In fact, he argues that evolution has cloaked us in a perceptional virtual reality. For our own good. 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.
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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. 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.
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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.
Something exists when we don't look, but it isn't an apple, and is probably nothing like an apple," Hoffman writes.
Facts vs. Interpretations: Understanding Islam & Evolution | Yaqeen Institute for Islamic Research
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. 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?
In a warming planet, endothermic animals [those that generate their own heat] may have a hard time, so birds in warmer climates may lose contour feathers to prevent overheating, and mammals may lose most fur. In this scenario, genetic engineering, biotechnology and the influence of human culture could redirect evolution down radically different paths, from mosquitoes that contain gene drives to mechanical pollinator drones. View image of The antlers of a deer could one day take on a new purpose Credit: Emmanuel Lafont.
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However, there are alternative paths for future evolution: for example, our more enlightened descendants may decide to rewild nature and let natural evolution pursue its course, or humans could become extinct which was the scenario of After Man. Extinction in particular can lead to sweeping evolutionary innovation.
In essence, a mass extinction resets the evolutionary clock, argues Ward. It made space for dinosaurs to evolve and take over as the dominant land animals, an outcome perhaps as unlikely and unexpected as the take-over by mammals when they replaced dinosaurs after the Cretaceous-Tertiary mass extinction. They also changed the makeup of the Earth. That changed forever with the Great Oxidation Event, around 2. View image of Emu mixed with armadillo Credit: Emmanuel Lafont.
So, if humans die off, how wild and sophisticated could things get million years from now? Could we see trees starting to walk, or feasting on animals after killing them with toxic fumes or poisonous darts? Could sea life change, with spiders taking to the water, using their webs to net sardines, while fish learn to fly so they can feed on insects and birds? Could deep-sea animals project bright holograms of themselves to fool predators, attract prey or impress potential mates?
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Could we also see organisms take up residence in previously underexplored habitats: for example, giant, lightweight poisonous fungi floating in mid-air like an aerial jellyfish, entangling and consuming anything they bump into? Or could insects and spiders build silk nests in the clouds and feed on photosynthesising organisms in the sky?
And if plants or microbes evolved something like solar panels to track and concentrate sunlight, could green oases of life thrive on frigid glaciers? None of these fantastical creatures sound impossible, says Aktipis. A lot of them are based on what already exists in nature: there are seafaring and gliding spiders, there is microbial life in the clouds, and deep sea anglerfish dangle bioluminescent balls in front of them to attract prey. Some populations of killer whales and catfish can beach to hunt for animals on the shoreline, and small independent oases of life thrive on ice where there are residues of cryoconite , a black dust made up of soot, rock and microbes.
After all, we already have carnivorous plants like the Venus flytrap. She also points to the existence of spiders that eat fish , and says that cloud-dwelling microbes could possibly evolve from the multitude of tiny organisms known as Prochlorococcus that live in the uppermost layers of the ocean. View image of Current tree-dwellers may adapt to the air in the far future Credit: Emmanuel Lafont. In nature, often all it takes for unusual adaptations to develop are extreme environments. Why not a book, mug or shirt that matches their level of procrastination sophistication?
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