Hoffman's Conscious Realism:
A Critical Review

4. Conscious Realism

4.3 Collapse to Solipsism

Book cover: Metaphysics: A Very Short Introduction by Stephen Mumford

I now move on to more substantive objections to Hoffman's Conscious Realism. A particularly incisive observation that Dickinson [2019] makes is that if the icons on our desktop reveal nothing about a mind-independent reality, then perhaps our consciousness is just another icon. Dickinson puts the objection quite succinctly:

If our perceptions of reality are merely species-specific interfaces overlaid upon reality, how do we know consciousness is not simply another such icon? Maybe the "I" of everyday experience is a useful fantasy adapted to benefit the survival and reproduction of the gene and not part of the operating system of reality.

[Dickinson 2019]

This is a real thorn in the side for Hoffman's thesis as at its ontological core is the postulation of 'conscious agents' as distinct entities. Perhaps Dickinson is even being too generous to Hoffman here because it seems the conscious agent, our 'I', is not even an 'icon' on our desktop. As the Buddha and Hume have pointed out, we don't perceive the thing doing the thinking. The conscious agent, our 'I', is just as much a theoretical construct as the mind-independent physical objects we perceive.

But what of other conscious agents? The existence of other minds seems to be on even shakier foundations. Whatever can be said of perceiving our own mind, we don't perceive other minds at all. They are not even represented as 'icons' in our perceptual field. We only perceive the physical bodies that they purportedly inhabit. If, on Hoffman's view, we should ditch our belief in physical bodies in order solve the intractable mind-body problem, then how more so should we abandon belief in other conscious agents to solve the wicked problem of other minds? It's hard to see how Hoffman's metaphysical clean up does not lead us inexorably down the path to accepting a thorough-going solipsism. This is another of those problems faced by Berkeley [1710 (1974)] some three centuries ago resurfacing to bother modern idealist Hoffman.

Paradoxically, at first, Hoffman doubles down, claiming that our 'icons' of other conscious agents 'give deeper insight into the objective world' compared with that given by our 'icons' of inanimate physical objects [Hoffman 2008: 103]. A little further on, Hoffman does put in a half-hearted attempt to 'get outside of our epistemic jail, the super-user interface' to know about other minds [Hoffman 2008: 110]. For this, Hoffman suggests we look in the mirror.

All you see is skin, hair, eyes, lips. But as you stand there, looking at yourself, you know first hand that the face you see in the mirror shows little of who you really are. It does not show your hopes, fears, beliefs, or desires. It does not show your consciousness.

[Hoffman 2008: 110]

Next, Hoffman makes the crucial leap from recognizing first-hand one's own consciousness behind the appearance of one's face to recognizing the consciousness of others.

All you see, and all that the user interfaces of others can see, is literally skin deep. Other people see a face, not the conscious agent that is your deeper reality. They can, of course, infer properties of you as a conscious agent from your facial expressions and your words; a smile and a laugh suggest certain conscious states, a frown and a cry others.

[Hoffman 2008: 110]

Book cover: Cognitive Science: An Introduction to the Science of the Mind by Jose Luis Bermudez

The problem here is that we already know how we make the inference to other conscious agents through reasoning by analogy. The challenge for Hoffman is showing how this inference is reasonable given that these purported other minds are just as much hidden behind non-veridical icons as are physical objects. Hoffman jumps immediately from the first-person account to supposing what '[o]ther people' infer without giving us a reason for thinking that such other people exist. This is precisely the question at issue that Hoffman avoids in his argument. With due credit to Hoffman, he does concede that the inference to other minds is 'unavoidably fallible' [2008: 110]. None the less, if our 'user interface' hides reality, as Hoffman claims, then he hasn't really even begun to answer the question of his interlocutor: How do we get outside of our epistemic jail to know other minds exist? Hoffman does need to do much more work here if he is to avoid a solipsist conclusion to his view that user interface 'icons' hide reality.

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