Does evolution lead us to perceive reality, or is it all an illusion?

Donald D. Hoffman is a highly respected Professor of Cognitive Science at the University of California at Irvine.  He’s developed a “formal theory of conscious agents” that he describes in a new Atlantic article—or rather in an interview with Amanda Gefter called “The case against reality“. And for the life of me I can’t figure out what the man is trying to say. I haven’t read his more formal academic work, but if they’re presenting his theory in a public place like the Atlantic, it seems that what he’s saying should be clear. Yet what I read is either unclear, or, when it’s clear, seems wrong. You should read the short interview yourself, but here are the points I take from it. It’s all a mess, and seems a bit like a gemisch of quantum woo, evolutionary misunderstandings, and postmodernism. If there’s a substantive and important point in the piece, I’ve been too dense to see it.

I’ve indented bits of the interview below. I address three claims.

1). There is no external reality. Quantum mechanics has proved that. Hoffman seems to think that because quantum mechanics has disproved local realism for some particles (that is, has disproved the claim that a photon or electron, for instance, has a certain nature and is in a certain place, regardless of whether we know it), so it has disproved local realism for everything, including macro objects. What we see isn’t reality, or even an approximation of reality: it is all illusion molded by natural selection.

Experiment after experiment has shown—defying common sense—that if we assume that the particles that make up ordinary objects have an objective, observer-independent existence, we get the wrong answers. The central lesson of quantum physics is clear: There are no public objects sitting out there in some preexisting space. As the physicist John Wheeler put it, “Useful as it is under ordinary circumstances to say that the world exists ‘out there’ independent of us, that view can no longer be upheld.”

. . . Gefter: If snakes aren’t snakes and trains aren’t trains, what are they?

Hoffman: 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.

We’ll get to the “fitness consequences”—the selective pressures—in a minute, but I want to document Hoffman’s view of reality, which Gefter seems to accept:

Hoffman: . . . I have a space of experiences, a space G of actions, and an algorithm D that lets me choose a new action given my experiences. Then I posited a W for a world, which is also a probability space. Somehow the world affects my perceptions, so there’s a perception map P from the world to my experiences, and when I act, I change the world, so there’s a map A from the space of actions to the world. That’s the entire structure. Six elements. The claim is: This is the structure of consciousness. I put that out there so people have something to shoot at.

Gefter: But if there’s a W, are you saying there is an external world?

Hoffman: Here’s the striking thing about that. I can pull the W out of the model and stick a conscious agent in its place and get a circuit of conscious agents. In fact, you can have whole networks of arbitrary complexity. And that’s the world.

Gefter: The world is just other conscious agents?

Hoffman: I call it conscious realism: Objective reality is just conscious agents, just points of view. Here’s a concrete example. We have two hemispheres in our brain. But when you do a split-brain operation, a complete transection of the corpus callosum, you get clear evidence of two separate consciousnesses. Before that slicing happened, it seemed there was a single unified consciousness. So it’s not implausible that there is a single conscious agent. And yet it’s also the case that there are two conscious agents there, and you can see that when they’re split. I didn’t expect that, the mathematics forced me to recognize this. It suggests that I can take separate observers, put them together and create new observers, and keep doing this ad infinitum. It’s conscious agents all the way down.

And one more bit, showing that brains aren’t real, either:

Hoffman: The idea that what we’re doing is measuring publicly accessible objects, the idea that objectivity results from the fact that you and I can measure the same object in the exact same situation and get the same results — it’s very clear from quantum mechanics that that idea has to go. Physics tells us that there are no public physical objects. So what’s going on? Here’s how I think about it. I can talk to you about my headache and believe that I am communicating effectively with you, because you’ve had your own headaches. The same thing is true as apples and the moon and the sun and the universe. Just like you have your own headache, you have your own moon. But I assume it’s relevantly similar to mine. That’s an assumption that could be false, but that’s the source of my communication, and that’s the best we can do in terms of public physical objects and objective science.

. . . Neurons, brains, space … these are just symbols we use, they’re not real. It’s not that there’s a classical brain that does some quantum magic. It’s that there’s no brain! Quantum mechanics says that classical objects—including brains—don’t exist.

I don’t know where to begin with this. First of all, just because a subatomic particle doesn’t have an intrinsic property until we measure it, and that property is dependent on how we measure it, doesn’t mean that macro objects don’t have properties or, as Hoffman implies, don’t exist. You can, after all, measure the momentum of a car, or of a stationary chair, with great accuracy. It seems to me that Hoffman is using a form of Chopra-ist woo here: claiming not only that certain claims about quantum mechanics extend all the way up to macro objects (yes, they do, but classical mechanics is adequate for macro phenomena, and that includes existence claims), but also that those objects don’t exist outside of consciousness. In fact, Hoffman claims, like Chopra, that the only real thing that exists is consciousness:

As a conscious realist, I am postulating conscious experiences as ontological primitives, the most basic ingredients of the world. I’m claiming that experiences are the real coin of the realm. The experiences of everyday life—my real feeling of a headache, my real taste of chocolate—that really is the ultimate nature of reality.

I find this problematic in several ways. If the brain is an illusion and doesn’t really exist, where does consciousness come from? After all, if we fiddle with the Object Formerly Known as the Brain, and ablate certain parts of it, or give it chemicals, then consciousness goes away. Further, all observers agree on that. Isn’t it strange, if reality is only an illusion constructed by our consciousness, that giving ketamine to a brain removes its consciousness? Why do we all still perceive the same objects then, and agree that the chemical has the same effect? Or, if the Moon is a figment of our consciousness (Chopra has maintained exactly that!), why, when some scientists observe a Rover landing on the Moon, do other scientists perceive exactly the same thing? After all, that concurrence couldn’t reflect anything molded by natural selection—our fitness doesn’t depend on Moon landings. Surely that must say something about an external reality.

But on to evolution:

2). We don’t perceive reality accurately because evolution provides us not with an accurate take on reality, but with a series of illusions that enhance our fitness [reproductive output]. Again, maybe I’m missing something, but if external reality is solely a result of our consciousness (which comes from a nonexistent brain), then why are we even subject to natural selection? That already seems contradictory, but perhaps I’m not understanding Hoffman. But what I do understand is his argument, which is flawed, why evolution gives us a take on the world that doesn’t even come close to reality:

Gefter: People often use Darwinian evolution as an argument that our perceptions accurately reflect reality. They say, “Obviously we must be latching onto reality in some way because otherwise we would have been wiped out a long time ago. If I think I’m seeing a palm tree but it’s really a tiger, I’m in trouble.”

Hoffman: Right. The classic argument is that those of our ancestors who saw more accurately had a competitive advantage over those who saw less accurately and thus were more likely to pass on their genes that coded for those more accurate perceptions, so after thousands of generations we can be quite confident that we’re the offspring of those who saw accurately, and so we see accurately. That sounds very plausible. But I think it is utterly false. It misunderstands the fundamental fact about evolution, which is that it’s about fitness functions—mathematical functions that describe how well a given strategy achieves the goals of survival and reproduction. The mathematical physicist Chetan Prakash proved a theorem that I devised that says: According to evolution by natural selection, an organism that sees reality as it is will never be more fit than an organism of equal complexity that sees none of reality but is just tuned to fitness. Never.

Now I’ll admit right off the bat that natural selection occasionally confers traits that, in some circumstances, distort reality. We may, for example, have been selected to think that we’re brighter or better than we are, because having that illusion gives us a confidence and power that might enhance our fitness. As Steve Pinker has written:

. . . beliefs have a social as well as an inferential function: they reflect commitments of loyalty and solidarity to one’s coalition. People are embraced or condemned according to their beliefs, so one function of the mind may be to hold beliefs that bring the belief-holder the greatest number of allies, protectors, or disciples, rather than beliefs that are most likely to be true. Religious and ideological beliefs are obvious examples.

. . . publicly expressed beliefs advertise the intellectual virtuosity of the belief-holder, creating an incentive to craft clever and extravagant beliefs rather than just true ones. This explains much of what goes on in academia.

. . . the best liar is the one who believes his own lies. This favors a measure of self-deception about beliefs that concern the self…

And our everyday experience with objects can sometimes mislead us when evolved traits create optical illusions, like the famous “checker shadow illusion.” Futher, we know that our sensory system is imperfect and limited by our biological constitution, so that we miss things that other creatures can see, like the ultraviolet patterns perceived by birds and butterflies. Finally, natural selection will foster our consciousness of those animals, those environmental factors, and those traits that have the highest potential effect on our fitness. But that’s not the same thing as saying that our consciousness actually molds the appearance of those organisms and traits.

But I maintain that, in general, natural selection will favor a fairly accurate take on reality (assuming there is a reality), because the more accurately we perceive nature, the higher fitness we will have. Hoffman gives one example where he says we’re selected to have illusions, but I don’t find it particularly convincing:

Gefter: You’ve done computer simulations to show this. Can you give an example?

Hoffman: Suppose in reality there’s a resource, like water, and you can quantify how much of it there is in an objective order—very little water, medium amount of water, a lot of water. Now suppose your fitness function is linear, so a little water gives you a little fitness, medium water gives you medium fitness, and lots of water gives you lots of fitness—in that case, the organism that sees the truth about the water in the world can win, but only because the fitness function happens to align with the true structure in reality. Generically, in the real world, that will never be the case. Something much more natural is a bell curve—say, too little water you die of thirst, but too much water you drown, and only somewhere in between is good for survival. Now the fitness function doesn’t match the structure in the real world. And that’s enough to send truth to extinction.

I find that baffling. Why wouldn’t the fitness function be one like this: “we want enough water to drink, and to sate our band of hominins, but we don’t want to go jumping in huge ponds of water if we can’t swim.” I think Hoffman has gotten it all backwards: our consciousness doesn’t shape external reality to increase our fitness; rather, our fitness depends on accurately perceiving external reality. There are some exceptions. I’m convinced, for example, that natural selection molds our tastes, which are qualia, to conform to what’s good for us. That’s why we like fats and sweets so much. As I’ve always said, a rotting carcass probably tastes like heaven to a vulture. But in most cases we want to see things as they are, for our fitness depends on that. If we could mold reality through consciousness to match our fitness, we would be able to see all dangerous insects as highly visible: snakes and spiders, for example, would be perceived as bright red or orange. We should be able to evolve our color-vision system to enhance our fitness. But that’s a shade on the teleological side, and we just can’t do that.

Yes, many dangerous animals are cryptic. That proves that we can’t change our perception of reality willy-nilly—that there is an external reality out there (animals often enhance their own fitness by being cryptic, so they win the perception battle!).  We can’t often mold the way we see reality to match our fitness functions.

I won’t go on, as this is already too long, but I wanted to add one more claim by Hoffman.

3). Neuroscience hasn’t progressed because neuroscientists haven’t taken into account the quantum nature of brain function and neural activity. 

Gefter: It doesn’t seem like many people in neuroscience or philosophy of mind are thinking about fundamental physics. Do you think that’s been a stumbling block for those trying to understand consciousness?

Hoffman: I think it has been. Not only are they ignoring the progress in fundamental physics, they are often explicit about it. They’ll say openly that quantum physics is not relevant to the aspects of brain function that are causally involved in consciousness. They are certain that it’s got to be classical properties of neural activity, which exist independent of any observers—spiking rates, connection strengths at synapses, perhaps dynamical properties as well. These are all very classical notions under Newtonian physics, where time is absolute and objects exist absolutely. And then [neuroscientists] are mystified as to why they don’t make progress. They don’t avail themselves of the incredible insights and breakthroughs that physics has made. Those insights are out there for us to use, and yet my field says, “We’ll stick with Newton, thank you. We’ll stay 300 years behind in our physics.”

There is by no means universal agreement that quantum-mechanical phenomena, as opposed to classical mechanics, are important on the level of brains and perception.  There are good arguments, in fact, that we can use simple classical mechanics—assuming an external reality—when doing neuroscience. At any rate, I would take issue with the claim that our failure to grasp quantum mechanics has impeded the study of consciousness, or has slowed progress in neuroscience.

If you can figure out a really important point in Hoffman’s article, do point it out below.

h/t: Peter


  1. David S Hammer
    Posted July 21, 2016 at 11:30 am | Permalink

    The Pinker quote is wonderful. Please identify the source — I’d like to read the whole article or book.

    • Posted July 21, 2016 at 11:36 am | Permalink

      I have it written down as coming from his response to a book by Jerry Fodor (“The Mind Doesn’t Work that Way”); I’m not sure it’s online. Try Googline.

      • Bernardo
        Posted July 21, 2016 at 11:48 am | Permalink

        It is online! Pinker wrote a little essay with about 28 pages in order to reply to Fodor

        • strongforce
          Posted July 21, 2016 at 3:29 pm | Permalink


    • Posted July 22, 2016 at 5:20 am | Permalink

      Similar ideas, if not the exact passage, are in “How the Mind Works”, in particular in the later chapters. It’s an excellent book as well.

  2. Posted July 21, 2016 at 11:36 am | Permalink

    I can not understand how some people P think that using the philosophical wheeze W of having letters L to represent ideas and things T, they will somehow impress readers R with the feeling F that one is saying something intelligent I, instead of just spewing bullshit B.

    • Chris G
      Posted July 21, 2016 at 11:48 am | Permalink

      Well said indeed. Deepak C couldn’t have put it better!
      Chris G

      • jeffery
        Posted July 21, 2016 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

        I refer to him as, “Deepcrapwillchokeya”

        • Wayne Tyson
          Posted July 24, 2016 at 2:11 am | Permalink

          As pure as genius gets!

          A friend of mine overheard him telling a staff person (one lived two houses away from us once, but I don’t know if it was the same person), referring to the university audience, “These are not our people” with a distinct tone of contempt.

    • Posted July 21, 2016 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

      In reading “Puzzles, Paradoxes and Problems” (French & Brown, Eds.), I notice simple algebraic substitution seems to be how Platinga pulls the wool over his credulous audience’s eyes.

  3. Gavin
    Posted July 21, 2016 at 11:39 am | Permalink

    Hoffmann gets the physics completely wrong. Quantum mechanics is difficult, and understanding quantum measurement is especially tricky, but we do understand it and it doesn’t say anything like what Hoffmann says. Feel free to completely ignore him.

    Feynman’s book “QED” is still one of the best for those who want to get started understanding quantum mechanics. If you have good linear algebra skills you can pick up the resources for John Preskill’s course on Quantum Computation.

    Knowledgeable people try to translate the weirdness of quantum mechanics into language that everyone can understand, which is a good. However, someone who only knows quantum mechanics through those descriptions and analogies doesn’t have a strong enough foundation to build a view of reality.

    • colnago80
      Posted July 21, 2016 at 11:54 am | Permalink

      Feynman also said that if you think you understand quantum mechanics, then you don’t understand quantum mechanics.

      To which we might add an observation of Lawrence Krauss: nobody understands quantum mechanics.

      Or Steven Weinberg: Quantum mechanics is an apparently preposterous theory that, unfortunately appears to be correct.

      • Gavin
        Posted July 21, 2016 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

        Feynman gave an accurate, frank assessment of the situation at that time. Somehow this assessment was elevated to a kind of eternal truth about the human condition. That is wrong.

        Our understanding has improved. I think that some people understand quantum mechanics now, not through some blinding insight, but though the hard work done in the field of quantum information and quantum computation starting in the 90s. It is not a large number of people–I don’t claim to be one of them–but it’s more than nobody and the number is growing.

        • colnago80
          Posted July 21, 2016 at 2:19 pm | Permalink

          Well, Krauss’ assessment was given in an interview with Richard Dawkins within the last 10 years.

          • Posted July 22, 2016 at 11:19 am | Permalink

            I agree with colnago80. there are a lot of interesting, competing, and incompatible understandings of quantum mechanics (or rather interpretations). there was a poll posted on of some basically major quantum physicists taken at a conference and it split into camps (like politics) . the biggest were Copenhagen, Everett ‘many worlds’, bohm, and a few others. I like the vaxjo style interpretations (which actually somewhat overlap with some old hidden variable type theories).

      • Posted July 21, 2016 at 7:03 pm | Permalink

        I agree with colnago80. The world really does not really have most of the properties people normally ascribe to it. All really is an illusion, a “good enough” approximation produced by natural selection. And the illusions aren’t just punctured by QM. Relativity also shows that our basic concepts, such as distinct dimensions of space and time, are illusions that are good enough at the scale in which natural selection works (on this planet at least), but are just wrong in terms of fundamental ontology.

        This is not meant to excuse the author’s woo and the special pleas to consciousness. That seems to be mostly nonsense. But the main point, that perceived reality is an illusion that only approximates the underlying ontology, is something that I think most physicists agree on.

        • Ullrich Fischer
          Posted July 22, 2016 at 3:31 am | Permalink

          Right, Perception can only ever be an approximation to reality, but there is an objective reality and evolution through natural selection favors better approximations over less accurate ones.

  4. Bernardo
    Posted July 21, 2016 at 11:41 am | Permalink

    Looks a lot like George Berkeley’s “subjective materialism”. Leads us absolutely nowhere of course

    • Bernardo
      Posted July 21, 2016 at 11:42 am | Permalink

      I meant subjective idealism. Sorry

  5. Posted July 21, 2016 at 11:42 am | Permalink

    I’d outsource the cleaning of this wellspring of creative discomfiture to Sean M. Carroll. It seems to me that he is hyperbolizing emergent/macroscopic perception; which ironically would suggest that his own perception is also suspect. I do, however, predict the title of his next essay: “Snakes on a Train”

    • ThyroidPlanet
      Posted July 21, 2016 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

      ^^^^^ This is perfection.

    • Kevin
      Posted July 21, 2016 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

      Followed by “A Train of Snakes”. Then “Snakes on a Hot Train”. Then “Hot Snakes in the Train”. And finally his penultimate, “Snakes without a Train” and the ender: “The Train that never had Snakes”

    • Torbjörn Larsson
      Posted July 21, 2016 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

      Indeed, Sean Carroll would channel his “poetic realism” philosophy of his latest book/talk and note that *both* QM and CM are “realistic”, each in their own way.

    • BobTerrace
      Posted July 21, 2016 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

      Are the 2 Sean Carrolls an example of quantum mechanics?

      Are they space M and perception B that become World conscious agents who comprise objective reality?

      {top that, Deepak}

      • rickflick
        Posted July 21, 2016 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

        …and, do the two Carrolls have opposite charge? If so which is the anti-scientist?

        • BobTerrace
          Posted July 21, 2016 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

          Same charge, different spin.

          • rickflick
            Posted July 21, 2016 at 6:05 pm | Permalink


  6. David S Hammer
    Posted July 21, 2016 at 11:44 am | Permalink

    For anyone interested, the Pinker quote is from his essay “So How Does The Mind Work”. Its included in a collection of Pinker’s articles entitled “Language, Cognition and Human Nature: Selected Articles”.

  7. steve oberski
    Posted July 21, 2016 at 11:45 am | Permalink

    Apparently Donald D. Hoffman, a human being who is the result of an evolutionary process that has provided him with a series of illusions rather than an accurate take on reality (which does not actually exist), is using these illusions to make claims about the nature of reality (which he has previously claimed does not exist).

    • Posted July 21, 2016 at 11:52 am | Permalink

      The Hoffman diagrams.

    • Flaffer
      Posted July 21, 2016 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

      This is the common weakness of strong ontological skepticism (or epistemological skepticism for that matter).

  8. colnago80
    Posted July 21, 2016 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

    As the physicist John Wheeler put it, “Useful as it is under ordinary circumstances to say that the world exists ‘out there’ independent of us, that view can no longer be upheld.”

    John Archibald Wheeler once opined, that: the universe doesn’t really exist if there is no one around to observe it (known as the Participatory Anthropic Principle).

    • Posted July 21, 2016 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

      Unfortunately for Wheeler, he’s provably wrong in his subjectivist misinterpretations of QM, as has been demonstratable with various degrees of rigor since 1967 at the latest.

      Other versions of subjectivism take a bit more work, but are more or less refutable by looking at their motivations, which are false. Generic subjectivism of a more anti-intellectual sort (which if pressed Chopra seems to lapse into) is irrefutable but also just solipsism – which is pathological if taken seriously.

  9. Posted July 21, 2016 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

    Realism (even local) is not disproved by QM at all. What *is* disproved is the notion of “sharp properties”. (In fact, Heisenberg originally wrong in such terms, from what I understand.) Having a distribution is a perfectly realistic property, it just happens to be not single-valued. Realism would only be refuted, if somehow this property was no longer independent of human whim.

    The debates between Einstein and Bohr were marred by Einstein using the terminology consistently and Bohr *sometimes* using it idiosyncratically. Later philosophers of physics and physicists on “philosophical holidays” as Bunge puts it entrenched the novel usage.

    The very notion of an illusion presupposes a reality (outside the skull of an animal). How else does one do the comparison?

    “complexity that sees none of reality but is just tuned to fitness” Sounds like he’s found a mathematician to prove a bafflegab theorem, but I don’t understand this claim at all. Sounds sort of like Dembski’s nonsense, in a way. Dembski is of course no subjectivist.


    “They’ll say openly that quantum physics is not relevant to the aspects of brain function that are causally involved in consciousness.”

    One can *calculate* whether it is relevant or not. Vic Stenger, for example, did this, as did (in a qualitative way) Rick Grush and Pat Churchland. Guess what? It isn’t.

    • Posted July 21, 2016 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

      “originally wrong” -> “originally wrote”.

    • Torbjörn Larsson
      Posted July 21, 2016 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

      Hoffmann’s argument is against reality, not forms of philosophic realism.

      The basic test for reality as a robust set of features of nature (laws, objects, et cetera) is that we can do consistent observation of such. (I.e. Samuel Johnson’s test of the existence of matter in a modern form; )

    • Posted July 21, 2016 at 7:21 pm | Permalink

      Keith, Bell’s theorem shows you are wrong about your claim that QM doesn’t rule out local realism. And it is not true that the weirdness of QM is just due to the fact that observables have distributions instead of sharp values.

      • Gregory Kusnick
        Posted July 22, 2016 at 2:32 am | Permalink

        David Wallace (in The Emergent Multiverse) talks about locality v. separability. QM is non-separable in the sense that the state of (A + B) cannot always be broken down into (facts about A) + (facts about B); this is the lesson of Bell’s Theorem.

        But it turns out that the joint facts about (A + B) are relevant only in the region where the light cones of A and B overlap, i.e. where information propagating from A and B by chains of subluminal local interactions can combine and interact. So Bell’s Theorem does not rule out locality, just separability.

        • Posted July 22, 2016 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

          I haven’t read Wallace’s book, but it is my understanding, perhaps wrong, that the Bell experiments, most recently the Henson et al (2015) no loophole experiments, rule out local realism, leaving us a choice of realism or locality, but not both. I, for one, will give up locality before I give up realism.

          • Gregory Kusnick
            Posted July 22, 2016 at 7:36 pm | Permalink

            Bell’s Theorem rules out the possibility that the predictions of QM can be explained entirely in terms of properties of individual particles considered separately (“local hidden variables”), and establishes that some predictions rely on non-separable properties of entangled systems of particles. But again, those joint properties have measurable effects only where the light cones intersect, so locality is preserved (according to Wallace).

            • Posted July 23, 2016 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

              I don’t think that’s right. The particle does not have the property we are about to measure, independently of the choice of measuring device at the other particle arbitrarily far away. Wallace is right that this connection can’t be used for causal communication between the two particles. But it still shows that the properties of a particle are affected by the choices of measuring device applied to a second particle arbitrarily far away, and that’s what nonlocality is. Wallace’s language seems designed to sweep the problem under the rug rather than to clarify it.

              • Gregory Kusnick
                Posted July 23, 2016 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

                Lou, I think the crux of the disagreement is your assumption that measurement produces a single outcome. Wallace, as an Everettian, doesn’t assume that; in his view (and mine), measurement produces all possible outcomes on different branches of the wave function.

                So you do your measurement over there, and your wave function forks; and I do mine over here, and my wave function forks. And it’s only when the expanding light cones of those two events collide that the joint properties of the entanglement come into play, aligning the branches of my fork with the branches of yours to yield the correlations we observe.

                On this view, the question of whether my choice of measurement affects the outcome of your measurement doesn’t even come up, so there’s no need to invoke spooky action at a distance to explain it.

                This isn’t sweeping the problem under the rug; it’s showing that the alleged problem was an artifact of a faulty picture of what measurement entails.

            • Posted July 23, 2016 at 4:34 pm | Permalink

              OK, I think I agree with you: if we take the many-worlds interpretation seriously, this may solve the problem.

              • Posted July 23, 2016 at 4:35 pm | Permalink

                Oops, this was supposed to go under Gregory Kusnick’s comment above.

      • Posted July 22, 2016 at 11:25 am | Permalink

        It does not rule out realism in the sense originally used in philosophy. If it did, then why do science at all? Reality would be, by conclusion, unknowable. And how on earth could it establish that rather than being simply pre-understood. Every time someone calculates any property of any thing whatsoever and goes into the field or lab and measures it presupposes that that the world exists independently of our understanding, and that we can know something about it. That’s all realism is. “Scientific” realism is the further claim that scientific statements are included in the claims that are “truth apt” in that sense.

        Physicists have used “realism” in the strange, Bohr-like way for too long to be changed, but it is important to not equivocate.

  10. Posted July 21, 2016 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

    This sounds very much like the book Biocentrism by Robert Lanza which you reviewed a couple of years ago. You concluded then, quite correctly, that it is subjectivist nonsense.

  11. darrelle
    Posted July 21, 2016 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

    Though it arrives there by a different route the destination is very similar to Mind Dependent Reality.

    Quoting Wheeler is probably not the best way to encourage confidence in your ideas about reality, given that he is a clear minority among the people with relevant education and experience.

    • Posted July 21, 2016 at 7:56 pm | Permalink

      But it is worthwhile to note that Wheeler was a very vocal foe of woo, and led the move to get parapsychologists kicked out of the AAAS. He is most certainly not in the same category as Chopra or Hoffman. He was in the UT physics dept while I was there. While he loved to coin zen-like phrases about physics (many of which have become part of our ordinary language, like his term “black hole”), he was a very staid and proper physicist, a colleague of Einstein and Wigner and other QM founders, and who was deeply admired by all. Back in the 1950s and 60s he also played a major role in molding and promoting the currently-predominant interpretation of QM, Everett’s Many-Worlds Interpretation (which official blog physicist Sean Carroll vigorously supports, by the way). He was Everett’s thesis advisor.

      • Posted July 21, 2016 at 8:11 pm | Permalink

        I think it’s fair to add say that John Wheeler was the James Crow of theoretical physics: he knew all the founders and giants, was a great mentor to multiple generations of physicists, an author of leading textbooks, and a classy gentleman.

        • Posted July 21, 2016 at 8:16 pm | Permalink

          “add say” -> “add”

        • darrelle
          Posted July 22, 2016 at 7:02 am | Permalink


          Thank you for cluing me in about John Wheeler. Other than knowing that he was a physicist of note, but no details, and a bit about his ideas regarding reality and criticisms of them, I was ignorant of his career and life. You inspired me to do some reading about him.

          • Posted July 22, 2016 at 11:27 am | Permalink

            I’ve heard the same – great guy, crazy ideas.

            • Posted July 22, 2016 at 7:08 pm | Permalink

              Keith and Darrelle, yes, he really was a wonderful man. I only had a single one-on-one office appointment with him, but even though he did not know me and even though I was proposing really crazy ideas, he was open-minded, patient, kind, and gentle with his criticism.

  12. Posted July 21, 2016 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

    As others have noted, the physics is completely worng. At human scales, physics is entirely Newtonian. Sean Carroll has written a big equation that completely describes all physics outside of rare exotic realms far removed from Earth — and it’s nothing like what this crank describes.

    Further, it’s plainly obvious that maps are typically radically different from the territory, but that doesn’t stop them from being accurate representations. Our perceptions are maps. We know they often have a superlative correspondence with reality…but we’re also well aware of their many imperfections. To leap from our imperfections to a claim that the territory doesn’t exist is absurd n the extreme.

    I will note, however, that, from our own internal perspectives, our conscious perceptions are he entirety of existence. It’s an inevitable consequence of consciousness, and a fact that cannot be ignored. But the illusory nature of that perception can’t be ignored, either.



    • Posted July 21, 2016 at 7:28 pm | Permalink

      Sean’s equation is also nothing like the “reality” that our perception constructs for us. And your comment that our world is entirely Newtonian at human scales is not correct. No aspect of nature is actually Newtonian, and many things that we perceive would simply not be able to exist if they were Newtonian. I think the author is correct in his claims that the ontology which our perception constructs is false; it is just good enough, since it evolved by natural selection.

      • rickflick
        Posted July 21, 2016 at 8:05 pm | Permalink

        Of course our perception is false. But that doesn’t make reality disappear.

        • Posted July 21, 2016 at 8:44 pm | Permalink

          Yes, I think Ben’s point about maps and territories is a fair criticism of what Hoffman is doing.

      • Posted July 22, 2016 at 9:54 am | Permalink

        …and I gotta take issue with the non-Newtonian claim.

        You need QM to explain the production of light within the crystal (or whatever) of a laser. However, once the photons have been made, the light behaves exactly as Newton described. And the map app on your phone needs GR to properly make sense of the GPS signals to locate you — but that’s all hidden from everybody but the engineers who developed the system.

        Those’re the two most common examples where Newton breaks down at human scales, and they’re minor footnotes.

        Save for other similar minor odd exceptions here and there, Newton is all you need. Maybe MRI engineers need a bit more QM, but 99 44/100 % of engineers use Newton, all Newton, and nothing but Newton. Everything in your kitchen is Newton. Every activity you participate in is Newton.

        Indeed, Newton is so wildly successful that it took centuries for people to even suspect that maybe there was something more going on. And, if you could construct universes, you could construct a purely Newtonian universe that humans would be thoroughly happy in.

        Yes, of course; look closely enough and Newton doesn’t apply to anything — but that’s in no way a basis for rejecting the profoundly Newtonian nature of reality. Doing so is as absurd as rejecting the fluidic gaseous nature of the air you breathe because it resolves into molecules when you look closely enough. Is it important to understand that air is mostly diatomic nitrogen and oxygen? Of course — but it’s also (and first and foremost) a compressible gas that obeys nearly perfectly the Ideal Gas Law, and that it’s a very effective medium for various forms of pressure waves.

        And, yes, those nitrogen and oxygen atoms are themselves “merely” electrons and quarks, which, in turn, may “merely” be strings or whatever we next figure out. But air is still very real, and the familiar language to describe it is nearly always the most useful and accurate description of it you’ll encounter.




        • Posted July 22, 2016 at 7:14 pm | Permalink

          Almost everything is almost Newtonian, but nothing is Newtonian.

          “…once the photons have been made, the light behaves exactly as Newton described.”

          No Ben, even in Newton’s time there was conflict between those who thought light was a particle and those who thought it was a wave. Newtonian light cannot be both. QM is the only self-consistent description of its behavior, even its macroscopic behavior (if you include the photoelectric effect as a macroscopic effect).

          Even the mere existence of atoms is non-Newtonian.

          • Gregory Kusnick
            Posted July 22, 2016 at 7:23 pm | Permalink

            Not to mention the fact that it was Maxwell who described the propagation of light.

            Also there’s no gravitational lensing in Newtonian physics; that’s a prediction of general relativity.

            • Posted July 22, 2016 at 8:58 pm | Permalink

              Contrary to popular belief, the typical American is not heavy enough to induce gravitational lensing — which is why your optometrist uses Newton, not Einstein….




          • Posted July 22, 2016 at 7:54 pm | Permalink

            Almost everything is almost Newtonian, but nothing is Newtonian.


            In what meaningful way is a baseball pitch or an ocean liner non-Newtonian?

            Even the mere existence of atoms is non-Newtonian.

            When was the last time that you or anybody you know have personal experience with an atom? In what way is your daily life different because of the existence of atoms?



            • Posted July 23, 2016 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

              People can even see single photons. I listen to single nuclear particles every time I play with a Geiger counter. When I was a kid I used to watch nuclei passing through a cloud of evaporating dry ice in a cloud chamber in my mom’s kitchen.

              Are you really saying that the existence of atoms is not something we experience?

              All the things you mentioned are non-Newtonian and could be shown to violate Newton’s laws if we tried hard enough; and their mere existence depends on the falsity of Newtonian rules.

              The world appears to be flat and stationary unless you think about it hard. Are you going to argue that the world is not meaningfully round?

              • Posted July 23, 2016 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

                All the things you mentioned are non-Newtonian and could be shown to violate Newton’s laws if we tried hard enough [emphasis added]

                That’s the point I’m trying to make. Yes, Newton is not the complete answer — but you have to try very hard in order to break Newton.

                I fully and completely agree that the Universe is non-Newtonian. And demonstrations that the Universe isn’t are readily available to the amateur scientist — and, indeed, are experiments that everybody should make a point of performing at some time.

                But our daily lives are, within rounding, entirely Newtonian.

                Hell, for that matter, our daily lives are pretty much Aristotelian. If you want to keep something in motion, like a coffee cup on a tabletop or your car on the highway, you’ve got to keep pushing on it. And a pot of water won’t boil unless there’s a “reason why,” such as wanting a cup of tea. You actually have to pay attention to see where things stop being Aristotelian and start becoming Newtonian.

                And if you want to see Newton break down, you’ve got to go and actively set up the failure.

                The same applies to Quantum Mechanics and Relativity, too, of course. It’s just that those two apply to everything in the galactic neighborhood.

                All this is a really, very, supremely huge point of great significance.

                Yes, there’re still all sorts of wonderful and profound mysteries to solve. We know without question that we don’t understand black holes, dark matter, cosmogenesis, what (if anything) lies beyond the Standard Model, and more. There’s also all sorts of higher-level phenomena (including chemistry, as well as biology and climatology and consciousness and and and and) that we’ve only barely scratched the surface of.

                But…the laws underlying the physics of the everyday world and quite a bit beyond are completely known. And that physics is overwhelmingly the physics that Newton described, with some notable-but-minor footnotes here and there for Quantum Mechanics and Relativity.

                That’s big first of all because of the notability of the achievement. It took a lot of hard work to get to this point, and we should be proud of the accomplishment.

                But it’s also big because it sets the boundaries for what sorts of things we can rule out with little more than a cursory inspection. Alchemy and astrology are right out, for example — but so are the sorts of quantum woo in the brain that’s the focus of this discussion. You no more need QM to describe the brain than you do GR; the brain is entirely, 100% Newtonian, at least as far as its cognitive abilities are concerned. Maybe you need a slight hint of QM to fully account for the mitochondrial energy budget or the like — but that’d be the tiniest of rounding errors and isn’t going to even hypothetically influence the thoughts in your brain.

                Far too often lots of smart people overlook this fact, that the human world is overwhelmingly Newtonian. Not 100%, no — but 99 44/100 %, which is more than “close enough.” And it’s not like the remaining 0.56% is mysterious; we know everything there is to know about the physics of that bit as far as it applies to any and every phenomenon within half a kiloparsec.




              • Posted July 23, 2016 at 4:30 pm | Permalink

                Well, in a way we agree; the point was that natural selection only takes us to “good enough”. If QM or relativity were needed for survival, natural selection would have shaped our intuitions to better handle their weirdness.

                The important thing is that the underlying reality–and this includes everyday things– is very far from Newtonian though, and not in small details. As I said, the mere existence of the wave/particle duality of light (which we interact with every day), and the mere existence of atoms, would be impossible under Newtonian mechanics. It does take some thought to see why they are impossible, but it is the same kind of thinking that shows us why our intuition about a flat, stationary earth is wrong.

            • Posted July 23, 2016 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

              My favorite macro manifestation of quantum effects, pointed out by Feynman, is seeing my reflection in a window pane, which is comprised of photons quantumly reflected back by the glass rather than passing through it.

              • Posted July 25, 2016 at 11:37 am | Permalink

                I don’t think I understand this example. What is a “quantum reflection” as opposed to a non-quantum reflection?

      • Posted July 22, 2016 at 11:29 am | Permalink

        The equation is the map, not the territory, so it *represents* reality to whatever degree, like this sentence.

  13. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted July 21, 2016 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

    “If you can figure out a really important point in Hoffman’s article, do point it out below.”

    Ok boss, I’ll Make Sure to do that.

    • HaggisForBrains
      Posted July 22, 2016 at 5:43 am | Permalink

      “Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?”

  14. Flaffer
    Posted July 21, 2016 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

    For what I think is a much better defense of the notion of consciousness as a fundamental primitive in ontology (NOT THE fundamental primitive, which is just silly) see David Chalmers’ The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory. It is most excellent and makes some use of physics but more of biology. He also rejects the “collapsing the wave function” notions of consciousness.

    • Posted July 22, 2016 at 11:31 am | Permalink

      That’s not saying much. Chalmers’ argument is just the usual Jackson-Leibniz-Kripke incredulity, in my view. So what if you can *conceive* that something is different? I can conceive lots of things, like a molecule with 20 oxygen atoms all in a chain, with fluorines at the ends. FOOF, writ really large. Is this nomologically possible? Surely not.

  15. Arthur Eidelman
    Posted July 21, 2016 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

    You may wish to examine some sources from the brilliant Noam Chomsky discussing how Newton’s discovery of gravity exploded the notion of “body”, and how that affects the mind/body problem:

    Suffice it to say there are questions here worthy of serious thought, and it is a mistake to dismiss what Hoffman is saying.

    • Posted July 21, 2016 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

      It would help us all if you’d tell us what the deep questions are. I did NOT dismiss what Hoffman was saying: I criticized it and asked readers, in all seriousness, if I was missing something. Didn’t you see that part of the post?

    • Posted July 22, 2016 at 11:33 am | Permalink

      I’ve seen Chomsky make this point previously. I don’t buy it – in fact, Newton solved what bodies are, in the physics sense. (Bodies possess mass, so they are one sort of thing. EM radiation, for example, are massless things.) This is not of course what body means in the mind-body problem.

      But I too would want to know what you take his point to be.

  16. Malcolm
    Posted July 21, 2016 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

    Interestingly Sean Carroll’s latest piece on his website gives a precis of how to properly look at a quantum universe which at large scales is classical

    Interesting piece and perhaps worth asking him to comment on ths if can stop laughing long enough.

    • colnago80
      Posted July 21, 2016 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

      Just as an example, one can posit the earth/sun combo as a quantum mechanical problem and solve Schrodinger’s Equation for the energy levels. This is not wrong, it’s just not useful as they are so close together that they are indistinguishable from a continuum. In fact, one doesn’t have to do any work. One can take the solution to the hydrogen atom and replace the permitivity of the vacuum and the electric charge with the universal gravitational constant and the masses of the sun and the earth.

  17. jimroberts
    Posted July 21, 2016 at 12:48 pm | Permalink


  18. Kevin
    Posted July 21, 2016 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

    What a terrible misuse of applying physics concepts. If he is on to something, I missed it.

    I think what he should start with is that we are thinking machines. We are active participants as we navigate the universe. We have a few more tools than a raccoon, but we are no more quantum than a cube of silicon just above room temperature. This is not suggest that quantum effects can and do play a role on consciousness, but I have yet to see someone capitalize on such predictive statements.

  19. Mark Sturtevant
    Posted July 21, 2016 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

    Woa, this guy has jumped the shark, drank the kool-aid, and, well, totally lost it.

    As I was reading it, I was developing a rebuttal and then I saw you pretty much made the same one: “Why do we all still perceive the same objects then…?”
    My rebuttal was that if macro-objects are like sub-atomic particles with indeterminate properties and locations, then we should expect that any two brains would probably not be able to agree on the state or location of any object. He of course just dismisses that sort of rebuttal as just an illusion.

    The thing is, any claim about reality should be testable and falsifiable. But he can just say that any test that falsifies his notion is just an illusion. That’s a pretty extreme case of special pleading. In fact, this is the most extreme case of special pleading that one can have about the nature of reality. I can only conclude that this person is basically nuts.

  20. Torbjörn Larsson
    Posted July 21, 2016 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

    I don’t see how Hoffman’s philosophizing is cognitive *science* at all. Quantum mechanics have been using classical mechanics/objects as a good approximation from the start, with Bohr’s correspondence principle.

    I have commented on how Sean Carroll and his latest book/talk would be the go to resource to moot Hoffman’s problem with physics. Tegmark’s analysis of why the brain wouldn’t use quantum mechanics phenomena (due to water molecules destroying QM decoherence) is a supplement, it is a paper available on his website.

    As for the evolution analysis, it demolished the man!

    • Torbjörn Larsson
      Posted July 21, 2016 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

      Errata: Tegmark’s analysis is that QM decoherence would be destroyed too fast for neural action, not that it wouldn’t exist at all.

  21. Vaal
    Posted July 21, 2016 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

    Somehow I think this gentleman is wrong.

    It seems we’ve made the most progress insofar as we have gotten *away* from the type of consciousness-subjectivity-first scheme. When science uses the model that there is independently discoverable, examinable phenomena, the windfalls have been huge. Once you step outside those bound
    a multitude of incompatible results and claims flourish.

    This has been re-enforce for me by my current binge-listening to the “Oh No Ross an Carrie” podcast, in which they investigate fringe claims – cults of various sorts, dowsing, palmistry, Christian Science etc – by joining those groups for a while. The one common denominator among the groups seems to be a rejection of science as it is currently practiced having bearing on their claims, because science doesn’t substantiate what they believe in. Their anecdotal, subjective inner experiences are paramount and ratifies just about all of the mutually contradictory claims of these

  22. phoffman56
    Posted July 21, 2016 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

    Near the beginning of Hoffman’s 2nd reply we read:

    “—fitness function is linear, so a little water gives you a little fitness, medium water gives you medium fitness—”

    I read no further. The guy bandies around the technical word “linear” and has no idea what it means. No point in wasting time reading stuff about a name-dropping nincompoop. Some departments in U. Cal. have higher intellectual standards than others.

    I should add that despite the name my wife’s excellent genealogical research has his connection to me likely no closer than a random USian. IIRC I said the same several months ago–no recollection if it was him or another idiot Hoffman.

  23. rickflick
    Posted July 21, 2016 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

    I’m reading Sean Carroll’s latest book now:
    “The Big Picture – On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe itself”.
    In part three of the book he discusses this subject in a clear and concise way (isn’t he always?). He points out for one thing the concept of effective field theory and the idea that higher levels of reality are emergent based on what ever underlying reality is. It’s pretty clear that despite the fact that we humans must operate in a derived model of reality, the base reality should surely still exist. I hope Sean can be persuaded to add a brief comment here.

    • BobTerrace
      Posted July 21, 2016 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

      I jst finished reading that too. He also stated that there is no reason that a situation can’t be looked upon at both levels that apply to it as the situation calls for explanation; the emergent and the underlying basic.

      • Posted July 21, 2016 at 4:41 pm | Permalink

        He also stated that there is no reason that a situation can’t be looked upon at both levels that apply to it as the situation calls for explanation; the emergent and the underlying basic.</blockquote

        To clarify…you can describe humans as a collection of subatomic particles with certain momenta, or you can describe humans as people with feelings and ambitions and the rest. Both are valid descriptions. What you can not do is intermix the two.

        An excellent analogy exists with the Ideal Gas Law. You can describe the air in terms of molecules with vectors, or you can describe it in terms of pressure, temperature, and so on. But you’ve got to pick the one or the other, as it makes no sense to describe the pressure of an electron or the spin (in the Quantum Mechanical sense) of the air.




  24. DiscoveredJoys
    Posted July 21, 2016 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

    Physics tells us that there are no public physical objects.

    But at macroscopic levels there are… the standard metre, the standard kilogram, and so on. Try explaining to the nice speed cop that his radar gun doesn’t really exist.

    The bigger issue (and I can’t tell for certain without more reading) is that Hoffman has assumed that he knows what cognition is (well he is a Professor of Cognitive Science) but it is far from certain that the brain works in the way he thinks it does or that ‘conscious agents’ are actually what he thinks they are. There’s a debate between ‘Eliminativism’ and ‘Representationalism’ which has been going on for decades. If we don’t build ‘representations’ in our brains but respond to cues in the environment then half of Hoffman’s argument is thrown away – because ‘out there’ is part of ‘in here’ and it is the relationship between the two that generates feelings of agency and consciousness.

    • Posted July 21, 2016 at 4:43 pm | Permalink

      But at macroscopic levels there are… the standard metre, the standard kilogram, and so on. Try explaining to the nice speed cop that his radar gun doesn’t really exist.

      Our resident stone serenader and inspector of gravel, Aiden, would suggest placing a rock in a sock and giving it a twirl until it impacted a skull. ‘Tis a most effective demonstration of the reality of existence.




  25. Kopper
    Posted July 21, 2016 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

    I declare the existence of Neopostmodernism, of which Hoffman is a Founding Father.

    Also, one knows a biologist is overdue for retirement when they start talking about quantum mechanics; or, a physicist talking evolution.

    • BobTerrace
      Posted July 21, 2016 at 3:23 pm | Permalink

      I declare the existence of Neopostmodernism, of which Hoffman is a Founding Father.

      Yep, that is the reality of the situation 😉

  26. Posted July 21, 2016 at 4:01 pm | Permalink

    There are some people who are wrong, and there are some people who are unhinged, but often, and I think that may be part of the issue here, often when somebody says something really bizarre and supposedly profound it appears to hinge on using words with a different meaning than the established one. In this case there seems to be a lot going on with the word “real”.

    If he has his private definition of real then his position may follow logically (for him), just like the moon is made out of cheese if we first define rock as a kind of cheese. Problem is only that this approach does not exactly make communication easier.

  27. Somite
    Posted July 21, 2016 at 4:26 pm | Permalink

    There is simply no indication that quantum effects are important in neurophysiology or brain function.

    The physicist Heinz Pagels wrote about a causal decoupling between the quantum level and the Newtonian level. All we know about neurophysiology places the brain in the Newtonian side.

  28. kelskye
    Posted July 21, 2016 at 5:01 pm | Permalink

    I’m never really sure what the difference between a useful illusion is and reality. For the illusion to be repeatably useful, then it’s got to say something true about the world – even if that truth is not the whole truth.

    And I don’t get those people who say that trains and snakes aren’t real. You are bitten by a snake, not by a quark – what a snake is made of really doesn’t matter on the level in which we need to deal with the phenomenon. It reminds me of those people in high school who after learning about the atom say “there’s no such thing as solidity”.

    • rickflick
      Posted July 21, 2016 at 6:15 pm | Permalink

      “It reminds me of those people in high school who after learning about the atom say ‘there’s no such thing as solidity’.”

      So, you knew Deepak in high school?

      • Posted July 21, 2016 at 6:26 pm | Permalink

        Deepak is a decidedly nonlocal phenomenon. Maybe not quite universal, but certainly rather entangled.



        • rickflick
          Posted July 21, 2016 at 7:56 pm | Permalink

          Entangled like a recalcitrant fishing line.

        • Posted July 21, 2016 at 9:23 pm | Permalink

          From Oprah to PBS to Closer to Truth, he does seem to be everywhere.

      • kelskye
        Posted July 22, 2016 at 3:33 am | Permalink

        Given the following Deepak has, it’s quite safe to say he’s not the only one who has completely misunderstood the implications for realism from scientific inquiry. 😉

        • Posted July 22, 2016 at 11:37 am | Permalink

          On the contrary, he seems to deliberately run rough-shod over it.

  29. Ullrich Fischer
    Posted July 21, 2016 at 6:48 pm | Permalink

    Seems like post modernist bullshit worthy of Deepak Chopra. There is an interesting article in NewScientist suggesting that objective collapse of the wave function may solve the observer problem. Even if there is still some problem with spooky action at a distance and quantum indeterminacy, I suspect that while the Universe may have considerable randomness at the quantum level, that nevertheless, the Universe and all objects in it exist no matter whether any conscious being is looking at them or not.

    • DiscoveredJoys
      Posted July 22, 2016 at 3:05 am | Permalink

      I suspect that while the Universe may have considerable randomness at the quantum level…

      A key question to my mind is whether there is randomness at the quantum level or unpredictability. Unpredictability *could* mean that the quantum world is fully deterministic, arising from prior states, but that it is impossible to observe those prior states without affecting them.

  30. Posted July 21, 2016 at 9:37 pm | Permalink

    Most people here seem to be focused on the problem with Hoffman’s physics, but what about his evolutionary biology? Surely there are rules about what conditions must be in place before the notion of selection even makes sense. If for example, there is no reality, no matter, no space and no time,just “thoughts” how can competition, replication and variation even make sense? what are these thought competing for? How can the concept of fitness itself make sense without these things existing?

    • darrelle
      Posted July 22, 2016 at 7:47 am | Permalink

      The first question Jerry, the OP, posed in response to Hoffman’s comments regarding evolution was . . .

      “Again, maybe I’m missing something, but if external reality is solely a result of our consciousness (which comes from a nonexistent brain), then why are we even subject to natural selection?”

      Which is exactly what my first thought was at that point too.

  31. donald klein
    Posted July 21, 2016 at 9:47 pm | Permalink

    This is idealism derived from Bishop Berkeley and dressed with buzzwords. Perhaps the simplest refutation is that some time ago the cosmic conditions did not allow for organized matter ,much less living matter. So where was consciousness then? And the basis for common illusions?

  32. Posted July 22, 2016 at 4:26 am | Permalink

    Gefter: It doesn’t seem like many people in neuroscience or philosophy of mind are thinking about fundamental physics.

    Two people worth mentioning are Ian Hacking and Nancy Cartwright, both entity realists.

    Entity realism example. If you are in a forest and bump into a tree, your degree of confidence in the reality of the tree might depend upon the speed you were walking and the bump on your skull.

    But bumping into a tree will not in itself help you decide upon the reality of the “forest”. Trees exist, but does the forest exist as an entity in itself? Or does the “forest” exist only in the mind?

    We may accept that specific trees exist, but does the species Quercus rubra (red oak) exist? Does the genus Quercus (oak)exist? Or do these categories exist only in the mind?

    Entity realists claim that entities are real but theories are mental constructs, not real.

    Nancy Cartwright, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Stanford University, California has a summary of the ideas in her book,
    How the Laws of Physics Lie (which is fairly heavy going). URL of the summary:

    To freshen memory, one might first watch the entire series of Richard Feynman’s lectures on the Character of Physical Law before reading Nancy Cartwright.

    Especially Lecture 7. But to get the point of lecture 7, one needs to watch them all, about 7 hours work or 7 hours fun, depending on your taste for physics.

    To adopt entity realism does not mean to abandon theorizing. In fact, it seem to me to be liberating. Feynman, after all, was a theoretical physicist.

    Whether or not he was an entity realist who considered theories unreal, I cannot say. But I think he leaned in that direction.

  33. Posted July 22, 2016 at 7:59 am | Permalink

    He probably has some good reasons for his views, but whatever they are, they didn’t come across in the interview. At two places I thought the next question will probe how he explains that different observers can confirm each other’s observations, but then the interviewer switched to something else.

    Some of the things he said are perhaps not trivially true, but are established for a long time. For example, minds operate with mental representations, which are not at all like the referents “out there”. But the relationship is not arbitrary, or random, or is it?

    The key question is Korzybski’s relationship between map (the mental representations) and territory (reality), in particular when we are blind and can never see the territory first hand. But we can stumble around and can learn some properties of what is where, and mark where we stubbed our toe.

    An analogy-making module seems to be tirelessly connecting perceptions which create the (somewhat) stable mental representations which ensure that we know that the tree in front of us is the same it was a few seconds ago, and before we blinked. We can be fooled, as illusions show. Our mind does not perfectly know the environment, and does not reveal some aspect when required. Here’s an example from Richard Wiseman, and it’s not only about the Gorilla.

    On the face of it, we have to assume the information for a scene must be provided by whatever is “out there” and can neither be generated ad hoc, nor can it be already present in full in our mind.

    The analogy-making engine then connects many “similar” such perceived things into categories, which grow over time. The first member of a not-yet category is crisp. But as we create the category and it grows, it also becomes abstract and blurry. At one point people knew the “moon” and it had a certain size in the night-sky, a certain colour, and when viewed through a telescope reveal certain features. Then a man named Galileo Galilei came along and introduced many more such “moons” and they no longer have all the definite properties the (one) Moon has. Each learner of a language can retrace how categories arise and make sense of them, and thus get a “gist” of what the members of category have in common. This is useful to store information. Everything looks like as if our faculties evolved to memorize salient features which are part a construction (because they are abstract) but fed by something “out there” that is predictable (thus stable and repetitive).

    It had its benefits for our ancestors to apply knowledge learned from one predator and apply it to the next encounter, without that anyone had to test it with their limbs. And this is possible because predators, like other things, have common origins and a certain retraceable “logic” to them (and not essences!), even if the underlying structure was unknown to our ancestors and is still opaque in many ways.

    I am not sure what he meant by the example of the divided mind, but it read like a version of Bostrom’ simulation argument. In his case, a simulation, powered by some quantum substrat, creates a mind, which is then somehow partitioned into individuals who each think they are individual people. Does he mean this?

    This would explain why a person from Japan and a person from South Africa can find a coin nailed to a barn and independently confirm how the coin, the barn or the location looks like (which the ad hoc idea doesn’t).

    There would be an independent reality “out there”, just called quantum-substrat, and minds would act on it so that stable patterns arise within minds, which they each other can confirm.

    But with this view, we’re close to either semantic word-jugglery or unnecessary assumptions dangerously close to brain-in-the-jar. That indeed gives the proposal an air of postmodernist trivially-true in one reading, or earth-shattering-eccentric in another reading.

    Without that, it’s a more radical sounding version of a not so radical idea that reality “out there” is alien and that minds make sense of some of the information. And it’s trivially true that the presence of “stuff” alters the substrat as well (e.g. we act, we make other beings react to us, we’re breathing and thus chemically influence our environment, our bodies alter the trajectory of particles, absorb waves, influence magnetic fields etc).

  34. Nikos Apostolais
    Posted July 22, 2016 at 9:26 am | Permalink

    I’ve seen Hoffman’s stuff before and it’s not fluff, a comparison with Chopra is unfair IMHO. He has developed a whole mathematical model of his theory, he’s not just waiving his hands.

    Here is what I remember, or perhaps how I creatively understood his thesis. He’s not claiming that the world is not real, it’s just that our perception of it is not faithful. We have no direct perception of the real world, our brains (or minds really) create an interface to the real world that is probably just a convenient (evolutionarily fit) fiction. He gives the example of a computer GUI: you have your computer which is a complex machine made of electronic circuits and so on, and you interact with it via your “desktop”, you have icons that stand for files, and icon that stands for the trash bin. Now you “drag” a file to the trash bin and it gets “deleted” from your hard disk. At least that’s how you describe the action. But that’s not what really happened at all. There is no trash bin and there are no files really. What really happened is that some electrons traveled around and some circuits switched on and off. Your desktop and its icons doesn’t really exist. The desktop metaphor is just a convenient fiction that allows you to interact with the complex assembly or circuits etc that is really your computer. It’s not an accurate description of how the computer really works, but it’s a “fit” description, it allows you to get things done.

    The same way, the world as we perceive it is just a GUI interface to the real world. Things like cars, cats, electrons, bicycles, and brains are just icons in your “desktop”. They don’t really exist in the real world.

    He’s coming from the field of “visual perception” and in that field it has long been assumed that evolution favors accurate descriptions of the world. It is assumed that the more accurate the perception the more fit it is. He has done some experiments that show that this assumption is not necessarily true. Evolution selects for “fitness” not for “accuracy”. Once you think about it, it kinda makes sense, accurate descriptions are computationally expensive, so there is a point that accuracy goes against fittness.

    Anyway that’s what I remember from his stuff. I’m motivated now to go back and reexamine all this to see how accurate my description of his thesis is.

    • Posted July 22, 2016 at 9:48 am | Permalink

      The comparison is completely fair. Hoffman is an associate in good standing with the Chopra Foundation and is as fluffy as the great man himself.,-ph.d.-

      Do not let a mathematical model fool you. You can make any woo into a mathematical model. It is a question of whether the mathematics accurately models the world. Hoffman/Chopra nonsense, whether in words or mathematics, does not, IMO.

  35. reasonshark
    Posted July 22, 2016 at 10:21 am | Permalink

    Is the word “incomplete” somehow dirty? So often I see speculators talk about how our views or how this-and-that scientific model is “wrong” or “nonexistent” or an “illusion” when it would actually make sense to describe them as “incomplete”; we get enough true information to work with them, but not the whole story. At least the word “incomplete” would acknowledge the truth in such statements, rather than forcing the speaker to put a foot in it and then either have to backtrack or look foolish.

    • Posted July 22, 2016 at 10:55 am | Permalink

      I think even “incomplete” is excessively pejorative.

      Nobody thinks the Ideal Gas Law is “incomplete.” And yet it “suffers” from all the same “flaws” as does Newton, or the modern Core Theory, or Evolution, or our own perceptions.

      The various theories / models / whatever are applicable over a given domain — and that’s about as much as needs be said.

      Indeed, it also goes the other direction. Yes, the Ideal Gas Law emerges from the Newtonian interactions of the particles that make up the gas…but it makes about as much sense to perform meteorology by starting with the quarks and electrons in the atmosphere as it does to try to explain quarks and electrons as warm and cold high and low pressure fronts with certain degrees of moisture content.

      Do we complain that Quantum Mechanics is “incomplete” because it’s a damned poor tool for predicting tomorrow’s weather? No? So why should we object to Newton as being “incomplete” because it’s a damned poor tool for predicting the diffraction of single electrons or Mercury’s long-term orbital path?




      • reasonshark
        Posted July 23, 2016 at 3:54 am | Permalink

        Well said. I agree wholeheartedly.

  36. peepuk
    Posted July 22, 2016 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

    “We don’t perceive reality accurately because evolution provides us not with an accurate take on reality, but with a series of illusions that enhance our fitness”

    If this wasn’t true science would be easy.

    Illusions like free will, racial superiority, afterlife, immaterial souls, God’s etc…. are grown out of convenience. They don’t describe or explain reality in any way.

  37. James of Seattle
    Posted July 22, 2016 at 7:45 pm | Permalink

    Actually, his W->X->G->W model may be a good description of the elemental process of consciousness. It can be translated into David Deutsch’s Constructor Theory without the woo. Just change “conscious agent” to “constructor” and you’re there.


  38. peepuk
    Posted July 23, 2016 at 4:57 am | Permalink

    “There is no external reality.”

    Maybe I’m a brain in a vat connected to a supercomputer, and all of you don’t really exist. All my beliefs would be false.

    The only reason I believe this to be false is because I have no reason to believe this is true or likely. Someone (the supercomputer) has to come up with some evidence 🙂

    Even if I was a brain in a vat, it wouldn’t change anything.

  39. peepuk
    Posted July 23, 2016 at 5:41 am | Permalink

    “Neuroscience hasn’t progressed because neuroscientists haven’t taken into account the quantum nature of brain function and neural activity”

    We just started, and we have progressed; we already know the basic things about how the brain works. No hint of quantum mechanics involved in any meaningful way to explain what’s happening in the brain.

    Newtonian mechanics and the second law of thermodynamics are the 2 things I consider to be absolutely true. Only for some phenomena at very high speeds or at very small scales we need other explanations.

  40. Wayne Tyson
    Posted July 23, 2016 at 11:30 pm | Permalink

    “Ecosystems are not only more complex than we think, they are more complex than we can think.” –Frank Egler

    The same is true for all existence. The collective human mind can’t get anything perfectly right. Intellectual inquiry is supposed to be a quest toward some kind of understanding, and the discipline part is the continuous questioning of provisional conclusions.

    • Wayne Tyson
      Posted July 25, 2016 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

      I neglected to say, obvious though it may be, that no single human mind can fully comprehend reality either. But unfortunately, hubris RULES!

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