Goldilocks and the Case Against Reality

In my last blog, I credited Richard Dawkins with reminding me how human beings are able to see only a narrow band of the electromagnetic spectrum.  As Dawkins put it, “[N]atural selection shaped our brains to survive in a world of large, slow things.”  Would we be better off if we could see not only “visible light” but infrared and ultraviolet as well?  Or, like Goldilocks, do we have no use for chairs that are too large or too small?  Are we better off if we devote our attention to the things that are “just right” for creatures of our own size and needs?

I’m no evolutionary biologist, but I’ve long been fascinated by the anthropocentric idea that evolution first made us the dominant species on earth, and will now ensure we remain at the pinnacle of creation – presumably, because we’re so much more intelligent than any other creature on earth, so that no other species will ever be able to catch up.  Some people seem to believe evolution will ensure that our brains get ever larger and that we’ll ascend the evolutionary ladder ever higher toward omniscience.  The idea that, instead, natural selection has shaped our brains “to survive in a world of large slow things” – causing us to be blind to smaller and faster things, for our own good – is surely a different idea of evolution altogether.  I’ve been intending to research that question and to blog about what I found.

This morning, my brother David sent me hurtling in that direction faster and farther than I’d imagined possible.  David – who’s been kind enough to join me in starting We May Be Wrong – sent me a link to an article by Amanda Gefter that appeared in Quanta and was reprinted in The Atlantic.  It’s called The Case Against Reality, about the theories of cognitive scientist Donald D. Hoffman.  In the article, Hoffman says:

The classic argument is that those of our ancestors who saw more accurately had a competitive advantage over those who saw less accurately and thus were more likely to pass on their genes that coded for those more accurate perceptions, so after thousands of generations we can be quite confident that we’re the offspring of those who saw accurately, and so we see accurately. That sounds very plausible. But I think it is utterly false.

The illustration Hoffman proceeds to use, in order to simplify the point, reminded me of the story of Goldilocks.  He asks us to think of a creature that needs water for survival.  Too much of it and the creature will drown; too little and it will die of thirst.  What the creature really needs, for purposes of survival, is simply to know whether something contains a beneficial (medium) amount of water or not.  In Goldilocks terms, that it’s “just right.”

What I’ll call the “Goldilocks factor” strikes me as lying behind our inability to see ultraviolet or infrared light.  We don’t see the extremes of electromagnetic frequencies because we don’t need to, and because having all that extra information would bog down our brains with useless minutiae.  It’s just not efficient for a biological organism to spend its energy dealing with things of no immediate consequence to its survival, and if it took the time to do so, it would be fatal.  If Papa Bear’s porridge is so hot as to scald Goldilocks’ tongue, she has no reason to concern herself with whether its 300 or 350 degrees.  If she did, she’d succumb to what has been aptly dubbed “paralysis by analysis,” and her tongue would get very burned while she figured it out.

Hoffman compares it to what we see on a desktop interface.  We see icons, not binary code.  “Evolution,” he says, “has shaped us with perceptions that allow us to survive. They guide adaptive behaviors. But part of that involves hiding from us the stuff we don’t need to know. And that’s pretty much all of reality, whatever reality might be.”

I hesitate to further describe Gefter’s article lest it decrease the chance you’ll follow the link and read it for yourselves.  But in a nutshell, Hoffman’s view is that the world presented to us by our perceptions is nothing like reality – or that there is no such thing as objective reality — or that the only realities are our individual perceptions – or – well, doggone it, please read the article for yourself.

It’s a beaut.  Thanks for sharing it, Dave.

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