An unauthorized critical review.
If Donald Hoffman had categorized his book “The Case Against Reality: Why Evolution Hid The Truth From Our Eyes” as new age literature, metaphysical intellectual entertainment, I’d have no complaints. It’s his insistence on passing it off as a serious scientific effort that begs a frank detailed response, (even if I’m only a thoughtful spectator and no academic myself.)
Science is a set of rules and an attitude for observing and striving to understand our physical world, it’s about atoms and molecules, all they create, including biology and our planet’s biosphere, along with the rules all of it follows. Science strives for objectivity, it demands facts and rejects ego driven conclusions.
All of us view the world through our own unique perspective, which of course is the product of genes, upbringing, environment, cumulative learning and experiences that produce inevitable biases in how we perceive the same bits of information. Admittedly, there’s an ocean of difference between the professor and myself.
Donald David Hoffman (12/29/55) is a cognitive psychologist and popular science author. He is a Professor in the Dept of Cognitive Sciences at the University of California, Irvine, with joint appointments in the Dept of Philosophy, the Dept of Logic and Philosophy of Science, and the School of Computer Science.
Hoffman studies consciousness, visual perception and evolutionary psychology using mathematical models and psychophysical experiments. His research subjects include facial attractiveness, the recognition of shape, the perception of motion and color, the evolution of perception, and the mind-body problem. (wiki)
Me, I’m on the outside looking in on academia. Born the same year as Hoffman, mine was a skilled working-man’s life with a passion for learning about Earth’s story through science, personal observation, thinking, reading quality popular publications and books, visiting libraries, museums, then the internet and always pondering the fundamental questions, fitting together pieces of the puzzle, and being astounded at all science was learning and sharing.
In particular, I’ve been impressed that even with all the unexpected surprises over these decades, there remains an underlying harmony and consistency that’s amazing. Our understanding has been like an image coming into better focus as more pixels of information are gathered. Seems like proof that we’ve developed a reasonably accurate understanding, even if some mysteries and surprises remain. We shouldn’t glibly turn our backs on all we've learned.
To hear someone of Hoffman’s stature simply dismiss it all and replace our day to day reality with imagined icons replacing material stuff; reduce Evolution to a computer interface & game theory analogies; topped off with “conscious agents” zinging around like so many photons. It’s mystifying, disconcerting, crazy-making, and a hell of challenge for me to get to work on enunciating a more down to Earth perspective on the Evolution of perceiving the reality we are embedded within.
Hoffman begins his book with a quote from a founding father of science,
I think that tastes, odors, colors, and so on . . .
reside in consciousness. Hence if the living
creature were removed, all these qualities
would be wiped away and annihilated.
In fairness, that was penned a life time before people started understanding the light spectrum, hundreds of years before we started understanding biochemistry and learning about the molecular structures that make up odors and tastes.
Today, we physically understand what creates different tastes, smells and other sensations. We observe how our body receives and processes those sense signals in bewildering detail. Pretending that away is foolish.
It's true that how we ultimately perceive those signals within our minds, remains shrouded in mystery, even as scientists keep learning more details about our brain’s operations.
But, all that is a perception question - it in no way negates the fact that we understand physically, molecularly, what creates those different tastes, smells and other sensations. There’s no mystery, it is material stuff that can be measured, described and replicated.
DH asks: “Why do our senses exist to reveal the truth?” (¶2)
That's not scientific, it's a leading question intent on setting the stage for storytelling. Evolution doesn’t care about truth. “Truth” is a lawyer’s conception that does not translate into the ways and means of our Earth’s living biosphere or evolution.
Senses were honed through experimentation, attrition and experience over eons to better collect incoming information from the environment, process it through neurons and brains into information the mind uses to guide its body’s actions as appropriate in light of immediate real world situations and challenges.
Doing the best one can with what one has, is a better approximation for what’s needed in an ever changing, fast moving, complex reality, where shear luck also plays a role in evolution.
DH: “Why are our eyes, and all our senses, reliable guides? … the real world we assume consists of… objects in space and time. They exist even if no living creature observes them. Our senses are simply a window on this objective reality.” (¶2)
Notice how DH morphs the “real world” of “objects in space and time” into “objective reality,” he does this throughout the book without examining just what his “objective reality” is all about.
DH: “These (scientific) hunches are wrong.” (¶4)
As they say in the movies, them are fightin words.
DH goes on to explain: “It’s that the very language of objects in space and time is simply the wrong language to describe objective reality. This is not a hunch. It is a theorem of evolution by natural selection that wallops our hunches.” (¶4)
Here again Hoffman points to ‘objective reality’ - but objectivity, or the lack thereof, is a product that unfolds within our minds, it is a conscious property, not a physical one.
DH: “It is a theorem of evolution by natural selection that wallops our hunches.” (¶4)
Hoffman declares victory by presenting his theorem as though that settled it. Theorems are manmade concoctions that require assumptions and judgement calls to be made, with limits to their applicability.
DH: “This is what evolution has done. It has endowed us with senses that hide the truth and display the simple icons we need to survive long enough to raise offspring. Space as you perceive it when you look around, is just your desktop - a 3D desktop.” (¶8)
“… I explain why evolution hid objective reality and endowed us instead with an interface of objects in space and time.” (¶13)
This sounds mighty close to dancing with some sort of Intelligent Design notions. Why write off the experiences of over a hundred generations of observers, not to mention the full range of Earth sciences these past few hundred years, with their increasingly sophisticated observation equipment - that consistently produce surprises, yet those surprises as consistently make sense in hindsight as we learn things we didn’t know before. All pointing to an overall harmonious and accurate (if incomplete) understanding of the physical reality our minds are embedded within.
All of that Hoffman theatrically dismisses as a ‘hunch’ - that’s entertainment, not science.
DH: “Together, we will explore how this counter intuitive idea dovetails with discoveries in physics that are equally counter intuitive.” (¶13)
Here Hoffman refers to his explorations of the quantum realm at the very divide between physical matter and energy. The reality of single atoms, in a world where ~5,000,000,000,000 atoms can dance on the head of a pin.
Hoffman never justifies transferring experimental conclusions from that realm of physics at its absolute tiniest, up into our human macroscopic reality of measurable solid substances and organisms with lives unfolding within an inescapable space and time. But he certainly does it.
DH: “In chapter 7, we wade into the curious and curiouser: spacetime is just a data format . . . “ (¶22)
Hoffman conveniently overlooks the profound divide between our perceptions and physical reality. He speaks of our “objective reality” as though it were our “physical reality” - which it certainly isn’t.
DH: “If our senses hide reality behind an interface then what is that reality? I don’t know. But in chapter 10 we explore the idea that conscious experiences are fundamental…” (¶26)
DH: “Perhaps the universe itself is a massive social network of conscious agents that experiment, decide and act. . . . Instead, matter and spacetime arise from consciousness - as a perpetual interface” (¶27)
By confusing physical reality with our perception of reality, Hoffman ends up with a muddle that’s of no use in our pragmatic world - but it makes for a beguiling story that seems to sell well.
A critique of Donald Hoffman’s “Case Against Reality - Why Evolution Hide The Truth From Our Eyes” provides a framework to better enunciate a more down to Earth vision of our human condition and to explore the profound divide between our "Mindscapes" and the Physical Reality that created us and that we exist within.
My life is crowded with other obligations taking priority, so it will be slow going, still I've been spending months getting to know his book. Now I’ll keep plugging away at my notes on his chapters and share my results as I can write them up.
Cc’s Students’ Guide, a work in progress.
Frontiers in Psychology - June 17, 2014
Student Resources - Background:
More to come . . .
Feel free to copy and share
Email: citizenschallenge gmail com
Public notice to W.W.Norton Co and Donald Hoffman:
Donald Hoffman Playing Basketball in Zero-Gravity,
a critical review:
The Case Against Reality :
Why Evolution Hid The Truth From Our Eyes
By Donald Hoffman
Published August 13th 2019
Publisher: W.W. Norton Company
©all rights reserved
I hereby claim FairUse on the grounds that Donald Hoffman’s “The Case Against Reality” is part of an ongoing public dialogue which Hoffman explicitly encourages others to join. He invited critique and I accept his challenge.
I intend to be a witness for a fact based DeepTime, Evolutionary perspective on our “human mind” -“physical reality” interface.
To do Hoffman’s arguments justice I’m compelled to reprint quite a few of them as I go through his book and I appreciate both W.W. Norton Company and Donald Hoffman’s understanding, and I hope for their consent.
email: citizenschallenge at gmail
Students Introduction to Reality Based Brain/Consciousness Research
Consciousness: here, there and everywhere? Giulio Tononi and Christof Koch
The Integrated Information Theory of Consciousness, Dr. Christof Koch,
Allen Institute for Brain Science, Coding & Vision 101, 12-part undergraduate-level lecture series
Some Elements of an Evolutionary Theory of Perception
Perceptual Systems, Historical Background, Innate And Learned Classical perceptual phenomena, Broad theoretical approaches, Current research/future developments.
Agnes Szokolszky, Catherine Read, Zsolt Palatinus, et al., 2019
Eric P. Charles, 2017,
Kristian Tylén, Riccardo Fusaroli, Sergio Rojo, et al. PNAS 2020
doi.org/10.1146/annurev-earth-082517-010120, March 21, 2018
Eve R. Schneider, Elena O. Gracheva, and Slav N. Bagriantsev, 2016
Leda Cosmides & John Tooby, Handbook of Emotions, 2000
Simon Neubauer, Jean-Jacques Hublin and Philipp Gunz, 2018:
Rainer Mausfeld, PhD.
By: Stephen Burnett, PhD, Nature Education Knowledge 3(10):75
H. Clark Barrett
by: Andrea Korte, February 19, 2017
The bottom line:
Mysteries of Modern Physics by Sean Carroll
Jan 29, 2020 - Darwin College Lecture Series
. . . these are the particles that make up you and this table and me and this laptop and really everything that you have ever seen with your eyes touched with your fingers smelled with your nose in your life.
Furthermore we know how they interact with each other and even better than that, the most impressive fact is that there will not be a discovery tomorrow or next century or a million years from now which says you know what there was another particle or another force that we didn't know about but now we realize plays a crucial role in our everyday life.
As far as our everyday life is concerned by which I really mean what you can see with your eyes touch with your hands etc we’redone finding the underlying ingredients. That is an enormous achievement in human history one that does not get enough credit, because of course as soon as we do it we go on to the next thing.
Physics is not done. I'm not saying that physics is done, but physics has understood certain things and those things include everything you encounter in your everyday life - unless you're a professional experimental physicist or unless you're looking of course outside our everyday life at the universe and other places where we don't know what’s going on. …