Do We Perceive Reality As It Is?


Recently I had to do a ten hour drive, so I was listening to a whole bunch of stuff. One of the weirder ones was a conversation with Donald Hoffman at UC Irvine. The discussion revolved around what reality is and whether we can know it.

This is a well-known, old philosophical question. I’ve also discussed it in several forms on the blog before (see embodied mind and cognitive biases). What interested me was how clear of a metaphor Hoffman described to get this idea across.

Consider the computer (or phone or whatever) on which you are reading this. There are probably icons that help you run programs. This interface with the computer is basically never confused with the reality of what the computer is doing.

If you have a folder icon, you secretly know that the information of that folder is a bunch of 0’s and 1’s encoded by low/high voltage transistors, etc. But it would be paralyzing to think like this all the time. This interface we use completely alters our perception of the reality of the computer in a way that makes it functional.

So that’s the analogy. We basically have no idea what reality is. All we get is the way our brain presents reality to us. And like the computer, it is almost certainly presenting us with something that makes the world a functional place for us rather than presenting every detail of reality “as it is” (whatever that means).

This is abundantly clear when you think about our visual spectrum. We cannot see in the infrared part of the light spectrum. That information is out there and part of reality, but it isn’t functionally necessary for us to see it. The bigger jump is that maybe it isn’t only our body filtering out excess information, but that our perceptions are some sort of interface that has nothing to do with reality.

The evolutionary explanation for this is painfully obvious with a little thought. If a mutation occurs that causes us to perceive the world in some “false” way, but that false perception increases our chance of surviving, it will stay.

He went into some suspicious sounding math, claiming he had a theorem that there is a probability 0 chance that our perception of reality is true. The specifics don’t matter, because anyone with a basic understanding of evolution should immediately admit that it is exceedingly unlikely that every trait conducive to survival also gives us a true perception of reality.

On another note, this topic actually came up in one of my first posts ever on the blog. I used to debate whether or not aliens would have the same math as us. It seems the further you go in math, the most offensive people find the view that aliens may have a different math. For some reason, people are really tied to the idea that math is some universal that exists out in a mysterious Platonic universe.

In light of the above description, doesn’t it seem very likely that an alien species with a different evolved brain would vastly deviate in their perception of the world? We are so trapped in our bodies as humans, we find it hard to even entertain what a different experience would be.

If you know about the foundations of math, then you know everything is built from a set of axioms. Our choice of these axioms is based on how we experience the world. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume their mathematics would be different.

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2 thoughts on “Do We Perceive Reality As It Is?

  1. I loved the analogy of a computer. People are usually not aware that we don’t see reality how it really is. It goes against our intuition. I wrote about a similar problem on my blog where I discuss how colour is a creation of our minds, and that objective reality is not “colourful”. I would appreciate it if you checked it out. I haven’t been blogging long, and I am interested in connecting with other bloggers with similar interests.

  2. I subscribe to the thoughts in your final paragraphs, but I think the statement that “our perceptions do not match objective reality” is philosophically muddled.

    For one thing, cognitive biases do not show that we have incomplete access to reality, but that we can be *mistaken* about reality. However, in order to convince yourself that you have a cognitive bias of some sort, you have implicitly already assumed that you were capable of transcending this bias: otherwise, how could you have concluded that at some point you were mistaken? Apparently, you do still possess some objective measure of reality by which you are able to check whether certain superficial judgments hold up or not.

    In any case, things such as “(objective, physical, external) reality” are hard to define, if you think they can or should be defined at all. But if I had to do it, I would say that reality is that part of our perceptual world about which we can reason with other people on a more or less equal footing. It is not something wholly separate from our perceptions; indeed, once you postulate reality as something completely severed off from (human) observers, you’re just setting yourself up for philosophical trouble. But now I am basically reiterating the modern critique of the cartesian subject-object dualism.

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