The Evolutionary Argument Against Reality: A Response

In the latest issue of Quanta magazine the evolutionary biologist and cognitive scientist Donald Hoffman uses evolutionary game theory to try and show that our perceptions of independent reality must be illusions.

While I have nothing but respect for professor Hoffman and his work I must strongly disagree with his basic premise. He argues that Darwinian evolution can in essence be described by its fitness function. If some perceived “fact” about “reality” increases our survival fitness it will be reproduced in subsequent generations. The fact that the way we perceive “reality” has allowed us to survive and thrive as a species is not at all connected with actual reality. In fact he says that mathematical modeling has shown that the “real world” can be removed from those models with no impact on the outcome as long as we insert a conscious agent in place of the “real world.”

Ultimately it boils down to conscious agents “all the way down.” Of course I have greatly glossed over much of what professor Hoffman actually says in the referenced piece. I highly recommend you read the original article for the details. That said, ultimately the argument fails because it completely ignore the fact that mathematical and computer models are human generated tools. The fact that we can use mathematics and have built computers based on logical and mathematical principles refutes everything he asserts.

I suppose he would argue, as he must if his argument is to be valid, that logic and mathematics exist as a part of the actual “reality” while our puny human perceptions do not even begin to approximate them. If the mathematical models and computers that we created or discovered depending on your point of view, can be used to describe the actual “reality”, how is it possible to suggest we do not have at least some access to the real world?

Basically he insists that we can use logic and math (which are unquestionably true and “real”) to tell us that the world we perceive is not. By his own arguments the world is an illusion. So so how can the logical and mathematical equations he uses to support his claims be real? Either it’s all an illusion, in which case so are logic and math, or it is all real?

Portioning off logic and mathematics as the only way to access the “real” has been suggested by many philosophers throughout history. Those arguments have always ultimately failed because no matter how you spin it logic and math are human activities. Used by humans for human ends, goals, and desires. Yes they have allowed us to achieve many great things but they would not exist without conscious beings to exploit them.

Basically professor Hoffman wants his cake and to eat it too. He wants us to accept that math and logic to show us the world is an illusion except for logic and math. These things are real. Fundamentally, logically, it is not possible for both things to be the case.