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Tallis in Wonderland

An Encounter with Radical Darwinitis

Dr Raymond Tallis lances a metaphysical boil.

Regular readers of this column will know that I have repeatedly criticized ‘Darwinitis’. I have, of course, no problem with Darwinism, and its central idea of natural selection operating on spontaneous variation as a mechanism explaining the journey from single-celled creatures to the organism H. sapiens. It is one of the most tested and robust of scientific theories, and technologies and discoveries since the publication of The Origin of Species (1859) – carbon dating, filling in of the fossil record, and genomics, to name but a few – have all strengthened its case. However, Darwinitis – the claim that evolution completely explains the human person, and that the distinctive features of human beings are, or will be, best understood through the science of the evolved brain – is quite another thing.

It is all too clear that my cries of “Whoa!” here have fallen on deaf ears. The progress of Darwinitis from the fringe to the mainstream, as part of the rise and rise of scientism, has, if anything, accelerated. Indeed, it has been augmented by Radical Darwinitis.

Radical Reality Rejection

One of the most striking expressions of this trend is Donald Hoffman’s The Case Against Reality: How Evolution Hid the Truth from Our Eyes (2020), in which he draws fundamental, but deeply counterintuitive, conclusions from evolutionary theory.

Hoffman’s argument stands on two ideas: the Fitness-Beats-Truth theorem, and the Interface Theory of Perception. The Fitness-Beats-Truth theorem claims that our perceptions are entirely determined by ‘fitness payoff’: “our senses forage for fitness not truth.” We evolved to detect and act on fitness – increasing our chances of surviving to reproduce – not to perceive the true structure of objective reality. For Hoffman this has astonishing consequences. While the Fitness-Beats-Truth theorem allows genetic variation, selection, and heredity to be real aspects of the real world, Hoffman claims that objects in spacetime – DNA, RNA, chromosomes, organisms, and resources – are not real. There are no such things as objects as they are usually understood as discrete items localized in space and time.

How can we be so deceived? After all, believing in objects in spacetime is not a simple matter of being susceptible to local mistakes, illusions, and hallucinations that may be corrected by veridical perceptions. That pink elephant evaporates when I try to touch it. But reality doesn’t.

This brings us to Hoffman’s other theorem. According to the Interface Theory of Perception, evolution shaped our senses to be a user interface tailored to our needs. Those needs are best served not by knowing what is really going on either in the world or in ourselves (which is anyway unmanageably complicated) but by experiences encoded in something rather like the icon on a computer screen that reveals nothing of what’s happening in the machine. Far from being ‘out there’, independent of our perceptions, spacetime is the desktop of this interface, and physical objects are among its icons, and the icons need not resemble anything of the objective reality behind them. But while this interface ‘hides reality’, it ‘helps us raise kids’.

Hoffman is serious in his denial of objective reality. Rocks and trees and spoons, being experienced ‘messages about fitness’ – data structures – do not exist when no-one is observing them. Hoffman declares that even his own body is an icon.

Perhaps you hear an echo of Bishop Berkeley, who argued that objects exist only as long as they are being perceived. But Hoffman is more radical than Berkeley, who, after all, believed that even when objects were not being perceived by us, they continued to exist in the mind of God. Also, the claim that space and time (or more precisely, spacetime) are merely the format of the perceptual interface behind which the true nature of reality is hidden may remind you of Immanuel Kant, for whom space and time are ‘forms of sensible intuition’ – merely ways in which the mind structures its experiences. Hoffman, however, tries to make his idealism more respectable by appealing to physics, and especially that happy (because respectable) hunting ground for radical thinkers, quantum mechanics.

Quantum mechanics, he argues, undermines our belief in local realism. Elementary particles may be ‘entangled’, meaning that a measurement ascribing a physical property such as spin to one of a pair of entangled quantum entities will instantaneously confer an opposite physical property on the other, even if it’s on the other side of the galaxy. From this Hoffman concludes that there are no discrete objects. Measurements of dynamic (changing) quantum properties, such as spin, location or velocity, he further points out, do not reveal pre-existing properties of the entity that’s measured. Rather measurements are interventions that confer definition upon an otherwise indeterminate reality. Even more useful for Hoffman’s purposes, some physicists of high repute, such as Gerard t’ Hooft and Leonard Susskind, have suggested that the three-dimensional world of everyday experience, populated with galaxies, stars, houses, and people, is a hologram – an image of reality encoded on a two-dimensional surface.

Senses Make Sense in Spacetime

There are, of course, serious problems with scaling up from the micro world of quantum mechanics to macroscopic objects such as flowers, frogs, blue tits, human beings, and other members of Darwin’s cast of characters. But there is a particularly pertinent difficulty with Hoffman’s ‘case against reality’ which is even more challenging than the dubiousness of his appeal to microphysics to uphold his case against spacetime and perceptual experience as a source of truth about objects. It is the question of how much of Darwinism itself would survive Hoffmanesque radicalization. The very idea of evolution – and of fitness payoffs that make it advantageous to flee from a tiger or move towards food – relies on the idea of real organisms being discrete, spatially-bounded objects, with capacities and vulnerabilities determined by their intrinsic nature, rather than being merely perceptual constructs. Natural selection assumes that organisms are real, and really separated from one another in space, such that there is a distance between predator and prey, between mouth and food, and the beast and its environment. Evolution also presupposes a temporal order in which unicellular life preceded large mammals, for instance. Darwin’s theory of evolution is precisely the theory that the path from one to the other was marked out by countless mutations and the operation of natural selection upon the results. And the theory also requires successive generations of organisms, with offspring arriving later than their parents. As Hoffman himself says, “Human vision is shaped by eons of natural selection.” ‘Eons’ sounds like time – lots of time. So do the two billion years that, he reminds us, cyanobacteria spent emitting the oxygen that made the planet habitable for organisms like us. In short, Hoffman’s revisionary metaphysics derived from Darwinism ends up dismantling the world picture necessary for Darwinism! The very idea of ‘fitness’ cannot make sense in the absence of objects independently located in spacetime. As for our perceptions, if there is nothing actually ‘out there’, then there would be no grounds for constraining what we perceive. How therefore can Hoffman reconcile his appeal to evolutionary science with his rejection of the conditions in which it makes sense – the very ground upon which his appeal stands?

More broadly, it is impossible to reconcile Hoffman’s commitment to science with his belief that the universe has no history apart from observers, so that “There was no sun before there were creatures to perceive it.” What should we make of the standard scientific story according to which the Big Bang took place before there were planets, the creation of planets preceded organisms, unconscious organisms arrived before conscious ones, and conscious organisms stalked the planet before the organism C. Darwin walked on it, formulating his theory? Even more fundamentally, how can Hoffman give credence to the claims of microphysics and evolutionary biology, while rejecting the truth of the perceptions upon which they are ultimately based? If CERN and the physicists who work there are illusions, what is the status of physics?

It is noteworthy that Hoffman places great significance on perceptual illusions as evidence that we are always deceived by our senses. If that were the case, however, illusions would not be an identifiable subgroup of experiences that stand out and are subject to correction. The fact that we may see pink elephants after taking drugs does not demonstrate the unreality of the grey elephants we see in the zoo, or indeed of the laptop on which I am writing this. If our susceptibility to faulty perceptions really did prove the universal faultiness of perception, it would be difficult to explain why we pick out some perceptions as false, and indeed why we are able to see them as false, and, moreover, point out in what respect they falsify reality. We would not have any grounds for treating a pink elephant in our bedroom differently from a grey one in a zoo. There has to be a criterion of truth in perception in order for some perceptions to be judged as false.

In short, Hoffman’s two theorems privileging ‘evolutionary fit’ perception over veridical perception are incompatible with Darwinism itself. As such, his ‘case against reality’ is a particular egregious example of what philosophers call ‘pragmatic self-refutation’, in which an argument put forward to support a position actually undermines its own premises.

There are many aspects of Hoffman’s self-refutation. He requires us to believe that Donald Hoffman, like other apparent physical objects, does not really occupy space and endure over a definite period of time; yet this must be the condition of his writing The Case Against Reality at a particular place and a particular time.

In summary, Hoffman’s use of the theory of evolution as the basis of a theory of everything demolishes the framework within which the theory of evolution makes sense.

Darwinitis’s Dangerous Delusion

Darwin as an ape

Something like Hoffman’s founding theorem that ‘Fitness-Beats-Truth’ is often invoked by thinkers who want to pull humanity down a peg or two by claiming that we believe things to be true because they are biologically useful, rather than that they are useful because they are true. John Gray, who has featured in this column more than once, argued in Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals (2002) that “the faith that through science humankind can know the truth” has been exposed as groundless because Darwin’s theory of natural selection has shown that “The human mind serves evolutionary success not truth. To think otherwise is to resurrect the pre-Darwinian error that humans are different from all other animals”. It appears that we have to believe the truth of Darwinism in order to conclude that we do not have access to the truth about Darwinism, or anything else. The sound of the sawing off of the branch on which Gray is sitting is deafening. Hoffman goes further, sawing off not only the branch but the tree; indeed, the forest in which the tree is situated.

In Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (1995), Daniel Dennett described the theory of evolution as a “universal acid… that eats through just about every traditional concept, and leaves in its wake a revolutionized world view.” In Hoffman’s hands, the acid ends up eating itself.

© Prof. Raymond Tallis 2023

Raymond Tallis’s latest book, Freedom: An Impossible Reality is out now.

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