The Case Against "The Case Against Reality"

The Case Against Reality

When a friend (thanks Fred!) lent me a copy of Donald Hoffman's The Case Against Reality:  Why Evolution Hid the Truth from our Eyes, it was number five or six on the list of books I was planning to read.  However, glancing at the preface, my curiosity got the better of me, it jumped the queue and I started reading.  I had already heard the broad outlines of Hoffman's argument that what we call "reality" is a holograph filled with icons like the ones on the desktop of a computer.  I couldn't imagine that I would ever accept Hoffman's conclusions but reading, like life, is about the journey not the destination.


Analytic Philosophy

Much of my undergraduate education was in analytic philosophy, meaning I was schooled to pay particular attention to the terms Hoffman used in constructing his argument. Immediately, my skepticism was aroused by his use of the words "truth" and "true."  (I have already written on the concept of "truth":  see Does Knowledge Require Truth?)  Hoffman challenges the notion that our perceptions are "true," but I'm uncertain what the expression "true perception" means.  (I'm equally uncertain about what "true love" really means.  In fact, it seems to me every time I have heard the expression "true love" being used, the speaker was being sarcastic.)  Presumably, Hoffman is invoking the correspondence theory of truth; i.e., that something is true because it corresponds to reality.  

The Definition of "Truth"

Tracing Hoffman's argument, I noted that "truth" eventually became "veridical perception."  "Veridical" means "corresponds to reality" or in more common language "truthful."  By the time I reached page 65, I was ready to pack it in because Hoffman was either using a version of "truth" that no-one believed ("corresponds to reality") or he was using a maybe-half-full-maybe-half-empty definition of "truth" ("truthful").  However, Hoffman saw me coming, and on page 67, he tells us:
Consider three notions of veridical perception.  The strongest is “omniscient realism”—we see reality as it is.  Next is “naive realism”—we see some, but not all, of reality as it is.  The weakest is “critical realism”—the structure of our perceptions preserves some of the structure of reality.  If the FBT Theorem targeted omniscient or naive realism, then we could indeed dismiss its conclusions—no one (save lunatics and solipsists) claim omniscience, and few espouse naive realism.  But the theorem targets critical realism, which is the weakest, and most widely accepted, notion of veridical observation in the science of perception and in science more broadly.  The FBT Theorem does not torch a straw man.  (67)
Consequently, in reviewing Hoffman's argument, we must keep in mind that "truth" = "veridical perception" = "critical realism."  Can Hoffman maintain the coherence of his theories when "truth" only means that our perceptions "preserve some of the structure of reality"?

Fitness Beats Truth in Human Evolution

Hoffman's premise "the FBT Theorem," confirmed through game theory, is that "Fitness Beats Truth."  The theory is a counter-argument to the claim that as the species has evolved we have become better at perceiving reality (or, "the truth").   FBT argues that we evolve by taking advantage of "fitness payoffs."  Our perceptions direct us toward what is useful, desirable, helpful, beneficial; not what is real and true.  Much of the book is comprised of fascinating experiments and examples of how our perceptions (in particular visual perception) construct reality rather than apprehend reality.

Perception Versus Objective Reality

There is nothing new in the claims that we do not perceive objective reality or the "thing-in-itself" (in my day, we always used the German "Ding an sich" to preserve the expression's Kantian origins). For decades, I hammered away at students telling them that the tree falling in the desert didn't make a sound, that colours only existed in human brains, not on walls, that the reason we can watch movies is that our visual processing is slow and twenty-one frames per second looks like continuous action to us,  that with perfect perception, walking into a room,  we would perceive nothing identifiable, no chairs or people or walls, just infinite clumps of molecules and atoms, that they had never perceived what they thought they knew best, themselves, because they had never seen their own bodies in entirety or heard the distinct sound of their own voices.  What is distinctive about Hoffman's claims is the degree of disconnection and separation he proposes between objective reality and perception.

What Works Isn't Necessarily True

Ptomaine might have been absolutely wrong in his vision of the universe with the Earth holding steady at its centre but, as I lectured my students, that mistaken vision still worked to allow accurate calendars and navigation at sea.  Reading Hoffman, I was more than willing to accept that our perceptions could be useful without being accurate or truthful.  However, was it possible to make decisions or even claims about "fitness" when our perceptions were so far removed from any trace of objective reality?

Dialectics, Binary Thinking and Formal Logic

Once again, Hoffman anticipated my skepticism.  I have to say, this feature, its dialectics, (the sense of debate echoing Plato's Socratic dialogues) made the book compelling reading for me.  Hoffman invokes "formal logic" as follows:

  • "Suppose I tell you that p is some particular claim and q is some particular claim, but I refuse to tell you what either claim is."
  • "Then suppose I make the further claim, 'p is true or q is true'."
  • Then suppose the "claim, 'if either p is true or q is true then it follows that p is true'. You know that this claim is false, even though you don't know the contents of p or q." (72)

Hoffman is invoking binary logic here, and I happen to be a fan of binary thinking.  (See Binary Thinking Versus the Other Kind.)  However, 'either p is true or q is true' depends on the fact that p and q are mutually exclusive and never overlap.  Lest we lose track of the underlying terms, fitness ("fitness payoffs") and truth ("critical realism") have not been proven to be mutually exclusive categories; in fact, there is good reason to imagine significant overlap between the two.  In other words, sometimes the connection between our perceptions and some aspect of objective reality produces "fitness payoffs."  To be clear, what Hoffman is trying to argue here is that if he can show we evolve through fitness payoffs then he has proven that we do not see "the truth."   My counter-argument is that this logic only works if "fitness payoffs" and "critical realism" are mutually exclusive; that is, only one can be true, but it is equally reasonable to conclude that both p and q are true, and fitness payoffs sometimes involve seeing objective reality as it is.

What We Call "Reality" Is Like the Icons on a Computer Desktop

The next step in Hoffman's theorizing is what he calls ITP, "the interface theory of perception" (76, italics in original).  Hoffman's key metaphor is that what we perceive as "reality" is analogous to the blue file icon on the desktop of a computer.  Our perception is of "the interface--pixels and icons--[and] cannot describe the hardware and software it hides" (76).  Our interactions with the interface are helpful and useful, but they do not tell us anything about reality, about the computer's software or wiring.

Quantum Theory:  Consciousness Creates Reality

Hoffman is heading toward the conclusion that has become increasingly popular among sub-atomic physicists and quantum-theory wonks that consciousness produces reality rather than the other way around.  Citing physicist John Bell's experiments in the 1960s which are reported to prove that "an electron has no spin when no none looks" (54), and the broader claim that "no property, such as position or spin, has a definite value that is independent of how it is measured" (98), Hoffman reports the conclusion that "Quantum theory explains that measurements reveal no objective truths, just consequences for agents of their actions" (100).   In short, perception determines measurement.  Hoffman goes all the way in his hypothesis that consciousness creates reality, which he dubs "conscious realism" (184, italics in original).

According to "conscious realism," the interface which we typically call reality is "instantiated" by a network of conscious agents.  Conscious agents can start out as "two-bit" things, but "a realm of conscious agents [can] interact and instantiate higher agents" (192).

Science Has Failed to Explain Consciousness

Arguments privileging consciousness, including Hoffman's, seem, invariably, to point out the failure of science to explain consciousness.  Personally, I don't draw any particular conclusion from this "failure." Medical science, as Bill Bryson points out in The Body, has yet to explain asthma, along with hundreds of other medical and scientific phenomena.  The mind-over-matter cohort consistently disparages the claim that consciousness is an "emerging property" of physical properties of the brain.  Although we can now observe what goes on in the brain during perception and can even manipulate the brain to cause certain perceptions, the claim remains that we fail to explain how perception happens.  Since I am still mystified by the "emerging property" called fire, I am perhaps too at-ease accepting that consciousness is a similar "emerging property."  But I have to say, Hoffman's instantiated "higher agents" sound a lot like "emerging properties" to me.

What Is Knowable When Perception Has No Connection to Objective Reality?

The concluding chapters of The Case Against Reality, when Hoffman's prose becomes proselytizing and purple, are the least convincing and compelling.  For example, Hoffman writes: "We can, despite this poverty of translation, see a friend's smile and share their joy--because we are insiders, we know first hand what transpires behind the scene when a face fashions a genuine smile" (186).  Since any object before me, according to Hoffman, ceases to exist when I close my eyes, since even my own body is an icon which must cease to exist when I am not sensing it, how can I possibly conclude that my friend, my friend's smile or my friend's joy exist or that they are accessible to me in any "veridical" sense?

How Is the Holograph We Call "Reality" Created?

Of course, the big question is: if the world we perceive is a holograph, a series of computer-generated icons, who is making all this happen.  Hoffman does not dismiss the possibility that we are living in some alien kid's video game.  Hoffman is obviously a big fan of the film The Matrix.  Ultimately, he does get to the big Creator question:  "The idea of an infinite conscious agent sounds much like the religious notion of God, with the crucial difference that an infinite conscious agent admits precise mathematical description" (209).

Parallels with Descartes Meditations

Throughout my reading of The Case Against Reality, the parallels with Descartes Meditations seemed obvious.  Descartes gave himself the project of thinking that the world as he perceived it did not exist.  He even allowed that an evil demon was deliberately confusing his perceptions.  Descartes concluded that his only certainty, in the first place, was that the "I" doing the thinking must exist: Cogito ergo sum, "I think therefore I am."  From this premise, he concluded that God must also exist.  As outlined in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

Descartes often compares the ontological argument to a geometric demonstration, arguing that necessary existence cannot be excluded from the idea of God anymore than the fact that its angles equal two right angles, for example, can be excluded from the idea of a triangle. The analogy underscores once again the argument’s supreme simplicity. God’s existence is purported to be as obvious and self-evident as the most basic mathematical truth.

Philosophy of Mind

The absence of any mention of Descartes in The Case Against Reality is a strange lacuna.  The problems of Hoffman's argument are similar to those Descartes faced almost 500 years ago.  The philosophy of mind permits three possibilities in the relationship between consciousness (what is mental) and the world (what is matter):  idealism (everything is mental), dualism (mind and matter both exist), materialism (everything is matter).  Each comes with its own particular problems but the challenge of dualism, in particular, is to explain how matter creates non-matter or vice versa or how the two co-exist.

The Problem from which There Is No Escape

Hoffman declares "conscious realism" as a form of "monism" which implies that everything is mental.  If the world is entirely mental how is the appearance of a physical world created?  Materialism may have a problem of how matter creates consciousness, but reversing the order, having consciousness create matter doesn't really solve the problem.  Hoffman acknowledges that an objective reality exists, but he is left with the problem of how that objective reality is created, how conscious agents create the appearance of matter in a matter-less world.

Comments

  1. I was contemplating reading this book but your description/analysis convinced me that it wasn't really necessary... so thanks!

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