Donald Hoffman's Long Jump From Evolutionary Theory to Speculative Philosophy


i) Introduction

ii) There are No Perceptual Illusions

iii) Are Icons Representations of a Deeper Reality?

iv) How Hoffman Employs Evolutionary Biology/Theory

v) The Zero Reality Theorem

vi) Conclusion

This piece is primarily about how Professor Donald Hoffman ties theories and ideas from evolutionary biology (or at least from cognitive science's use of evolutionary biology) to his philosophical theory of conscious realism.


In very simple terms, one may have no major problem with what Hoffman says about “perceptions” and how they've “been shaped by evolution”. (On this subject alone, none of Hoffman's positions are original; except, perhaps, in terms of fine detail.) What many people may have a problem with is how Hoffman ties all this evolutionary stuff to his highly-speculative philosophical position of conscious realism. More relevantly, Hoffman argues that the evolutionary facts entail (or at least strongly imply) his conscious realism.


There are no Perceptual Illusions

Firstly, let me express the very radical nature of Professor Donald Hoffman's position.


A good way of doing this is by stating a position that Hoffman does not hold.


Hoffman doesn't believe that we suffer from collective “illusions” about – or of – reality. Why doesn't he believe that? He doesn't believe that because that would mean that sometimes we get reality right. That is, the word “illusion” only has a purchase (or any meaning) in the context of our sometimes (or many times) getting reality right. But Hoffman claims that we never get reality right. Therefore the notion of illusion serves no purpose in Hoffman's philosophical account of what he calls “perceptions”.


So let's use Hoffman's own words here:


“This standard theory of illusions clearly cannot be endorsed by ITP [the Interface Theory of Perception], because ITP says that none of our perceptions are veridical.. [Thus] [i]t would be unhelpful for ITP to say that all perceptions are illusory.”

Are Icons Representations of a Deeper Reality?

So let's forget (for a moment) about illusions or getting reality right or wrong.


Hoffman argues that instead of our “representations” being “accurate” (or inaccurate): they are, in fact, simply “adaptive guides to behavior”.


One may now wonder why Hoffman accepts the word “representation” in the first place. After all, if we systematically get the world wrong, then what justification has Hoffman got for using the word “representation” at all?


Hoffman's answer to this is simple.


In Hoffman's scheme, we simply have representations of what he calls “icons”. However, it can now be said that not many – or even any – philosophers or laypersons have ever used the word “representations” to mean representations-of-icons. But that won't concern Hoffman. After all, he will no doubt say that it doesn't matter what philosophers and laypersons take representations to be: it's what representations actually are that matters. And, in Hoffman's philosophical scheme, representations represent icons, not reality (or the world).


The following is Hoffman's own analogy of what he takes that deeper reality (to use those two words ironically) to be. (In fact he uses the words “deeper reality” himself.) He writes:


“[C]onsider what you see when you look into a mirror. All you see is skin, hair, eyes, lips. But as you stand there, looking at yourself, you know first hand that the face you see in the mirror shows little of who you really are. It does not show your hopes, fears, beliefs, or desires. It does not show your consciousness. It does not show that you are suffering a migraine or savoring a melody. All you see, and all that the user interfaces of others can see, is literally skin deep. Other people see a face, not the conscious agent that is your deeper reality.”

There's a further problem here.


In Hoffman's scheme, icons themselves are representations. That is, Hoffman's icons reflect (or stand in for) a/the deeper reality. However, if that's the case, then we must have representations of representations. That is, our representations are representations of icons; which are, in turn, representations of a deeper reality. (Alternatively and less grandly, icons are representations of things which aren't themselves representations.)


How Hoffman Employs Evolutionary Theory & Biology

Hoffman seems to be using evolutionary theory (as he does with talk of “mathematical models”) in order to sell us a speculative philosophy (i.e., conscious realism) that's not actually directly connected to (that) evolutionary theory and biology at all. Sure, Hoffman attempts to connect it in the sense that the/his evolutionary stance on perceptions shows us that accurate (or “truthful”, as Hoffman puts it) perceptions of reality are a bad thing. But that's an evolutionary point about survival. It doesn't show us that metaphysical - or even naïve - realism is false. It shows us precisely what it says on the tin: accurate/truthful perceptions of the world may not (or do not) help us survive as a species.


So all the technical detail that Hoffman offers us about this particular evolutionary theory doesn't back up his conscious realism; even though he believes that it does so. This means that the following passage, for example, is either almost irrelevant to Hoffman's philosophical thesis or he's simply dropping mathematical and scientific names in order to back up that thesis. He states:


“When you analyze the equations of evolutionary game theory it turns out that, whenever an organism that sees reality as it is competes with an organism that sees none of reality and is tuned to fitness, the organism that sees reality as it is goes extinct.”

So let's quote Hoffman again. He states:

“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.”

Hoffman claims that this is the standard picture. He then continues:

“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.”

The main argument which follows is that Hoffman assumes the existence of a “reality” (or a “real world”) at precisely the moment that he's at pains to reject it.

For example, in the passage just quoted above, Hoffman puts his foot in it by using the phrase “whenever an organism [] sees reality as it is”, then this or that happens to it. So, again, is Hoffman accepting that there is a reality as it is? No? Yes? Sure, he's also saying that seeing reality as it is has been disadvantageous from an evolutionary point of view. But what has that to do with reality as it is? More relevantly, if our ancestors saw reality as it is (and subsequently died out), then surely that must work against Hoffman's consciousness realism in which there is no reality as it is. All we have, instead, are the contents of minds (or “infinite consciousnesses”) and the subsequent interactions of what he calls “conscious agents”.

Anti-realists also argue that we don't see reality as it is. But that's not the point: Hoffman does and does not believe that there's a reality as it is. He believes that there is a reality as it is when he discusses evolutionary theory/biology (i.e., when discussing our ancestors). And he doesn't believe there is a reality as it is when it comes to his philosophical position of conscious realism.


To repeat: Hoffman states that “our ancestors who saw reality accurately” died out. Nonetheless, Hoffman is still conceding that reality was seen accurately – if by those ancestors who were deselected by evolution. This means that Hoffman believed that there was both a reality and a reality which was seen accurately. The problem, according to Hoffman, is that seeing the world accurately was disadvantageous for those ancestors. However, even if that was indeed the case; it still works against Hoffman's conscious realism and possibly in favour of some kind of metaphysical realism, anti-realism or even naïve realism.

Of course Hoffman can happily accept that these dead species did see reality either in full or in part. So there was indeed a reality to see. It's simply the case that human beings today don't see reality in full – or even in part! This leads us to the possibility that there may be organisms or creatures around today that see reality better than we do! Of course these creatures, in turn, will be deselected (i.e., if Hoffman's thesis is correct). That is, evolution is an ongoing process and that must mean that some/many organisms around today do indeed perceive reality in some shape or form – better than human beings do. It's just that they'll eventually be deselected according to the laws of evolution.


But this isn't quite right!


According to Hoffman's conscious realism, no organism or creature could ever have perceived reality. That's because Hoffman's philosophical thesis has it that all there is to reality is what goes in the heads (which are also “icons”) of cognitive agents - whether rudimentary cognitive agents (say, snails or cats) or sophisticated conscious agents (whether apes or human beings).


So Hoffman can't have it both ways.


He can't stress a consciousness-based philosophy at the same time as admitting that previous species might have got reality right. If conscious realism (which I see as a kind of idealism) is correct, then no species has ever got reality right. All they might have got right is the contents of their own consciousnesses or minds.


Of course the way of of this problem is simply to argue that reality simply is what we discover (as it were) either in our own consciousness or in collective consciousnesses – and that seems to be what Hoffman hints at.


Thus certain creatures (or organisms) dying out is utterly beside the point when it comes to Hoffman's philosophical position – conscious realism.


Hoffman also cites what he calls an “objection” to his position which is useful for the positions expressed in this piece. He writes:


“The question of whether our perceptions are truthful is irrelevant to scientific theories of perception. Those theories aim to understand the internal principles of a biological system.”

So let's rewrite the quote above in this way:

The question of whether our perceptions are truthful - in all evolutionary accounts of perception - is irrelevant to all philosophical/ontological theories of reality. Philosophical theories aim to understand reality regardless of our past - or present - evolutionary shortcomings.

Of course the obvious answer to the above is to claim that we simply can't override (or overcome) our evolutionary shortcomings when it comes to our perceptions of what we take reality (or the world) to be. But this is clearly false. Homo sapiens have overrode (or overcome) many of their evolutionary shortcomings in human history.


For example, our brains weren't designed to do higher maths and board games; though we do higher maths and board games. Similarly, we weren't designed by evolution to keep pets; though we do keep pets. So, in the case of our perceptions, we can override (or overcome) our evolution-caused shortcomings too. Indeed we have done so. More relevantly, we may also override (or overcome) our evolutionary shortcomings when it comes to what we take reality to actually be.


The Zero Reality Theorem

The subheading 'The Zero Reality Theorem' above is meant to be ironic in that Hoffman himself often uses the pretentious and highfalutin word “theorem” (at least that's what it is when used outside of mathematics and logic) for many of his positions. Indeed in this context he calls his position The Fitness Beats Truth Theorem (the FBT Theorem). And that usage needs to be quickly commented upon.


Put simply, a mathematical theorem can be proved from a given set of axioms or premises. A scientific theory, on the other hand, cannot be proved and is often also taken to be falsifiable. (The importance and accuracy of falsifiability in science has been questioned; especially by philosophers.) Now why is Hoffman using the word “theorem” for his scientific and philosophical positions? Is he stating (or implying) that they've literally been proved? Yes he is: Hoffman himself claims that his theorems have been proved (i.e., by Dr. Chetan Prakash at the Department of Mathematics, California State University). At least the mathematical parts have. However, there's much more than mathematics to Hoffman's various theorems (actually, theories). There's the philosophical speculations and the physical science, for a start.

Hoffman makes another mistake when he states:


“It’s very clear. If our senses evolved and were shaped by natural selection, the probability that we see reality as it is is zero.”

The final clause


“the probability that we see reality as it is is zero”

doesn't follow from the first clause:


“If our senses evolved and were shaped by natural selection...”

That is, the final clause doesn't follow unless one already accepts Hoffman's many philosophical assumptions and arguments.


For a start, not seeing reality completely as it is isn't the same thing as seeing “zero” (Hoffman's word) of reality. Evolution might have designed us to see only limited aspects of reality. And that's an old argument.


For example, many philosophers have argued that a “Kantian manifold” (as it were) couldn't be registered by a human brain or by human consciousness. And that's because there's simply too much information or data to take in. However, that doesn't mean that we have zero knowledge of reality or the world.


This is also to ignore the phrase “seeing reality as it is” and what that actually means. One needn't be a metaphysical realist or a naïve realist in order to reject Hoffman's conscious realism; which is, effectively, a collective/pluralist/personalist/etc. idealism. That is, we can't quickly move from our not getting reality in toto to not getting anything of reality at all. And it's that possibility of not getting anything at all which has led to Hoffman to embrace his own conscious realism. Yet that's like stopping eating food simply because one became sick after eating a single mouldy apple.


Conclusion


The final question is this:


Does Hoffman successfully tie his evolutionary account of perceptions to his conscious realism?

More clearly, can we move from our ancestors getting reality wrong and therefore surviving, to our getting reality wrong today? Possibly. However, as already stated, Hoffman seems to concede the following:


i) Some of our ancestors did get reality right.
ii) They didn't survive.
iii) Therefore there was a reality as it is - at least for them.

Now one can agree here and say that all those creatures which saw reality accurately died out. The point is whether or not Hoffman's evolutionary detail backs up - or even entails - his conscious realism. Yes, the long jump from evolutionary theory/biology to Hoffman's conscious realism (or, more simply, to philosophy) is very speculative indeed.


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