Professor Donald Hoffman — The Case Against Reality, Beyond Spacetime, Rethinking Death, Panpsychism, QBism, and More (#585)

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What is the probability that natural selection would shape sensory systems to report true properties of objective reality?”

— Professor Donald Hoffman

Donald Hoffman (@donalddhoffman) received a PhD in computational psychology from MIT and is a Professor Emeritus of Cognitive Sciences at the University of California, Irvine. He is an author of over 120 scientific papers and three books, including The Case Against Reality: Why Evolution Hid the Truth from Our Eyes. He is the recipient of the Distinguished Scientific Award of the American Psychological Association and the Troland Research Award of the US National Academy of Sciences.

His writing has appeared in Scientific American, New Scientist, LA Review of Books, and Edge, and his work has been featured in Wired, Quanta, The Atlantic, Ars Technica, National Public Radio, Discover Magazine, and Through the Wormhole with Morgan Freeman. His TED Talk, titled “Do We See Reality as It Is?,” has almost 4M views.

Please enjoy!

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#585: Professor Donald Hoffman — The Case Against Reality, Beyond Spacetime, Rethinking Death, Panpsychism, QBism, and More

This episode is brought to you by JuneShine! You don’t know it yet, but JuneShine’s going to be your new go-to happy-hour drink. Consistent with their tagline, “organic hard kombucha for a brighter buzz,” I do get a nice buzz, as it sports a hefty 6% ABV (alcohol by volume), but 1–2 drinks doesn’t punish me with a nasty hangover. I enjoy grabbing a can of JuneShine in the late afternoon after a workday or when hanging with friends on the weekend. You’ve also heard me drinking JuneShine in a few Random Show episodes with Kevin Rose. Grapefruit Paloma might be my personal favorite flavor, but I usually grab a Sampler Pack and rotate.

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Want to hear another episode from someone who gazes at the universe through the lens of science? Listen to my conversation with astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, in which we discuss childhood intellectual development through free expression of interest, communicating complex ideas to the layperson, the problem with Pulitzer Prize-driven journalism in the research frontier of science, learning from Carl Sagan, overbooking commitments, and much more.

#389: Neil deGrasse Tyson — How to Dream Big, Think Scientifically, and Get More Done


  • Connect with Donald Hoffman:

Website | Twitter


  • What was the Helmholtz Club, and how did it spark a scientific exploration into the meaning of consciousness? [06:19]
  • What is consciousness? [11:24]
  • How should we understand our perceptions and their relationship to reality? David walks us through the desktop interface metaphor as presented in his 2015 TED Talk, and explains why it’s unlikely (with a probability of zero) that human beings evolved to behold the naked entirety of reality. [14:08]
  • Why does Donald, as a cognitive neuroscientist, find this era of physicists exploring consciousness and the nature of an underlying reality we haven’t evolved to see so exciting? Also: is spacetime doomed? [20:31]
  • Will science ever arrive at a theory of everything? [33:00]
  • What is the holographic model of the universe? [37:13]
  • What might things look like in the next decade or two as we begin to fundamentally revise how we think of reality, matter, and the interplay of consciousness? [43:09]
  • How does Donald scientifically explore the concept of conscious agents? [49:48]
  • Is consciousness localized, or does the brain “receive” it from elsewhere? [53:20]
  • How does Donald think about death? [58:55]
  • What are Markovian dynamics? [1:05:27]
  • Supplementary information that might help someone who’s struggling to understand parts of this conversation. [1:07:14]
  • What is panpsychism, and who are some of the most influential panpsychists? [1:08:38]
  • Which aspects of the way we interface with reality give us effective portals into life or consciousness? [1:12:11]
  • Probing the deeper reality suggested by the amplituhedron, associahedron, and cosmological polytope. [1:14:51]
  • At which hallowed institutions are these explorations of consciousness and the nature of a deeper reality being researched, and who is leading the charge? [1:20:18]
  • Donald’s thoughts on the use of hallucinogenic drugs to tap into deeper reality and interact with conscious agents. [1:21:22]
  • Exploring a theory involving portals and morphogenesis. [1:23:18]
  • It’s worth considering ethnobotanical and ethnographical studies that may give us more focused insight into consciousness through a non-Western lens and even have us questioning if plants can be considered a sentient part of this consciousness. [1:27:20]
  • On Chris Fuchs and the outer fringes of Quantum Bayesian — aka QBism. [1:35:38]
  • The experiments Donald would conduct in his research with unlimited funding over the next 10 years, and with whom he would choose to work. [1:40:31]
  • What is Donald reading these days? [1:42:43]
  • Donald names some of his long-time collaborators who pair mathematics with spiritual practice, and describes how he reconciles the two in his own work. [1:47:34]
  • How much pushback has Donald suffered for bringing spirituality into his scientific endeavors? Has any of it been constructive? [2:00:51]
  • How does fitness payoff function work in evolutionary theory, and how does this support the probability of zero that humans evolved to see reality in full? [2:03:27]
  • Parting thoughts. [2:05:46]


“If consciousness is the fundamental nature of reality, and consciousness is all there is, then mathematical structure is only about the possibilities of consciousness.”
— Donald Hoffman

“What is the probability that natural selection would shape sensory systems to report true properties of objective reality? … The probability is zero.”
— Donald Hoffman

“Very few of us know exactly how the desktop interface on our computer works. When you drag an icon to the trash can to delete a file, there’s a lot of stuff going on inside there that’s involved in deleting the file. We’re blissfully ignorant and that’s what evolution has done. It makes us blissfully ignorant about the nature of reality and gives us icons that allow us to control reality.”
— Donald Hoffman

“Physics is not fundamental. Spacetime is not fundamental. Consciousness is. What we call physical objects are merely the ways that we play with our interface to open new portals into the realm of conscious agents.”
— Donald Hoffman

“Science can never have a theory of everything.”
— Donald Hoffman

“When you can break your theory, when you find its limits, that’s when you break out the champagne because that’s when you’re going to go to the next step. Gödel’s incompleteness theory tells us that this process will never end. There is job security. Go into science.”
— Donald Hoffman

“What we thought was the final theory 130 years ago, we now look back on it; Newton was great, but we have much better theories today.”
— Donald Hoffman

“We have to take our current theories seriously. If we take evolution of a natural selection seriously, of course, as scientists, we’re going to eventually try to show its limitations.”
— Donald Hoffman

“When the physicists are saying, ‘We’re spending our careers looking for what’s beyond spacetime; spacetime is doomed,’ it’s really time for the cognitive neuroscientists who are studying consciousness to catch up with what the physicists have already said.”
— Donald Hoffman

“I want a scientific theory of consciousness that doesn’t assume a physical world as the foundation at all.”
— Donald Hoffman


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19 Replies to “Professor Donald Hoffman — The Case Against Reality, Beyond Spacetime, Rethinking Death, Panpsychism, QBism, and More (#585)”

  1. I listened to half of this podcast tonight. Honestly it’s kinda crazy… in a good way. Just now, having opened a book to help fall asleep (Small Boat, Great Mountain, by Amaro Bhikkhu), I opened to a page fully relevant to some of the heavier things Hoffman talks about in the podcast. Here it is:
    “When” Does Not Apply
    Time is another area in which we should notice subtle clinging. We may experience resting in awareness and have an attendant sense of clarity and spaciousness, but we may also have a firm sensation that this is happening now. When we do, without noticing it, we have turned that now-ness into a solid quality.
    The process of letting go happens layer by layer. As one layer falls away, we can get all excited and think, “Oh, great. I’m free now. This open space is wonderful.” But then we start to realize, “Something isn’t quite right here. There is still some stickiness in the system.” We notice the solidification of time and the limi- tation we have created of the present.
    There’s a verse about time by the Sixth Zen Patriarch that I love to quote. It says:
    In this moment there is nothing which comes to be.
    In this moment there is nothing which ceases to be. Thus, in this moment, there is no birth and death to be
    brought to an end.
    Thus, the absolute peace is this present moment. Although it is just this moment,there is no limit to
    this moment,
    And herein is eternal delight.
    Birth and death depend on time. Something apparently born in the past, living now, will die in the future. Once we let go of time, and if we also let go of thing-ness, we see there can be no real “thing” coming into being or dying; there is just the such- ness of the present. In this way, there is no birth or death to be brought to an end.
    That’s how this moment is absolutely peaceful; it is outside of time, akaμliko.


  2. I loved this episode, just what I needed whilst working on Easter Friday pondering the great mysteries of life. I’ve got a lot of research to do now.

  3. Tim, thank you for this episode, I found it deeply interesting. In the interview I heard mention of Rupert Spira. You may want to check out Spira’s own teacher, Francis Lucille, who now lives in Temecula, CA. Francis was a student of a little known French teacher in the Advaita Vedanta (non-dual) tradition named Jean Klein. Francis was a physicist by schooling and trade, and also went on to develop advanced weapons and defense systems for the French government before he left that field as a result of his deepening spiritual investigation. Francis has all kinds of videos up on youtube if you want to look into him.

  4. Tim, thank you for this episode, I found it deeply interesting. In the interview I heard mention of Rupert Spira. You may want to check out Spira’s own teacher, Francis Lucille, who now lives in Temecula, CA. Francis was a student of a little known French teacher in the Advaita Vedanta (non-dual) tradition named Jean Klein. Francis was a physicist by schooling and trade, and also went on to develop advanced weapons and defense systems for the French government before he left that field as a result of his deepening spiritual investigation. Francis has all kinds of videos up on youtube if you want to look into him.

  5. If you haven’t told your child it’s a quadruped just to see if they’ll say it to other people you’re missing out on one of the great joys of parenting.

  6. This was an incredible conversation. I would strongly suggest speaking with John Vervaeke, professor of cognitive science at the University of Toronto. I heard significant overlap with Vervaeke’s and Dr. Hoffman’s ideas, especially the potential of “being” as Hoffman describes and “participatory knowing” as Vervaeke describes what sounds like a similar understanding. This episode has opened a whole new perspective for me to explore re: some of the concepts I first discovered through Vervaeke – especially via his YouTube series “Awakening from the Meaning Crisis”.

  7. An interview with “Erasing Death” author Dr Sam Parnia would dovetail with topics in the Donald Hoffman interview

  8. What the heck??? This was such a great episode!!! I love the evolution of your podcast!!! You’ve had on so many amazing guests lately!!! Thanks for all these conversations, it’s made my life so full!

  9. I’ve been a follower for quite a number of years and maybe responded briefly a couple of times. However, your discussion with Professor Hoffman was a revelation, an absolutely brilliant and riveting two hours.
    Thank you.

    1. I forgot to add, much of the discussion reminded me of Dr Iain McGilchrist’s new masterpiece, “The Matter with Things”.

  10. My favorite episode of the year ! I have listened 5 times now. One can jump in at any point and be mesmerized. Donald’s curiosity is encouraging. We are at a fascinating culmination of technological breakthroughs and neurological discovery. I’m very enthusiastic about the next wave of discoveries in consciousness.
    Thank u 🙏🏼

  11. Although a little hard to follow, this was a very interesting interview, even if I have my doubts about his ideas. At one point Mr. Hoffman, if I heard correctly, said that near-death experiences are just mis-firings in the brain. A ton of research has been done in this area that would say otherwise.

    I recommend reading a book called Proof of Heaven by Eben Alexander. The near-death experience happened to the author and he is a neurosurgeon. So, difficult to dismiss what he has to say on the subject.

  12. By far, this has been the most paradigm shifting podcast I’ve ever heard. A lot of stuff clicked for me listening to this. I’m thrilled to have stumbled upon this. Thank you, Tim and Donald, for bringing this out to a wider audience. I have work to do. 🙂

  13. The Japanese Buddhist monk, Eihei Dogen, founder of the Soto Zen tradition, observed, “To study the Buddha Way is to study the self; to study the self is to forget the self; to forget the self is to be actualized by myriad things. When actualized by myriad things, your body and mind as well as the body and mind of others drop away. No trace of realization remains and this no trace continues endlessly.” This insight seems to concisely capture much of this discussion’s points and observations. A strong finger, pointing at the moon … and perhaps a pathway forward?

  14. Hello Tim,

    For a better understanding of consciousness or to add to Donald Hoffman’s explanation, please also read the article titled “Proof of the Existence of God” by Professor Subhash B Kak written in the website. What Dr. Donald Hoffman is trying to say has been said in the Hindu Vedic literature for over several millenia. Listening to the Vedanta Society of NY discourses on Vedanta by Swami Sarva Priyananda, etc would also help. Physical reality is an appearance in Consciousness. It is created in Consciousness, sustained in Consciousness and will dissolve back into consciousness. Consciousness is not created by the brain or other human parts.

  15. Great episode with Donald Hoffman. I listened to it twice and bought Donald’s book afterwards. I’d love more episodes like this.

  16. Feb 28, 2023. To Tim and Donald,
    Just listened to your great show. Nima still at IAS [Moderator: email address removed per policy.]

    QBism and AI ChatGPT come to the WSJ

    (Full ref. at bottom of post) – WSJ. Feb. 24, 2023, By Henry Kissinger !!, Eric Schmidt and Daniel Huttenlocher

    “….machines are likely to alter the fabric of reality itself. Quantum theory posits that observation creates reality. Prior to measurement, no state is fixed, and nothing can be said to exist. If that is true, and if machine observations can fix reality as well—and given that AI systems’ observations come with superhuman rapidity—the speed of the evolution of defining reality seems likely to accelerate. The dependence on machines will determine and thereby alter the fabric of reality, producing a new future that we do not yet understand and for the exploration and leadership of which we must prepare.”

    My larger consciousness- portal experiences:

    1/ Isolated in woods, sadness, followed by instantaneous persona bankruptcy releasing the being before I had a name. Fear moved the being back to taking on components of the persona. Try to repeat similar situation again to release being and stay longer.

    2/ Solo in wilderness for 3 days without any human artifacts (planes in the sky, things on the ground). Next, clues of time drop away(is it 2023 or 1423?), then unexpected and instantly, consciousness bursts with energy/creativity as brain activity supporting persona in a culture is no longer needed.

    Best to both of you.

  17. Hearing this interview I remembered of something I read in one of Jung’s books.

    Carl Jung was once in Africa and had wandered far away and he came up to a wonderfull field with animals with no hint of human presence.

    He writes that he fell that the reason we humans exist is for this natural beauty to be perceived, if no one saw this sight, it would not be.

    It is not too far of a leap to conclude that the sight he saw was a construct, a representation of sorts, a product of consciousness.