Reality Busted?


The Case Against Reality removes the last bricks from the edifice of materialism. The 2019 book is by Donald Hoffman, a Professor of Cognitive Sciences at the University of California Irvine.

What has been missing to date has been a cogent and sophisticated argument free from dogma, and based on sound science. This is what Hoffman delivers. The book is good read for those who wish to imbibe the scientific thinking, but if you find detailed scientific explanations daunting, the book and the author can be readily searched on YouTube to deliver shorter idea-rich summations. I listened to the audiobook. 

We can take The Case Against Reality and use it to end the pointless squabbling – or pretend it does not exist. 

I don’t want to regurgitate the scientific arguments. I could only do a disservice to the YouTube summations. Rather I want to reflect on the consequence of attempting to incorporate the central message – that everything we encounter is but a representation, a signifier, an icon. 

Can We Have a Shared Story?

Reality, in its essence, is unapproachable because our means of apprehending it can generate no more than signifiers of it. The best we can surmise is that this reality is consciousness. Even so, that is hopelessly inadequate as a description.

We are left, thus, with our best efforts to say what is – guided by mystical, metaphysical, and philosophical thought in an alliance with contemporary science. The addition of vicarious empiricism in the book is a nice touch – science does have something important to say. It was refreshing to encounter a serious scientist acknowledging our tradition of deep inquiry through religious and philosophical practice.

I had a bit of a quibble about Hoffman’s allusion to the ‘mystical’ traditions of the Abrahamic faiths – because, apart from Kabbalah, they are tied to the precepts their parent faiths. In effect, they remain in a prison of signifiers, even if the sentiment expressed is transcendental.

From the moment Fritjof Capra’s The Tao of Physics was published in 1975 materialists have been complaining that any analogy between what is and what is imagined by mystics is romantic folly.  Science, they fancied, would take us to a different destination. The idea that we would end up in the same place as a skinny bearded guy in a loin cloth got to three or more thousand years ago was intolerable. Wither the marvels of our intelligence and craft? Surely the destination cannot be the same?

But any survey of history will show that human life is a drama with limited themes. The climax is always one of a very small array of options. The telling of the story, is, however, infinitely varied. The story of contemporary science, informed by a materialistic passion or not, cannot end differently to other ways of knowing – yoga or shamanism. 

Signs of Consciousness?

Hoffman observes that, from an animistic perspective, saying that consciousness resides in a rock is not right, because the thing we call a rock is more like an app icon on our computer desktop. The icon for email is not the email app, not the program. 

It is more accurate to say “that which this rock signifies is consciousness”. But even so we are imprecise because the word ‘consciousness’ has so many layers of meaning. Even if we arrive at the idea that that which the rock signifies is grounded in consciousness as the primary nature of the real, we are little advanced. 

We struggle with the idea of consciousness. Like so many grand ideas, it is maddeningly imprecise – and yet we have no substitute. We have the same difficulty with Love and Space. Such imprecision reflects thinking at the boundary of present utility, and what beckons as future understanding.

But at least we have cast off from the shore of material certainty. The voyage has begun. It is necessary, from here, to distinguish between perception and relating. Once we are unmoored from the assumption that what we perceive is reality we need to frame a different sense of relating. That is the challenge that is yet to be cogently articulated.

At present we relate to signifiers as if they have inherent value. They have the value of their utility, which is no mean thing, but no more. After all, our primary apprehension of our existence is predicated upon the critical fact that we experience being in the context of life in an organic form – for whom the complex nuances of utility determine how our lives play out – for good or ill. 

Is it a Game?

In Far Journeys Robert Monroe describes a fascinating scene in which he and a guide watch beings in spirit form clamour to enter human physical bodies for a life experience in the material world. The intensity of experience generated by the critical utility of sensory experience is something we might usefully describe as analogous to playing an immersive game. The concentration of sensation caused by the constraints of the game is powerful. It is also to be craved, apparently. This is precisely what Buddhism counsels against. What Munroe witnessed as intentional desire for sensation becomes the ground of identity once the state is attained.  One in the body, we imagine we are the body.

The useful analogy can work for us again if we imagine becoming addicted to the immersive game to such a degree that identity outside it is forgotten. The game becomes our signifier of our reality – and hence the foundation of identity. What is beyond is forgotten, or, in the case of materialism, denied.

White, in The Unobstructed Universe, describes how time, space and motion are the obstructed (physical) analogues of more fundamental attributes in the unobstructed aspect of being. The unobstructed attributes are receptivity (time), conductivity (space) and frequency (motion). Thinking in unobstructed terms is immensely difficult – if only because the habit of the obstructed experience is overwhelming – if our only point of reference is physical existence.

But we need to remember that we can employ VR to create experiences of space and motion from a hard drive no bigger than a mobile phone – thus indicating that there must be a ‘code’ or signifier for both. Time is more problematic in that experience of it can be ‘condensed’ or manipulated in a different way – but not as comprehensively substituted. 

The hard drive still exists in the obstructed realm, of course, but it shares attributes of the unobstructed – allowing an experience we can take to be ‘real’ to be crafted from code – from signifiers.

As Hoffman observes, how do we know we are not in a ‘game’ inside a highly sophisticated hard drive developed by an alien? On one level the idea is absurd. On another, maybe not so much. The point is, however, that our sense of what is ‘real’ beyond our sense of utility is wonderfully uncertain.

A Question of Gods

According to Aristotle, Thales of Miletus (c. 624/623 – c. 548/545 BC) declared that “All things are full of gods.” Even allowing for problems of translation (an ever-present risk when encountering the thought of our more ancient forefathers), there is a tempting idea that could be retranslated as ‘Behind the appearances of all things there are expressions of conscious being.’

Hoffman quotes the Italian physicist Federico Faggin in saying “A central goal of conscious agents is mutual comprehension.” It is interesting that a cognitive scientist quotes a physicist re the goal of conscious agents. Things are changing!

Mutual comprehension may not extend beyond pure organic utility – Can I eat it? How do I catch it? Will it eat me? How do I avoid it? Can I mate with it? How do I do that? But we can imagine a deeper level of utility – between gods and humans – and a need for mutual comprehension as well.

The principle of free will confers upon us an essential uncertainty. In the muddled thought of Christianity that uncertainty is everywhere. The will of God can be defeated by human intransigence. Ignore the problems with that idea literally; and attend to the code. Things are way more uncertain and complex than theologians can imagine – so they create a signifying fiction that magnifies human choice as always a morally loaded act.

DeMarco (I have forgotten which book) provokes us with the idea that no matter what happens, it is always good. This can seem callous and cruel. The alternative is to see events upon a cosmic sliding scale of absolute good or evil. But events must surely be only signifiers. How we respond is more important than what we respond to.

The act of seeking mutual comprehension between human and god must be more complex, and uncertain, than can be imagined. For me, the word ‘god’ can only denote a discrete organised pattern of consciousness that can act on its own accord. And that can be on any scale, though mostly beyond the human.

Gods have always been a part of the human experience. The word ‘god’ has been applied through our cultural bias, and with wild abandon, to all cultures. This has led us to imagine we know what is signified when we employ the word. We don’t. When we speak of the ‘gods’ of the Egyptians, the Greeks, or anyone else, we need to remember we are interpreting their ideas on our terms. We may not presume we understand what they meant. For this reason, polytheism may be no more than a fiction of our invention. 

By that I do not mean that these traditions do not have multiple agents, just that we cannot assume there is an equivalence between the ‘God’ of the Abrahamic tradition and the ‘gods’ of the ‘pagan’ traditions. The word ‘god’, applied to both, does not mean there is actual shared meaning – or equivalence. This is a common feature of English. We do not confuse Scone, the place, with scone, the baked good – because we have no motive to do so. But when it comes to ‘God’ and ‘god’ some have a motive to mine confusion and conflict.

Materialism has attempted to confine our real inquiry about the nature of reality to a narrow peninsula upon which humans are the only intelligent agents of note. It has succeeded to an alarming measure. However, that extraordinary hubris is now melting under the glare of evidence presented by careful and modest thinkers.

The past has been a protective beacon of what is possible once hubris is persuaded to surrender to real reason; and give up dogma-infected intellectualism.

Hoffman reminds us all that “science is not a theory of reality, but a method of inquiry”, and argues for the testing of religious and philosophical ideas using the rigor of science.

Let us be frank and admit this is not likely to happen with any haste, absent any profit to be made. But it is refreshing that the conversation can be had among thinkers of goodwill once the death grip of materialism is replaced by the firm hand of intellectual honesty and discipline.

Proponents of religious and philosophical ideas are not innocents here. The opiate of belief is as much a tyrant as the dogmatic denial of the metaphysical. Honesty, modesty, and the eschewing of dogma on both sides is essential for mutual progress.

It could be that Faggins is onto something. Our passion to understand our reality beyond the scope of mere pragmatic utility may be because of a deep sense that what we encounter, and signify as ‘reality’, is a conscious agent.

A common attribute of human cultures is the establishment of a ‘higher utility’ of moral relationship with that ‘embracing other’ in which right action leads to reciprocal response. Whereas the Greeks thought their gods capricious, Christianity has sought to inject a sense of lovingness into its conception of the divine. Perhaps ‘lovingly capricious’ might be closer to ‘reality’?


For me Hoffman has taken a certain pressure off the tension between contemporary science, as conceived by materialists, and those of us who insist on the validity of human experience over the span of our conscious inquiring being. It has always been objective of humanity to make sense of the ‘reality’ it functions in. 

Inquiry mediated by machines is heading in the same direction as inquiry mediated by meditation, psychotropics, engagement with spirits, experimentation on states of consciousness, unbidden encounters with the strange, and everything else in religion, magic, mysticism and philosophy.

We must open up the conversation to participants of goodwill, intellectual modesty, and shared curiosity. Maybe we can make some serious progress on shared understanding.

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