I saw Donald Hoffman speak at the 2014 "Toward a Science of Consciousness" conference, which I wrote up for American Spectator at the time.
If you remember your Introductory Philosophy course you will know that the opposite of materialism (there is only matter: mind is an illusion) is idealism (there is only mind: matter is an illusion). I had supposed philosophical idealism to have died out in this age of brain scanning and smart computers, but cognitive scientist Donald Hoffman proved me wrong.Well, Hoffman did an interview for the pop-science magazine Quanta last month (reprinted at TheAtlantic.com.) It's caused a minor Twitterstorm.
In an astonishing presentation, Hoffman described his work on evolutionary game theory. Using a powerful computer he has modeled the evolution across thousands of generations of imaginary species with such-and-such characteristics in environments with so-and-so characteristics. He wanted to compare evolutionary fitness — how well an organism is adapted to its environment — with truth — how accurately the organism perceives its environment. In his words: "Does natural selection favor veridical perception?" The answer from his models is no: "Truth goes extinct every time except when tuned to fitness."
Not content with having thus disturbed us, Hoffman then described his work on a non-materialist theory of evolution, inspired by Alan Turing's universal computer. He posits a network of conscious agents (CAs) interacting with each other and the world. As his theory develops, the world drops out and all that exists is consciousness. "What we call the physical world is a projection into CAs of other CAs … Spacetime is a species-specific hack."
It was one of those talks that leaves you undecided as to whether what you just heard was profoundly brilliant or utter nonsense. Reading through my notes and reflecting, I lean towards the latter, but … [Chasing Down the Ghost in the Machine by John Derbyshire; American Spectator, June 2014.]
But how can seeing a false reality be beneficial to an organism’s survival?As I wrote two years ago, this theory is either breathtakingly brilliant or "not even wrong." I still can't make up my mind. (Or "mind.")
There’s a metaphor that’s only been available to us in the past 30 or 40 years, and that’s the desktop interface. Suppose there’s a blue rectangular icon on the lower right corner of your computer’s desktop — does that mean that the file itself is blue and rectangular and lives in the lower right corner of your computer? Of course not. But those are the only things that can be asserted about anything on the desktop — it has color, position and shape. Those are the only categories available to you, and yet none of them are true about the file itself or anything in the computer. They couldn’t possibly be true. That’s an interesting thing. You could not form a true description of the innards of the computer if your entire view of reality was confined to the desktop. And yet the desktop is useful. That blue rectangular icon guides my behavior, and it hides a complex reality that I don’t need to know. That’s the key idea. Evolution has shaped us with perceptions that allow us to survive. They guide adaptive behaviors. But part of that involves hiding from us the stuff we don’t need to know. And that’s pretty much all of reality, whatever reality might be. If you had to spend all that time figuring it out, the tiger would eat you.