Is Our Perception of Reality an Illusion?
What if everything we see is just a limited, filtered version of the real thing?
I have a tendency towards longer-form posts, but it occurs to me that I’m consuming content every day that may be of interest to fellow travelers out there who are searching for the same answers I am. With that in mind, I intend to intersperse my longer essays with short informational posts, perhaps occasionally just collections of links with very brief summaries, so that others can consider the material if they so choose.
A podcast I watched a month or so ago has really stuck with me, and by that I mean that I think about it almost every day. It’s a difficult podcast to follow, because the concepts seem nearly incomprehensible. The podcast is a conversation between Lex Fridman and Donald Hoffman. Hoffman is a cognitive scientist at UC Irvine who has (if memory serves me correctly on the discussion, since it has been a while) been running probability experiments based on whatever known formulas apply to evolution theory. I’m not a scientist, so I may be gumming up the details. In any case, he and his team have concluded that the probability of organic life evolving sense organs that accurately perceive reality is zero.
The idea, if I grok it, is that evolution is a very efficient process. Once a comfortable survival equilibrium is reached, the pressure to adapt in order to pass on successful genetic material drops off very rapidly. Or at least, it becomes more or less irrelevant in the broader scheme of species traits. Consequently, once a species perceives reality well enough to survive and flourish, its perceptual abilities tend not to continue to develop beyond that point.
Hoffman concludes that our view on reality is, therefore, a construct. He compares it to things like a virtual reality headset, which shows us limited information, but not all information. Or, to use an example I really liked, he talked about how when we’re working at a computer, typing away on a keyboard, we’re engaging with a simplified interface that activates the inner workings of a complex machine. We’re not directly manipulating electrons and circuits, but instead working with something dumbed down enough that we can readily grasp it while it converts our input into more complex processes at the level of the machine’s inner mechanics.
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Examples of how we can only perceive certain layers of reality are easy enough to find. Think about how some birds can see more colors than we can, and dogs can hear frequencies inaudible to us. Or how pit vipers have infrared vision, or bats can navigate by echolocation, etc. Human beings don’t have every sense power that animals do, which means it’s demonstrably true that there are parts of reality we can only perceive in limited ways.
But what if it goes way deeper? Hoffman brings up, several times, the growing consensus of physicists that “space time is doomed” — which, based on some googling around to help me understand it better, has to do with the way Quantum Physics is forcing an expansion of Newtonian views.
(A whole talk on this from Nima Arkani-Hamed here. Haven’t watched it yet, but I plan to.)
All of this has got me thinking differently about the universe and its limitations. Things like the speed of light might, in fact, not be a hard and fast law, but only a law within the constraints of conventional physics. This could help to explain why the current discussion of UFOs focuses on certain observable characteristics that distinguish them from what our aircraft, firmly rooted in Newton’s laws, can do. Things like instantaneous acceleration, hypersonic speeds with no “signature,” no visible means of propulsion, etc. It might also explain how, if their origins are actually extra-terrestrial, they could come from star systems that would be thousands of years away, even at light speed.
But it also makes me think about other possible realities, like the supernatural realm. If such things exist, they must exist somewhere, even if you have to redefine “somewhere” to mean something different than what it would conventionally mean.
In any case, it’s a discussion that is decidedly nerdy, and even if you’re like me and don’t understand or even accept everything discussed, it really gets the thought-juices going. I hope you find it as thought-provoking as I did:
Well, I can't make a timely comment AND watch a three hour video that in the end might make no distinction between 'truth and madness'. So, I'll go just for the comment. 😗
1) The human mind, in its rational and emotive functions, quite plainly requires 'points of fixity' to exist.
2) It then follows that the human mind requires something we call 'objective reality'.
3) It may be conceded that there can be a host of problems with the mind's perception of reality, but such problems do not invalidate the existence of an objective reality - and in fact, if I understand the implications of Steve's thumbnail sketch, CANNOT IN PRINCIPLE invalidate it. This idea smells to me suspiciously like the idea that since the scientific method is inherently atheistic (it is, just as driving your car is) then we must conclude that atheists are correct about God.
Allow me a few examples:
You made my day Steve by using the term "grok". I read "Stranger in a Strange Land" in the early 70's when it was "a thing". I've never forgotten it and lament that there still hasn't been a film adaptation.
Lex Fridman is a terrific interviewer and seems like an all around good guy. I have listened to Hoffman in a number of interviews and find his ideas (to the extent I can understand them) really interesting. What would some of our stiff Thomists make of his views? Wasn't Aristotle's big claim that through our senses we perceive reality as it is?