Donald Hoffman's Conscious Realism

2. Hoffman's Theoretical Components

2.1 Fitness Beats Truth (FBT) Theorem

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

Hoffman's form of metaphysical idealism, Conscious Realism, relies on an empirical-mathematical theory he and his collaborators term the Fitness Beats Truth (FBT) Theorem. Hoffman [2018: 1] summarizes this theorem like this:

... analysis of perceptual evolution using evolutionary game theory reveals that veridical perceptions are generically driven to extinction by equally complex non-veridical perceptions that are tuned to the relevant fitness functions. Veridical perceptions are not, in general, favored by natural selection.

In their paper illustrating their mathematical modelling, Hoffman and his collaborators reject the dominant view among evolutionary biologists by insisting that 'attempting to estimate the "true" state of the world corresponding to a given a sensory state, confers no evolutionary benefit whatsoever' [Prakasha et al 2017: 24].

2.2 Interface Theory of Perception (ITP)

Hoffman's Interface Theory of Perception (ITP) is a natural corollary of his FBT Theorem as it spells out explicitly the relation between what is perceived and the perceiver. His ITP extrapolates beyond the perceptual inabilities of the highly simplified players in his team's mathematical games to the limitations of highly developed creatures like you and me. As Hoffman puts it, his ITP 'proposes that our perceptions have been shaped by natural selection to hide objective reality and instead to give us species-specific symbols that guide adaptive behavior in our niche' [Hoffman 2018: 1].

Here, Hoffman likens our perception of physical objects to our use of icons on our computer desktop:

Suppose that there is a blue rectangular icon in the upper right corner of the desktop for a text file that you are editing. Does this mean that the text file itself is blue, rectangular, or in the upper right corner of the laptop? Of course not. Anyone who thinks so misunderstands the purpose of the desktop interface. No features of the icon are identifiable with any features of the file in the computer. Moreover, one would be hard pressed to find a natural sense in which the icon is a veridical representation of the file. However, the icon is intended to guide useful behaviors. If, for instance, you drag the blue icon to the trash you can delete the text file; if you drag it to the icon for an external drive, you can copy the file.

[Hoffman et al 2015a: 1484]

2.3. Conscious Realism

Both Hoffman's Fitness Beats Truth (FBT) Theorem and his Interface Theory of Perception (ITP) worked together in his endeavour to undermine the realist view that our perceptions are at least sometimes veridical; that they tell us something about the world of mind-independent objects. With Hoffman's Conscious Realism thesis, we see the philosophical culmination of his FBT and ITP. This is the most radical of his ideas and the most difficult to swallow for almost everyone who comes across it.

After casting doubt on what we can know about a mind-independent reality, Hoffman's next step is to do away with it altogether. All there is are conscious agents. Hoffman summarizes his thesis thus:

So, instead of proposing that particles in spacetime are fundamental, and somehow create consciousness when they form neurons and brains, I propose the reverse: consciousness is fundamental, and it creates spacetime and objects. ... reality is a vast social network of interacting "conscious agents," in which each agent has a range of possible experiences, and each agent can act to influence the experiences of other agents.

[Hoffman 2019b]

Hoffman explains how he was driven to this radical conclusion because of the lack of progress on the mind-body problem. As he puts it:

To this day, science has not dispelled the mystery. Does neural activity cause conscious experiences? Some think so but have no idea how. No neural cause has been proposed for even one conscious experience. Precisely what neural activity causes, say, the taste of vanilla, and precisely how and why does it do so? No one knows.

Are conscious experiences identical to, rather than caused by, neural activity? Some think so but again cannot give even one example. Precisely what neural activity is identical to the taste of vanilla? No one knows.

Why has the hard problem of consciousness remained intractable for centuries despite determined efforts by brilliant scientists? I think the culprit is our assumption that our perceptions reveal a reality that exists even if unperceived.

[Hoffman 2019b]

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