The Case Against Reality

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Case Against Reality: How Evolution Hid the Truth from Our Eyes [Amazon, Bookshop UK, Publisher, Local Library] by Donald D Hoffman.

Hoffman The Case Against Reality

Donald Hoffman’s The Case Against Reality is the best popular science book I have read in many years. It discusses evolution, human perception, theoretical physics, and other fundamental topics on the way to an alternative scientific ontology that Hoffman calls conscious realism. Important elements in his argument include the abysmal failure to account for consciousness on the basis of physicalism, the “Fitness Beats Truth theorem,” the bankruptcy of perceivable spacetime as a basis for physics, an “interface theory of perception,” and ultimately the Conscious Agent Thesis.

The prose is lively and not at all condescending. With the exception of a brief appendix, Hoffman avoids dry technical detail and pursues unorthodox concepts in judicious ways that intelligent readers should be able to follow.

In a few passages of the book, Hoffman comes off as a tad evil, as when he describes his mercenary expert testimony on behalf of T-Mobile in a trademark lawsuit asserting their exclusive ownership of a color (147-8), or when he talks about “hacking” perceptual processes for “marketing and product design” (172). I’m willing to allow that these elements made the book more creditable to the commercial press, but ick.

On a related note, he observes that, “evolutionary psychology … has been accused of … justifying unsavory moral and political ideas,” an accusation he finds “misguided” (50). While I agree with him that the core concepts and inquiry of evolutionary psychology do not actually justify pernicious ideologies, it is true that attempts have repeatedly been made to use them thus–a difficulty that might have been addressed in an explanatory end note. This elision by Hoffman fits awkwardly with his repeated use of tropes from The Matrix–notably “the red pill”–that have been adopted as banners of misogynist and paranoid subcultures. (Sorry they perverted your gnostic metaphor, Wachowskis.)

I only point out these failings because I think they should be disregarded in light of the book’s larger accomplishment. “No mystery of science offers greater intrigue, or greater perplexity, than the provenance of quotidian experiences” (178), and Hoffman’s proposal for a way to clear the perplexity is a valuable one. He observes that while his ontological postulates buck the intellectual trends in his field of cognitive science, they are “not radically new,” and he instances philosophical and mystical precursors from antiquity and modern thought (195-6). And I would add that both the Interface Theory of Perception and the Conscious Agent Thesis comport strongly with psychedelically-informed intuition.

Hoffman also rejects the non-overlapping magisteria of Stephen Jay Gould, who promotes a crypto-dualism by ghettoizing science and religion (197). Instead, Hoffman suggests that his own ideas may help to contribute to “an uneasy truce and eventual rapprochement” between spirituality and disciplined inquiry (199). I agree that this provocative book can be a paving stone of the path by which the method of science might pursue the aim of religion.