There’s a new cognitive psychology article that’s been buzzing around the interwebs. It particularly seems to have struck a cord with the obfuscationist crowd; folks like Deepak Chopra and the salesman of healing crystals. However, even Scott Adams (creator of Dilbert, and recently baptized pundit) asserted that it would blow our collective minds about the context of reality.
The amazing article in question is titled “The Evolutionairy Argument against Reality” and consists of an interview with Donald Hoffman, a professor of cognitive science. In it, Hoffman argues that a focus on truth could never have been selected for by evolutionairy processes, and the world of our perceptions must therefore be fundamentally different from reality.
It is a truly bizarre interview.
To start with a main disclaimer: I wasn’t able to track down any paper that would explain his position in-depth. But given the size of his claims, I think I’m justified in critizing based on the public arguments he’s come forward with.
Here’s the general gist of Hoffman’s thesis (printed in Quanta Magazine):
“The classic argument is that those of our ancestors who saw more accurately had a competitive advantage over those who saw less accurately and thus were more likely to pass on their genes that coded for those more accurate perceptions, so after thousands of generations we can be quite confident that we’re the offspring of those who saw accurately, and so we see accurately. That sounds very plausible. But I think it is utterly false. It misunderstands the fundamental fact about evolution, which is that it’s about fitness functions — mathematical functions that describe how well a given strategy achieves the goals of survival and reproduction. The mathematical physicist Chetan Prakash proved a theorem that I devised that says: According to evolution by natural selection, an organism that sees reality as it is will never be more fit than an organism of equal complexity that sees none of reality but is just tuned to fitness. Never.
Suppose in reality there’s a resource, like water, and you can quantify how much of it there is in an objective order — very little water, medium amount of water, a lot of water. Now suppose your fitness function is linear, so a little water gives you a little fitness, medium water gives you medium fitness, and lots of water gives you lots of fitness — in that case, the organism that sees the truth about the water in the world can win, but only because the fitness function happens to align with the true structure in reality. Generically, in the real world, that will never be the case. Something much more natural is a bell curve — say, too little water you die of thirst, but too much water you drown, and only somewhere in between is good for survival. Now the fitness function doesn’t match the structure in the real world. And that’s enough to send truth to extinction. For example, an organism tuned to fitness might see small and large quantities of some resource as, say, red, to indicate low fitness, whereas they might see intermediate quantities as green, to indicate high fitness. Its perceptions will be tuned to fitness, but not to truth. It won’t see any distinction between small and large — it only sees red — even though such a distinction exists in reality.”
On its face, the structure of Hoffman’s thesis is actually not that ground-breaking. Greek philosophers already played with the idea that the ‘real world’ might not be what it seems. And more concretely we’ve known for over a century that the colours we see are visual representations of objects’ differing electromagnetic reflections; as such, colour mainly exists as a visual tool in our brain and there’s no reason to suspect it is ‘true’ in any deeper sense. And there are many other examples that make our hold on reality appear tenuous.
Still, Hoffman could either be making a modern restatement of this basic insight (that our experience doesn’t perfectly reflect reality), or a far more radical claim (that objective reality isn’t real at all). While he seems to skip back and forth between these throughout the interview, his most striking statements definitely fall in the second camp. For instance: “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!”
I see two massive problems with Hoffman’s thesis. The first is with the simulation-based “proof” he’s trying to add to the philosophical discussion; the second is a general objection to this class of worldviews.
1) Hoffman makes a big deal out of the fact that an organism that sees water concentrations based on their survival value (so that both too little and too much water would get rendered as red without distinction), will outcompete an organism that expends resources representing the amount of water exactly. Thus “truth is driven to extinction”.
But the organism he describes in his simulation is clearly NOT an organism that is not aligned with truth, evidenced by the fact that the color red is still giving true information about objective reality. Granted, a ‘red’ environment would no longer be a true representation of the absolute amount of water in an environment, but it would still be a true (albeit binary) representation of whether the amount of water fit the fitness function of the organism.
Truth has been simplified, sure, but it is not extinct. Any actual move away from truth (e.g. starting to see a lethal water concentration as green rather than red) would still be swiftly selected against.
So yes, our sensory faculties are going to be heuristics at best and won’t get the world exactly right. But once you start looking at the concrete implications of that, it’s not all that different from what we knew all along: some aspects of our experience (like colors) are there as shortcuts for the brain but do not perfectly reflect their physical underpinnings (electromagnetic wavelengths). And often they may deceive us.
That complicates our search for truth, but by no means cancels it.
2) It’s always simple enough to make nonsensical claims about what you believe. As an example, it’s easy to say that you can imagine a round triangle or a square circle. But what’s much harder is to explain your view of the world in a way that makes any kind of sense. Hoffman takes a crack at it, and this is where the thesis shifts from locally insightful to slightly ridiculous:
“The idea that what we’re doing is measuring publicly accessible objects, the idea that objectivity results from the fact that you and I can measure the same object in the exact same situation and get the same results — it’s very clear from quantum mechanics that that idea has to go. Physics tells us that there are no public physical objects. So what’s going on? Here’s how I think about it. I can talk to you about my headache and believe that I am communicating effectively with you, because you’ve had your own headaches. The same thing is true as apples and the moon and the sun and the universe. Just like you have your own headache, you have your own moon. But I assume it’s relevantly similar to mine. That’s an assumption that could be false, but that’s the source of my communication, and that’s the best we can do in terms of public physical objects and objective science.”
The thing is, we are not that dependent on our senses being perfect (or perfectly in sync) to learn things about the world. Partly because we now have machines which are able to reinforce our senses. We can argue all day whether my perception of your mom’s weight is accurate, but at the end of the day, we can now test that hypothesis with three weighing scales created by different laboratories. And they will provide us with functionally the same result. What does it then practically mean to say that “you see your own moon” (or mom)?
[There’s a tangential but useful insight here, which I first heard from Dawkins in the context of establishing the Earth’s age. In their desperation, Young Earth Creationists are often found insisting that the dozen radiometric dating estimates we have of the Earth (which all point to an age of roughly 4.5 billion years), do not qualify as convincing evidence. After all, radiometric dating works by calculating the extent to which a radioactive elements have decayed over time, and thus relies on the assumption that each element’s decay rate is constant. But how could we ever know that all these differing rates have stayed constant across these hundreds of millions of years? Checkmate, atheists!
Well, because the proof is in the pudding. The proof of the assumption is that different elements do in fact make estimates consistent with each other. If there was really some contaminating process changed decay rates, it’s extremely unlikely that it all affected them equally¹. It’s like telling your friends to come over at 9 over Whatsapp, and having a skeptic question whether Whatsapp can really be trusted to deliver that message. The retort to the skeptic is obvious: if everyone does show up at 9, the message must have been delivered correctly.]
So back to reality, and Hoffman’s denial of it. The proof that reality does exist (at least at the macro-level, regardless of whatever strangeness happens at the quantum level) is that all of us consistently manage to communicate correctly over the same objects, and that we are able to functionally navigate through an ever-changing world.
In fact, since the modern age we have invented machines that presumably do not share our evolutionary biases. We can use machines, computers and various contraptions to double-check our perception of reality. And it invariably turns out that our perceptions are largely accurate².
There are really only two explanations: per Hoffman we could imagine that all these devices and methods are somehow still contaminated by our evolutionary biases (e.g. in our tuning of weighing scales, we program them with the same faults that we have). And this must somehow be true across the board, with many cognitive biases colluding to make us see reality in the wrong way, and at the same time make us wrongly program all our varying tools and methods so as to not provide the correct results. Just as in the Truman show, collusion must be happening all around us but none of our experiments ever provide a hint.
This seems spectacularly unlikely to me.
Or perhaps. Perhaps reality isn’t that far from our grasp after all, and the real obfuscation happens when we buy into farfetched quantum theories…
When bringing the quantum world to the macroscopic level, there’s always a thin line between useful observations and overly ambitious drivel. For now, Hoffman’s thesis remains firmly in superposition between the two.