Donald Hoffman's Conscious Realism

1. Introduction

Citation Information

Allan, Leslie 2022. Donald Hoffman's Conscious Realism, URL = <>.

Photo of Professor Donald Hoffman

Professor Donald Hoffman

In one of my earlier works, The Existence of Mind-Independent Physical Objects, I argued the realist case that there really exist entities that are independent of our perception of them. In my The Mind/Brain Identity Theory: A Critical Appraisal, I also argued that we as yet do not have a credible theory on the nature of mind and matter and the relationship between the two. Especially since the Enlightenment, some philosophers have put in a lot of work defending the contra idealist view that all that exists fundamentally are mental objects or events. George Berkeley (1685–1753) and Francis Bradley (1846–1924) are notable examples.

More recently, respected neuroscience researcher Donald Hoffman and his collaborators have tried to apply basic findings in neuroscience and evolutionary theory in support of the idealist view. Hoffman's novel solution to the mind-body 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 his collaborators, 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.

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. He describes this position as a form of idealism, so it's unclear why he labelled it as 'Conscious Realism', taking his opponents 'realist' label as his own.

In this short reflection, I want to summarize each of the three components of Hoffman's broader idealist theory and state briefly the main problems I see with it. For the full critical review, see my Hoffman's Conscious Realism: A Critical Review. To contribute to the discussion, add your comments to the Rational Realm Facebook post dedicated to this review.

Copyright © 2022

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