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Eccentric Theories of Consciousness Are Tolerated; But Why?

Photo credit: Aedrian via Unsplash.

A couple of days ago, I looked at Andréa Morris’s profile of prominent physicist Roger Penrose who struggles to align a theory of consciousness with physics. She contrasts his views with those of University of California cognitive scientist Donald Hoffman.

Penrose is, in the end, a committed physicalist (“Whatever consciousness is, he’s convinced it can be explained by the laws of physics”). But Hoffman is quite a different story. As the title of his 2019 book — The Case Against Reality: How Evolution Hid the Truth from Our Eyes (Penguin, August 2019) — suggests, he is a huge fan of evolution. But, surprisingly perhaps, he is not a physicalist, as prominent evolution fans typically are.

Very Non-Darwinian Views

He told Robert Lawrence Kuhn at Closer to Truth,

I’ve used Evolutionary Game Theory to conclude that everything that we see around us in our perceptions is not veridical; it’s just a user interface, okay. and that means I have to go back and rethink what do. I mean ,what is the core of evolutionary theory that I can keep? I have to give up some physicalist assumptions that are typically made in evolution, okay? So most evolutionary biologists are also physicalists, of course. But it’s not absolutely necessary to be a physicalist to have the key principles of evolution

But in Morris’s account, he spells out some very non-Darwinian views:

Hoffman’s math leads him to conclude that we are avatars of a superconscious or arch-conscious agent. The arch-conscious agent puts us avatars through the paces of an infinite number of experiences, no matter how joyous or horrific, so that the arch-conscious agent can experience everything. Hoffman also warns against overidentifying with our self, because the self is an avatar. What’s more: “You are not any particular experience. You are the potential in which those experiences arise and disappear. That’s what you really are in your essence. You transcend any particular experience because you are that potential,” says Hoffman. 


A Universal Mind

How could this approach possibly be accepted as science? It is certainly not Daniel Dennett’s sort of thing or Sam Harris’s. But it does have a history. As Hoffman points out, Erwin Schrödinger (1887–1961) believed that “The total number of minds in the universe is one.” That is, following a “mind-first” strand in Indian philosophy, the author of the iconic Cat Paradox held that a universal Mind accounts for everything.

The reason that neither Hoffman nor Schrödinger was dismissed from science is the apparent impossibility of deriving human consciousness from the material substances of the brain. As British philosopher Colin McGinn put it, “You might as well assert that numbers emerge from biscuits or ethics from rhubarb.

Materialists who insist that science will somehow “crack” the problem of consciousness often sound as though they are missing the point. The most recent attempt, the wager between Christof Koch and David Chalmers, ended not only with the materialist losing the wager but with broad recriminations within the discipline. It’s sensitive in there because never far below the surface is the thought that all theories of consciousness are pseudoscientific.

As a result, the proponents of various theories are not always held to a rigid ideological standard. Philosopher of mind David Chalmers, who coined the term “Hard Problem of Consciousness,” also spoke to Kuhn at Closer to Truth. He told him that he accepts dualism, the idea that the mind or soul has a real existence, but he does not believe in the immortality of the soul — though he would like to. Presumably, he believes that the soul, though real, dies with the body.

He said something else too, that dualism did not come easily to him: “Every week I had a different physical theory of consciousness. None of them worked and eventually I came to see this is for systematic reasons. There are reasons why no purely physical theory will ever give you consciousness. It’ll always be an objective theory of objective functions. None of that ever gives you subjective experience.”

Think of Evolutionary Biology

If the scientific study of consciousness becomes more ideologically rigid — think of evolutionary biology — it will also be less honest as well as less interesting. In that scenario, Chalmers would not likely admit to dualism of any sort, Hoffman would be expected to air the view that the mind, far from being universal, is a mere illusion, and Penrose would be told that physicalism is true anyway, whether it works or not.

Fortunately, none of that will likely happen. Eccentricity is not, in itself, a vice in science. After all, the strangest imaginable theory, quantum mechanics, has turned out to be the most experimentally reliable. If there ever is a viable theory of consciousness, it will be more like quantum mechanics than like Darwinism.