Reality and consciousness

Donald Hoffman is a cognitive neuroscientist and in this interview, he discusses his own ideas of what makes up reality and consciousness. He argues that what we call the ‘reality’ of the world we experience need not have any correspondence with what we might consider the ‘real’ world but is just a construct that our brains have evolved over time that better fit us for survival.

In the course of the interview, he also discusses the nature of consciousness and the so-called ‘hard problem’. As I understood the interview, he seems to be reversing the usual claim that there is an external objective reality and that our consciousness provides us with representations of it. Instead, it is our consciousness that is fundamental (and thus ‘real’) and what we think of as the real world is a representation that our consciousness creates.

Many scientists believe that natural selection brought our perception of reality into clearer and deeper focus, reasoning that growing more attuned to the outside world gave our ancestors an evolutionary edge. Donald Hoffman, a cognitive scientist at the University of California, Irvine, thinks that just the opposite is true. Because evolution selects for survival, not accuracy, he proposes that our conscious experience masks reality behind millennia of adaptions for ‘fitness payoffs’ – an argument supported by his work running evolutionary game-theory simulations. In this interview recorded at the HowTheLightGetsIn Festival from the Institute of Arts and Ideas in 2019, Hoffman explains why he believes that perception must necessarily hide reality for conscious agents to survive and reproduce. With that view serving as a springboard, the wide-ranging discussion also touches on Hoffman’s consciousness-centric framework for reality, and its potential implications for our everyday lives.

He gives a pretty clear exposition of the issues, though his stance is, I think, a decidedly minority view among those in the field.


  1. says

    Hoffman has a video around somewhere in which he gives us his Super Cool model of what he calls a “conscious agent” which is kind of like a state machine and there are labels and arrows and whatnot. Then he does a bunch of math and out pop all manner of surprising things and it all looks REALLY COOL.

    The trouble is that his “conscious agent” is “thing interacting with other things” so it is not terribly surprising that he can connect these things together and hint that perhaps reality as we know it is simply made of of “conscious agents.” It is not surprising that equations that resembles other equations which describe things interacting with things happen to pop out.

    It certainly fits my model of reality that it consists largely of things interacting with other things.

    Hoffman has struck me as a flim-flam man with a good line of patter, but no substance.

    Possibly he’s worked on it a bit since then, this is the video I watched:

  2. brucegee1962 says

    Or, in the words of another philosopher of science: “The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.” --HP Lovecraft

  3. flex says

    There is a grain of a worthwhile idea in there, but our probing at such things suggests most of reality exists even without any need for consciousness. It does depend on where you draw the line at reality against cultural constructs. A strict materialist may say that all culture is not part of reality, that is, it goes away when people are not around. And we could expand that to any consciousness which uses a model of reality, including quite primitive ones. The model of reality a dog carries in their brain includes concepts about reality which will probably cease to exist when the dog does.

    But the boundaries can be much fuzzier. It is worth asking whether culture is real. Human culture doesn’t exist in reality in the same way that an overstuffed easy chair does. The overstuffed easy chair would continue to exist (at least for awhile) even if all humanity was snuffed out in an instant. You couldn’t say the same for the things which are entwined with human culture like music, or fascism. If humanity vanished, a dog or cat could recognize and enjoy sitting on the remaining overstuffed easy chair, but even if a recording of Brubeck’s “Take Five” automatically turned on it would not provide the same culturally-learned response in a dog as it does in a human.

    So much of a human’s life is bound up in reality defined by human culture that it can make sense to expand our notion of reality to include culture. I’m not saying it’s right or good to do so, only that many, if not most, people do. Notions like fairness, equality, justice, status, profession, time, recipes, exercise, roads, water lines, houses, office layout, clothing, haircuts, etc. In fact most of what we interact with is hugely influenced, or solely defined, by culture. These are real, and thus part of reality, even if they would not exist if humanity didn’t exist.

    The grain of a worthwhile idea embedded in Hoffman’s syrup is that cultural reality, which is part of reality, can be changed by conscious action. In that way, consciousness defines and controls reality. However, the part of reality which is not cultural, the stone you can stub your toe on, is not controlled by consciousness. Your consciousness alone cannot change a tree into a deck-chair, no matter how hard you believe it can be done. Your consciousness can, through the use of planning and tools, change a tree into a deck-chair, because consciousness can be used to control things which exist outside of culture to modify other things which exist outside of culture (even if culture influences the final product).

    On the other hand, your consciousness can change reality to make country music better than classical (at least in your judgement), or make socialism equal communism. We can argue that the definitions of socialism and communism are very different things, but definitions are also cultural constructs. This can be very frustrating when you encounter someone who doesn’t share the same cultural reality, and knows that Hank Williams is better music than JS Bach. Or someone who’s cultural reality has mixed fascism, communism, socialism, and atheism into the same stew, and is unable to distinguish between them.

    Cultural reality is thermoplastic, it is defined by a consensus from conscious minds and will change over time. This is well known by propagandists, also known as advertising agencies. There are large areas of our lives which are impacted by people who are deliberately trying to change our cultural reality. Nothing quite as blatant as FNORD, but the notion proposed by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson in the Illuminatus! trilogy is based on how people perceive cultural reality. What Fox News does, in spreading fear and conflating meanings, is deliberate, not by chance. I couldn’t call it FUD because they trade in certainties, e.g. socialism is evil, while uncertainty and doubt leaves room for discussion.

    In my opinion it is evil, because it presumes the vast majority of people are willing to accept information from a single source uncritically. And, to my continual regret, it appears they are right. People generally do adopt cultural reality based on their environment, not from conscious reflection. Which means morality and ethics are defined not by reflection of moral problems, or discussion of the results of ethical lapses, but through cultural osmosis from a person’s environment. So if the environment includes a continuous series of statements that it is okay to cheat others to help yourself, that becomes ethically okay. More subtly, if an environment shows that only people of a certain skin color are successful, it becomes easier to believe that successful people who don’t meet that standard got there by cheating.

    But to return to the OP, Hoffman seems to be spouting a modern version of magic, whereby a person’s will can change reality without the need for tools. Somehow this mysticism doesn’t ever go away. Long before the theosophists and Christian Science there have been charlatan’s expounding this idea. I suspect it originated from early prestidigitator priests who didn’t want the common rabble to know how their miracles were performed and it predates history.

  4. says

    Let me offer an idea: any model of “reality” and “consciousness” that only works for an intelligence on the human level, is a bad model. For one thing, it does not address humans who are not as intelligent or well-socialized; is someone with cerebral damage not fully experiencing reality? Secondly, there are other animals. Any model of “reality” that depends on a human intelligence implicitly leaves out all the dogs, dolphins, horses, cats, octopi, elephants, and other intelligences we share the planet with.

    Put differently: if a tree falls in the forest and the only creature nearby to witness it is a dog, it still makes a sound.

  5. springa73 says

    I was recently looking through one of Hoffman’s books in a bookstore, where he was making the same sorts of arguments that he did in this video. I’m not knowledgeable about neuroscience and philosophy, but what I read struck me as quite improbable. My money is still on spacetime, matter, etc. being the actual components of the universe. That doesn’t mean that humans, or any other conscious beings, perceive reality accurately. As far as I know, mainstream science suggests that human perception of reality is both extremely simplified through limited senses and altered by mental and cultural models that affect how everyone defines reality. That’s not the same as saying that space and time and the matter and energy around us are complete illusions. Hoffman is almost certainly correct when he says that evolution does not select for the most accurate perception of reality, but rather the one that is most successful at keeping an organism alive and healthy and ready to reproduce. This doesn’t mean that everything about our perception of reality is false, though.

  6. Just an Organic Regular Expression says

    He proposes,

    it is our consciousness that is fundamental (and thus ‘real’) and what we think of as the real world is a representation that our consciousness creates….

    and thus hands a big stick to the Presuppositional Apologists in their continued attempt to beat down Methodological Naturalism. If what we view and talk about is not the “real” world, then any view, and any way of talking about it, is valid, and any presupposition is tenable.

  7. Just an Organic Regular Expression says

    By the way (I haven’t watched the interview yet), how does he address the point that much of at least our pragmatic understanding of reality is based on instrumentation, compasses, clocks, rulers, lenses, every sort of measuring device? These, being made of matter and not having consciousness, both are, and presumably are necessarily reporting, “reality”.

  8. Rob Grigjanis says

    flex @4: In my reality, Paul Desmond (a member of Brubeck’s band) composed “Take Five” 😉

  9. Rob Grigjanis says

    JaORE @9: From what I’ve read (see here), what you think of as a clock is something like an object in virtual reality; it has no existence except as an icon in a “multimodal user interface”, and there is one such icon for each conscious agent perceiving it rather than a “real” clock.

  10. consciousness razor says

    In reality, “Take Five” was (partly) improvised. Desmond should get the writing credit for the melody and (probably most of) the chord changes, but the other three members of the quartet (Brubeck/Wright/Morello) also played important compositional roles.
    If we’re talking about the original studio version from Time Out, then you might also thank/blame the producer and recording engineer for certain aspects of it. Or if we’re talking about this different version of it, by a different Dave Brubeck Quartet (with Mulligan/Six/Dawson at The Last Set at Newport, shortly before a riot broke out), then you can thank/blame them for that (the music, if not the rioting).

  11. John Morales says

    flex @4,

    It is worth asking whether culture is real. Human culture doesn’t exist in reality in the same way that an overstuffed easy chair does.

    Culture is an abstract concept, and is no more and no less real than any of them.

    (No need for reification)

  12. file thirteen says

    @flex #4, @jm #14

    Human culture doesn’t exist in reality in the same way that an overstuffed easy chair does.

    Because the concept “human culture” is deemed a purely conceptual abstraction, as compared to the concept “overstuffed easy chair” which is deemed a conceptual interpretation of a “real” item? (A level removed -- actually here the concept of a “real instance” of the “overstuffed easy chair” you, the reader, imagine when reading this). Perhaps.

    Ceci n’est pas une pipe.

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