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Hoffman's Conscious Realism:
A Critical Review

4. Conscious Realism

4.6 Post hoc Reconstruction

Book cover: The Problems of Philosophy by Bertrand Russell

In the previous section, I examined how Hoffman's Conscious Realism appears to be wanting of the conceptual resources he will need to explain the evolution of species via backwards projection from his network of atomic conscious agents. The task he has set himself is even more onerous than this, for he hopes to explain not only evolution, but the successes of all branches of science, including quantum mechanics and general relativity [Frohlich 2019].

Unfortunately for Hoffman, any progress he thinks he has already made borrows from the realist framework he wants to ditch. Hoffman promises big: 'Conscious realism, by contrast, offers a scientific theory of the noumenal, viz., a mathematical formulation of conscious agents and their dynamical interactions' [Hoffman 2008: 104] and 'This notion can be made mathematically precise and yields experimental predictions' [2008: 105].

In this enterprise, Hoffman starts with vision science:

We now have mathematically precise theories about how one type of conscious agent, namely human observers, might construct the visual shapes, colors, textures, and motions of objects (see, e.g., Hoffman 1998; Knill and Richards 1996, Palmer 1999).

[Hoffman 2008: 106]

Hoffman explains how these mathematical formulae show how one conscious agent constructs in their visual field colour, texture, motion, depth, and so on. Note, however, that this work is neither unique to nor owes anything to Hoffman's Conscious Realism theory. Hoffman informs us that his mathematical models are simply reinterpretations of realist approaches to perception. He willingly concedes this point when he writes:

Almost without exception the authors of these perceptual theories are physicalists who accept HFD and conceive of their theories as specifying methods by which human observers can reconstruct or approximate the true properties of physical objects that, they assume, exist objectively, i.e., independently of the observer (a claim about physical objects that is explicitly denied by conscious realism). But each of these perceptual theories can equally well be reinterpreted simply as specifying a method of object construction, not reconstruction.

[Hoffman 2008: 106]

Here, Hoffman readily accepts that at the core of these physicalist theories is the axiom that there really are 'true properties' of mind-independent physical objects. But therein lay the reason for their historical predictive successes. It was in virtue of their proposing an invariant and known external cause of our perception that they were so successful. By contrast, the supposed predictive successes of Hoffman's mathematical models turn out to be not unique to Hoffman's conscious realism theory, but are parasitic on the successes of the realist research programs on human vision.

How easy is it for Hoffman to conscript the predictive successes of a realist view of perception as his own? Very easy. He tells us how:

I can pull the W out of the model and stick a conscious agent in its place and get a circuit of conscious agents. In fact, you can have whole networks of arbitrary complexity. And that's the world.

[Gefter 2016]

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

And working with Prakash, Hoffman does just that in a paper in which they simply redefine the space-time world of physics W to one in which the 'world W consists entirely of conscious agents' [Hoffman and Prakash 2014: 7].

Now, one mark of a progressive scientific theory is that it explains the predictive successes of its rival. For example, Einstein's Special Theory of Relativity explained the successful predictions of its rival, Newtonian dynamics. These Newtonian predictions included the return of Halley's Comet and the existence and location of the planet Neptune. Einsteinian Relativity would not have got a Guernsey if it had merely restated Newtonian mechanics in non-Euclidian geometry.

Hoffman and Prakash tap into this expectation when they write:

The onus is on us to provide a mathematically rigorous theory of consciousness, to show how current physics falls out as a special case, and to make new testable predictions beyond those of current physics.

[Hoffman and Prakash 2014: 15]

Here, Hoffman has hit the nail on the head. This is exactly what we need from his research programme if it is to gain some plausibility. What we are expecting are novel predictions derived from his theory that are later confirmed. And not simply post hoc mathematical reconstructions of pre-existing realist theories.

Copyright © 2020, 2022

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