Hoffman's Conscious Realism:
A Critical Review

4. Conscious Realism

4.2 Object Individuation

Book cover: The Man Who Wasn't There: Investigations into the Strange New Science of the Self by Anil Ananthaswamy

A related problem for Hoffman is how to individuate objects, such as tennis balls and cars, on his schema. A realist view about external physical objects explains naturally the singular identity of things that are perceived by more than one person. Hoffman's theory, on the other hand, generates puzzles that strain language conventions to breaking point unnecessarily. For example, Hoffman writes:

According to [multimode user interfaces] MUI theory, the objects of everyday experience – tables, chairs, mountains, moon – are not public. If, for instance, I hand you a glass of water, it is natural, but false, to assume that the glass I once held is the same glass you now hold. Instead, according to MUI theory, the glass I held was, when I observed it, an icon of my MUI, and the glass you now hold is, when you observe it, an icon of your MUI, and they are numerically distinct. There are two glasses of water, not one. And if a third person watches the transaction, there are three glasses.

[Hoffman 2008: 97]

Hoffman wants to respond to the obvious objection by Searle that successful communication between us requires a public language in which, when we point to a common object, the word we use for that object must mean the same for both of us; that we are referring to the same object. Otherwise, we will be speaking past each other.

Hoffman answers by using the example of a virtual tennis game played by Bob and Tom. As Hoffman puts it:

Bob and Tom, playing virtual tennis, can talk meaningfully about "the tennis ball" they hit; they can agree that Tom hit "the tennis ball" out of court, thus losing a point. There is, patently, no public tennis ball. Instead, a supercomputer in the back room feeds signals to the helmet displays of Bob and Tom and each, in consequence, constructs his own tennis-ball experience. But Bob's tennis-ball experience is numerically distinct from Tom's. And there is no other tennis ball around to serve the role of public tennis ball. Thus public physical objects are not required for meaningful communication.

[Hoffman 2008: 97]

Hoffman is right in saying that Bob and Tom agree that they are playing with the same tennis ball. They do that in accordance with the linguistic rules we all commit to when playing networked virtual games. However, they are prevented from doing just that under Hoffman's proposed linguistic account. If we accept Hoffman's explanation of what is going on, Bob and Tom are playing with numerically different tennis balls (and in numerically different tennis courts). They can't then be playing against each other in the same game of tennis. On Hoffman's account, they must be playing two separate games of tennis. Contra Hoffman's claim, this numerical separation of tennis balls will actually mess up meaningful communication between people trying to co-ordinate their actions. Under Hoffman's scheme, when Bob hits the ball into Tom's part of the court and Tom misses, Bob can't justifiably claim a point. Tom will complain that the ball that he missed is not the same ball that Bob had hit. They are different balls. Likewise, if I steal your car, I haven't really stolen your car, have I? The car sitting in my driveway that looks identical to your car is not really yours. So, don't call the cops.

The linguistic entanglements only get worse. In the same paper, Hoffman writes:

According to MUI theory, everyday objects such as tables, chairs and the moon exist only as experiences of conscious observers. The chair I experience only exists when I look, and the chair you experience only exists when you look.

[Hoffman 2008: 98]

The implication here is that according to Hoffman, when I sit on a chair, I'm sitting on a conscious experience. And when I look at the moon through my telescope, I'm really looking at a conscious experience. As Hoffman explains: 'We only see the chair icons we each construct each time we look' [2008: 98].

Book cover: A History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell

The absurdities continue to mount. If a 'chair' is really a conscious experience, then, for Hoffman, when we see a chair, we are really seeing a conscious experience. There are really then two experiences going on: the 'chair' experience and the experience of seeing the 'chair' experience.

I think there is a way for Hoffman to avoid these kinds of linguistic absurdities. Getting back to Hoffman's virtual reality game analogy, I suggest he avoid saying that the tennis ball is a conscious experience. I suggest instead that he say that the percept of the tennis ball is a conscious experience. Think of the language rules we use when we are playing a virtual reality game. When we play virtual tennis, we don't say that we are hitting a conscious experience around the court and we don't say that we are seeing a conscious experience when we see the virtual tennis ball. Adopting my suggestion here allows Hoffman to say in real life, as in the virtual reality game, that we 'see the tennis ball' and that seeing the tennis ball consists in the having of the experience of a tennis ball.

Hoffman could avoid the other absurdity that we play with physics-defying magic disappearing tennis balls in real life and in virtual reality tennis games by appealing to the notion that tennis balls are theoretical fictional entities by which we take an imaginative leap beyond our immediate experience. This approach leverages off the realist conceptual framework positing mind-independent objects in order to preserve the fictional character of his virtual reality analogy. Borrowing from the realist conceptual scheme is an obvious disbenefit for Hoffman. However, I suggest this move is less debilitating for him compared with advocating absurd linguistic expressions.

With his heavy reliance on the virtual games analogy, it's difficult to see how Hoffman can escape presupposing a realist conceptual scheme. To develop this point further, consider this. In defending the notion that Bob and Tom are playing with numerically distinct tennis balls while still speaking of 'the tennis ball', Hoffman opines: 'And there is no other tennis ball around to serve the role of public tennis ball. Thus public physical objects are not required for meaningful communication' [Hoffman 2008: 97].

What we need to keep in mind here is that in the case of a virtual game, Bob and Tom both know that there are mind-independent physical structures and processes that generate the simulation of the 'public tennis ball'. Hoffman himself refers to how the 'supercomputer in the back room feeds signals to the helmet displays of Bob and Tom and each, in consequence, constructs his own tennis-ball experience' [2008: 97]. Hoffman could object here that Bob and Tom might not 'know' that there is such a supercomputer working in the background. Perhaps there is some other set of structures and processes in place that generate the tennis ball experience. However, it remains the case that it is Bob and Tom's belief that there is such a supercomputer that warrants their confidence that they are playing the same tennis game and not locked into their own solipsist world. Even when we acknowledge the point that Bob and Tom could be wrong in their belief, the crucial point here is that Bob and Tom must have some belief in a set of structures and processes that are independent of them, yet common to both of their worlds, that generates the image of the tennis ball. It is this shared belief in a common source of their tennis ball images that warrants their language convention; a shared belief that is precisely denied by Hoffman.

Book cover: Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False by Thomas Nagel

Now, Bob and Tom may be completely ignorant of supercomputers and how they process information and generate images in their headsets. Nonetheless, Bob and Tom accept that whatever the system is that generates the simulated tennis game, it is simulating the physical process that generates visual information and transmits it into their eyes. For Bob and Tom to accept that they are playing the same virtual game with the same tennis ball, they are assuming this second-order physical processing and generation of visual information that mimics the usual first-order perception of objects via mind-independent physical objects reflecting light-waves of particular wavelengths and intensities into their eyes.

In the absence of a worked out theory of a consciousness-only network that generates all of our perceptual experiences that rivals the explanatory and predictive power of our current realist theories of perception, Bob and Tom remain wedded to their realist assumptions underpinning their belief that they are playing the same tennis game with the same tennis ball. The upshot here is that Hoffman's use of the virtual reality tennis game analogy plunges him into linguistic muddles and absurdities that only serve to underscore how Bob and Tom can only play the virtual game by making realist assumptions about the underlying metaphysics.

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