Hoffman's Conscious Realism:
A Critical Review

1. Introduction

Citation Information

Allan, Leslie 2022. Hoffman's Conscious Realism: A Critical Review, URL = <>.

Photo of Professor Donald Hoffman

Professor Donald Hoffman

In a wealth of academic papers, videos and interviews spanning more than a decade, respected neuroscience researcher, Donald Hoffman, has proposed a novel solution to the mind-body problem. In the philosophy of mind, the mind-body problem specifically is the challenge of finding out what exists fundamentally; whether it is mind or physical bodies or some combination of both. Whatever we take to be ontologically fundamental, philosophers of mind are also tasked with explaining the nature of the relationship between mind and body. After more than two millennia of philosophers and scientists sweating over this problem, it appears no less intractable.

Hoffman's solution to the problem consists of the following three interconnected theories:

  1. Fitness Beats Truth (FBT) Theorem
  2. Interface Theory of Perception (ITP)
  3. Conscious Realism

Working with other researchers, Hoffman's Fitness Beats Truth (FBT) Theorem posits that during the course of the evolution of species, organisms whose perceptual apparatus are tuned for fitness for reproduction always win out against organisms that are tuned to perceive reality accurately. The theorem purportedly results from mathematical modelling of the selective pressures operating during the evolutionary process. This leads Hoffman to propose a pictorial representation theory of sensory perception, named the Interface Theory of Perception (ITP). According to ITP, every organism sports a species-specific perceptual interface modelled on the metaphor of icons on a computer desktop. Just as icons on our computer desktop do not accurately mimic the underlying complex objects they represent, so do our perceptual representations of external physical objects hide their enormous complexity.

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

The combination of these two theories is consistent with a realist view of the external world; i.e., the view that physical objects and processes exist independently of minds that perceive them. It is with the third theory in Hoffman's tripartite synthesis that he recommends a radical departure from both common sense and the dominant scientific realist view of what actually exists. The first two posits provide the theoretical underpinning for Hoffman's Conscious Realism; the view that the real world consists solely of conscious agents. If FBT and ITP combine to show that we have good grounds for believing that our sense-perceptions of physical objects cannot possibly reveal their objective properties, then, for Hoffman, it's a short step to doing away with mind-independent physical objects altogether. For Hoffman, the key motivator for him in rejecting realism about physical objects is the scant progress made in solving the mind-body problem. His position is a form of philosophical idealism, in the tradition of Berkeley and Leibniz.

In this essay, I deal with each of Hoffman's three components in turn, highlighting what I think are some of the key problems. He uses his FBT and ITP theories to try and bolster his more radical metaphysical Conscious Realism thesis. So I'll start with examining his FBT and then move on to his ITP. Finally, I'll critically review his Conscious Realism thesis.

Copyright © 2020, 2022

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