Consciousness Is the Ultimate Reality That Defines Everything Else

Consciousness Is the Ultimate Reality That Defines Everything Else
Donald Hoffman is a professor in the Department of Cognitive Sciences at the University of California at Irvine and author of four books. He studies consciousness, visual perception and evolutionary psychology using mathematical models and psychophysical experiments.

Moderator Simon Mundie, a former sports journalist, hosts the Life Lessons: From Sport and Beyond podcast series in which he discusses themes ‘that tell us something insightful about life and how best to live it’ with professional athletes, religious and spiritual leaders, neuroscientists, mental health professionals, and more.

Simon begins by asking: ‘To what degree do your views of reality converge?’ Rupert and Donald agree from the outset that they’re substantially in agreement, although there is a difference in their formulations because of their different pathways.

In the conversation that follows, both wide-ranging and in-depth, Don explains how he is trying to demonstrate, using his tools of maths and science, that consciousness gives rise to reality. He says that if you start with this assumption, working from the top-down rather than what is usually done, then that eliminates the so-called ‘hard problem of consciousness’: ‘how does consciousness arise from certain physical substances, like the brain?’ So his approach is to stipulate consciousness as fundamental.

Most of his colleagues, he says, are physicalists; their framework is the fundamentality of space and time. And this ‘hard problem’ question they’re faced with is unanswerable. Don shares a few examples, however, of how science has recently been revealing that space-time is not fundamental. Also, he is working on a mathematical model of the dynamics of consciousness toward explaining its fundamentality.

When asked to define consciousness, Rupert says that it’s not possible to do so in any satisfactory way because it is the ultimate reality that defines everything else, therefore it cannot be defined itself in those terms. Don agrees that ultimately consciousness will transcend any mathematical models put to it, but that the theories he is working on can be seen as ‘baby steps’, which are themselves rewarding.

He cites Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem, which recognises there can never be a scientific theory of everything, but he also says that there are now physicists who are finding new structures, called amplituhedrons, that suggest an underlying phenomenon to space-time. And even further beyond that are ‘decorated permutations’. He predicts that this work in the area of high-energy particle physics will eventually produce technology that doesn’t require the existence of matter.

Science and mathematical theories always know their own limits precisely. Whereas the spiritual traditions say that anything that can be described is limited and can therefore never be the ultimate truth. In maths and science, each new formulation is the basis for the next. And although in essence the perennial philosophy remains unchanged, its expression evolves with different eras and cultures within human experience.

Don says ‘he is hoping for a convergence of science and spirituality, that scientific theories and language might become a new expression of the perennial philosophy’. Evolution, the theory of natural selection, hid the truth of the nature of reality. While information from our sense perceptions is what we need to survive, to play the game of life, we play it without knowing what it is that we’re really doing. If you want to stay in the game, you have to respect its rules, which is why, although a train’s ultimate reality may well be illusory, you do not just step in front of it.

Towards the end of the conversation, Don says that his experience of twenty years of meditation has, for him, made Gödel’s theorem not just an abstract thing. He realised that when he let go of finite formal systems, he was the deep reality, and that when, as a scientist, he wanted a really good idea, it was time to let go of thought.

In Don’s opinion, other scientists will also come to understand that there’s a ‘back and forth between absolute silence and precise thinking’. The heart of the game’, he says, ‘is the absolute silence. Then the precise thinking is what gets rewarded’. All phenomena, all expressions of reality, have their basis in the direct experience of being, in consciousness itself. 


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