Very good, thank you very much, Rick.

>>Rick: Thanks, Don.

>>Donald: Okay.

>>Rick: Talk to you later.

>>Donald: Talk to you later. Okay.

>>Rick: Bye, bye.

{Credits roll and BATGAP theme music playing}.