If Our Senses Lie, Who Knows What’s True?

Can We Recognize Reality, and Would it Help? 

If you tend to think of reality as a great hulking mass of moving parts where definable events happen among substantial and identifiable agents, you’re probably deluded. And from an evolutionary standpoint that might be just fine.

Donald D. Hoffman, a professor of cognitive science at the University of California at Irvine, has spent decade studying perception, artificial intelligence, evolutionary game theory and the brain, and has concluded that what we think we know is nothing at all like reality. Further, he and colleagues say evolution doesn’t necessarily favor perceptions that accurately describe the environment. The greatest evolutionary fitness for any creature may result from limited perceptions that are approximations of what the creature needs to know, these scientists suggest, not the whole truth about everything there.

Dr. Hoffman explored these ideas in a Quanta Magazine article by Amanda Gefter.

In the strange world of quantum physics, Gefter writes, “definite objects localized in space” don’t exist until we observe them. She quotes the late physicist John Wheeler: “Useful as it is under ordinary circumstances to say that the world exists ‘out there’ independent of us, that view can no longer be upheld.”   Gefter says Dr. Hoffman is at the boundary of physics and neuroscience, “attempting a mathematical model of the observer, tying to get at the reality behind the illusion.” Dr. Hoffman has experimented with mathematical models to test how well given evolutionary strategies serve the goals of survival and reproduction.

“An organism that sees reality as it is will never be more fit than an organism of equal complexity that sees none of reality but is just tuned to fitness,” he told Gefter. “Never.”

It’s a matter of adaptive behavior, he explains. A person who spends too much time contemplating what reality really is risks being eaten by a tiger. But it’s even more complex than that. According to physics, there are no public physical objects.  Dr. Hoffman thinks there is an external world of sorts and that each sentient being has its own perception of its experiences.  So you can have whole networks of arbitrary complexity and that’s the world, he says; objective reality is “just conscious agents, just points of view.”  He doesn’t think we are machines.  But he has come up with a mathematical model of consciousness. He explains:

I have a space X of experiences, a space G of actions and an algorithm D that lets me choose a new action given my experiences. Then I posit a W for a world, which is also a probability space. Somehow the world affects my perceptions, so there’s a perception map P from the world to my experience, and when I act I change the world, so there’s a map A from the space of actions to the world.   That’s the entire structure.  Six elements.

Dr. Hoffman does distinguish between mathematical representation and the things being represented.  So there is reality, and it’s first person.

“As a conscious realist, I am postulating conscious experience as ontological primitives, the most basic ingredient of the world.  I’m claiming experiences are the real coin of the realm. The experiences of everyday life—my real feeling of a headache, my real taste of chocolate—that really is the ultimate nature of reality.”  Read the Quanta article here.

With Thanks to Buck Lawrimore.

Prucia Buscell, longtime Plexus Catalyst, writer and editor, was formerly communications director at Plexus Institute and has written about complexity-inspired processes in health care, education and other fields.  She is a former newspaper reporter and a freelance writer and editor. Prucia is a frequent contributor to Complexity Matters. Subscribe to our newsletter or contact Prucia at prucia@gmail.com.

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Monday, May 16, 2016

What Complexity Term(s) Relate to this Article?

Chaotic Events

In this article extreme events in global weather systems can be further identified as Chaotic Eventsa term that describes events or situations that are radically unpredictable and uncontrollable (e.g. during a natural disaster). Spontaneity, resourcefulness, and improvisation are required, rather than standard operating procedure.