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Brain Scientist: Consciousness Didn’t Evolve. It Creates Evolution

With a tremor in his voice, Donald Hoffman tells Robert Lawrence Kuhn that even the Big Bang must be understood in a universe where consciousness is fundamental
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In a recent episode of Closer to Truth, Robert Lawrence Kuhn interviewed University of California cognitive scientist Donald Hoffman on a challenging topic, “Why did consciousness emerge? (7:41 min, December 10, 2022):

There was a time when there was no consciousness in our universe. Now there is. What caused consciousness to emerge? Did consciousness develop in the same way that, say, the liver or the eye developed, by random mutation and fitness selection during evolution? Inner experience seems to be radically different from anything else. Are we fooling ourselves?

Donald Hoffman is the author of Visual Intelligence: How We Create What We See and coauthor of Observer Mechanics: A Formal Theory Of Perception (Norton, 2000)

A partial transcript and some notes and questions follow:

Robert Lawrence Kuhn: Don, you make the extraordinary claim, backed up by some sophisticated computer simulations that evolution, by favoring fitness, drives truth to extinction. Yeah, how then can we deal with reality and what are the implications of that? (0:19)

Donald Hoffman: It’s such an extraordinary result. It is at first a little bit surprising and you would wonder how could true perceptions be useful? How could it possibly be that true perceptions could guide useful behavior? And fortunately we have a nice metaphor with the advent of computers and laptops and user interfaces that I think can help us to see what’s going on here. (0.41)

If you look at your laptop interface … you might have a blue rectangular icon for a file that you’re working with and that icon might be in the lower right hand corner of your of your screen. Does that mean that the file itself, that you’re working on, is blue or rectangular or in the lower right hand corner of the computer? Well, obviously not. (1.06)…

The whole point of the desktop interface is to hide the truth and to guide your behavior. You don’t want to know about the diodes and the resistors and all the electronics inside there and all the magnetic fields and voltages and all the software. If you had to know all of that stuff you could never paint a picture, you know, edit your photograph or write a paper. So what you want is an interface that hides the complexity that you don’t need to know so that you can do the
things you need to do. (2:02)… It’s not lying to you; it’s actually helping you. But it’s helping you by hiding the truth (2:16)

So evolution has done the same thing for us. It has given us perceptions that are like a user interface (3:06)…

Note: Let’s leave “evolution” out of this for a moment. Here is what we know, irrespective of how we came to know it: All sources of information, however derived, are specific and partial. Through an open window, I see a herd of deer trotting across the parking lot. A sharp-eared neighbor, not near the window, hears their hooves striking the pavement. A small dog in a pen under the window senses the deer by their smell and may even guess their size and sex in some cases. Not one of us sees the whole picture. In the same way, humans, using abstractions, develop symbol systems on computers to represent functions. All information systems necessarily represent information filtered in some way. But — absent any reason to believe that the information provided is erroneous — what does that prove about truth or consciousness? Kuhn picks up on one aspect of this:

Robert Lawrence Kuhn: Now is your metaphor a strong metaphor or have you thought deeply about it? Because that metaphor is enormously powerful in terms of reflecting our lack of capacity of understanding what reality is. I mean, it would be hopeless, it’s impossible to tell from the user interface on a computer, just what the source code is. But all the electronics and the voltages and the capacity and the structure of the CPU… I mean that’s just so far beyond anything that you would even know existed (3:29)

Donald Hoffman: I agree. I mean if someone were to say, I want you to use only what you see on the desktop the pixels and tell me what’s going on and from that figure out a theory about what’s going on inside the computer that’s going to be a really, really tough time… (4:00)

Note: But we don’t need to know everything about how a computer works to use the desktop icons to get us where we need to go, any more than observers need to know much about deer in order to determine whether they are present. Again, all information is necessarily partial and focused and our consciousness enables us to determine the information that we need. To get more information, we formulate a specific question, to which the answer will likewise be partial and focused. To see everything as a whole we would need an unlimited consciousness. That is what many people call God.

Donald Hoffman: Right. So you have to make assumptions, right? So you’re free to make assumptions and I’ll just jump to the assumption I make here to solve the problem. So I don’t take our perceptions of space and time as literally true. I take them as a desktop. (4:19)

To solve the mind–body problem I’ve tried to say, let’s take consciousness as fundamental. So what’s behind the interface is consciousness, right, just like in the example of the computer. what’s behind the screen are all those diodes and resistors and so forth. Yeah, I’m saying what’s behind space and time and physical objects for us is a world of what I call conscious agents or consciousness. (4:41)

The nice thing about that theory is, I’m conscious, you’re conscious. I’m proposing that the objective reality behind this interface is not utterly alien to who I am. There is a chance for me to begin to understand that objective reality behind the interface because I’m not utterly separated from it so it’s a different situation than what’s behind the computer screen so anyway. (5:07)

But what happens when you then ask the, question where your consciousness came from?, because it came through an evolutionary process right? So, when you take this point of view now, if space and time were not fundamental, right, then we have to rethink evolution from the get-go. (5:26)

Note: At this point, we surely do need to rethink evolution from the get-go. Hoffman sounds like an philosophical idealist. He calls his position conscious realism. But according to current evolution theory, consciousness is a randomly evolved illusion created by the brain to help the human animal hunt better. To grant any primacy to consciousness is to imply that the human mind is not simply the user illusion that evolution theory dictates that it must be. How does Hoffman get around that?

Donald Hoffman: So I’ve used Evolutionary Game Theory to conclude that everything that we see around us in our perceptions is not vertical; 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… [6:08]

Note: Hoffman is offering a hope here, not a present reality. Darwinian evolution (the only currently respectable kind) is and always has been a physicalist theory. Physicalism is precisely what Darwinian evolution defends: mind from mud, via natural selection acting on random mutation. And, to be clear, the “mind” that the process creates is held to be a mere user illusion that enables the human organism to survive and spread selfish genes. Incidentally, dissenters from that one and only orthodox view have often been hounded from academic life.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn: Yeah, but are you saying that consciousness was there before the process of evolution began? (6:13)

"Black hole" Eye of Consciousness

Donald Hoffman: That’s right. I, you know, I say that with a tremor in my voice. Absolutely so. For me to be entirely consistent, if I’m going to actually say that consciousness is fundamental, then I’m saying that the Big Bang itself is something that has to be understood from within a framework in which consciousness is fundamental. The standard view — and I understand that this is completely non-standard, what I’m saying — the standard view is that the Big Bang happened 13.7 billion years ago. Eventually, consciousness kind of arose accidentally here on Earth and maybe other places and totally accidentally, that’s right? So my story is completely different. (6:54)

Robert Lawrence Kuhn: So when I asked the question, how did consciousness emerge through an evolutionary process, your answer is it didn’t. (6:59)

Donald Hoffman: That’s right. Consciousness didn’t emerge from a prior physical process of evolution. Consciousness is fundamental and so we have to rethink the whole history of the universe actually from this point of view, from The Big Bang up through evolution. We have to rethink it in terms of how to rewrite that story, consistent with all of our current science but understanding that it’s … consciousness is fundamental, not the physical universe (7:23)

And, you know, one thing that comes out of this as well is, no one has been able to give a reason for why consciousness would evolve. What is it for? And so my attitude is, it didn’t evolve. It’s the ground from which evolution occurs. (7:38)

Note: Look what happened here: Hoffman starts by trying to align his consciousness theory with standard evolution theory and then just chucks that and says what he thinks: Consciousness didn’t evolve. It’s the ground from which evolution occurs. That’s surely defensible but it’s not, rest assured, the fully materialist theory taught, and enforced by law, in schools. The conflict between observation and accepted theory is one reason why consciousness is, as David Chalmers has put it, a “Hard Problem.

You may also wish to read: Philosopher: I accept dualism but don’t believe in the soul. David Chalmers, whose background is in physics, talks to Robert Lawrence Kuhn at Closer to Truth about his struggle to accept that the mind is immaterial. “I banged my head against the wall for years trying to come up with a physically based theory of consciousness.” New insights sprang from defeat.


Denyse O'Leary

Denyse O'Leary is a freelance journalist based in Victoria, Canada. Specializing in faith and science issues, she has published two books on the topic: Faith@Science and By Design or by Chance? She has written for publications such as The Toronto Star, The Globe & Mail, and Canadian Living. She is co-author, with neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist's Case for the Existence of the Soul. She received her degree in honors English language and literature.

Brain Scientist: Consciousness Didn’t Evolve. It Creates Evolution