Recently I learned of this excellent article in a recent issue of the Atlantic. It is an interview with cognitive scientist Donald Hoffman, who endorses an idealist view of reality—the notion that all that exist are conscious minds and their thoughts. He dubs the view “conscious realism,” but that is just his own terminology for what any philosopher will immediately recognize as something akin to Berkeleyan idealism, the thesis that esse est percipi aut percipere (to be is to be perceived or to be a perceiver).

The author of piece, Amanda Gefter, prefaces the interview with a nice summation of how two different scientific fields are converging on the idealist conclusion:

Getting at questions about the nature of reality, and disentangling the observer from the observed, is an endeavor that straddles the boundaries of neuroscience and fundamental physics. On one side you’ll find researchers scratching their chins raw trying to understand how a three-pound lump of gray matter obeying nothing more than the ordinary laws of physics can give rise to first-person conscious experience . . ..

On the other side are quantum physicists, marveling at the strange fact that quantum systems don’t seem to be definite objects localized in space until we come along to observe them. 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.”

So Gefter concludes, “while neuroscientists struggle to understand how there can be such a thing as a first-person reality, quantum physicists have to grapple with the mystery of how there can be anything but a first-person reality. In short, all roads lead back to the observer.”

Indeed, this is precisely Hoffman’s view, as he explains in the interview. “As a conscious realist,” he says, “I am postulating conscious experiences as ontological primitives, the most basic ingredients of the world.” But, of

from Psychology Today
from Psychology Today

course, he cannot stop there. For consciousness—first-person subjectivity, awareness, perception, etc.—is not so much a thing as an event or phenomenon that must be had by a thing. Awareness and other forms of thought cannot exist on their own (as Descartes rightly observed). There must be someone who is aware, a mental substrate that is the ontological ground of the conscious events. So it won’t do to stop at conscious experience as an “ontological primitive.” A personal who must lie behind the consciousness what.

Hoffman recognizes this, granting that “objective reality is just conscious agents.” Gefter worries that this emphasis on first-person subjectivity might be a threat to science. Hoffman rightly dismisses this worry, mainly because the best science points in this direction. Others might worry that as a scientist it is not Hoffman’s place to make inferences to such a metaphysical notion as personal agency. But it would be disingenuous to suggest that scientists can avoid making metaphysical claims and assumptions. The real question is when certain scientific discoveries warrant our making particular metaphysical inferences. In this case, it seems to me that such inferences are clearly warranted.


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