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A cognitive scientist’s “evolutionary argument against reality”

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From Douglas Hoffman, interviewed at Quanta:

Quanta Magazine: People often use Darwinian evolution as an argument that our perceptions accurately reflect reality. They say, “Obviously we must be latching onto reality in some way because otherwise we would have been wiped out a long time ago. If I think I’m seeing a palm tree but it’s really a tiger, I’m in trouble.”

Hoffmann: Right. 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. 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. More.

Critics, especially ID-friendly ones, tend to respond by asking: Why those who embrace this view think that their prejudices are somehow more valid than others?

It’s really hard to get this across to bookish, well-meaning types of people but here goes: The attitude is not new and the answer to the objection is quite simple. Their prejudices are not better than anyone else’s but once they have acquired political and cultural power, they can enforce them on the rest of us anyway. That is  as good as reality for them. Actually better.

Darwinism, for example, is at its most immensely powerful in our culture when there is no pretense of objective accuracy, just depth of commitment. Which is why, in the end, the Royal Society was not able to hold a serious meeting about rethinking evolution in the light of new discoveries, just a dumbed-down, watered-down one.

That makes sense though. Curiosity about the nature of the world we live in is fungible if our perceptions cannot be accurate. But power is a drug, one that naturalists seem to need a lot of.

C.S. Lewis put it like this:

When all that says ‘it is good’ has been debunked, what says ‘I want’ remains. (…) The Conditioners, therefore, must come to be motivated simply by their own pleasure. (…) My point is that those who stand outside all judgements of value cannot have any ground for preferring one of their own impulses to another except the emotional strength of that impulse. (…) I am very doubtful myself whether the benevolent impulses, stripped of that preference and encouragement which the Tao teaches us to give them and left to their merely natural strength and frequency as psychological events, will have much influence. I am very doubtful whether history shows us one example of a man who, having stepped outside traditional morality and attained power, has used that power benevolently. – The Abolition of Man

See also: Tom Wolfe on Evolution as a Theory of Everything: In The Kingdom of Speech, Wolfe understands this element of cultural belief. Evidence is superfluous  but sometimes trotted out for show amid contentedly stupefied belief. – O’Leary for News

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7 Replies to “A cognitive scientist’s “evolutionary argument against reality”

  1. 1
    bornagain77 says:

    Although Hoffman tries to limit his results to just visual perceptions and ignore the conclusions as applied to our cognitive faculties more generally, the following article rightly points out that there is no reason to suppose that his results should not be applied more generally to our cognitive faculties overall:

    The Case Against Reality – May 13, 2016
    Excerpt: Hoffman seems to come to a conclusion similar to the one Alvin Plantinga argues in ch. 10 of Where the Conflict Really Lies: we should not expect — in the absence of further argument — that creatures formed by a naturalistic evolutionary process would have veridical perceptions.,,,
    First, even if Hoffman’s argument were restricted to visual perception, and not to our cognitive faculties more generally (e.g., memory, introspection, a priori rational insight, testimonial belief, inferential reasoning, etc.), the conclusion that our visual perceptions would be wholly unreliable given natural selection would be sufficient for Plantinga’s conclusion of self-defeat. After all, reliance upon the veridicality of our visual perceptions was and always will be crucial for any scientific argument for the truth of evolution. So if these perceptions cannot be trusted, we have little reason to think evolutionary theory is true.
    Second, it’s not clear that Hoffman’s application of evolutionary game theory is only specially applicable to visual perception, rather than being relevant for our cognitive faculties generally. If “we find that veridical perceptions can be driven to extinction by non-veridical strategies that are tuned to utility rather than objective reality” (2010, p. 504, my emphasis), then why wouldn’t veridical cognitive faculties (more generally) be driven to extinction by non-veridical strategies that are tuned to utility rather than objective reality? After all, evolutionary theory purports to be the true account of the formation of all of our cognitive faculties, not just our faculty of visual perception. If evolutionary game theory proves that “true perception generally goes extinct” when “animals that perceive the truth compete with others that sacrifice truth for speed and energy-efficiency” (2008), why wouldn’t there be a similar sacrifice with respect to other cognitive faculties? In fact, Hoffman regards the following theorem as now proven: “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” (Atlantic interview). But then wouldn’t it also be the case that an organism that cognizes reality as it is will never be more fit than an organism of equal complexity that cognizes none of reality but is just tuned to fitness? On the evolutionary story, every cognitive faculty we have was produced by a process that was tuned to fitness (rather than tuned to some other value, such as truth).

    Moreover, completely contrary to what Hoffman found for Darwinian theory, accurate perception, i.e. conscious observation, far from being unreliable and illusory, is experimentally found to be far more integral to reality, i.e. far more reliable of reality, than the math of population genetics said it would be. In the following experiment, it was found that reality doesn’t exist without an observer.

    New Mind-blowing Experiment Confirms That Reality Doesn’t Exist If You Are Not Looking at It – June 3, 2015
    Excerpt: The results of the Australian scientists’ experiment, which were published in the journal Nature Physics, show that this choice is determined by the way the object is measured, which is in accordance with what quantum theory predicts.
    “It proves that measurement is everything. At the quantum level, reality does not exist if you are not looking at it,” said lead researcher Dr. Andrew Truscott in a press release.,,,
    “The atoms did not travel from A to B. It was only when they were measured at the end of the journey that their wave-like or particle-like behavior was brought into existence,” he said.
    Thus, this experiment adds to the validity of the quantum theory and provides new evidence to the idea that reality doesn’t exist without an observer.

    “Look, we all have fun ridiculing the creationists who think the world sprang into existence on October 23, 4004 BC at 9AM (presumably Babylonian time), with the fossils already in the ground, light from distant stars heading toward us, etc. But if we accept the usual picture of quantum mechanics, then in a certain sense the situation is far worse: the world (as you experience it) might as well not have existed 10^-43 seconds ago!”
    – Scott Aaronson – MIT associate Professor quantum computation – Lecture 11: Decoherence and Hidden Variables

    Apparently science itself could care less if atheists are forced to believe, because of the math of population genetics, that their observations of reality are illusory!

    Moreover, given the materialistic/atheistic premises of Darwinian evolution, not only are our observations of reality itself held to be illusory, but even our sense of self, i.e. the belief that we really exist as real persons, which is the most sure thing we can know about reality, becomes illusory too.

    “that “You”, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. As Lewis Carroll’s Alice might have phrased: “You’re nothing but a pack of neurons.” This hypothesis is so alien to the ideas of most people today that it can truly be called astonishing.”
    Francis Crick – “The Astonishing Hypothesis” 1994

    “We have so much confidence in our materialist assumptions (which are assumptions, not facts) that something like free will is denied in principle. Maybe it doesn’t exist, but I don’t really know that. Either way, it doesn’t matter because if free will and consciousness are just an illusion, they are the most seamless illusions ever created. Film maker James Cameron wishes he had special effects that good.”
    Matthew D. Lieberman – neuroscientist – materialist – UCLA professor

    The Confidence of Jerry Coyne – Ross Douthat – January 6, 2014
    Excerpt: But then halfway through this peroration, we have as an aside the confession (by Coyne) that yes, okay, it’s quite possible given materialist premises that “our sense of self is a neuronal illusion.” At which point the entire edifice suddenly looks terribly wobbly — because who, exactly, is doing all of this forging and shaping and purpose-creating if Jerry Coyne, as I understand him (and I assume he understands himself) quite possibly does not actually exist at all? The theme of his argument is the crucial importance of human agency under eliminative materialism, but if under materialist premises the actual agent is quite possibly a fiction, then who exactly is this I who “reads” and “learns” and “teaches,” and why in the universe’s name should my illusory self believe Coyne’s bold proclamation that his illusory self’s purposes are somehow “real” and worthy of devotion and pursuit? (Let alone that they’re morally significant: But more on that below.) Prometheus cannot be at once unbound and unreal; the human will cannot be simultaneously triumphant and imaginary.
    Per NY Times

    Atheistic Materialism – Does Richard Dawkins Exist? – video 37:51 minute mark
    Quote: “You can spout a philosophy that says scientific materialism, but there aren’t any scientific materialists to pronounce it.,,, That’s why I think they find it kind of embarrassing to talk that way. Nobody wants to stand up there and say, “You know, I’m not really here”.

    At the 23:33 minute mark of the following video, Richard Dawkins agrees with materialistic philosophers who say that:
    “consciousness is an illusion”
    A few minutes later Rowan Williams asks Dawkins
    ”If consciousness is an illusion… what isn’t?”.

    Thus, in what I personally consider to be a shining example of poetic justice, in their claim that God does not really exist as a real person but is merely an illusion, the naturalist also ends up claiming that he himself does not really exist as a real person but is merely an illusion.
    In other words, given the materialistic premises of Darwinian evolution, people become illusions whose observations of reality are illusory.
    And exactly why in blue blazes should anyone trust what illusions having illusions have to say about reality? Especially when it comes to scientific matters?

    Without God, everything within the atheistic/naturalistic worldview, (i.e. sense of self. observation of reality, free will, even reality itself), collapses into self refuting, unrestrained, flights of fantasies and imagination.

    Atheistic Materialism/Naturalism – Where All of Reality Becomes an Illusion – video

    Because of such catastrophic epistemological failure inherent within Darwinian Evolution and Atheistic materialism in general, it would be hard to fathom a more unscientific worldview than Darwinian evolution and Atheistic materialism have turned out to be.

    Verses, Videos and Music:

    2 Corinthians 10:5
    Casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ;

    2 Peter 1:16
    For we have not followed cunningly devised fables, when we made known unto you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of his majesty.

    Shroud of Turin: From discovery of Photographic Negative, to 3D Information, to Quantum Hologram

    The Resurrection of Jesus Christ from Death as the “Theory of Everything” – video

    Hillsong United – Taya Smith – Touch The Sky – Acoustic Cover – Live – HD

  2. 2
    bornagain77 says:

    Of related note, besides the mathematics of population genetics showing us that accurate visual perceptions, (and reliable cognitive faculties), will be, to use Hoffman’s words ‘driven to extinction’, the mathematics of population genetics also shows us that life itself will be ‘driven to extinction’:

    Can Purifying Natural Selection Preserve Biological Information? – May 2013 –
    Paul Gibson, John R. Baumgardner, Wesley H. Brewer, John C. Sanford
    In conclusion, numerical simulation shows that realistic levels of biological noise result in a high selection threshold. This results in the ongoing accumulation of low-impact deleterious mutations, with deleterious mutation count per individual increasing linearly over time. Even in very long experiments (more than 100,000 generations), slightly deleterious alleles accumulate steadily, causing eventual extinction. These findings provide independent validation of previous analytical and simulation studies [2–13]. Previous concerns about the problem of accumulation of nearly neutral mutations are strongly supported by our analysis. Indeed, when numerical simulations incorporate realistic levels of biological noise, our analyses indicate that the problem is much more severe than has been acknowledged, and that the large majority of deleterious mutations become invisible to the selection process.,,,

    Genetic Entropy – references to several peer reviewed numerical simulations analyzing and falsifying evolution (via John Sanford and company)!properties/ctzx

    Of supplemental note to falsifying human evolution in particular, through population genetics, is this paper “The Waiting Time Problem in a Model Hominin Population.”:

    The Origin of Man and the “Waiting Time” Problem – John Sanford – August 10, 2016
    Excerpt: My colleagues and I recently published a paper in Theoretical Biology and Medical Modeling, “The Waiting Time Problem in a Model Hominin Population.” It is one of the journal’s “highly accessed” articles. A pre-human hominin population of roughly 10,000 individuals is thought to have evolved into modern man, during a period of less than six million years. This would have required the establishment of a great deal of new biological information. That means, minimally, millions of specific beneficial mutations, and a large number of specific beneficial sets of mutations, selectively fixed in this very short period of time. We show that there is simply not enough time for this type of evolution to have occurred in the population from which we supposedly arose.
    Historically, Darwin-defenders have argued that time is on their side. They have claimed that given enough time, any evolutionary scenario is feasible. They have consistently argued that given millions of years, very large amounts of new biologically meaningful information can arise by the Darwinian process of mutation/selection. However, careful analysis of what is required to establish even a single genetic “word” (a short functional string of genetic letters) within a hominin genome shows just the opposite. Even given tens of millions of years, there is not enough time to generate the genetic equivalent of the simplest “word” (two or more nucleotides). Even in a hundred billion years, much longer than the age of the universe, there is not enough time to establish the genetic equivalent of a very simple “sentence” (ten or more nucleotides). This problem is so fundamental that it justifies a complete re-assessment of the basic Darwinian mechanism.

    The waiting time problem in a model hominin population – 2015 Sep 17
    John Sanford, Wesley Brewer, Franzine Smith, and John Baumgardner
    Excerpt: The program Mendel’s Accountant realistically simulates the mutation/selection process,,,
    Given optimal settings, what is the longest nucleotide string that can arise within a reasonable waiting time within a hominin population of 10,000? Arguably, the waiting time for the fixation of a “string-of-one” is by itself problematic (Table 2). Waiting a minimum of 1.5 million years (realistically, much longer), for a single point mutation is not timely adaptation in the face of any type of pressing evolutionary challenge. This is especially problematic when we consider that it is estimated that it only took six million years for the chimp and human genomes to diverge by over 5 % [1]. This represents at least 75 million nucleotide changes in the human lineage, many of which must encode new information.
    While fixing one point mutation is problematic, our simulations show that the fixation of two co-dependent mutations is extremely problematic – requiring at least 84 million years (Table 2). This is ten-fold longer than the estimated time required for ape-to-man evolution. In this light, we suggest that a string of two specific mutations is a reasonable upper limit, in terms of the longest string length that is likely to evolve within a hominin population (at least in a way that is either timely or meaningful). Certainly the creation and fixation of a string of three (requiring at least 380 million years) would be extremely untimely (and trivial in effect), in terms of the evolution of modern man.
    It is widely thought that a larger population size can eliminate the waiting time problem. If that were true, then the waiting time problem would only be meaningful within small populations. While our simulations show that larger populations do help reduce waiting time, we see that the benefit of larger population size produces rapidly diminishing returns (Table 4 and Fig. 4). When we increase the hominin population from 10,000 to 1 million (our current upper limit for these types of experiments), the waiting time for creating a string of five is only reduced from two billion to 482 million years.

  3. 3
    EvilSnack 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.

    “If I stop taking heroin I’ll live longer.”
    “Yes, but you’ll never live longer than a person who takes heroin and lives just as long.”

  4. 4
    davidt says:

    A whole lot of nothing about a single article about a single guy with a very unoriginal idea postulated by niels bohr called the Copenhagen interpretation. Contrary to the article Reality actually does exist!! Wowser, and its independent of the observer not dependent on the observer nor is it separate from the observer. To much thinking is dangerously stupid. Breathe. One reality.

  5. 5
    ScuzzaMan says:

    I’m still not clear on how an organism becomes “tuned to fitness”?

    This strikes me as a particularly extreme case of handwaving reality away as inconvenient. By what mechanism does an organism, that doesn’t have any kind of perception of reality, become tuned to the fitness equation of its local reality?

    I’m pretty sure this entire line of reasoning is driven by stupidity, and I’m tending strongly toward the conclusion that the stupidity is not mine.

    But I could be wrong.

    How is this supposed to happen?

    Is there an example of such a creature?

  6. 6

    Excellent post. I especially like the following:

    “Critics, especially ID-friendly ones, tend to respond by asking: Why those who embrace this view think that their prejudices are somehow more valid than others?”

    Answer: Because they are willfully blind, or alternatively…they are stupid.

  7. 7
    News says:

    Truth Will Set You Free at 6, the attraction of the theory is not its demonstration but its potential applications to society.

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