Hoffman's Conscious Realism:
A Critical Review

5. Conclusion

Book cover: A Brief History of the Soul by Stewart Goetz

In this essay, I've examined in some detail the three components in Hoffman's ontology and philosophy of mind. I've devoted a section each to a critical examination of his Fitness Beats Truth (FBT) Theorem, Interface Theory of Perception (ITP) and, finally, his most radical idea, Conscious Realism.

Hoffman's Conscious Realism is a bold step in attempting to solve the mind-body problem and for that reason ought to be welcomed. However, as this critical review shows, it labours under some seemingly intractable problems. The problems that are solvable stem from linguistic muddles. Here, I have suggested alternative linguistic descriptions of how we should see 'icons' operating in a virtual reality world that remove these linguistic absurdities. The other problems are not so easy to overcome. Some writers had identified serious oversimplifications and misunderstandings with how Hoffman and his collaborators simulated evolution by natural selection.

I also articulated how Hoffman's thesis is self-defeating on a number of fronts. These included his reliance on evidences for biological evolution to disprove the truth of biological evolution, his dependence on the veridicality of our perception of distance, and his rejection of time and space when they are presumed by his evolutionary argument. Perhaps the most debilitating criticism of Hoffman's idealist theory is that it is heuristically sterile, lacking the theoretical resources required to solve the program's many puzzles. Coupled with this deficiency is the criticism that any claimed successes of Hoffman's program are simply post hoc reconstructions of the successes of scientific realism.

Hoffman's theory leaves many substantive questions unanswered with seemingly little interest from him to engage. An initial question is: What independent evidence does Hoffman offer for his network of atomic conscious agents? And what is his theory about the causal interconnections between these atomic constituents that give our sense-experience its regularity? There are other puzzles so far unaddressed. These include: What factors determine which atomic conscious agents will combine to form more complex entities? Why are the true connections and communications between conscious agents so opaque to the extent that what is presented to us is a gross mischaracterisation of reality at the most basic level? Why does this network of conscious agents appear positively deceitful?

Contrast these outstanding puzzles with our current models of reality. Our modern theories of cosmology, physics, biology and neuroscience combined tell a comprehensive and complex story that answers our questions about the nature of the physical universe and our place in it. In addition, over the span of more than two millennia, we have accumulated countless instances of confirmed novel predictions that attest to the veracity of our models of reality. Of course, the 'hard problem' of consciousness remains in philosophy of mind and physicists are still grappling with dark matter and dark energy. In spite of these unanswered questions, we have made enormous strides in our understanding of the universe and our place in it. Hoffman's theory, on the other hand, draws a big blank on these significant questions. In fact, it's just a promissory note for a theory that may or may not come later.

Granted, Hoffman was enticed into adopting his Conscious Realism schemata because, as he says, he was frustrated with the lack of progress on the mind-body problem. As I have tried to show in this critical review, ditching scientific realism for Hoffman's version of idealism only serves to abandon a theoretical framework that has, over the last couple of centuries, proved enormously fruitful. The advances afforded us by scientific realism are not just in the theoretical domain, but also in the way it has led to improved medical and psychological treatments. With the insights gained by medical researchers, practitioners are now returning sight to the blind and movement to the paralysed. With our better understanding of brain function and mental illness, pharmacologists are changing the lives of patients suffering psychosis, depression, schizophrenia and a myriad of other psychological maladies. In our understanding of mind-independent matter, you would not be reading this on your electronic device if it were not for advances in quantum theory and we would not be flying one kilometre up in the air if it were not for advances in materials science. Giving up this scientific realist theoretical framework for a promise leaves us with no explanation for these stupendous successes.

In fairness to the newness of Hoffman's program, he and his collaborator recognize the immense challenges their theory faces. They concede:

How can such an approach explain matter, the fundamental forces, the Big Bang, the genesis and structure of space-time, the laws of physics, evolution by natural election, and the many neural correlates of consciousness? These are non-trivial challenges that must be faced by the theory of conscious agents.

[Hoffman and Prakash 2014: 5]

However, they choose to cast these questions aside in favour of an abstract mathematical formalism: 'But for the moment we will postpone them and develop the theory of conscious agents itself' [2014: 5–6]. Considering the substantive challenges described in this critical review, I find it difficult to see how, even in principle, Hoffman's mathematical constructs will ever overcome these fundamental barriers. I would have liked to have seen Hoffman sketch out a conceptual framework that takes these problems seriously and that provides some heuristics for solving them, instead of focusing on developing impoverished mathematical models that shed no light on these fundamental problems.

Book cover: Who's in Charge?: Free Will and the Science of the Brain by Michael S. Gazzanig

Hoffman is right to feel frustrated at our lack of progress over some two millennia in solving the mind-body problem. That's not to say that no progress has been made. Advances in evolutionary psychology and biology, linguistics, cognitive science and information theory have greatly illuminated the internal workings of the mind and its development. Add to that advances that philosophers of mind have given us in developing the conceptual tools required for formulating and clarifying the problem. Part of the reason for the intractability of the mind-body problem is the sheer complexity of the brain and mind. The human brain is complex beyond all imagining, with an adult brain hosting some 80 billion neurons with some 100 trillion connections between them. The multiplicity of neurotransmitters shaping and modulating brain activity only adds to this unfathomable complexity.

What I see is that we are still in the pre-Newtonian phase of a final solution. We are waiting for a great unifier like Newton who, in a stroke of brilliance, brought into the one conceptual scheme what were considered in his time entirely disparate phenomena. Prior to Newton, natural philosophers were working with two sets of physics: one set for the terrestrial realm, guided by Buridan's dynamics, and another set for the celestial realm guided by Ptolemaic cosmology. Newton's Three Laws of Motion and Universal Law of Gravitation provided the glue that combined what seemed to be two entirely separate domains of enquiry. He forged a common language—a common set of equations and conceptual framework—that described the motions of both terrestrial and celestial bodies.

Is Hoffman the new Newton? Time will tell. However, this critical review should give us pause for unbridled optimism. Idealist theories have failed previously. Likewise, materialist theories have not gained universal acceptance. Both these approaches seek to reduce one domain to the other, relegating the secondary domain to that of a poor cousin, not really existing in its own right. Note how Newton's success was not bought at the cost of reducing either terrestrial phenomena or celestial phenomena to an expression of the other. I suspect that a solution to the mind-body problem will require us to give full credence to the primacy of each domain while affording us a novel conceptual scheme that explains the nature of both and their mutual interactions. Just as Newton provided us with his new physics.

I am grateful to Rached Blili and Vince Giuca for their many corrections to and comments on the pre-release version of this essay. I remain wholly responsible for any errors and omissions in the published version.

Copyright © 2020, 2022

Initial draft release Oct 25, 2020
First published      May 20, 2022

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