“Human beings are organizations of – do not let us use the philosophically tendentious word ‘matter’, but rather the neutral and philosophically non-committal term translated from the German Weltstoff – the universal ‘world stuff’. But our organization has two aspects a material aspect when looked at objectively from the outside, and a mental aspect when experienced subjectively from the inside. We are simultaneously and indissolubly both matter and mind.” – Julian Huxley
I used the quote from Julian Huxley in a post years ago. I’ve had good reason to think about it recently on encountering the ideas of Donald Hoffman. Hoffman is a professor of cognitive science at the University of California and has spent years studying perception and the brain. He appears to have done a lot of work particularly in the area of visual perception. Hoffman’s main conclusion after these years of research and study is exactly the opposite of what we might expect. Instead of “brain activity creates consciousness”, the usual and safe scientific view, Hoffman’s radical view, that he calls conscious realism, is that. “consciousness creates brain activity, and indeed creates all objects and properties of the physical world.”
We might expect this coming from a mystic, or maybe an insane person, but not from a scientist. An interview with Hoffman in Quanta Magazine excited a firestorm of comments, mostly dismissive, with some threatening to cancel their subscriptions. Let’s take a look.
Before getting to the radical view of conscious realism, I want to follow through Hoffman’s arguments that lead up to it. I also want to correct some of the misunderstandings many would have when first exposed to the unadulterated form of it. For a single paper by Hoffman that sums up his ideas look at Conscious Realism and the Mind-Body Problem published in 2008. I will be following the arguments in that paper and Hoffman’s quotes that follow are from it.
We begin with the view that Hoffman calls the hypothesis of faithful depiction (HFD). HFD is the common sense view. There is a world external to us. We perceive the world. What we perceive may be unlike the world in many ways but is a reasonable approximation of it. There may be a time delay in perceptions and there may be some infilling of missing data but in general what we see is what there is. If our perceptions were not accurate, we would not survive individually or as a species. Evolution would not permit the development of faulty perceptions.
Sounds almost beyond question.
Hoffman at one point accepted HFD but he writes: “I now think HFD is false. Our perceptual systems do not try to approximate properties of an objective physical world. Moreover evolutionary considerations, properly understood, do not support HFD, but require its rejection.”
In place of HFD he proposes the multimodal user interface (MUI). In MUI perception presents us with a radically simplified representation of the world. The word “representation” is key. The table of our perceptions is not like the real table but is a representation of the table tailored to how we need to interact with it. It does not need to be in our perceptions anything like the actual table itself.
Hoffman gives a compelling reason why what we would be seeing is not anything like reality in his computer desktop analogy. When we delete a file by dragging an icon to recycle bin, we are initiating a series of actions in the CPU, memory, and disk of the computer. The icon and action of dragging simplifies the underlying reality of what happens in the computer and operating system so the complexities are hidden from us. In the same way our subjective experience hides from us the underlying complexities of the world so it can interact efficiently with it. How it represents reality no more needs to represent how reality actually is than the pixels of the icon need to be the bytes of the underlying file on the computer desktop. The computer desktop is an interface and its success depends on how simple and obvious it is to interact with it. If it were complicated (I have seen some really cluttered desktops and I have no idea how people work with them) and non-obvious, then computer users would be losing or deleting critical files all the time. Simplified perceptions is far more critical to our overall evolutionary success than representation of the “real” world. Accuracy in representation is less important than how well the representation guides action.
We can see how this could be related to the unconscious nature of mental function. We have certain things presented to our consciousness but underlying that is a robust series of processes that do not reach consciousness (maybe as much as 90-95% of mental functioning). It makes a lot of sense that what is presented to consciousness need have little relation to the objects in the world or the complex mental processes that generated it as long as what is presented allows good enough evolutionary decision-making that the organism survives. The less, but the only the essential, information presented in many cases would fit the requirement nicely and with greatest efficiency.
To the extent that a user interface succeeds in providing friendly formatting, concealed causality, and clued conduct, it will also offer ostensible objectivity. Usually the user can act as if the interface is the total reality of the computer. Indeed some users are fooled; we hear humorous stories of a child or grandparent who wondered why an unwieldy box was attached to the screen. Only for more sophisticated purposes, such as debugging a program or repairing hardware, does dissolution of this illusion become essential.
Hoffman sums it up: “The conscious perceptual experiences of an agent are a multimodal user interface between that agent and an objective world.”
Notice in particular the term “objective world”. One of first mistakes made by many commenters on the Quanta Magazine article was the assertion that Hoffman thinks the world is all subjective.
He explains this more fully:
If you think that this train thundering down the tracks is just an icon of your user interface, and does not exist when you do not perceive it, then why don’t you step in front of it? You will soon ﬁnd out that it is more than an icon. And I will see, after you are gone, that it still exists. This argument confuses taking something literally and taking it seriously. If your MUI functions properly, you should take its icons seriously, but not literally. The point of the icons is to inform your behavior in your niche. Creatures that do not take their well-adapted icons seriously have a pathetic habit of going extinct. The train icon usefully informs your behaviors, including such laudable behaviors as staying oﬀ of train-track icons. The MUI theorist is careful about stepping before trains for the same reason that computer users are careful about dragging ﬁle icons to the recycle bin.
Hoffman regards conscious realism as a view that compliments MUI but it is possible to accept MUI and not accept conscious realism. He defines it: “Conscious realism asserts that the objective world, i.e., the world whose existence does not depend on the perceptions of a particular observer, consists entirely of conscious agents.”
I must admit that I find this a somewhat labored formulation.
What I think it is saying (and I might be misinterpreting) is that all we can interact with in the world are the icons of the MUI and that conscious agents (we ourselves) are what create the icons.
According to conscious realism, when I see a table, I interact with a system, or systems, of conscious agents, and represent that interaction in my conscious experience as a table icon. Admittedly, the table gives me little insight into those conscious agents and their dynamics. The table is a dumbed-down icon, adapted to my needs as a member of a species in a particular niche, but not necessarily adapted to give me insight into the true nature of the objective world that triggers my construction of the table icon.
Hoffman explicitly says it does not mean he thinks the tables we perceive are conscious. This is not panpsychism.
Conscious realism, together with MUI theory, claims that tables and chairs are icons in the MUIs of conscious agents, and thus that they are conscious experiences of those agents. It does not claim, nor entail, that tables and chairs are conscious or conscious agents.
The rabbit hole goes deeper. It is not just table and chairs that are icons of our MUI. Our science and beliefs about the world – even the particles and waves of physics – these are more icons in our MUI. We cannot escape the MUI to touch “reality”. All we have is the MUI. So when he says “consciousness creates brain activity, and indeed creates all objects and properties of the physical world” he is saying the MUI has constructed the world (a world with a “brain activity” icon) we perceive and that is all we can perceive.
This is, indeed, the world stuff of Julian Huxley, but it is a world that seems in so many ways unsatisfying.
Hinduism and Buddhism both point to the illusory nature of the world we perceive. Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche in The Tibetan Yogas of Dream and Sleep writes: “All of our experience, including dream, arises from ignorance. This is a rather startling statement to make in the West…It is ignorance of our true nature and the true nature of the world… that results in entanglement with the delusions of the dualistic mind.” I would like to think it might be possible to escape the delusions.