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The Basis of Reality: In Defense of Conscious Realism

Figure 1: Universe Inside Your Mind, by Benjavisa Ruangvaree (Ruangvaree, n.d.)

It is taken for granted that spacetime and physical objects are the fundamental constituents of reality. The apple that humans perceive as red and round retains these properties even when no one observes it. We navigate our way through a three-dimensional world presupposing that the concepts of length, breadth, and depth exist as part of objective reality. However, it is a well-known fact that other organisms, including our own pets such as cats and dogs, do not perceive and interact with the same reality as we do. Why do we then continue to harbor the anthropocentric assumption that human beings are somehow capable of accessing an objective, independent reality? Intelligence cannot be the answer, as there are creatures that are far more intelligent than we are. Moreover, the hypothesis that intelligence is correlated with access to objective reality needs further justification, rather than accepting it as a truism.

In fact, a growing number of scientists and philosophers argue conscious agents do not perceive reality as it is but as their experiences shape the apparatus with which they navigate the world. The standard assumption is that even though there is sense-data acting as an intermediary between conscious agents and objective reality, the sense-data that plagues perception corresponds indirectly to things that exist independent of the mind (Russell, 1917, p. 119-128). It is broadly known as indirect realism and is embraced by most philosophers. Philosophers who subscribe to a notion of reality that is mediated by sense-data are indirect realists. However, most people accept critical realism — a variant of indirect realism — that the structure of the world is somewhat preserved in the structure of perception (Hoffman, 2019, p. 72). In this article, firstly, the widely accepted theory of critical realism will be explored. Secondly, arguments that challenge critical realism and regard perception as entirely subjective will be presented. Thirdly, the author will present the implications of the theory that opposes Critical Realism, along with issues for encouraging further discussion.

The theory of Critical Realism was first proposed by Roy Bhaskar in one of his seminal works, entitled A Realist Theory of Science (1975). In his text, he argued for a distinction between the real world and the observable world, whereby the former is independent of human perception and cannot be observed (Bhaskar, 1975, p. 11). The observable world, in contrast, is constructed from perspectives and experiences. However, Bhaskar’s account still maintains ontological realism, that much of reality exists independent of our awareness or knowledge of it. His view of Critical Realism opposes empirical realism (positivism), which was defined by logical positivists as ontology being completely reducible to empirical observations (Ayer, 1936, p. 2), and transcendental idealism, a view that has its roots in Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. In fact, the term Critical Realism derives its name from the so-called ‘epistemological fallacy’ of reducing what is said to be ‘real’ (ontological statements) to what can be known or understood about the world (epistemological statements). For Bhaskar, ontology and epistemology must be kept separate. Still, he maintains that scientific methodology succeeds in uncovering truths about the world, discovering the real and causal properties of social structures and systems. His claim is supported by offering a distinction between transitive and intransitive dimensions or knowledge, whereby the former is provisional and constantly changing in hope of understanding the intransitive dimension, i.e., objective reality. Thus, Bhaskar and critical realists in general embrace epistemic relativism and methodological pluralism (Archer et al., 2016). The epistemic relativism results from an acceptance of the notion that representations of the world are historical, perspectival, and fallible. Knowledge about reality is socially and culturally situated, thus ontology maintains some degree of autonomy from epistemology and interpretation.

The transitivity of knowledge to refine ontological views can be traced back to the Quine-Duhem thesis, which states it is impossible to test a scientific hypothesis in isolation, as there are background theoretical assumptions behind the empirical test of the hypothesis (Quine, 1951). In his famous work, Two Dogmas of Empiricism, Quine (1951, p. 40) argued for a pragmatic epistemology where knowledge of the world is best interpreted as corresponding to the most optimal explanatory variables for justifying the flux of sensory stimuli that are encountered in day-to-day lives. Epistemological statements about the world are, according to Quine (1951, p. 39-43), historical, perspectival, and revisable as convenient adjustments are made to the system of beliefs that a person harbors. In another of his works entitled On What There Is, Quine (1948, p. 35-38) adopts a theory-first approach to scientific methodology in which what exists is what is required to exist to render true all the generalizations in the best theory of the world. The best theory can be selected using Judgmental Rationality, a method of judgment preferred by critical realists (Archer et al., 2016), that asserts that there are criteria for judging which accounts of the world are better or worse.

Figure 2: Free Your Mind Neo, by Anirban Kar (Kar, n.d.)

A few philosophers and scientists, on the other hand, argue against the very possibility of establishing objective criteria for selecting the best hypotheses about the world. Donald Hoffman, a professor of cognitive science at the University of California, Irvine, endorses quite a radical theory of how human perceptions of independent reality are an illusion. In his book A Case Against Reality: Why Evolution Hid the Truth from Our Eyes, Hoffman (2019) utilizes evidence from scientific studies of vision and perception to construct his theory that evolution drives truth to extinction, and instead of perceiving an objective reality, we perceive fitness functions. The "Fitness-Beats-Truth" (FBT) Theorem, advanced by Hoffman and proved by Chetan Prakash, states that conscious perception evolved to detect and act on fitness, not to perceive the true structure of objective reality (Hoffman, 2019, p. 69-71). It calls for a fundamental framework than spacetime and physical objects, as arguably, assumptions of the existence of spacetime and physical objects are not part of objective reality but rather serve to enhance our fitness payoffs. Hoffman’s claim has been influenced by a handful of physicists, including a prominent physicist Nima Arkani-Hamed, who argued for a version of reality that is more fundamental than spacetime and quantum mechanics. The FBT Theorem challenges and opposes Critical Realism, arguing that our perception is attuned to fitness rather than truth, which is at odds with Critical Realism since it maintains we can still discover genuine fundamental and intrinsic properties of the world using our empirical observations. According to the FBT Theorem, the perception of truth would be driven to extinction by natural selection. One of the examples that Hoffman uses to illustrate his case is the incidence of the humpback beetles in Australia mistaking beer bottles thrown on the beach for female beetles. Male humpback beetles identify female mates as dimpled and brown. Since beer bottles had the same properties of being dimpled and brown, a lot of male beetles were thrown into endangerment as they attempted to mate with beer bottles instead of females (Hoffman, 2019, p. 33-35). The case demonstrates an example of how evolution has tuned perception to perceive fitness functions, which in the case of the beetles are being dimpled and brown, instead of objective reality. A critic may argue that beetles are not intelligent enough to perceive objective reality, but humans can. However, to make it a convincing argument from a scientific perspective, the opponent must show how and why higher intelligence corresponds to objective reality instead of more complex fitness functions that enhance survival and reproductive success.

An obvious objection that Hoffman talks about in great detail in his book is why we cannot stand in front of a bus or pick a poisonous snake if what we perceive is nothing real. Hoffman (2019, p. 73-74) uses the metaphor of a desktop interface to make his point. A desktop interface has several icons, including a trash can and perhaps some important files. Although none of these icons actually exist and have causal powers, but it is the underlying hardware of the computer operationalizing the desktop interface, it would be careless for a person to move an important file into the trash can thoughtlessly as the file could be lost forever. So, the mechanisms of a desktop interface must be taken seriously, even though it offers no description of the underlying hardware constitution. Translating the desktop metaphor onto our perceptions, Hoffman argues one must take their perceptions seriously, but it would be a logical mistake to take them literally as the seriousness of perceptions does not equate to literal or veridical perceptions.

Hoffman’s categorization of conscious representations of the world as mind-dependent is partly influenced by Kant’s transcendental idealism that draws a distinction between ‘things in themselves' and ‘things as they appear in conscious perception’ (Kant, 2003). He also draws upon Galileo’s works, who claimed that attributes such as colors, tastes, odors, and so on are located in conscious minds rather than the objective world, and once conscious agents cease to exist, these qualities would be wiped away (Galilei, 1623, p. 274). However, he notes that Galileo still thought we had access to objective reality apart from certain qualitative attributes that are mind-dependent. Hoffman’s view is relatively more radical in that he argues reality is an interface constituted by conscious agents, which he calls Conscious Realism (Hoffman, 2019, p. 173). Beyond this interface lies no Kantian noumenon or an objective reality forever inaccessible to us, but just information.

Figure 3: Seeing Panspiritism, by Venantius J. Pinto (Pinto, 2019)

An issue with Conscious Realism pertains to the problem of grounding of conscious experiences to an external, independent reality that causes the perceptions of conscious agents. Even if everything one perceives is not how reality is, does it really demonstrate that one has no access to the truth indicating a more fundamental and autonomous ontology? Why is snake venom poisonous to some creatures but not others? Does it not reveal something about objective reality, especially since we must take perceptions seriously? If a human were to be bitten by a poisonous snake, they would be in great agony regardless of both the ‘snake’ and ‘poison’ being part of a reality constructed by the human themselves. Perhaps the relation of agony between the human and the poisonous snake describes something fundamental about the abstract, universal principles defining the relationships between conscious agents and their experiences. However, one could argue it is still compatible with the claim that reality is constituted by a network of conscious agents: as such, relations precisely describe the state of affairs concerning these agents. But are these descriptions grounded in consciousness or the basis of it? These are important questions that will be left for the reader to contemplate.

Bibliographical References

Archer et al. (2016, December 23). What is critical realism? ASA Theory Section.

Ayer, A. J. (1936). Language, truth and logic. Ryerson Press.

Bhaskar, R. (1975). A realist theory of science. London: Verso.

Galilei, G. (1957). Discoveries and opinions of Galileo (S. Drake, Trans.). Doubleday & Company. (Original work published 1623).

Hoffman, D. (2019). The case against reality: why evolution hid the truth from our eyes. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Kant, I. (2003). The critique of pure reason (J. M. D. Mieklejohn, Trans.). Project Gutenberg. (Original work published 1781).

Quine, W. V. (1948). On What There Is. The Review of Metaphysics, 2(5), 21–38.

Quine, W. V. (1951). Main Trends in Recent Philosophy: Two Dogmas of Empiricism. The Philosophical Review, 60(1), 20–43.

Russell, B. (1914). The Relation of Sense-Data to Physics. Scientia, 16(16), 1-27.

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Swarnila Saha

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