A number of people have recommended the work of Donald Hoffman to me. I am not very familiar with him – I have not read any of his books nor listened to his talks (like his TED talk). I think I will soon. What I have done is listen to the first 1 hour and 7 minutes of his interview with Sam Harris.
I was expecting to encounter something other than I did – but I’m not sure what. Long story short: I did not find anything he said particularly controversial (I emphasize this as someone who has read Popper and Deutsch). I imagine what he says would be controversial to mainstream thinking about the relationship between mind, our mental models and objective reality – but linguistic quibbles aside, I found what he said to be refreshingly familiar to me. In particular what he said could almost have been conjured by anyone who has read Chapter 5 of "The Fabric of Reality" by David Deutsch. It was that close...some minor linguistic quibbles aside and perhaps some hints of relativism.
So, some notes on the conversation, roughly in chronological order in which they occurred in the podcast:
Hoffman says he is reacting against his colleagues (in psychology, I presume) who he says regard evolution as having shaped us to “see truths about the world”. In other words to see the actual, final truth in a sense – or objective reality as it is. This is all well and good. In Popperian terms: he objects to empiricism (the idea we derive knowledge about reality from our senses) – and quite right too.
Hoffman gives an account of his “user interface” idea – which, it seems to me on a cursory understanding of what he said in this podcast, is perfectly harmonious with the idea that we do not have direct access to reality. Indeed. We will come back to this later with a discussion on virtual reality. This is inline also with what Plato, Descartes and what the the Wachowskis conveyed in the Matrix and various other movies have told us over the years. What we tend to experience isn't reality exactly and we could be terribly deceived. Thinking we're actually in a Matrix is, of course, a step far too far. But the point is: our senses can deceive us and may not always (or even typically) give us reliable knowledge of objective reality.
Annaka Harris points out during the discussion that “we don’t know what light is” and “we don’t know the fundamental nature of reality.” I only have a linguistic quibble on the first point: we do know– so long as one takes on board the Deutsch/Popper notion of what knowledge and “to know” is. It means: have a fallible explanation of. It does not mean “grok the final theory”. So we know what light is – but we don’t know what light ultimately is. We never shall. All theories must be improvable because we don’t have direct access to reality. But we can gain fallible knowledge about light (and everything else) to some extent. As for not knowing the fundamental nature of reality: yes, correct. And uncontroversial so far as that goes for a critical rationalist/fallibilist. For more about what "to know" means see here for a brief explanation.
Hoffman says that “belief in science is not a helpful attitude” - which is to say believing scientific theories is not a helpful attitude. Wonderful. If he has not read Deutsch or Popper, then he has independently converged on that epistemological worldview to a large extent. Hoffman regards scientific theories as “the best tools we have so far”. A minor quibble on the use of “tool”. Tool conjures up a device for just solving certain problems. Now it depends on one’s emphasis here: if the only purpose of science is to predict (a tool for prediction) – I disagree. That is one thing science can do. But science gives us some approximation to reality as well. So I regard scientific theories as tools that tell us something about objective reality – they give us some account of what is really there. Hoffman seems to more or less agrees with this in some later remarks.
At 41 mins in, Hoffman invokes “the virtual reality metaphor”. He talks about putting on a virtual reality headset and seeing race cars in a computer game. Obviously the cars don’t actually exist. Now he says this is basically the state we are always in. Yes – exactly. I guess Plato would not disagree about this (the shadows on the cave wall being not the objects in themselves – and we are trapped in the cave (the VR simulation).) Now in “The Fabric of Reality” chapter 5 is titled “Virtual Reality” and it is a long thesis precisely about exactly this point and some other things. This "virtual reality" explanation is no mere metaphor either: we really are simulating the external world in our minds using sense data. David writes on page 120 in that chapter, “So it is not just science – reasoning about the physical world – that involves virtual reality. All reasoning, all thinking, all external experience are forms of virtual reality.” I actually think David is making a stronger claim even than Hoffman. David published his book in 1997 – that seems to predate anything of Hoffman’s on the topic by over a decade (I can see the user interface theory was published in around 2010: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2FBF03379572) and of course Plato wrote about his cave in around 400BC - so these kinds of ideas, or aspects of these ideas have been refined and rediscovered or reformulated again and again.
Hoffman admits “something” is there in reality but he says he just doesn’t know exactly what. The word “exactly” does a lot of work there. The sentence is true with it, and false without it. Annaka says “We do not understand the deeper reality” (the reality deeper than the one more fundamental than what quantum theory says) – and of course this too is correct and uncontroversial: we do not know what we do not yet know (in this case, what the successor to quantum theory will say…and what the successor to the successor will say and so on).
David engaged with at least some of Hoffman’s ideas here: https://twitter.com/stealthytooth/status/723555137478905856?s=20
And that language Hoffman uses which seems to deny the existence of objective reality (or parts of it - they mention the moon and a glass of water on the table) he tightens up – corrected I should say by Annaka Harris. It seems Hoffman steps back from the claim there is no objective reality or that the moon or glasses of water in particular don't have an objective reality. So he can have a habit of sliding into a sort of soft-relativism or something…yet when pressed seems to concede realism. At one point Annaka rightly interjects when Hoffman uses the word "miracle" to describe "premises of a scientific theory". Hoffman seems to needlessly confuse the reader or listener with terms that make things seem more controversial than they are. A premise need not be regarded as a "miracle" (some mystical violation of physical law) just because it cannot be derived from any known theory. Hoffman admits he should just use the word "premise" or "axiom" instead. It is this kind of style that, it seems to me, may make some of his ideas sound more controversial or counterintuitive than they really are.
Overall, I liked what he had to say, with some minor quibbles over his use of language – especially that which touches upon anti-fallibilist thinking (but this is true of almost anyone who hasn't taken Popper on board). So, so far, what he says seems roughly in line with what David wrote in Chapter 5 of “The Fabric of Reality”. But I stopped the podcast just as they were beginning a discussion of free will and consciousness. I guess what comes in the next hour and a half of the podcast could prompt something else...but so far I am nodding in broad agreement and didn't once roll my eyes.
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