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

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Enlarge / Nope. Nope nope nope nope nope. (credit: United Artists)

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 One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest 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.

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