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Hoffman's Conscious Realism:
A Critical Review

4. Conscious Realism

4.5 Heuristic Sterility

Book cover: Consciousness Explained by Daniel C. Dennett

In this section, I will elaborate more the criticism that Hoffman's idealism is missing the fundamental axioms and conceptual tools needed to develop his theory into an empirically rich paradigm that opens up new areas for enquiry and explanation. Take, for example, Hoffman's bold announcement that his reconstructions give 'mathematically precise theories about how certain conscious agents construct their physical worlds' [Hoffman 2008: 106]. Unfortunately for Hoffman, however, his reconstruction shows only how one conscious agent constructs their world. Despite his promise, his reformulation says nothing substantive about 'conscious agents and their dynamical interactions' [2008: 104]. His mathematical model is entirely silent on how, when I get a headache from a rock falling on my head when I'm all alone, this is the result of a 'decision' and 'action' of another conscious agent. His model says nothing about how, when I look up and see the moon, my moon experience is the result of the 'decision' and 'action' of other conscious agents in the network.

With the help of Prakash, Hoffman expended considerable effort in developing the mathematics of the supposed interactions between conscious agents. Drawing on the latest physics, they try to show that 'space-time and objects are among the symbols that conscious agents employ to represent the properties and interactions of conscious agents' [Hoffman and Prakash 2014: 13]. In working through sets of complex equations [2014: 13f], they claim to 'observe that the harmonic functions of the space-time chain that is associated with the dynamics of a system of conscious agents are identical to the wave function of a free particle; particles are vibrations not of strings but of interacting conscious agents' [2014: 13].

Hoffman and Prakash support this claim by identifying certain features of quantum theory with features of their conscious agents; features that they import explicitly into their theory. The mathematics employed is complex, so I'll leave it to others to evaluate their relevancy and veracity. In spite of all of this included complexity using eigenfunctions, Planck scale, Markovian dynamics, and so on, what is striking here is that Hoffman and Prakash afford us no insight into the most fundamental questions raised by their idealist mathematical formalism.

Again, their model gives us no inkling of how it is that we mentally construct stars and planets that, on our current understanding, existed for billions of years before any conscious entities appeared on the cosmic landscape. Or how it is that we conjure up forces of nature and particles so small that no conscious being can perceive directly.

Hoffman alludes to the difficult task he has set himself and that I am referring to here in his example of how neuroscientists stimulating a brain purport to bring about the experience of phosphenes.

When, for instance, we stimulate primary visual cortex and see phosphenes, the cortex does not cause the phosphenes. Instead, certain interactions between conscious agents cause the phosphenes, and these interactions we represent, in greatly simplified icons, as electrodes stimulating brains.

[Hoffman 2008: 108]

It is exactly this story of how it is that direct 'dynamic interactions' between disembodied conscious agents cause the experience of phosphenes in the subject without the use of mind-independent physical electrodes that we are expecting from Hoffman and that we are missing entirely. With his tripartite model of the atomic consciousness, what we want to know is the mechanism behind a conscious agent's 'Decision'. How is this 'Decision' translated into an 'Action'? How does this 'Action' translate into a new 'Perception' had by another conscious agent? How is it that these conscious agents construct a multimode user interface (MUI) that is not just a little off the mark about the nature of reality, but is stupendously mistaken? Why do they construct a 'reality' in which physical entities and forces existed for billions of years even before the apparent first onset of conscious beings? Why do they construct a 'reality' in which it appears that motions of unconscious matter regularly determine the perceptual qualities, decisions and emotions of conscious entities? To what purpose is this universal self-deception?

Book cover: An Idealist View of Life by  S. Radhakrishnan

Hoffman shows no appetite at all for exploring these fundamental questions, favouring instead a mathematical formalism that obscures more than it clarifies. He seems content to give away for free the remarkable progress gained over the last couple of centuries in our understanding of consciousness' neuronal base for a supposition that throws up many more mysteries than it purports to solve.

A solution to the mind-body problem will require bold ideas if we are to finally marry seamlessly the two domains of enquiry: the physical and the mental—just as Newton brought into the one conceptual framework terrestrial and celestial motions and Einstein combined the absolute categories of space and time into the one space-time dimension. In that respect, I welcome Hoffman's innovative conjecture. So far, however, Hoffman has given us only a very impoverished model of consciousness and of physical objects. In fact, we learn more about how human minds work from Plato and Aristotle writing more than two millennia ago. As far as becoming a fruitful and ongoing research programme, as we have seen, Hoffman's conjecture is yet to get some wind in its sails.

Let me pursue this problem of the heuristic sterility of Hoffman's Conscious Realism as it applies to the evolution of conscious agents in particular. Hoffman liberally uses biological explanations of adaption occurring in real time when doing so advances his thesis. For example, he writes:

A backward retina, for instance, with photoreceptors hidden behind neurons and blood vessels, is not the "best" solution simpliciter to the problem of transducing light but, at a specific time in the phylogenetic path of H. sapiens, it might have been the best solution given the biological structures then available.

[Hoffman 2009: 2]

However, Hoffman also informs us that his theory 'entails that DNA does not exist when it is not perceived' [Hoffman 2018: 11]. One problem for Hoffman here is that DNA has only been perceived within the last century. On Hoffman's scheme, with no DNA existing for the previous fourteen billion years or so, he has robbed himself of the mechanism of variation that underpins natural selection. Doing away with the DNA building blocks of evolution, that leaves Hoffman with no reason to hang on to the theory of evolution and no reason to generate mathematical simulations of evolutionary processes—except perhaps to satisfy his own intellectual curiosity.

Hoffman tries to meet this objection by pointing out that:

Evolutionary changes in genes and body morphology can be modeled by evolution whether those genes and bodies are viewed as mind-dependent or mind-independent. The mathematics does not care. Nor does the fossil evidence. A dinosaur bone dated to the Jurassic can be interpreted along physicalist lines as a mind-independent object or, with equal ease, as a mind-dependent icon that we construct whenever we interact with a certain long-existing system of conscious agents.

[Hoffman 2008: 111]

Now, it may appear that Hoffman has up his sleeve an anti-realist interpretation of the evolution of organisms that is just as rich and fruitful as the scientific realist version. Not so. The 'dinosaur bone' he mentions here is simply a wished-for output of his mathematical model of how our visual systems present a bone. Hoffman and his colleagues have done none of the work on how a fossilized bone millions of years old is explained within the theoretical framework of a community of consciousness-only agents that arose only recently. It seems that crucial research program has not even begun.

Hoffman tells us:

For the conscious realist there is, no doubt, interesting and fundamental work to be done here: We want a rigorous mathematical theory of the evolution of conscious agents which has the property that, when this evolution is projected onto the relevant MUIs, it gives us back the current physicalist model of evolution. That is, we must exhibit physicalist evolutionary models as special cases, in fact projections, of a richer and more comprehensive evolutionary theory.

[Hoffman 2008: 111]

How long will we need to wait for this richer and more comprehensive anti-realist evolutionary account of dinosaur bones and the birth of the universe? According to Hoffman, 'that's not going to be just a year or two. I mean, we're talking multi-decade effort here' [Tsakiris 2020]. In the meantime, in an interview with Frohlich, Hoffman does give us a hint of where he thinks evolutionary fitness might light lay:

And there is a sense of "fitness", in vast social networks. The more connections you have, in some sense, the more fit you are. And the less connections you have, the less fit you are. So Google has tons of connections and the owners of Google are billionaires, Hoffman has a very few and he's not a billionaire.

[Frohlich 2019]

How heuristically fertile is Hoffman's idea? How will this sense of evolutionary 'fitness' in disembodied social networks explain the evolution of the eye 'icon' that appears to perceive things via light waves reflecting off the surfaces of mind-independent physical objects? How will that model of 'fitness' explain the evolution of the 'icon' for cosmic microwave background (CMB) radiation that exists from more than 13 billion years before conscious minds even arrived? How will that idea of 'fitness' explain the evolution of our belief that objects have permanence even when no one is perceiving them?

Paradoxically, Hoffman already relies on the standard scientific realist explanation of the characteristics of the human eye as resulting from selective environmental pressures acting over a long period of time. He writes:

A backward retina, for instance, with photoreceptors hidden behind neurons and blood vessels, is not the "best" solution simpliciter to the problem of transducing light but, at a specific time in the phylogenetic path of H. sapiens, it might have been the best solution given the biological structures then available.

[Hoffman 2009: 2]

Book cover: Perceptual Knowledge by Georges Dicker

How will Hoffman's alternative explanation in terms of 'fitness' in disembodied social networks look when there is no time and space for evolution to work in and no photoreceptors, neurons and retina to work on?

Here again, Hofmann gives us a hope and prayer:

Let's look at those dynamics and see which one makes sense. And then that will give us some insight into what's going on in the realm of conscious agents, what they're up to, and then when we project that back into our spacetime interface, we should get evolution by natural selection or hopefully a generalization that makes new predictions beyond evolution by natural selection.

[Frohlich 2019]

With just a promissory note for a research program that seems to not have even begun, it's difficult to see how 'fitness' seen as plentiful social connections will give Hoffman the conceptual resources he will need. By adopting this new heuristic, he seems especially handicapped. In abandoning our existing powerful heuristic that sees 'fitness' developing in a physical DNA substrate over immense periods of time and in wide geographical spaces, Hoffman seems to be tying both hands behind his back.

Copyright © 2020, 2022

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