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Integral World: Exploring Theories of Everything
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber
Andrea Diem-Lane is a tenured Professor of Philosophy at Mt. San Antonio College, where she has been teaching since 1991. Professor Diem has published several scholarly books and articles, including The Gnostic Mystery and When Gods Decay. She is married to Dr. David Lane, with whom she has two children, Shaun-Michael and Kelly-Joseph.
The Hoffman Conjecture
Visual Intelligence and its Implications
“There is no sun or moon unless a conscious mind perceives them, for both are constructs of consciousness.”
Back in the mid-1980s when I was working as a research assistant to Professor V.S. Ramachandran at the University of California, San Diego, where we were doing original research on visual perception, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that his mother was a follower of Ramana Maharshi of South India. It is perhaps for this reason that “Rama”, as his friends and colleagues affectionately called him, came to my defense when the famous Noble Laureate, the late Francis Crick, and I got into a heated argument over my vegetarianism at a dinner party one evening. Crick, Rama, Edelman, the Churchlands, and other luminaries were all living in La Jolla during the 1980s and each were trying to unravel the mystery of consciousness by focusing on the brain and its architecture.
Although significant progress has been made in the past thirty years the sticky problem of “qualia”what Chalmers calls the hard problemis still a Gordian knot that has yet to be unraveled. While many neuroscientists are attempting to reverse engineer the brain and develop simulation models of how a set of 86 billion neurons could be responsible for generating self-reflective awareness, other maverick scientists have taken a much more radical approach by arguing for a consciousness first principle, similar in some ways to the argument posed by Ramana Maharshi and Advaita Vedanta.
Professor Donald Hoffman at the University of California, Irvine, is one of those thinkers at the forefront of championing a new approach to understanding human awareness. Instead of focusing on a reductive, neurological explanation, Hoffman believes that it may be more fruitful to start precisely with what we ourselves know day to day and moment to momentour own consciousness.
As Professor Hoffman explains,
I believe that consciousness and its contents are all that exists. Spacetime, matter and fields never were the fundamental denizens of the universe but have always been, from their beginning, among the humbler contents of consciousness, dependent on it for their very being.
Before thinking that Hoffman has descended into the Deepak Chopra land of “woo, woo science” (to cite famed skeptic, Michael Shermer’s oft cited descriptive moniker for New Age thinking), what makes Hoffman’s approach so unique and refreshing is that he is fully aware that he may be wrong and is strenuously trying to mathematically shore up his hypothesis and show through rigorous analysis that one can actually derive the known laws of physics (particularly quantum mechanics) through a consciousness first methodology. Hoffman knows he is treading on heretical grounds but is so clear and open in his search that he has already received kudos from erstwhile doubters such as Steven Pinker from Harvard University for at least trying something new. As Hoffman acknowledges,
“The heroic defense will, I suspect, not soon be abandoned. For the defenders doubt that a replacement grounded in consciousness could attain the mathematical precision or impressive scope of physicalist science. It remains to be seen, of course, to what extent and how effectively mathematics can model consciousness. But there are fascinating hints: According to some of its interpretations, the mathematics of quantum theory is itself, already, a major advance in this project. And perhaps much of the mathematical progress in the perceptual and cognitive sciences can also be so interpreted. We shall see.
Hoffman, of course, has already been confronted by a number of critics, not the least of which is Daniel Dennett who, though admiring Hoffman’s audacity and some of his computer interface analogies, thinks he is mistaken. Robert Lawrence Kuhn, host of the wonderful science series, Closer to the Truth, who himself is very well versed in brain research (having received his Ph.D. in the subject from U.C.L.A.), recently interviewed Dr. Hoffman and came away deeply cynical about whether such an endeavor would be eventually successful or not. To Hoffman’s credit, unlike other proselytizers of C.I.L. (“consciousness is all”), understands that his theories are controversial and welcomes the critical feedback since he is not trying to preach a religious philosophy as such, but rather make a critical breakthrough in our understanding of consciousness.
As Dr. Hoffman concludes in his Edge.org essay of 2005,
“This view obviates no method or result of science, but integrates and reinterprets them in its framework. Consider, for instance, the quest for neural correlates of consciousness (NCC). This holy grail of physicalism can, and should, proceed unabated if consciousness is fundamental, for it constitutes a central investigation of our user interface. To the physicalist, an NCC is, potentially, a causal source of consciousness. If, however, consciousness is fundamental, then an NCC is a feature of our interface correlated with, but never causally responsible for, alterations of consciousness. Damage the brain, destroy the NCC, and consciousness is, no doubt, impaired. Yet neither the brain nor the NCC causes consciousness. Instead consciousness constructs the brain and the NCC. This is no mystery. Drag a file's icon to the trash and the file is, no doubt, destroyed. Yet neither the icon nor the trash, each a mere pattern of pixels on a screen, causes its destruction. The icon is a simplification, a graphical correlate of the file's contents (GCC), intended to hide, not to instantiate, the complex web of causal relations. (Edge.org)
Although the jury is still out on Hoffman’s conjecture (as it still is on the purely physicalist approach), his writings and filmed lectures are filled with a treasure trove of pregnant ideas, each worth exploring even if they turn out not to be conclusive.
The following is a little film created by my husband David based on the book, Visual Intelligence, which provides a brief glimpse of Professor Hoffman’s provocative theory on consciousness.
 Donald D. Hoffman, "I believe that consciousness and its contents are all that exists.", Edge.org, 2005 (Series: What Do You Believe is True Even Though You Cannot Prove It?).