Ars on your lunch break: The oddly divisible nature of consciousness

Below you’ll find the third installment of this week’s After On podcast interview, in which UC-Irvine quantitative psychologist Don Hoffman presents his wildly counterintuitive theory on the nature of reality. Check out parts one and two if you missed them. Otherwise, press play on the embedded player or pull up the transcript, both of which are below.

We kick off today’s segment by talking about what’s widely referred to as “the hard problem of consciousness” (what is it, and how does it arise from inert matter?). Don takes a highly contrarian approach to the subject. “We’ll try to solve the mind/body problem the other direction,” he says. “Instead of starting with a physical world that’s not conscious and trying to figure out how we can boot up consciousness from unconscious ingredients, maybe we can start with a mathematical theory of consciousness and then show how we could boot up space-time and physical objects [from that].”

Next, we discuss the eerie results of several-hundred brain-splitting surgeries, which were performed a few decades back. These severed the connection that ties the left side of the brain to the right. This wasn’t barbaric stuff but a genuinely effective therapy for people who were crippled by certain seizure syndromes. Powerful evidence eventually emerged that two independent—and at times conflicting—conscious entities resulted from these surgeries. Don knows quite a bit about all this because he knew the surgeon who performed a high percentage of the operations.

We close by discussing “panpsychism”—which is a legitimately serious school of thought (although one with a serious branding problem, if you ask me). Don doesn’t personally subscribe to it. But a surprisingly large number of people do, and he encapsulates it for us quite well.

If you enjoy my interview with Don, a full archive of the After On episodes can be found on my site, or via your favorite podcast app, by searching for “After On.” The broader series is built around deep-dive interviews with world-class thinkers, founders, and scientists, and tends to be very tech- and science-heavy.

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, 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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