Before I get down to the main business of this blog post, something that would be really appreciated by me would be for you to head over to Medium.com and check out the first article I’ve written for the Better Humans publication. It’s about the infamous obituary exercise that changed my life. If you’re a member of Medium, and you like the article, claps/follows/shares gratefully received!
And fyi, I will always write about things here on my personal blog before I share them with the Medium community, so this is still your best place to keep up with my current thoughts/obsessions.
Now, on to the blog post…
If you want your mind well and truly blown, check out the work of Don Hoffman. He believes – and has mathematical evidence to support his belief – that absolutely nothing we see is what we think it is. In fact, space and time don’t even exist. Yikes!
(TED Talk, his book: The Case Against Reality: How Evolution Hid The Truth From Our Eyes, interview on the After On podcast with Rob Reid)
“The problem is not that our perceptions are wrong about this or that detail. It’s that the very language of objects in space and time is simply the wrong language to describe objective reality.”
Before you dismiss him as completely bonkers, give me a moment while I explain more about why I’m open to his point of view.
I’ve written about reality before, and why it might not be as real as we think it is – for example:
On Existence (12th September 2019)
Narratives, Neuroscience, and No Money (4th January 2018) – featuring reviews of Deviate, by Beau Lotto, and Liminal Thinking, by Dave Gray, both on reality
So I was already at the place where I understand three factors that are relevant here:
First, that our brain sits inside the black box of our skull, receiving input from its “peripherals” – sense organs like eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and nerve endings – and it does its best to piece together the world from that information. The brain does not experience reality directly. What it creates is a mental map that enables us to function in the world, but the map is not the territory.
Second, I also already understood (from Liminal Thinking) that the brain is not a neutral recipient of this input data. It has been primed by past experiences to expect the world to function in a particular way. So if the person has had negative experiences – anything from trauma to abuse or even just a specific food making them sick – they will be hyper-vigilant to anything that could be a potential threat in that regard. When we “see” something, the brain is actually drawing heavily on memory to help us interpret what we are “seeing”, so our present is inevitably coloured by our past.
Third, the brain uses a lot of energy. Thinking is, quite literally, hard work, especially when it is what Daniel Kahneman calls “System 2 thinking”. System 1 is our fast, intuitive, emotional thinking, while System 2 is much slower, more cognitive and effortful. You can almost feel whether you’re using System 1 or System 2 – with System 2 you probably stop everything else that you are doing to focus on it, you engage your brain, your brow might furrow, and you kind of turn inward to concentrate. Imagine the difference between calculating 2+2, and calculating 27×33. You can do both in your head, but unless you’re Rain Man, 27×33 will take a lot more effort. So the brain relies heavily on heuristics, or shortcuts, to save on energy. It leaps to the easiest available conclusion.
So that’s what I already knew and agreed with.
But to claim, as Hoffman does, that “Perception is not a window on objective reality. It is an interface that hides objective reality behind a veil of helpful icons” – this was a whole new realm.
He is drawing an analogy with icons on a computer screen. When we stop to think about it, we know that a folder is not a blue rectangle in the top right of our screen. It is not blue, it is not rectangular, and it is not located in the top right. It is a series of 1s and 0s in the circuits of the computer. But if we actually saw the series of 1s and 0s, it wouldn’t be very useful to us. We need a graphical representation of the folder that allows us to open it, move it, or delete it.
Hoffman is saying that our perceived reality is like this: a useful user interface that enables us to interact with reality to do the things we need to do, but it should not be mistaken for reality itself. He calls this the ITP, or Interface Theory of Perception.
To back up this claim, he points to evolutionary biology, which has given rise to his Fitness Beats Truth (FBT) theorem. They have modelled this mathematically, and fitness (meaning the model of reality that enables the organism to “fit in” to its environment) beats truth (meaning an accurate model of reality) every single time. For most of the history of science, we had assumed that an accurate model of reality would obviously be the best one. But apparently not so. As Hoffman pithily puts it: “The truth won’t make you free, it will make you extinct.”
Hoffman’s mission was inspired by the as-yet unresolved “hard problem” of consciousness – science’s quest to explain how a big bunch of molecules like, say, a human, has a subjective experience of its own existence. It’s all very well for Descartes to say, “I think, therefore I am”, but it’s a bit glib, and doesn’t really answer the question. You are, but how are you? What are you? Despite all our huge leaps forward in understanding the world, we still have no idea what makes a thing alive, and conscious of the fact that it is alive.
It is this abject failure to answer this question, or even get close, that made Hoffman suspect that we were buying into the wrong model of reality.
“What false assumption bedevils our efforts to unravel the relation between brain and consciousness? I propose it is this: we see reality as it is… I don’t try to solve the mystery of consciousness. But I do try, in the coming chapters, to dethrone a belief that hinders a solution.”
And he does indeed proceed to inflict great violence on our intuitive perceptions of reality. For example, “ITP makes bold and testable predictions. It predicts that spoons and stars—all objects in space and time—do not exist when unperceived or unobserved.” And it all gets increasingly quantum from there on in.
He isn’t saying that “reality” exists only in our heads:
“There is a world that exists even if I don’t look: solipsism is false. But my perceptions, like observations in quantum theory, don’t disclose that world. They counsel me—imperfectly, but well enough—how to act to be fit. Quantum theory and evolutionary biology, so interpreted, together weave a remarkably consistent story. Quantum theory explains that measurements reveal no objective truths, just consequences for agents of their actions. Evolution tells us why—natural selection shapes the senses to reveal fitness consequences for agents of their actions.”
The implications are startling. As science delves further and further into the tiny realms, was string theory already a thing, or did scientists “create” that domain by looking for it? In the huge realms, are we simply measuring far-flung galaxies, or are we in some way intervening in their existence? As to time:
“At least one physicist has argued that the universe has no history apart from observers, that ‘histories of the universe … depend on what is being observed, contrary to the usual idea that the universe has a unique, observer independent history.’ That physicist was Stephen Hawking.”
… and I hear he knew a thing or two.
I haven’t finished the book yet – I was talking earlier about the brain being energy-hungry, and although Hoffman’s writing is very accessible to the layperson, I still need to lie down in a darkened room for a while after each chapter – but it seems to be leading to some kind of world in which consciousness is the ground out of which all else, including space, time, and the entire universe, arises, rather than the other way around.
If that sounds a bit woo-woo and spiritual to you, maybe it is, but be wary of dismissing it purely for that reason. I haven’t been able to source this quote, but apparently a wise scientist once said words to the effect of:
“We think science is achieving so much, but constantly scientists get to a peak only to find a band of ragged monks already sitting there”.
Hope you enjoy my article on Medium.com!