A cognitive scientist and professor at the University of California–Irvine, Donald Hoffman has a calm, unhurried way of speaking that allows him to sound soothing even as he challenges your deepest assumptions about reality. Like most of the scientists in his field, Hoffman used to believe that our perceptions—smell, taste, vision, sound, and touch—were accurate representations of objective reality. Then his mathematical models started pointing to a disconnect between what we perceive and what is real.

That mismatch brought him to an essential question: How could we have survived and evolved in a world where our senses gave us inaccurate data about reality? “I wanted to find out the extent to which evolution shapes our perceptions,” Hoffman says.

Hoffman ran evolutionary game simulations with graduate students, and the results surprised him. In the simulations, organisms that perceived true reality went extinct again and again. They were outcompeted by organisms that did not perceive the “truth,” but rather were tuned to perceive “fitness payoffs” in the environment. To wit, just because our senses are useful, doesn't mean they are accurate. Hoffman says this finding was shockingly counterintuitive.

Although he freely admits that there is some kind of objective reality, he doesn't believe we can describe it in terms of space, time, or physical objects. “That's the wrong language,” he says.

Read on, courtesy of CNN



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