Altered States

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!

Listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Overcast, Podcast Addict, Pocket Casts, Stitcher, Castbox, Google Podcasts, Amazon Musicor on your favorite podcast platform. You can watch the interview on YouTube here.

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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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What was your favorite quote or lesson from this episode? Please let me know in the comments.


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


Note from the editor: Timestamps will be added shortly.

  • What was the Helmholtz Club, and how did it spark a scientific exploration into the meaning of consciousness?
  • What is consciousness?
  • 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.
  • 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?
  • Will science ever arrive at a theory of everything?
  • What is the holographic model of the universe?
  • 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?
  • How does Donald scientifically explore the concept of conscious agents?
  • Is consciousness localized, or does the brain “receive” it from elsewhere?
  • How does Donald think about death?
  • What are Markovian dynamics?
  • Supplementary information that might help someone who’s struggling to understand parts of this conversation.
  • What is panpsychism, and who are some of the most influential panpsychists?
  • Which aspects of the way we interface with reality give us effective portals into life or consciousness?
  • Probing the deeper reality suggested by amplituhedron, associahedron, and cosmological polytope.
  • At which hallowed institutions are these explorations of consciousness and the nature of a deeper reality being researched, and who is leading the charge?
  • Donald’s thoughts on the use of hallucinogenic drugs to tap into deeper reality and interact with conscious agents.
  • Exploring a theory involving portals and morphogenesis.
  • 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.
  • On Chris Fuchs and the outer fringes of Quantum Bayesian — aka QBism.
  • The experiments Donald would conduct in his research with unlimited funding over the next 10 years, and with whom he would choose to work.
  • What is Donald reading these days?
  • 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.
  • How much pushback has Donald suffered for bringing spirituality into his scientific endeavors? Has any of it been constructive?
  • 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?
  • Parting thoughts.


“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


The Tim Ferriss Show is one of the most popular podcasts in the world with more than 700 million downloads. It has been selected for “Best of Apple Podcasts” three times, it is often the #1 interview podcast across all of Apple Podcasts, and it’s been ranked #1 out of 400,000+ podcasts on many occasions. To listen to any of the past episodes for free, check out this page.

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