Interview, News, Science 2016-05-10

You have no idea what Reality is

The Atlantic recently published an interview with Donald D. Hoffman, a professor of cognitive science. In this interview, Hoffman reveals some fascinating ideas about how reality is perceived and how that far off that perception can actually be. Furthermore, it’s possible that living beings are supposed to be that way in order to survive! Read on for more!

Hoffman’s assertions spring from evolution, or the survival of the fittest. The fundamental idea here is that we perceive things in ways that maximize our survival. Accuracy is less important that practicality. Here is Hoffman’s quote:

The classic argument is that those of our ancestors who saw more accurately had a competitive advantage over those who saw less accurately … It misunderstands the fundamental fact about evolution, which is that it’s about fitness functions … 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.

Hoffman uses modern technology as an example for this. Consider the Windows or Mac, or your smartphone. The icons you see on the screen and the way you interact with them have nothing to do with what they actually are. In reality, you are manipulating pulses of electricity running through the machine. This is not a useful way of dealing with things, however, so the designers of these machines created a false reality (the desktop interface or the smartphone interface) to allow you to handle things more easily. According to Hoffman, this exactly the same way all living beings perceive the universe.

We’ve been shaped to have perceptions that keep us alive, so we have to take them seriously. If I see something that I think of as a snake, I don’t pick it up. If I see a train, I don’t step in front of it. I’ve evolved these symbols to keep me alive, so I have to take them seriously. But it’s a logical flaw to think that if we have to take it seriously, we also have to take it literally … 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.

Writers have, of course, been playing with this concept for ages. What’s fascinating is that now science is backing them up. Further, there is now the question, if this is how we operate, how can we exploit and maximize the potential like we do with everything else in our lives?

The article is a great read. Check it out.

About the author

Erik Hentell: I started out in theater before moving to graphic design. I eventually moved into web design while trying to expand my knowledge on software development. I currently work for a media company helping with their digital assets such as source code archives and ebooks.