Through the looking glass

By Robert Wright, Feb 22 2020

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.

Right.

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. 

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Through a glass very, very darkly

By Robert Wright, Feb 15 2020

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.

Yes.

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. 

How to be an Epicurean (instead of being a Stoic)

By Robert Wright, Feb 08 2020

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.

Ethics

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?

Exactly. …

Making sense of the Buddhist idea that the self doesn’t exist

By Robert Wright, Jan 18 2020
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.
Impermanence
Robert Wright: Impermanence is ... a huge theme of the Buddhist worldvieweverything is impermanent, you have to accept that. Does that become vivid in the course of meditation? … 

Joseph Goldstein: Yeah. It very much becomes extremely vivid in meditation practice, because we're practicing being undistracted. As we're undistracted and just connected more to the flow of our changing experience, we see, over and over again, that things are arising and passing away.I'll just give you a couple of very simple examples.

At the end of a formal meditation sitting we might ring the bell. If you just ask somebody what just happened, [they’d say]: "Oh, I heard the sound of the bell”—as if the sound of the bell at the end of the sitting is one thing.

But if we're really being mindful as we are hearing the bell, we see that for however long the sound lasts—maybe 15 seconds, or 20 seconds, or 30 seconds—within that time, there is constant change going on. It's nuances of sound: vibration, intensity, pitch. So many different things are happening within what we would call “the sound of a bell.” So we're really seeing the changing nature on a much more refined level.

And the same thing happens with the familiar meditation object...the breath. Normally we go, "Oh, take an in-breath, take an out-breath”—as if each of them is a single unit. But when we're really being mindful, we see that even within an in-breath, there are hundreds of sensations that are happening. And the quieter we get, we tune in, we refine our perception.

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.

Joseph Goldstein on insight, happiness, and the power of saying ‘It’s OK’

By Joseph Goldstein, Jan 04 2020

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.

Spinoza’s cerebral mysticism

Dec 21 2019
Below is an excerpt from a video dialogue between Robert Wright, author of Why Buddhism Is True, and Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, author of Plato at the Googleplex and Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity.

ROBERT WRIGHT: [Spinoza] kind of fascinates me… There's a phrase that's common now, people will say they're “spiritual but not religious.” And Spinoza strikes me as… maybe one of the first prominent philosophers you could call “spiritual but not religious.” He did use the word God, but not in a way that a lot of religious people would recognize, right?

REBECCA NEWBERGER GOLDSTEIN: Right. Pretty eccentric use of the word God.

By way of background, he was Jewish. His family had fled the Spanish Inquisition. They had been forced to pretend they were Christians. They went to Holland where they didn't have to pretend they were Christians and they could practice Judaism. And wouldn't you know it, their son almost immediately becomes a heretic and is excommunicated [from the Jewish community] at a very young age, in his early 20s, because his views on God and on Judaism are so radical, right?

Yes, yes.

So what was the problem? Where did he depart from orthodoxy? (Almost everywhere, I guess.)

He was put into—actually, in Hebrew it's called “herem”, and it's translated as excommunication, but it really means separation from the community—and usually there was … a term of separation, then you were allowed back in to the community. You did your penance and you came back in. Spinoza's is the only case on record in the Portuguese Jewish community of Amsterdam where it was just “Get out, don't come back, we don't want you.” 

And the thing is that he was, as you say, very young—23, 24. And so, he had not yet published the great work for which we know him, The Ethics. Scholars have speculated for a long time what exactly had he done to so infuriate people. And I have a theory about what he had done, which was that it didn't really matter to him to be part of that community. The one thing about Judaism—and I think it's still quite true—is that the community, the identity with the community, is extremely important.

Spinoza is radical in many, many ways. One way, which really predates the Enlightenment by 100 years and, I think, really pushes us toward the Enlightenment, [is that] he thinks that the identity you're born into is not the important thing. That it's just a matter of the accidents of one's birth. We make our identity by becoming rational. And to the extent we're rational, we all partake of the same identity.

Stephen Batchelor’s Secular Buddhism: Embrace, Let go, Stop, and Act

Dec 14 2019
Below is an excerpt from a video dialogue between Robert Wright, author of Why Buddhism Is True, and Stephen Batchelor, whose seminal book Buddhism Without Beliefs made his name nearly synonymous with “secular Buddhism.”

Robert Wright: Hi Steven. 

Stephen Batchelor: Hello Bob. 

How are you doing?

I'm okay.

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.

Stoicism vs. Buddhism (cont’d): Ancient wisdom for modern-day struggles

By Robert Wright, Dec 06 2019

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 nonzero.news@gmail.com

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?

Buddhism vs. Stoicism: Compare and Contrast

Nov 23 2019
Interest in Stoicism has grown lately—as has interest in Buddhism, particularly the Buddhist idea of mindfulness. Is this just a coincidence, or do these two schools of thought have something in common, something that speaks to a widely felt contemporary need? A while ago, I had a podcast conversation about this with philosopher Massimo Pigliucci, author of the book How to Be a Stoic and a leading figure in the Stoic revival. That conversation has proved popular in video and audio form, so we thought we’d transcribe it and share some of its highlights with newsletter readers. Hope you like the result.

Seeing yourself from the outside (pretty literally)

Nov 16 2019

For my money, one of the most valuable things about a mindfulness practice is that it can give you a more objective view of the world. A bit of critical distance from your feelings can let you see other people with less of the distortion that feelings often bring.

And the people you see more objectively can include you. When mindfulness works well, it can help you reflect on decisions you face and give yourself the kind of guidance you’d get from a wise counselor—someone not caught up in your internal struggles, someone viewing you from the outside.

If you’ve tried mindfulness practice and failed to get such benefits, there may be another way to give yourself counsel with some measure of detachment. A study published in the esteemed scientific journal Nature a few months ago reports on the use of virtual reality to let people see themselves, almost literally, from the outside—and advise themselves from that vantage point.