A case against “reality”

‘what Bohm means is that the space-time world observed in physics is an epiphenomenon… underlying it is a spaceless, timeless realm from which the events of ordinary reality emerge.’
– Robert Anton Wilson, Coincidance, p154

‘Indeed, physicists concede that spacetime is doomed. It is not the primordial stage on which the drama of life plays out.’
– Donald Hoffman, The Case Against Reality

What fun-loving guerilla ontologist could resist a book titled ‘The Case Against Reality’ – particularly when written by a professor of cognitive science who studied at MIT? (I generally don’t like academic credentialism, but I’m not immune to it when weighing up books with provocative titles).

The topics of Donald Hoffman’s thesis – ‘conscious realism’ and the interface theory of perception (ITP) – seem to have caused a stir in some places (a few years ago, Scientific American reported that his TED talk got 1.4M views, and I recently noticed a video featuring Hoffman on the Science & Nonduality website).

‘What is spacetime? This book has offered you the red pill. Spacetime is your virtual reality, a headset of your own making. The objects you see are your invention.’
– Donald Hoffman, The Case Against Reality

But a book has to pass a few selection tests before we spend our precious time on it. It’s a competitive market! A flick through this one revealed quotes from Wittgenstein, Einstein, Oscar Wilde and Rumi, citations from quantum physics, etc – and I spotted a few references to David Mermin (the physicist, referenced by RAW, who wrote a paper titled “Is the moon there when nobody looks?”). And it has pictures of optical illusions.

So, my kind of book, it seemed. But what does it have to do with Bob Wilson? And does it live up to its title? Well, read on…

Spacetime doomed?

‘What this apparently means is that space and time are only real to our mammalian sense organs: they are not really real.’
– RAW, commenting on Bell’s theorem, Beyond Theology, The Illuminati Papers (p97, 1980 edition)

“Spacetime is doomed” – a recurring quote in Hoffman’s book – refers not to predictions about something even worse than the Orange Corruption triggering the end of all, but to a shift in many physicists’ assumptions about the fundamental “ground of reality”. Hoffman himself says he was once a “physicalist”, but has since switched – to a non-physical ontology that takes consciousness as the primary reality. But his ‘conscious realism’ isn’t to be confused with panpsychism (another approach to the ‘hard problem of consciousness’).

The case Hoffman makes against conventional space-time reality is based on the logic of Darwinist natural selection, developed in a theorem called ‘Fitness-Beats-Truth’ (FTB). This states that our perceptions evolve in a way that maximizes “fitness payoffs” over representations of “objective reality”. Veridical (“true to reality”) perceptions generally don’t survive, according to the evolutionary game theory simulations conducted by Hoffman and his colleagues. This seems pretty much a reversal of the widely held conviction that accuracy of perception enhances survival.

‘[N]atural selection drives true perceptions to swift extinction. The very language of our perceptions – space, time, and physical objects – is simply the wrong language to describe objective reality.’
– Donald Hoffman, The Case Against Reality

So, if “true” or relatively accurate (ie representational) perceptions don’t survive, then what does? What have we ended up with that makes us “fitter” for survival? Here, Hoffman uses the metaphor of a computer desktop and its icons. He argues that spacetime “is” nothing more than our perceptual “desktop”; objects that we perceive “are” just display “icons” enabling us to interact efficiently (in terms of “fitness”) with some unknowable, unfathomable non-physical reality.

To be honest, all the talk about “fitness payoffs” defeating “truth” made me feel exhausted – as if I should be doing pushups more often. The book contains 385 occurrences of the word “fitness”, and 122 of “payoff”! As a route to concluding that “spacetime is doomed”, I found this strange – since Darwinist evolution itself seems premised on conventional notions of bodies in space and time.

Hoffman’s answer to this is ‘universal Darwinism’ – a generalised, abstracted Darwinist logic that can be applied not just to organisms, but to a wide variety of domains/systems (he calls this “Darwin’s acid”, after Daniel Dennett’s comparison of Darwin’s idea to a universal acid that eats through everything):

‘Darwin’s acid dissolves the claim that objective reality consists of spacetime and objects – such as DNA, chromosomes, and organisms. What remains is universal Darwinism, which we can employ even after we jettison spacetime and objects.’
– Donald Hoffman, The Case Against Reality

RAW’s patented BS detector kicks in…

When dealing with the perplexing overlap of science and ontology, RAW’s approach (which I regard as anti-dogma, anti-metaphysical, and sort of “anti-circular” in the sense that Bob seemed adept at detecting circular logic, closed, paradoxical systems of thought, Strange Loops, question-begging incoherence, hidden infinite regress, etc) comes in useful.

Does Hoffman not elevate Darwinism to the level of dogma/metaphysics here – despite seemingly abstracting it from space/time/matter with algorithms? I confess I’ve had a similar problem with some other books on the ‘hard problem of consciousness’ (including on panpsychism) – that’s to say, the materialist paradigm, which the authors claim to radically shake off, sneaks in through the back door via conceptual metaphor (ie the concepts, categories, logics, structures that we habitually use – and that encode physicalism metaphorically – get “projected”, as it were, back onto the supposedly spaceless and timeless). This probably seems inescapable to the extent that we have to use conventional language. But at least RAW tried to make the semantic process more transparent, eg:

‘According to Bohm, below the quantum level there is a subquantum world of hidden variables. This is a metaphor. Bohm does not mean below in the ordinary sense…’
– Robert Anton Wilson, Coincidance, p154

And:

‘When stated with the “is of identity” the Copenhagen view always seems to say that we literally create the physical universe by observing it – a position previously espoused only by Bishop Berkeley, and easily caricatured as solipsism.’
– RAW, Quantum Psychology ( p156 in 1990 edition)

Conscious realism

Talking of Berkeley and solipsism, Donald Hoffman’s ‘The Case Against Reality’ argues that space, time, the world, rocks, trees, brains, neurons, electrons, etc, exist only as experiences (ideas/perceptions) in conscious “interfaces” (that’s his interface theory of perception, or ITP). But that:

‘This doesn’t entail solipsism. Something is there in objective reality… there is an objective reality. But that reality is utterly unlike our perceptions of objects in space and time.’
– Donald Hoffman, The Case Against Reality

So, what about this “something”? Or does this alternative “objective reality” remain, like RAW’s “etic reality”, as unknowable/indescribable by definition? Well, not quite, if I follow Hoffman correctly – although he does frame his assertions as theories/hypotheses. His last chapter describes his hypothesis of ‘conscious realism’:

‘we can try to construct 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.’
– Donald Hoffman, The Case Against Reality

The Matrix, red pills, etc

For all I know it might have been his publisher’s idea to add references from The Matrix (eg chapter heading quotes from Morpheus, mentions of taking the red pill, etc). A nice selling point, no doubt. I just hope it doesn’t get into the hands of Qanon folks or other red pill popping MAGA cults! I suspect the Darwinist Fitness-Beats-Truth motif, as an organising principle, would appeal to some of them.


3 thoughts on “A case against “reality”

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  1. Universal Darwinism is sometimes called Darwinian metaphysics, and, like you, I don’t really understand how you can use it in this way without turning it into a kind of religion. There’s actually something called “Quantum Darwinism” and something called “Cosmological natural selection”. The latter “hypothesizes that universes reproduce and are selected for having fundamental constants that maximize fitness”. Real loony tunes if you ask me.

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    1. Yeah, I don’t really get it – how a manner of thinking relating to organisms and species can be applied with any confidence to universes or quantum properties. Doesn’t make sense to me (then again, I’m not well read in the field of evolutionary theory). Hoffman seems influenced by evolutionary psychology and people like Steven Pinker and Daniel Dennett.

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  2. Incidentally, when I wrote “Talking of Berkeley and solipsism…”, I meant to add something about Berkeley (not just about solipsism). Hoffman says that unlike Berkeley’s philosophy, his ‘conscious realism’ doesn’t require “the mind of God” – although he does refer to it as monism.

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