Science

Don Hoffman’s ‘A Case Against Reality’: This Book Will Change The Way You Look At Things, Literally 

Van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night’ 
Snapshot
  • The issue at the heart of the book is this: if our perceptions were shaped by natural selection then they almost surely evolved to hide reality.

Donald Hoffman. The Case Against Reality: Why Evolution Hid The Truth From Our Eyes. W. W. Norton and Company. 272 pages. Rs 1,738.

I remember the first visit to the great Sthanumalayan temple of Suchindrum, Tamil Nadu.

Inside, at one end of a large hall, along a north-south axis, was the beautiful dancing Shiva. Nataraja.

At the other end was a mirror. One can see oneself and also people coming and going, and behind all these reflections, there reflected the dance of Shiva.

All that came back with full force when reading the following passage from this book that sits on my table as I speak:

The face I see in a mirror, being an icon, is not itself conscious. But behind that icon flourishes, I know firsthand, a living world of conscious experiences. Likewise, the stone I see in a riverbed, being an icon, is not conscious nor inhabited by consciousness. It is a pointer to a living world of conscious experiences no less vibrant than my own—just far more obscured by the limitations of my icon.

What I was reading is not a Bhashya by Shankara on any of the Prasthana Traya.

It is a book written by Donald Hoffman. A professor of cognitive science.

The book, The Case Against Reality, with the subtitle 'Why evolution hid the truth from our eyes' is an interesting journey into a profound mystery.

This initially looks amusing. Then philosophical and psychological. And when you finish the book, you realise that this mystery the book dives in is right at the core of our existence.

We see the world in multiplicity. We see the birds and trees and ants and elephants. But is what we see really there?

Or are we seeing what we have been made to see?

Are we a species that perceives the world around us as it is not?

Philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe narrates one of her memorable interactions with Ludwig Wittgenstein in which the latter asked her: “Why do people say that it was natural to think that the Sun went round the Earth rather than that the Earth turned on its axis?” Anscombe replied that perhaps ‘because it looked as if the Sun went round the Earth’.

To this, Wittgenstein remarked “Well, what would it have looked like if it had looked as if the Earth turned on its axis?”

Citing this, Hoffman makes his point that perhaps we have evolved to perceive the world not as it is but as would contribute to increasing our fitness. (Fitness beats Truth).

Hoffman says that 'using the tools of evolutionary game theory' it can be tested that 'if our perceptions were shaped by natural selection then they almost surely evolved to hide reality.'

Galileo is considered the starting point of science as we do it today - rigorously objective. Hoffman points out that Galileo had his own battle with how reality could be drastically opposite to what was perceived as reality.

Hoffman uses the following words of Galileo, which were uttered in the context of why we should not take our perception of reality as reality:

I think that tastes, odors, colors, and so on are no more than mere names so far as the object in which we locate them are concerned, and that they reside in consciousness. Hence if the living creature were removed, all these qualities would be wiped away and annihilated.

Hoffman dedicates an entire chapter on how evolution, particularly sexual evolution plays an important role in our perception of beauty.

This is a tough chapter.

One has to wade one’s way through pitfalls of falling into sexism, sensationalism and hyperbole. Hoffman successfully navigates through the chapter avoiding all these. To understand what he has achieved consider the following passage:

..A woman at twenty-five may be more fertile than she was at twenty, but her reproductive value was greater at twenty. This leads to a clean prediction: men over twenty should prefer younger women; men under twenty should prefer older women. Both predictions have been confirmed in experiments. Men over twenty prefer younger women. No surprise. But teen males prefer women who are slightly older.

But not allowing the readers to be carried away by this naturally titillating subject, he cautions:

The discovery that genes influence our emotions and behavior does not justify an oppressive status quo any more than the discovery that genes influence cancer justifies cancer. To the contrary, the advance of evolutionary psychology provides tools to understand and prevent oppression, just as the advance of molecular biology provides tools to understand and treat cancer.

Then he points out that he is only preparing the ground for the larger canvas that he is going to use: ‘If our senses evolved and were shaped by natural selection, then spacetime and physical objects, like beauty, reside in the eye of the beholder.’

Turning quasi-biographical, he details his journey in the world of scientific thought even as his ideas get tested, accepted or discarded.

His interaction with Francis Crick is important. Crick was a British molecular biologist, biophysicist, and neuroscientist. Even as both stand their ground and argue, the reader sees how the interaction shapes and fine-tunes Hoffman.

Of course Hoffman does not share Crick’s ‘astounding hypothesis’: ‘You’re nothing but a pack of neurons.’

The Case Against Reality The Case Against Reality

For those in science who dare to take a stand against the conventional tide without falling into the land of pseudosciences, the book is quite a guide. The mainstream stand of cognitive scientists, as Hoffman quotes Stephen Palmer, is that 'visual perception is useful only if it is reasonably accurate'.

Hoffman could not accept that. The validation for Hoffman comes from none other than David Marr who himself was against the view of Hoffman. Marr was a neuroscientist, physiologist, and author.

Marr had pointed out in his book on vision that even the simple visual system of the fly provided ‘no true conception of a surface’. This was so because it provided the organism with ‘sufficient information for it to survive’.

To add to this, came the influence of Stephen Pinker. This makes Hoffman study perception as a product of natural selection. He also points to Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow’s 'model-dependent realism' where they consider it ‘pointless to ask whether a model is real, but only whether it agrees with observation'.

So when Hoffman arrives at a scientific solution to a philosophical question on perception and reality, it is Darwin to the rescue.

Advertisement

Naturally, the next chapter is all about applying the evolution game models to test the ‘Fitness beats Truth’ (FBT) theory. Hoffman here is on solid ground.

And the ground is strictly Darwinian.

Hoffman provides quite a few scenarios using evolutionary game models and says, ’In each case, Truth goes extinct when competing with Fitness.’

In the next chapter along with FBT he introduces 'the interface theory of perception (ITP)'.

Natural selection shaped our sense organs to provide us a user-friendly, manageable interface with reality - very much like icons in our desktop which hide all complex programming which go behind them. So he says:

Our perceptions of space, time, and objects were shaped by natural selection not to be veridical—not to reveal or reconstruct objective reality—but to let us live long enough to raise offspring. Perception is not about truth, it’s about having kids. ... The FBT Theorem tells us that winning genes do not code for perceiving truth. ITP tells us that they code instead for an interface that hides the truth about objective reality ... that allow us to manipulate that unseen reality in just the ways we need to survive and reproduce.

Does that mean there is no objective reality?

Or whatever that is behind these icons is simply unknowable?

Here, ITP says that there indeed is an objective reality. But it rejects the dominance of theory of objective reality as false and posits that 'the standard interplay of scientific theories and experiments could lead to a theory that is true.'

Now Hoffman has prepared his readers to question our notions of the ‘out there’ reality which we take for granted.

Space-time which forms the basic foundation of our objective reality is increasingly getting doomed in theoretical physics. He quotes physicist Nima Arkani-Hamed, who says as ‘there is no such thing as spacetime fundamentally in the actual underlying description of the laws of physics…it’s not clear what physics is about.’

Hoffman states that ‘Spacetime and objects are, for human vision’, the kind of ‘happy tradeoff’ we have between compressing a digital picture and preserving its discernible features.

Even as we debate whether or not an octopus dreams as it changes its colours during sleep, the following lines of the book take their own importance:

We see objects in three dimensions not because we reconstruct objective reality, but because this is the format of a compression algorithm that evolution happened to build into us. Other species may have other data formats for representing fitness.

Now we move on to colour perception.

The human eye can discriminate 10 million colours and they can evoke emotions in us 'forged over eons by evolution, over centuries by culture, and over decades by personal experience'. But more important than that are 'chromatures' - combinations of texture and colour.

With them, more specific responses can be elicited from organisms including humans.

Hoffman cites the work of Tomoko Imura and her colleagues in showing that chimpanzees use chromatures to determine the freshness and desirability of fruits and vegetables.

So 'If you doctor a chromature you can manipulate the emotional reaction of chimps and humans.'

How does it relate to the subject in hand? Hoffman explains:

Our perceptions are a user interface that evolved to guide our actions and keep us alive long enough to reproduce. Once we grasp this, and free ourselves from the conceptual straitjacket of assuming that we perceive reality as it is, then we can reverse-engineer our interface, understand how it codes information about fitness and guides our actions, and then apply this knowledge to solve practical problems—such as creating chromatures that evoke specific emotions.

Then he takes up synaesthesia - fusing of senses, as a means 'to pull a Houdini and exit our conceptual straitjacket'. Synaesthesia is commonly described as a neurological trait or condition that results in a joining or merging of senses that aren't normally connected.

Cognitive neuroscientists Vilayanur Ramachandran and Edward Hubbard have proposed that synaesthetes may be endowed with more neural connections between two adjacent brain regions - one correlated with colour perception and other with graphemes.

For Hoffman, synaesthesia may be proof that evolution is not yet done with the selection and fine-tuning of the interface our species has developed:

Evolution is not finished tinkering with the perceptual interfaces of Homo sapiens. The mutations that bless one in twenty-five with some form of synesthesia are surely part of the process, and some of these mutations might catch on; much of the tinkering centers on our perceptions of color.

Singing of evolution in Savitri, Sri Aurobindo wrote ‘How shall the nameless light not leap on men, And unknown powers emerge from Nature’s sleep?’

So, what is reality?

Can we get behind the interface and see reality as it is?

In his book Something Deeply Hidden, Sean Carroll, batting for material monism, sees its triumph in all domains of science with the exception of quantum mechanics (in which too he sees the Many-Worlds formulation continuing that triumph). In this context he specifically states:

Meanwhile, progress in neuroscience has increasingly been able to identify particular thought processes with specific biochemical events taking place in the material that makes up our brains.

But Hoffman states very clearly that ‘all attempts at a physicalist theory of consciousness have failed’ because, ‘you simply cannot cook up consciousness from unconscious ingredients’.

In the place of physical monism, Hoffman proposes a monism which he calls 'conscious realism' - ‘a scientific theory of consciousness that posits that conscious agents—not objects in spacetime—are fundamental, and that the world consists entirely of conscious agents.’

We can consider universes that are more complex, with networks of … even an infinity of agents. The way one agent in a network perceives depends on the way that some other agents act. I call this monism conscious realism.

Vijnana Gana Rupini!

Then he discusses the various possible objections to his ideas.

Is not physicalism the proper ontology for science and does not rejecting that make Hoffman’s ‘conscious realism’ fall into the category of pseudo science?

Hoffman points out science does not have any preferred ontology. ‘Science is a method. It can test and discard ontologies.

But does not conscious realism make even an electron a conscious agent or conscious?

No, answers Hoffman. Believing that an electron has consciousness would be panpsychism. Panpsychism considers consciousness one of the properties of an electron along with non-conscious properties like spin and charge.

That is not what Hoffman is arguing for.

Advertisement

And then there are times when we can actually go beyond the icons other than ourselves and have a peep into their inner world and realize it as as rich as our own.

With ‘brilliance and persistence’ Jane Goodall did go ‘beyond the icon of a chimp and glimpse inside its conscious world.’ But as the icons are on branches farther removed from ours in the tree of evolution, the less we are able to do so.

Then Hoffman shuffles quite a lot of feathers. Because then he brings in ‘scientific theology--a scientific concept of God - mathematical and precise.

In the process we can foster what might be called a scientific theology, in which mathematically precise theories of God can be evolved, sharpened, and tested with scientific experiments. ... Religion can become an evolving science—informed by cognitive neuroscience and evolutionary psychology—whose salutary application to daily life also evolves.

Now what would such a ‘God’ be like?

The theory of God that emerges from a scientific theology need not posit a magician that flouts the laws of physics. ... The laws of physics do not describe a machine, in which a marginalized ghost of consciousness must perform paranormal tricks to prove its existence. Consciousness need not flout scientific laws that are themselves projected descriptions of the dynamics of consciousness.

Think of a commentary in mathematical formalism for Her thousand names!

A fascinating odyssey into science and philosophy this book is a must read for every student of science, be it physical science or cognitive. It should also be read by any one who loves to probe into the mysteries of existence.

It introduces concepts, making the reader unlearn certain cherished ideas with which one would have grown.

It is not easy to look at a spoon, a tomato or even a lump of clay again the same way after reading the book. However, at no point does the book lose scientific rigour.

For those who advocate physical monism Hoffman has provided a really tough challenge - also a very fundamental one at that.

All said, dear Dr. Hoffman, why still ‘God’? Have you not just written perhaps the most eloquent scientific commentary on Her name - Mithya Jagaadhisthana (she, the basis of the creative illusory universe).

Get Swarajya in your inbox everyday. Subscribe here.
Comments
Support The Heritage 100 Videos Project
We are kickstarting a year-long campaign to bring you videos on India's culture and heritage. Support our endeavour.
Join us. Because India's heritage story deserves to be heard.

Become A Patron
Become A Subscriber