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Hoffman's Conscious Realism:
A Critical Review

4. Conscious Realism

4.1 Object Permanence

Book cover: A Brief History of the Soul by Stewart Goetz

In the previous two sections, I reviewed Hoffman's Fitness Beats Truth (FBT) Theorem and his Interface Theory of Perception (ITP). Both these theories worked together in Hoffman's endeavour to undermine the realist view that our perceptions are at least sometimes veridical; that they tell us something about the world of mind-independent objects. With Hoffman's Conscious Realism thesis, we see the philosophical culmination of his FBT and ITP. This is the most radical of his ideas and the most difficult to swallow for almost everyone who comes across it.

After casting doubt on what we can know about a mind-independent reality, Hoffman's next step is to do away with it altogether. All there is are conscious agents. Hoffman summarizes his thesis thus:

So, instead of proposing that particles in spacetime are fundamental, and somehow create consciousness when they form neurons and brains, I propose the reverse: consciousness is fundamental, and it creates spacetime and objects. ... reality is a vast social network of interacting "conscious agents," in which each agent has a range of possible experiences, and each agent can act to influence the experiences of other agents.

[Hoffman 2019b]

Hoffman explains how he was driven to this radical conclusion because of the lack of progress on the mind-body problem. As he puts it:

To this day, science has not dispelled the mystery. Does neural activity cause conscious experiences? Some think so but have no idea how. No neural cause has been proposed for even one conscious experience. Precisely what neural activity causes, say, the taste of vanilla, and precisely how and why does it do so? No one knows.

Are conscious experiences identical to, rather than caused by, neural activity? Some think so but again cannot give even one example. Precisely what neural activity is identical to the taste of vanilla? No one knows.

Why has the hard problem of consciousness remained intractable for centuries despite determined efforts by brilliant scientists? I think the culprit is our assumption that our perceptions reveal a reality that exists even if unperceived.

[Hoffman 2019b]

Once we do away with that pestering assumption about mind-independent objects, Hoffman thinks, we get a clear view of how to proceed in our research. Hoffman's view here is characterized as falling under that type of ontology philosophers call 'idealism'. Berkeley, Spinoza and Whitehead are notable proponents of this kind of view. What is not evident is why Hoffman labelled his view 'Conscious Realism', adopting his opponents' 'realist' moniker. However he names his idealist theory, it is faced with some key problems. I'll begin this section by discussing some semantic issues with Hoffman's thesis and some suggestions for improving it. I'll then go on to more substantive issues, including his theory's heuristic sterility and reliance on realist assumptions.

The first challenge with Hoffman's Conscious Realism is that it reduces our ordinary way of speaking about everyday objects to absurdity. For Hoffman, physical objects literally pop into and out of existence as we change our point of view. Hoffman puts it this way: 'we create an apple when we look, and destroy it when we look away. Something exists when we don't look, but it isn't an apple, and is probably nothing like an apple' [Dickinson 2019].

But if the apple ceases to exist when I'm not looking at it, then how can something that ceases to exist nourish me once I've swallowed it and can no longer see or feel it? For that matter, what stops me from falling from the sky when I'm not looking at the aeroplane wings on my flight to London? Hoffman could say that the wings still exist because other passengers are looking out the window. Then what happens when all of the passengers look to the front of the plane, or fall asleep? What keeps the train moving on my journey to Sydney when no one is looking at the wheels? These are the same kinds of absurdities that Berkeley [1710 (1974)] faced with his version of ontological idealism. Berkeley's solution was to pass the job of keeping unperceived objects in mind onto God in order to guarantee that apples, aeroplane wings and train wheels didn't disappear when no one was observing them. However, this option is closed off for Hoffman as there is no place for God in his explanatory account.

Book cover: Mistaken Identity: The Mind-Brain Problem Reconsidered by Leslie Brothers

One move that Hoffman can make here is this. Drawing on his virtual reality game analogy [Hoffman 2019b], when we are playing Grand Theft Auto and we look away from a competitor about to crash into our car, we don't say that the other car disappears in that moment. When we are in the simulation, it makes no sense to think that the objects we are interacting with disobey the laws of physics whenever we turn away. Even when we are out of the simulation—when we are speaking at a meta-level about the game—it makes no sense to speak of the competitor's car disappearing from the game whenever we looked away. Competitor cars and everything else in the game are designed to obey the laws of physics, which includes not disappearing when unobserved.

The same holds for apples and aeroplane wings in Hoffman's simulation. If objects in Hoffman's simulated world obey the simulated laws of physics, then they can't disappear when we are not observing them. If they did, then they are not the same 'apples' and 'aeroplane wings' that we are talking about in ordinary language when we refer to these things. So, Hoffman can avoid the absurdity of apples disappearing when unobserved by using a different language when he is referring to the simulation at the meta-level. When we speak outside of the game of Grand Theft Auto, we say something like this: the visual image of the competitor's car ceased to be generated when the player's attention was diverted. Likewise of the apple, to avoid absurdity, I suggest when Hoffman speaks at the meta-level that he say something along the lines that the appearance of the apple disappears when unobserved.

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