“As long as our theories are stuck within spacetime, we cannot master what lurks behind.” Professor Donald Hoffman
DH: “ A venerable tradition conscripts the latest technology to be a metaphor of the human mind. …” (¶3)
... and history also shows us what a folly this venerable tradition is.
Gary Marcus: “Science has a poor track record when it comes to comparing our brains to the technology of the day. Descartes thought that the brain was a kind of hydraulic pump, propelling the spirits of the nervous system through the body. Freud compared the brain to a steam engine. The neuroscientist Karl Pribram likened it to a holographic storage device.”
Instead of taking the hint, Hoffman takes his cue from a Hollywood blockbuster and reduces our sensory interface with reality, down to our interface with a computer screen.
Chapter five’s opening quote comes from Morpheus in The Matrix: “This is your last chance . . . I (will) show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes.”
Is Hoffman being provocative for the sake of intellectual titillation?
Is it for the sake of constructive science? Or what? Is it tailored to sell to a frivolous audience?
Can we tell the different between a constructive scientist and a devious salesman? Lets find out as I continue my inspection of Hoffman's words and their implications.
DH: “… I invite you to explore a metaphor of perception: each perceptual system is an interface, like the desktop computer of a laptop. A laptop shaped by natural selection, …” (¶3)
Shaped by who’s “Natural Selection”? It gets labeled, but never defined.
Besides, who’s kidding whom, the interface we experience with our laptops doesn’t in anyway correspond to the interface between our minds and our bodies; and then by extension through the senses, our “interface” with physical reality; which we are embedded within; as time relentlessly speeds us forward.
A review of Donald Hoffman’s, Case Against Reality,
chapter 5, Illusory - The Bluff of a Desktop
DH: “The blue icon does not deliberately misrepresent the true reality of the file. Representing nature is not its aim. Its job, instead, is to hide that nature for the complexity inside the computer. …(then into details )… The language of the interface - pixels and icons - cannot describe the hardware and software it hides. … ( and so and so forth )” (¶5)
The only justification for this melodramatic approach is entertainment.
The blue icon’s job is to be a label for a command, a tool. Click the file icon/tool and your file opens. That’s truth, isn’t it? What’s the point? What’s the goal here?
Going though this book I often find myself asking my imaginary pal Hoffman:
What do you expect from reality?
Why no appreciation for the state of current understanding?
Why does our current understanding make you feel so utterly empty?
DH: “Perception is not about truth, it’s about having kids. …” (¶8)
Some say that evolution is all about passing down genes, via babies.
While there’s plenty of truth in that - we shouldn’t forget that once we get past insects and such, most complex animals spend most of their complex lives outside of the hormone frenzy of courting, baby making and rearing.
The point? It’s shortsighted to limit your vision to “having kids” as the be all, and end all, of an animal’s life, or evolution for that matter, it's more complicated than that.
DH: “To ask whether my perception of the moon is veridical (that is, what you see is what you get).
Our eyes are fundamentally like a Box Camera, a scene is focused through a small aperture and reflected onto a recording surface. Simple physics. It’s quite logical to assume that our eyes perceive more or less veridically, it's simply how optics works.
Claiming otherwise is what requires more than anecdotes about optical illusions backed by a heady theorem.
DH: “whether I see true color, shape, and position of a moon that exists even when no one looks - is like asking whether the paintbrush icon in my graphic app reveals the true color, shape, and position of a paintbrush inside my computer. …” (¶9)
The quality of one’s learning is limited by the quality of one’s questions. Why expect the impossible from the lowly desktop icon?
DH: “The language of space and time, of physical objects with shapes, positions, moment, spins, polarizations, colors, textures, and smell, is the right language to describe fitness payoffs.
But is it fundamentally the wrong language to describe objective reality. …” (¶10)
Says Hoffman! Still, no one has to come up with any better language. Stick around to see if Hoffman lives up to his bragging.
When challenged with reality, as in; why don’t we put our hands in front of rattlesnakes, Hoffman is one step ahead of the objections.
DH: “I must take my senses seriously. Must I therefore take them literally? No. Logic neither requires nor justifies this move.
Wish Hoffman would have explained how that train of logic runs.
But, we’re inclined to say yes, and thereby fall prey to Serious-Literal fallacy.
Our species conflation of serious and literal tempts us to reify physical objects and snipe-hunt among our figments for progenitors of consciousness. I understand the allure. I, too, feel the impulse to reify middle-sized objects. But I give it no credence.” (¶13-14)
Reify? Interesting word choice. Reify, “to make (something abstract) more concrete or real.” A dictionary example is,
“these instincts are, in humans, reified as verbal constructs.”
Hoffman is telling us that when we look at an object, we’re turning an ephemeral something into a solid object. Is it something like turning wine into blood at the alter?
So in Hoffman's reality we reify the idea of a poisonous snake, fast enough to keep oneself from getting bitten by one. Does that make sense?
When one allows oneself to make up all the rules, everything becomes possible.
This is where having your own copy of Hoffman’s Case Against Reality would be handy, because this chapter contains one head scratcher after another, but since they are diversions from the book’s main challenge against reality, I’ll be skipping a bunch.
DH: “Interface Theory of Perception - ITP, predicts another head scratcher: a spoon exists only when perceived. Ditto for quarks and stars.
“Why? A spoon is an icon of an interface, not a truth that persists when no one observes. My spoon is my icon, describing potential payoffs and how to get them.
I open my eyes and construct a spoon; that icon now exists, and I can use it to wrangle payoffs. I close my eyes. My spoon, for the moment, ceases to exist because I cease to construct it. …” (¶19-20)
Let that soak in.
Excuse the reminder - it is physically impossible to see an object unless light has first shown upon said object! It’s impossible to blindly touch an object if that object does not already exist. Nothing complicated about it.
DH: “This is a new way of thinking about objects.
We create them quickly, as needed, to solve fitness-gathering problems, and dispensing with them just as quickly when they have, for the moment, served their purpose.
They are not optimal solution for grabbing payoffs, just satisfactory solutions that let us nab a tad more than the competition.” (¶28)
Funny that, sounds more like the socio-political outcome of decades worth of embracing a marketing mentality of, Too Much Is Never Enough, and Me First.
Actually nothing funny about it. It is these sorts of intellectual-indulgences that have allowed the sort of mass disconnect from Earth’s geophysical realities which has permeated our entire society with such disastrous results for our country, the world and the future of all creatures, human and otherwise.
DH: “…Natural selection has shaped me that way. I need fast solutions. I can’t dally with novel techniques while rivals beat me to the punch. I have my go-to-style for solving this problem, and in this context, I create a spoon every time. It’s my habit.
I am inclined to reify my habit into an objective world. …” (¶29-30)
Then Hoffman revisits his Neckar cube, which is no cube at all, but lines on a flat surface, tailored to deceive our binocular vision and thinking process. This is the third time, with more to come, so excuse me for skipping it.
Except for this reminder: our senses have been conditioned by a billion years of evolution unfolding one day at a time to navigate within a three dimensional space.
But that’s too simple, won’t sell books. Instead we need a sexy philosophy and what’s beyond our reach. Still, rest assured that 3D space and time won't be disappearing for a long, long, long eternity - so don't let the optical illusions freak you out.
DH: “In like manner, I reify rocks, stars, other icons in my interface, and pronounce them preexisting physical objects. I then reify the very format of my interface and fancy it to be a preexisting spacetime. This claim of ITP seems to agree with the philosophy of Immanuel Kant ( in the 1700s ) …” (¶32)
DH: “Barry Stroud (is troubled), “What we thought was an independent world would turn out on this view not to be fully independent after all. It is difficult, to say the least, to understand a way in which that could be true.”
To understand a way in which it could be true, we simply need to understand evolution by natural selection.
According to the Fitness-Beats-Truth (FBT) Theorem, if selection shapes perceptions, then perceptions guide useful behavior - rather than report objective truths, about an independent world.
Perception plus experience guides useful behavior.
Accurate perceptions guide useful behavior.
Each creature has its own objective perception of its world.
Each creature strives to be accurate enough to survive for its own sake.
An animal’s “objective truths” are subjective calculations relevant to its world.
Hoffman doesn’t define his version of “natural selection” - it’s not a trivial point since we could easily spend entire chapters reviewing the complexities and nuances that exist within “natural selection.”
Definitions matters, lack of clear definitions leads to confusion, accidental and intentional.
Something exists independent of us, but that something doesn’t match our perceptions. This is difficult to understand because of our penchant to reify our interface.” (¶33)
DH: “… For scientists, this is difference is fundamental. ITP asserts that one theory of objective reality - that it consists of physical objects in spacetime - is false. But ITP allows that the standard interplay of scientific theories and experiments could lead to a theory that is true. A first step is to recognize that our perceptions are an interface to our species and not reconstruction of reality. (¶34)
This is rhetorical fancy dancing, not constructive science. Yes, our senses are an interface. No need to mystify it.
Why would an interface not reflect the objective reality that is outside of it?
How well a creature’s perceptions reflect that data, is a different question altogether - and one that is intimately related to how an organism needs to resolve the greater physical reality it is embedded within.
Then we get to Hoffman’s curious Maserati stories.
DH: “… It helps to say “objective” when discussing reality in the sense of existing unperceived. ITP asserts that neurons are not part of objective reality. They are, however, real subjective experiences - of a neuroscientist, for instance, peering at a brain through a microscope.
“But,” you might say, “if the Maserati I see is not objective, why can I touch it when my eyes are closed? Surely that proves the Maserati is objective.”
It proves nothing. It suggest, but does not prove, that there is something objective. But that something could be wildly different from anything you perceive. …” (¶41)
This chapter reminds me of an intellectual shell game, where the pea gets substituted with intellectual nuggets. They are made to appear and disappear at will, but never where the mark expects them to be. All the while the befuddled audience wows. How does he do it? A few know.
Rewriting the reality of reality, is great entertainment when nothing matters.
I wonder if Hoffman will ever explain how these notions of a radically different reality awaiting us, can do anything to aid us in the pragmatic day to day lives we are embedded within?
DH: “A red Maserati looks so shiny, artistic, aerodynamic, so real. But the FBT Theorem tells us that it’s just a sensory experience - an icon - that is not objective and depicts nothing objective. …” (¶47)
That one’s easy. We don’t perceive lots of real world aspects of that vehicle, it’s wiring systems, it’s electronics, fuel injection, the transmission and powertrain.
We don’t perceive the molecules, or structural belts that make up the tires, or how the air is kept inside of those tires, or the 100s of millions of years it took to evolve the oil it’s burning, or the bugs lives that get splattered as you race your Maserati down the highway, etc., etc., etc..
From there, Hoffman is on to our sense of taste and contorts it into another mystery and perhaps even a window to other dimensions.
While acknowledging that tastes are complex molecules, he avoids scientific advances to our understanding in recent decades. Scientists know what causes taste and smells, they can replicate them, they can track them as they enter our bodies and get processed through respective channels and then on to our minds.
Why the dissatisfaction with all we know?
To underscore his case, Hoffman describes phenolic aldehyde, gives us its formula and hits us with a challenge,
DH: “So then, what taste truly describes this molecule” What taste most accuracy depicts it’s true reality …( then comes the punch line )… Indeed, no taste describes any molecule. Tastes are mere conventions. …” (¶50-51)
Muddling the difference between the “perceived” and the “perceiver” - confuses, rather than clarifies.
Tastes are not mere conventions, they are components of nutrition, they were created through biological processes. What does “mere convention” even mean?
Some say gravity is a mere convention. Does that change anything, or inform anyone?
DH: “The examples of vanillin and Maseratis are, of course, just examples. They prove nothing about perception and reality. That’s the job of the FBT Theorem. But they may free us from our erroneous intuition that we see objective reality, and from our false belief that the moon is there when no one is looks.” (¶55)
Then Hoffman posits an objection and responds.
DH: “This riposte seems compelling, but it fails. Suppose I watch a newbie playing Grand Theft Auto . . .” (¶58)
Okay, here we can get our bearings on what’s what.
Hoffman has created a beautiful formula, it’s touchstone is a computer game. His rigorous Theorem is tailored for that level of complexity. Fine, it is, what it is.
Another thing it is, is too simplistic for nature and evolution. Way too simplistic to support the incredible claim being made of ITP.
DH: “ITP needs a new account of illusions. And it has one, courtesy of evolution: an illusion is a perception that fails to guide adaptive behavior.
It’s that simple. Evolution shapes our perception to guide adaptive behavior, not to see truth. So illusions are failures to guide adaptive behavior, not failures to see truth. (¶61-62)
Create the words, create the meaning, get your result.
Is every glance about “adaptive behavior” ?
“Illusions are failures to guide behavior” - Why expect an illusion to be a guide?
Besides, illusion includes a tremendous spectrum of perceiving something that isn’t there.
“not to see truth” - What truth?
Incidentally, how is behavior and truth related professor Hoffman?
I’d like to suggest another way to reduce evolution to a manageable level?
Evolution is the result of change over time.
Our bodies and senses, (unconsciously to each generation), unfolded over generations and eons in response to survivorship.
Adaptive behavior is all about what’s happening in the here-and-now, learning and surviving.
Every healthy complex animal wants to save it’s own skin and live another day.
Doing the best with what one has.
Where accurate-enough, often wins.
Where smarter makes a difference, but no guarantees.
Where tougher makes a difference, but no guarantees.
Where dumb luck also plays its role.
Truth doesn’t fit into any of that.
Relative accuracy matters.
Close enough matters.
Over the long haul evolution’s change over time resulted in a spectrum of types and aptitudes as they specialized into ecological-niches.
For all his use of the word “evolution,” Hoffman doesn’t seem to appreciate the real world of “wet” evolution unfurling over deep-time, with its folds within folds of harmonic cumulative complexity flowing down the cascade of time, one day at a time.
I know he’s never studied it and it’s a sensitive matter that he avoids discussing.
DH: “But this raises a baffling problem for the standard account, which claims that illusions are non-veridical perceptions: Whose perceptions are nonveridical - ours or those of coprophagies? Are we right that feces truly have a loathsome taste? If so, do pigs, rabbits, and billions of flies suffer a taste illusion? Or are they right that feces truly are delicious? If so our disgusting experience a taste illusion. …” (¶65)
Come on, what’s to be baffled over? Different strokes for different creatures.
Less anthropomorphizing please, and the subtle moralizing is as irritating, as it is revealing.
DH: “ITP says that a taste is illusory if it prompts behaviors that are unadaptive. …” (¶68)
“If (taste) prompts behaviors”? Why would the behavior, a taste triggers, impact the realness of the molecular structure that created that particular taste component?
DH: “There is, it may seem, a more fundamental problem with ITP. It appeals to the FBT Theorem, which uses math and logic to prove that there’s little chance we evolved to see objective reality.
But what about our perception of math and logic? Doesn’t the theorem assume math and logic, and then prove there’s almost no chance that our perceptions of math and logic are true? If so, isn’t it a proof that there is no reliable proofs - a reductio ad absurdum of the whole approach.
Fortunately, the FBT Theorem proves no such thing. It applies only to our perception of states of the world. Other cognitive capacities, such as our abilities with math and logic, must be studied on their own to see how they may be shaped by natural selection. It is too simplistic, and false to argue that natural selection makes all our cognitive facilities unreliable …” (¶69-70)
Wow, talk about having your cake and eating it too. Some six hundred million years of sight evolution and we have it all wrong, (obviously the prof says) - but our mastery of math, who knows, could be real as rocks, needs more study, write up a grant proposal.
DH: “The either-or choice between fitness and truth is, as we have discussed, not a whim of ITP, but the essential feature of evolutionary theory, fitness payoffs are distinct from objective reality and can, for a given element of reality, vary wildly from creature to creature and time to time. To track fitness is simply not, to track truth.” (¶77)
Hoffman say’s “as we have seen” but anecdotes are not evidence, nor explanations!
Hoffman never has explained the difference between fitness and truth.
To further support his thesis he can do no better than a Minecraft computer game analogy. But, I’ll leave that for you to explore and jump ahead to this gem.
DH: “Our prowess with diseases, spacecrafts, and cameras is impressive. But prowess is just prowess, not truth. We have become better masters of our interface. But as long as our theories are stuck within spacetime, we cannot master what lurks behind.” (¶81)
Still no talk about exactly what Hoffman’s “truth” is.
Then Hoffman resorts to one of the most unfortunate misrepresentations of the past century. The oft repeated canard about an atom being mostly empty space, sort of like our solar system.
DH: “… since 1911, when Ernest Rutherford discovered that the atom is mostly empty space, with just a tiny nucleus at it’s center. …”(¶82)
Rutherford produced his mathematical model, based on a simple experiment. With more data it became clear that his solar system model was profoundly inadequate, though it was still seen to be helpful as a simple teaching aid, though it’s an intellectual dead-end.
Why? Because, Rutherford’s model fails to include the distribution of electrons and energy associated with atoms!
An atom has electrons that are tiny bundles of energy spinning at such speeds that those electron planets are in reality smears of energy spinning along their paths, enveloping the nucleus within well defined energetic Covalent Shells bound together by various forces.
Energetically an atom is solid and they pack very tightly. I mean on the order of 5,000,000,000,000 can dance on the head of a needle.
Calling the stuff of our macroscopic world, mostly empty space, is cartoon silly!
DH: “… physicists claim: “I know that the icons on my desktop are not the true reality. But if I pull out my trusty magnifying glass and look really closely at my desktop, I see tiny pixels. And those tiny pixels, not the big icons, are the true nature of reality.
Well, not really. Those pixels are still on the desktop, still in the interface. … Similarly, atoms and subatomic particles are not visible without special equipment, but they’re still in space and time, and so they are still in the interface.” (¶83-84)
DH: “These claims of ITP are indeed radical, and in making them ITP reaches beyond it’s origins in evolution and neuroscience, and trespasses into the turf of physics. Perhaps it has overreached. Perhaps the counterintuitive claims of ITP are readily rebuffed by theory and experiment in modern physics.
Let’s see.” (¶86-87)
Hoffman has absolute confidence in his Interface Theory of Perception, it dissolves physical reality. Why? His Fitness Before Truth Theorem declares it to be so.
Still, from the outside looking in, this ability to reduce evolution into simplistic board games and reality into a computer screen interface, seems like nothing so much as escapism.
In chapter 6, Gravity - Spacetime is Doomed, Hoffman get’s down to brass tacks. He promises to explain how the physics of the quantum realm supports his Fitness Before Truth theorem.
I invite you to carry on with me and see where Hoffman’s Case Against Reality leads us.
It will continue be slow going, but I’ll keep plugging away at his chapters as I can and share my results.
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
Chapter 10, Community: The Network of Conscious Agents
Appendix, Precisely: The Right to Be Wrong
Public notice to W.W.Norton Co and Donald Hoffman:
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
©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.
email: citizenschallenge at gmail