I just stumbled upon Donald D. Hoffman‘s work in The Atlantic Magazine.
It was one of those exceedingly rare moments when a crucial new piece is added to the puzzle.
He’s a cognitive scientist. He’s been studying the roots of perception and his research has led to his articulation of a key missing link if we’re to clarify our position and move into a coherent relationship with what-is.
Read the article and follow up on his writings. In essence what he’s saying is that perception has evolved as a way to meet the need to survive and that this has taken what is perceived farther and farther from what we might consider an independent existing reality. If the insights of Quantum Physics are correct – and I have no argument with them and neither does he – then beyond this there just is no existence independent of observation full-stop. Most thought on the subject before has always seemed to just fade out at this implication. We tend to rush from this yawning abyss right back into the comforts of Newtonian physics and let all our old assumptions just keep on keeping on.
Hoffman faces these insights squarely. Not only can we not “see” a reality outside perception; but there is no independent external reality there to be seen. Now, usually this leads to some sort of New Age hand-waving. But, if we look at his work in the light of David Bohm’s there are strong connections and a telling continuity that takes us to a next step. His insights illuminate what Bohm meant and extend Bohm’s perspective.
The stumbling block, at least for me, has always been a result of how we get lost between accepting that nothing exists without an observer and what to do with this observation. What is coming into view is the way Hoffman’s insights extend Bohm’s Proprioception and give it a foundation deeper than perception.
“It’s turtles all the way down!” Yes, but that’s not how we see it. And we never can see it “as it is.”
Any declaration of the death of The Absolute is met with a petulant cry, “If everything is relative then I might as well give up!” This, or some nihilistic variation, is a classic “thought-stopper” to use John Michael Greer‘s term for what passes for discourse these days. Much of what we have delved into here has been about finding a way through the fatigue and frustration such reactions breed and find a way to be able to look at what we fear without recoiling. And, more than that, to find ways to see how our fears and our imminent reactions point at where we need to rest our awareness.
That’s right, rest our awareness. Not try to understand or any of the other signifiers of how we tend to do everything twice. But how, by resting our awareness on something, we suspend reaction and allow attention to engage.
This has to do with all of our confusion over cause and effect. Within a Newtonian perspective, everything is just a problem in ballistics. If we compute a trajectory we get a consistent and repeatable result. It’s been a comforting fantasy until it has taken us beyond an ability to act in concert with what gives us an evolutionary chance of adaptation.
A touch of irony here. Hoffman is saying that perception does not even touch reality. It is already a map even before we begin to use its results to build cognitive maps on top of it. This could be interpreted as meaning that he is saying that perception is a fantasy. Cue teeth-gnashing and the wringing of hands. What he is saying is that perception is metaphorically a desk-top. That just as we interact with an operating system by manipulating a desk-top and its icons without having any direct awareness of the millions of binary operations per second that underlie it; we perceive our weorld within a language of symbols that allows us to interact with what we cannot ever perceive.
The key to this is in letting go of our habit of wanting to believe – even if we can never find it – in a solid reality somewhere beneath perception.
Here is where his insights get really interesting! Where we come right back to Bohm! If there is no underlying independent reality and everything comes into being in the relationship between conscious agents then everything comes into existence as an act of dialogue between and among conscious agents.
He takes this one step further in another powerful leap. No matter what we might take as a single conscious agent is already a relationship between two or more conscious agents. Take for example what we think of as the the human mind,
We have two hemispheres in our brain. But when you do a split-brain operation, a complete transection of the corpus callosum, you get clear evidence of two separate consciousnesses. Before that slicing happened, it seemed there was a single unified consciousness. So it’s not implausible that there is a single conscious agent. And yet it’s also the case that there are two conscious agents there, and you can see that when they’re split. I didn’t expect that, the mathematics forced me to recognize this. It suggests that I can take separate observers, put them together and create new observers, and keep doing this ad infinitum. It’s conscious agents all the way down.
He also gets into what we find to be true in dialogue: Two conscious agents create a single mind out there somewhere between us. And this is how everything comes to be,
I’m emphasizing the larger lesson of quantum mechanics: Neurons, brains, space … these are just symbols we use, they’re not real. It’s not that there’s a classical brain that does some quantum magic. It’s that there’s no brain! Quantum mechanics says that classical objects—including brains—don’t exist. So this is a far more radical claim about the nature of reality and does not involve the brain pulling off some tricky quantum computation. … But most of us, you know, we’re born realists. We’re born physicalists. This is a really, really hard one to let go of.
It is hard to let go of our physicalist notions; but if we’re proprioceptive to how our perceptions function and use our capacity to suspend our reactions it is much easier. Hoffman ends by saying,
As a conscious realist, I am postulating conscious experiences as ontological primitives, the most basic ingredients of the world. I’m claiming that experiences are the real coin of the realm. The experiences of everyday life—my real feeling of a headache, my real taste of chocolate—that really is the ultimate nature of reality.
And upon this rock….
We can build a life.
6 thoughts on “This is key”
Are we asking the question, what is being if we strip away words and images? Is what remains still a construct, a kind of subtle and inescapable “prejudice” (in a sense), and beyond that a fabrication of brain chemistry – therefore suggesting no actuality whatsoever, only a kind of dream that can never be substantiated except as invention? Therefore a kind of solipsistic cocoon that has no existence until it imagines (in a sense) meeting another (imagined one) in dialogue?
What do we do with other possibilities that don’t involve an “independent external reality?”
What do we mean by saying “nothing exists without an observer?” Is that necessarily true? Are we an “observer” when there is proprioception?
Is there for an unself-conscious immersion in the movement of wind and clouds and sun, when categorical thinking ceases, and yet intelligence does not? A kind of participatory knowing seems to occur, a knowing that is not complete or absolute, because it’s quick and always moving, and suggests bottomless depths, but a knowing that is also not INaccurate. Just a portion of eternity, and always just a portion, and yet also not a summary. What if we say that actuality (whatever it is that IS in the absence of fabricated summaries, forms, ideas, thoughts, words and images) seems to be neither independent of anything like an “observer” – because there is no independent observer – nor is it a solipsistic fabrication that arises only as a perception? What if perception is also just one more creative possibility implicit in this emptiness? That is what I believe Bohm meant by the holomovement — a stream of intelligence of different depths, with no bottom, but which is actual, not merely perception, and not independent of perception either.
What I’m finding fascinating is the nearness to an almost empty or mindless intelligence – in the absence of language and concept. These static structures begin to seem like dull snapshots of something already gone. Helpful in pointing like a dance of bees to a metaphoric “actuality” that is formless intelligence, not really “out there” but also not really “in here” either. It doesn’t seem to be observation that carries this knowing. It’s a knowing that is oddly enough uncertain, unclassifiable, as impossible to describe as a drop of water flowing by in a fast stream. Can this fit into that vision?
Is there “room” for an unself-conscious immersion in the movement.. etc. I meant to write