The Case Against Reality

Last week, I left the screening of Mad Max early (a bit regrettably) to see a talk in SCI by cognitive scientist Donald Hoffman, who studies humans’ perceptions of reality. In his research, he has developed a radical hypothesis: that, if humans’ perception is shaped by natural selection , it has a 0% chance of being objectively true and complete, as it has evolved for reproduction and survival and not for “accuracy”. He uses modern understandings of cognitive science, population simulation, and mathematical models to support this claim. According to his research, it has been adaptive for our species (and all other species) to perceive reality in a certain way.

Extrapolating this to physics with original research, he concludes that our understanding of the observable universe is limited by our perception, therefore space-time is likely not fundamental and is better viewed as a data structure.

He draws the parallel between our perceived reality and a computer desktop interface – while the interface has meaning and we can interact with it, it is not fundamental. That is to say, the inner workings of the computer are obscured and our interaction with the computer is shaped by the interface.

I have included links below to check out, since my explanation may be hard to follow.

In addition to this just being interesting in of itself, I’m also interested in its intersection with media study and semiotics. We often study signs and media in relation to our perceived reality, but calling into question the fundamental nature of our perceived reality also seems to raise interesting questions regarding the role of media. Does media exist as part of our perceived reality or is it best viewed simply as another layer on top of several layers of reality, only some of which are perceivable? What is shared between the ontology of media and the ontology of reality – should they be studied identically?


One thought on “The Case Against Reality

  1. You raise a good point in your discussion of layers, and it’s certainly one common element in the critique of semiotics. As you suggest, it assumes in the case of film that the “profilmic event” has some stability that we can all agree upon, while the manner of capture and the associated coding of the image is where the subjectivity comes in. It also calls into question the possibility that image coding isn’t as universal as we’d like to think it is (or at least as much as advertisers would).

    As far as this particular theory goes – if I’m following it correctly after reading the interview – it seems to be a bit too anthropocentric for my understanding, but I’m going on his descriptions in the absence of the math he’s alluding to (which I’m sure is over my head anyway). All that said, until the physicists work it out, I guess the media scholars will still have job.


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