We survive because reality may be nothing like we think it is

Cognitive scientist Donald H. Hoffman asserts that not only do we invent our own personal views of reality, it’s an evolutionary necessity.

Personal reality (ROBERT MEEKS/BILL SUTTON)

Professor of cognitive science at the University of California, Irvine Donald H. Hoffman, has doubts that reality is much like what we think it is. We live in a mental construction, he says, a sort of utilitarian fantasy, of our own devising. And it's not a problem that it may not be a true representation of reality — in fact, it may be evolutionarily necessary.

His study, “Natural selection and veridical perceptions" concludes, among other things, that “perceptual information is shaped by natural selection to reflect utility, not to depict reality."

Regular readers of Big Think may recall others, such as Alva Noë, declaring that our minds build our worlds. As Noë notes, what we see is light reflected off objects, not the objects themselves. Who knows what grass really looks like? We just know it's something that absorbs all colors except green. When an object creates a fluctuation in air pressure that travels through that medium to our ears where it excites tiny fibers, we hear that fluctuation as a sound. We can think of both examples as merely the mechanics of how we see and hear, but the fact remains, we don't directly perceive much. The world we think we live in is a story based on experiences we've had with these and our other senses. And since we don't see, say, electricity or WiFi signals, or colors or magnetic fields some other animals perceive, who knows what else is right under our noses? Logically, why would we assume that we see enough of reality to have a verdical understanding of it?

I am Mantis Shrimp. My rainbow's bigger than yours. (CHRISTIAN GLOOR)

Hoffman himself draws his conclusion about reality largely from quantum mechanics, where systems are only defined once they're observed. According to late physicist John Wheeler, “Useful as it is under ordinary circumstances to say that the world exists 'out there' independent of us, that view can no longer be upheld." Hoffman laments that people working in neurology and philosophy of mind often deliberately ignore advances in quantum physics. He tells The Atlantic that, “They are certain that it's got to be classical properties of neural activity, which exist independent of any observers—spiking rates, connection strengths at synapses, perhaps dynamical properties as well. These are all very classical notions under Newtonian physics, where time is absolute and objects exist absolutely. And then [the neuroscientists and philosophy of mind people] are mystified as to why they don't make progress."

Brain map (KY)

The “Natural selection and verdical perceptions" study was an answer to those who assert that if we weren't perceiving a real external reality, we'd have died out long ago. Hoffman's position, and this is supported by his study, is that building a functional worldview is in fact a prerequisite to survival — an image of the world that keeps one alive is more important than one that's objectively accurate. (If that's even on the table.)

The constructions we invent may not be literally true, but still, he says of his own, “I've evolved these symbols to keep me alive, so I have to take them seriously. But it's a logical flaw to think that if we have to take it seriously, we also have to take it literally." Of what he identifies as a snake or a train, he says, “Snakes and trains, like the particles of physics, have no objective, observer-independent features. The snake I see is a description created by my sensory system to inform me of the fitness consequences of my actions."

It's worth pointing out that if there can be no “public" objects that aren't personal constructions, science has a problem: “The idea that what we're doing is measuring publicly accessible objects, the idea that objectivity results from the fact that you and I can measure the same object in the exact same situation and get the same results — it's very clear from quantum mechanics that that idea has to go. Physics tells us that there are no public physical objects." After all, “My snakes and trains are my mental representations; your snakes and trains are your mental representations."

It's not that Hoffman considers our constructed personal realities therefore worthless. In fact, they're all we've got, and being real to us is a way of being true, after all. “I'm claiming that experiences are the real coin of the realm. The experiences of everyday life—my real feeling of a headache, my real taste of chocolate—that really is the ultimate nature of reality." And it's his and his alone.

A still from the film "We Became Fragments" by Luisa Conlon , Lacy Roberts and Hanna Miller, part of the Global Oneness Project library.

Photo: Luisa Conlon , Lacy Roberts and Hanna Miller / Global Oneness Project
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Experts are already predicting an 'active' 2020 hurricane season

It looks like a busy hurricane season ahead. Probably.

Image source: Shashank Sahay/unsplash
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  • Before the hurricane season even started in 2020, Arthur and Bertha had already blown through, and Cristobal may be brewing right now.
  • Weather forecasters see signs of a rough season ahead, with just a couple of reasons why maybe not.
  • Where's an El Niño when you need one?

Welcome to Hurricane Season 2020. 2020, of course, scoffs at this calendric event much as it has everything else that's normal — meteorologists have already used up the year's A and B storm names before we even got here. And while early storms don't necessarily mean a bruising season ahead, forecasters expect an active season this year. Maybe storms will blow away the murder hornets and 13-year locusts we had planned.

NOAA expects a busy season

According to NOAA's Climate Prediction Center, an agency of the National Weather Service, there's a 60 percent chance that we're embarking upon a season with more storms than normal. There does, however, remain a 30 percent it'll be normal. Better than usual? Unlikely: Just a 10 percent chance.

Where a normal hurricane season has an average of 12 named storms, 6 of which become hurricanes and 3 of which are major hurricanes, the Climate Prediction Center reckons we're on track for 13 to 29 storms, 6 to 10 of which will become hurricanes, and 3 to 6 of these will be category 3, 4, or 5, packing winds of 111 mph or higher.

What has forecasters concerned are two factors in particular.

This year's El Niño ("Little Boy") looks to be more of a La Niña ("Little Girl"). The two conditions are part of what's called the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle, which describes temperature fluctuations between the ocean and atmosphere in the east-central Equatorial Pacific. With an El Niño, waters in the Pacific are unusually warm, whereas a La Niña means unusually cool waters. NOAA says that an El Niño can suppress hurricane formation in the Atlantic, and this year that mitigating effect is unlikely to be present.

Second, current conditions in the Atlantic and Caribbean suggest a fertile hurricane environment:

  • The ocean there is warmer than usual.
  • There's reduced vertical wind shear.
  • Atlantic tropical trade winds are weak.
  • There have been strong West African monsoons this year.

Here's NOAA's video laying out their forecast:

But wait.

ArsTechnica spoke to hurricane scientist Phil Klotzbach, who agrees generally with NOAA, saying, "All in all, signs are certainly pointing towards an active season." Still, he notes a couple of signals that contradict that worrying outlook.

First off, Klotzbach notes that the surest sign of a rough hurricane season is when its earliest storms form in the deep tropics south of 25°N and east of the Lesser Antilles. "When you get storm formations here prior to June 1, it's typically a harbinger of an extremely active season." Fortunately, this year's hurricanes Arthur and Bertha, as well as the maybe-imminent Cristobal, formed outside this region. So there's that.

Second, Klotzbach notes that the correlation between early storm activity and a season's number of storms and intensities, is actually slightly negative. So while statistical connections aren't strongly predictive, there's at least some reason to think these early storms may augur an easy season ahead.

Image source: NOAA

Batten down the hatches early

If 2020's taught us anything, it's how to juggle multiple crises at once, and layering an active hurricane season on top of SARS-CoV-2 — not to mention everything else — poses a special challenge. Warns Treasury Secretary Wilbur Ross, "As Americans focus their attention on a safe and healthy reopening of our country, it remains critically important that we also remember to make the necessary preparations for the upcoming hurricane season." If, as many medical experts expect, we're forced back into quarantine by additional coronavirus waves, the oceanic waves slamming against our shores will best be met by storm preparations put in place in a less last-minute fashion than usual.

Ross adds, "Just as in years past, NOAA experts will stay ahead of developing hurricanes and tropical storms and provide the forecasts and warnings we depend on to stay safe."

Let's hope this, at least, can be counted on in this crazy year.

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