Donald Hoffman: Consciousness and The Interface Theory of Perception

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Despite substantial efforts by many researchers, we still have no scientific theory of how brain activity can create, or be, conscious experience. This is troubling, since we have a large body of correlations between brain activity and consciousness, correlations normally assumed to entail that brain activity creates conscious experience. Here I explore a solution to the mind-body problem that starts with the converse assumption: these correlations arise because consciousness creates brain activity, and indeed creates all objects and properties of the physical world. To this end, I develop two theses. The interface theory of perception states that perceptual experiences do not match or approximate properties of the objective world, but instead provide a simplified, species-specific, user interface to that world. Conscious realism states that the objective world consists of conscious agents and their experiences; these can be mathematically modeled and empirically explored in the normal scientific manner.

In support of the interface theory of perception, I present Monte Carlo simulations of evolutionary games in which perceptual strategies that see the truth compete with perceptual strategies that do not see the truth but are instead tuned to fitness. The result is that natural selection drives true perceptions to swift extinction. Our perceptions have evolved to guide adaptive behaviors, not to report the truth.

In support of conscious realism, I present a dynamical theory of consciousness in which the observer and the observed have precisely the same mathematical structure, i.e., in which there is a mathematically precise nondualism. I then derive the quantum wave function of the free particle from the asymptotic behavior of the conscious dynamics. This is a step toward solving the mind-body problem from the assumption that consciousness, not physics, is fundamental.

Donald Hoffman is a cognitive scientist and author of more than 90 scientific papers and three books, including Visual Intelligence: How We Create What We See (W.W. Norton, 2000). He received his BA from UCLA in Quantitative Psychology and his Ph.D. from MIT in Computational Psychology. He joined the faculty of UC Irvine in 1983, where he is now a full professor in the departments of cognitive science, computer science and philosophy. He received the Distinguished Scientific Award of the American Psychological Association for early career research into visual perception, and the Troland Research Award of the US National Academy of Sciences for his research on the relationship of consciousness and the physical world. He was chosen by students at UC Irvine to receive a campus-wide teaching award, and to be included in Who’s Who Among America’s Teachers.

Hoffman studies visual perception, visual attention and consciousness using mathematical models, computer simulations, and psychological experiments. His empirical research has led to new insights into how we perceive objects, colors and motion. His theoretical research has led to a “user interface” theory of perception—which proposes that natural selection shapes our perceptions not to report truth but simply to guide adaptive behavior. It has also led to a “conscious realism” theory of consciousness—which proposes a formal model of consciousness and the mind-body problem that takes consciousness as fundamental.

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