Hoffman's Conscious Realism:
A Critical Review

4. Conscious Realism

4.4 Combination and Introspection

Hoffman's diagram of a conscious agent with six components

In this section, I will dig deeper into Hoffman and his collaborator's conceptual framework describing their proposed network of conscious agents. Hoffman and Prakash formalise their Conscious Realism theory by first defining a 'conscious agent' as consisting of three processes: perception, decision and action [Hoffman and Prakash 2014: 6]. (See their diagram reproduced here on the right.) It may seem that what Hoffman and Prakash mean by a 'conscious agent' here is a complete higher-order entity with consciousness, such as a dolphin or a human being. They write of how a 'conscious agent' 'chooses what actions to take based on the conscious experiences it has' and how it 'interacts with the world in light of the decision it has taken' [2014: 6]. Furthermore, in answering readers' qualms, they ascribe 'free will' to all conscious agents and goal-directed behaviour to some [2014: 14–15].

In spite of the teleological/intentionalist language they use to describe a 'conscious agent', what they mean by this is the atomic component of the world we live in. For example, they apply their model to visual perception in which each conscious agent represents one computational function of a visual system, working iteratively to build a visual percept [2014: 9–10]. For Hoffman and Prakash, then, each organism's visual system is comprised of multiple conscious agents working synchronously to form the organism's visual image.

In this respect, Hoffman and Prakash's theory draws on the atomistic elements of panpsychic micropsychism in which higher levels of conscious entities are built up by aggregating atomic components. How do they borrow from panpsychism? The debt is illustrated in this piece where Hoffman writes:

When others see your face, they open a genuine, but limited, portal into your conscious world. Which is not to say that your face is conscious. It's not. You are conscious. Your face is an icon in the interface of the viewer.

When I see a dog, my portal into consciousness is dimmer. I guess there is enjoyment of a bone and excitement by a squirrel. When I see an ant, my portal is dimmer still; I have little insight into the experiences behind my icon of an ant. With a rock, my portal is opaque; it offers no obvious insight into experiences behind the icon. My interface has, of necessity, finite limits; when it delivers a rock, it cries uncle — similarly, when it delivers atoms and molecules.

[Hoffman 2019b]

The difference between the two approaches is that panpsychic micropsychism allows for the reality of physical objects. Hoffman and Prakash's Conscious Realism may be cast as panpsychic micropsychism without matter. What the two ontologies do share, though, is the problem of combining perceptual experiences. How will Hoffman and Prakash combine perceptual experiences into what we see currently as meaningful bundles? How does the greenness, roundness and elasticity of a tennis ball all coalesce into the one perceptual 'object' and remain there. With a realist interpretation of our perceptual experiences, these combinations and regularities are explained easily and naturally as perceptual experiences are bundled with the individual physical object that causes in us those experiences. With Hoffman and Prakash's vast, interconnected network of atomic conscious agents, it's difficult to see a principled way in which to anchor particular combinations of experiences into stable bundles.

There is a second problem with combining experiences and one that they share with advocates of panpsychic micropsychism. As they put it:

For instance, one's taste experiences of salt, garlic, onion, basil and tomato are somehow combined into the novel taste experience of a delicious pasta sauce. What is the relationship between one's experiences of the ingredients and one's experience of the sauce?

[Hoffman and Prakash 2014: 11]

Book cover: Free Will by Sam Harris

Hoffman and Prakash propose how their mathematical schemata could solve this combination problem through both creating Cartesian products and integrating over the space of perceptual experiences [2014: 12]. However, they can only formulate particular known combinations (such as complex tastes) in practice by borrowing from our current psycho-physical explanations. For example, we know that our experience of yellow can arise from combining our experiences of red and green. (This is how our television screens generate the thousands of different colours we see from only three primary colours.) We can describe how the separate wavelengths generated by a red object and a green object hit the photoreceptors in our eye to create the visual image of yellow. Our explanation of colour perception rests on our understanding of the properties of particular mind-independent objects and their interactions; namely the objects seen, the photons they emit or reflect and the cones in our retinas. In this way, Hoffman and Prakash's reverse engineering to arrive at their new equations using our current knowledge of physical interactions will be parasitic on realism.

Hoffman and Prakash realize that they will need to do better than this to convince the scientific community of their idealist scheme. They make an 'interesting prediction' suggested by their mathematical formalism; that the 'phenomenology of decision making is intimately connected with the spaces of perceptual experiences that are integrated in the decision process' [2014: 12]. We'll need to wait to see whether they are able to formulate a prediction with sufficient precision and then whether it will be confirmed.

A more serious problem they recognize is how to combine the individual subjects of experiences, the discrete conscious agents at the micro-level, into a unified conscious being at the macro-level, such as a human being or a dolphin. Here, Hoffman and Prakash develop two mathematical theorems from which they draw the conjecture that 'any subset of conscious agents from the pseudograph, adjacent to each other or not, can be combined to create a new conscious agent' [2014: 12].

The question immediately raised is: What is the basis for this conjecture? Why would we think that combining atomic conscious agents leads to a new conscious agent with its own distinct and 'particular phenomenological point of view' [2014: 12]. Why would we think this any moreso than a human family of individuals gives rise to an entirely new consciousness over and above the consciousnesses of the individuals who make up that family? In its intercommunications, a human family exhibits the interactions of perception, decision and action akin to that of Hoffman and Prakash's pseudograph of conscious agents. And yet, however we might formalise mathematically these intra-family interactions, there is nothing to suggest that a new supra-family consciousness pops out.

Hoffman and Prakash [2014: 12] refer to Coleman and Goff at some length disputing how such a view is even conceptually coherent given that

... a set of points of view have nothing to contribute as such to a single, unified successor point of view. Their essential property defines them against it: in so far as they are points of view they are experientially distinct and isolated—they have different streams of consciousness.

[Coleman 2014]

Given both this paucity of demonstration of newness and the conceptual confusion over accessing private experiences, I suggest Hoffman and Prakash [2014: 12] are overstating their case significantly in thinking that their theorems 'give constructive proofs' of how atomic points of view can be combined to create a new point of view.

Book cover: The Self and Its Brain: An Argument for Interactionism by Karl Popper and John C. Eccles

I suggest their overconfidence also extends to what they think their theorems say about introspection. They surmise that their method of mathematical combination shows how 'introspection emerges, in an intelligible fashion, from the combination of conscious agents' [2014: 13]. However, it's not at all clear how this introspection can occur as Hoffman and Prakash had already specified that a conscious agent has 'no direct experiential access to the sphere ... of experiences of any other conscious agent' [2014: 12]. Furthermore, in a later answer to an objector, they reinforce this inability of one conscious agent to experience directly the experience of another conscious agent. They write: 'The qualia X of a conscious agent C are private, in the sense that no other conscious agent Ci can directly experience X' [2014: 14]. Now, if we grant, for the sake of argument, the possibility of introspective access by one conscious agent into the private experiences of another, then that raises another difficulty: Why is it that I can't introspect the experiences of other conscious agents, such as that of my friend or my cousin or my dog?

The above considerations give rise to another similar quandary. And that is the question of how we should carve up aggregates of atomic conscious agents into distinct higher-order conscious agents, like you and me. If reality is a vast network of interconnected atomic conscious agents, then what determines the boundary between the aggregate of atomic conscious agents that constitute 'Leslie Allan' and the aggregates that separately constitute 'Donald Hoffman' and my dog? On a realist scheme, we easily and naturally draw the boundaries around conscious agents. I, Donald Hoffman and my dog have distinct physical bodies that really exist independently of looking at them. The challenge for Hoffman and Prakash is to carve up combinations of atomic conscious agents in a way that is not parasitic on the way we use our everyday realist scheme to individuate persons while also being principled.

Book cover: The Mystery of Consciousness by John R. Searle

Hoffman and Prakash's ascribing atomic conscious agents with the three processes of perception, decision and action gives the initial appearance that these conscious agents identify with us. These three processes also mirror the operation of neurons, with their inputs, internal processing and outputs. However, unlike physical organisms and neurons, Hoffman and Prakash's network of disembodied atomic conscious agents do not afford them the heuristic richness that comes with working with a physical substrate and an individuating principle that carves up micro-entities into natural wholes.

Consider also the limits of our communications with other conscious agents. Isn't it an extraordinary coincidence that the only collections of atomic conscious agents with which we are able to communicate are just those ones in which conscious awareness functions as the top-level modeller of the external world (the agent's environment) and its internal world (the agent's affective and conative states). Why is this a coincidence on Hoffman and Prakash's scheme? Because such top-level modelling is essential to our ability to collaborate with our tribal members in order for us to survive and reproduce. In other words, is it not a stroke of luck that the particular aggregates of atomic conscious agents that can communicate with each other are precisely the ones for which we can offer a realist scientific explanation for intra-species communication and the capacity for conscious awareness that underpins it?

Copyright © 2020, 2022

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