I’ve written before about Don Hoffman’s book, The Case Against Reality, and you might want to read that blog post first if you haven’t already – especially if what I write below strikes you as completely bonkers. At the moment it’s an unproven theory, but for me it resonates with other reading I’ve done, in both the psychological and spiritual realms, and if true, it opens up all kinds of exciting possibilities for societal transformation.
In his book, The Case Against Reality: How Evolution Hid The Truth From Our Eyes, Donald Hoffman, a quantitative psychologist at the University of California, Irvine, sets out a radical new theory of reality, based primarily on evolutionary biology and backed up with mathematics. I will offer a short and necessarily crude summary of his theories, and then focus on the aspects that I find the most fascinating, and explain why.
This theory does great violence to most people’s intuitions about what is objectively real and what is not, but I invite you to suspend disbelief and consider that it just might be true, and if so, whether it could start to reconcile science and spirituality. I have a mental picture of science and spirituality divorcing each other around the time of Galileo and the Age of Enlightenment in the 17th century, and it just might be that after several hundred years of estrangement, they are now starting to once again flirt with each other. If Hoffman and his colleagues are right, we may in our lifetimes see them consummate their reunion.
He proposes that over the course of millions of years, evolution has favoured organisms that perceive reality in a useful way, rather than an accurate way. Computer simulations have proved repeatedly that, other things being equal, an organism maximises its evolutionary potential when it optimises for “fitness payoffs” such as fight, flight, feeding, and f…, err, mating, compared with organisms that optimise for truth. In other words, creatures that see the world usefully, rather than accurately, maximise their chances of passing along their genes, while the accuracy-perceiving creatures are weeded out of the gene pool.
As Hoffman puts it, “The truth won’t make you free. It will make you extinct.”
So, over the course of time, human perception (and presumably that of other creatures) has progressively crafted an interface between us and the true nature of reality. This interface is extremely useful, and enables us to manipulate our world in ways that are beneficial to our survival and procreation, but we should not mistake it for reality itself.
Hoffman uses the metaphor of a computer desktop. Maybe I have an icon in the top right corner of my desktop that is blue and rectangular and represents a folder. This is not to say that there is an actual blue rectangular object that contains my documents and spreadsheets. The reality is that my data lies in the ones and zeroes in the circuit boards of my computer, but if I had to manipulate the data at the level of electrical impulses (even if I knew how to), it would take me a very long time to get any work done. So successful generations of computer programmers have created this extremely useful interface that enables me to do my work effectively. The user interface on my computer screen conceals the reality of the electrical pulses that constitute my data.
We already know that non-human creatures perceive reality differently than we do. With its bill, the platypus can locate its prey through electroreception. Bats use echolocation to find their way. Snakes can detect infrared. Birds and bees navigate by perceiving polarised light to calibrate their magnetic compass.
Hoffman also points to synaesthetes, the approximately 4% of humans who have some degree of crossover between their senses. He uses the example of Michael Watson, a chef who perceives flavours as physical objects that hover in front of him, invisible, but which he can feel with his hands as if they were real. Mint translates into a smooth column of ice. Angostura bitters becomes a basket of ivy. Other synaesthetes experience numbers as colours, people as sounds, or different musical instruments as a physical sensation in different parts of their body. It’s as if evolution is experimenting with novel ways to perceive reality to see if they enhance or diminish the usefulness of our user interface.
I will now zero in on the aspects of Hoffman’s theory that especially fascinate me.
Hoffman started out from the “hard problem of consciousness”, the stunning failure of science to explain why we each have a sense of self-ness, as a being that experiences sensory input from our nerve endings, eyes, ears, nose and tongue, and has memories, opinions, and preferences. Neuroscientists have done a good job of identifying “neural correlates of consciousness”, i.e. finding out which parts of the brain respond to which stimuli, but correlation does not establish causation. To date, there is no viable scientific theory that describes how brain activity creates your subjective experience, like the smell of coffee, the sight of a rainbow, the sound of uplifting music, or the thrill of a lover’s touch.
So Hoffman decided to flip the question on its head. If matter does not give rise to consciousness, could it be that consciousness gives rise to matter?
His interim conclusion is that it does, that reality is in fact “a network of conscious agents”, and that space-time, including the neurons that have so fascinated neuroscientists, are a product of that consciousness, created to help us navigate our way through reality.
Could this be what Einstein meant when he said, “Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one”?
This theory seems to support the following:
- If space-time is a product of consciousness, a shift in consciousness could create an apparent “miracle” that defies our intuitive understanding of reality, but could be possible within this new hypothesis.
- This could begin to explain Lynne McTaggart’s Intention Experiments, and the Global Consciousness Project, in which coordinated meditations directed at a specific objective such as peace create a measurable impact on levels of violent crime within the vicinity.
The interaction of more than one consciousness:
Hoffman and his colleagues have created a mathematical representation of consciousness. When they use this to mathematically represent the interaction between two consciousnesses, the resulting representation is also a consciousness, and so on in ever increasing levels of complexity. Consciousness therefore appears to be fractal, with the organism at each level having a degree of consciousness, but not able to access the consciousness of the organisms at the levels above or below. It is like a set of nested Russian dolls, but each doll is unaware of the dolls larger or smaller than itself.
There is some evidence of this in the lived experience of split-brain patients, the poor unfortunates who not only had to have their corpus callosum severed to treat the most severe forms of epilepsy, but are then subjected to a lifetime of experiments by inquisitive neuroscientists like Roger Sperry and Michael Gazzaniga.
There are reported cases of the two hemispheres having quite different personalities, for example, the woman whose right hand and left hand would fight in the supermarket over what items she wanted to put in her trolley, or the student whose right hemisphere wanted to be a racing car driver, while the left wanted to be a draftsman.
Yet, despite these apparently warring hemispheres, when these split-brain patients were asked if they felt any different after the surgery than they had before, they replied that, other than being freed from their debilitating seizures, they felt the same. This initial answer came from the only verbal hemisphere, the left one, so the researchers asked the right hemisphere the same question, providing it with a pencil or a set of Scrabble letters so it could reply non-verbally, and the right hemisphere produced the same answer: no difference. So even though there was now no physical connection at all between the two hemispheres, the subjective perception of the patient was that they were still a unified consciousness.
So if consciousness is fractal, and perceives itself as unified even in the absence of physical connection, this could disrupt our perception of ourselves as isolated individuals. It could be that all the bacteria, viruses, etc. in my microbiome have a consciousness, albeit a limited one, and that I am the sum total of, and yet somehow more than, these consciousnesses. As in chaos theory, it could be that my whole is greater than the sum of my parts.
Could this unification operate at the species-wide level? The controversial biochemist, Rupert Sheldrake, proposes the theory of morphic resonance, which states that “natural systems… inherit a collective memory from all previous things of their kind”, and that morphic resonance explains “telepathy-type interconnections between organisms”.
Moving to the next step up the scale, James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis proposes that the Earth is a self-regulating, synergistic system whose living organisms interact with their ecosystem to optimise conditions for their continued survival. Stephan Harding interprets the hypothesis thus, which sounds very much like a collective consciousness at the planetary level:
“It is at least not impossible to regard the earth’s parts—soil, mountains, rivers, atmosphere etc,—as organs or parts of organs of a coordinated whole, each part with its definite function. And if we could see this whole, as a whole, through a great period of time, we might perceive not only organs with coordinated functions, but possibly also that process of consumption as replacement which in biology we call metabolism, or growth. In such case we would have all the visible attributes of a living thing, which we do not realize to be such because it is too big, and its life processes too slow.”
Beyond a planetary consciousness, at the ultimate stage everything is unified into an overarching collective consciousness (aka God), commensurate with the entire cosmos, and here we are verging on the mystical. The German theologian, Meister Eckhart (1260-1328), is quoted in Aldous Huxley’s The Perennial Philosophy as saying:
“The knower and the known are one. Simple people imagine that they should see God, as if He stood there and they here. This is not so. God and I, we are one in knowledge.”
Huxley also quotes the Blessed John of Ruysbroeck (1293-1381), in a passage which could be interpreted as a holographic representation of consciousness:
“The image of God is found essentially and personally in all mankind. Each possesses it whole, entire and undivided, and all together not more than one alone. In this way we are all one, intimately united in our eternal image, which is the image of God and the source in us of all our life.”
Some modern secular texts, such as Conversations with God, emphasise that “We Are All One” in a way that seems more than metaphorical, representing our sense of self as being something of a delusion that separates us from each other and from our spiritual source.
“We are all One. That is what is meant by ‘whatsoever ye do unto the least of these… ye do unto me.’… Consciousness is a marvellous thing. It can be divided into a thousand pieces. A million. A million times a million. I [God] have divided Myself into an infinite number of ‘pieces’ – so that each ‘piece’ of Me could look back on Itself and behold the wonder of Who and What I Am.”
Even Einstein had something to say on the matter:
“We experience ourselves, our thoughts and feelings as something separate from the rest. A kind of optical delusion of consciousness.”
For sure, at the very least an appreciation of the interconnectedness of all life, if not going as far as “We Are All One”, has been shown to be beneficial to compassion, altruism, and psychological wellbeing.
“A variety of philosophical, religious, spiritual, and scientific perspectives converge on the notion that everything that exists is part of some fundamental entity, substance, or process. People differ in the degree to which they believe that everything is one, but we know little about the psychological or social implications of holding this belief. In two studies, believing in oneness was associated with having an identity that includes distal people and the natural world, feeling connected to humanity and nature, and having values that focus on other people’s welfare… The belief in oneness is a meaningful existential belief that has numerous implications for people’s self-views, experiences, values, relationships, and behavior.”
Death may not be the end:
Daring to go where most scientists would fear to tread, Hoffman proposes that, if his theory of consciousness is correct, that space-time is an illusion and that consciousness gives rise to the phenomenon of matter, death may not be as terminal as Western secular culture would have us believe.
He uses a metaphor from virtual reality: if I and my friends put on our VR headsets to play a game of beach volleyball, we would have the very convincing perception that we were suddenly transported to a beach with a volleyball court, a net, and a ball. We would play for a while inside this virtual interface, and then, maybe, I would say that I am thirsty and I am going to fetch a drink. I take off my VR headset. To my friends, I would appear to either collapse, lifeless, to the ground, or I would disappear altogether, depending on the programming. In either case, I would appear to have expired, but in fact I would simply have stepped out of the interface to get refreshment.
If, as Hoffman suggests, death is no more than stepping out of the earthly interface or, as the Dalai Lama has put it, equivalent to a change of clothes, this would have major impacts on the story that most non-religious people tell themselves about the finality of death, with all the anxiety that brings. Compelling research suggests that fear of death makes us less happy, unsurprisingly, and more materialistic.
Adopting a different belief around death could enable us to opt out of what I call the existential death spiral, in which climate change (or any other existential threat) makes us anxious, so to divert ourselves and/or to create a reassuring external representation of permanence and immortality we go shopping, which exacerbates the very problem that made us anxious in the first place, leading to still greater anxiety, and more retail therapy, and so on.
If death lost its sting, in other words, we would be more relaxed, indulge less in the purchase of superfluous consumer goods, and improve the long-term prospects of our species.
When ancient wisdom from just about every religious tradition across the world appears to be converging with modern psychological research and theories on the fundamental nature of reality, it is at least worth paying attention to.
For many years I have had a mental image of what is needed in the world, which looks like a deep blue subterranean pool representing our collective consciousness, into which I long to throw a big rock that will send waves of change rippling out through the water. This metaphor depends on the existence of the pool – a dimension in which we are all connected – and it would seem that science is now starting to agree with spirituality that such a dimension exists.
It also depends on the availability of a rock, and for a long time I did not know what this rock might be. Now it seems increasingly obvious to me that I am the rock. You are the rock. We are all rocks with the ability to spread ripples of change. In fact, we are already doing so, but for the most part our ripples are unconscious and lacking in specific intention. Now would be a good time to take our cue from Lynne McTaggart’s Intention Experiments, and start using manifestation to create a better world for everybody.