I’ve recently been seriously impacted by the work of Donald Hoffman. He’s a cognitive scientist who has come to a brilliant insight regarding the nature of perception, and consequently the nature of the whole of reality. It’s a monumental first step, but it needs to be expanded. Hoffman’s interpretation is still looking through some of the traditional lenses of materialist science and misses some of the core implications of his own theory.
In a nutshell, what Hoffman proposes is that we do not experience reality as it is. What we experience is an interface to reality. Now, it’s nothing new to suggest that our perceptions are constructions of mind and aren’t reality itself. But Hoffman’s great realization is that the mental constructions do not need to bear any resemblance whatsoever to the reality that they reference. It has long been assumed that our mental forms are representations. Incomplete and approximate representations, but surely their meaningfulness is found in their degree of accuracy, right? Not so! In fact, Hoffman realized that they are meaningful expressly because they do not resemble reality.
Hoffman uses an easy metaphor to illustrate the principle: a computer’s graphical user interface. When you use a computer, you see icons, buttons, pictures, text, and the like. But none of these are anything like the underlying reality. The truth of your computer is the incomprehensibly complex interactions of microscopic transistors, electron flows, magnetized particles, and countless other elements of technology. The interface isn’t any sort of representation of reality. From an accuracy standpoint, the interface is pure fiction. But it isn’t the point of the interface to be accurate. Its point is actually to hide a cumbersome reality and give you meaningful replacement. A replacement “reality” that allows you to interact with the real thing without needing to actually understand it.
In its essence, I think Hoffman is spot-on. This rings true to me on many levels and makes sense of countless pieces of insight that I’d never been able to connect into wholes before. However, Hoffman comes from a heavily evolutionary standpoint in the traditional scientific sense. Which has brought his interpretation a number of shortcomings. He speaks often and readily in the language of evolution, things such as environment, fitness, species, etc. He doesn’t seem to have realized that in displacing an objectively comprehensible reality as the seat of knowledge, he has also displaced the whole narrative of evolution.
For example, evolution assumes a discrete self contained within an environment competing with other selves for resources, in which the most fit survive to reproduce. But all of these are considered to be essentially unrelated to one another. Organism A categorically does not overlap with organism B, and in no way does either overlap with their environment. As far as the scientific language of evolution is concerned, these are all fundamentally separate entities.
But there is no reason to make this assumption. Indeed, there are many reasons to not make this assumption. Just because our (current) interface presents two squirrels and a tree to be three clearly distinct objects does not make it so. Let’s return to the computer metaphor. Within the interface, files are absolutely distinct things. They don’t seem to have anything at all to do with one another. But the reality is they are all a continuous stream of addresses in memory. The only thing that makes any distinction between where one file ends and the next begins is an entirely arbitrary convention. A file is no more inherently distinct than the sequence 345 is inherently distinct in the sequence 123456. And further, the files are all part of a single medium. If anything happens to the medium, it is happening to all files simultaneously. From the perspective of the interface that would seem wildly illogical. But in the underlying reality, it is perfectly obvious.
Hoffman speaks of a table having no more reality than a headache, because we each have our own table in our mind. But this presumes that there is a discrete self with a discrete mind to have a discrete table. The reality is far more complicated. We are all composed of interlaced, overlapping, and intersecting aspects of the larger mystery. There is no reason to assume that my interface is fundamentally separate from your interface. Clearly they are not equivalent, but they are certainly intertwined. Similarly, there is no reason to assume that the interface of the squirrel is wholly separate from mine. Nor even the interface of the tree from either the squirrel or myself.
The details of how all of this plays out are no doubt wildly complicated. Indeed, I suspect ultimately we won’t be able to see all the way to the bottom any more than we can see a lens while we’re looking through it. But I’m certainly keen to find out just how much we can see.