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Conscious Realism May Replace Physicalism/Materialism One Day.

Cognitive psychologist and popular science author, Donald D. Hoffman is embarking on a fascinating expedition into the realms of consciousness, visual perception, and evolutionary psychology. Hoffman's captivating theory, Conscious Realism, will have you pondering the intricacies of perception and the enigma of objective reality. Buckle up, ponderers, as we delve into the thought-provoking world of Hoffman's ideas.

The Multimodal User Interface (MUI) Theory: Going Beyond Reality

At the core of Hoffman's theory lies the Multimodal User Interface (MUI) Theory, which challenges the belief that our perceptions accurately represent the objective world. Instead, Hoffman posits that they serve as a simplified user interface, optimized for "fitness payoffs" in our conscious experience. To illustrate this, think of the icons on a computer desktop – they provide functional access to complex underlying processes without revealing the underlying technicalities. Similarly, our perceptions act as metaphorical icons, allowing us to navigate reality effectively without being overwhelmed.

Perceptions as Useful Illusions To explain why we have evolved to perceive the world in ways that might not be accurate, Hoffman draws an analogy to a desktop interface on a computer as just mentioned. When we see icons representing files on our desktop, we know that the files themselves are not blue, rectangular, or residing in the lower right corner. Similarly, our perceptions serve as useful illusions that guide our behaviour, enabling us to survive and interact with the world efficiently. These perceptions are shaped by our sensory systems to inform us of the fitness consequences of our actions, not to provide an objective view of reality.

Conscious Realism: Elevating Consciousness

Conscious Realism, a non-physicalist monism, stands at the heart of Hoffman's theory. It proposes that consciousness holds primary significance, giving rise to the physical world as

dualism vs monism graph
Non-physicalist monism aligns with the philosophical position of idealism, which holds that the mind or consciousness is the primary reality, and the physical world is either a mental construct or dependent on consciousness for its existence

a secondary phenomenon. In this view, conscious agents and their experiences form the objective world, while physical objects act as icons within the user interface of consciousness. This notion challenges our traditional understanding of reality, offering a novel perspective on the fundamental nature of existence.

Currently, the prevailing and widely accepted model in the field of consciousness studies is Physicalism, which is also referred to as materialism. According to Physicalism, consciousness is believed to arise from the intricate workings of our bodies, particularly the complex interactions of neurons in the brain.

In this view, consciousness emerges as a result of the physical processes occurring in the brain. It posits that when the brain functions and communicates, conscious experiences are generated as an emergent property, much like how wetness emerges from the interactions of water molecules.

However, Donald D. Hoffman's revolutionary theory, challenges the conventional notions put forth by Physicalism. Hoffman proposes an alternative perspective, suggesting that consciousness is not a product of the brain but rather a fundamental aspect of reality itself.

In the framework of Conscious Realism, the physical world, including the brain and its neural activities, emerges from the realm of consciousness. In other words, consciousness is considered a foundational element, and the physical world we perceive is shaped by our consciousness, providing us with a subjective representation optimized for our survival and success in the environment.

An Agent-Based Reality Hoffman's theory of conscious realism proposes that the ultimate nature of reality is not composed of physical objects but of conscious agents—individual points of view. He posits that these conscious agents interact and combine to create a shared reality that we perceive as an external world. In this view, the world is composed of other conscious agents, and everything we perceive is a mental representation rather than an objective reality. It's worth noting that this doesn't mean that the physical objects themselves are conscious, so should not be confused with the likes of panpsychism. Conscious Realism sees consciousness as fundamental and primary, shaping the physical world, while panpsychism considers consciousness as a pervasive property present in all physical entities, without necessarily ascribing primary status to consciousness itself.

"What exists in the objective world, independent of my perceptions, is a world of conscious agents, not a world of unconscious particles and fields. Those particles and fields are icons in the MUIs of conscious agents but are not themselves fundamental denizens of the objective world. Consciousness is fundamental." quote from Hoffman himself.

Implications for Science Hoffman's theory challenges traditional scientific notions of objectivity and measurement. He argues that quantum mechanics has already indicated that there are no public physical objects, and that science must take this into account. Our experiences and mental representations, according to him, are subjective but are the foundation for communication and understanding with others.


If yer intae the ol philosophies of Platonism and the timeless allegory of the cave, you might have noticed some intriguing resemblances. Recently, I penned a modern-day rendition of the cave story, drawing upon the concepts of Indirect Realism. While these theories share certain similarities, they also diverge significantly, but it's worth pondering, as one notable agreement between Indirect Realism and Hoffman's Conscious Realism is the notion that our perceptions do not provide a direct glimpse of reality as it truly is. Instead, they both propose that our perceptions present us with a constructed representation of the world. You can read that similar pondering here.

In Indirect Realism, it is proposed that our perceptions are mental representations or sense data that mediate our access to the external world. However, Hoffman's Conscious Realism takes it a step further, suggesting that consciousness is not just an emergent property of our brains, but the fundamental reality from which everything arises. According to Conscious Realism, even our bodies, brains, and every physical particle are manifestations of consciousness itself. It's a radical departure from conventional views and invites us to question the very nature of existence.

Conclusion Donald Hoffman's theory challenges our conventional understanding of reality, perception, and consciousness. By questioning the assumption that evolution leads to accurate perception of reality, he proposes that our perceptions serve as useful illusions for survival rather than objective representations of the world. His theory of conscious realism suggests that the world is a network of interacting conscious agents, and our experiences shape the nature of reality itself. Although his ideas may seem radical, they present an intriguing and thought-provoking perspective on the nature of existence and human consciousness.

TL; DR: consciousness is more fundamental than physical objects.

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