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

Enlarge / “There is no spoon. You have to ask the waiter to bring you one.” (credit: Warner Bros.)

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.

Hoffman and I open this episode by discussing his take on space-time. He refutes 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. Hoffman 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, Hoffman 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. Hoffman 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!

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