Book Review - The Case Against Reality: How Evolution Hid The Truth From Our Eyes

It’s a joy to learn about grand theories that challenge how you view the world and your relationship to it.

The author makes the case that our senses do not perceive objective reality as it is. Evolution never optimized for it.

The author, Donald Hoffman, is professor of Cognitive Sciences at the University of California, Irvine with joint appointments in the Department of Philosophy, the Department of Logic and Philosophy of Science, and the School of Computer Science. Hoffman is making his rounds on podcasts such as Lex Fridman’s, Tom Bilyeu’s as well as Ted Talks.

What if what we see and perceive through our senses is fundamentally different than reality? What’s behind the world of perceptions? Why don’t we perceive reality as it is?

Hoffman uses the analogy that our concept of reality is similar to a computer desktop with digital icons (Interface Theory of Perception). The desktop being space/time and icons being physical objects we perceive through our senses.

This model has served us well. It allows us to survive and have offspring.

Icons on a desk top hide the truth. If we open an email icon, we don’t need to understand voltages, current, transistors or programming language. The email icon gives us just enough information for us to write and send emails. Nothing more.

Our senses may give us inaccurate information about what we perceive but we still need to take this information seriously. Don’t jump in front of moving vehicles, off tall buildings or out of planes without a parachute. The car in our driveway is like an icon containing a lot of condensed information our senses reconstruct but in a way that sufficiently allows for us to drive it without having to know about metallurgy, physics, chemistry, engineering etc.

Hoffman makes the claim that evolution favours fitness over accuracy when it comes to perception (Fitness Beats Truth Theorem). Perception is costly. Calories need to be obtained from other living organisms so evolution has shaped our senses to be misers. The larger the perception, the more calories required. Hoffman uses Evolutionary Game Theory to illustrate quantitatively that organisms whose perceptions of reality are optimized for fitness tend to pass on their genes and flourish while organisms optimized for a realistic perception of reality go extinct.

Hoffman tries to make a convincing argument challenging the notion that the universe is made up of physical objects. That our interface of space/time to perceive objects is wrong.

Instead, Hoffman suggests we might be living in a simulation as avatars. A belief that is accepted by people like Elon Musk and Nick Bostrom. Attempts at creating conscious experience through neural structures have failed (copying neural circuitry to replicate consciousness). Simulation theory, like physicalism has failed to explain how consciousness can arise. Hoffman replaces physicalism with Conscious Agent Thesis: every aspect of consciousness can be modeled by conscious agents.

Conscious Realism posits that the universe consists of a network of conscious agents whose perceptions construct physical objects (ie if there is no one around to perceive an object, it doesn’t exist outside of perception). This part of the book loses me because it can get heavy into math and discusses panpsychism (the idea that physical objects have consciousness) being at odds with Conscious Agent Thesis.

As one can imagine, there are some valid criticisms of the theories put forward by Donald Hoffman. The Case Against Reality is truly a thought provoking book whether or not you agree with it. It forces you to stretch your mind and think about the reality you accept at face value. This book has given me a surface level view of the conversation around consciousness and reality and has made me want to look further into it.

Highly recommended.