Undeniably, one of the most spell-binding interviews I’ve read in mainstream internet reporting.
Donald D. Hoffman is a professor of cognitive science at University of California’s Irvine campus. In the interview, Amanda Gefter from The Atlantic, pressed Hoffman for detailed explanations of his supposition that, based on known quantum criteria and observational experience, human perception of the innate building blocks of reality itself is fluid and tenuously revealed.
“Truth,” or as I call it, validity of perception, is not so important to our evolutionary survival as “fitness functions.”
The classic argument is that those of our ancestors who saw more accurately had a competitive advantage over those who saw less accurately and thus were more likely to pass on their genes that coded for those more accurate perceptions, so after thousands of generations we can be quite confident that we’re the offspring of those who saw accurately, and so we see accurately. That sounds very plausible. But I think it is utterly false. It misunderstands the fundamental fact about evolution, which is that it’s about fitness functions—mathematical functions that describe how well a given strategy achieves the goals of survival and reproduction. The mathematical physicist Chetan Prakash proved a theorem that I devised that says: According to evolution by natural selection, 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. Never.
We see this at play in our daily lives. The perceptive and blindingly intelligent succumb to the pall of collective stupidity and myopia. The world, reality, sieves out those who see too clearly and rewards those who willingly oblige to conformity of limited personal horizons. It can be alleged that those who see too clearly are cast as pathological in this era of intellectual marginalization of the very perceptive. For those who see too vividly through their rare supra-human eye are operationally eschewing the road to evolutionary success built upon the illusion of hardy fitness.
Snakes and trains, like the particles of physics, have no objective, observer-independent features. The snake I see is a description created by my sensory system to inform me of the fitness consequences of my actions. Evolution shapes acceptable solutions, not optimal ones. A snake is an acceptable solution to the problem of telling me how to act in a situation. My snakes and trains are my mental representations; your snakes and trains are your mental representations.
I suspect that the utter subjective nature of reality, capriciously bending to the will of the observer, is like a fluid that engorges and distends the reality available its membrane-bound barriers. Nature is the most efficient organism in existence and we are fed as much or as little input as necessary in order to make the best survival-minded decisions possible. We don’t create more, or less, of reality than is appropriate to proliferate our existence.
Gefter: It doesn’t seem like many people in neuroscience or philosophy of mind are thinking about fundamental physics. Do you think that’s been a stumbling block for those trying to understand consciousness?
Hoffman: I think it has been. Not only are they ignoring the progress in fundamental physics, they are often explicit about it. They’ll say openly that quantum physics is not relevant to the aspects of brain function that are causally involved in consciousness. They are certain that it’s got to be classical properties of neural activity, which exist independent of any observers—spiking rates, connection strengths at synapses, perhaps dynamical properties as well. These are all very classical notions under Newtonian physics, where time is absolute and objects exist absolutely. And then [neuroscientists] are mystified as to why they don’t make progress. They don’t avail themselves of the incredible insights and breakthroughs that physics has made. Those insights are out there for us to use, and yet my field says, “We’ll stick with Newton, thank you. We’ll stay 300 years behind in our physics.”
There seems to be little in quantum physics that is not counter-intuitive. And what is intuition but our birthed and inherited estimation of perception? Quantum physics, pulling the strings of the most minute existences in this reality, is not to be excused quite so easily from influencing the flora of our mental physiological structure.
I think that’s absolutely true. The neuroscientists are saying, “We don’t need to invoke those kind of quantum processes, we don’t need quantum wave functions collapsing inside neurons, we can just use classical physics to describe processes in the brain.” I’m emphasizing the larger lesson of quantum mechanics: Neurons, brains, space … these are just symbols we use, they’re not real. It’s not that there’s a classical brain that does some quantum magic. It’s that there’s no brain! Quantum mechanics says that classical objects—including brains—don’t exist. So this is a far more radical claim about the nature of reality and does not involve the brain pulling off some tricky quantum computation.
What is our perception of reality?
Is accuracy even a concept that can be delineated and theoretically blueprinted?
As our perceptions of reality proliferate unchecked and limitless, does the nature of what we attempt to narrate slip from our view because our comprehension cannot grasp that which proportionately wiggles away from our clinical eye? Is accuracy unworthy of our consideration?
In such a quantum maelstrom of upheaval, accuracy defies our sanity. Accuracy demands a barometer, a yardstick.
Accuracy of perception. How do we discover such thing?
Until then, the chasm between the both will remain a nebulous measure of “reality.”