Lifting the gross national product with a set of tongs

The expression I use for a category error is “like trying to lift the gross national product with a set of tongs”. I could just as well say “he is trying to surf on a crime wave.” You cannot apprehend a statistical abstraction, such as the GDP, or a crime wave, with a physical object, a tool you hold in the hand, or a front-end loader.

Thus I was entertained by a recent interview with cognitive scientist Donald Hoffman in Quanta Magazine.

The virtue of Donald Hoffman is that he takes the conclusions of quantum physics seriously, and he addresses some issues underlying the attacks on neuroscience launched by Raymond Tallis and others. Says the article on Hoffman:

“while neuroscientists struggle to understand how there can be such a thing as a first-person reality, quantum physicists have to grapple with the mystery of how there can be anything but a first-person reality”

As you read the interview, it is apparent that Hoffman is using the worldview of quantum physics – the interaction of consciousness with matter – to put questions to an evolutionary account of human consciousness.

The argument of Hoffman tends to say that because we humans only evolve to greater fitness, we do not necessarily evolve to apprehend truth. We evolve mental apprehensions of danger, for example, called “snakes” or “traps” or “poison mushrooms”. We learn to avoid them.

Hoffman goes much further, however, by asserting that “physics tells us there are no public physical objects.” I do not believe quantum physics necessarily implies this conclusion. The many commentators on this article in Quanta magazine also appear to agree that Hoffman goes too far in that regard.

However, Hoffman takes proper aim at the neuroscientific community for failing to advance their ideas of physics from Newton to Heisenberg, from Einstein to John Wheeler.

“Not only are they ignoring the progress in fundamental physics, they are often explicit about it. They’ll say openly that quantum physics is not relevant to the aspects of brain function that are causally involved in consciousness. They are certain that it’s got to be classical properties of neural activity, which exist independent of any observer…. And then [neuroscientists] are mystified as to why they don’t make progress. They don’t avail themselves of the incredible insights and breakthroughs that physics has made. Those insights are out there for us to use, and yet my field says, “We’ll stick with Newton, thank you. We’ll stay 300 years behind in our physics.”

The many commentators on this interview provide some important perspectives, corrections and suggested readings on issues such as materialism and the role of consciousness in nature. Those who seem well grounded in philosophy accuse Hoffman of self-refuting solipsism, and more, and worse. It is an education to read them.


At first glance, it seems that Hoffman may have modernized his physics but has fallen too far into his own metaphors of consciousness as a user-illusion.By this I mean that he sees the picture that consciousness brings us is like the screen on a computer: it provides the representation of where “files” may be found in the computer, but it is not a circuit diagram and provides no insights as to how the computer works behind the screen.

I would offer the writing of Raymond Tallis as a much deeper and philosophically literate examiner of these issues of consciousness, evolution, and the adequacy of Darwin to get us to where we are.

Raymond Tallis is a British physician and intellectual who holds that neuroscience is in the grips of what he calls Darwinitis and neuromania. By this he means that, by adopting a strictly materialist position on the evolution and operation of of consciousness, we have failed to begin to understand issues such as intentionality, culture, meaning, and what it is like to be human.

All true. I recommend Tallis highly. His take on Darwin is insightful. He considers that evolutionary explanations fail to explain any form of consciousness. Here is a sampling, taken from Aping Mankind (2014) at page 183:

Much of the strength of the case for a Darwinian account of the human person and human society lies, as we saw, in the way language is used to anthropomorphize animal behaviour and animalize human behaviour. The case for the neuralization of consciousness and, in particular, human consciousness has also depended on the misuse of language, but with Neuromania the lexical trickery goes much deeper. While Darwinitis requires  its believers only to impute human characteristics to animals (and vice versa), Neuromania demands of  its adepts that they should ascribe human characteristics to physical processes taking place in the brain.

I cite Dawkins’ “selfish genes” meme, as a prime example of the ascription of human characteristics to physical processes. For a telling attack on Dawkins I recommend David Stove’s “Darwinian Fairytales“, (2006) essay 7, Genetic Calvinism, or Demons and Dawkins, which is scathing as well as funny.

And for something completely different,that is, an interpretation which sees the neuromania and Darwinitis as manifestation of a deep seated attack by the hyper-rationalist and over-developed part of the brain on our intuitive and connecting aspects of our minds, you might like Iain McGilchrist’s “The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World.”