Sunday, 18 September 2016

The Ludicracy of Conscious Realism

It's sad to see that Quanta Magazine should take Donald Hoffman seriously when he waxes lyrical on the nature of reality, based on his "conscious realism".  This is a broadly respected repository of science journalism, but in this case, the editors appear to have let the article through because it mentions quantum stuff.

Naturally, I object to "conscious realism" in general, because it is total bollocks, but I also object some of the specific nonsense spouted by Donald Hoffman.  Now I would have provided a Wikipedia link to the page on "conscious realism" here, but there isn't one.  When you google the term, you end up at a document written by Donald Hoffman, which states:

Conscious realism is a proposed answer to the question of what the universe is made of. 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.

Hoffman even gave a TED talk on the topic - Do we see reality as it is?

My major beef is with this specific claim (from the Quanta Magazine article, but also referred to in the TED talk):

Snakes and trains, like the particles of physics, have no objective, observer-independent features. The snake I see is a description created by my sensory system to inform me of the fitness consequences of my actions. Evolution shapes acceptable solutions, not optimal ones. A snake is an acceptable solution to the problem of telling me how to act in a situation. My snakes and trains are my mental representations; your snakes and trains are your mental representations.

I don't think I can state this strongly enough: This is total and complete bollocks.  It's lunacy.  I'd call it quantum nonsense, but this might lead some readers to think that it's nonsense on a minuscule rather than massive scale.

This idea could only work if, in order for trains to work, we were obliged to explain them to each other - to synch our individual subjective realities with respect to the trains in our shared experience.  Think about it for a moment.  Engineer E designs a train at the request of Customer C, who approves the drawings and passes them over to Manufacturer M.  At various stages during the process, Surveyor S visits the construction site and compares the train, in its current form, to the design detailed in the drawings.  Eventually, S signs off on the construction and M presents the train to C who then puts it onto a pre-existing rail network, with pre-existing tracks, pre-existing bridges and pre-existing tunnels and sets it off on its way.

There is certainly some discussion between E, M, S and C, but the process does not involve a word by word, squiggle by squiggle explanation as to what each of the pieces of paper have written and drawn on them.  For the information to flow accurately from person to person, and for a train to result which fits on the tracks and into tunnels (etc, etc), those pieces of paper (the drawings) must have an independent, objective and (at least temporarily) immutable reality.

Once the train exists, we don’t need to discuss with each other the location of doors and seats, and so on.  If my reality of the train could truly be different to your reality of the train, then we could enter via different doors and you could sit on a seat in a location that, in my reality, doesn't even exist on my train (for example, you might have the train as being four metres wide, whilst mine is only three metres wide).  Animals that cannot even converse with us (guide dogs for example) will reliably enter and exit via the doors in a train that must necessarily have an objective reality (and may not be perceptible at all by those being guided).  An objective reality is necessary because we could not synch any differences in subjective reality with them.  (Cross country horse events would be a nightmare if horse and rider could not independently observe an objective reality with respect to jumps and other obstacles - both need to be aware of what they are jumping over, and when, in order for them to move in concert and make the jump.)

I agree that there are certain aspects of reality that are fuzzy to us - colours vary due to lighting and there is evidence that the perception of some colours may be language dependent (Lenneberg and Roberts).  The idea is that given the lack of a specific word for "orange", speakers of Zuni find it more difficult to differentiate between two colours that an English speaker would have no difficulty distinguishing.  Females, who generally have a better handle on language, also have a greater range of colours that they can distinguish, despite not having any huge difference in their physiognomy.  (There are apps written for men to help them discuss curtain, cushion and dress colours with women - "What do you mean, the light green cushion?  It's not light green, it's chartreuse!")  There are a range of illusions that we may fall prey to: the illusion that an image on a page is 3D, if it is sufficiently well drawn, or the illusion that a spoked wheel is spinning in the opposite direction that it is actually spinning and so on.

However, these illusions and inaccuracies on our part as imperfect sensory creatures should never be taken to mean that reality is somehow "imperfect", let alone non-existent.  To pretend otherwise represents a monumental level of hubris.


To my mind, Donald Hoffman's "conscious realism" constitutes an equally monumental level of stupidity, complete with a massive begged question - where do these "conscious agents" of his come from, if there is no objective reality?  It's a form of quantum woo.

But then again, who knows, it might just be a misconception on my part.

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