Entrepreneur Educator, Program Developer, Facilitator

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Seeing is Believing? Not According to Donald Hoffman.

Consider the light blue folder on your computer desktop.

You drag that folder to the trash bin icon at the bottom right of your screen. 

Your MacBook emits the familiar, satisfying sound of paper getting scrunched into a ball. 

That folder is now deleted and hard drive space has freed up.

Inside of your computer, a significantly more complex process took place. Transistors, diodes, and circuits performed operations such that whatever storage that folder occupied has now been made available. 

Thank goodness computer users don’t have to deal with that.

Thankfully, engineers built interfaces that use the metaphor of guiding a folder to a trash bin to simplify a miracle of hardware and software operations. The interface veils complex internal processes, without which, we would become overwhelmed.  

Donald Hoffman, a cognitive scientist at UC Irvine, believes that what we consider reality is simply an interface. By “reality,” he means literally everything. Not just one’s thoughts or abstract ideas. 

The chairs you sit in. The house you live in. The clothes on your back. All of it is interface. 

Our world and what we call reality is an interface for the same reason we appreciate the graphical user interface of our computers: the true workings are beyond our ken. 

Start with his TED talk. The moment he roped me in was when he addressed why humans have made so little progress on the hard problem of consciousness, i.e., the question of why consciousness arose in the first place:

Some experts believe it’s because we lack the necessary concepts and intelligence. After all, we don’t expect monkeys to solve problems in quantum mechanics…we can’t expect our species to solve this problem either. 

I disagree. I’m more optimistic. We’ve made a false assumption…today I’d like to tell you what that assumption is, why it’s false, and how to fix it. 

Next, read this Quanta Magazine essay titled The Evolutionary Argument Against Reality, which unpacks one of Hoffman’s most interesting claims.

Hoffman has spent the past three decades studying perception, artificial intelligence, evolutionary game theory and the brain, and his conclusion is a dramatic one: The world presented to us by our perceptions is nothing like reality. What’s more, he says, we have evolution itself to thank for this magnificent illusion, as it maximizes evolutionary fitness by driving truth to extinction.

Once humanity accepted Darwin’s world-changing idea, people logically assumed that evolution brought us closer to truth.

Hoffman asserts that not only is that notion untrue, evolution’s obfuscation is key to our survival. Understanding a false model of the world is for our own good. Our ancestors and their offspring had a better chance of propagating because our species wore blinders to the universe as it truly is. If humanity’s process of evolution had shunted more precious cognitive resources to perceive reality in higher resolution, this detail would come at the cost of survival ability. Had that not happened, another species might occupy the top of the food chain.

By default, I assumed sight, touch, hearing, smell and taste, existed so that I could experience the richness of the world. These senses are high-resolution, (literally) sensitive perceptual tools giving me access to drink in beauty and wonder of the world: burning orange sunsets, cool marble on fingertips, shimmering close harmonies in bluegrass music, the scent of freshly cut flowers wafting down a hallway, and how I salivate when the taste of dark chocolate meets my tongue.

By Hoffman’s lights, the value of the senses is almost more about the world they exclude than the experience they let in.

Senses are governors. Limiters. Controllers. Their job is to protect you by keeping out the chaos and complexity of the universe, the base reality that would overload and overwhelm our simian brains.

Humanity’s sense of sight perceives a tiny fraction of what can technically be “seen” in our universe. Imagine how much else exists. What else could be seen, heard, touched, and smelled if our senses weren’t filtering it out?

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. So Hoffman and a team of researchers and mathematicians, armed with tier 1 research university budgets, are testing this theory as rigorously as possible.

If your interest has been piqued, listen to this two hour podcast interview where he fully outlines his theory. 

If, like me, you aren’t ready to say you believe Hoffman’s theory but are nonetheless intrigued, buy The Case Against Reality.

And if you want to go straight to the source, read his papers and check his math at his personal site at UC Irvine.

After you understand his ideas, your mental picture of the universe will change. Visually, it will look the same. But now you know that facade is just your sense of sight doing what it evolved to do: protect you from complexity.

I am neither a scientist or a psychologist—I teach innovation and run entrepreneurship programs. But I find few things more inspiring than someone who has the courage to rigorously test new ideas, bet on a wildly original theory for their life’s work, and remind us that things are not what they seem.

And this is the beautiful paradox of Donald Hoffman: by setting out to prove that what we see is not reality, he gives us greater vision and perspective.