Thursday, October 8, 2020

Prof Hoffman #2 - Beauty - Playing Basketball In Zero-Gravity - Sirens of the gene

 For his warmup Hoffman discusses visual cues and their manipulation, one of his specialities.  The problem is that he applies his lessons of vision and perception to everything, like reality and evolution.  Thing is, survival and evolution is about a great deal more than vision.

A review of Donald Hoffman’s, Case Against Reality, 

chapter 2, Beauty, Sirens of the Gene

If you have Hoffman’s book The Case Against Reality, great, because I’m definitely cherry picking key paragraphs and sentences, which leaves out some nuances and fascinating trivia.  If you don’t, I encourage you to get a copy to follow along and do your own examination of his rhetorical fancy dancing, because there’s plenty I’ve left on the cutting room floor.  

There’s no denying Hoffman tells a wonderful story and shares many curious, interesting and accurate facts, it’s his conclusions that get dodgy.  This study is about focusing on the tricks of the trade.  

Who’s trade? Hoffman's marketing insights and the science contrarian’s trick of confusing rather than clarifying.

I appreciate Hoffman may take umbrage at that since he spends a lot of time talking about the need for science to take over for the failed philosophical approach, if we're to tackle the perception-reality ‘problem.’  

He presents his formulas as real science, and they may be, mathematically speaking, but that is not natural science.  Nor is it bound by the constraints of physical reality.  (But than, Hoffman does reject physical reality as we know it.)

It’s an exercise of the mind and is vulnerable to the same pitfalls of human self-serving vanity as all other human endeavors, because it’s not constrained by physical reality the way the natural sciences are.  In fact, I believe calling it a “problem” to begin with is a bit contrived and has more to do with marketing and career creation than any actual “problem” we must resolve.

I’m going to be skipping a bunch of this chapter because it focuses on how visual cues can mislead the receiver of those signals.  The topic has been studied a long time now and there’s nothing reality shattering about what’s happening and why it occurs.  Interesting, but still, a distraction from Hoffman’s main supposition.

DH:  “Perhaps the universe itself is a massive social network of conscious agents that experience, decide and act.  If so, consciousness does not arise from matter and spacetime: …  

Instead, matter and spacetime arise from consciousness - as a perceptual interface” (¶26 of Preface)

Hoffman starts out with,

DH:  “In 1757, David Hume argued in his book Standard of Taste that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. … Why is this standard of beauty in the eye of that beholder? …

Darwin laid the foundation - evolution by natural selection - for a psychology that explains why:  beauty is a perception of fitness payoffs on offer, such as the payoff from eating that apple or dating that person.   (¶1)

Fair enough as far as it goes, but don’t ignore that it’s also a gross oversimplification. 

Beauty may indicate fitness, but there’s more going on. “Fitness points” are a necessary over-simplification of the complex spectrum of benefits creatures strive for - Hoffman needs to do it because his computations can’t handle actual evolution and the complexity of the day to day behaviors of critters.  Only over simplified generalities (of dubious real world validity) can be plugged into those formulas.

DH: “Evolutionary psychology …  

The predictions of evolution about beauty are surprising but, as we will see in chapter nine, its predictions about physical objects are disconcerting: objects, like beauty, are in the eye of the beholder and inform us about fitness.  

To prepare us for the perplexing case of objects, let’s warm up our intuitions by exploring the perception of beauty in the animal kingdom.   (¶3)

Starting with the Australian male jewel beetle that is fooled by the texture and reflection of a certain beer bottle.  According to one of the co-discoverers,

Darryl Gwynne: Yeah, the old "stubby" bottle that they had in Western Australia, had a series of little tiny tubercles around the base that probably prevents slippage of the beer from the hand. Those reflected light in a similar way to the wing covers of the female, which were not only brown and shiny like the bottle, but they were reflecting light because they have these dimples in them, very much like the bottles. So we surmised that that was what was going on.

HD:  “… beauty is the intelligent verdict of a complex but mostly unconscious computation”

In so far as this sentence goes, I think it’s a good and concise description of perceiving beauty.  Then a couple sentences later, Hoffman goes silly on us.

HD:  “These clues, meticulously selected through eons of evolution, inform you about one thing: reproductive potential.”   (¶8)

Sure from a god’s eye view perhaps you could claim that procreation is the be all and end all to biological existence, but that’s patently silly once we take it down to actual lives unfolding.

Be you human or worm, most of your life is lived outside of your brief, hormone raging procreation focused, baby making phase, and most of a creature's time is spent simply getting through our day to days, and doing the tasks we need to survive, prosper and live another day for its own sake. 

DH:  “It’s all about struggles between genes.  Which is to say, it’s all about fitness - the central concept of evolution by natural selections. …”   (¶10)

It’s the extremism that bothers me here.  Sure fitness has a great deal to do with prospering, and producing offspring that survives, but there are many other factors involved from ecological conditions outside of the creatures awareness or control, to shear luck.

Following this track Hoffman spent a good deal of time on human beauty and it’s manipulation.  It’s all way too ego-centric for addressing Hoffman's challenge against reality.  It’s all about our perceptions and how they can be deceived.  There’s little mystery there.  

If one seriously wants to understand perception, you’d need to start way back at the Ediacaran Period and study how those first sensing organs and neural networks evolved through time, via environmental pressures and demands.

DH:  “Why might prominent limbal rings be attractive …”   (¶15)

And so on.  Then, the melodrama continues,

DH:  “The lies of genes in the quest for fitness can cross the border from cynical to sinister. …”   (¶24)

DH:  “The callous genes of Photuris promise…”   (¶26)

DH:  “… the gene behind the scenes of the beauty game are ruthless operators, unfettered by moral compunction, unhesitant to deceive and destroy in their single-minded quest to enhance their own fitness.”   (¶27)

It’s all so anthropomorphic, with its moralistic overtones.  Is that real science?  I don’t think so, it feels like storytelling.


Now we get into fitness points, the result of dumbing down evolution far enough so one can squeeze it into a computer game.

DH:  “Fitness points are not carved in stone, but varied as the organisms that seek them and as fickle as the desires that signal them. …  The payoffs to an organism vary with its state. …”   (¶28)

Then comes a great deal on human sexuality, advertising and procreation, again irrelevant to Hoffman’s challenge.  At ¶59 he spreads his net and we hear about owls and butterflies.  Then comes a line worth including,

DH   “This broader notion of fitness is called “inclusive fitness” to distinguish it from the notion of “personal fitness,” which we have discussed until now.  

The two notions are not at odds.  

Inclusive fitness simply recognizes a broader spectrum of strategies by which genes muscle themselves into the next generation.”   (¶63)

To summarize,

DH:  “We have seen in this chapter that features of eyes, such as the limbal ring, can make us attractive and thereby enhance our personal fitness.  The eyes, as it happens, also inform us about kinship and thereby enhance inclusive fitness.  The eyes may be windows to the soul, but they are certainly windows to what matters most in evolution: fitness both personal and inclusive.”  (¶68)

Sure, makes sense to me.  But what does it have to do with supporting the dismissal of physical reality?  I don’t see it.  But Hoffman promises all will be made clear.

DH:  “With these provisos, our study of beauty is just the backdrop we need to grapple with our central question: Do we perceive reality as it is?  

We will find a counterintuitive answer.  If our sense evolved and were shaped by natural selection, then spacetime and physical objects, like beauty, reside in the eye of the beholder.  They inform us about fitness - not about truth or objective reality.”   (¶72)

Here again Hoffman confuses by mixing concepts.  

And what is this "truth"?   

Hoffman never examines it. 


Looks like just another mathematical logic term.  I don't knocking it.  That's how philosophy and top shelf math works.  We probably wouldn't have video games or virtual reality making machines without this math and this way of logic.  Nothing wrong with it.

Furthermore, I'm in no position to judge the quality of Professor Hoffman's formulas and theorems.  I'll grant him everything he claims about those.

It's simply that that his extrapolations and conclusions go way beyond anything his various theorems justifies.

Perceived reality is something that unfolds within each individual’s mind.  

I do appreciate that a lot of people and scientists use the term “objective” to mean something actually existing independent of the mind - but it’s still a misleading way of putting it, since “objective” is a concept of our minds, it is not a material aspect of reality - it’s misleading and confuses Hoffman’s narrative.

That’s why I reject the sloppy term “Objective Reality” in favor of "Physical Reality” which indicates that it’s something beyond our perceptions.

Reality simply is!  

It’s we humans who add all the ‘objectivity,’ or lack thereof, while observing, pondering and debating.  

The next chapter is titled “Reality” although it seems to me this is the one place where using “Objective Reality” would have been appropriate, since it’s all about our eyes and senses and how our brains process information from the physical reality we are embedded within to create the “reality” we are present to, during our short lives upon an ever changing planet.

It will be slow going, but I’ll keep plugging away at his chapters as I can and share my results.


Chapter 10a, Community: The Network of Conscious Agents (1/3)

Chapter 10b, Community: The Network of Conscious Agents (2/3)

Chapter 10c, Community: Network of Hoffmanian Conscious Agents (3/3)

The Prelude, Prof Donald Hoffman Playing Basketball In Zero-Gravity

Chapter 1, Mystery: The Scalpel That Split Consciousness

Chapter 2, Beauty: Siren of the Gene

Chapter 3, Reality: Capers of the Unseen Sun

Chapter 4, Sensory: Fitness beats Truth

Chapter 5, Illusory: The Bluff of the Desktop

Chapter 6, Gravity: Spacetime is Doomed

Chapter 7, Virtuality: Inflating a Holoworld

Chapter 8, Polychromy: Mutations of an Interface

Chapter 9, Scrutiny: You Get What You Need, in Both Life and Business

Appendix,    Precisely: The Right to Be Wrong

Feel free to copy and share.



Donald Hoffman Playing Basketball in Zero-Gravity, 

a critical review:

The Case Against Reality : 

Why Evolution Hid The Truth From Our Eyes

By Donald Hoffman

Published August 13th 2019 

Publisher: W.W. Norton Company

ISBN13: 9780393254693

©all rights reserved

I hereby claim FairUse on the grounds that Donald Hoffman’s “The Case Against Reality” is part of an ongoing public dialogue which Hoffman explicitly encourages others to join.  He invited critique and I accept his challenge. 

I intend to be a witness for a fact based DeepTime, Evolutionary perspective on our “human mind” -“physical reality” interface.  

To do Hoffman’s arguments justice I’m compelled to reprint quite a few of them as I go through his book and I appreciate both W.W. Norton Company and Donald Hoffman’s understanding, and I hope for their consent.


Peter Miesler

aka citizenschallenge

email:  citizenschallenge at gmail

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