Fitness Beats Truth, you’ll hear it like a drum beat throughout Hoffman’s Case Against Reality.
In order to help it go down Hoffman dispenses with some inconvenient truths, such as: light must first bounce off an object before our eye’s, then mind* can perceive it. Seems like solid proof that stuff exists before we perceive it! (* after appropriate processing)
Then Hoffman conflates ‘perceiving’ with ‘the perceived’ and starts down a troubling path.
It’s no secret that our visual system edits and composes the moving images our mind’s eye perceives. Nothing reality shattering about it. Or is there?
Hoffman tells us something more important is going on. That there’s a hidden reality inside of the reality we experience every day. Something humanity really needs to tap into before we can feel whole.
Something like what? Like inside atoms? Is that justified? If so? So what?
Or, might it simply be escapism that’s driving this Case Against Reality?
I will do my best to honestly and fairly represent Hoffman’s words and ideas. I have exchanged some emails with Professor Hoffman, and I’ll share a couple quotes when appropriate. My point is that Professor Hoffman is aware of my project and that I’m ready to listen to anything he has to share with me.
Review of Donald Hoffman’s, Case Against Reality,
ch 4, Sensory - Fitness Beats Truth
DH: “Does natural selection favor true perceptions?” (¶2)
For all of Hoffman’s use of “true” he never examines it critically, so his readers are left to their own devices. For most of us “truth” is some sort of binary concept, it is true or isn’t it true. That’s not how life in our natural world operates.
Hmmm, binary … well okay, the devil is in the details. We do need to get beyond a few exceptions: is it alive or is it dead?
DH: “Is it possible that we did not evolve to see truly - that our perceptions of space, time and objects do not reveal reality as it is? … Can the theory of evolution transform this stale philosophical chestnut into a crisp scientific claim? (¶2)
DH: “… This rejoinder misses a point of logic and a matter of fact.
First logic: if we can’t test the claim that a peach does not exist when no one looks, then we can’t test the opposite and widely held claim that it does exist.
Both claims posit what happens when no one observes. (¶4)
Why? How does Hoffman figure that?
Because we’re composing the image in our minds, he claims the object must not exist?
What’s logical about that?
Hoffman never does explain, we’re expected to take his word for it.
DH: “If one is not science, then neither is the other. (Why?)
Nor is the claim that the sun exists when no one looks, that the big bang happened over thirteen billion years ago, and the such claims routinely made in science.” (¶4)
The foundation of Hoffman’s case rests on his philosophical belief that, it is our perception of an object, that creates that object. This illusion is based on ignoring a down to Earth reality. Light must strike an object, before it can be reflected into eyes, only then, can said object be perceived.
Something Hoffman assiduously dances around. Still, it busts his riddle.
DH: “Now the matter of fact: observations can test a claim about what happens when no one looks. … in 1964, the physicist John Bell proved … there are experiments that can test such a claims - for instance, the claim that an electron has no spin when no one looks.
Thus these claims are in the purview of science …” (¶5-6)
The peaches are objects. Electrons are not objects!
Electrons are energetic bundles at the very extremes of tininess. Right down at the boundary between atoms and energy. Within a reality where ~5,000,000,000,000 atoms can dance on the head of a needle.
In the next paragraphs Hoffman asks if his insight can be used to evaluate evolution.
DH: “According to standard account of evolution, payoffs can vary wildly while the true state of the world remains fixed. It follows that seeing truth and seeing fitness are two distinct strategies of perception, not one strategy seen in different lights. (¶9)
No it doesn’t. Hoffman hasn’t even satisfactorily defined either term.
The two strategies can compete. One may dominate and the other go extinct. So it is a central question, not a conceptual mistake, to ask: Does the natural selection favor perception tuned to truth or to fitness.” (¶9)
It may not be a conceptual mistake if you are designing a computer game to mimic evolution. But if you are trying to describe the real complexities unfolding out there in the great big world, this approach is a bust.
DH: “Some argue that the theory of evolution cannot address this question, because the answer may refute the theory.” (¶10)
“Some argue” -“Some argue…” is definitely a red flag. Watch out.
Then it gets really good.
DH: “Evolution assumes that there are physical objects in space and time, and such as DNA, RNA, chromosomes, ribosomes, proteins, organisms and resources.
(Evolution) could not, without refuting itself, conclude that natural selection drives true perceptions to extinction.
For then the very language of space, time, and physical objects would be the wrong language to describe objective reality.
Our scientific observations of physical objects in spacetime, such as DNA, RNA, and proteins, would not be veridical descriptions of objective reality, even if these observations use advance technologies, … The theory of evolution would refute itself by discrediting its own key assumptions - the logical equivalent of shooting itself in the foot.” (¶10)
What happened up there? Among other things, Hoffman has made evolution a conscious agent in this paragraph. This is metaphysics not science! Big on claim, short on explanations.
It’s also worth pointing out that in this paragraph and in general, Hoffman never paints a distinction between “evolution” and his simplified “theory of evolution” - as if the distinction were unimportant.
It’s within these weeds full of rhetorical fancy dancing and non-sequiturs that the notion of Hoffman playing basketball in zero-gravity first entered my mind and I haven’t been able to shake it since.
DH: “Darwin’s algorithm…” (¶14)
Actually it’s “Darwinian algorithms” and the distinction is important. The sloppiness is another red flag for this being metaphysical entertainment, rather than a constructive exercise in learning about the world we are embedded within.
Evolution News: Evolution as a Computational Process
“Simulations of Darwinian algorithm on a computer are known as Evolutionary Algorithms (EA) …, with popular sub-fields such as Genetic Algorithms (GA), Genetic Programming (GP), Evolutionary Strategy (ES), and Artificial Life (AL). Currently, the state of performance in all of the above-mentioned areas is orders of magnitude less complex than what we observe in the natural world. …”
The next paragraphic further elucidate, Darwinian algorithms, with comments from Thomas Huxley, the work of physicist Lee Smolin, and Richard Dawkins coining the term universal Darwinism
DH: “ Universal Darwinism can, without risk of refuting itself, address our key question: Does natural selection favor true perceptions?
If the answer happens to be “No,” then it hasn’t shot itself in the foot.
The uncanny power of universal Darwinism has been likened by the philosopher Dan Dennett to a universal acid:
“There’s not denying, at this point that Darwin’s idea is a universal solvent, capable of cutting right to the heart of everything in sight.”
The question is: what does it leave behind? …
We can apply Darwin’s acid to our belief of true perception.
We will find that this belief perishes: natural selection drives true perception to swift extinction. The very language of our perceptions - space, time, and physical objects - such as DNA, chromosomes, and organisms. What remains is universal Darwinism, which we can employ even after we jettison spacetime and objects. (¶16-¶17)
Jettison spacetime and objects? To clarify them?
What’s left to clarify, once you eliminate all we are made out of and all we know?
Is it any wonder the impression of zero-gravity basketball bonked into my consciousness, never to leave.
Achieve better understanding by eliminating all that is? How would that work?
DH: “… how can we coax Darwin’s (the Darwinian) abstract algorithm to give a concrete answer? Fortunately, the theoretical biologist John Maynard Smith and George Price found a way in 1973 - the evolutionary game theory. The idea is best understood by example. … (¶18)
Hoffman gives an example of scorpions fighting, etc. Then he wonders about nature’s creatures ruthless fight to win, then Hoffman shares his confusion that other natural battles seemed to follow certain rules of engagement. Then comes more games,
DH: “We find an answer in a simple game in which players compete for resources, using one of two strategies: hawk or dove. Hawk always escalates a conflict. A dove backs down. (¶21)
This is a grotesques over-simplifications. What follows is fine and good, if you want to create a computer evolution game.
Occasionally it can be a tool to help wrap one’s head around bigger concepts - but always with a clear appreciation that the real world is nothing like our over-simplifications.
Hoffman claims science and “rigorous mathematical logic” - which it may be, but that’s an entirely different kind of science, one unconstrained by the reality of our natural world, the way our natural sciences are.
I’m going to skip past the imaginary hawks and doves and binary evolution computer games.
DH: “All of this can be studied with the theory of evolutionary games. It is a powerful theory. It has the right tools to study our question: Does natural selection favor viridian perceptions?
It gives a clear answer: no.
This is spelled out in the Fitness-Beats-Truth (FBT) Theorem, which I conjectured and Chetan Prakash proved. Consider two sensory strategies, each capable of N distinct perceptions in an objective reality having N states: Truth see the structure of objective reality best as possible; Fitness sees none of objective reality, but is tuned to the relevant fitness payoffs - payoffs that depend on objective reality, but also on the organism, its state, and its action.” (¶33)
FBT Theorem: Fitness drives Truth to extinction with probability at least (N-3)/(N-1). … Here’s what it means. Consider an eye with ten photoreceptors, each having two states . . . “ (¶34)
DH: “The FBT Theorem has been tested and confirmed in many simulations. They reveal that Truth often goes extinct even if fitness is far less complex.” (¶36)
But, don’t forget, this is Hoffman’s definition of “Truth” - fact remains - in the day to day reality of the lives of creatures within Earth’s biosphere, truth is a meaningless human concept.
DH: “If Fitness forages for stuff and sees a patch of black, then it knows it is safe to a to approach. If it see a patch of gray then, then it knows to stay away. But Truth has a problem. If Truth sees a patch of black, it doesn’t know whether it is safe or not. It has a the same problem if it sees a patch of gray. So Truth, unlike Fitness, must risk its life to forage. The truth won’t make you free, it will make you extinct.” (¶39)
Can’t argue with that. So long as you keep it within a four square game.
The problem comes in when we try to transfer his mathematically logical conclusions to grand declarations concerning the actual evolution that unfolded upon this complex planet.
I bet every bit of Hoffman’s logical mathematical theorems is rigorous and tested to perfection, but does that make them applicable to the real world? Especially when he takes control of all the parameters?
Hoffman’s theorem has no physical touchstone to reign it in the way the natural sciences do. They are creatures of his mindscape.
In fact, it almost seems like Hoffman has altogether dispensed with the need for the physical touchstones that the rest of science depends on.
How else should I interpret what he tells us about physical reality not being there?
DH: “(The Fitness-Beats-Truth (FBT) Theorem) … It’s not simply that this or that perception is wrong. It’s that none of our perceptions, being couched in this language, could possibly be right. The FBT Theorem runs counter to strong intuitions of experts and (laypersons). … (¶44)
DH: “… Still recognizable, after the bath in Darwin’s acid, are the landmarks of universal Darwinism: variation, selection, and heredity. But gone from objective reality are physical objects in spacetime, including those central to biology: DNA, RNA, chromosomes, organisms, and resources.
This doesn’t entail solipsism. Something is there in objective reality, and we humans experience its import from our fitness in terms of DNA, RNA, chromosomes, organisms, or resources.
But FBT Theorem tells us that, whatever that something is, it’s most surely not DNA, RNA, chromosomes, organisms, or resources. It tells us that there is good reason to believe that the things that we perceive, such as DNA and RNA, do exist independent of our minds.
the reason is that the structures of fitness payoffs, which shape what we perceive, differ from the structures of objective reality with high probability. Again, this is no support of solipsism: there is an objective reality. But that reality is utterly unlike our perceptions of objects in space and time.” (¶46)
Read that paragraph a few times. How does it help inform our actual day to day interactions? Reading the words and trying to follow through on their implications makes my mind spin.
DH: “Such conclusions may seem absurd. …
I’ll give him that.
Surely, it’s due to an error of logic. We just need to spot the error.
Perhaps the error lurks in simplifying assumptions of evolutionary games. … (¶47)
That’s a good start. But, does he listen?
Then, we’re off to the races with a few paragraphs playing devil’s advocate and finding further anecdotes for his correctness, but we can skip that.
DH: “… These simulations do not constitute a proof. But they suggest that the extinction of Truth in evolutionary games cannot be pinned on faulty assumptions. Instead, Truth goes extinct because it hunts reality rather than fitness, like a chess player who hunts rooks rather than the king. (¶54)
Evolution can not be dumbed down to a board game!
Perhaps he’s looking at the problem from the wrong direction?
DH: “… For the theorem to be of value, it cannot require a specific model of objective reality, but instead must be true in general. For this reason, the FBT Theorem assumes only that reality, whatever it is, has a set of states. …: (¶58)
Well, that’s nice to know. The upshot? They get to tweak the parameters of their reality to help the theorem’s results conform to expectations.
Natural sciences, constructive serious science, doesn’t have that luxury.
DH: “The FBT Theorem asserts that if reality outside the observer has any structure beyond probability, then natural selection will shape perception to ignore it. The theorem makes no assumptions about the states of reality beyond the claim that we can discuss their probabilities. …” (¶57)
Notice, these logical theorems are all about making assumptions and over-simplifications and plugging them into a computer and playing what-if.
DH: “… (FBT) allows us to guess, based on principles of probability, how many creatures will revolve to see reality as it is. The key insight of the theorem is simple: the probability that fitness payoffs reflect any structure in the world plummets to zero as the complexity of the world and perception soars. …” (¶63)
Ditto. Then the computer overloads and crashes.
DH: “… But protean payoffs effort Truth no purchase. Truth, no less than Fitness, must track the volatile sequence of fitness payoffs. At each step in this sequence, the FBT Theorem reveals, Truth is less fit - a negative amortization that hastens its ruin.” (¶66)
DH: “… But this is no problem for the argument here. The question is not how much evolutionary change is due to natural selection, but rather about the direction of natural selection itself. … (¶70)
DH: “What the FBT Theorem reveals is that natural selection, however major or minor a force it may be, does not shape our perceptions to be veridical. …” (¶74)
DH: “If philosopher Jonathan Cohen is right, then the FBT Theorem has made a fundamental error at the very start. It does not tell us, up front, what the contents of perpetual experiences are - what our experience say about the world. So the theorem cannot possibly tell us whether our perceptual experiences are veridical. The theorem was a fool’s errand from the start.
Fortunately, for the FBT Theorem, there’s no problem here. …” (¶78)
DH: “This is the power of logic, and of mathematics more generally. It allows us to evaluate the truth of falsity of large classes of statements simply in virtue of the logical or formal structure. Mathematicians prove theorems about functions and other structures on sets, without ever answering the question “Set of what?” They don’t care. It doesn’t matter. … FBT needs no prior theory of perceptual content.” (¶80)
That touches on my problem with the authority Hoffman imbues his theorem with. FBT is a logical construction. No physical reality touchstone anywhere, beyond conceptions - as defined and molded by Hoffman and other philosophers.
Hoffman’s final paragraph to this chapter starts out,
DH: “When the universal acid of Darwin’s dangerous idea is poured onto our perceptions, it dissolves the objectivity of physical objects, which we assumed exist and interact even when no one looks. Then this acid dissolves the objectivity of spacetime itself, the very framework within which Darwinian evolution has been assumed to take place.
This requires us to devise a more fundamental framework - without space, time, and physical objects - for understanding reality. …” (¶85)
As I’ve mentioned before Hoffman is an excellent storyteller and I bet the challenge of doing away with spacetime and objects using rigorous math must be great competitive fun.
But, what’s it have to do with our lives? You know, regular people eating those tomatoes and jumping out of the way of those speeding Maseratis, living out our day by days?
From my perspective, I hear Hoffman trying to convince me that if I truly want to appreciate a piece of art, I must first disappear the paint and the canvas, before I can get down to the true essence of the painting.
When I try following the implications of Hoffman’s trains of thought, I’m left dizzy with cognitive dissonance because I’ve spent much of my life within natural landscapes, many outdoor jobs, always looking around, soaking it in.
I have learned there are many layers of reality that are out here, layers that have nothing to do with me and that I don't pay any attention to most the time. But I respect and appreciate that there are those countless communities living their own day to days all around me, all the time.
That's my big problem, I don't comprehend how all that could exist within Hoffman's world.
In the next chapter, Illusory, Hoffman introduces us to his, Interface Theory of Perception, and takes the notion of “interface” to an entire new level.
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
©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