The previous issue of NZN featured Part I of my conversation with Princeton philosopher Gideon Rosen, in which we pondered this question: What does it mean to call yourself a “materialist” or “physicalist,” given that modern physics makes it hard to think of the world as consisting ultimately of solid particles or solid anything else. The difficulty of defining these labels leads to another question: Might they be a way of signaling not what you believe about reality but what you don’t believe—namely that you don’t believe the universe has a purpose (a “telos”) or comes with built-in moral truths? That’s where we pick up the conversation, which eventually leads to such topics as whether we live in a simulation, how we would know if we did, and whether the directionality of evolution (its tendency to lead to more complex and intelligent structures) could be evidence of a larger purpose unfolding on Earth.
ROBERT WRIGHT: I wanted to touch on teleology. I think you said [once] that [“physicalist”] is almost like an identifier, a way of saying "I'm not a moral realist,” and “I'm not teleological," meaning, “I don't believe there's purpose in the world, certainly [not] a larger purpose.” Am I misremembering, or would you have said something like that?
GIDEON ROSEN: Yeah, I do think that's part of it.
I mean, a whole bunch of things emerged together at the beginning of the 17th century with the scientific revolution. One was the rise of mechanistic physics as a fundamental theory of reality. Another—and these were not exactly the same thing—was the rejection of teleology in nature, the idea that the apt description of nature is in terms of the purposes of things, the functions of things, or the goods that are to be realized by physical processes. Those two things—the rejection of teleology and the rise of mechanistic physics—happened at the same time, with many of the same people involved…
By the time the scientific revolution was mature, to be a hardheaded, scientifically-minded philosopher or theorist was to hold that fundamental physics involves mathematical properties of extended things spread out in space and time, and not moral properties. Not functions, not purposes, nothing like that. And not, by the way, anything outside of nature that might have endowed physical things with that kind of purpose, like God.
So if you're a materialist or a physicalist now, you reject fundamental teleology and you also reject the supernatural...
It seems to me that one problem with that worldview is … the fact that we speak of a clock as having a purpose.
It is a purely physical system. So certainly you can imagine ... a physical system that has a purpose, but we don't have to think of the purpose as residing in the system... We can think of the purpose as almost having to do with the nature of its historical development...
Now, I understand that you could ... say, okay, the universe could have a purpose in that sense, but we just don't think that there was some kind of deistic God that imparted [it]. As a matter of belief, I can see that.
Although I would say that I think one current in thought that might lend... legitimacy to the view of this kind of purpose in the universe is all this stuff about living in a simulation, right? There are serious philosophers (plus Elon Musk, for what that's worth) who say: “Hey, we may be living in a simulation.”
And that seems logically possible to me… And if that's the case, then it's an example of something where a system that looks to us like a physical system—functioning regularly, in accordance with laws—clearly does have a purpose that was imparted. Right?
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Is physical stuff all there is? If you ask a philosopher that question, it can lead to a discussion that covers things ranging from consciousness to 20th-century physics to whether mathematical concepts are real. That’s what happened when I discussed the subject with Gideon Rosen, professor of philosophy at Princeton and co-author of The Norton Introduction to Philosophy. Gideon is also a friend of mine—which made the conversation even more fun for me than it would have been otherwise.
ROBERT WRIGHT: I've been trying to get you to be on this show for years. You've resisted, but the reason I've wanted you to is that whenever I have a question about philosophy, you provide a very efficient overview of the whole context of my question. You don't always provide a definitive answer, but that's in the nature of philosophy.
GIDEON ROSEN: It is. It's a shame that it's in the nature of philosophy.
It would be nice if we could wheel out definitive answers to these questions and it's a bit of a mystery why we can't, since everybody else manages to provide the occasional definitive answer. We don't. It's a drag, but we do our best.
Do you think it's a mystery? Or do you think it's kind of clear, given the nature of the questions you address, why it would be the case that you don't come up with the same kinds of answers that mathematicians and scientists do?
Yeah, there are some obvious differences that explain why we don't do it the way they do—but, if the questions make sense, if the questions are clear, then they have answers. We don't have a clear sense of why it is that we can't nail them down.
It's not as if we're floundering around. Philosophy produces plenty of opinion, plenty of conviction—even plenty of justified conviction, in the sense that people have arguments for their views and arguments that some people find persuasive. But we don't get as much consensus on the hard questions, even given the arguments we've got, and that's a little mystifying...
I don’t know, I want to give you more credit. I think you're just tackling the hard questions…
The New York Times obituary of the physicist Freeman Dyson, who died last week, includes such characterizations as “iconoclast,” “heretic,” “visionary,” and “religious, but in an unorthodox way.” All of that and more came through in an interview I did with Dyson two decades ago (one of the very first video interviews I ever did, back at the dawn of online video). Below is a mildly edited transcript of the interview. Reading it, I was reminded how eclectically adventurous Dyson was--jumping from the Gaia hypothesis to an eccentric definition of God to the idea that the universe involves “three levels of mind” and to many other things. I was also reminded what a nice person he was.
ROBERT WRIGHT: First of all, thanks very much for letting me come talk to you here today. I've never been within the walls of the Institute for Advanced Study before, and I feel kind of privileged. It has a kind of mystique about it. Do you find that people react to it that way?
FREEMAN DYSON: Well, I tried to demolish this aura of sanctity that surrounds the place. What it is basically is a motel with stipends. ... It's just a place where young people come from all over the world and are given a year or two with pay.
A somewhat more selective admissions policy than some motels have. Right?
Yes. But still that's basically what it is. Mostly the important thing is what they do when they get home, not what they do while they're here.
I see. But there have been—I mean, Einstein, von Neumann and so on—there have been a lot of people thinking deep cosmic thoughts here, right?
Yes, but that's not really what the place is for, that's accidental.
It's not for cosmic thoughts really?
Well, if you're lucky, of course you get a few of those. ...
You, in any event, have been doing your share of thinking cosmic thoughts.
Not very much.
Well, I don't know. Let's do a brief review.
In last week’s newsletter I introduced the strange worldview of Donald Hoffman, a cognitive scientist who believes that reality is radically unlike what we perceive it to be (an argument he made in his book The Case Against Reality). This week we offer the second part of my conversation with Hoffman, in which things get, if anything, stranger. We pick up the conversation where we left off last week: Hoffman had argued, on Darwinian grounds, that reality isn’t what it seems, without yet giving us his theory about what reality is.
DONALD HOFFMAN: I do have a theory, and I can discuss it with you, but I should point out that that theory is separate from the evolutionary conclusion.
The evolutionary conclusion is: we don't see reality as it is. The second step is: okay, now, as scientific theorists, what shall we propose as a new theory of that reality? And someone can buy my first proposal—that we don't see reality as it is—and not buy my proposal about the nature of reality...
ROBERT WRIGHT: And the proposal you have, there's an actual mathematical version of it, I think it has maybe seven variables or something like that. And we won't be able to get into that in any depth at all, but one interesting feature of it is I think you claim it's testable.
Before we get into that, I want to get a little more deeply into the question of, okay, if this is not the real world, what is the real world that this is a kind of reflection of?… And here's where things get weirder, as if things weren't weird enough, at least by my reckoning...
The foundation of the theory: conscious experiences are real
As I understand it, the world is kind of co-created by conscious agents... You tell me—you refer in your theory to conscious agents—does "a conscious agent" correspond to what we would think of as a conscious agent? Like, I'm a conscious agent, you're a conscious agent, so right now we are two conscious agents interacting—is that the correct terminology in your theory?
That's the first step, yes. But there's more to it. I'll unpack it just a little bit. So here's the motivation for the direction I've gone.
The idea is it may be the case that all of my beliefs are false. I may know nothing. And that's a serious possibility. As scientists, we have to acknowledge that possibility.
But if there is anything that I believe that's true, it's that I do have conscious experiences. If my belief that I'm feeling pain, or smelling a rose, or tasting chocolate—if my belief that I'm having experiences is wrong, then I'm pretty much wrong about everything, and we might as well just eat, drink, and be merry, because there's really nothing else that we can do as scientists.
This is a little like what Descartes said. The minimalist assumption is that you are having this experience whether or not the experience is true.
That's right. I don't want to therefore go to the "cogito ergo sum" kind of thing; I don't want to perhaps go where he goes in terms of trying to prove my own existence, but just merely that if I'm wrong that there are experiences, then pretty much there's not anything secure that I can go with.
So I decided to say, okay, let's go with that. If space and time and matter, which are just the format of my perceptual system, are not the right predicates to describe reality, and I can't let go of the idea that I have conscious experiences, let's just start with consciousness.
Let's see if we can get a mathematical theory of consciousness and conscious experiences—but a new kind of theory.
A number of spiritual and philosophical traditions hold that reality is very different from what it seems to be. Buddhism springs to mind, as does George Berkeley’s idealism. But I don’t think I’ve ever heard an argument in this vein that’s as distinctively disorienting as the one made by cognitive scientist Donald Hoffman in his recent book The Case Against Reality: Why Evolution Hid the Truth from Our Eyes. The Apostle Paul said that we see this world “through a glass, darkly,” but Hoffman would say that’s wildly optimistic. As he put it to me in a conversation on The Wright Show podcast (available as video on meaningoflife.tv): We have to let go of the idea “that there's any resemblance whatsoever between the nature of our perceptions—and even the language of our perceptions—and the nature of objective reality.” Below is Part I of that conversation (which we had several years before his book came out). Part II will appear in next week’s newsletter.
ROBERT WRIGHT: What we're going to talk about today is kind of at the intersection of cognitive science and philosophy. We're going to talk about the mind-body problem, the question of what consciousness is, and a question that's raised by your particular theory of consciousness, which is, so far as I know, quite distinctive—unlike anything I've heard before. That question is whether what we think we see is really real, or how close to real it is.
Your theory of consciousness, which has been getting attention among the people who think about these things, suggests that things are not as real as we think they are.
This bottle of water—
—it’s useful for me to think I see it, but it may not bear a very close correspondence to the underlying reality, right?
DONALD HOFFMAN: Correct. It's real as an experience, but it may not exist apart from my experience in that form.
Your theory builds on the following fact about natural selection… that, strictly speaking, natural selection doesn't build a brain that sees the truth. I mean, that's not what the criterion of natural selection is. The criterion is: natural selection will preserve traits that are conducive to the proliferation of genes.
And so it will build brains that have the kinds of perceptions and thoughts that are conducive to the proliferation of genes. And if those perceptions and thoughts are false but still are conducive to the proliferation of genes, then there will be false perceptions. I think that's actually uncontroversial in evolutionary biology.
A few months ago NZN ran an excerpt from my conversation with philosopher Massimo Pigliucci, author of How to Be a Stoic. Well, one of Stoicism’s rival schools of philosophy in ancient Greece was Epicureanism, and one of Massimo’s colleagues, Catherine Wilson, has written a book called How to Be an Epicurean: The Ancient Art of Living Well. I interviewed Catherine on The Wright Show a few weeks ago, and below is part of our conversation. I went into her book knowing little about its subject, and I came away from it feeling a real affinity with Epicureanism—not just for its very reasonable approach to living, but also for its very congenial (to me, at least) political vibes.
ROBERT WRIGHT: Why don't we start out by talking about the role of pleasure in Epicureanism. One of the connotations of the term “Epicurean” today is of a kind of hedonism, self-indulgence. And I think, on the one hand, you're going to say that that’s … misleading. On the other hand, pleasure does play a central role in the logic of Epicureanism, as a value that … you can organize your life around. Do you want to talk about that?
CATHERINE WILSON: Yeah. Hedonism is pleasure taken to extremes, and no Epicurean ever recommended that. ... They saw that there are two limitations on that: first, you usually get yourself into trouble if you go too much into the pleasures of food, drink, sex, power domination; [and second,] there are ethical limits. So there's no way to go all out and stay within the limits of Epicureanism.
On the other hand, what they do is give you a permission to enjoy innocent pleasures, and they don't see an opposition between pleasure and virtue, which all the major moral philosophies and religions seem to do. There's a kind of core of asceticism in not only Western, but Eastern thinking, and Epicureans were completely opposed to it. …
Stoics aim to be able to preserve their equanimity and even happiness under even highly adverse conditions ... and that entails an ability to, to some extent, divorce yourself from the guidance of natural emotions, right? Is there a broader distinction between Stoicism and Epicureanism in the way we think about our animal nature?
Oh, I think so. … Stoics will tell you that they only want to free you of the painful emotions. [But] really, the rhetoric suggests otherwise. Seneca thinks any little bit of emotion is bad, the emotions are diseases.
Epicureans think of the emotions as like perception, something that we’re outfitted with that is conducive to our survival and functioning.
So in the first place, they think you can't just suppress your emotions by thinking in certain ways—and secondly, why would you want to? If you could just take a pill that would make you completely numb against grief, against all forms of irritation, as well as against wanting things, liking things [and] being motivated to pursue things, life would seem incredibly numb and boring.
You alluded to the limits that we, according to Epicureans, should impose on ourselves as we pursue pleasure. … In addition to yourself at that moment as something you legitimately think about—[that is,] it’s fair for me to want to be happy and enjoy pleasure at the moment—there are two kinds of constraints on that.
One is trade-offs between my happiness and the happiness of my future self, … and [the other] is [trade-offs] between my own happiness and the happiness of other people—[which is] where we enter the realm of ethics and morality, right?
It's something I call NPMs, Noticings Per Minute. In the beginning, our NPMs are pretty low, maybe 10 or 20. But as we cultivate awareness and mindfulness, the NPMs go way up and we see within a breath, or within a step, so many different changing sensations happening.
And we also see the changing nature in our minds, the rapidity of thoughts arising and passing.
Below is an excerpt from a video dialogue between Robert Wright, author of Why Buddhism Is True, and Joseph Goldstein, author of The Experience of Insight, One Dharma, and Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening.
What is mindfulness?
Robert Wright: You're … a very well known teacher, thinker and writer about Buddhism and, I would say, a significant figure in the history of American Buddhism. When you founded the Insight Meditation Society in the early '70s along with Sharon Salzberg and Jack Kornfield, you played an important role in bringing a particular kind of Buddhist meditative practice into America, what's called Vipassana, and we'll get into that. [Your most recent book] is called Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening. Now, “mindfulness” and “awakening” are both very important words in Buddhism, of course, and I want to talk about both of them.
Mindfulness has recently infiltrated non-Buddhist circles. You hear it in a lot of places, I've heard Evangelical pastors talk about mindfulness, and there's a lot of purely what you might call secular discussion of it. For starters, is it easy to tell us what the word means?
Joseph Goldstein: Well, it has a nuanced meaning. It's a bit like asking “What is art?” or “What is love?”
I'm hoping you'll cover those as well before we get through, but let's start with mindfulness.
Robert Wright: Hi Steven.
Stephen Batchelor: Hello Bob.
How are you doing?
Good. You should be, you're in France, living an enviable life there, i gather.
Well, unfortunately, human life, wherever you are...
Ah. That brings us directly to our subject, which is Buddhism. … You’re very well known as a writer on Buddhism, a former Buddhist monk yourself, still a practicing Buddhist. Now, some people might contend that description because you are famously a proponent of secular Buddhism and there are people who don't think that secular Buddhism should be called Buddhism, I guess. But we'll get into all of this, into what we mean by secular Buddhism. One interesting thing about your worldview is that you don't view the terms "secular" and "religious" as mutually exclusive. You think something can be secular, but religious. So, yeah, we'll get into this.
In the previous issue of NZN, we ran excerpts from a podcast conversation I had with philosopher Massimo Pigliucci about similarities and differences between Stoicism and Buddhism. This week we bring you a part of the conversation that’s a bit more self-helpy than last week’s selection.
This part of our chat draws on an advice column Massimo was writing at the time (in 2018), in which he answered people’s questions about how to stoically handle problems they face. Looking back at our exchange made me wonder if I should take a shot at offering advice from a Buddhist perspective (as informed by modern psychology, including evolutionary psychology). So let’s try it! If you have any practical questions you’d like me to answer, just write me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I’ll respond to some of the questions in future issues of the newsletter. And, meanwhile, if you want to watch the entire conversation between me and Massimo, it’s here.
WRIGHT: So the idea is to look at a few questions that people have written, and, after we talk about the kind of Stoic guidance you’ve given them, see if I have anything to add from a Buddhist perspective. And maybe we’ll get a chance to elaborate a little on the differences in meditative practice, because I know there are varieties of meditative practice in both traditions. [...]
Let's take a question that you have answered already. Someone writes in:
I am a filmmaker based in India. Lately I've had a very tough time with my career. I feel like I'm working hard, but I just can't seem to catch a break. I mean, I write my scripts, I follow up with people and nobody responds. It's like I'm just being rejected...
He goes on to talk about how, where many of his peers have succeeded, he has failed. It's a failure narrative.
You want to talk a little about how you thought about that?