Donald Hoffman’s Consciousness Theory

Report on Toward a Science of Consciousness Conference 2014
Keith E. Turausky
::Journal of Consciousness Studies, 21, No. 7-8, 2014, pp 220-40

INTRODUCTION: In this conference Donald Hoffman discussed why qualia are more relevant than Dennett had tried to argue in the 1990s. Another highlight was the exchange between Hameroff and Tegmark, where Tegmark took a surprisingly casual view of his much vaunted 2000 Paper.

Donald Hoffman

A talk by Donald Hoffman stands out as the most interesting part of this conference. Hoffman starts from the familiar view that perceptions are produced by the brain, rather than being part of the external world. He goes on from there to ask whether evolution would select for a system that would allow what the brain perceived as corresponding to reality. His answer is that correspondence with reality is coincidental on perception being adaptive.

Hoffman takes the example of an Australian beetle that finds female mates by identifying a brown stipple on their shells. This was a sufficient connection to reality until its habitat started being littered with brown beer bottles. Hoffman recognises that perception is subject to illusions, but does not see this a refuting the relevance of qualia, but rather as to showing that qualia merely give us what is adaptive for our survival and reproduction. We need to be aware of what is important for survival and reproduction, but beyond that there is no need to track everything that happens in the external world. Hoffman uses the analogy of icons on a computer desk top. The icon for the trash can is not actually a physical trash can, but it gives us adaptive information about what happens to files that are put in it. In the same way, while trains and cliffs do not exist in the form that we perceive them, our conscious perception is adaptive in persuading us not to step in front of, or off the top of them.

In discussing the nature of consciousness, Hoffman suggests that the equation for conscious agents is the same as the equation for the wave function of a free particle, and that this is linked to massless relativistic fields and Penrose’s twistor theory.

Tegmark & Hameroff

The only other notable feature of the conference appears to have been the clash between Stuart Hameroff and Max Tegmark. Hameroff came over as somewhat embittered by the damage done to the credibility of the Penrose/Hameroff theory and quantum consciousness theories in general by Tegmark’s 2000 theory. He even asked Tegmark to retract his 2000 paper in the light of subsequent evidence of quantum states being functional in respect of the more efficient transfer of energy in photosynthetic organisms.

However, what was really notable was that Tegmark appeared to be surprised that his 2000 paper was the source of such resentment, saying ‘It was just a paper I wrote when I was a post-doc.’ The whole implication is that he does not take his refutation of quantum theories that seriously, in contrast to those many refuters of quantum consciousness, who refer to Tegmark’s paper in hushed tones.

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