Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.
As you know, I am generally favorable to the work of Jordan Peterson. As this became a significant issue for some readers, coincidentally a then-recent video offered me the opportunity to take issue with a few of Peterson’s comments / views. Out of the subsequent discussion, I was offered a video by Paul VanderKlay: Did God exist before people? Jordan Peterson, Matt Dillahunty, Don Hoffman. This sent me on a long and complex journey, but one very worthwhile (assuming I actually understood any of it).
First, to introduce some of the characters (you already know Peterson).
Paul VanderKlay (PVK): “I’m the pastor of Living Stones Christian Reformed Church in Sacramento California.”
He has reached some level of prominence via a series of videos discussing Peterson’s work.
Matt Dillahunty is an American atheist activist.
In 2011, he married The Atheist Experience colleague and co-host of the Godless Bitches podcast Beth Presswood. Dillahunty describes himself as a feminist.
Well, Godless feminist (is it “feminist” to refer to women as “bitches”?). Anyway, you get the idea.
I offer the longest introduction to Hoffman, as it is his work that is of import to this discussion:
Don Hoffman is an American quantitative psychologist and popular science author. He is a Professor in the Department of Cognitive Sciences at the University of California, Irvine, with joint appointments in the Department of Philosophy, the Department 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.
Hoffman has a Ph. D. from MIT, which may not be everything, but it isn’t nothing.
In the video, PVK is examining a discussion between Peterson and Dillahunty (I also watched this video; as PVK points out, the two are speaking different languages as you might have already surmised). To aid in his examination, PVK offers the work of Hoffman (whose research buttresses Peterson’s views to a large extent, therefore making Dillahunty’s head hurt). As PVK describes it in the video description:
Jordan Peterson's answer about God reveals his knowledge of the relationship between consciousness and matter. Materialists struggle to understand what he's talking about.
Dillahunty would be considered one of the struggling materialists:
Materialism is a form of philosophical monism which holds that matter is the fundamental substance in nature, and that all things, including mental aspects and consciousness, are results of material interactions….Materialism is closely related to physicalism, the view that all that exists is ultimately physical.
Materialism can refer either to the simple preoccupation with the material world, as opposed to intellectual or spiritual concepts, or to the theory that physical matter is all there is. This theory is far more than a simple focus on material possessions. It states that everything in the universe is matter, without any true spiritual or intellectual existence.
As best as I can understand it: all that can be known about reality is to be found in what is physical; reason is grounded in this. Look, I have had to watch the entire PVK video three times, and excerpts of it multiple additional times. These are difficult concepts for me to grasp. If any of this is of interest to you, watch the video. (As with all commentaries based on videos, I will do my best to capture the precise words.)
So, what are my key takeaways and how are these applicable (or not) to some of the long-running dialogue at this site?
Reality is Immaterial
"Everything is immaterial..."
"'n' you know that reality is immaterial."
"This is not reality..."
Hoffman has a view about the relationship between matter and consciousness. “Do we see reality as it is?” Keep in mind, Hoffman is neither magician nor evangelist, nor is he asking a trick question.
“Does natural selection really favor seeing reality is it is?” Hoffman answers no. “Evolution entails that we almost surely do not see reality as it is.” Instead, he offers that natural selection favors those who are most fit.
He describes “fitness” via an example: a steak enhances fitness for a hungry lion, it does not enhance fitness for a satiated lion looking to mate, and doesn’t enhance fitness for a rabbit in any state.
He suggests that “space and time and physical objects are a species-specific desktop.” We (humans) sense things the way we sense things. This is not necessarily how other species sense the same thing; it is not necessarily all that there is to sense.
Fitness depends on the organism, its state and its action. It is not reality as it is, but fitness, which determines the organisms that survived through evolution. Hoffmann tested this by running hundreds of simulations, varying the levels of reality seen and fitness, in order to see “who wins.”
His conclusion? “Perception of reality” organisms go extinct. Organisms that see none of reality but perceive fitness survive. Let this – and its implications – sink in.
The Money Line
Of course, we act based on our perceptions of reality. Hoffman considers this a convenient shortcut, sufficient most of the time. But it is not sufficient if one wants to understand which organisms won the evolutionary game. Therefore, it seems to me that it is not sufficient if one wants to understand how to sustain life.
Hoffman offers: “as humans, we tend to conflate the limits of our representational system with an insight into the nature of reality.”
PVK suggests “that’s where Dellahunty goes wrong.”
I will preface my comments: what Hoffman ascribes to evolution, I ascribe to God; however, I will use the language of evolution to remain consistent with Hoffman’s work. Also, my takeaways are not necessarily the same as those from PVK.
This science suggests that man’s reason cannot explain man’s evolutionary survival. If accepting that the reality of the physical world is your religion – all can be explained by man’s reason – you are stuck.
Instead, organisms survived not by basing choices on the reality offered by their senses but by their fitness. How would an organism – any creature – come to understand its fitness? How would it know anything beyond what it could sense? If we are to avoid “God” as the answer, all that is left is custom and tradition.
We look to physical matter in order to figure out from where consciousness arises; Hoffman suggests we have it backwards – the consciousness came before the physical world.
Hoffman calls it evolution; I call it God.
Does an electron have a physical property when it is not observed? Hoffman offers that this question has been scientifically dealt with, and that the answer is no. Consciousness precedes the physical, it does not proceed from it.
He offers John Bell’s Theorem (Bell’s Inequalities) as evidence. Here is the link, way too heavy for me. There have been over a dozen very careful tests since then, and in every case the experiments come out compatible with the interpretation. This doesn’t force a theoretical interpretation, it only doesn’t disprove it.
Hoffman: since electrons are nothing but our symbols (a human-species interpretation of reality), it is no surprise that the symbols don’t exist when they are not observed. They only exist when they are observed because they are the symbols that represent our observations.