The following is a conversation with Anika Harris,
author of Conscious,
a brief guide to the fundamental mystery of the mind.
And is someone who writes and thinks a lot
about the nature of consciousness and of reality,
especially from the perspectives
of physics and neuroscience.
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And now, dear friends, here’s Annika Harris.
In your book, Conscious, you described evidence
that free will is an illusion
and that consciousness is used to construct this illusion
and convince ourselves that we are in fact
deciding our actions.
Can you explain this?
I think this is chapter three.
First of all, I really think it’s important
to make a distinction between free will and conscious will,
and we’ll get into that in a moment.
So free will in terms of our brain as a system in nature,
making complex decisions
and doing all of the complex processing it does,
there is a decision-making process in nature
that our brains undergo that we can call free will.
That’s fine to use that shorthand for that.
Although once we get into the details,
I might convince you that it’s not so free,
but the decision-making process is a process in nature.
The feeling, our conscious experience
of feeling like consciousness is the thing
that is driving the behavior,
that is, I would say in most cases, an illusion.
And usually when we talk about free will,
that’s the thing we’re talking about.
Sometimes it’s in conjunction
with the decision-making process,
but for the most part, when we use the term free will,
we’re talking about this feeling that consciousness,
that we have a self, that there’s this concrete thing
that’s separate from brain processing
that somehow swoops in and is the cause of our decision
or the cause of our next action.
And that is in large part,
if not in its entirety, an illusion.
So conscious will is an illusion
and then we can try to figure out.
Free will, I would say, is good shorthand
for a process in nature,
which is a decision-making process of the brain.
But decisions are still being made.
So there’s, if you ran the universe over again,
is there, would it turn out the same way?
I mean, maybe, I’m trying to sneak up to like,
what does it mean to make a decision
in a way that’s almost, that means something?
So this is where our intuitions get challenged.
I’ve been thinking about some new examples for this
just because I talk about it a lot.
And the truth is, most of the things I write about
and talk about and think about are so counterintuitive.
I mean, that’s really what my game is,
is breaking intuitions, shaking up intuitions
in order to get a deeper understanding of reality.
I’m often, even though I’ve thought about this for 20 years
and think about it all the time,
it’s an obsession of mine, really.
I have to get back into that mind frame
to be able to think clearly about it
because it is so counterintuitive.
How long does that take?
How hard is that?
Depends on if there are kids around
or if I’m alone or if I’ve been meditating.
But what I was going to say, actually,
I felt like we needed to just take one step back
and talk a little bit,
just because I think the importance
of shaking up intuitions for scientific advancement
is such an important piece of the scientific process.
And I think we’ve reached a point in consciousness studies
where it’s very difficult to move forward.
And usually that’s a sign
that we need to start shaking up our intuitions.
So throughout history, the huge breakthroughs,
the things that have really shifted our view
of the universe and our place in the universe
and all of that, those almost always,
if not always, require that we, at the very least,
shift our intuitions, update our intuitions.
But many of them, we just have to let go of intuitions
that are feeding us false information
about the way the world works.
Well, the weirdest thing here is that
here we’re looking at our own mind.
So you have to let go of your intuitions
about your own intuitions.
Yeah, right, exactly.
It’s very meta and makes it hard.
And it’s part of the reason why doing interviews for me
feels so difficult, aside from the fact
that I just have social anxiety in general.
Well, it’s good,
because I took mushrooms just before we started.
So we’re in this journey together.
So where do we take a step backwards to, Leslie?
I was going to say, I mean,
this leads into the point I was going to make,
but what I was going to say is,
I mean, also just for me,
I feel like I’m not as good at speaking as I am at writing,
that I’m clearer in my writing.
And because these topics are so difficult
to get our minds around,
it’s hard to kind of get to any real conclusion in real time.
It’s actually how I started writing my book,
was just writing for myself.
I decided that I needed to spend some time
writing down all of my thoughts
in order to get clear about how I think about them.
So you write down a sentence and you think,
in the silence, in the quiet.
Paragraphs, and you just.
And then I see if that makes sense.
And then I check it with my intuitions,
which is really the scientific process.
And I really, in many ways,
I feel like I’m a physicist at heart.
All of my inquiry, all of my career,
everything I’m interested in,
actually going back to being a child,
is just deep curiosity about how the world works,
what this place is, what it’s made of, how we got here.
Just being amazed at the fact
that I’m having an experience over here
and you’re having one over there,
and we’re in this moment of time.
And what does that all mean?
My interest in consciousness really came out
of originally an interest in physics.
And I guess that the two were always side by side,
and I didn’t really connect them until I was older.
But I’ve always been really interested
in just understanding the nature of reality
before I even had language to describe it.
You talked about sort of laying down
and looking up at the stars,
sort of trying to let go of the intuition
that there’s a ground below us,
which is a really interesting exercise.
And there’s many exercises of this sort you can do,
but that’s a really good one.
Well, and I think scientists and children
who will become scientists
or just kind of scientists at heart
really enjoy that feeling
of breaking through their intuitions.
And I remember the first time it happened, actually,
I was playing with marbles.
And marbles have all these different shapes.
Each one is unique, and they’re all the,
it looks like there’s liquid inside them.
And I remember asking my father
how they got the liquid inside the glass ball.
And he said, actually, it’s solid all the way through.
It’s all glass.
And I had such a hard time imagining,
it just didn’t seem right to me.
I was very young when I,
but he’s a complicated person,
but he was wonderful in this way
in that he would kind of entertain my curiosity.
And so he said, let’s open them up.
And he got a towel,
and we put the marbles on the towel and got a hammer,
and he smashed them all.
And lo and behold, it was all glass.
And I remember,
it’s like the first time I had that feeling
of realizing, wow, the truth was so different
from what I expected.
And I like that feeling.
And of course, we need to be able to do that
to understand that the Earth is flat,
to understand the germ theory of disease,
to understand long processes in nature like evolution.
I mean, we just can never really intuit
that we share genes with ants.
Did you just say the Earth is flat?
You mean the Earth is not flat.
Did I say that?
This is great.
But I actually like to think about-
Exactly, see, this is why I need to write and not speak.
Well, I actually really like conspiracy theories and so on.
I really like flat Earth,
people that believe the Earth is flat,
or not believe, but argue for the Earth is flat.
Well, it’s interesting because you can see,
I mean, the intuition is so strong.
I just said it.
The thing I love about folks who argue for flat Earth
is they are thinking deeply.
They’re questioning, actually,
what has now become intuition,
it’s become the mainstream narrative
that the Earth is round,
where people actually don’t,
yeah, don’t think, actually,
how crazy it is that the Earth is round.
We’re in a ball.
And that’s exactly what you’re doing.
You’re looking out at the space.
It’s really humbling,
because I think the basic intuition,
when you’re walking on the ground,
there’s an underlying belief
that Earth is the center of the universe.
There’s a kind of feeling
like this is the only world that exists.
And you kind of know that there’s a huge universe out there,
but you don’t really load that information in.
And I think flat Earthers are really contending
with those big ideas.
Yeah, no, and I think, I mean,
the truth is that when those observations were first made,
when the celestial observations were made
that revealed this fact to us,
I can’t remember how long it took,
but I think it was close to 100 years
before it was actually accepted as common knowledge
that we’re no longer the center of the universe,
or, of course, we never were.
And that’s true almost every time
we have a breakthrough like that
that challenges our intuitions.
There’s usually a period of time where we have to,
and this is an important part of the process,
because often our intuitions give us good information.
And so when the science goes against,
when our scientific observations go against our intuitions,
it’s important for us to let that in
and to see which side is gonna win.
And once it’s clear that the evidence is winning,
then there’s this period of time
where we have to grapple with our intuitions
and shift the way we frame our worldview
and go through that process.
But free will.
Free will’s a hard one.
It’s a hard one.
So here we are, still in consciousness studies,
pretty stuck, at least in terms of the neuroscience.
And so that’s why I started thinking more deeply about that.
That’s why a lot of scientists right now
are actually interested in studying consciousness,
where it was very taboo before.
And so we’re at this really interesting turning point,
and it’s wonderful,
but it will require that we shake up our intuitions a bit
and reframe some things
and look at what the neuroscience is telling us.
And there are a lot of questions.
We have more questions than answers.
But I think it’s time.
I think if we’re going to make progress
in consciousness studies,
we need to start really looking at the illusions
and false intuitions that are getting in our way.
Do you think studying the brain can give us clues
about free will, like some of these questions?
Oh yeah, absolutely.
I think it already has.
And I think many facts that have come out of neuroscience
are still barely seeping into the culture.
I mean, I think this is going to be a long process.
So part of my work is really just looking at areas
where we already know some of our intuitions are wrong
and starting to accept them and starting to let them in
and starting to ask questions about,
well, what does this mean then
about the nature of consciousness?
Let’s try to actually get at this question
of free will and conscious will.
I have, my intuitions here are, I mean, I’m a human being.
It’s really, I mean, I approach it from two aspects.
One is a human being, and two, from a robotics perspective.
And I wonder how big the gap between the two is.
And that’s a useful, from an engineering perspective,
is another perspective that’s useful
and helpful to take on this.
It’s like, are we really so different, you and I,
the robot and the human?
We’d like to believe so,
but you don’t exactly see where the difference is.
Research into AI and just the fact
that it’s entered our consciousness
at the level of stories and film
and all of these questions that it’s raising
is facing us with that,
it’s almost like the zombie experiment
is coming to life for us.
We’re more and more looking at human-like systems
and wondering, is there an experience in there
and how can we figure that out?
When you were talking about your experience
of looking at robots, it reminds me of how I,
for many years, have been looking at plants.
Because the plant behavior,
and actually, this is the example.
Maybe we’ll just try it out.
It may not work.
This is an example I was thinking of recently
because I was reading back on the work of Mark Jaffe,
who did this research with pea tendrils.
I’m sure he did many other plant studies,
but this is the one I was reading about.
And I’m hoping this analogy, I’ll just set it up.
I’m hoping that this analogy will be something
that we can keep coming back to as we move forward
because as we shake up our intuitions and get confused
and then we come back to our intuitions
and say, no, that just can’t be,
I think this analogy might be helpful.
What kind of plant was he working on?
Pea tendrils, so a pea plant has these tendrils.
You can picture them, they coil.
So, I don’t know what year this research was done.
I’m guessing in the 80s, but some.
But pea tendrils have been around long before that.
Yes, of course, and the research may have happened
long before the 80s.
In fact, they might be doing the research on the humans,
but that’s another story.
So, pea tendrils, as a system,
generally, there are a few more things they can do,
but generally they can behave in two ways.
They can grow in a straight line slowly,
or they can grow in this coil form more quickly.
And what happens is when they are growing
in a straight manner and they encounter a branch
or a pole or something else that it can wrap itself around
to gain more stability, when it senses a branch there,
that gives it the cue to start growing at a more rapid pace
and to start coiling instead of growing straight.
So, it has these two behaviors.
As a system, it’s capable of growing straight
and it’s capable of coiling.
One interesting thing, actually, I’ll just add this.
It’s not totally relevant,
but one interesting thing is Mark Jaffe’s work.
So, he cut a pea tendril.
He was curious to see if it could do this on its own,
separate from the rest of the plant.
So, he cut a pea tendril off the plant.
If you keep it in a moist, warm environment,
it will continue to behave in these ways.
So, it will continue to coil.
He noticed that if he touched one end of it,
if he rubbed one side of it, that gave it enough of a cue
that it would start to coil.
And then he noticed that it needed light
to perform this action.
So, in the dark, when he rubbed the edge of the tendril,
it did not coil.
In the light, it would.
And then he recognized this further fact,
which was that the pea tendril that he rubbed in the dark,
that was still straight,
if he brought it out into the light,
and this could be hours later, it would start to coil.
It has a primitive form of memory
where it has the sensation
and then it holds onto that information.
And as soon as there’s light, it acts on that information.
But also in a kind of distributed intelligence,
because you can separate it from the main part.
Like if you chop off a human arm,
it’s not gonna keep growing.
Even if you keep it in a moist, warm environment,
it’s not gonna reach out for the cup of coffee
when you come in with Starbucks.
Maybe in the correct environment.
Maybe we just haven’t found the environment.
But anyway, that’s pretty amazing.
So, that’s a separate fact.
But anyway, so if you just use the analogy of a pea tendril,
and if you imagine, which is something I like to do a lot,
if you imagine this plant
has some kind of conscious experience,
of course it doesn’t have complex thought,
it doesn’t have anything like a human experience,
but if it were possible for a plant
to have some felt experience,
you can imagine that when it comes into contact
with a branch and starts to coil,
that that feeling could be one of deciding to do that,
or that it feels good to do that, or kind of wanting.
I mean, that’s too complex, that’s anthropomorphizing,
but there’s a way in which you could imagine
this pea tendril, under those circumstances,
suddenly wants to start coiling.
So, you’re saying you try to meditate
of what it’s like to be a pea tendril, a plant.
Like, that’s what’s required here.
It’s like you have to empathize with a plant,
or with another organism that’s not human.
Yeah, and you don’t actually need that for this analogy,
the larger analogy that I’m getting at,
but I think that’s an interesting piece to keep in mind,
that you could imagine that, in nature,
if there’s a conscious experience
associated with a pea tendril,
that at that moment, what that feels like
is a want to start moving in a different way.
So, you wanna imagine that without anthropomorphizing,
so without projecting the human experience,
but rather sort of humbling yourself
that we’re just another plant with more complexity.
Yes, in a way.
Like, trying to see where-
Exactly, so that’s where I’m going with this.
And when you start making that connection,
you can see where there are a few points
at which there’s room for an illusion to come in,
for our own feelings of will.
So, when we move from a pea tendril
to human decision-making,
obviously, human decision-making,
human brains are many, many, many times more complex
than whatever’s going on in a pea tendril.
I mean, the brain is actually the most complex thing
we know of in the universe thus far.
So, there is the genes that help develop the brain
into any particular brain into what it is.
There are all the inputs.
There are countless factors that we could never,
I mean, it may as well be an infinite number of factors.
And then in that particular moment,
whatever the inputs are to a brain,
the brain is capable of almost an infinite number
of outputs, right?
So, if I walked in here this morning and you said,
would you like water or tea?
And that’s a simple decision for me to make.
I think that’s a passive-aggressive way of telling me
I should have offered you some tea.
But yes, go on.
No, I wanted water.
Okay, all right.
I actually asked for water.
Okay, all right, great.
And you didn’t have any free will anyway,
so it doesn’t matter.
I don’t hold you responsible for any of it.
I was just running an algorithm deterministically.
You give me this decision, right, to make water or tea.
Go back to the pea tendril for a second.
The pea tendril is capable of growing
in a straight line slowly or in a coil quickly.
My brain is capable of all kinds of responses
to that question, even though you’ve given me two options.
You could offer me water or tea,
and I could just run out of the room screaming
if I wanted to, right?
It happens to me all the time with dates.
Never mind, I don’t wanna do this.
The fact that the brain is capable,
that there’s so many inputs,
and then the brain is capable of so many outputs,
as a system, what it’s hard for us to get our minds around
is that it may not be capable of any behavior
in every moment in time.
So as a system, it’s capable of doing all kinds of things.
And the point I’m making is that
if we could see all of the factors
leading up to the moment where I chose water
or where I ran screaming from the room,
we could, in fact, see that there was no other behavior
I was going to or could have exhibited in that moment,
in the same way that when the P tendril hits the branch,
it starts coiling.
There’s a parallel, which is very interesting in robotics,
with fish and water.
So you could see, they’ve experienced with dead fish,
and they keep swimming.
So the fish is capable of all kinds of complicated movements
as a system, but in any one moment,
the river, the full complexity of the river
defines the actual movement of the fish.
And that’s sufficient.
Well, and I should also, I mean,
this brings up another point,
which is that there is a difference
between voluntary and involuntary behavior.
So of course, we have reflexes,
and it is a different,
there’s different brain processing in action
when I make a decision about water or tea
than there is if my behavior is forced from the outside,
or if I have a brain tumor that’s causing me
to make certain decisions or feel certain feelings.
And so the point is that at bottom,
it’s all brain processing and behavior,
but the reason why certain actions feel will,
there’s a good reason why it feels that way.
And it’s to distinguish our own self-generated behavior
based on thinking and possibly weighing
the different results of different things.
I already had caffeine today.
I don’t want more.
There are all these processes,
things that we can point to and things that we can’t,
things I’m affected by at a subconscious level.
And that is very different from an unwilled action
or reflex or something like that.
And so some people, I can imagine,
I haven’t used the pee tendril example,
but I can imagine they wouldn’t like that
because the pee tendril sounds more to them like a reflex,
and that doesn’t address the question
of a much more complex decision-making process.
But I think at bottom, that is what it is.
And that’s really where the illusion of free will
and the illusion of self,
which I think is they’re kind of two sides
of the same coin, come from.
So even when we intellectually understand
that everything we’re feeling, everything we’re doing
is based on our brain processing and brain behavior,
if you’re a physicalist, you’ve bought into that.
Even when you intellectually understand that,
we, and I include myself in this,
we still have this feeling that there’s something
that stands outside of the brain processing
that can intervene.
And that’s the illusion.
I was tweeting with someone recently,
which I almost never do, but we’re working
in the TED documentary that I’m making right now,
we’re working on the episode on free will.
So I was allowing myself to go back and forth
in a way that I don’t usually on Twitter.
About free will.
It was a friendly debate.
Gonna go into the reasons why I’m not crazy about Twitter,
but let’s leave that for another time.
I mean, talk about how hard it is to have this conversation
when we have as many hours as we like,
trying to do it in soundbites over Twitter.
See, I like how you made the decision now
not to talk about Twitter.
It’s a road less traveled.
That was one of the things I said to this person was,
because someone chimed in and said,
you said I, what do you mean by I?
And so, actually that’s another point I could make,
which is, first, my response to that was,
well, people tend to get creeped out when I say
the system that is my brain and body
that we call Annika recommends.
Why do you get freaked out?
Oh, you mean like in your personal life?
Oh, instead of I.
Instead of like never saying I, yeah.
Always, you know, but I always referred to you
as the brain and body we call Lex.
Yes, well, I don’t know, that’s kind of charming in a way.
So, I and you are very useful shorthand,
even though at some level they’re illusions.
They’re very useful shorthand for the system of my brain,
really, and my body, the whole system.
That I is useful for that, but the illusion is when
we feel like there’s something outside of that system
that can intervene, that is free,
that’s somehow free from the physical world.
I can have the thought,
yeah, I’m really not crazy about having intellectual
back and forth on Twitter, and then feel like I decide
to not follow that thought, right?
And the feeling, that’s the feeling
where the illusion comes in, because it really feels
as if, sure, my brain had that original thought,
and then I came in and made a different decision.
But of course, the truth is, it was just further
brain processing that got me to decide
not to go down that path.
How much is that feeling of conscious will
is culturally constructed shorthand?
So, I and you is, you could say,
a culturally constructed shorthand.
How much of that affects how we think?
So, our parents say I and you, I and you,
and then we start to believe in I and you,
or is that fundamental to the human brain machine that we?
I think it goes very deep, I think it’s fundamental,
and I think it probably, some form of feeling like a self
goes as deep as cats and dogs, and it’s possible.
I mean, if consciousness does go down to the level of cells,
or however far down you wanna take it, worms,
or I think any system that’s navigating itself
that kind of has boundaries
and is navigating itself in the world,
my guess is that it’s an intrinsic part of,
that’s why I imagined that the pee tendril
would have this feeling.
And so, we use the word I,
I think you’re right, first of all,
that the way we talk about things
affects our intuitions about them
and how we feel about them,
and so there are other cultures who are more open
to breaking through these illusions than others, for sure,
just because of their belief sets, the way they talk.
I mean, I’m sure, I’m not a linguist,
and I don’t even speak a second language,
so I can’t speak to it, but if there were a language
that framed who we are differently in everyday language,
I mean, in our everyday communication,
I would think that would have an effect.
Yeah, language does affect things,
and I mean, just knowing Russian
and the history of the Soviet Union in the 20th century,
obviously, it lived under communism for a long time,
so your conception of individualism is different,
and that reflects itself in the language.
You could probably have a similar kind of thing
within the language in terms of how we talk about I
and we and so on, and I’m sure there’s like
certain countries or maybe even villages
with certain dialects that let go of the individualism
Yeah, I mean, there must be a range,
but I do think that it’s pretty deep,
and I think there’s also a difference
between the autobiographical me
and then this more fundamental me that we’re talking about
or that I’m pointing to as the illusion,
so in my book, I talk about if someone wakes up with amnesia
if they have brain injury and suddenly have amnesia
and can’t remember anything about their lives,
can’t remember their name,
don’t recognize people they’re related to,
they would have lost their autobiographical self,
but they would still feel like an I.
They would still have that basic sense of I’m a person.
I mean, they’d be speaking that way.
I don’t remember my name.
I don’t know where I live.
You still, it goes very deep, this feeling
that I am a single entity that is somehow
not completely reliant upon the cause and effect
of the physical world.
Can I ask you a pothead question?
Would you, would you rather lose all your memories
or not be able to make new ones?
Now I’m asking you as a human
in terms of happiness and preference.
I can’t answer that.
You like both?
You like both features of the organism that you embody?
Well, one is intellectual and one is psychological, really.
I mean, I would have to choose the memories
only because, I mean, the memories of the past,
only because I have children and a family
and it would just be, it wouldn’t just be affecting me,
it would be affecting them.
It would just be too horrible.
No, but you would make new ones, right?
If I lost my memory of the 13 past 13 years
of my life?
You think you would lose, this is a dark question.
Oh, wait, wasn’t that the question?
Maybe I misunderstood.
No, no, no, no, you understood it perfectly,
but you don’t, sorry for the dark question,
but the people you love in your life,
if you lost all your memory of everything,
do you think you would still love them?
Like you show up, you don’t know.
I don’t know.
It’s a roll of the dice.
I mean, not in the way that I do.
Right, so some deep aspect of love
is the history you have together.
Well, and this gets to an interesting point, actually,
which I think a lot about, which is memory.
And we won’t go into this yet,
but I’ll just plant a flag here that memory is,
yeah, memory is obviously related to time,
and time is something that I’m fascinated with.
And for this project I’m working on now,
I’ve mostly been speaking to physicists
who are interested in consciousness.
And it’s partly because of this link
between memory and time,
and all of these new fascinating theories
and thoughts around the different interpretations
of quantum mechanics, and looking at,
the thing that I’ve always been looking for
is really the fundamental nature of reality,
and why my questions about consciousness
lead me to wonder if consciousness
is a more fundamental aspect of the universe
than we previously thought,
and certainly I previously thought.
And so memory, but memory is tied to so many things.
I mean, even basic functions in nature,
actually, so the P-tendril, as I mentioned,
memory comes into play there, and that’s so fascinating.
And there is no sense of self without memory,
even if you’re starting from scratch,
as you said, with amnesia.
If you truly couldn’t lay down any new memories,
I think you would, then that sense of self
would begin to disintegrate,
because the sense of self is one of a concrete entity
through time, and if each moment,
if you really were stuck in the present moment,
eternally, you’d basically be meditating.
And in meditation, this is a very common experience,
is losing that sense of self, that sense of free will,
that those illusions more easily drop away in meditation,
and I would say for most people who meditate long enough,
they do drop away, and there’s actually an explanation
at the level of the brain as well.
The default mode network is circuitry in the brain
that neuroscientists don’t completely understand,
but know is largely responsible
for this feeling of being a self,
and when that circuit gets quieted down,
which it does in meditation,
and also does with the use of psychedelic drugs,
and there are other ways to quiet down
the default mode network,
people have this experience of losing this illusion
of being a self.
They no longer feel that they’re a self
in the way that they usually do.
So there’s the autobiographical self
is connected to the sense of self.
Through the memory, and then you’re thinking
that the solution to that lies in physics,
not just neuroscience.
Like ultimately consciousness and the experience,
the conscious will, is a question of physics.
I may have said something misleading
because I was connecting too many dots.
Half the things I say are misleading.
Let us mislead each other.
I just got, I got excited when memory came up
because I love talking about time.
So you mentioned a project you’re working on
a couple of times.
What’s that about?
I think you said Ted is involved.
You’re interviewing a bunch of people.
What’s going on?
What’s the topic?
So I’m working on an audio documentary about consciousness,
and it picks up where my book left off.
So all of the questions that were still lingering for me,
and research that I still wanted to do,
I just started conducting.
So I’ve done about 30 interviews so far,
and it’s not totally clear what the end result will be.
I’m currently collaborating with Ted,
and I’m having a lot of fun creating a pilot with them.
And so we’ll see where it goes,
but the idea is that it’s a narrated documentary.
And it’s like a series.
A series, it’ll be a 10-part series.
It’s an unclear, oh, you already know the number of parts?
Sorry, in my mind, it’s a 10-part series.
It may end up being eight, or 11, or 12.
I don’t know why.
Listen, I am very comforted by the numbers zero and one
I like the confidence of 10.
So, and you’re not sure what the title,
like not the title, but the topic.
Will there be consciousness, or something bigger,
or something smaller?
Yeah, I mean, it’s my, so at the end of my book,
I kind of get to the place where I’ve convinced myself,
at least, that this question about whether consciousness
is fundamental is a legitimate one.
And then I just start spending a lot of time
thinking about what that would mean,
if it’s even possible to study scientifically.
So I mostly talk to physicists, actually,
because I really think, ultimately,
this is a question for physics,
if consciousness is fundamental.
I think it needs to be strongly informed by neuroscience,
but it’s, yeah, if it’s part of the fabric of reality,
it is a question for a physicist.
So I speak to different physicists
about different interpretations of quantum mechanics,
so getting at the fundamentals.
So string theory and many worlds,
I spoke to Sean Carroll,
had a great conversation with Sean Carroll.
He’s so generous, because he clearly doesn’t agree
with me about many things.
But he has a curious mind,
and he’s willing to have these conversations.
And I was really interested
in understanding many worlds better,
and if consciousness is fundamental,
what the implications are.
So that was where I started, actually,
was with many worlds.
And then we had conversations about string theory
and the holographic principle.
I spoke to Lee Smolin and Brian Green and Jan Eleven
and Carlo Rovelli, actually.
Have you had Carlo on?
He’s great, also, and fun to talk to,
because he’s just endlessly curious.
And you’re doing audio.
It’s all audio, yeah.
But it’s in the format of a documentary,
so I’m narrating it.
I’m kind of telling the story
of what questions came up for me,
what I was interested in exploring,
and then why I talk to each person I talk to.
By the way, I highly recommend Sean Carroll’s
Mindscape podcast, I think it’s called.
One of my favorite things,
when he interviews physicists, it’s great,
but any topic, his aim is.
But one of my favorite things
is how frustrated he gets with panpsychism.
But he’s still like, it’s like a fly towards the light.
For some reason, he can’t make sense of it,
but he still struggles with it,
and I think that’s the sign of a good scientist,
who is struggling with these ideas.
I totally agree, and yes, that’s what I appreciate in him,
and many scientists like that.
Who has the craziest, most radical ideas
that you talk with currently?
So you can go either direction.
You can go like, panpsychism,
consciousness permeates everything.
I don’t know how far you can go down that direction.
Or you could say that,
what would be the other direction?
That there’s a-
Well, there isn’t really.
The problem is they’re all crazy.
They’re all crazy.
Each one is crazier than the next.
All of us are crazy.
And my own, I mean, my own thoughts.
Now, I have to be very careful about the words I choose,
because, I mean, it’s just like talking
about the different interpretations of quantum mechanics.
Once you get deep enough, it’s so counterintuitive,
and it’s so beyond anything we understand,
that they all sound crazy.
Many worlds sounds crazy.
String theory, I mean, these are things
we just cannot get our minds around, really.
And so that’s the realm I love to live in,
and love to explore in.
And the realm that, to my surprise,
my interest in consciousness has taken me back to.
Can I ask you a question on that?
Just a side tangent.
How do you prevent, when you’re imagining yourself
to be a petandro, how do you prevent from going crazy?
I mean, this is kind of the Nietzsche question
of like, you have to be very careful
thinking outside the norms of society,
because you might fall off.
Like mentally, you’re so connected as a human
to the collective intelligence,
that in order to question intuitions,
you have to step outside of it for a brief moment.
How do you prevent yourself from going crazy?
I think I used to think that was a concern.
And then you became crazy.
I’ve learned so much about the brain.
No, and I’ve had experiences of deep depression,
and I struggled with anxiety my whole life.
I think in order to be a good scientist,
and in order to be a truthfully, let’s say,
to allow yourself to be curious and honest
in your curiosity, I think it’s inevitable
that lots of ideas and theories and hypotheses
will just sound crazy.
And that is always how we’ve advanced science.
And maybe, you know, nine out of 10 ideas are crazy,
and crazy meaning they’re actually not correct.
But all of, I mean, it’s, as I said,
all of the big scientific breakthroughs,
all of the truths we’ve uncovered
that are the earth-shattering truths that we uncover,
they really do sound crazy at first.
So I don’t think one necessarily leads
to a type of mental illness.
I see mental illness in a very different category.
And I think some people are more susceptible
to being destabilized by this type of thinking.
And that might be a legitimate concern for some people,
that kind of being grounded in everyday life
is important for my psychological health.
The more time I spend thinking about the bigger picture
and outside of everyday life,
the more happy I am, the more expansive I feel.
I mean, it feels nourishing to me.
It feels like it makes me more sane, not less.
Well, that’s a happiness.
But in terms of your ability to see the truth,
you can be happy and completely.
I guess I don’t see mental illness
necessarily being linked to truth or not truth.
So we were talking about minimizing mental illness.
But also, truth is a different dimension.
So you have to, you can go crazy in both directions.
You can be extremely happy, and they are.
Flat earthers, you can believe the earth is flat.
Because, actually, I’m sure there’s good books on this,
but it’s somehow really comforting.
It’s fun and comforting to believe you’ve figured out
the thing that everybody else hasn’t figured out.
I think that’s what conspiracy theories
always provide people.
Why is it so fun?
It’s so fun.
Except when it’s dangerous.
But even then, it’s probably fun.
But then you shouldn’t do it, because it’s unethical.
I’m not a fan of following.
Well, that makes one of us.
I don’t know.
There is probably a fascinating story
to why conspiracy theories are so compelling
to us human beings, as deeper than just fun internet stuff.
Yeah, I’m very interested
in why they’re so compelling to some people and not others.
I feel like there must be some difference
that at some point we’ll be able to discover.
Because some people are just not susceptible to them,
and some people are really drawn to them.
Because I feel like the kind of thinking
that allows for you to be open to conspiracy theories
is also the kind of thinking that leads
to brilliant breakthroughs in science.
Sort of willingness to go to crazy land.
Something that seems like crazy land.
I see it the opposite way.
See, you don’t see the connection
between thinking the Earth is flat
and coming up with special relativity.
Thinking the Earth is flat is following your intuitions
and not being open to counterintuitive ideas.
It’s a very closed way of viewing things.
It’s not the way you feel.
There’s information that tells us
that there’s something else going on.
And that type of person will say,
no, it’s the way it feels to me.
No, no, no.
But wait a minute.
There’s a mainstream narrative of science
that says the Earth is round.
And I think a flat Earth,
see, I admire the very first step of a flat Earth.
I don’t admire the full journey.
But the first step is-
I think if you’re open to evidence,
then the evidence clearly takes you in one direction.
Right, but you have to ask the question.
You have to ask, to me,
this is like first principles thinking.
The Earth looks flat.
So I’m gonna look around here.
How crazy is it that the Earth is round
and there’s a thing called gravity
that operates between objects
that’s related to the mass of the object?
Yes, the truth is often crazier
than what the situation feels to be.
A good step is to question what everyone is saying.
And then you learn a little bit.
I know what you mean.
To be skeptical about the,
it’s the authority factor.
Yeah, but I think that,
and the authority in not in some kind of weird current
where everyone questions institutions,
but more like the authority of the senior scientists.
The junior scientists coming up,
wait a minute.
Why have we been doing things this way?
And at that first step,
I feel like that rebelliousness
or that open-mindedness
or maybe like resistance to,
maybe curiosity that’s,
that is not affected
by whatever the mainstream science says of today.
Cass, I feel like mainstream science
has never been mainstream
and it’s always a struggle for science to become mainstream.
It’s part of the reason why I started doing the work
of being open-minded and actually helping scientists
make their work more accessible
is that it’s usually not.
It’s usually not.
Here’s advice for scientists.
Be more interesting and much more important,
be less arrogant.
there’s very little money in science.
And so everyone is fighting for that money
and they become more and more arrogant and siloed.
I don’t know why.
I will say that the scientists I know,
and some of them are very well-known,
very famous scientists,
are the least arrogant people I’ve ever met.
That scientists in general,
their personalities are more open,
more likely to say they just don’t know.
Because I’ve been involved a lot in the science writing
and how the media portrays.
So one of scientists,
the scientific community’s greatest frustration
is how their work gets presented in the media.
And a lot of the time,
I would say that’s the main frustration
is there’s some new breakthrough,
And the scientists will be saying,
we’re not sure.
It’s gonna take five years.
And no one likes to write a story about something
that may or may not be true.
They think it’s true.
They’re gonna take five years testing it.
And so the headline will be,
neuroscientists discovered they want this sensational.
And so I think the public often gets the false impression
that the scientists are arrogant.
And I really don’t find that to be the case.
And I’ve worked with all kinds of people,
artists and my life path has taken a strange.
You’ve met some incredible people.
You work with some incredible people.
So let’s, the crazy topic of free will.
I mean, I just, we have to link on this
because I can’t.
So the plant, all right, can you try to steel man the case
that there’s something really special about humans?
That there is a fundamental difference
between us and the petandral?
You know, humans are clearly very special
in the evolution of organisms on Earth.
Could that have been the magic leap?
Could consciousness been like the invention
of the eukaryotic cell or something like this?
Well then, I mean, so I have to get clear
on what you’re asking.
So are you coming from a place of wondering
if we are the only conscious mammals?
Do you really think that’s a question?
Can you make a case for it?
Do you really think that’s a question?
Take one step back.
We look out at the universe.
At this point in our scientific understanding,
we know that essentially we’re all made
of the same ingredients, right?
There are atoms in the universe doing their thing.
They find themselves in different configurations
based on the laws of physics.
And then the question is if we look out
at all of the configurations of atoms in the universe
and ask which of these entail conscious experiences?
Which of these have a felt experience
of being the matter they are?
And there are really only two, broadly speaking,
there are really only two assumptions to make here.
And the first one is the one that science has taken
and that I have for most of my career as well
and that in many ways makes the most sense,
which is electrons aren’t conscious, tables aren’t,
there’s no felt experience there.
But at a certain point in complex processing,
that processing entails an experience
of being that processing.
Now that’s just a fascinating fact all on its own
and I love to spend time thinking about that.
So the question is does consciousness arise at some point?
Are some of these collections of atoms conscious?
Or are all of them?
Because we know the answer isn’t none.
I know that I’m at least having a conscious experience.
I know that conscious experiences exist in the universe.
And so the answer isn’t none.
So the answer has to be all or some.
And this is a starting assumption
that you’re really kind of forced to make
and that it’s all or some.
All or some or one.
I would say one is some also.
We either need an explanation
for why there’s non-conscious matter in the universe
and then something happens for consciousness
to come into being.
Or it’s part of the fundamental nature of reality.
It’s also if consciousness is a fundamental property
of reality, it could also choose to not reveal itself
until a certain complexity of organism.
I’m not sure what that means.
I’m not sure what that means either.
Like the flame of consciousness does not start burning
until a certain complexity of organism
is able to reveal it.
So I don’t think we can look at consciousness that way.
I don’t think, I mean many people like to try
to make that argument that it’s a spectrum.
Why do we have to say all or nothing maybe?
And I agree that I actually think it is a spectrum.
But it’s a spectrum of content,
not of consciousness itself.
So if a worm has some level of conscious experience,
it is extremely minimal, something we could never imagine
being having the complex experience you and I have.
Maybe some felt sensation of pressure or heat
or something super basic, right?
So there’s this range, or even if you just think
of an infant, like the first, the moment an infant
becomes conscious, what that, there’s a very,
very minimal experience of inputs of sound
and light and whatever it is.
And so there’s a spectrum of content.
There’s a spectrum of how much a system
is consciously experiencing.
But there’s a moment at which you get on the spectrum.
And that’s, and I truly believe that,
that piece of it is binary.
So if there’s no conscious experience,
there is no consciousness.
You can’t say consciousness is there,
it just hasn’t lit its flame yet.
If consciousness is there, there’s an experience there
It has to arise at some point, or it has to always be there.
Is it possible to make the case that that,
it arising happens first, for the first time ever
with Homo sapiens?
I think that is extremely unlikely.
What I think is more possible,
based on what we understand about the brain,
is that it arises in brains or nervous systems.
And so then we’re talking about flies and bees
and all kinds of things that fall out of our intuitions
for whether they could be conscious or not.
But I think, especially once you talk about
more complex brains with many, many more neurons,
when you’re talking about cats and dogs and dolphins,
it’s very hard to see how there would be a difference
between humans and other mammals in terms of consciousness.
Or is there a difference in terms of intelligence
between humans and other mammals?
Not like a fundamental leap in intelligence.
It’s hard to say definitively.
I mean, it depends on how you define intelligence
and all kinds of things.
But obviously, humans are unique and capable
of all kinds of things that no other mammals
are capable of.
And there are important differences.
And I don’t think you need any magical intervention
or something outside of the physical world to explain it.
And the way I think about consciousness,
I actually think it’s part of the reason
we’re mistaken about consciousness,
is because we are special in the ways that we’re special.
And because we’re complex creatures,
we have these complex brains.
So I think we should probably get into some of the details
of why I think we’re confused about what consciousness is.
But just to finish this point,
I think that we don’t actually have any evidence
that consciousness is complex,
that it comes out of complex processing,
that it’s required for complex processing.
And I think we’ve made this anthropomorphic mistake
because we are conscious and it’s very hard to get evidence.
It’s one of the things that makes consciousness unique
and mysterious and why I’m fascinated with it
is it’s the one thing in nature
that we can’t get conclusive evidence of from the outside.
We can, by analogy, you’re behaving basically
the same way I behave, more or less.
You talk about your conscious experiences
and therefore I just extrapolate from that
that you’re having a felt experience in the way I am
and we can do that throughout nature.
Well, there’s no physical evidence.
There’s nothing we can observe from the outside
that will give us conclusive proof
that consciousness is there.
And so I think we’ve made this leap to,
because we’re conscious and because we’re unique
and special and complex and intelligent
in the way that we are,
and because we don’t have an intuition
that anything else is conscious
or we have no feedback about it,
we’ve made this assumption that consciousness,
that those things aren’t conscious
and felt experience does not exist out there
in other atoms and forms of life even,
but especially not inanimate objects,
and therefore consciousness is somehow tied
to these other things that make us unique,
that consciousness arises
when there is this complex processing, when there is,
and we can talk about the evolution argument too,
which I think is super interesting
to get into, and I’m hoping to talk to Richard Dawkins
about this for my series.
What’s he think about consciousness?
He’s not interested.
He’s not interested, and actually the conversation
I would have with him would be very brief
because he’s just not that interested in this topic,
but let’s go back to the Richard Dawkins piece
because I feel like there’s a lot to talk about here
in terms of our intuitions about consciousness,
what it’s doing, why in my book
and everywhere I talk about consciousness,
I bring it back to these two questions
that I think are at the heart of our intuitions
about consciousness, and so your questions
about whether human beings are unique and special
and all of that I think are interesting questions
and something we could talk about.
I see them as separate questions
from the consciousness question.
So you see consciousness as giving a felt experience
to our uniqueness as opposed to the uniqueness
giving birth to consciousness?
Yes, and that potentially there is felt experience,
even though it sounds crazy even to me,
that there is felt experience in all matter,
and at this point in my thinking
and after a few conversations with some physicists,
I think if consciousness is fundamental,
the only thing that actually makes sense
is that it is part of the most fundamental
that space, time, and everything else emerges out of.
Out of consciousness.
Felt experience is just part of the fabric of reality.
So is it possible to intuit this?
Can we start by thinking about dogs and cats,
go to the plants, and then going all the way to matter,
or is this going to be like modern physics
where it’s just going to be impossible to even,
through our reason alone.
We’re gonna have to have tools of some kind.
I think it’ll be a little bit of both.
I mean, I think the science has a very long way to go,
and the truth is I don’t even think
we can get to the science yet
because we have to do this work,
and this is why I’m so passionate about this work.
And it’s really taking hold.
I mean, there are scientists, neuroscientists and physicists
interested in consciousness,
and kind of having gotten over the initial obstacle
of wrestling with these intuitions
so that it’s now being talked about in a serious way,
which was the first huge hurdle.
But I think a lot more of that has to happen,
a lot more of the intuition breaking
from the science we already have.
I mean, I think we almost need to catch our intuitions up
to what we already know,
and then continue to break through these intuitions
systematically so that we can really think
more clearly about consciousness.
There are a couple of scientists now working
on theories of consciousness which do go,
they don’t quite go to the fundamental level,
but they go extremely deep
so that something like an electron
might be conscious under their theory.
This is Integrated Information Theory,
IIT with Christophe Koch and Giulio Tononi.
I’ve spoken to both of them.
I spoke to Christophe Koch once or twice
for this project I’m working on now.
What they’re working on is incredibly interesting to me,
and I think very important work.
However, I think they are also really led
by some false intuitions about self and free will.
And I think that will be a limit to their work.
So we can get into that, but.
We will, we will.
Christophe Koch is awesome.
Which is that what they’re working on,
I think, is the most important next step forward,
which is just even being open to the fact
that consciousness goes as deep as particles.
And being rigorous with it.
But even their theory isn’t going as deep
as I think we need to go.
And it’s hard to say how we could actually
study this scientifically,
but that’s part of the reason why I’m such a supporter
of IIT and why I’m so interested in what they’re doing,
even though I think they’re wrong,
is because they’re opening this path.
And I think they’re getting more people interested,
and I think, yeah, it’ll be,
it’s hard for me to imagine what the science
will actually look like, but.
Okay, so your intuition, or at least the direction
which you’re pushing, is that consciousness
is the only fundamental thing in the universe,
that everything else, time,
all those kinds of things emerge from that.
I will say that what I believe at this point,
I’ve been saying 50-50 for a long time,
I’d say now it’s like 51-49 in terms of consciousness
being emergent versus fundamental.
So I am not convinced of this at all.
I’m not convinced that consciousness is fundamental.
What I think is there are very good reasons
to think it could be.
And essentially all of science up to this point
has been led by the other assumption,
by the first assumption that consciousness arises
at some point, namely in brains.
And that’s where all the science has gone,
and I think that’s wonderful,
and I think it should keep on going,
and I actually think that was a more important place
to start, but I think there’s a possibility
that the correct assumption is that it’s fundamental.
And so that’s the science I support,
that’s the thing I spend a lot of my time thinking about
and talking to scientists and philosophers about.
And so I shouldn’t give the idea that I actually
have crossed over into believing this is the case,
but it’s the assumption I follow in my work at this point.
It’s a possibility, an understudied possibility,
so it deserves serious, rigorous attention.
And there are good reasons to start with that assumption
versus the other that I think we’re just now
starting to realize.
So just to clarify, when we’re talking about consciousness,
we’re talking about the heart problem of consciousness,
that it feels like something to,
you know, there’s a subjective experience.
Do we, you know, if consciousness permeates all matter,
it’s fundamental, is that going to be somehow,
is our current intuition about consciousness,
like the very tiny subset of what consciousness
actually is, so like we have our intuitions
about personal experiences, like what it feels like,
it tastes to eat a cookie or something like that.
But that seems like a very specific implementation
of consciousness in an organism.
So how can we even reason about something that’s,
if consciousness is fundamental,
how can we reason about that?
I’m not sure I’m understanding the connection
between those two things, but.
When you think about what it’s like to be a plant
to experience a thing, okay, we can kind of get that.
We can kind of understand that.
There are a lot of places we could go with this.
One is, there is actually work being done
by people like David Eagleman, he’s a neuroscientist,
I don’t know if you know him.
You should talk to him for your podcast if you haven’t,
he’s wonderful, great science communicator.
He’s someone I interviewed for my current project too.
So he’s done, this actually, okay,
there are many places we can go.
One is, he does work with sensory addition,
sensory substitution, and this is going
in some very interesting directions,
and maybe partly answers your question,
which is giving humans qualia, sensory experiences
that we’re not wired for,
that human beings have never had before.
You let me know what you’re most interested
in hearing about.
We could talk about things like the brain port.
There was actually a study done,
I just talked to one of the participants in the study
where they were seeing if they could give human beings
an experience of magnetic north.
So other animals have this sense that we don’t have
where they can feel intuitively the way that our eyes work
to give us an intuitive sense of our environment.
We don’t have to translate the information
coming in through our eyes,
we just have a map of the external world
and we can navigate it.
So many animals use a sense of magnetic north
to get around, and it’s an intuitive sense.
So I spoke to someone who was in this part
of this experiment, and it was fascinating
to hear him acquire a sense,
not only that he had never had,
but that no human being had ever had.
So when I asked him to describe the experience,
it was challenging for him, and understandably so,
because it would be like you describing sight
to someone who’s never seen.
But this is clearly possible,
and scientists like David Eagleman and others
are working on these.
And so I do think it’s possible that this line,
that these scientific advancements
may actually start to dovetail with the consciousness
research in terms of being able to experience things
we’ve never experienced before.
But I do think that at some level, yes,
we’re limited as human beings.
We may be able to find some proof or enough proof
to at least assume that consciousness is fundamental,
or who knows, one day actually believe
that that’s the correct scientific view of things,
and not really be able to get our minds around that
or to understand what it means,
and certainly not to know what it feels like.
I mean, we don’t even know what it feels like
to be other creatures.
I don’t know what it’s like to be you.
Yeah, I mean, I guess that’s what empathy is about.
That’s what I tried to exercise,
is try to imagine what it’s like to be other people.
And then you’re doing that even farther with P tendrils.
But perhaps we can do that thing more rigorously
by connecting different sensory mechanisms to the brain
to do that for all kinds of organisms on Earth.
But they’re similar to Austin’s scale
and the time at which they function,
the time scale and the spatial scale.
Perhaps it’s much more difficult to do
for electrons and so on.
Some of the intuitions I talked about,
I mean, I just kind of, I’m taking them for granted
that you and everyone knows what I’m talking about.
But in terms of the science, in terms of the studies,
understanding things like binding processes,
understanding just a little bit about how the brain works,
and as far as we understand,
and there’s just a ton of evidence now to support
that our conscious experience is at the tail end
of a lot of brain processing.
And so, yeah, so just a little bit.
I mean, I give, in the example in my book,
I talk about tennis and the binding of the sights
and sounds and felt experience of hitting a tennis ball,
which in the world are happening at different times.
The rates it takes the sound waves and the light waves
and the felt sensation to travel to my brain are different,
that there are these binding processes
that happen prior to the conscious experience
that were essentially delivered to us by the brain.
And so we can get back into this.
I can answer your bigger question first,
but I feel like for a lot of people,
to understand some of the science
that already is shattering some of our intuitions
about the role consciousness plays,
I think is helpful in terms of being able
to be open to thinking about these other ideas.
Let’s go there.
Where the heck does consciousness happen
in what we understand about the brain timing-wise?
I mean, this connects to conscious will,
to our experience of free will.
There is this period of time,
and it’s depending on the situation and the behavior,
it can be anywhere from,
it’s essentially half a second.
There’s 200 milliseconds.
I actually don’t know,
I was gonna compare it to the timing
of syncing film and sound.
I don’t know if you know this data.
Yeah, unfortunately I know this very well.
The film and sound?
Yeah, like how the timing has to work
so that our experiences of it happening
at the same time.
Let me just sit in the silence of it.
There’s been so much pain on this one point.
Sorry, I had no idea.
So, I mean, yeah, I did a lot of algorithms
on automatic synchronization of audio and video
and all these kinds of things,
and I know this well.
There’s a lot of science and there’s a lot of differences,
but it’s about, and people claim
it’s about 100 milliseconds,
you can’t tell the difference,
but it’s much more like 30 to 50 milliseconds.
And you can go nuts trying to see
if something is in sync or not.
Is it in sync or not?
Well, also, you know, your brain is constantly
making adjustments, and so it can shift for you
while you’re doing that,
which is probably part of the thing
that’s driving you crazy.
Okay, so I’ll start with binding processes
and then I’ll just give a couple examples.
So, yes, there’s this window where your brain
is essentially putting all of the information together
to deliver you a present moment experience
that is most useful for you to navigate the world.
So, as I said, I use this example of tennis in my book,
so the sights and sounds are coming at us
at different rates.
It takes longer for a sensation in my hand
when I hit the ball with the racket
to travel to my brain than it does for the light waves
to hit my retina and get processed by the brain.
So all these signals are coming in at different times.
Our brains go through this process of binding
to basically weave it all together
so that our conscious experience of that
is of seeing, hearing, and feeling the ball
hit the racket all at the same time.
That’s obviously most useful to us.
Binding is mostly about timing.
It can be about other things,
but I was just talking to David Eagleman
who was talking about a very simple experiment, actually,
and this kind of shows how your brain
is basically always interacting with the outside world
and always making adjustments to make its best guess
about the most useful present moment experience to deliver.
So this is a very simple experiment.
This is from many, many years ago,
and David Eagleman was involved in this research
where they had participants hit a button
and that button caused a flash of light.
So our brains, through binding,
the brain notices, is able to kind of calibrate
the experience you have because the brain is aware
that it is its own hand that is causing
the light to flash,
that there’s this cause and effect going on,
and so you have this experience of pushing the button
that causes the flash of light, which is true,
and the light flashes.
You can start to introduce longer pauses,
starting with 20 milliseconds, 30 milliseconds,
going up to, I think, 100, maybe even 200 milliseconds,
where if you do it gradually,
since your brain is making the adjustment,
you can introduce a delay.
I think it’s up to 200 milliseconds.
If you do it gradually, you will still have the experience,
even though there’s now a delay
between when you hit the button and the light flashes,
you will still have the exact same experience you had
initially, which is that the light flashes
right when you push the button.
In your experience, nothing is changing.
But then, so they gradually give a delay.
You’ve acclimated to that because it was done gradually.
If they then go back to the original instantaneous flash,
your brain doesn’t have time to make the adjustment,
and you have the experience that the light flashed
before you hit the button.
And that is your true experience.
It’s not like you’re confused,
but that is, your brain didn’t have time
to make that adjustment.
You think you’re in the same environment.
You’re pushing the button.
It makes the light flash.
It’s kind of calibrating all the time,
but then the participants are suddenly saying,
oh, wait, that was so weird.
The light flashed before I hit the button.
And so these types of, they built a Rochambeau,
rock, paper, scissors, computer game
that was unbeatable based on this glitch
that you can present in binding by training someone.
If you introduce a delay slowly enough,
then the computer can get the information
before it responds,
but you still have the experience
that you’re both throwing out your rock
or paper or scissors at the same time.
But in actuality, the computer saw your choice
before it makes its choice.
And it’s in this window of milliseconds
where you don’t notice it.
So that starts to help you build up an intuition
that this conscious experience is an illusion.
Constructed by the brain after-
Yeah, and just in general that consciousness
is not the thing that we feel it is,
which is driving the behavior,
that is actually at the tail end of it.
And so a lot of decision-making processes,
and there are studies that are more controversial,
and I don’t usually like to cite them,
although if you want to talk about them, we can.
They’re super interesting and intuition-shattering,
but there are now studies specifically about free will
to see if there are markers at the level of the brain
that can see what decision you’re going to make
and when you make that decision.
And I think the neuroscience inevitably
is just going to get better.
And so part of the reason I’m so passionate about this,
I mean, there’s the science and there’s just the curiosity
that drives me of wanting to understand
how the universe works.
But I actually see a lot of the neuroscience
presenting us with truths that are going to be difficult
for us to accept.
And I actually think there are really positive ways
to view these truths that we’re uncovering.
And even though they can be initially kind of jarring
and even destabilizing and creepy,
I think ultimately there’s actually a lot,
it can have a positive effect on human psychology
and a whole range of things
that I and others have experienced.
And that I think it’s important for us to talk about
because you can’t hide from the truth,
especially in science, right?
Like it just, it will reveal itself.
And if this is true, I think not only
for better understanding the universe and nature,
which is kind of my primary passion,
it’s important for us to
absorb these facts and realize that they don’t,
it doesn’t necessarily take away
the things from us that we fear.
I’ve heard people say, as was talked about,
it’s a common point to make or question to ask a scientist,
can you still enjoy chocolate
if you’re a molecular biologist
and is it a molecular biologist
that would be the one who would understand
how we experience chocolate?
I may have the wrong science.
But anyway, if you’re focused on the details
of the underlying nature of reality,
does that take the joy and the pleasure
and for lack of a better word,
spirituality out of our experience as human beings?
And I actually think for these illusions
like free will and self, the reverse is true.
I actually think they can give us,
they are reasons and bases for
feeling more connected to each other and to the universe,
for spiritual experiences,
for even just on a more basic level,
for increasing our wellbeing,
just in terms of our psychology
of lowering rates of depression and anxiety.
And I actually think these realizations
can be extremely helpful to people.
It’s like realizing that the universe
doesn’t rotate around Earth,
that the Earth is not the center of the universe
is a really challenging thought.
Well, and people were worried about
how that would affect society.
Well, yes, that’s like long-term,
but short-term, I bet you the number of people
who had an existential crisis
as it got integrated into society, that thought is huge.
It’s like, it’s a hard one.
And you’re saying-
But it can’t, but it’s also a source of awe.
And I mean, so many people now use that fact
to inspire a positive response,
to inspire creativity and curiosity and awe
and all of these things that are so
useful for human wellbeing.
Where’s the source of meaning
when you’re not the center of the universe,
when the you doesn’t even exist,
that even you, the sense of self
and the sense of decision-making is an illusion?
The truth is that for the most part,
the sense of self is kind of at the core of human suffering
because it feels as if we are separate
from the rest of nature.
We’re separate from each other.
We’re separate from the illusion that I referenced
of feeling like we have these thoughts
that are brain-based thoughts,
but then the I swoops in to make a decision.
In some sense, it goes so deep that it’s as if
the I is separate from the physical world.
And that separation plays a part in depression,
plays a part in anxiety, even plays a part in addiction.
So at the level of the brain,
I think, stop me if I’m repeating myself,
but we started talking about the default mode network.
And so we actually know that
when the default mode network is quieted down,
when people lose a sense of self in meditation
and on psychedelic drugs in therapy,
there is a feeling that people describe
of an extremely positive feeling
of being connected to the rest of nature.
And so that’s a piece of it that I think
if you haven’t had the experience,
you wouldn’t necessarily know that would be a part of it.
But truly having that insight
that you’re not the self you feel you are,
immediately your experiences are embedded in the universe
and you are a piece of everything
and you see that everything is interconnected.
And so rather than feeling like a lonely I
in this bigger universe,
there’s a sense of being a part
of something larger than yourself.
And this is intrinsically positive for human beings.
And even just in our everyday lives
and choices and what we do for work,
feeling part of something larger than yourself
is the way people describe spiritual experiences
and the way many positive psychological states are framed.
And so there’s that piece of it.
There is something,
there’s one giant hug with the universe, everything in it.
But there is some sense in which we attach
the search for meaning with the I, with the ego.
And it could almost seem like life is meaningless.
Our existence, our I, my existence is meaningless.
I think you can kind of go there under any worldview,
And the truth is we want to find a truth
out of that downward spiral
and not a story that we have to tell ourselves
that isn’t true.
And the fact is we have these facts available to us
that with the right framing and the right context,
looking at the truth actually provides us
with that psychological feeling we’re searching for.
And I think that’s important to point out.
I think humans are fascinatingly good
at finding beauty in truth
no matter how painful the truth is.
Yes, I totally agree.
But in this case, I think there are,
the concerns are legitimate concerns
and I have them myself for how people respond.
I’ve actually had people tell me
they had to stop reading my book halfway through
because the parts on free will were so upsetting to them.
And this is something I think about a lot
because that kind of breaks my heart.
I don’t, because I see this potential
for these realizations bringing levels of wellbeing
that many people don’t have access to,
I think it’s important to talk about them
in ways that override what can be an initial
fear or kind of spooky quality
that can come out of these realizations.
So at the end of that journey,
there’s a clarity and an appreciation of beauty
that if you just write it out.
By the way, if you want to read upsetting,
I just gotten through the boy,
the four books, if you want to read upsetting.
So my audible is hilarious.
So there’s conscious in it.
And then, so your book.
And then it has the rise and fall of the third Reich.
Bloodlands by Timothy Snyder,
probably the most upsetting book I’ve ever read.
If you want to, because it’s not just Stalin or Hitler,
it’s Stalin and Hitler.
It’s the worst hits, the opposite of the best hits.
It’s really, really, really well written, really difficult.
I read Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago.
And what else?
Red Famine, which is,
and Applebaum, does that hurt?
Yeah, anyway, so those are truly upsetting.
And that’s, and those are a lot of times
the results of hiding the truth versus pursuing the truth.
So truth in the short term might hurt,
but it did ultimately set this free.
I believe that.
And I also think whatever the truth is,
we have to find a way to maintain civil society and love
and all the things that are important to us.
If we can jump around a little bit.
Can I just ask on a personal note,
because you said you’ve suffered from depression
and there’s a lot of people that see guidance on this topic
because it’s such a difficult one.
How were you able to, when it has struck you,
how were you able to overcome it?
Yeah, I mean, this is maybe too long an answer.
So I’ve experienced it in different forms.
So it was my, I would say my depression
has almost always mostly taken the form of anxiety.
I didn’t realize how anxious I was,
I think, until I was an adult.
So I was always very functional.
I think, you know, all the positive sides
of suffering in that way.
I think I’m a little OCD as you can tell.
I mean, this whole conversation is hilarious
because we’re both suffering to some level of anxiety.
Your psychology is just laid out in front of us here.
It’s a giant mess.
We’re the same kind of human, yeah.
Just trying to organize.
Just hold on, like the Tom Waits song.
But then I suffered from postpartum depression
after both of my daughters, after both pregnancies.
That was a very different experience
from anything I’ve ever experienced
but clearly I had a predisposition
towards suffering from something like that.
Anyway, it really wasn’t until I fully recovered
from the second experience of postpartum depression
that I realized
that I had been suffering on some level my whole life.
And I think I always knew,
I thought of myself as a very sensitive person,
an empathic person.
I mean, I’ve been in therapy for 10 years.
I knew I had a lot of anxiety.
I would never have denied that I had a lot of anxiety.
I just didn’t realize it crossed over into
a disorder really until I was an adult
and ended up taking Prozac.
I took an SSRI for postpartum
and it was fascinating to me.
I ended up interviewing my psychiatrist
because I was so fascinated in the whole thing
once I was on the other side of it,
just what I had been through,
how different I felt during that period of time
and then how quickly the medication
made me feel like myself again.
I had come out the other side
of the experience of postpartum
and was going to start tapering off the medication.
And in this window
where I no longer had postpartum depression,
and hadn’t yet gone off the SSRI,
I realized that life was not only a lot easier
than when I had postpartum,
but it was easier than it had ever been.
And it took taking all of that anxiety away
to recognize how much I had been grappling with it
my entire life.
And it first started coming in the form of realizations
like, oh, is this how other people feel?
Is this how other people feel?
Is this how that,
like the things that I just always thought of myself,
I’m really sensitive, I’m an introvert,
I need a lot of time to myself
and all of these things that I felt like,
I mean, it’s always very high functioning.
And in some ways, I was a professional dancer
and I think that was the type of therapy for me.
There was the obsessing over
the training and dancing nine hours a day
and all of that, I now look back on
and see how much that was therapeutic for me
and that I was kind of treating something.
But yeah, so it was just this experience
of treating an anxiety disorder
that caused me to realize that I had one.
I didn’t know I could feel the way I felt
after taking Prozac.
And I became very interested in,
I mean, I was already working with neuroscientists,
I was already interested in consciousness and the brain
and it just, this kind of rattled other intuitions for me
in terms of how our childhoods shape who we become.
Because I had been convinced, my father was,
my father was-
He’s a complicated person, as you said before.
That’s what I was just gonna say again.
I mean, so he was not diagnosed,
I think he had borderline personality disorder
and was emotionally abusive.
And I thought that all of the ways I experienced the world
and all of my anxiety and my sensitivities,
I thought almost all of that, if not all of that,
was because of these experiences I had growing up
and trauma that I experienced as a child.
And obviously those things play a part,
but what I realized after going through postpartum
and then the thing that was extremely informative to me
was having my own children.
Because they were basically living my dream childhood.
They had none of the things that I thought were the cause
of the psychological suffering that I experienced.
There was none of that.
And they have a lot of the same,
they struggle with a lot of the same anxiety
and panic attacks.
And what I realized was
how much we’re kind of born into the world
with these things that we struggle with
and with our strengths and with all of that.
And of course, then if you have an abusive childhood,
if you’re someone who tends to be anxious
and sensitive and empathic,
and then you’re born into an abusive situation,
that’s obviously a terrible combination.
But I never acknowledged or realized how strong
just the genetics and the wiring played.
Where’s the line between you kind of accepting
the challenges you’re born with,
and this is what life will be,
versus then figuring out that life can be somehow different?
I think they’re part of the same process.
And I think
it’s kind of necessary to accept
what you’re experiencing and what the situation is
and how you feel and the types of thoughts and patterns
you tend toward in order to make
whatever changes can be made.
So I do think it’s kind of part of the same process.
Could life have been any different?
Mary, do you regret certain aspects
of the decisions made, not by you?
I mean, it depends on what level we’re talking.
I think at a fundamental level,
I don’t believe anything could be different.
Are you able to think at that level about your own life?
Sure, and that’s actually, that’s part of what I was,
when I wanted to kind of talk a little bit about
the levels of usefulness of being aware
of these different illusions.
Because I would say most of the time in our daily lives,
the types of illusions that I’m interested in shaking up
are not useful to remind ourselves of most of the time.
I really think there are different levels of usefulness
to thinking about and reminding ourselves
of the places where we have false intuitions.
And so I often use
the analogy of living on a sphere.
So it still feels to most of us, most of the time,
I mean, our intuitive sense,
we’re not thinking about whether the Earth is flat
or a sphere, but we behave as if it’s flat.
And that makes the most sense.
And it would be exhausting to keep reminding ourselves
as we walk down the street, like it feels flat,
but it’s not flat.
There’s just no reason to do it.
It’s not useful in that moment.
If you’re building a house,
you can build it as if the world is flat.
But of course, so there are psychological reasons
to bring it into view,
and maybe even spiritual reasons to bring it into view.
And then there’s just like usefulness.
So if you’re building a rocket to the moon,
you better understand the geometry of the Earth.
Even if you’re flying an airplane,
if you’re an airplane pilot,
you have to be aware of the truth of our situation.
And then I think there are other places
where it’s interesting to remind ourselves
is where I start out my book,
just as a way to inspire awe
and to get yourself out of your everyday life
and see the big picture,
which can be just a relief,
but also helps you feel more connected to the universe
and to something larger than ourselves.
And so I see these intuitions reminding ourselves
that these intuitions are illusions in the same way,
that most of the time they’re not useful.
They are useful if we want to think
about a science of consciousness.
They’re useful for a whole range
of neuroscientific studies.
And I think they can be incredibly useful
in the same way that lying on the ground
and feeling the gravity pushing you against a sphere
and realizing you’re floating in the middle of outer space,
it gives me the same feeling to realize.
And so I have, I mean, there’s so many levels to it,
but if I’m thinking about difficult things
that I’ve experienced, different traumas in my life,
when I take a step back and kind of get this bird’s eye view
of kind of the mystery of this unfolding of the universe
and the fact that it happened the way it happened
and whether it could have happened another way,
there’s no going back, that’s the way it unfolded.
And being able to surrender to that,
I think is very psychologically healthy
and prevents us from, I mean, I think regret
is one of the most toxic loops we can get into.
So this is a path to acceptance.
Oh, absolutely, yeah, because free will,
I mean, I think part of what the function
of the experience of it is, is learning.
I mean, I think we can still learn
without being under the illusion that we have free will.
So for some people, depression can destroy them.
So how can you think about avoiding that?
Yeah, so I didn’t totally answer your question.
First is therapy, ways that I have worked
through anxiety and depression.
So you’re an introvert and a deeply intellectual person,
therapy works for you?
To a point.
It was very helpful.
I mean, I think talk therapy is one tool
and can be helpful for, I mean,
it depends on the therapist, depends on the type of therapy,
but I found it to be one piece
and probably not the biggest piece, actually.
But I think, I wish I had discovered medication sooner.
That would have made a big difference in my life.
Even just intellectually to realize that,
oh, like I’m not.
Life was a lot harder than it needed to be.
And it wasn’t about keeping everything just so.
There’s another state my brain can be in
where I don’t have to work so hard to be okay.
Meditation was probably the most,
meditation and psychedelic experiences
were probably the most transformative.
But a lot of these things, I’m lucky that I didn’t,
my anxiety and depression never really got in the way
of my living my life, of enjoying my life.
I mean, there were struggles.
It made life harder for me.
But something like treatment-resistant depression
or severe PTSD, these are things that,
at this point in time, based on my understanding,
I think once you’ve tried,
and the truth is that meditation is often not helpful
for those things.
It can actually exacerbate them.
And the most promising thing that I have seen
is this research into psychedelic,
Does that make sense to you, that psychedelics work so well
for such difficult cases?
What is it about psychedelics?
And I’ve been following this research from the beginning.
When they were doing end-of-life,
they started with end-of-life patients,
I don’t know, maybe 20 years ago.
I met, at a TED conference,
I met one of the doctors who was doing this research.
It was the first time I became aware
that the research was happening,
and I’d already had my own experiences before that.
And so it made perfect sense to me that this would work.
It was still astonishing to see the results,
to see how successful the work is so much of the time.
But it doesn’t surprise me it makes sense.
And it’s actually in line with all of these other things.
So quieting down the default mode network.
One of the things that’s so transformative
about taking something like psilocybin,
and everyone’s experience is different,
it can vary each time you take it,
even in a single person.
But the experience I had,
and the experience that many people have
that is so transformative,
is this feeling that’s very hard to describe,
but it’s a feeling of being one with the universe.
And that comes with, it’s kind of all one feeling
that is, again, hard to put into words,
but there’s this feeling that everything is okay.
And I’d never had that feeling before in my life.
And when I took psychedelics,
that feeling would stay with me for months.
And I never understood why,
and it was always fascinating to me,
but it was as if I was glimpsing
a deeper truth of the world that
it’s all one thing, we’re all connected.
There’s no sense that there could even be
a feeling of loneliness.
It was just this visceral sense
of being one with everything,
and that everything was okay,
that all the things I was afraid of, even death,
that the universe, in a sense,
is just an endless recycling.
And I don’t know, it’s hard to describe.
I don’t know, it’s hard to describe.
But we also know, on the other side,
that depression and anxiety,
when people are experiencing those things,
the default mode network is more active.
And so it’s this cycling and this kind of obsessive cycles
of thinking about one’s self
that is a huge part of the suffering in the first place.
And so the one thing that’s surprising to me
about the research is that,
I may be fudging the data,
but it’s something like 80% of people
who are treated for PTSD after one,
only one session, are cured of their PTSD.
Yeah, the effect stays for prolonged periods of time.
That’s really interesting.
And addiction as well, which is interesting.
That’s not something I’m personally familiar with,
so that was a surprise to me.
But yeah, I mean, it’s just wonderful that we…
Yeah, it’s incredible.
I mean, of course, it’s also incredible
for people who don’t suffer
to see what psychedelics can do with the mind,
which is that kind of appreciation.
Well, and I think it’s actually important for this work.
It’s one of the questions I ask everyone I talk to
for this series.
Many of them, you know,
I won’t be able to use that audio.
Oh, ask them if they’ve done psychedelics?
Yes, and what their experience was,
and if that’s informed.
You know, actually, initially in the 50s,
I want to do more research on this and look into it,
but in the 50s, there were some studies
that were being done with scientists who,
there were hundreds of scientists they put into the study
where they were on the brink of some kind of discovery,
where they were stuck.
So they had been doing research, and they were stuck,
and they used psychedelics to come up with an answer
to find a path forward,
and it was extremely useful for that.
Yeah, I mean, it’s fascinating.
And the nice thing about psychedelics, from my perception,
is that they don’t currently suffer
from the taboo that weed does.
Oh, that’s interesting.
I don’t think.
So like, for example,
there’s some kind of cultural construct about a pothead
that makes it so that, you know,
like Elon got in trouble for smoking weed.
Right, he would have gotten in trouble
for taking mushrooms, too.
I don’t know.
I don’t think so.
Oh, that’s interesting.
That’s a surprise to me.
Because mushrooms to me seem like a journey,
like there’s a perception
that you don’t take mushrooms all the time.
It’s not an addictive substance.
It’s not a lifestyle.
It’s like going to Burning Man.
It’s like an experience that stays with you for a long time.
Didn’t realize that understanding
had permeated into the culture.
Yeah, that’s a good question of if it has or not,
because maybe I have a very narrow perspective
of these kinds of things.
But I think what has permeated is through Hollywood ideas
of what it means to be a person who smokes weed a lot.
And that has like, has had its effect,
which is hilarious given the effects of weed versus alcohol.
But that’s a whole nother story.
Have you taken psychedelics?
And you’ve spoken about it on your podcast?
Yeah, yeah, so it’s not a lot.
I really want to do a lot more.
I’ve taken mushrooms.
Yeah, I mean, because it’s such a,
and I didn’t have, I have a very addictive personality,
so I’m very nervous about substances,
but I didn’t have any addictive relationship
with that thing.
Every time I-
It is a treatment for addiction, so.
But I, you know, I’m almost nervous
because every time I’ve taken mushrooms,
had a really pleasant experience.
I mean, it was, it’s already the thing I feel anyway,
but I feel it more intensely.
The thing I feel anyway is like appreciation of the moment,
how beautiful life is.
The weird thing that I feel, not throughout the day,
but certain moments of the day, especially early on,
that’s like life is intensely beautiful.
Like, that’s usually when I’ll tweet.
Everything is awesome.
And I remember those feelings
because sometimes when I feel really down
and all those kinds of things,
you remember that it’s a rollercoaster
and you just, and then you find the good feelings
and it’s cool.
And it does make me a little bit sad
that they kind of fade,
but then as I get older, you get to use those moments.
You realize that, use them well, you know?
When you feel great, when you’re focused,
all that kind of stuff, use them well
because the mind is a rollercoaster.
Yes, it’s true.
That’s partly why I do this work.
I feel like my work is therapy.
I don’t know if you feel that way.
Work is therapy.
This work, not work in general.
Thinking about the deep questions,
thinking about the nature of the universe,
thinking about consciousness, even meditation.
I mean, I got into meditation.
To me, it’s interesting.
To me, I think a lot of meditators feel this way about it,
but I think just, I’m thinking about it
from the perspective of someone
who hasn’t meditated before,
but it feels like a scientific experiment.
It feels like it’s the same physicist in me
who was drawn to meditation
because the experience is one of getting closer
to your experience and asking similarly deep questions
like what is time?
What does that even mean?
What do I mean by time?
What does it feel like?
What is a thought
is one of the most interesting questions to me.
How do you meditate?
Let’s talk about this.
So what, you let go of time.
Well, I’m not really doing anything.
I mean, the exercise is really so simple.
It’s just paying attention
to your present moment experience,
and it’s an extremely challenging thing to do.
It’s not the natural state of the brain.
It’s an exercise in concentration,
which is why athletes and other people
who spend a lot of time needing to focus intensely
find it so useful.
I mean, it’s really a focus, a concentration practice,
but all it is really, I mean, there are different ways,
there are different methods,
but it really is quite simple at its core,
which is just paying close attention
to your present moment experience.
And so in Vipassana,
which is what I’ve mostly been trained in,
you’re usually paying attention to the breath,
but there’s always some focus of concentration.
And the focus can even be just an open awareness,
just watching your mind go,
just what comes into your experience.
And part of that is the mind,
part of it is the external world.
So you hear a sound, you think a thought,
you feel a feeling, your cheek is itching.
Am I gonna scratch it, am I not gonna scratch it?
Just like, sounds like the most boring thing in the world.
And what’s interesting is,
paying close attention to the most boring thing
in the world is incredibly fascinating.
Noticing that each breath, no two breaths are the same,
that time keeps moving, that your thoughts keep appearing.
It’s there, yeah, I mean, it’s a spiritual practice
for a reason.
You notice more and more beautiful things
about the simpler, simpler things, yeah, it’s great.
I like to do that, I don’t meditate.
I’ve tried a few times, and I will.
But I meditate, I do meditate,
but I meditate by thinking about a thing,
and holding onto that thing.
And it’s not really, I guess, technically meditation,
but it’s keeping a focus on an idea,
and then you walk with it,
and you solve the little puzzle of it.
Especially any kind of programming or math stuff,
you’re holding stuff in your head.
But don’t look stuff up, don’t take notes.
You’re only allowed to have your mind, and that’s it.
You would really enjoy a meditation retreat.
I mean, you would also not enjoy it.
It would be hard because it’s all,
you wouldn’t go nuts, it would be hard.
But you would get a ton out of it.
What’s a meditation retreat, is it usually silent, or?
It is always silent, or actually,
at least the one I would recommend you do
is a silent meditation retreat, five days.
Five days, okay.
We’ll talk later, but you might be my next victim.
I have, I have, I have, I have.
Five days is a long time.
It’s a long time.
To just sit.
It changes your brain.
It’s the type of experience
that will change your brain permanently.
There’s been like two, three, four hour sessions
of thinking that break in.
And you don’t have children.
I don’t have children.
Oh, the children.
Leaving them for five days and not speaking, impossible.
I’ve only done one retreat since I had kids.
I’m doing another one soon.
But only two nights.
Maybe that’s what the thoughts will be coming in my head.
You should be getting married, you should have kids.
Whatever, let the thoughts be.
You’ll get really good at letting things just be,
and focusing on the present moment.
And you might come out with some epiphany
about what you should do next.
Yeah, no, I love the idea, obviously.
I love the idea.
I love the idea, you know, I fast for three days.
I wanna fast for longer.
That’s also in a different way, perhaps,
but it brings you, makes you more sensitive
to the world around you somehow.
I’m not exactly sure what the chemistry of that is.
But obviously, you’re, actually it’s not obvious,
because you’re not always that hungry.
But you’re more, time slows down, and you feel things.
You feel a breeze, all this kind of stuff.
It’s very interesting.
You’ve, I think, tweeted something about ideas
coming out from, sometimes feeling about
coming from outside of you sometimes.
So you mentioned as you meditate,
you know, you notice these ideas come in.
So, thoughts, ideas, how did that connect to consciousness?
So the thing I was responding to that you wrote,
I think I was partly picking up on the part of you
that would really get a lot out of a meditation retreat.
That was my way of beginning that conversation.
That experience you had of a thought
coming from somewhere else,
when you spend an extended period of time
paying close attention to your moment-to-moment experience,
that’s how all of your thoughts appear to you.
And it’s really beautiful, because you’re letting go.
Just through the practice of meditation,
you’re quieting down your default mode network.
And without necessarily intellectually thinking yourself
out of free will, it naturally kind of drops away.
And so, when you’re under the spell of this illusion
that you are the author of your thoughts,
and your conscious experience is driving
all of your behavior, and there’s this I that stands
somewhere near your brain, but is not your brain,
that stands free of the physical world,
is the thing generating the thoughts,
when you’re meditating, that quiets down
and can kind of quiet down completely
so that your experience is just of the next thing arising
in your conscious awareness.
But the source of that is still this brain.
What you realize is the source of it
is not your conscious experience.
And that’s the important insight.
And that’s the insight.
And so there are many insights you can have in meditation
that align with the science,
which is what’s really fascinating.
Because it doesn’t have to be that way.
I can imagine finding meditation to be extremely useful
and helping me with anxiety and all the rest,
and having all kinds of insights
that turn out to not be true.
But the interesting thing is that these insights
actually turn out to be true.
And so that is one of them, is the…
When you’re just watching
what your conscious experience actually is,
you realize that it’s not doing all of the things
you usually feel like it’s doing.
And so the thoughts really just arise
in much the same way that a sound or a sight or a feeling,
maybe your leg starts to hurt,
when you’re just watching moment by moment by moment,
pain arises, a bird chirping arises,
a thought arises, a feeling arises.
You’re just kind of watching it all unfold.
And there’s something really beautiful about that.
The perspective you could take on is
there’s a connectedness to the entirety of the universe,
like to nature in general.
And that there’s something so beautiful about consciousness,
about the fact that it’s not just a dead universe
with atoms doing their thing,
that at least in this one instance,
there is a felt experience of the universe.
Of the universe, it’s not even individual.
I’m part of the universe, yeah.
Right here in this little point in space and time,
there is an experience of the universe.
But it’s still interesting to think about
where those ideas,
if those ideas are solely a construction of the brain,
or is there some kind of mechanism
of joint collective intelligence of humans
as social organisms?
How much of it is
me training my neural network
and the ideas of tens of thousands of other people?
And how much is it myself?
You’re talking in terms of psychic phenomena,
or you’re talking in terms of just absorbing
the information of the past and education
and just kind of our collective human project
that gets in throughout our lives.
I don’t know much about psychic phenomena,
but I also wanna be open-minded
in the way we speak about collective intelligence,
because it’s very easy to simplify it to,
it’s a neural network trained on knowledge
developed over generations and so on.
It does feel like intelligence is stored
in some kind of distributed fashion across humans.
If you take one out,
I think that intelligence quickly goes down.
I don’t know how quickly it goes down
if you just take one out.
It depends on which one.
I think I half agree and half disagree
with what you’re saying.
But yeah, the other thing you notice
when you spend a lot of time in meditation
and when you spend a lot of time
kind of shaking up these intuitions
that I think get in the way of clearly
thinking about what consciousness is,
is that we are these systems in nature
that are not at all isolated.
And there are the obvious ways,
like if I just stop drinking water,
that’s gonna change the system very drastically, right?
So there’s just the energy consumption.
But the fact that we exchange ideas is,
part of who I am is everyone I’ve interacted with.
And of course, the people I interact more with
have sculpted me more,
but our brains are sculpted through our interactions
with each other as well.
Yes, but I wonder if it’s a more correct
and useful perspective to take
that those interactions are the organisms.
Like you’re saying,
you’re still making the brain the primary.
There could be like,
that the brain is what it is
because of the social interactions,
and the social interactions are the living organism.
That’s a weird perspective
because it’s so much more profound.
I don’t actually think it’s one or the other.
They’re both living.
It’s like cats and dogs.
Yeah, I mean, it’s a little bit like,
I have two children,
and a lot of people with two children will say,
like when you’re preparing to have the second one,
and soon after you’ve had the second one,
that having two is kind of like having three
because you are nourishing and protecting
and overseeing each individual life,
but then there’s the sibling relationship,
which is almost another thing.
Yeah, it’s weird.
So you’ve spoken with Don Hoffman a few times.
In his book, Case Against Reality.
Many more than a few, yeah.
Many more than a few.
There’s a lot of fun ones.
Was there one where Sam was involved?
Well, Sam and I interviewed him.
Most of the conversations I’ve had with him are private.
They’re not public, but we used to meet.
Before the pandemic,
we were meeting about monthly to discuss ideas.
I would love to be a fly on the wall of those discussions,
but he wrote a book, Case Against Reality.
He says, in the case that our perception
is completely detached from objective reality,
can you explain his perspective and let us know?
Well, no, no, maybe not fully,
but to which degree you agree and don’t.
So this is much more focused.
I guess you guys have an agreement
that consciousness is somehow fundamental.
Yeah, I mean, I think we both think we might be wrong.
About the consciousness or about reality?
About it being fundamental.
I think we’re both just,
we both agree that this is a legitimate question to ask
at this point in science.
Is consciousness fundamental?
And I really see it as a question,
and I think he does too.
But he goes hard on reality.
Yes, and it’s interesting because I, you know,
especially, so I actually now have recorded
three conversations with him
for this project I’m working on, yeah.
And in every conversation we have,
we seem to land on the same place,
but this last conversation we had,
it seemed to be even more clear
that the semantics really get in the way.
When you get into the weeds in these conversations,
it’s almost like we need some new terminology
because it’s hard to know sometimes
whether we’re talking about the same thing.
I have issues with his terminology
that when we talk about what his terminology represents,
it seems like we completely agree.
But the conclusions you don’t?
It’s possible we have a very similar view of the universe
if consciousness is fundamental.
It may be an identical view.
It’s hard for me to know
because I disagree with a lot of his terminology.
Okay, but our four-dimensional reality,
he says that’s like a complete space-time.
It’s a complete weird construction that-
Yeah, well, I mean, the truth is that,
I mean, if you talk to a neuroscientist like Anil Seth,
and I would say most neuroscientists,
but he’s really good on this subject,
and his expertise and his area of focus is in perception,
so he talks a lot about how our perceptions
give us an experience of the world,
and he calls it a controlled hallucination.
I’m sorry, he probably got,
I think he says that he got that term from someone else,
but that’s the term he uses.
We got every term from somewhere else.
Right, that’s true.
Everything, there’s no new ideas.
There’s a sense in which what Hoffman is saying
is already, we already know to be the case.
So our brains are creating this conscious experience
based on these interactions with the outside world.
It is, in some sense, all a controlled hallucination.
And someone like Anil Seth,
so from the neuroscientific point of view,
I actually have a quote here somewhere
if you have any interest in hearing the quote,
but he’s essentially saying
everything we experience is a perception,
including our experience of time and space.
So we still don’t really know
what our experience of space represents
out there in the world.
And then, of course, when you talk to physicists
about the different interpretations of quantum mechanics,
I mean, where physics seems to be headed
across the board at this point
is that space and time are emergent,
that they’re not part of the fundamental fabric of reality.
And so there’s some ways in which
Don is saying things that.
Is he being too poetic about it?
Is that the right way to phrase it?
No, go ahead.
He says like, it’s not that our perception
is just a controlled hallucination.
No, it’s not.
He’s saying something more than that.
More than that.
That’s true, yes.
But my point is that a lot of what he’s already saying,
on some level, science is already there
and could agree with.
Yeah, but not all the way.
He’s saying like.
That we don’t even, we’ve like,
the evolutionary process.
Has constructed our brain mechanisms in such a way
that we’re really far from having access
to objective reality.
Yes, although I think we already know that as well.
I mean, if any version of string theory is correct,
and you know, of course, we don’t know yet.
It’s all up for grabs,
but the truth is each theory is weirder than the last.
If there are 15 dimensions of space,
we are just not,
we’re not wired to be able to understand
the fundamental reality.
But I think we have a consistent abstraction
that seems to be reliable.
Like a blockchain.
Yes, and he’s not just saying
that we really only have this tiny window onto reality.
He’s saying that that window onto reality
is giving us a lot of false information.
It’s not true.
Yeah, it’s false.
It’s not just an abstraction, it’s false.
Because he’s saying there’s no reason it needs to be true.
Like there’s no,
it’s not required to be true.
And in fact, there’s, through natural selection,
it’s very possible to imagine,
or it’s likely to imagine that organisms
will evolve in such a way that you’re going to just
be lying to yourself completely.
But the question there is, if that’s the case,
it’s a really interesting thing to think about.
I think the regular way in which he approaches it
is really admirable.
I mean, I do think it’s scientific.
the question for me is,
why is it so consistent across all of these organisms?
We all seem to see the table.
Like, and feel, and run into the table.
So what he will agree, so what I would say to that,
and when I pose this to him,
I really don’t want to speak for him,
but I’ll answer it myself and say that I believe he agrees
with what I’m about to say,
which is that the things we perceive
are connected to the structure of reality.
It’s just that the structure of reality
is made of something completely different
than the thing we’re experiencing.
So imagine, if you just go with the holographic principle,
you know, loosely, and actually,
the holographic principle applies to black holes only.
So there’s ADS-CFT duality, anti-de Sitter space,
and conformal field theory.
Am I getting all these terms right?
The terms are right, but I can’t believe we’re going there.
Well, I mean, this is where I’ve gone
in all of my conversations with physicists,
because the idea is,
so if we just have the basic principle
that reality and all of the information can be contained,
or is actually in a two-dimensional space
that gets projected, this is something that you don’t buy,
based on the look on your face.
No, no, no, I’m actually freaking out,
because yes, any theory of modern physics
gives inkling that reality’s very weird.
Right, and completely different from how we experience it.
That’s one example.
So this is an intuition that, for whatever reason,
has always felt true to me.
This is the way I thought about things as a child.
I’ve met other people that felt this way
when I’ve had experiences in psychedelics,
and this is where I start to sound crazy, too.
Everybody else is crazy, except us.
But that has always seemed right to me,
and that’s always the thing
that I feel like I’m looking for.
It’s funny, recently I was thinking
that it’s as if I feel like I’m,
and this is more how,
I was thinking of how I felt as a child,
but I feel this way a lot as an adult, too,
that the image is one of a snow globe,
that I’m confined to this snow globe
based on my human perceptions,
and the truth of reality is out there,
and it’s actually why I’m so drawn to shaking intuitions.
I feel like every time we shake up an intuition,
it’s like an opportunity to leave the snow globe
for a moment.
It’s like smashing the marbles and seeing,
oh, it’s not liquid in there like I thought.
It’s getting this glimpse of something truer
than what we typically experience.
I feel like it’s for a long time gonna be snow globes
inside snow globes, inside snow globes.
But the larger point is that, yes,
whatever is true about the fundamental nature of reality
is not something we’re experiencing.
However, it is linked and gives us clues to it.
So one image I came up with recently,
I actually wrote about this.
I have an article in Nautilus about time,
because I was, as I spend time thinking about
what it would mean for consciousness to be fundamental,
and at the same time, I’m talking to physicists
about different interpretations of quantum mechanics
and the fact that the ones I’m talking to
believe that space and time are emergent
and are not part of the fundamental story.
I was thinking about what is it,
what could time be if it’s not the way we experience it?
What could it be pointing to?
And I’m not the first person to think like this.
Many people have developed different thought experiments
around this, but, and this is,
I’m not saying this is the way things are,
but this is just one solution is that time and causality
appear to us the way they do,
because for whatever reason,
we’re only perceiving one moment at a time.
And these connections between events
that we perceive as time are actually
just part of the fabric of reality.
There’s some structure to reality at a deeper level,
where it’s like shining a flashlight
on the structure of reality,
where for us, for whatever reason,
everything else disappears.
And the only thing that exists is that single pinprick
of light that we happen to be inhabiting
or that we can perceive, but the rest of it is there.
And so that even though time would be an illusion
and the causality in the way we experience it,
it is an illusion,
or it doesn’t mean what we think it means,
it’s still pointing to a deeper structure.
There’s something that it corresponds to
in the fundamental nature of reality.
And I’ve had enough conversations with Don, I think,
to know that he would agree with that,
that our perceptions map onto something.
It’s just not the experience of it that we’re having.
So to go back to the idea that all of us
all of reality could be contained in two dimensions,
and there’s something about the interaction
between different points that cause this holograph,
so that it seems like there’s a three-dimensional world
when in fact it’s a projection
of this two-dimensional surface.
What we experience as space still references something
at the fundamental level.
It’s just that it’s not space.
And that is something that makes a lot of sense to me.
I also, I posted an excerpt,
George Musser wrote a great book,
Spooky Action at a Distance, Spooky Action at a Distance.
And he talks about, he’s a great science writer,
and he talks about ways to kind of absorb
what this would mean,
this ADS-CFT duality.
And he talks about, he gives an example of music
as an analogy, that two different notes can exist
in three dimensions as if the other doesn’t exist
because of the frequency of the sound waves.
And that in another way, you can think of the sound waves
existing in different dimensions.
I don’t know if that’s, I…
Yeah, that’s really interesting.
I don’t speak as well as I write, so.
I’ve written about this in a way
that I think is easier to absorb
than the way I just described it.
But I think causality is the trickiest one,
Time is a tricky one to like,
And there are physicists who think that space is emergent
but time is still fundamental.
And Lee Smolin is one of those scientists.
And it’s really interesting to talk to him about this.
Time being emergent
is a really trippy one to think about.
Also, I wonder if it’s possible,
at which point does the experience of time
start becoming a part of the conscious experience
of living organisms?
So is it something that evolved on Earth?
Or is it?
It’s also very hard to think about consciousness
And that’s something that’s really interesting
for me to think about, too.
Although, not that this is scientific evidence of anything,
but I and many others have had the experience,
a timeless, spaceless experience
in certain states of meditation
and under the influence of psychedelics.
And that’s still a conscious experience, would you say?
But didn’t you say that some aspect
of conscious experience is memory?
It seems like that, too.
I said an experience of being a self is due to memory.
It seems that consciousness and time
are inextricably linked,
but I think that may be an illusion also.
And when I think about consciousness being fundamental,
and someone like Max Tegmark,
I don’t know if there are other mathematicians,
I’m sure there are, he’s the only one I know of
who will talk about mathematical forms and shapes
as not just being, he talks about them
as being actual objects in nature that exist,
that are not just mathematical structures
that we can think about,
but any mathematical structure that comes out of the math
actually exists in reality.
And so, when I think about consciousness being fundamental,
I think about physics and mathematics
being a description of the structure of it.
And that when mathematicians say things like that,
or physicists say things like that,
it makes sense if we’re talking about
a conscious experience of some sort.
Yeah, that’s really interesting.
First of all, Max is great.
Yeah, man, this is really interesting to think about
like how, what is fundamental.
It’s a good exercise to do in general.
Like to truly think through it.
I mean, ultimately, it’s a very humbling process
because we’re probably in the very early days of,
we can’t know currently, right?
I mean, maybe permanently, but I remain optimistic.
Right, well, to jump around a little bit,
the Google AI engineer,
I’m using the terms from the press, it’s kind of hilarious.
Why, is this a friend of yours?
No, it’s not, no, no.
But just, you know, the term AI is really not used
amongst machine learning people.
Oh, I see, okay.
So like I’m using kind of Google AI engineer
and this is like sentience and chatbot
and like none of those words are really used
by the people that actually build them.
You know, you’re much more likely to use language model
versus chatbot or like natural language dialogue
versus chatbot or whatever.
And certainly not sentience.
But that’s the point.
I mean, sometimes the difference between
the public discourse and the engineering
is actually really important
because engineering tends to want to ignore the magic.
They don’t notice the magic.
Anyway, the Google AI engineer believes
that the Lambda One language,
natural language system achieved sentience.
I don’t know if you paid attention to that.
But the general question is, do you think a chatbot,
do you think a robot could be conscious?
So, I mean, this answer is slightly different
or very different depending on whether
I kind of follow the assumption that consciousness emerges
at some point in physical processing
or whether it’s fundamental.
Since I’ve just chosen to stay on the fundamental channel,
I mean, then it’s kind of a silly answer
because if consciousness is fundamental
in the way I currently think about it,
the only way I imagine it working,
every physical thing we perceive
is a representation of a conscious experience.
So, I mean, yes, it’s true of everything in the world.
However, I would say if that’s the case,
even though there’s a way in which it’s behaving
in similar ways to a human being,
the way it’s constructed, what it is actually made of
and the physics of it is so different
that I would expect it to have an entirely,
completely non-human conscious experience.
And whether it even feels like a self,
I think would be a big question mark.
Well, there’s questions of ethics and…
Is it capable of suffering?
Is suffering connected to…
I mean, obviously it is.
It’s the only way you can suffer is in a conscious way.
Maybe it’s not, maybe it’s not.
Maybe it’s more connected to self than consciousness.
I would say, I mean, just on my own use of these words,
suffering is only something that can happen
in a conscious experience.
Right, so can robots suffer?
If they have a…
Anything that has a conscious experience
can experience suffering, yes.
But do plants suffer in the same?
So is there some level where when we construct
our morals and ethics that…
Is there a class of conscious experiences
or organisms that are capable of conscious experience
that we can anthropomorphize sufficiently
such that we give them rights?
Yeah, I mean, this is not an area that…
I have spent, for me,
I have not spent a lot of time thinking about this.
Most people expect that I have.
These types of questions are much less interesting to me
than the other questions.
And I think it’s because I’m interested
in the physics of things.
I’m somewhat interested, I’m definitely interested
in ethical questions for human beings,
but I have spent very little time thinking
about the implications for other types of intelligence.
I will say that I think the capacity for suffering
of a conscious system goes up with memory
and with a sense of self.
So if you take…
If anesthesia only erased your memory
and it didn’t actually make you unconscious,
you actually experienced,
horrifically experienced some surgical procedure,
but we could completely wipe out your memory of it,
as nightmarish as that scenario is,
and I’m not suggesting we should ever do this,
I would say if our only option
were to erase your memory of it,
that would be the more ethical thing to do
than to have you maintain that memory
because the suffering is then carried
across a longer distance through time.
That’s presuming that suffering is unethical.
Well, isn’t that what ethics is all about?
It’s about suffering.
I mean, I think, to me,
ethics is all about suffering and well-being,
and I don’t know what ethics is without that.
There’s different measures of suffering,
so having one traumatic event may,
if you erase that one traumatic event,
that potentially might have negative,
unmet consequences for the growth of a human being.
Yeah, so then it’s a different question,
but I would say that memory increases suffering globally
so that if any moment of suffering
only existed for itself in the present moment,
that is a lesser kind of suffering
than a suffering that is drawn out over time through memory.
So hard to think about, yeah.
And so, yeah, I mean, in terms of AI,
if they’re conscious and there’s a sense of self and memory,
which I actually think you need memory
to have a sense of self.
Actually, sorry, I take that back.
I actually think you can have
a really primitive sense of self without memory.
But an AI that is conscious,
that has memory and a sense of self,
yeah, that’s capable of suffering, absolutely.
Well, one of the things,
because you said you haven’t really looked into this area
because there’s so many interesting things to look into,
and you’re really focused on the physics side.
To me, the neuroscience experiments that you mentioned
where there’s a difference between the timing of things
that kind of reveal there’s something here.
To me, working with robots,
I have little robots that are moving around my home
in Austin, it’s a very good embodied thought experiment.
Like, here’s a thing that looks like it has a free will.
It looks like it has conscious experiences.
And then I know how it’s programmed.
And so, like, I have to go back and forth
and it’s, you know, this is what I do.
You lay on the ground looking up at the stars
thinking about plants, and I look at a robot like.
Well, you can do this with plants too.
I mean, there’s some complex enough behavior
that looks like free will from a certain angle.
And it makes you wonder two things.
One, is there consciousness associated with that processing?
And two, if there isn’t,
what does that say about our experience?
And our circumstance in nature, what does that say?
Yeah, but yeah, I do that with plants all the time.
I go back and forth.
But the zombie thought experiment now,
at least for me, is often presented as AI
because now that’s easier, as a robot,
because that’s easier, I don’t know if it’s just
because it’s in pop culture now
in the form of films and television shows.
But it’s easier to get to that point of contemplation,
I think, by imagining a robot.
I don’t know why exactly I’m bothered
by philosophers talking about zombies
because it feels like they’re missing,
it’s like talking about,
it’s reducing a joyful experience.
So that’s like talking about,
listen, when you fall in love with somebody,
the other person is a zombie.
You don’t know if they’re conscious or not.
You’re just making presumptions and so on.
It’s like, it says philosophers will do this kind of thing.
They might as well be a zombie.
Or there’s no such thing as love,
it’s just a mutual, like economists will reduce love
to some kind of mutual calculation
that minimizes risk and stability over time.
It’s like, all right, what I wanna do
with each of those people is I wanna take,
I wanna find every one of those philosophers
that talk about zombies and eventually give them
one of those robots and watch them fall in love
and see how their understanding of how humble they are
by how little we understand.
That’s the point of the zombie experiment.
I mean, the zombie thought experiment.
I mean, I can’t speak for any of them.
Empathy for zombies, is that the point?
No, so for me, I mean, I don’t like spending
much time on it.
I think it has limited use for sure.
And I understand your annoyance with it.
But for me, what’s so useful about it is
it gets you to ask the same questions you’re asking
when you’re looking at robots.
If you just run the experiment and you say,
okay, I’m sitting here with Lex.
What if I try to trick myself?
What’s different about the world
if someone tells me actually he’s a robot?
Is essentially what the zombie experiment is.
He’s over there.
He has no conscious experience.
He’s acting all serious, but there’s no experience there.
So it gets you to ask some interesting questions.
One is, okay, when it seems impossible,
I just think, no, that makes no sense.
I can’t even imagine that.
Okay, what do I think consciousness is responsible for?
What is consciousness doing in that human over there
that is Lex that I can’t fathom all of your behavior
and everything that you’re doing
and about without consciousness?
So it gets you to ask this question.
These are the questions I begin my book with.
What is consciousness doing?
It gets you to ask that question in a deeper way.
And then I kind of found this alternate,
I don’t know if other people have done this,
but I found this alternate use for it,
which is even more useful to me,
which is I’m able to do it sometimes.
I’m able to just sit with someone
and get my imagination going
and imagine there really is no conscious experience there
in that person.
And what happened for me the first few times
I was able to do this is it reminded me exactly
of how I feel when I look at complex plant behavior
and other behaviors in nature
where I assume there’s no conscious experience.
And to me, it just flips everything on its head.
It just gets you to be able,
it gets you to be open to possibilities
that you were closed to before.
And I think that’s useful.
Does it enhance or dissipate your capacity
for love of other human beings?
What role does love play in the human condition, Aga?
I mean, in so many ways, it’s the most important role.
I don’t think any of these realizations,
I mean, if anything, I think it enhances it.
But I don’t think they,
I mean, it kind of goes back to the levels of usefulness.
Sometimes you want to picture your friends as a plant.
It’s helpful to appreciate the beauty
that they are as an organism.
Yeah, I mean, I don’t know.
For me, the more time I spend practicing meditation,
seeing through these illusions,
the more poignant my conscious experience becomes.
And love is obviously one of the most powerful
and one of the most positive experiences we have.
And I don’t know, there’s just,
whatever its cause is,
there’s just something miraculous about it
in and of itself and for itself.
I think love, romantic love, is a beautiful thing.
Connection, friendship is a beautiful thing.
And it’s so interesting how people can grow together,
how they interact together,
disagree together and make each other better.
Like, scientific collaborations are like this, too.
Daniel Kahneman, Tversky, I mean, there’s,
and most people are not able to do that
in the scientific realm.
They create, the more successful you become,
the more solid they become.
No, it’s rare, and you recognize it when you have it,
when you have a great collaboration,
I mean, in science, but also in other areas.
In this TED production I’m working on,
I just happened to be working with this producer
where we had this instant connection
and the chemistry’s great
and I have so much fun recording with her.
It’s so great to have, I usually work alone
and it’s been wonderful to have her as a partner.
It’s like a chat, it’s like a conversation type of thing?
Yes, she’s taking my conversation,
we’re playing around with it,
we’re just working on the pilot, so it’s.
I love how you have no idea how it’s gonna turn out.
This is great.
Yeah, well, I just started working
without a clear image of the end result,
although it started with an idea for a film.
I don’t know, I guess I have a feeling,
I was just wondering if I’d talked about this
with you before anywhere, but probably not.
Yeah, because you and I have never spoken before.
No, we just met, we just know each other.
You mean you didn’t see me
when I was listening to that podcast of yours?
And had that thought, you didn’t hear that thought?
I mean, we were mentioning this offline as a small tangent,
there’s a cool dynamic in how we get to become
really close friends without never having met,
never having talked one way,
but it could be one-way friendships that form
and it’s a beautiful thing.
I think, I don’t know, that makes me feel
like we’re all connected
and you’re almost like plugging into some kind of weird
thing in the space of ideas.
So many things I wanna say now,
but here’s one thing is the way I think about consciousness,
if it’s fundamental, is analogous to a pot of boiling water
where the water is the consciousness
and the bubbles are the conscious experiences.
And so it is all one thing
and then there are these shapes that take form
and there’s a felt experience, right?
It’s all felt experience.
So when we’re able to let go of this sense of self
or this illusion of self,
the idea that experiences are happening to something
or to someone drops out
and what you get is just experiences arising.
So there’s the fundamental nature of the universe,
which obviously has a structure and obeys laws,
but what you get out of that
are appearances of different conscious experiences.
They’re just coming into being, right?
And so there is under that view,
I mean, there are different ways
to look at the fundamental nature of reality
without consciousness and kind of come up
with a similar view,
but in that view, it is just kind of one,
it’s one thing with different experiences popping up.
And in that boiling pot is a lobster,
which represents the human condition.
Because life is suffering.
I don’t know if you’ve read the statement
of Pastor Wallace, consider the lobster.
I mean, the stuff that we do to lobsters
is fascinatingly horrible.
Oh yeah, no, I mean, that was my first rejection
of many worlds, just my psychological rejection of it
was just imagining the multiplication
of all the suffering.
I just, I mean, I spend a lot of time
thinking about, consumed by,
and trying not to be overwhelmed
by the depth of human suffering.
To imagine many worlds with is just-
Oh my God, yeah.
What is it about humans?
I think you spent too much time on Twitter.
It’s focused on the suffering.
I mean, there’s also the awesomeness.
And I think the awesomeness outpowers
the suffering over time.
That’s so nice.
I wish I believed that.
With memory, as you said, the suffering is multiplied.
It’s an interesting thought.
But with memory,
beauty is multiplied as well.
So it’s like-
Yes, where I stand with it,
and I’m, for some reason, still optimistic
that we can get ourselves to a different place.
But the way things currently are,
or the way things have always been for animals and humans,
and I think any conscious life form is,
to me, the suffering seems so much more impactful
and powerful than any happy,
for lack of a better word, experience,
that no happy experience is worth
its equivalent experience of suffering.
So that’s certainly how I feel as well.
But I have learned not to trust my feelings.
So the folks who are religious will ask the question,
which I think applies whether you’re religious or not,
why is there suffering in the world?
Why does a just God allow suffering?
Those kinds of questions.
it does seem that suffering is a deep part of human history.
And you have to really think about that.
It’s a part of nature.
It’s a part of nature.
If feeling good is surviving and thriving,
nothing survives and thrives forever.
So you just encounter suffering.
It’s just built in.
Yeah, death meets us all in the end.
it’s kind of hilarious to then think about
the most of nature and the cruelty
and the poverty of nature,
like how horrible the conditions are for animals.
It’s just war.
It’s just war all over the place.
It’s war, but it’s mostly, yeah, it’s war,
but it’s also just, it’s like poverty.
It’s extreme poverty.
When people criticize farms and so on,
you also have to consider the suffering that animals,
we try to imagine that animals in the woods
are all this happy time.
No, it’s like, you have to really consider
if you really asked an animal,
would they like to sit in a boring zoo
and be fed away from the wild
and nature and the freedom and so on?
I don’t know how many of them would choose the zoo
Anyway, but what’s the meaning of life, Anika?
Let me ask the question.
There’s no you.
It’s the question for whatever you’re plugged into.
Is that a question for the body and mind system
we call Anika?
Call Anika and let’s see what that.
The meaning of life?
Yeah, the why, the why.
Is there a why?
I’ve never been drawn to the why questions.
I’m interested in the what and the how.
What is life?
What is this place?
What are we doing?
How are we here?
How is this taking place?
But I mean, if I had to answer,
I guess I don’t think there is a why really.
It’s funny, the quote,
the thought that comes to mind is really
like a kind of a cheesy quote that I’m sure is printed
on a bunch of mugs and t-shirts,
but it’s Thich Nhat Hanh.
I’m gonna get it wrong,
but it’s something like we’re here to awaken
from our illusion of separateness.
And I don’t really see that as an answer
to the why question,
although that’s how it’s framed in his quote.
We are here for that purpose.
I think if there is a purpose worth being here for,
that’s kind of the ultimate, I think.
Let me ask you for advice.
You had a complex and a beautiful journey through life.
You’re exceptionally successful.
What advice would you give to young folks
in high school or in college
about how to live a life like yours
or how to live a life they can be proud of
or have a career they can be proud of?
How to pave a path and journey
they can be happy with and be proud of?
I haven’t really had this conversation with my kids.
I mean, we have lots of deep conversations
and they’re all so deep.
Lots of deep conversations
and they’re all kind of pertaining to each moment
or whatever they’re facing.
I think career is difficult
because in so many ways I just feel like I’m lucky
that I ended up being able to do for a living
the thing I love to do.
But the truth is-
There’s no such thing as luck.
Or the free will.
Luck is an illusion.
There’s no such thing as luck
when you believe in free will, right?
Right, that’s true.
They’re all illusions.
I really start, in retrospect,
started working on my book 30 years ago
and had no idea that I was working on a book.
And this kind of ties into my advice,
which is I think it’s really important
to follow your passion
and to find things that you love
and that you find inspiring and motivating and exciting,
whether they relate to your career or not.
And I think many times,
if you persist just for the pure passion
of the thing itself,
it finds a way into your everyday life.
The career manifests itself.
Out of whatever pursuit.
That’s what’s happened to me.
I’ve had such an unconventional path.
It’s very hard for me to give advice based on that path.
But I do believe that it’s extraordinarily important
to keep your passions alive,
to keep your curiosity alive,
to keep your wonder at life alive,
however you do that.
And it doesn’t necessarily have to be in your career.
And I think for a lot of people,
their career enables them the time and the space
to experience other things
that maybe wouldn’t be as enjoyable
if they were at their career.
Yeah, I mean, in general,
a dogged pursuit of the stuff you love
will create something beautiful.
And if it’s an unconventional path,
those are the best kind.
Those are the most beautiful kind.
And it created, in this case,
I think you’re a beautiful person, Anika,
you have a beautiful mind.
Thank you so much for doing everything you do
and for sharing it with the world.
And thank you so much for talking with me today.
That was awesome.
Good to finally meet you.
Great to finally meet you.
Thanks for listening to this conversation
with Anika Harris.
To support this podcast,
please check out our sponsors in the description.
And now, let me leave you with some words
from Mahatma Gandhi.
I will not let anyone walk through my mind
with their dirty feet.
Thank you for listening,
and hope to see you next time.