Conscious realism

Donald Hoffman has been popping up a lot recently, he’s the originator of the theory of conscious realism, which is a new attempt to resolve the mind-body problem, also known as the hard problem of consciousness: how does the experience of consciousness arise from the physical body? Religion’s answer has has pointed to the soul, but non-theists have been trying to come up with an answer that has a more testable hypothesis. Quantum physics has shown us that the classical model of Newtonian physics, (cause and effect,) is not quite correct, and scientists have been trying to reconcile the two for several decades. Hoffman’s theory is an inversion of the physicalist interpretation that the mind is an emergent behavior of the mind, that instead, that the fundamental constant of the universe is consciousness itself, and that the physical world as we know it is but an approximation of the underlying reality, as interpreted by our biological system.

I realize that I’m blowing the interpretation, and that this all may sound a lot like the old adage that we are not physical beings living in a spiritual world, but spiritual beings living in a physical world. Hoffman takes a couple steps to build to this conclusion, the first seems to be based on some evolutionary mathematics that he developed that shows that perception of true reality is antithetical to fitness selection in evolution. Hoffman built a computer simulation of a reality, with creatures that either perceived an accurate representation of that world, or ones that were able to screen out only that which was necessary for fitness, survival and reproduction. In all of his models, the creatures that saw an accurate representation of reality became extinct.

So the first part of this theory is what Hoffman calls the mulitmodal user interface theory, which is a way of saying that humans, and all creatures have evolved with a species specific interface for perceiving a limited version of reality. This is driven by natural selection, and our reality is different from other species. This is easily apparent when one considers variations within humans such as color blindness or synthesia, or between different species, such as the perception of different wavelengths of light.

This idea of the mind as a reality-filter is probably well known to anyone who has partaken in psychologics, as it becomes apparent that having the entirety of subconscious awareness rushing into consciousness is very detrimental to normal functioning. There’s a school of thought in Buddhism called mind-only that has a similar take, that only the mind is real, and that the physical world is created from it.

Two men were arguing about a flag flapping in the wind. “It’s the wind that is really moving,” stated the first one. “No, it is the flag that is moving,” contended the second. A Zen master, who happened to be walking by, overheard the debate and interrupted them. “Neither the flag nor the wind is moving,” he said, “It is MIND that moves.”

Most materialist theories of consciousness get to a certain point with the structure of the brain, the activity of neurons and neurotransmitters, and posit that add enough of these dendrite connections and -POOF! Consciousness. It’s hard to avoid hand waving or magic. Alternatively, Hoffman proposes that “the objective world consists of conscious agents and their experience.” Now this part may be hard to distinguish from the theory of panpsychism, which holds that all matter is in fact conscious, and that consciousness is the fundamental building block of reality. (Annaka Harris is a reluctant fan.)

Hoffman’s theory is interesting because he’s attempting to create a framework for testing these hypotheses with math. These types of questions have ultimately been philosophical ones, and it’s good to see progress in a way that may one day be experimental in a subjective way.