What You See Ain’t What You Get

Donald Hoffman’s book The Case Against Reality is nicely summed up by the subtitle: Why evolution hid the truth from our eyes.

That is, he argues that the world that we see (and the one we hear, smell, touch and taste) everyday is a kind of illusion. And not just a minor illusion but a major, systemic one. The kind of illusion you get in The Matrix, except far, far stranger.

In the movie The Matrix, after all, the Machines have built a virtual reality in which to house humanity’s minds while their bodies are used as batteries (yeah, what always sounds lame to me, too). But the virtual reality is basically identical to the reality of humanity’s past.

The world that we experience is much weirder, according to Hoffman, a cognitive psychologist, because it is not a simulation of reality but, rather, a fa├žade that bears little if any resemblance to the underlying reality of our universe.

Fitness Stomps Truth into Extinction

Here’s Hoffman’s argument in a nutshell: we have all been shaped by evolution to reproduce rather than see the truth of things.

That is, we were designed by nature to only sense what we need to sense in order to survive long enough to produce offspring. If nature needs to lie to us to get the job done, that’s just fine by nature.

“Our minds evolved by natural selection to solve problems that were life-and-death matters to our ancestors, not to commune with correctness,” sums up the cognitive scientist Stephen Pinker.

Hoffman takes that basic observation further by producing the Fitness-Beats-Truth Theorem, or FBT. Consider the following fable to understand his theorem better.

Frankie and Terry Wash Up on Evolution Island

Once upon a time, where were a couple of geckos happily sunning themselves on a log on the tropical beach. Suddenly, a huge rogue wave enveloped the beach and floated the poor geckos out to sea. Things looked grim for our heroes, whom we’ll call Fit Frankie and Truthful Terry.

But then the log floated up on what seemed to be an island, an exceedingly weird island where nothing was familiar. In fact, the whole place looked gray and black. I don’t mean that the trees, bugs, bushes and rocks were gray and black. I mean that there were no recognizable land formations at all. Just gray blobs and white blobs.

This freaked out both of our gecko sojourners but, hey, they were alive even if they had slipped into some bizarre gray-and-black pocket universe that we’ll call Evolution Island.

Aside from the colors, though, there was another strange thing about the island: it turns out there was something essential to life hidden amid the gray and black regions. Think of this essence as the “elixir of life.” If the geckos got enough of it, they could live on. If they didn’t get enough–or in fact got too much–they could die. (Note: this is kind of like oxygen is to us: not enough, we suffocate; too much, we get oxygen poisoning and kick the bucket.)

Sounds stressful, right? How were they supposed to know where the elixir was? And how could they know when they were getting too much or not enough of it?

Although they were both in a tough situation, it turns out that one of our gecko heroes had what sounds like an advantage. Truthful Terry saw things as they really were: that is, Terry saw gray when there was less elixir and black where there was more. Lucky Terry.

Fit Frankie, however, didn’t see Evolution Island as it really was. Instead, Frankie’s eyes somehow saw the black and gray shades differently. Frankie literally “saw” fitness (which Hoffman refers to as “fitness points”).

Here’s how it worked: in the places where Frankie could get just the right amount of elixir (that is, not too much, not too little), Frankie saw black. In the other places, Frankie saw gray.

Just to be clear here, what Frankie saw was an illusion. Terry saw the true world, while Frankie saw a kind of fiction.

But here’s the thing: it was a very useful fiction.

Frankie’s Descendants Take Over Evolution Island

In short order, Fit Frankie realized she was felt a lot better hanging out in the black zones and so consistently gravitated toward those parts of Evolution Island. Truthful Terry, on the other hand, saw the true colors of the island but had a harder time thriving, constantly trying to find the right balance between the gray and black zones so as to get just the right amounts of elixir. Terry saw truth while Frankie saw “fitness points.”

Over time, Fit Frankie thrived and had many children (being one of those parthenogenetic species of geckos). Truthful Terry, however, figured out how to survive but just barely, being sometimes sick from too much or too little elixir. Although she could see the world as it really was, she had few offspring, and the few that she had just couldn’t compete with the many offspring of Fit Frankie.

So, it turned out that seeing only the truth was actually a curse for Terry, whereas seeing a useful lie was a blessing for Frankie. Frankie’s “fitness vision” beat out Terry’s “truth vision,” and today Frankie’s offspring thrive on Evolution Island whereas Terry’s offspring went extinct many generations ago.

on Winning the Evolutionary Game

This fable, as you might have guessed, was inspired by an evolutionary game created by Hoffman and his colleagues. Game theory, of course, is a branch of applied mathematics that provides tools for analyzing situations in which players make decisions that are interdependent. The goal of game theory is to better understand the outcomes of different interactions among the “players.” (Frankie and Terry were the players in the example above.)

Evolutionary game theory is one application of game theory that is used to model evolving populations in biology. Wikipedia reports, “It defines a framework of contests, strategies, and analytics into which Darwinian competition can be modelled. It originated in 1973 with John Maynard Smith and George R. Price’s formalization of contests, analyzed as strategies, and the mathematical criteria that can be used to predict the results of competing strategies.”

Hoffman and his colleagues created multiple evolutionary games in order to test their Fitness-Beats-Truth Theorem. They also created a separate but complementary mathematical model. Both initiatives produced the same result: life favors fitness over truth. That is, creatures that view the world in terms of “fitness points” inevitably trounce creatures that see the world as it truly is. Useful lies beat plain truth every time.

The moral of the story?

The world we see around us is not based on a true representation of reality but is, rather, a useful lie that allowed our ancestors to stay alive long enough to reproduce. In short, you and I, dear readers, are the offspring who have inherited our own version of Evolution Island. Viva la illusion!

Nature Is a Big Fat Liar, Just Like Your Smartphone

Your computers lie to you. Intentionally. For good reason.

Let’s say you want to write a document on a computer. You almost certainly start with some sort of computer icon. In my laptop, I have that Microsoft Word icon with that big blue W in it. I click that to open the application. On my smartphone, I tend to use Google docs instead, clicking on little white circle with a blue rectangle on it.

In either case, I “click on” the icon and it opens up a bigger rectangular document into which I can type words.

It’s useful, right? Absolutely. But it’s also a kind of fictional overlay. Hoffman explains:

The blue icon does not deliberately misrepresent the true nature of the file. Representing that nature is not its aim. Its job, instead, is to hide that nature–to spare you tiresome details on transistors, voltages, magnetic fields, logic gates, binary codes, and gigabytes of software. If you had to inspect that complexity, and forge your email out of bits and bytes, you might opt instead for snail mail.

Evolution does the same thing for us, posits Hoffman. It provides us with a kind overlay that helps us survive and reproduce. He calls it the interface theory of perception, or ITP.

For example, only in recent history have humans discovered the whole spectrum electromagnetic radiation, aka light. It turns out we can see only a tiny portion of the spectrum–about 0.0035%–the range we now call visible light. We evolved to be able to see only the range that best helped us survive, and even then we didn’t see electromagnetic radiation itself.

Instead, we see colors, which probably don’t even exist outside of our human perceptions. Colors are part of nature’s hack for helping us survive. We can see when fruit is ripe, for example, via this color hack. So this interface element was laid over our perceptions to allow us to gain the calories and nutrients we need to thrive and procreate.

Hoffman sums up as follows:

The [Fitness-Beats-Truth] Theorem tells us that winning genes do not code for perceiving truth. [Interface theory of perception] tells us that they code instead for an interface that hides the truth about objective reality and provides us with icons-physical objects with colors, textures, shapes, motions, and smells-that allow us to manipulate that unseen reality in just the ways we need to survive and reproduce. Physical objects in spacetime are simply our icons in our desktop.

How Deep Does the Interface Go?

Nobody knows how deep the interface goes. Hoffman concludes that we don’t need to see much if any of the truth underlying nature in order to thrive. In fact, it’s better if we don’t.

If there is an objective reality, and if my senses were shaped by natural selection, then the FBT Theorem says the chance that my perceptions are veridical–that they preserve some structure of objective reality–is less than my chance to win the lottery. This chance goes to zero as the world and my perceptions grow more complex–even if my perceptual systems are highly plastic and can change quickly as needed.

So, basically he’s saying we truth-seekers are generally screwed. Luckily for us, however, there is a caveat. That is, logic and mathematics are somehow part of our underlying reality. The universe, whatever it truly is, may throw up a phony interface all around us, but logic and mathematics do provide us clues about the underlying truth.

Why? Because even if we see that the apple is red, suggesting to us we should eat it, we still need to be able to know that taking two bites out of it is better than just taking one (or example). We don’t need to be great at mathematics, but we need enough basic logic to survive.

At least that’s his story.

Even so, Hoffman’s view is so radical that he thinks even spacetime is an illusory part of our interface. He loves to say (I’ve listened to a number of podcasts in which he’s interviewed) as well as write that “spacetime is doomed.” What he means is that our conceptual frameworks of space and time as we’ve known them since the age of Einstein have no underlying reality but are just the “interface” we use to negotiate reality.

To support his contention, Hoffman quotes theoretical physicist Nima Arkani-Hamed: “Almost all of us believe that spacetime doesn’t exist, that spacetime is doomed, and has to be replaced by some more primitive building blocks.”

Just to be clear, Hoffman does not deny that there is some “objective” reality that underlies our own, only that we do not have access to it. All we can do is use our reasoning, such as it is, to postulate about what that reality actually looks like.

That Way Lies Madness

When I listen to Hoffman on podcasts, his interviewers almost always express their concern that Hoffman’s argument potentially send us all down the path toward nihilism. That is, if everything we experience is just an illusionary interface, then how can we ever learn the truth of existence? And, if we can’t, then aren’t our lives meaningless?

Hoffman rejects that interpretation, saying that we can use our tools of scientific inquiry, mathematics and reasoning to learn more about “objective” reality, whatever that is. But I’m left wondering whether he’s adopting this stance because he fully believes it or because all his colleagues and the public at large would otherwise reject his theories out of hand.

After all, if spacetime is doomed, then why aren’t logic and reason? Logic is predicated on cause and effect, which are themselves contingent on the flow of time.

I imagine that, in the privacy of his own thoughts, Hoffman worries about this as well. On the other hand, so what if it’s true? Human beings as a whole are unlikely to ever embrace nihilism. We love our patterns and the sense that we know things. And, even without that evidence, we’ve shown ourselves perfectly willing to embrace faith: that is, belief without underlying proofs.

In the end, I worry less about people losing hope in their ability to understand some underlying reality than in their ability to embrace a faith that they then wish to impose on everyone around them. The latter leads to tyranny, intolerant ideology, zealotry and theocracy. For now, at least, those versions of faith seem by far the greater danger to us all.

Featured image is a Necker cube, which creates a kind of optical illusion in which the sides flip when you stare at it a while. From BenFrantzDale - Own work. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Necker_cube