Adaptive Fictions

Ted McDermott
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I was, let’s say, having a bad day when I came across Donald Hoffman in the stacks of the downtown Spokane Public Library last summer. Not that anything was really wrong. Only that I was unemployed and weeks away from turning forty. Only that middle age was here and it was hard to believe I was still here: exhausted and uninspired in the long shadow of the pandemic, trying to keep my kids occupied on yet another scorching afternoon of yet another climate-change summer, in a midsize city where I knew almost no one. Only that I lived with my family across a dirt alley from a liquor store and saw, almost every time I looked out our living room windows, someone shooting up or heating up aluminum foil and inhaling or hallucinating or peeing or fighting or starting a fire. Only that the detritus of this chaotic survival—uncapped needles and disassembled pens, plastic spoons and spent condoms, half-drunk Mountain Dew bottles and empty Cup Noodles containers—kept accumulating in my backyard. Only that amid all this I was trying, of all the things I could’ve been doing, to do what I am always trying to do: redeem my reality by converting it into fiction.

My kids, however, made different demands. I had taken them to the library to keep them entertained, and now they wanted to go to the play area. I asked that they please just give me one minute to try and find something to read. This should’ve been easy, but even books—one of the few things I had thought mattered to me—no longer held my attention, because whatever I picked up seemed to me like the playing out of some form or style that had been set long ago and exhausted soon after, like a superficially new way of essentially describing the same thing: life and its various discontents. So I suppose I saw the title running down the spine of Donald Hoffman’s book The Case Against Reality as something like a lifeline, a comprehensive promise to escape what was bothering me, which happened to be absolutely everything. 

But when I started thumbing through its pages on the periphery of the play area, I realized this was the opposite of what I’d assumed: it was not a lifeline but a rope ladder dropped into a rabbit hole, where, I found, I was happy to go. Here was Hoffman, my White Rabbit, asking, What happens when you open your eyes and feel you’re alive? Are you right to assume that your sensations correspond to an objective, external reality? That these sensations help you to navigate the objects that make up the world? That objects do, in fact, make up the world? What if, Hoffman wanted me to wonder, you don’t see what’s actually out there at all?

This was a book of science, which I know nothing about, but I could already see that it was investigating a question I’d only ever thought to wrestle with in fiction: What is the relationship between the person you believe yourself to be and the reality you perceive? 

There was something different, too, about Hoffman’s approach to this whole question. What I had seen only as a matter of personal struggle, Hoffman was effusively describing as an exciting opportunity to rethink the very nature of being alive. 

“The delight of mystery,” he wrote, “which we sometimes fetch from the netherworld of a black hole or a parallel universe, can be enjoyed, here and now, in your very chair.” 

At the moment, my chair, as it were, resembled a cartoon of a log: a plastic bench that looked as if it had been lifted from an illustration in a children’s book. Meanwhile, my daughter and son were on the far side of the play area, dragging a bunch of beanbags into a pile, so they could climb up high onto some foam risers, jump off, and softly land. It was on this log—this thing both solid and somewhat imagined—that I journeyed through quotes from Galileo, references to The Matrix, and bewildering math, all in service of Hoffman’s contrarian case: that nothing is what it seems to be. 

What appear to be the people, places, and things of external reality, he argues, are all entirely illusory. What seems like being alive is actually like being inside a virtual reality designed by evolution to keep us alive. What underlies reality are not the forces and masses of physics but the meldings and mergings of consciousnesses. What looks like a fundamental distinction between the spiritual and the scientific is simply a relic of our inability to drop our preconceptions and think clearly. 

He acknowledges that it all might sound “faintly mad,” but Hoffman is unwavering in his conviction that we are seeing everything wrong, no matter how hard it is for even him to believe—and even though his own theory puts him in the unlikely position of being a cognitive scientist who believes brains do not exist. 

It was the kind of belief that would ordinarily require faith: that the world is a veil we must lift to see the fundamental truth that originates in a singular consciousness. But Hoffman’s proof exists in math rather than in scripture, and it might one day be able to account for everything physical and mental: from time and light and mass to the taste of chocolate and the feeling of love and the sensation of sitting on a cartoon log, reading a book about how the world that you think exists can be proved to be an illusion. Hoffman is adamant that his theory is just where logic would lead anyone willing to follow it to its limit: to the startling conclusion that reality is lying to you in order to help you survive. 

I had long been interested in the usefulness of not telling the truth, of trying to convert the baffling thrum of being alive into a fictional narrative in which everything teemed with meaning, but my efforts had served mostly as a Rube Goldberg machine for my mind: a needlessly complicated contraption for dealing with the reality in front of me by not dealing with it at all. But when the pandemic descended, reality became impossible to ignore. Personal and external chaos seemed to be besieging me. And increasingly, my reality seemed to be urgently saying something to me—seemed to be flashing me a warning, alerting me that I had come to the wrong place, and had brought my family there too. 

I checked out Hoffman’s book and brought it home to read. Over the next few weeks, I became so engrossed in his argument that my wife would sometimes prod me in front of other people: “Go ahead,” she’d say, “tell them what you think about reality now.” 

“Oh, I mean, it’s not what I think,” I would counter, hedging my enthusiasm, afraid I would sound—oh, I don’t know—willfully eccentric if I embarked too unreservedly, too unironically, on an impassioned disquisition about how reality is not real. “It’s just this weird thing this guy—he’s a scientist; he went to MIT—is saying.”

“Oh yeah,” my interlocutor would say, “and what’s that?” 

“In the simplest terms,” I would offer, sounding insufferable, “it’s the idea that physical reality doesn’t produce consciousness with the organ of the brain, but the other way around: that consciousness actually creates physical reality. Or, more accurately, the illusion of physical reality—the brain included.” 

But what did I really think? Maybe the source of my uncertainty was all the talk of how unreliable our perceptions are, but I believe it was something more: my ignorance, which forced me into a faith-based relationship with the science Hoffman uses. And when you’re relying on faith, you’re looking for signs. But when you are using the internet, you find information, which tended to further my confusion. 

I imagined that Hoffman was an esoteric figure, an abstruse thinker, and that I therefore was the same—or at least similar. But when I googled him, I discovered I was one of millions of people who’d watched his TED Talk, who’d listened to his countless podcast appearances, who’d seen his discussion with Deepak Chopra, who had at least a passing interest in the possibility that science shows us that reality is illusory. 

I was less interested in what all this meant about Hoffman than in what it said about me, and I feared it said I’d been duped. But because I couldn’t see myself with any objectivity, I was in search of a judgment of Hoffman. Was he faintly mad? Or was he totally mad? Or was he a total genius? Since the answer wasn’t forthcoming from afar, I decided I should meet him myself—see for myself. 

It was fitting that we met first in an interface, in a Zoom room, and that Hoffman was somewhere I’d seen him before, in some of the many YouTube videos I’d watched: sitting before a blank wall, with a fake orchid on one side and a neat arrangement of what appeared to be his three published books on the other, in a space with as much personality as a dentist’s office. I thought it was a real room, but only later did I realize it was an illusion, a virtual background that replaced the reality of wherever he really was. 

As for me, I had donned a collared shirt in my dining room and attempted to project that I was serious. As we talked, it became clear that even Hoffman himself had trouble adjusting to the implications of his ideas. 

“My own theory just bothers the hell out of me, in terms of what it means personally,” he said. “So I don’t have neurons? OK, what the hell am I?”


The body of Donald Hoffman was born in 1955, in an army hospital in San Antonio, to parents who spent their lives wandering the same borderlands where Hoffman has spent so much of his: the place where science and religion meet. 

After leaving Texas, his family bounced around Southern California, where his father developed computer technology for the aerospace and defense industries before becoming a fundamentalist pastor at various charismatic churches. Meanwhile, his mother, who Hoffman believes was “pretty close to a genius,” studied Christian counseling before working as a church preschool administrator and a programmer at a bank.

“And so it was very, very interesting,” Hoffman told me. “On the one hand, Dad’s making important technical contributions to the state of the electronics industry. My mom could easily have been a world-class programmer. So they’re also interested in the bigger questions, but they were not willing to question the position of the church or the position of the pastors on the bigger questions. Whenever our discussions went that way, there was no freedom to think outside the box philosophically about this stuff. It was by the Bible or not at all.” 

But whereas his parents were content to keep the scientific and the spiritual in separate but unequal spheres—the former a tool; the latter the truth—Hoffman has worked for decades to use the tool to determine the truth. He doesn’t reject religion. Indeed, he knows that his theories are built on a long history of spiritual practice, especially in the East, and a rich vein of philosophical thought, one that passes through pre-Socratics like Parmenides to idealists like Kant to twentieth-century thinkers like Bertrand Russell. But he’s adamant that all these ideas are merely that: ideas, speculations, pointers toward truths that they can’t actually touch. What Hoffman wants is something else, something novel: a “completely rigorous” and “mathematically precise” scientific theory that makes falsifiable predictions about how the mind makes the material world. 

“Someone who’s a Hindu or Buddhist could say, Well, welcome to the party, you latecomers. We’ve been saying this for several thousand years,” Hoffman told me. “And I would say, Yes, but this is the first time it’s being said precisely. This is the first time we’re saying it in a way that we can actually make mathematically precise predictions, where we can actually see the limits of our pointers. So everybody’s got a piece of the puzzle, and I think collaboration, cooperation, as opposed to building fences and defending turf, is the way forward. But letting go of spacetime is a sine qua non for progress.” 

You must let go of the conception of spacetime as a foundational, physical plane on which material reality unspools as the seconds tick past—not so you can wipe the veil from your eyes and become enlightened, or because doing so will release you from your delusional materialism. You must let go of the physical world, according to Hoffman, because math and science and logic demand that you do so.

Theories about the nature of reality generally fall into two categories. Dualist ones assume there are two fundamental things: the physical and the spiritual, the corporeal and the mental, the body and the soul. Monist theories, on the other hand, assume only one of these is truly foundational, and the other is merely derivative of what is most basic. Dualism seems more commonsensical; monism has the advantage per Occam’s razor, a principle that says a model is more true the fewer assumptions it makes. And for thousands of years, much theological and philosophical debate has centered around which of these models best fits the world. Is it, as Descartes famously conjectured, that reality involves the interaction between matter, which exists in space, and mind, which exists in thought? Or is it, as Leibniz and Hoffman argue, that only mind exists, that what appears to be stable and external is merely a projection of the internal and mental, a phenomenon of perception? 

Throughout the twentieth century, a different conviction began to exert more influence, the idea that everything, including the mind, is a product of physical matter. It’s an assumption so prevalent in our scientific age that it’s hard to realize that anyone’s making it. Subatomic particles make atoms, and atoms make objects—including bacteria and galaxies and bodies and brains—and brains make thoughts, and thoughts make what we call, not quite knowing what we mean, consciousness. 

This belief in a physical monism strengthened in the twentieth century, as computer science produced machines that seemed capable of thinking, and thereby created a mechanistic metaphor for—if not a model of—how the firing of neurons produces our sense that we are perceiving, thinking, living. By 1991, you could slide a human into an fMRI machine and record how various stimuli caused subtle changes in their brain. In this way, the brain became widely understood as the mechanism that produces the mind. It’s a concept we mostly take for granted now, but in 2001 my late uncle, Drew McDermott, a professor of computer science at Yale, “risk[ed] raised eyebrows from [his] colleagues” to pen an entire book that sought to solve “the mind-body problem from a computational perspective.” In it, he argues that our brains are a kind of computer and that consciousness is in fact “a necessary component of computational intelligence, not an inexplicable accident.”

Hoffman came to share this attitude as he freed himself of the preconceptions of his Christian upbringing and entered MIT, where my uncle also got his doctorate, to study computational psychology under David Marr, a foundational figure in the field. But despite this transformation, Hoffman maintained a kind of religious ambition to find a framework that would explain not only phenomena but also their common source. In his first year, Hoffman detected that various specific phenomena in visual perception—like how we see a two-dimensional screen in three dimensions, or how we can detect edges in a seamless visual field—could be described with a “similar mathematical structure.” So he tried to unify these discrete ideas into a general mathematical theory of perception—one that offered a comprehensive explanation for  how our awareness works. 

After he’d drafted a paper proposing such a theory, he brought it to Marr, who immediately identified a basic flaw: Hoffman was using the wrong kind of math. But it was the only math Hoffman knew, so he decided to focus on “specific, concrete problems” with more achievable answers. Hoffman did so—but he let his focus wander after he got a job, in 1983, at the University of California at Irvine, where he has been ever since, pursuing a forty-year quest to finish what he started in his early twenties. 

Soon after he arrived on Irvine’s circular, modernist campus, Hoffman received an email from Bruce Bennett, a fiery math professor and devout Buddhist who’d also apparently played saxophone with Charles Mingus. When they met for lunch to discuss collaborating, Bennett dispensed with the small talk. 

“The first thing he said to me was ‘I don’t like bullshitters, and if you’re a bullshitter, I’m not gonna deal with you,’” Hoffman recalled. “So that was his hello. That was the kind of guy he was.” 

Bennett, whom Hoffman describes as “unreasonably talented” and “an unbelievable mathematical genius,” had taught at Harvard and Stanford, but his academic career was languishing, as was Hoffman’s paper on a general theory of perception. So after Bennett expressed an interest in working together, Hoffman pulled out his draft. Bennett’s initial response was the same as Marr’s: he pointed out that Hoffman’s ideas were interesting, but his math wasn’t up to the ambitious task. But unlike Marr, who had died while Hoffman was still at MIT, Bennett “patiently tutored” Hoffman in what he needed to know.

Over the next few years, Bennett, Hoffman, and Chetan Prakash, a mathematician and aikido expert who remains a close collaborator, hunkered down in the building where Hoffman still has a lab, converting Hoffman’s interesting questions and creative energy into mathematically precise arguments. 

“Often, I would be the one that would have an idea about where we needed to go,” Hoffman said. “And they would say, ‘Here’s the mathematics we would need to do that.’” 

While his collaborators were prone to getting distracted and joking around and otherwise wasting time, Hoffman was on a mission. “I was almost like the teacher that was telling the kids, OK, we need to get back to work,” he recalled. 

In 1986, that work paid off, when the math began to show that there is a distinction between reality and perception; when it started to become clear that seeing something doesn’t actually require a thing, that the mind doesn’t actually require matter in order to perceive. Up until that point, Hoffman had assumed what we all assume: that if we see something, it’s because it is there. 

“But what our theory was saying was No, no, no, there’s a step in between,” Hoffman told me. 

So Hoffman asked Bennett a question: “What is a ‘fork’ in our theory?” A fork, Bennett said, was not what we all assume it is: a pronged instrument used for eating. And it was not what a physicist might describe it to be: an assemblage of atoms. It was, Bennett told Hoffman, “the conclusion of an inference.” It was, in other words, a bit of complicated math performed automatically in the mind. It was, put simply, a thought. And a thought doesn’t necessarily depend on anything physical. And if mind doesn’t depend on matter, Hoffman realized, maybe matter doesn’t exist at all. 

“And that’s when I had my epiphany,” Hoffman told me. “But I didn’t greet it with joy. I was so scared that I had to sit down.” 

What scared him was what it meant: that the physical monism of his scientific framework, which views mind as matter, couldn’t be true; that the opposite, in fact, was more likely: that matter is mind, that the one fundamental element of reality is mental.

“So that was when I had my come-to-monism moment,” Hoffman told me. 

Three years after his epiphany, Hoffman, Bennett, and Prakash published their findings in a dense, highly mathematical tome titled Observer Mechanics: A Formal Theory of Perception. According to Hoffman, the book fleshes out how perception is independent of anything objective out there, and tries to describe mathematically how physics arises from consciousness, though it doesn’t use that then-unfashionable term. But even though the authors were arguing for a reimagining of everything, their book didn’t exactly make a splash. 

“My guess is that there are less than ten people in the world that have read it and understood it,” Hoffman told me.

Among the few who absorbed their argument, though, was the quantum physicist John Archibald Wheeler, who cited the book in a landmark paper introducing his “it from bit” concept, which argued, among other things, that the “world cannot be a giant machine, ruled by any preestablished continuum physical law,” and that there “is no such thing at the microscopic level as space or time or spacetime continuum.” The nod from a figure as major as Wheeler made Hoffman “quite happy,” but it wasn’t enough. He wanted broader recognition for his ideas. 

So a decade later, in 1998, Hoffman tried again to make his much-refined case, publishing a second book, Visual Intelligence: How We Create What We See. This time, Hoffman tried to make his ideas more accessible, leaving out the equations entirely and waiting to spring his wholesale dismantling of reality on the reader.

“I tried to make a respectable book,” he told me, “but then the punch line is at the end.”

And the punch line of the final chapter is a radical one: that life “is all virtual reality.” A year later, a movie came out with the same punch line. “So you can imagine I was all over The Matrix,” Hoffman told me. “I thought it might help turn the tide, but it didn’t.” 

Hoffman, characteristically undeterred and single-minded, spent the next decade trying to show his colleagues why he had to be right. 

“I realized there’s only one way I’m going to stop my colleagues in their tracks, and that’s to prove, if possible, that evolution entails that this is a virtual reality,” he said. “I realized that if I can prove that, they can no longer dismiss me.”

He set out to do so with math, with something called evolutionary game theory, which allows a researcher to assign points to different adaptations and to determine the odds of each winning in a hypothetical game. And, incredibly, it worked. It turned out, according to Hoffman’s peer-reviewed
research, that when he pitted fitness against truth in such simulations, when he and his collaborators asked whether an organism would earn more points if it prioritized accuracy or survival when it perceived, survival won over and over again. Not only that, but these simulations showed something even more counterintuitive: that truth and fitness are opposed, that “seeing truth hides fitness, and seeing fitness hides truth.” 

And so evolution built us an interface—what we usually call reality—that condensed and encoded the richer truth into a form we can navigate and manipulate and believe in. Perception, in other words, conceals the truth of reality in order to aid us in our survival. What we see is not accurate—but it’s not arbitrary either. It is something to be taken “seriously, but not literally.” It should be viewed like an icon on a desktop or an avatar in a VR headset: laden with meaning but entirely artificial; a construct that “guides adaptive behavior”—that helps us, in short, to reproduce. 

Everything physical is like this, according to Hoffman’s theory: expressive of something deeper. A beanbag, for example, is a symbol that evolution encoded to efficiently package information about how to soften your landing and keep you from harm. And it’s not just a beanbag, of course. A library, a cartoonish log, a book about reality, a spent condom, a half-drunk Mountain Dew bottle, a high-rise hotel with dirty windows, a Lyft driver in a Tesla—nothing is what it seems to be, because everything in Hoffman’s confounding worldview is an “adaptive fiction,” a useful lie.


As Hoffman and I continued our talks, and as his ideas, increasingly, became mine, I began, strange to say it, adopting Hoffman as a kind of spiritual guide, though I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was making an obvious mistake, that I was only in thrall to his theories because I didn’t have the expertise to evaluate them. Maybe this was all pseudoscience, I thought, a sort of religion of the metaverse. But when I broached the idea that maybe this wasn’t as scientific as he wanted it to be—was perhaps more religious than he wanted to admit—Hoffman pushed back.

“Some say, Well, Hoffman’s proposing postmodernism here and deconstruction, and he’s let go of the modern Enlightenment values of reason and logic and science and data. Not at all. Not at all. I’m all for the Enlightenment and reason and science and logic and rigor, absolutely. It’s just that when I take reason seriously, it tells you its limits,” he told me. “So if I respect logic, if I respect reason, then part of that respect is to respect that there are these absolute limits. Other than that, you’re not really paying attention to what logic tells you and what reason says.” 

And what reason says, according to Hoffman, is some pretty incredible stuff. He expects eventually to build a falsifiable case for the idea that we all belong to a “universal oneness” that generates the reality we falsely believe to be real. But for now, he’s confronting the fact that first he has to get people to see that they have been wrong about everything, at least since they started developing object permanence as infants. 

“It’s so radical to think that we don’t see reality as it is, that this is all a virtual reality, because the implications of it go to the very core of who we believe we are,” he told me. “There is no stopping this thing. If my body itself and my neurons and my brain are just a virtual-reality set of icons, then I have to rethink from the get-go who I am and what I am. The rot goes all the way down. 

“So that’s why I can understand why people get off this train. Because if you get on this train, there’s nothing that you believe that survives. You have to completely rethink everything from top to bottom. So I understand my colleagues not wanting to do that. I didn’t want to do it. And by the way, I’m still emotionally coming to grips with it.”

Intellectually, however, Hoffman was moving forward without any sign of doubt. The third time we talked, he told me that he and his collaborators were on the brink of “a spectacular breakthrough.” 

“If this is right,” Hoffman told me, “physics will never be the same.” 

This was quite a claim for a person who is not, after all, even a physicist. But being a cognitive scientist hasn’t stopped him from rejecting the existence of the brain, and it hasn’t stopped him, either, from venturing into the distant (and bizarre) frontier of modern physics, where reality is not the smoothly mechanistic machine it appears to be, where the physical world seems to a projection of some deeper structure. 

For decades, Hoffman has followed along from afar as quantum physicists like Wheeler have probed deeper into the fundamental nature of Einstein’s relativistic universe, zooming in on life at unfathomable proximities and unexpectedly discovering unstable and subjective forces at play.

They have found, for example, that electrons located far apart can appear so entangled as to be essentially undifferentiated, and that observation itself seems to alter physical reality. They have even found evidence that the three-dimensional world “is a hologram,” as Stanford professor Leonard Susskind has written—that it is “an image of reality coded on a distant two-dimensional surface.” 

These discoveries, among others, point to a crack in spacetime’s facade, to a fundamental limitation of the presumption that a coherent and consistent reality exists, that time and space are the fundamental dimensions of the universe. And this has led a prestigious sliver of physicists—Nima Arkani-Hamed, of the Institute for Advanced Study, among them—to explore theories of reality beyond spacetime, to posit that something must exist beneath the fabric of our reality, undergirding or projecting it. 

It was a twenty-seven-part lecture that Arkani-Hamed gave at Harvard in 2019, in fact, that was the catalyst for Hoffman’s new breakthrough. Watching it on YouTube, Hoffman recognized that he and Arkani-Hamed were trying to do the same thing: “to really go beyond spacetime in a fundamental way,” Hoffman told me. 

They were going toward the same place, to something more fundamental than matter, Hoffman believed. But they were approaching this invisible place from opposite directions. While Arkani-Hamed was working backward from the physical world to begin mapping what might underlie it, Hoffman was working forward toward the physical from the consciousness he believes exists “beneath” time and space, projecting the illusion of a material world. 

“I realized this is it,” Hoffman said. “They have found these structures beyond spacetime, and this is my chance to connect.”

So he sat down and began transcribing Arkani-Hamed’s lectures, “hour after hour.” He got through fifteen of the twenty-seven, producing 586 single-spaced pages packed with daunting equations and bewildering diagrams, before he was hit, in early 2020, with a suspected case of COVID that brought him to the brink of death in a hospital bed, and to saying goodbye to his wife by text.

The breakthrough, he told me, was that he’d found a way to connect. He and his collaborators had discovered, they believed, mathematical evidence that directly linked the dynamics of consciousness to the structures Arkani-Hamed had described. Hoffman and his collaborators had, in other words, begun to model how mind creates what looks like reality. 

It was hard to believe what I was hearing: a revelation that, if correct, would reorient everything to a degree that would make the Copernican revolution look like a failed coup, like a mere reordering of our position in a universe or, rather, in a mirage projected by a universal mind that no one had known existed, much less been able to describe, until now. 

“I can even tell you what ‘mass’ means in terms of properties of conscious agents,” he told me. “The whole thing is breaking open.”

I wanted to hear more, but reality—whatever that meant anymore—was intruding. My son would wake up from his nap soon, and I would have to change his diaper and offer him food and pour him milk and find some way of occupying him. I was there physically, but already I was somewhere in the future, thinking about what it would be like to meet Hoffman in what he wouldn’t call real life. 


Donald Hoffman may be a cognitive scientist who believes he doesn’t have a brain or a face or a body, but when, one Monday morning last October, I entered his humble lab on the UC Irvine campus, there he was: a rangy man in an unbuttoned black polo shirt, khaki hiking pants, and a surgical mask. 

He soon produced what appeared to me to be a dry-erase marker, began writing on what appeared to be a whiteboard, and enthusiastically picked up where we’d left off in our last Zoom meeting, optimistically explaining the rationale behind the breakthrough he’d just made. 

“Did you get the idea of the decorated permutation?” he asked me. “Or I could put it on the board and explain it if you want.”

Hoffman lost me for the next twelve minutes, as he made an earnest but doomed attempt to explain math to me. Afterward, I did my best to find my way to firm ground. Where our conversation went instead was somewhere almost mystical, to a discussion of what Hoffman thinks math means: that there’s a universal mind of some kind, that it exists someplace outside time and space, and that we are it. 

“Whatever the universe is beyond spacetime is unbounded intelligence, unbounded truths,” Hoffman said.

Hoffman was refreshingly—inspiringly—willing to go wherever his radical argument led.

“To be consistent, I have to raise these hard questions, to confront my whole framework,” he told me. “It’s only as you try to confront these things—the deep questions—that you can then try to see the limitations in your own framework. 

“And there is another way of looking at it, and that is that what happens in the headset is just what happens in the headset. So I put on a VR headset and I play Grand Theft Auto, and I’m playing with my friend Joe and I ram his Porsche over a cliff and he goes sailing off the cliff and crashes, and he and his Porsche disappear and then we remove our headsets and laugh and go have a Coke.

“In some sense, what happens inside spacetime isn’t that serious. And that’s again counterintuitive, because we think of spacetime as fundamental and so death is the end and there’s nothing beyond and so life is very, very serious and you need to do whatever you can in your seventy years, whatever you might have, to try to get whatever recognition—the best writer, the best dancer, the best whatever it might be—or just have a good time, be the best partier, whatever it might be, because life is short. And you put all your eggs in that basket.

“But there’s this other point of view that says, You know what, it’s just a headset. If you crash and burn, well, you just take your headset off. And what you learned in the process is what you learned.

“So then the question is: What am I? Who am I? And the physicalist answer is: Well, you’re just a little package of particles. You’re a piece of meat inside space and time. And when that package of meat dies, you and all your consciousness go with it. 

“Well, but spacetime isn’t fundamental. That whole story just doesn’t hold water. So I switched around from thinking, I’m just meat that has some consciousness associated with it, to saying, No, that assumes spacetime is fundamental; that violates our best science, so that’s not right. And, best I can understand is, I’m not separate from that unbounded intelligence. Hoffman is just an avatar in spacetime of this unbounded intelligence. I’m just a projection of it. And so are you.

“So from this point of view, Don and Ted are just avatars of the one unbounded intelligence. And this unbounded intelligence is doing something that I’m very interested in understanding.” 

When he left the room to take a break, I peeked behind the curtains that occupied one of the lab’s long walls. Instead of windows, I found that the curtains were covering mirrors because, Hoffman explained later, the lab had been used to observe the unwitting child subjects of psychology experiments before he took over the space. I couldn’t follow the math or the physics at the heart of Hoffman’s thinking, but standing before the reflective side of the one-way glass, I was starting to understand more of what he meant: that when we’re looking out at the world, we’re actually looking inward; that the state of our consciousness really is determinative of what we perceive; that we might be able to decode the significance seeping into everything if we were willing to remind ourselves anew that reality is inherently strange. 

But while these insights were beginning to cohere as I looked in the mirror, it was the most obvious thing in the reflection that I still couldn’t decipher: myself. Hoffman had upended my idea about what reality was and about how to understand what I perceived. But when I tried to apply his methodology to myself, I saw someone who might have been learning theories about reality that were entirely new but who felt exactly the same, who wore the same collared shirt he’d worn on his first Zoom interview with Hoffman, who wore fashionable glasses bought from a discount online retailer, who was willfully eccentric, embarrassingly pretentious, and cripplingly self-serious. 

I’d traveled 1,200 miles from home in search of a truth I didn’t yet know. And I’d found it. I was convinced that Hoffman was actually right, that life shouldn’t be taken literally, that something far more mysterious and meaningful underlies it all, that worldly ambition is ridiculous, that the only thing worth achieving is an understanding that everything—including who we appear to be—is one nonphysical thing. But knowing rarely helps anything. 


Hoffman of all people seemed to understand this. Even he has struggled, since he first detected a separation between perception and reality, in 1986, to acclimate to the implications of his ideas. In his mid-forties, Hoffman sought out psychiatric treatment and medication for his anxiety. These days he prefers meditation. A lot of meditation—over thirty thousand hours, he estimates, over the last twenty years. Even so, on the brink of a breakthrough, his self-doubt sometimes wins out. 

“My emotions rebel all the time,” he told me. “There’s a part of me that just doesn’t believe this one bit. But now I realize, even now, consciously, just in the last few months, What if I am this unbounded intelligence and that is the source of all scientific ideas? What if I have a scientific problem and I say to myself: I would like to understand this problem. And then I go and let go of it altogether—I just literally let go of all conceptions. If I really am that unbounded intelligence, maybe something amazing can happen.”

This seemed like the terminus of Hoffman’s inquiry, the bottom of the rabbit hole he’d brought me down. But this act of letting go was also, I realized, the origin of all Hoffman’s thinking. It’s easy, at least for me, to think of scientists as being bound to strict conventions, to unimpeachable rules of rationality. Hoffman, however, reminded me that it’s scientists who are not simply inclined but actually required to suspend their beliefs. At least this is how Hoffman radically practices his profession. 

“The fact is, I have no beliefs,” Hoffman told me. “If I have any belief, it’s that I don’t believe any of my theories. I don’t believe they’re right, and I don’t believe they’re wrong. All I believe is that that’s where our science is at right now, and so I’m just looking at what the mathematical structure of our science is right now. My beliefs are irrelevant.”

And as he goes to increasingly unlikely places at the direction of his discoveries, Hoffman knows that even our most accurate possible description of reality can only gesture toward the full truth of what’s actually happening. Invoking what are known as Gödel’s incompleteness theorems, which seem to show that no mathematical theory can provide a theory of everything, Hoffman argues that the “truth transcends any formal theory that we could possibly come up with, infinitely,” and that “there’s an infinite realm of truths to be explored.

“That means that my theory itself is not even scratching the surface of the truth,” he told me. But he doesn’t think that means he shouldn’t try. “It’s not pointless to be trying to come up with theories, as long as you don’t mistake what you’re doing for the ultimate truth—if you just, I guess, view what you’re doing as a useful perspective on reality, but just a perspective.”

We had been talking in his lab for more than two hours by this point, and Hoffman was exhausted. He’d survived COVID, but he had not entirely recovered. He could work only a few hours a day now, and we were pushing his limit. He excused himself to take some heart medication, and when he returned, he wanted to continue our conversation but needed a break from explaining himself. 

“So maybe to let you talk for a minute,” he said. “Why did you find this stuff interesting?” 

This was the question I’d been asking myself the whole time without having come up with an answer, though now I decided to give it a try.

“I was just at the library one day, with my kids,” I said. “And the title, it resonated. I wasn’t having a good day, I guess. I wasn’t enjoying reality.” 

Hoffman laughed, and I continued to grasp for an explanation. 

“So I read it,” I said, “and it weirdly made sense to me. I have always had this intuition that something is missing, that we’re not seeing this right. Essentially, reality feels allegorical to me. It feels meaningful. And when you consider the time span of history”—the universe being almost fourteen billion years old and all that—“it has literally all been leading up to this moment. So it is meaningful.”

But, I said, the explanations I’d been presented with—namely, Jesus and the Big Bang—weren’t convincing. What his theory offered, I told Hoffman, was a way to think of reality as being not random, as science makes you assume, or heading toward some single revelation, as the Catholicism of my upbringing argued. Instead, it was like a fiction: a place where the furniture of the external world—the people and places and things—exists on a mental, not a physical, level, and where what happens matters, where everything is laden with metaphorical or thematic significance. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be included. 

“So I thought that was interesting,” I told Hoffman—“the idea that what’s real is not literal. It’s symbolic.” 

And it wasn’t just the theory, I explained, that compelled me. It was also the rigor, I said, with which his argument had been made. 

“I’m no scientist or mathematician,” I said, “but I was raised in a very logical framework. My dad’s an economist. My mom’s an epidemiologist.” I had been raised, I explained, to think it was absurd to believe something you can’t prove. My dad is a practicing Catholic, but his view of God, it seems to me, is not of some mystical truth, but of a slightly embarrassing but ultimately ennobling faith that allows one to more easily adopt positive human traits like compassion and patience and prudence. My mom, the daughter of Jewish refugees from Russia and Poland, had long adopted an avowed atheism, which she began to question only very recently, when she literally started reading Judaism for Dummies. I had recently done something similar: picked up at a used-books store an introduction to Zen Buddhism, in which I had read a description of the self as being like a flame: a process that operates within and upon its environment, not a discrete thing. I tried to tell Hoffman, in my garbled way, that his theory described something similar. 

“It’s a formal way of thinking about how we aren’t these hermetically sealed things in a reality,” I said, sounding stoned. “It’s more complicated than that. There’s a porousness or a connection between things. But as soon as you say that, it sounds so, I don’t know, flighty. Kumbaya-ish, inherently. But your thinking is obviously not like that.” 

I talked more—probably too much—about my childhood. I brought up what he’d said about how we’re inclined to view life as a mad dash to prove ourselves before we die. “That point was emphasized to me very, very much as a kid,” I said. “‘You only live once’ was always sort of the mantra. And that creates a lot of anxiety or fear.”

“And God’s pissed if you do anything wrong,” Hoffman said. 

“What’s interesting about your theory,” I said, “is that it had a spiritual effect on me without having any spirituality in it.” 


Soon after I stopped talking, we left the bizarre modernist building that held the windowless lab and went out for lunch in an outdoor mall across the street from campus, in what has been called the largest master-planned city in North America. On the patio of a chain health food restaurant, I ate brown rice and salmon with Hoffman, who, by this point in our relationship, I was calling Don. I was reluctant to let him go, so after we ate, I followed Don home, to a bland faculty housing development on the far side of campus, to the modest duplex with stucco siding where he’s lived with his wife since 1987. 

When we stopped outside, Don kept going, expounding on the differences between philosophy and science and excitedly discussing the possibility that light, which has no mass, could be a projection of conscious agents that have no connections. Then it was time for him to leave me, and there I was, left on the corner of two dead-end streets, Schubert Court and Russell Court. 

But I still wanted to follow him, even though he wasn’t there, so I took a Lyft to Laguna Beach, to a state park he had recommended. Then I did something I had started doing only since I’d found his book, something I’d never done in public, something that embarrassed me: I sat on a rock that had been revealed by the tide, on the brink of the ocean, on the farthest edge of firm ground, and I meditated. I mean, I tried to meditate. I couldn’t escape my thoughts. My consciousness had been overtaken by self-consciousness long ago, and so I couldn’t even get to the starting line: to a willingness to be a fool, to make a case for what no one else sees. But at least I knew it was there. Or at least I thought I could see it, ahead in the distance. 

Then I kept going. From the beach, I took a Lyft ride in a Tesla to a Thai restaurant in a strip mall. From there, I walked the rest of the way to the office-park hotel where I was staying because it had been the cheapest result on Kayak. On the way, I passed oblong shrubs and symmetrical plantings of palm trees. I crossed an empty campus of angular mid-rises that looked as dated as they did futuristic, and of deactivated water features. I came upon a traffic triangle with triangular trees planted on the periphery, hiding a triangular reflecting pool that occupied the center. The setting seemed clearly symbolic, but I wasn’t sure what it symbolized. That things were starting to take a new shape? That my thinking was becoming more angular? More rigid, perhaps? Or maybe more precise? 

I had come to Hoffman with some hope that he would have answers that solved the riddles of reality: Who are we? Where are we? And what are we in the world for? But even he knew on some level that the truth is ultimately elusive. What mattered was that he’d made them into riddles again. He’d done what I’d always wanted to do with my own writing without knowing it until now: turned the supposedly predictable, mechanistic universe into a koan again, into a paradox that might provoke insight. For, as he’d told me, “we seem to be in a universe in which, even though the truth completely transcends anything that could be described, here we are trying to describe it.” 

When I reached my hotel, I took an elevator to my room, looked out the filthy windows of the high-rise, and marveled at the odd geometry of this real-life SimCity, at a sunset that looked like a screen saver. Or at least that’s how it appeared to me.  

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