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Reality Reminded, a podcast like no other!

Reality Reminded, a podcast like no other!

Listening | Journalism

Hans Busstra | 2021-10-24

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We are exceedingly happy to be launching the Reality Reminded podcast today, with acclaimed Dutch documentary filmmaker Hans Busstra. Could it be that we have ‘un’minded reality and now need to ‘re’mind it? This is a show like no other, in that each episode covers a specific theme, as opposed to a specific interviewee; the listening experience has an almost visual feel to it; and the content covered is more akin to an ongoing television documentary than a podcast. And best of all, it’s all FREE.

In Reality Reminded, I share my research for a new documentary about metaphysical idealism. In this first episode, I take you back to what first fired my interest in idealism: my fascination with conscious artificial intelligence. Diving into the idea of spiritual machines, I found myself stumbling upon metaphysical and mathematical problems that point away from materialism.

Could it be that we’ve ‘un’minded reality and now need to ‘re’mind it?

This first episode features archival footage from Ray Kurzweil and Yuval Noah Harari, and exclusive interviews with Meghan O’ Ghieblyn, Jeffrey J. Kripal and Roger Penrose.

This ‘zero-worlds’ theory might just be crazy enough to be true

This ‘zero-worlds’ theory might just be crazy enough to be true

Reading | Physics

Hans Busstra | 2021-07-18

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Physicist Markus Müller developed a mathematical probability theory that can solve some fundamental puzzles of physics better than current theories. Journalist Hans Busstra interviewed Müller on his so-called ‘zero-worlds’ theory, which was not meant as a proof of an idealistic worldview, but does ‘give you idealism for free.’

His own quantum theory made Werner Heisenberg ponder deeply on the nature of reality: “I think modern physics has definitely decided in favor of Plato. Physical objects are forms, ideas which can be expressed unambiguously only in mathematical language.”

Just like all of us mortals, physicists are somehow stuck in Plato’s cave, never being able to see the actual flames outside the cave that cast shadows on the walls inside. At the end of the day physics cannot answer metaphysical questions for us about what matter is, or if it exists independent of our observation. When I first realized this, I found it deeply unsettling, but thought to myself: at least physics can give us the laws of nature that govern the shadows in the cave, the laws governing what we call matter.

But it only took me a surface reading of modern physics to realize that things are a bit more complicated still. For instance, there is a pretty good chance that a modern physicist sitting beside you in Plato’s cave could say something like: ‘let go of the idea of one outside of the cave, there is an infinitely large amount of different ‘outsides’ that exist simultaneously, you only get to see one of them.’ Or, put differently: ‘let go of the idea that there are deterministic laws governing the flames and shadows, there are only probabilities.’ But recently I sat down with a physicist that even takes things a step further, and says: ‘what if there is no outside of the cave at all?’

Markus Müller PhD, who is Group Leader at the Institute for Quantum Optics and Quantum Information in Vienna, Austria and visiting fellow at the prestigious Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Canada, came up with a probability theory that can make accurate mathematical predictions about the world we see without the notion that an outside world actually exists. With a smile on his face Müller calls it a “zero-worlds” theory.

Müller’s ideas, based on his work in quantum information theory, are hard to grasp because they are about as counter intuitive as it gets. But to solve some of the fundamental questions of modern physics, they might be a hint to the right direction. To quote Niels Bohr, maybe Müller’s ideas are “crazy enough to be true.”


What is in essence the difference between information theory and quantum information theory?

The main difference is, I would say, that in standard information theory you can always reduce everything to a lack of knowledge. For any given question, you can always assume that the answer is already out there in the world. You just don’t know it. This turns out to be wrong in quantum theory: it just doesn’t work to assume that the answers to all questions are already out there before you ask, unless we give up other important principles of physics like locality. There’s a kind of missing information that’s not due to missing knowledge, but due to the fact that the world hasn’t decided yet. I hesitate putting it so simplified, and would rather go into the mathematics to explain this rigorously, but let me give a practical example of quantum information theory. If information isn’t ‘out’ yet, then you can use it to do cryptography and have a secret key that nobody can spy on, because you can’t spy on a key that’s not yet there. You can only spy on information that’s already out there in the world. Put differently: if the world hasn’t ‘decided’ yet whether an electron spins left or right, and then you measure it and find an answer, then nobody else can know the answer unless you tell them. This is a colorful way to explain the mathematics of parts of quantum cryptography or the quantum generation of random numbers—though I know how counterintuitive this sounds to someone unfamiliar with quantum information theory.


It is absolutely counter-intuitive and confuses everything about what we normally understand when we talk about ‘information.’ Is it correct that in quantum theory we can only speak of probabilities, instead of ‘solid’ information about the world?

On a microscopic level quantum theory only gives you probabilities for an outcome, it doesn’t tell you which outcome you will see. So if you send a photon to a half-silvered mirror, it can either be reflected or pass through, but you don’t know which of the two you will get. But if you send two million photons in a row, you can be pretty sure that you will roughly get one million passes and one million reflections. In a similar way things average out in our macroscopic world: for large objects and many particles, most predictions become essentially deterministic.


What fascinates me, is that in this probabilistic world everything is theoretically possible, for instance many copies of myself could be out there in the universe. What bothers you is not so much the weirdness of these ideas, but the fact that current physics cannot give us accurate probabilities about the weirdness, right?

Well, according to some models the universe is so extremely large that we should expect very unlikely things to happen, and that they should happen a large number of times. Now the idea of copies of yourself, that you’re referring to, is called the Boltzmann brain problem. Imagine a brain popping up somewhere in the universe with exactly all the memories that you’re holding of your life on earth. According to some cosmological models, it is much more likely in the universe for such a ‘Boltzmann brain’ to spontaneously emerge, than it is for our human brains to have evolved on earth. But if this is true, doesn’t this mean that we should believe that we are Boltzmann brains—and believe that in the next few moments, we will disappear as quickly as we have popped up? Cosmologists ponder about these questions, because they think it allows them to distinguish “good” from “bad” cosmological models—those with or without Boltzmann brains. But if you try to answer questions like this, you automatically run into fundamental other questions, like how big is the multiverse? Why do the laws of nature have the form that they have? Could they be different somewhere else in the universe? And: where exactly are we in this universe?


OK, so if I understand correctly: if we for instance want to calculate the probability that we’re a Boltzmann brain, we need to know these variables, some of which we cannot in principle know…

Yes, according to some models of our universe, there has been in the beginning after the Big Bang a phase of rapid growth. The universe was expanding very rapidly and it’s become extremely large. We only see a small portion of it until we reach the event horizon, the place from where light cannot reach us to tell us what’s out there. And in different universes different laws of physics could apply. So there are simply too many unknowns.


Now you came up with a rather remarkable ‘work around’ and suggest a bold thought-experiment: what if we let go for a moment of the whole idea that we are located in a physical universe, could that help us to be a bit more precise on the probabilities of, for instance, the idea of Boltzmann brains?

Instead of making all sorts of metaphysical assumptions about what is out there in the universe, I want to begin with something that’s kind of unquestionable, namely that I’m an observer and I see something. Now you could talk about consciousness and subjective experience but for me as a physicist it’s actually more technical. I would just say I have a bunch of locally available data and I want to make a guess what the data will be next. Usually, we assume that the external world determines your next data: you look up and see a bright spot in the sky because there is the Sun out there, and the laws of physics determine what the Sun looks like. So to predict, we model the world, say where we are in that world, and apply the known laws of physics. But the Boltzmann brain problem shows that this doesn’t always work—you could be a brain floating out there that has a memory of the sun, without a real sun out there.

Thus, I’m proposing something different: assume that what’s next is determined directly by the data that you hold and nothing else; no external world, no physical laws in the usual sense. Instead, a single claim: what you see next is determined by a probability law called “algorithmic probability.” It’s something that computer scientists have discovered independently. It gives computers a way to predict what happens next without knowing the laws of physics; it’s a kind of “gold standard” for machine learning. It turns out that this probability law is in principle in agreement with physics: it predicts that what you see looks very much as if there was an external world around you—without having assumed that there is actually such a world in the first place.


It sounds like a radical quantum approach to the macroscopic world, putting the observer or the measurement at the centre. But how exactly does algorithmic probability allow us to infer a complete external world only from ‘data’ that we see directly?

An understandable way of explaining it is to take a look at Conway’s Game of Life. This is a simulated world on your computer built up of lots of squares that can be black or white on a large canvas. These squares, called cellular automata, are governed by a couple of simple rules like: if a white square is surrounded by three other white squares it turns black. Now you start the Game with a simple initial state and then let it run and the most interesting structures evolve. It actually is a great metaphor of evolution to see how complexity emerges from very simple rules. And say this is our universe, this super large canvas with cellular automata giving us data. We are ‘trapped’ in only a very small part of the canvas and we don’t know the rules that govern the patterns we see. So what if we don’t ask what is the explanation for the patterns we see, but simply: what pattern will I see next? The way it’s mathematically formulated is to scan through all possible computations for a particular pattern and figure out what the simplest computation is, and with a high probability that will be the computation to predict what you see next.

A cellular automaton with very simple local rules (only slightly less simple than the Game of Life), seemingly giving rise to a complex world of large, interacting triangular patterns. No triangles or global interactions actually exist in the rules.


Still this sounds just as abstract as it sounds commonsensical: to predict what we see next around us, we look at what we’ve seen before—the basics of induction. What exactly is the value of this approach?

My approach allows us to address questions that are impossible to answer within our usual picture of physics: How should we think of cosmology‘s “Boltzmann brain problem” explained above? Why is there a world with laws of physics in the first place? How should we think about the puzzles of quantum mechanics? If we simulate a human being on a computer, will it “wake up” in the simulation?

Currently, many of these questions are studied by ad-hoc philosophical contemplation, but my approach gives concrete mathematical answers. For example, it allows you to calculate the probability that you will next disappear like a Boltzmann brain. Or, in the simulation example, if tells you the probability that you will next observe the simulated computer world around you as opposed to the ordinary one. In contrast to philosophy, we can check whether this probability law is consistent with empirical science: it’s a single law that is supposed to apply to crazy thought experiments and to ordinary physics experiments alike. This makes it in principle testable, in contrast to ad-hoc philosophical or religious approaches.


How does your theory relate to an idealist worldview?

It is a kind of a similar view: my approach claims that some notion of “mind” is fundamental, not the “world.” But there is an important difference: my notion of “mind” is mathematical and information-theoretic. It is not directly related to consciousness or the quality of experience. This is a big difference to many philosophical versions of idealism.

Traditional versions of idealism have always faced a difficulty: how do you account for the outside world? If there is fundamentally only mind, isn’t it a miracle that things look as if there was an external world that evolves according to stringent laws? Where does it come from? How do you explain that there are things that seem to be external to you? The good news here is that you get this for free in my model, you can prove mathematically that things look for us pretty much as if we were embedded in a physical world. There is a fun way to describe what I’m doing. In quantum theory, a popular view is the “many-worlds interpretation”: everything that can possibly happen does actually happen, in a large number of parallel worlds. I agree that there is not “one world”, but I’m proposing the other possibility: a ‘zero-worlds’ theory.


One thing that I like personally, but that also puzzles me about idealism, and also about your theory, is that there seems to be the suggestion that ‘mind’ or ‘the observer’ has some sort of agency, that it can really influence the world which it observes, that we somehow cause or mentally construct this ‘zero-world’ you’re talking about. What is your reflection here?

This is a very common misunderstanding, so let me make this very clear: my approach does not at all make any such claims. The ‘zero-world’ is not mentally constructed, and it cannot be modified merely by wishful thinking or one’s personal attitude. In my approach, a notion of “mind” is fundamental, in the sense that a probability law acts on it directly, without mediation by any “external world.” But see: not the mind is in control, but the mathematical probability law.

What’s out there when our brains quit telling us stories?

What’s out there when our brains quit telling us stories?

Reading | Neuroscience

Hans Busstra | 2021-06-18

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In this interview with University of Oregon neuroscientist Prof. Marjorie Woollacott, journalist Hans Busstra explores a critical question: if the reality we think we inhabit is but a story confabulated by the brain’s ‘default mode network,’ what is the world ‘out there,’ and the self ‘in here,’ when the inner storytelling is subdued through meditation?

Every day our brains boot up narratives about our identity and what life’s all about.

Like breathing, this goes fully automatically and is done by a part of our brain that’s called the ‘default mode network.’ But sometimes the default mode network can go into overdrive and become such a convincing storyteller that its useful fictions cloud our perception of the world around us. What if we could tune the storytelling down once in a while, to broaden our sense of reality?

On questions like these, I interviewed Marjorie Woollacott, PhD, who has been a neuroscience professor at the University of Oregon for more than three decades and a meditator for almost four. In her latest book Infinite Awareness: The Awakening of a Scientific Mind, she explores the nature of consciousness and shares some of the stunning research findings around the power of meditation and altered states of consciousness.

Talking to Marjorie made me realize that we not only engage in storytelling in relation to our own life, we also unavoidably do so in relation to the nature of reality and consciousness. On both these levels it can be an eye-opening exercise to try and quit the storytelling.


What do we know scientifically about the effects of meditation on our brains?

More and more studies are showing the beneficial effects of meditation on the brain. What my colleagues and I showed in one of our publications, about 7 years ago, was that  meditation is an important factor in allowing people to be faster at suppressing inappropriate impulses. We put an EEG cap over people’s heads to measure brain potentials while they were playing a computer game to see how quickly they could respond to a stimulus that comes on. As the rules of the game changed all the time, they had to be very, very focused. What we found is that the group of meditators in our study outperformed the non-meditators significantly.


Was there a visible difference in the brains of meditators versus non-meditators that could explain this difference in performance?

I found it amazing that the EEG showed that the anterior cingulate cortex, the part of the brain associated with how we allocate our focus, is actually more active with experienced meditators. Other studies have shown that it is larger as well. What the anterior cingulate cortex does is that it catches the fact that our mind has wandered and it brings us back to focused tasks. In the case of meditating: the moment you start meditating and start focusing on your breath, distractions pop up and you start thinking about dinner tonight for instance. This happens because a very different part of the brain has taken control of your thoughts: your ‘mind wandering network,’ which we call the ‘default mode network.’ The default mode network tells us the stories about who we are and how we relate to the universe. As meditation trains and enlarges the anterior cingulate cortex we develop a stronger ‘check’ on the default mode network. It begins to become quieter. You could say: the stories, narratives in our brain are tuned down.


As someone who believes in the power of storytelling I would think: why is this relevant? Because, isn’t our ability to tell stories to ourselves about who we are one of our most powerful tools to navigate this world? So why tune down the default mode network?

Well, the default mode network, which is indispensable for our functioning, can also be a source of distraction and unhappiness. Matthew Killingsworth at Harvard University has shown that there is a direct correlation between mind wandering, losing yourself in narratives about your life, and not being happy. When we’re focused on a task we are much, much happier. So developing a strong anterior cingulate cortex that prevents the default mode network from dominating our brains directly contributes to mental wellbeing. In other studies we see that a reduction of the activity in the default mode network is accompanied by people reporting an experience of unity and enlarged awareness. To me this is fascinating, because it seems as if the default mode network and its narrative function is actually one of those filters on the brain that is keeping us from a more expanded awareness. And once we turn off that particular filter, or turn it way down, we suddenly have experiences and perceptions that we don’t usually have with our normal waking awareness.


The paradoxical idea that brain activity operates by actually reducing, instead of increasing, awareness is explained by the filter thesis, the idea that our brains are simply ‘filtering’ a much larger consciousness, reducing it to our ego-consciousness. Do we have any scientific leads on how this filtering actually would take place?

I think this is the sixty-four thousand dollar question. When I write articles about this filtering process that keeps us from a more expanded awareness I immediately go to our brain and our nervous system and explain how all the input from our five senses is being processed. That’s the first level of filtering. And then there’s the default mode network we’ve discussed, that’s another level of filtering, where your narrative cuts you off from a broader awareness. So that’s my neural story. But it can’t be all of it. Because what we also see is that, even when people describe having left their body in a near-death experience, they don’t seem to necessarily feel an absolute oneness immediately with everybody; they still experience a sense of self.


This is puzzling because it seems as if the filter thesis falls short here: even without any filtering of the brain—because it is clinically dead—there still is ego-consciousness?

I don’t know whether, as humans, we will ever have complete answers to that, but I think what all of us interested in this want to do is simply to have scientists and humanists have the time to explore this together further. We need to answer questions like: what really is this consciousness all about and what does it mean to have a filter? And are there people that, for example, leave this body, go to the other side and they still have a filter on? And could it be that one of the reasons they may come back to this body is because they are still a separate psychological entity, and they are attracted to going back one more time to having this great drama of being a human in this universe? Who knows?


For me, as someone who is highly interested in all of this, it is easy to get carried away by ideas like these. Since you are also open about your own mystical experiences as a meditator, I’m curious how you keep yourself from getting biased, from wanting certain outcomes to be true…

First of all, it is unavoidable that our subjective experience biases us toward our understanding of reality. So we have to be open about that. When it comes to having or not having had a mystical experience it works both ways: when you haven’t had a mystical experience, your lack of that experience probably tells you that there is nothing beyond physical reality because that’s all you know. That also is a subjective bias. What I think as a scientist is that we need to get together people who have an interest in exploring the primacy of consciousness and those that believe that it is impossible, but who are willing to collaborate on an experiment. In this way, if they agree on the experimental methods to test a particular phenomenon, both groups will be inclined to accept the validity of the results.


So you say, let’s bring in the skeptics…

Yes, but one of the problems of making real scientific progress is very practical and has to do with funding. We’ve discovered quarks and bosons by putting incredible amounts of money into these machines that allow us to prove the existence of subatomic particles. If only we would invest a fraction of these kinds of budgets into consciousness research, I think we could make considerably more progress. Unfortunately, when it comes to funding research on mind and consciousness, governments worldwide don’t see it as important because they are so caught up in a materialist framework of reality.


Apart from the need for more funding, what is the best way forward, you think?

We need to have an open mind. When I was a true materialist scientist, before I had any experiences of expanded awareness through meditation, I would hear stories about the police using a psychic to help solve a problem and I would just sort of smile and say: ‘oh, come on.’ But now, I’m more openly looking at the evidence we have for such parapsychological phenomena. Take for instance the research of Dean Radin, who was for many years at Princeton University, on distant intentionality, the ability to affect matter with your mind. Radin and others have shown that an ordinary person can literally shift the output of a random number generator toward higher or lower numbers, through their distant intentionality. Now I know his research is regarded by skeptics as controversial and pseudoscience, but statistician Jessica Utts, who was not involved in the research, critically looked at the statistical analysis of all the experiments performed in this area and concluded that if this were an ordinary set of experiments in mainstream science, it would be absolutely accepted as perfect evidence for this phenomenon.

When I was teaching pre-med students at the University of Oregon, I gave a course on alternative and complementary medicine and I gave them the assignment to just go online to peer-reviewed journals and read every research article they could find, for or against the efficacy of a specific complementary modality, like acupuncture or energy healing, and to write a paper about it. By the end of the term, most of them had turned around from being skeptics to being convinced that things like energy healing or acupuncture are really valid, by having looked at the research literature. To me that’s hopeful, that a young generation of scientists really are developing an open mind.

The flip, and the flipped: leaving materialism behind. An interview with Jeffrey J. Kripal.

The flip, and the flipped: leaving materialism behind. An interview with Jeffrey J. Kripal.

Reading | Philosophy

Hans Busstra | 2021-04-30

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Hans Busstra is a journalist and documentary filmmaker. In collaboration with Essentia Foundation he is doing research on a new documentary that will explore idealism as a potential new worldview replacing materialism. In this series of articles, and a podcast series that will be published later this year, he shares the highlights of his research conversations with scientists, scholars and experts.

A lot gets lost when making a documentary. During research you usually speak to dozens of experts who will give you great insights into a subject. But researching, filming and editing a documentary film is a merciless ‘kill your darlings’ process: only a fraction of all quotes recorded make it to the final edit of your documentary. Since the project I’m currently working on—a documentary on idealism—has such depth to it, I decided it’s worthwhile to share all gems found along the way.

What one can only hope for during the research of a complex topic is to encounter the right guide—as a storyteller I would say ‘sage’—who can help you navigate the unknown waters. I’m grateful to have stumbled on someone who exactly fits this profile: Jeffrey Kripal.

Kripal is the J. Newton Rayzor Chair in Philosophy and Religious Thought at Rice University in Houston, Texas. My first acquaintance with Kripal’s work was through his book ‘The Flip’,

an essay—as Kripal calls it himself—in which Kripal makes a case to open our eyes for dazzling anomalies that contradict our materialist-reductionist worldview. Those who do, risk to ‘flip’.

Kripal describes flipped scientists, how they make sense of the world after leaving behind the mainstream paradigm of materialism and he goes on to stimulate the reader to explore some of these alternative worldviews for themselves. His book has received numerous positive reviews, and the well respected journalist Michael Pollan, who himself has written on the mystery of the mind, called it “mindblowing”.


How do you define materialism, and what are your objections to it?

The fundamental premise of materialism is that there’s this thing called matter, and that only it is real, and that any kind of subjective form of awareness or consciousness, therefore, must be a product of that material base. But what’s so extraordinary is this. If you talk to neuroscientists today, they’re the first people to say something like: ‘We don’t have a clue how you get from warm brain matter to this 3D movie that you and I are in right now. We don’t even have a beginning. We can’t even imagine that in principle.” It’s not like, “We have a model, and we just need to tinker with it for a few more decades.” It’s more like, “No, we don’t even have a beginning to that.”


Then, some of these scientists ‘flip’, what do you mean exactly by this term?

Most academics and intellectuals in general are trained in their education to think that materialism is the truth of things, that there is fundamentally matter, that the world is fundamentally material, and that all mind or consciousness is a kind of a temporary byproduct of material processes. A flip occurs when one of these trained intellectuals or professionals has some kind of extraordinary experience and “flips,” in the sense that they realize that consciousness or mind might actually be fundamental or primary in the material world. It is not that they’re now denying material reality. It’s rather that they’re now seeing the fundamental nature of consciousness or mind, and they no longer see it as just a byproduct of the material world. They understand that things are infinitely more complex and rich, and truly fantastic.


So ‘the flip’ then, is the result of an experience, rather than the result of intellectual thought?

I think the mistake that we’re making today and certainly in our academic culture is that we confuse consciousness with thinking. We confuse consciousness with cognition, to be more technical about it. These flip states have little, if anything, to do with thought. They’re not about thinking anything. They’re about the thinker. They’re about realizing that there’s a thinker behind all the thoughts.


This seems to go against the fundamentals of our scientific worldview, that takes rational thinking as its departure point… 

Descartes’ cogito ergo sum. That’s usually translated as ‘I think, therefore I am,’ but it could just as well have meant for Descartes something like ‘I am conscious, therefore I am.’ If we identify consciousness with thinking, then, of course, when the brain deteriorates or dies and thought is no longer possible, consciousness cannot be possible. That is clearly where we’re at as a secular scientistic culture. We just (naively) equate consciousness with the brain, and we equate consciousness with thought. We assume, therefore, that when the brain and thought are gone, consciousness must be gone.


And you describe this materialistic assumption as a new form of belief…

Materialism simply replaced monotheism. But scientific beliefs can do things that religious beliefs couldn’t. You see, they’re much more effective on a technological level. But the problem with them is that, in order to work, they have to basically erase us: science can explain almost anything, except you or me. And so we’re left out of the picture, and then we’re told: ‘Well, you know, consciousness doesn’t really exist.’ Not exactly very convincing. I think what we did is that we confused technological success with philosophical truth. As I like to joke, we just assume the following logic: “We can build refrigerators, therefore materialism is true.” I know that doesn’t follow. That’s my point.


One ‘heavyweight’ category of scientists that you label ‘flipped’ were the early quantum physicists from Schrödinger to Bohm and Pauli. You describe how they all became interested in mystical literature, because it seemed to offer an explanatory non-dual metaphysics for the quantum world they observed. How serious should we take this link 100 years later, I mean nowadays ‘quantum mysticism’ is another word for ‘pseudoscience’…

OK, so not only did the early quantum physicists combine comparative mystical literature and quantum physics. They insisted the mystical literature was the best place to go to see what the effects of quantum reality are “up here,” in our world and experience. They saw this comparison almost instantly. Too many physicists today, I think, would say something historically ignorant, like: ‘Well, this comparison between mystical literature and quantum physics is just a countercultural fluke. You know, it was New Age hippies who did that.’ And I want to say, “Sorry, this is simply not true. You know, your own founders, people you still read and revere, they were all saying this back in the 20s, 30s, and 40s. Just go read them. Stop the nonsense. And, oh, by the way, stop making fun of the New Age and hippies. They aren’t punching bags.”


But was this a private fascination for them, or did they publicly link quantum physics to the metaphysics of mystical literature?

They were public about this. Schrödinger wrote some wonderful things on how there’s only one mind, or One Mind. And he was reading Sufi and Hindu mystical literatures, through the available humanistic and historical scholarship, of course. He has this memorable line where, after a dear friend dies, and he’s really struggling over this, someone asks him whether animals have souls. And he replies in so many words: ‘Of course, animals don’t have souls. And neither do we. We’re all one mind. The light returns to the one light at death, and that’s it. The light does not and cannot die. It just returns to the light.’ So he had this whole metaphysical system in place. Or consider someone like Niels Bohr. He actually put the Chinese Daoist yin-yang symbol on his coat of arms. That’s how deep down the rabbit hole he had gone. He saw the cultural expression of the uncertainty principle in quantum mechanics in Chinese Daoism. It’s hard not to look at his coat of arms and think he’s a New Ager. [Laughs:] Oh, it’s Niels Bohr. It’s the guy who created the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics.


Isn’t there more cultural tension these days around relating quantum physics to metaphysical systems of non-duality? Watching for instance a debate between Deepak Chopra and Sam Harris, we hear Harris literally warning the audience that it’s dangerous to link quantum physics with religion or spirituality—suggesting that that is exactly what Chopra is doing.

So, first of all, I don’t think Deepak is offering anything particularly dogmatic. I think he’s trying to bring worlds together. And why not? As for Sam’s reply, I think this is how this desperately needed synthesis is resisted, frankly. It’s as if he were saying: ‘Only quantum physicists should talk about quantum mechanics.’ But why? That assumption seems to me to lead to cultural disasters, if not to open cultural schizophrenia. Now, of course, people who are going to talk about the implications of quantum mechanics are going to make mistakes about what quantum mechanics is. That’s OK. So correct them and help them get in on the conversation. But don’t tell us that we can’t have this conversation. We’re made of quantum processes, too, you know. If we can let that conversation happen, I think it will eventually lead to a future answer, or set of answers, and in all kinds of genres, including and especially artistic and science fiction ones. We need a new imagination. My own best bet is that future culture is not going to be a scientific culture in the materialist or secular sense. But it’s also not going to be a religious culture. It will be something we have not even imagined yet, much less enacted through our knowledge and technologies. And I think that’s what is so difficult for people to understand. People like myself are not offering a solution here. We’re offering a conversation. And we don’t know where it’s going to go. I think Sam Harris is doing the same, by the way. When he talks about meditation, Buddhism, and the nature of consciousness in an effort to push us all beyond where we are at the moment with our science or religion, he is offering his own future synthesis of mind and matter.


You do describe the directions though, the best metaphysical options we have for explaining consciousness. They range from panpsychism, the idea that all matter is ‘minded’, to idealism, the idea that there is one universal mind. In earlier interviews you mentioned that your personal position is somewhere in between these poles, called ‘dual aspect monism’, how would you define that? 

Dual aspect monism basically says that when you and I are talking, there’s an inside relating to an outside. I experience myself as essentially this twoness. There is something “inside” this body-brain relating to all these objects “out here” in three dimensional space. You’re on my internal screen, as it were. But, fundamentally, deep down, there is absolutely no distinction between my own subjectivity and this material world. They are ontologically monistic. It’s all one world. What actually splits this fundamental unity into two is this body brain. I’m the splitter. You’re the splitter. The body and the brain are what splits the one world into a mental and a material dimension, but deep down that world is both mental and material at the same time, or, if you prefer, it’s neither. However you want to talk about it, it’s not matter as traditionally conceived (but neither is it mind as traditionally conceived. So am I materialist? Yes, or No. Am I an idealist? Yes, or No. Do you see my paradoxical point? It’s only paradoxical on this level. We keep thinking in binarisms or dualisms, which simply are not so on a deeper level.


This might all sound theoretical and abstract, but what’s so fascinating about your notion of ‘The Flip’ is that actually many normal people experience this one-ness, denied or ignored by materialism. Could you say something about the amount of ‘real life stories’ that you have encountered?

I get emails every single week now, multiple emails. I can’t even respond to them any longer. And they’re often long. And they detail the most extraordinary things (ed. paranormal, mystical experiences) happening to people. Very often, they’ve never told anyone, but now they’re telling me, a complete stranger. They can’t tell anyone, of course, because nobody will listen to them. They’ll just be made fun of (you know, called “New Age” or a “hippie”). Often they can’t even tell their own spouses or partners. That’s the dumb culture I’m complaining about all the time.

Let me give you a simple example. In the last year, we’ve been through this terrible pandemic. We’re still in it. Hundreds of thousands, millions of people have been put on respirators and have gotten very close to dying. Tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of people have come back from those experiences and have reported all kinds of astonishing, strange experiences. And it all gets reduced today to something truly stupid like ‘covid mania’. You know, ‘it’s just a function of the drugs they were on.’ We never sit down and say, well, let’s listen to what they experienced and let’s consider whether that might be true. The rules of the public game do not allow us to go there. We just immediately reduce it to some kind of mania or some kind of drug effect.


But how then should we integrate the ‘flipped state’ into society, into our culture, into the problems we’re facing as humanity?

I was struggling with that while writing the book. Basically what I argue is that the only real way to integrate these flipped states in any truly sustainable way is through education. We have to change the way we educate children and young adults, and we have to stop assuming either the truth of these individual religious worldviews or the truth of the secular, materialistic worldview. We have to be more capacious and generous and imagine different future worlds. Because I don’t think we can rely on individuals to flip, I think we have to somehow integrate that flip into future forms of knowledge in our public culture, and then people will flip. But they won’t all flip. We have to understand and honor that, too.