Conscious realism

Guillaume Hansali
Guillaume Hansali

I have recently discovered a fascinating concept of reality called conscious realism, and lead by the cognitive psychologist and professor at the University of California, Donald Hoffman.

With conscious realism , Hoffman tries to answer one of the hardest scientific and philosophical conundrums: the problem of consciousness, or how we can have conscious experiences.

Roughly speaking, there are two leading schools of thought.

  1. Monism states that the universe is made of only one kind of substance, namely, matter; in this framework, consciousness is usually interpreted as an emergence born from a complex arrangement of matter (i.e. our brains).
  2. Dualism, which differentiates matter substance and mind substance. Consciousness belongs to the realm of mind substance, which cannot be observed because it doesn’t belong to the realm of matter.

There is a third, less mainstream idea called panpsychism that suggests that consciousness exists within matter itself, and therefore anything in the universe is ‘conscious’, albeit very different degrees of consciousness. This theory, while sounding a bit mystical, does offer a simpler explanation for human consciousness.

Conscious realism offers a very different solution to the problem by proposing a form of non-physical monism, where the basic unit of reality is consciousness and not matter. Reality is made of conscious agents and their experiences (no, not like the Matrix, but kinda), and physical objects (made of matter) are like the icons we interact with on our computers.

Why the analogy of icons on a computer? When you click on the Word icon on your computer and start typing text in it, you are consciously interacting with it without seeing how its software was written, let alone knowing how it physically uses your computer’s transistors.
Well, in a way, looking at physical objects is very similar. We can’t see the atomic matter they are made of, let alone fathom the physical nuclear forces keeping their particles tied together. We just see their interactivity.

How come that is the case? Hoffman explains it as a result of evolution. Evolution is about fitness, which means surviving long enough to pass on our genes. Organisms, therefore, evolve by developing mechanisms of perception (and in our case, cognition) that will maximize fitness rather than the faithfulness of our representation of reality.
We can perceive space, objects, colors, etc., because that improves our chances of survival.

Now, for the mind-blowing part. There is a possibility that space, time, and causality (to name a few) are not actual properties or physical laws of the universe but constructs of our minds that have helped us survive and thrive. The universe may well be spaceless and timeless and without cause.

If this theory ends up being true, that would mean that we may never be able to know how reality actually is because our world will always be a bunch of icons on our desktop computer.

Anyways, I may write more about this topic in the future, but I just though it was worth sharing. If you are interested in the concept, I strongly recommend this video.

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