Will the future bring us closer to or further away from reality?
BY MARK VICKERS
“Now my own suspicion is that the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose,” British scientist J.B.S. Haldrane famously said.
These days, there’s more evidence to support his suspicion, if we are to believe Donald D. Hoffman, a professor of cognitive science at the University of California, Irvine.
A paper that Hoffman co-wrote with Justin T. Mark and Brian B. Marion describes how they examined the argument that animals with veridical perceptions (that is, perceptions that more accurately depict the objective environment) are selected by evolution to be “fittest” so that their genes survive into the future. To test the idea, they used ‘‘interface games,’’ which are a class of evolutionary games wherein perceptual strategies compete.
We explore, in closed-form solutions and Monte Carlo simulations, some simpler games that assume frequency dependent selection and complete mixing in infinite populations. We find that veridical perceptions can be driven to extinction by non-veridical strategies that are tuned to utility rather than objective reality. This suggests that natural selection need not favor veridical perceptions….
In other words, the truth is not the key to winning a game of evolution. Practicality is. For example, let’s say a frog has evolved to capture specific kinds of flying insects with its tongue. Does the frog need to see such insects as they “really are,” or does it just need to see them in a way that increases its chance of catching the insects. Maybe the frog has evolved to “see” a tasty insect as a flaming ball that stands out against everything else. whereas we would see it as a brown fly barely distinguishable from other nearby bugs.
In short, the frog does not need to see the insect objectively; rather, it needs to see it in a way that maximizes its chance of getting a meal.
Are human beings in the same boat? Well, we know that a lot of our perceptions are based on illusions rather than reality, as demonstrated in various cognitive science experiments (not to mention magic tricks and TV shows such as Brain Games). Think about something as simple as quickly waving your hand back and forth in front of your face. Do you see the hand moving? Not really. You see a blur that you assume is your hand. Does your hand suddenly become stretched and transparent? No, it’s just a visual effect to which we’ve grown so accustomed that we never think about it.
But this illustration probably understates how poorly we understand the reality of our environments. We do not, for example, need to understand the reality behind a poisonous snake. We just need enough perception and instinct to avoid it. The same goes for a hurtling train. In an interview with The Atlantic, Hoffman states:
Snakes and trains, like the particles of physics, have no objective, observer-independent features. 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. My snakes and trains are my mental representations; your snakes and trains are your mental representations.
Hoffman posits that our perceptions of reality may be wildly disassociated from what’s truly “out there.” He uses the example of an icon on your computing instrument of choice. The icon is very useful and helps you launch whatever application you need, but does the icon tell you much about the underlying workings and reality of the computer? No, it’s strictly a utilitarian digital object. Hoffman states, “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.”
So, if our cognition is just a useful illusion conjured up by the djinn of evolution, then do we have any hope of understanding reality, whatever that may mean?
Hoffman is fairly optimistic in this regard. In a 2015 Ted Talk, he stated:
[T]his does not stop us from a successful science. What we have is one theory that turned out to be false, that perception is like reality and reality is like our perceptions. That theory turns out to be false. Okay, throw that theory away. That doesn’t stop us from now postulating all sorts of other theories about the nature of reality, so it’s actually progress to recognize that one of our theories was false. So science continues as normal. There’s no problem here.
Maybe we can get closer to perceiving our underlying reality. We certainly seem to have a yearning to do so. As a species, we have an endless curiosity about the world, which has sparked our continual myth-making and scientific investigations.
This raises at least two key issues.
First, does getting us closer to reality help us or harm us? It’s not an idle question. Our insights into the atomic world have given us nuclear weapons, with their potential to destroy humanity and, perhaps, all life on the planet. On the other hand, this knowledge has also given us innumerable positive inventions, from life-saving drugs to medical-scanning techniques to nuclear energy. In short, enhancing our veridical perception seems to be a double-edged sword, one that could easily prove deadly if mishandled.
The late, great horror author H. P. Lovecraft eloquently made this point in his short story “The Call of Cthulhu.”
The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.
A second critical issue is the emerging roles of augmented and virtual reality devices. We are just beginning to develop and use AR and VR, but we can already see where the trend is taking is: allowing us to alter our perceptions of our environment in new ways. These technologies can conceivably be used for three purposes:
- To conjure brand-new perceived realities. Imagine using VR or AR to build and explore fantasy worlds, or to overlay fantastical elements over our day-to-day reality (e.g., spotting a dragon emerging from your cup of coffee).
- To enhance our current perceptions. Imagine using AR to give us additional information about something in our field of view, such as a piece of artwork. It can also be used to give us added perceptions, such as when a doctor can see into a patient’s body via the digital equivalent of x-ray vision.
- To boost our veridical perceptions. Imagine using AR or VR to give us a sense of the world that is, based on scientific investigation, closer to objective reality.
Although we tend to be familiar and even comfortable with the first two usages of AR/VR, the third usage is seldom discussed. Let’s say, for example, that we can learn to model quantum fluctuations and make them perceivable via AR or VR. Would this, in a sense, enhance our veridical perceptions? And, if it could, what new insights would it bring?
We can’t yet know, of course. Maybe we are biologically incapable of achieving much in the way of insights. Or maybe those insights would represent the “terrifying vistas” to which Lovecraft alludes or the sublime experiences of mad artists or spiritual seekers. Ultimately, they could give us powerful new intuitions that make our knowledge of the quantum and atomic worlds pale by comparison.
When we think about the future, we often focus on issues such as artificial intelligence or digital immortality or space travel. But it’s possible that reality itself, rather than space, is the final frontier, one that may stretch out further than the universe itself into the realms of infinity.