Did we evolve to see reality as it exists? No, says cognitive psychologist Donald Hoffman.

Cognitive psychologist Donald Hoffman hypothesizes we evolved to experience a collective delusion — not objective reality.

Did we evolve to see reality as it exists? No, says cognitive psychologist Donald Hoffman.
Image: Rendering of "St. John the Baptist" by Leonardo Da Vinci, 1516.
  • Donald Hoffman theorizes experiencing reality is disadvantageous to evolutionary fitness.
  • His hypothesis calls for ditching the objectivity of matter and space-time and replacing them with a mathematical theory of consciousness.
  • If correct, it could help us progress such intractable questions as the mind-body problem and the conflict between general relativity and quantum mechanics.


What is reality and how do we know? For many the answer is simple: What you see — hear, feel, touch, and taste — is what you get.

Your skin feels warm on a summer day because the sun exists. That apple you just tasted sweet and that left juices on your fingers, it must have existed. Our senses tell us that reality is there, and we use reason to fill in the blanks — that is, we know the sun doesn't cease to exist at night even if we can't see it.

But cognitive psychologist Donald Hoffman says we're misunderstanding our relationship with objective reality. In fact, he argues that evolution has cloaked us in a perceptional virtual reality. For our own good.

Experiencing a virtual interface

Donald Hoffman says that we we perceive of as reality is an interface of symbols hiding vastly more complex interactions. He likens this to how desktop icons represent software. Image source: Pixabay

The idea that we can't perceive objective reality in totality isn't new. We know everyone comes installed with cognitive biases and ego defense mechanisms. Our senses can be tricked by mirages and magicians. And for every person who sees a duck, another sees a rabbit.

But Hoffman's hypothesis, which he wrote about in a recent issue of New Scientist, takes it a step further. He argues our perceptions don't contain the slightest approximation of reality; rather, they evolved to feed us a collective delusion to improve our fitness.

Using evolutionary game theory, Hoffman and his collaborators created computer simulations to observe how "truth strategies" (which see objective reality as is) compared with "pay-off strategies" (which focus on survival value). The simulations put organisms in an environment with a resource necessary to survival but only in Goldilocks proportions.

Consider water. Too much water, the organism drowns. Too little, it dies of thirst. Between these extremes, the organism slakes its thirst and lives on to breed another day.

Truth-strategy organisms who see the water level on a color scale — from red for low to green for high — see the reality of the water level. However, they don't know whether the water level is high enough to kill them. Pay-off-strategy organisms, conversely, simply see red when water levels would kill them and green for levels that won't. They are better equipped to survive.

"[E]volution ruthlessly selects against truth strategies and for pay-off strategies," writes Hoffman. "An organism that sees objective reality is always less fit than an organism of equal complexity that sees fitness pay-offs. Seeing objective reality will make you extinct."

Since humans aren't extinct, the simulation suggests we see an approximation of reality that shows us what we need to see, not how things really are.

Hoffman likens this approximation to a desktop interface. When a novelist boots up their computer, they see an icon on their desktop that represents their novel. It's green, rectangular, and sits on the screen, but the document has none of those qualities intrinsically. It's a complex string of 1s and 0s that manifests as software running as an electric current through a circuit board.

If writers had to manipulate binary to write a novel, or hunter-gatherers had to perceive physics to throw a spear, chances are both would have gone extinct a long time ago.

"In like manner, we create an apple when we look, and destroy it when we look away. Something exists when we don't look, but it isn't an apple, and is probably nothing like an apple," Hoffman writes. "The human perception of an apple is a data structure that indicates something edible (a fitness pay-off) and how to eat it. We create these data structures with a glance, and erase them with a blink. Physical objects, and indeed the space and time they exist in, are evolution's way of presenting fitness pay-offs in a compact and usable form."

Consciousness all the way down

At this point, you are likely wondering, "Well, then what is reality? If my dog is only a data structure indicating a furry creature that enjoys fetch and hates baths, then what lies beneath that representation?"

For Hoffman the answer is consciousness.

When neuroscientists and philosophers develop theories of consciousness, they traditionally look at the brain. If Hoffman is correct, they can't completely understand consciousness via brain activity, because they are looking at an icon of a material organ that exists in space and time. Not reality.

Hoffman wants to start with a mathematical theory of consciousness as a baseline — looking at consciousness outside of matter and the space-time it may not inhabit. His theory further calls for a potentially infinite interaction of conscious agents, from the simple to the complex. In this formulation, consciousness may even exist beyond the organic world, all the way down to electrons and protons.

"I'm denying that there is such a thing in objective reality as an electron with a position. I'm saying that the very framework of space and time and matter and spin is the wrong framework, it's the wrong language to describe reality," Hoffman told journalist Robert Wright in an interview. "I'm saying let's go all the way: It's consciousness, and only consciousness, all the way down."

Hoffman calls this view "conscious realism." If proven correct, he argues it could make headway on such intractable quandaries like the mind-body problem, the odd nature of the quantum world, and the much sought-after "theory of everything."

"Reality may never seem the same again," Hoffman writes.

Simulation tested, science approved?

Hoffman's hypothesis is fascinating, and if you need a subject for a bar-side bull session, you could do worse. But before anybody suffers an existential meltdown, it's worth noting that the hypothesis is just that. A hypothesis. It has a way to go before overturning the hypothesis that the brain manifests consciousness, and its detractors have thrown down a few gauntlets.

One such critique argues that while we may not perceive reality as it is that doesn't mean our perception is not reasonably accurate. Hoffman would argue we see an icon that represents a snake, not a snake. But then why do nonpoisonous snakes evolve colorings to match poisonous ones? If there is no objective reality to mimic, why would mimicry prove a useful adaptation, and why would the interfaces of multiple species be fooled by such tricks?

Another concern is a chicken-and-egg problem, as Wright pointed out in their discussion. Current orthodoxy argues the universe existed for billions of years before life emerged. This means the first living organisms began their evolutionary tracks by responding to a preexistent inorganic, unconscious environment.

If Hoffman's argument is correct and consciousness is primary, then why develop life and the illusion of reality? Why are some of these unreal symbols ultimately so harmful to consciousness? The network of consciousnesses, one assumes, got along without life for billions of years.

This is why Michael Shermer equates Hoffman's argument to something akin to the "God of the gaps." He writes:

"No one denies that consciousness is a hard problem. But before we reify consciousness to the level of an independent agency capable of creating its own reality, let's give the hypotheses we do have for how brains create mind more time. Because we know for a fact that measurable consciousness dies when the brain dies, until proved otherwise, the default hypothesis must be that brains cause consciousness. I am, therefore I think."

Then there's the issue of whether Hoffman's hypothesis is self-defeating. If our perceptions of reality are merely species-specific interfaces overlaid upon reality, how do we know consciousness is not simply another such icon? Maybe the "I" of everyday experience is a useful fantasy adapted to benefit the survival and reproduction of the gene and not part of the operating system of reality.

None of this is to say that Hoffman and others can't meet these challenges with further research. We'll see. It's just to say that there's a lot of room for exploration into some fascinating ideas. As Hoffman would agree:

"[This theory] has made life far more interesting," he told Wright. "There's lots to explore, a lot I don't know, and things that I thought I knew I had to give up. And so, it makes life far more interesting for me."

A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source: whrc.org

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source: whrc.org

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source: whrc.org

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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