Ars on your lunch break: nothing is real except for object impermanence

Below you’ll find the second installment of the After On podcast interview in which UC Irvine quantitative psychologist Don Hoffman presents his wildly counterintuitive theory on the nature of reality. Please check out part one if you missed it. Otherwise, press play on the embedded player, or pull up the transcript—both of which are below.

Don and I open this episode by discussing his take on space-time. He refutes that the notion that space itself existed at all before consciousness. “Space is something that you create right now,” he says. “It’s a data structure that you create for data compression and error correction” to maximize your understanding of fitness payoffs in your environment. The same is true of 3D objects. Don essentially believes that if you’re alone in a room with a chair, that chair ceases to exist when you look away from it.

The bottom line is that the physical objects populating our world are just “icons.” As noted in yesterday’s piece, he likens them to the trashcan thumbnail on your computer desktop. That doesn’t mean you can safely step in front of an SUV on the logic that it’s a harmless visual construct. Don says that while he doesn’t take our world of “icons” literally, he does take them seriously. He avoids stepping in front of cars for the same reason we all avoid putting precious work in the Trash folder and then clicking delete. Although there’s no actual blue trashcan hiding within your computer, you ignore the icon’s significance at your peril!

Almost inevitably, we get into quantum physics. Reading this, some of you surely rolling your eyes (metaphorically, I mean—reading would otherwise be tricky). But rest assured, Don isn’t some New Age guru citing spooky physics as part of a healing crystal sales pitch. He’s a serious thinker who understands this stuff cold. For my part, I make a detailed attempt at describing the double-slit experiment without the benefit of visuals for those who aren’t familiar with it (don’t try this at home).

If you enjoy this installment and can’t wait for part three (which goes up on Ars tomorrow), you can find the full episode in my podcast feed, where it first appeared in April. A full archive of my show can be found on my site, or via your favorite podcast app by searching under the words “After On.” There, you’ll find deep-dive interviews with other world-class thinkers, founders, and scientists—tackling subjects including synthetic biology, cryptocurrency, astrophysics, drones, genomics, neuroscience, consciousness, privacy & government hacking, and a whole lot more.

Finally, if you’re curious about the latest episode in the main After On podcast feed, on Monday I posted an interview with Great Britain’s Astronomer Royal Martin Rees. We of course discuss some astrophysical awesomeness, like gamma ray bursts. But our main topic is the existential dangers facing humanity in the 21st century. If you find this topic interesting (or uplifting), you may want to check out the four-part essay I just starting posting on, called “Privatizing the Apocalypse.”

This special edition of the Ars Technicast podcast can be accessed in the following places:

iTunes: (Might take several hours after publication to appear.)




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