from BigThink Website
Cognitive psychologist Donald Hoffman
hypothesizes we evolved to experience
a collective delusion - not objective reality...
For many the answer is simple:
Your skin feels warm on a summer day because the sun exists. That apple you just tasted sweet and that left juices on your fingers, it must have existed.
Our senses tell us that reality is there, and we use reason to fill in the blanks - that is, we know the sun doesn't cease to exist at night even if we can't see it.
But cognitive psychologist Donald Hoffman says,
In fact, he argues that evolution has cloaked us in a perceptional virtual reality. For our 'own good'...
Experiencing a virtual interface
The idea that we can't perceive objective reality in totality isn't new.
We know everyone comes installed with cognitive biases and ego defense mechanisms. Our senses can be tricked by mirages and magicians.
But Hoffman's hypothesis, which he wrote about in a recent issue of New Scientist, takes it a step further.
He argues our perceptions don't contain the slightest approximation of reality; rather, they evolved to feed us a collective delusion to improve our fitness.
Using evolutionary game theory, Hoffman and his collaborators created computer simulations to observe how "truth strategies" (which see objective reality as is) compared with "pay-off strategies" (which focus on survival value).
The simulations put organisms in an environment with a resource necessary to survival but only in Goldilocks proportions.
Truth-strategy organisms who see the water level on a color scale - from red for low to green for high - see the reality of the water level.
However, they don't know whether the water level is high enough to kill them. Pay-off-strategy organisms, conversely, simply see red when water levels would kill them and green for levels that won't.
They are better equipped to survive.
Since humans aren't extinct, the simulation suggests we see an approximation of reality that shows us what we need to see, not how things really are.
Donald Hoffman says that
we we perceive of as reality is an
interface of symbols hiding
vastly more complex interactions.
He likens this to how
desktop icons represent software.
Hoffman likens this approximation to a desktop interface.
If writers had to manipulate binary to write a novel, or hunter-gatherers had to perceive physics to throw a spear, chances are both would have gone extinct a long time ago.
Consciousness all the way down
At this point, you are likely wondering,
For Hoffman the answer is consciousness...
When neuroscientists and philosophers develop theories of consciousness, they traditionally look at the brain.
If Hoffman is correct, they can't completely understand consciousness via brain activity, because they are looking at an icon of a material organ that exists in space and time. Not reality...
Hoffman wants to start with a mathematical theory of consciousness as a baseline - looking at consciousness outside of matter and the space-time it may not inhabit.
His theory further calls for a potentially infinite interaction of conscious agents, from the simple to the complex.
In this formulation, consciousness may even exist beyond the organic world, all the way down to electrons and protons.
Hoffman calls this view "conscious realism."
If proven correct, he argues it could make headway on such intractable quandaries like the mind-body problem, the odd nature of the quantum world, and the much sought-after "theory of everything."
Simulation tested, science approved?
Hoffman's hypothesis is fascinating, and if you need a subject for a bar-side bull session, you could do worse.
But before anybody suffers an existential meltdown, it's worth noting that the hypothesis is just that:
It has a way to go before overturning the hypothesis that the brain manifests consciousness, and its detractors have thrown down a few gauntlets.
One such critique argues that while we may not perceive reality as it is that doesn't mean our perception is not reasonably accurate.
Hoffman would argue we see an icon that represents a snake, not a snake.
Another concern is a chicken-and-egg problem, as Robert Wright pointed out in their discussion.
Current orthodoxy argues the universe existed for billions of years before life emerged. This means the first living organisms began their evolutionary tracks by responding to a preexistent inorganic, unconscious environment.
If Hoffman's argument is correct and consciousness is primary, then,
The network of consciousnesses, one assumes, got along without life for billions of years.
Then there's the issue of whether Hoffman's hypothesis is self-defeating.
If our perceptions of reality are merely species-specific interfaces overlaid upon reality,
Maybe the "I" of everyday experience is a useful fantasy adapted to benefit the survival and reproduction of the gene and not part of the operating system of reality.
None of this is to say that Hoffman and others can't meet these challenges with further research.
We'll see... It's just to say that there's a lot of room for exploration into some fascinating ideas.
As Hoffman would agree: