Showing posts with label truth. Show all posts
Showing posts with label truth. Show all posts

Tuesday, 15 September 2020

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.

Tuesday, 16 October 2018

"Beauty is truth, truth beauty." What's Not to Understand?

Writers and Company

Listening to Anne Carson and Eleanor Wachtel on Writers & Company discussing Keats's famous aphorism, "Beauty is truth, truth beauty," I was taken aback to hear both women reveal how little they appreciated what it might mean.

Wachtel: And you quote a passage from Keats before each tango or section, and it was Keats of course who wrote famously, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.” How does beauty speak of truth?

Carson: I don’t think it does. I think that’s all a big mistake, but there’s so much power in believing it, and so many of the decisions of life, especially early life—with the adolescent emotions—identify those two, and think that the person who’s beautiful is also true and the feelings that come from beauty lead you to truth. I don’t believe it works out usually.

What's not to understand?

Wachtel and Carson are, of course, two of the most well-read, articulate people on the planet.  Nonetheless, this was an expression I typically taught to first-year undergrads in "Introduction to Literature"  and I struggled to understand how Carson/Wachtel's exchange could go so far astray from Keats's meaning.

Opposition to "beauty is truth"

As I re-researched the expression, I came across quite a phalanx of opposition to Keats, including T.S Eliot's claim that the lines were "meaningless" and "a serious blemish on a beautiful poem." (This from the poet who left us wondering what tahell does "Between the motion/And the act/Falls the Shadow" mean?)

What does "Beauty is truth, truth beauty" mean?

So, what does "Beauty is truth, truth beauty" mean? Beneath this aphorism is the unspoken, sub-textual question, "What is truth?" The search for an answer has gone on for as long as Sapiens have had the wherewithal to ask questions and no agreed-upon, final answer has ever been reached. The knee-jerk response to the question is the "correspondence theory." Something is true if it corresponds to reality. The problem is that there is no agreement on what constitutes "reality." We are left with the coherence theory. Something is true because it is coherent with what we already know. (For further elaboration see Does Knowledge Require Truth?) Descriptions of this theory tend to reduce it to statements which are coherent in relation to other statements; however, I adhere to an expanded notion of coherence which subsumes correspondence. For example: "John loves Mary." This statement is true if it is coherent with other statements (like John saying so) but also if it is coherent with how John behaves (he sacrifices himself for Mary's benefit, etc).

The Truth about truth

What is coherent today isn't necessarily coherent tomorrow. Truth, like beauty, is temporal, temporary, even ephemeral. We only judge as true (or false) those things that have meaning. We judge as true whatever fits with what we know. Our knowledge of truth is always limited and fragile. When we see something that has a meaning, and that meaning connects coherently with other meanings, we see it as true. We will also see it as beautiful. In this moment, beauty and truth are one, just as Keats concluded.

"Ode on a Grecian Urn"

The line is a conclusion in Keat's poem, Ode on a Grecian Urn. (Once upon a time, every junior high-school student was expected to know this poem.  Hence, the pubescent joke/pun:  Q: "What's a Greek urn?"  A: "About a buck, fifty an hour.")  

If you read the poem, about the urn's telling of an ancient story of love, faith, and art, against the idea of coherent truth, you will discover the logic of Keats's claim that, given our limitations, beauty is a good--maybe even the best--way to judge truth.


If you've read this far and are still not getting it.  Here's the argument in the form of a straightforward syllogism.  Bearing in mind that we are talking about things that have meaning:

1. We judge as beautiful those things that fit together.

2. We judge as true those things that fit together.

3. What is beautiful is true, and vice versa.


Among the opponents of "beauty is truth" we must now include the theoretical physicist Sabine Hossenfelder.  See, for example, "Physics Isn't Pretty."

Saturday, 5 November 2016

Does Knowledge Require Truth?

The absolute truth

I spent a career telling university students that if they encountered someone who claimed to know “The Truth,” they should run in the opposite direction because what would follow was bound to be religious dogma or a schizophrenic rant based on an encounter with God—the kind of truth that could not be checked or verified or even questioned. The notion of absolute truth disappeared after Nietzsche announced that “God is dead” in 1882 and Einstein followed up with a “theory of relativity” in 1905.  Marx’s claim that “religion was the opiate of the people” made it plain, at least for we egg heads who occupied the universities, that the Twentieth Century was going to have to get by without “The Truth.”

The tree of knowledge

The problem I faced as a professor was that my job was to be the serpent in the garden, encouraging young people to take a bite out of the apple from the tree of knowledge (no, not that kind of Biblical, carnal knowledge, just ordinary knowing things).  How could I claim to be passing on knowledge without at the same time claiming that what I was teaching was true?  Luckily, for me, I taught literature which had already been described as “The lies which tell the truth.”  This paradox allowed me to evade the issue of “The Truth” and even “the truth,” but the question still dogged me.

The correspondence theory of truth

Every five-year-old knows the difference between the truth and a lie, but once you’ve got a university degree under your belt, chances are you’re not so sure anymore.  The five-year-old knows that if Mom asks “did you eat the cookie?” and you’ve still got crumbs falling from your lips, the truth is “yes, I did” and the lie is everything else . . . Martians, the imaginary friend, the dog and plain old “nope.”  This is known as the correspondence theory of truth, and it is the default theory, which means if you have never thought of this question before this is what you think.  A statement is true if it corresponds to “reality.”  Did I mention that right after Nietzsche killed God, Einstein killed reality? 

Relativity, skepticism and the absence of truth

The reason the correspondence theory of truth doesn’t really work is that for the last hundred years or so, since Einstein said “E=Mc2,” and physicists admitted they really don’t know what “matter” is, we’ve all been pretty uncertain about what is and isn’t reality.   Actually, for as long as human beings have been able to record their thoughts on the question, we have been uncertain about the nature of reality.  The Greek philosopher Pyrrho took his skepticism and disbelief in reality so far that, we are told, his disciples had to go before him moving objects out of his way so that he wouldn’t walk into them. Nowadays our disbelief in reality isn’t so much of the walking-into-walls variety, but our certainty that we are uncertain has become widespread.  The problem is that this uncertainty gets translated into a vague belief that there is no truth or the idea that truth really doesn’t matter anymore.  Truth, in the postmodern era, is the baby that has gotten thrown out with the bathwater.

Coherent truth

However, in the absence of absolute, God’s honest truth, and corresponds-to-reality truth, what is left to us is an imperfect form of truth known as “coherent truth.”  Something is true because it is coherent in relation to something else that is true because it is coherent in relation to something else that is true and so on.  Truth prevails as long as there is no break in the chain, no spot where something believed true upon which other truths depend is proven false, then the chain of truth must be reconstructed.  More frequently, as we follow the trail of coherent truths we arrive at a moment where we have to shrug and admit that we just don’t know.  This moment and gesture (the shrug) are known in rhetoric as “an aporia.” 

Truth only applies when there is meaning

Why would I accept such a seemingly weak form of truth?  In the first place, there is a limited category of things which we can call true or false.  Wandering in the forest, you would never stop before a tree and declare “this tree is true!”  Entering a room you would never find yourself saying “this chair is true.”  We only apply the question of truth to things which have a meaning.  Only when there is a meaning can we say that something is true or false.  It is impossible to say that something is incoherent yet true.  

Heuristic truth

In fact, there is a form of truth, that some people would consider an even weaker form of truth, which I accept.  I accept it as the only kind of truth that is available to us. It is called “heuristic truth.”  “Heuristic” is a tricky, and even dangerous, word.  It derives from the Greek for “find” or “discover.”  Heuristic truth is the kind of truth we discover through trial and error, though dialogue, though logic, through deductive and inductive reasoning, from experience and evidence and examples, because, in the simplest of terms, it makes sense; it is coherent.
If you google the word “heuristic” you will find definitions like “temporary” or “a short cut” to the truth.  Maybe, but human life and the history of our species are temporary relative to the time frame of our universe.  “Short cuts” are all we have time for.

Heuristic pedagogy

Heuristics is also a form of pedagogy.  It is how we learn, not just in the classroom but in life.  We keep adding new information, and adjusting what we believe to be true.  The only test available to us is that we keep trying to put it all together and if the result is coherent, it is the truth so far.

The Acropolis: Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Plato and Aristotle

This is a picture of me standing on the Acropolis,  a few weeks ago, looking down on the theatre where the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides were first presented.  Here in Athens, this is where truth was first invented by Socrates and Plato and Aristotle.

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