Monday, June 4, 2018

The Illusion of Reality

Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.

The Actors

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..."

-        Voices, Dream Theater

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.


  1. I've never understood how philosophical materialists can reconcile their views with human freedom and responsibility. If no immaterial animating principle exists, all human thought and action are the end-products of chemical reactions.

    Agency is an illusion. There is no "ought" or "ought not," only a perpetual "is."

    I punch you in the nose? You can't hold me responsible. The Big Bang and physics made me do it. Try building a theory of justice around that.

  2. Great post.

    Thanks for taking the time.

    Jeff L

  3. "... 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 ... "

    I rarely buy the accuracy of any computer simulation, even if I agree with its conclusions. Garbage In / Garbage Out reigns supreme, does not have to be intentional and is not dependent on frequency.

    I agree with Bionic - Man's reason is inadequate and limited and, therefore, should never be taken too seriously.

    I often have this "reality" argument with a friend of mine. Anyone who has an issue with whether or not reality exists should jump naked from the top of a very tall building. He will receive the answer to his questions regarding reality while simultaneously removing himself from mine. :-P

    1. I'm with you on the computer simulation because I am doubtful there is any algorithm today that within a reasonable amount of variability/error properly models fitness vs reality.

      Plus. Isn't fitness a type of reality? I perceive reality and what I need to change about my reality in a way that makes me more fit? Maybe I just don't understand the distinction.

    2. "I often have this 'reality' argument with a friend of mine. Anyone who has an issue with whether or not reality exists should jump naked from the top of a very tall building. He will receive the answer to his questions regarding reality while simultaneously removing himself from mine."

      Hoffman addresses this point cogently. He suggests that conscious agents develop species-specific user interfaces as a guides to species-specific fitness landscapes. He supposes that our view of reality is similar to what we see when we look at a computer user interface. What we see on the computer screen reveals little to nothing about the actual computations taking place. That file folder icon on your desktop isn't reality. It's a fiction without which the computer would be useless to 99% of humans. Crucially, the interface is meant to hide the truth from us.

      Consider dragging that file folder, which contains years worth of valuable work, to the computer's Trash Bin or Recycle Bin. What reasonable human would do such a thing, make such waste?

      The reason why most people wouldn't jump from tall building is the same reason most people wouldn't throw away years worth of digital work. Even as we know the interface is not a truthful representation of reality, its fictions are useful and our actions nevertheless have consequences.

    3. I have not read Hoffmann, but I wonder what he defines as a "conscious agent". After all if I don't look at a "conscious agent" does he exist?

    4. He says its "consciousness all the way down", alluding to the infinite regress of World Turtles. I don't grok this part of the theory yet.

      I reckon he'd answer your question with, "of course he does."

    5. Hoffman's computer analogy is akin to another discussion that my friend and I have had - the fact that nobody has 100% knowledge of anything. My friend argues that knowledge is an illusion because we are unable to comprehend all knowledge about even the simplest object. I argue that the inability to comprehend everything doesn't mean that what we CAN comprehend is invalid, unreal or useless. If you want to argue that an individual's perception of reality is an illusion, I will dispute that. However, if you want to argue that an individual's perception of reality is incomplete, I will agree with you but I will maintain that incompleteness does not necessarily equal unreality.

      A real example: suppose a person crosses a road and notices an approaching car out of the corner of his eye. He cannot tell you the color, make or model of the car - he may not even be able to tell you that it's a car or truck - but he knows that something is coming towards him and he reacts accordingly. He "reacts" with his incomplete knowledge. and runs or jumps to the curb. His reaction prevents him from being injured or killed - an indisputably useful result, since a non-reaction would prevent him from future interactions with his fellow beings - yet (if my understanding is correct) Mr. Hoffman would argue that the person reacted to imaginary / illusionary stimuli.

      Perhaps the man in our example interpreted what he saw incorrectly - the car, for example may have been parked and he only imagined the car to be moving - but some part of what he perceived will have been "real".

      Your computer file analogy is a bad example and does not address what I was trying to communicate. A deleted file can often be recovered. There is only one known (often disputed) example of a person returning from the dead. Also, I wasn't discussing motivations - I was trying to point out that we can talk about how "unreal" reality is all day but there are certain things, certain events that intrude into Mr. Hoffman's comfortable (and I think somewhat self-righteous) hypothesis that invalidates it. A dead person is no longer available to discuss what reality is - that is the "reality" of the situation, "fitness landscapes" notwithstanding.

      The postulate that reality is an illusion can only lead to depression and inaction, since there is nothing to build on and nothing we do makes any "real" difference. A more profitable discussion would be to discuss what we do know and build on it. We will probably never reach a full understanding in this life but, working with what we have, we can gain more understanding than we currently possess.

    6. EMP, "all the way down" is a funny answer, but does not tell us anything.
      Why would two consciousnesses share the same universe? Let alone a couple of million of them. If that is not coincidence, then is there something in that universe that causes the consciousnesses to pool there? If so, does that something exist independently from the consciousnesses?

      To be honest, I think this whole argument is nonsense. Metaphysics at its worst.

      If I had to pick anything, I would think that the mathematical universe theory that Max Tegmark created makes more sense. And consciousness is then simply a by-product of mathematics.

    7. WB, I agree with the nihilism implicit in the illusion of reality.

      The real question is imo the question "does reality exists independently of the observer". Never mind if that observer is incapable of ever perceiving the true universe.

      To me, the answer to that question is "yes". There is a real existing universe out there, and I accept that we will never know for sure how that universe looks or works.

      Then again, this is what science does: falsifying propositions that describe this real universe. In doing so it hones in on the real universe, but is likely to never reach it.

      This function of science is also what convinces me that there is a real universe. After all, science does seem to narrow down. It converges. If there were no real universe, it stands to reason to expect that science would diverge rather than converge.

    8. Woody, it isn't a question of if reality exists. I preface my comments as I did in the post: I am struggling quite a bit with the concept presented.

      Jumping from the top of a tall the video, Hoffman recognizes that we often act based solely on the reality we see / understand: paraphrased "most of the time it is a convenient shortcut."

      So, when the first man saw a bird jump off a building and fly, he thought "I will try that."

      It turned out that man was not fit.

  4. > Consciousness precedes the physical, it does not proceed from it.

    Riddle me this: if the electron no longer exists when I don't look at it, can you keep it in existence until I next look at it?

    That is a pretty fundamental question I would think. The implications can be staggering...

    1. Pick-a-boo!
      Peep eye … boo

      It gives "out of sight out of mind" a new meaning.

    2. LOL, yes it does.
      But honestly, I wish the philosophers and/or scientists who say "if we don't look at it" would define "we".

  5. Fascinating. Thanks for sharing, BM. I binged on Hoffman last night and will do so again tonight.

    I'm not a scientist or ontological scholar and thus can't add much to this conversation, but I have read a lot materialist literature on the nature of being and reality. I'll never square these circles, not least because I'm agnostic on the question of God, but for those interested in (some of the) prerequisite concepts to Hoffman's hypothesis, check out the following.

    -The Mind-Body Problem, which Hoffman proposes to solve
    -Dualism vs Monism
    -Godel's Incompleteness Theorem (perhaps the most important)
    -"It from bit"
    -Godel, Escher, Bach by Douglas Hofstadter
    -The Information by James Gleick
    -Being No One by Thomas Metzinger
    -Anathem by Neal Stephenson (novel)
    -Blindsight by Peter Watts (novel)

    “Evolution has no foresight. Complex machinery develops its own agendas. Brains — cheat. Feedback loops evolve to promote stable heartbeats and then stumble upon the temptation of rhythm and music. The rush evoked by fractal imagery, the algorithms used for habitat selection, metastasize into art. Thrills that once had to be earned in increments of fitness can now be had from pointless introspection. Aesthetics rise unbidden from a trillion dopamine receptors, and the system moves beyond modeling the organism. It begins to model the very process of modeling. It consumes evermore computational resources, bogs itself down with endless recursion and irrelevant simulations. Like the parasitic DNA that accretes in every natural genome, it persists and proliferates and produces nothing but itself. Metaprocesses bloom like cancer, and awaken, and call themselves I.”

    ― Peter Watts, Blindsight

  6. I forgot to mention Roger Penrose’s The Emperor’s New Mind.

  7. If a tree falls in the forest ...

    It seems to me that there is confusion between the symbol with the object. A tree is not a tree because we make the sounds tree to come out of our mouth (keeping it simple) as an association with an object we observe. The object still exists otherwise blind people would never have to worry about running into them.

    The lion "feeling" satiated. Is not the feeling reality based on chemistry that is not observed?

  8. "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."

    Well, if there is a hungry lion next to a rabbit, that rabbit is going to be much better off if there is also a steak in the room. Just saying..

    1. The "fit" rabbit likely always keeps a steak handy to use as chaff.


  9. Hoffman offers: “as humans, we tend to conflate the limits of our representational system with an insight into the nature of reality.”

    It seems that the more rational a person is, the harder it is to for that person to consider this.

    Jeff L

  10. Perry

    “…the line between following fitness, and following 100% perceived reality (something more or less impossible except to the omniscient), isn't always clear.”

    I may have shortchanged a bit the specifics of the simulations (then again, a video interview would only scratch the surface); I don’t believe Hoffman would disagree…but I struggle with this concept. He agrees that we often act based on the reality we see / understand; he describes this as a convenient shortcut. So, it isn't a sharp line.

    “Not everything in human experience is immediately obvious or perceived, so this is where wisdom and culture, based on long timescale human experience, inform the human organism on how to act, where the primary reason is not immediately seen.”

    This is how I see it, and therefore why I am drawn to Hoffman’s theory.

  11. Another fresh ontological take:

  12. In re-reading: "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. "

    Hmm, how about gravity?
    The electron has mass and contributes to the gravity field of the universe. Does this mean that the electron is under permanent observation?