Conscious Realism & The Interface Theory of Perception

A few months ago I was reading an interesting article in The Atlantic about Donald Hoffman’s Interface Theory of Perception.  As a person highly interested in consciousness studies, cognitive science, and the mind-body problem, I found the basic concepts of his theory quite fascinating.  What was most interesting to me was the counter-intuitive connection between evolution and perception that Hoffman has proposed.  Now it is certainly reasonable and intuitive to assume that evolutionary natural selection would favor perceptions that are closer to “the truth” or closer to the objective reality that exists independent of our minds, simply because of the idea that perceptions that are more accurate will be more likely to lead to survival than perceptions that are not accurate.  As an example, if I were to perceive lions as inert objects like trees, I would be more likely to be naturally selected against and eaten by a lion when compared to one who perceives lions as a mobile predator that could kill them.

While this is intuitive and reasonable to some degree, what Hoffman actually shows, using evolutionary game theory, is that with respect to organisms with comparable complexity, those with perceptions that are closer to reality are never going to be selected for nearly as much as those with perceptions that are tuned to fitness instead.  More so, truth in this case will be driven to extinction when it is up against perceptual models that are tuned to fitness.  That is to say, evolution will select for organisms that perceive the world in a way that is less accurate (in terms of the underlying reality) as long as the perception is tuned for survival benefits.  The bottom line is that given some specific level of complexity, it is more costly to process more information (costing more time and resources), and so if a “heuristic” method for perception can evolve instead, one that “hides” all the complex information underlying reality and instead provides us with a species-specific guide to adaptive behavior, that will always be the preferred choice.

To see this point more clearly, let’s consider an example.  Let’s imagine there’s an animal that regularly eats some kind of insect, such as a beetle, but it needs to eat a particular sized beetle or else it has a relatively high probability of eating the wrong kind of beetle (and we can assume that the “wrong” kind of beetle would be deadly to eat).  Now let’s imagine two possible types of evolved perception: it could have really accurate perceptions about the various sizes of beetles that it encounters so it can distinguish many different sizes from one another (and then choose the proper size range to eat), or it could evolve less accurate perceptions such that all beetles that are either too small or too large appear as indistinguishable from one another (maybe all the wrong-sized beetles whether too large or too small look like indistinguishable red-colored blobs) and perhaps all the beetles that are in the ideal size range for eating appear as green-colored blobs (that are again, indistinguishable from one another).  So the only discrimination in this latter case of perception is between red and green colored blobs.

Both types of perception would solve the problem of which beetles to eat or not eat, but the latter type (even if much less accurate) would bestow a fitness advantage over the former type, by allowing the animal to process much less information about the environment by not focusing on relatively useless information (like specific beetle size).  In this case, with beetle size as the only variable under consideration for survival, evolution would select for the organism that knows less total information about beetle size, as long as it knows what is most important about distinguishing the edible beetles from the poisonous beetles.  Now we can imagine that in some cases, the fitness function could align with the true structure of reality, but this is not what we ever expect to see generically in the world.  At best we may see some kind of overlap between the two but if there doesn’t have to be any then truth will go extinct.

Perception is Analogous to a Desktop Computer Interface

Hoffman analogizes this concept of a “perception interface” with the desktop interface of a personal computer.  When we see icons of folders on the desktop and drag one of those icons to the trash bin, we shouldn’t take that interface literally, because there isn’t literally a folder being moved to a literal trash bin but rather it is simply an interface that hides most if not all of what is really going on in the background — all those various diodes, resistors and transistors that are manipulated in order to modify stored information that is represented in binary code.

The desktop interface ultimately provides us with an easy and intuitive way of accomplishing these various information processing tasks because trying to do so in the most “truthful” way — by literally manually manipulating every diode, resistor, and transistor to accomplish the same task — would be far more cumbersome and less effective than using the interface.  Therefore the interface, by hiding this truth from us, allows us to “navigate” through that computational world with more fitness.  In this case, having more fitness simply means being able to accomplish information processing goals more easily, with less resources, etc.

Hoffman goes on to say that even though we shouldn’t take the desktop interface literally, obviously we should still take it seriously, because moving that folder to the trash bin can have direct implications on our lives, by potentially destroying months worth of valuable work on a manuscript that is contained in that folder.  Likewise we should take our perceptions seriously, even if we don’t take them literally.  We know that stepping in front of a moving train will likely end our conscious experience even if it is for causal reasons that we have no epistemic access to via our perception, given the species-specific “desktop interface” that evolution has endowed us with.

Relevance to the Mind-body Problem

The crucial point with this analogy is the fact that if our knowledge was confined to the desktop interface of the computer, we’d never be able to ascertain the underlying reality of the “computer”, because all that information that we don’t need to know about that underlying reality is hidden from us.  The same would apply to our perception, where it would be epistemically isolated from the underlying objective reality that exists.  I want to add to this point that even though it appears that we have found the underlying guts of our consciousness, i.e., the findings in neuroscience, it would be mistaken to think that this approach will conclusively answer the mind-body problem because the interface that we’ve used to discover our brains’ underlying neurobiology is still the “desktop” interface.

So while we may think we’ve found the underlying guts of “the computer”, this is far from certain, given the possibility of and support for this theory.  This may end up being the reason why many philosophers claim there is a “hard problem” of consciousness and one that can’t be solved.  It could be that we simply are stuck in the desktop interface and there’s no way to find out about the underlying reality that gives rise to that interface.  All we can do is maximize our knowledge of the interface itself and that would be our epistemic boundary.

Predictions of the Theory

Now if this was just a fancy idea put forward by Hoffman, that would be interesting in its own right, but the fact that it is supported by evolutionary game theory and genetic algorithm simulations shows that the theory is more than plausible.  Even better, the theory is actually a scientific theory (and not just a hypothesis), because it has made falsifiable predictions as well.  It predicts that “each species has its own interface (with some similarities between phylogenetically related species), almost surely no interface performs reconstructions (read the second link for more details on this), each interface is tailored to guide adaptive behavior in the relevant niche, much of the competition between and within species exploits strengths and limitations of interfaces, and such competition can lead to arms races between interfaces that critically influence their adaptive evolution.”  The theory predicts that interfaces are essential to understanding evolution and the competition between organisms, whereas the reconstruction theory makes such understanding impossible.  Thus, evidence of interfaces should be widespread throughout nature.

In his paper, he mentions the Jewel beetle as a case in point.  This beetle has a perceptual category, desirable females, which works well in its niche, and it uses it to choose larger females because they are the best mates.  According to the reconstructionist thesis, the male’s perception of desirable females should incorporate a statistical estimate of the true sizes of the most fertile females, but it doesn’t do this.  Instead, it has a category based on “bigger is better” and although this bestows a high fitness behavior for the male beetle in its evolutionary niche, if it comes into contact with a “stubbie” beer bottle, it falls into an infinite loop by being drawn to this supernormal stimuli since it is smooth, brown, and extremely large.  We can see that the “bigger is better” perceptual category relies on less information about the true nature of reality and instead chooses an “informational shortcut”.  The evidence of supernormal stimuli which have been found with many species further supports the theory and is evidence against the reconstructionist claim that perceptual categories estimate the statistical structure of the world.

More on Conscious Realism (Consciousness is all there is?)

This last link provided here shows the mathematical formalism of Hoffman’s conscious realist theory as proved by Chetan Prakash.  It contains a thorough explanation of the conscious realist theory (which goes above and beyond the interface theory of perception) and it also provides answers to common objections put forward by other scientists and philosophers on this theory.

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Karma & Socio-Psychological Feedback Loops

Over the weekend, I had the pleasure of seeing an old friend.  At one point during our conversation, he basically asked me if I believed in Karma (that good things happen to good people, etc.).  My answer to that question was yes and no.  No, in the sense that I don’t believe in any kind of supernatural moral causation, which is what Karma technically is.  But on the other hand, I do believe that there are other naturalistic mechanisms that produce similar effects which would be indistinguishable from what people would call Karma.  Specifically, I believe that there are various psychological, cognitive and social factors that ultimately produce these kinds of effects on one’s life.  So I decided to expand on this topic a little bit in this post.

First of all, the level of optimism or pessimism that a person has will undoubtedly affect not only their overall worldview but also the course that their life takes over time in profound ways that are often taken for granted or overlooked.  If a person has a positive attitude, they will tend to invite others (whether explicitly or not) into their social circle not only due to their personality being inviting and comforting, but also because that person is more likely to be productive in helping others.  Furthermore, if they are also altruistic, other people will often take notice of this, and are more likely to solidify a relationship with them.  Likewise, since altruism is often reciprocated, then a person that is altruistic is more likely to have help returned to them when they need it most.  So in short, a person that is positive and altruistic is more likely to continue along a positive path in their life’s course simply because their attitude and less selfish behavior serve as catalysts to solidify more meaningful relationships with others, thus allowing them to increasingly gain more safety nets and mutual socioeconomic benefits as time progresses.

One can see how this principle would operate in the converse scenario, that is, with a person that is generally pessimistic and selfish.  This person is clearly more likely to deter new meaningful relationships due to their uninviting personality (especially if they are anti-social), due to how they make others feel generally, and due to them only focusing on their own best interests.  Others are likely to notice this behavior, and if that pessimistic and selfish person needs help at some point in time, they aren’t nearly as likely to receive any.  This in turn will make it more likely for that person to fall into a downward spiral, where their lack of help from others is likely to cause that person to be increasingly resentful, bitter, negative, and even less likely to help others around them then they were before.  So we can see how a person’s attitude and behavioral trends often have a catalyzing effect on their life’s course by effectively amplifying their behavior in a reciprocated fashion from those around them.  That is, whatever socio-psychological environment is being nurtured by that person (whether good or bad) will most likely be reciprocated thus creating a feedback loop that can become amplified over time.

There appears to be a sort of avalanche effect that can occur, where even a tiny chaotic deviation from the present state can lead to very large differences later on.  Most of us have heard of the so-called “Butterfly Effect” where tiny perturbations in a system can lead to huge changes that are increasingly amplified over time, and this socio-psychological feedback loop is perhaps one of the most important illustrations of such an effect.  Even tiny actions or events that influence our perspective (or the perspective of those around us) can often lead to dramatic changes later on in our lives.

Another important point regarding the effect of optimism and pessimism within this socio-psychological feedback loop is the placebo/nocebo effect, where if one believes that either positive or negative outcomes are more likely, their physiology and cognitive states can change in accordance with those expectations.  People that strongly believe that they will fail to reach a goal or that have some other negative expectation (such as getting sick) are more likely to self-manifest that expectation (i.e. the “nocebo” effect) since their expectations not only influence their perception for the worse, but also because they often channel their focus and attention on that negative belief (which can increase stress levels and thus impair cognitive faculties and overall health) and the belief can become reinforced in other ways since the brain’s cognitive biases often function to reinforce whatever beliefs we have in the first place, even if they are unjustified, incorrect, or ultimately bad for our well-being.  Following along this line of reasoning, we can see how a person that strongly believes that they will in fact achieve a goal or some other positive state are more likely to do so.  Thus, the placebo or nocebo effect can directly result from optimistic or pessimistic perspectives and are often reinforced by our own cognitive biases and cognitive dissonance reduction mechanisms.

It seems that even a small boost in encouragement, optimism, or altruism, can lead to a cascade effect of improved social relationships (thus providing more socioeconomic stability) and an improvement in overall well-being through various socio-psychological feedback loops.  Furthermore, our attitude or perspective can also lead to various placebo effects that further reinforce these feedback loops.  In any case, we should all recognize and appreciate how even small perturbations in our attitude as well as in our behavior toward others can have profound changes in our lives.  Even small acts of kindness or morale boosts can go a long way to changing the lives of others, as well as our own.  So to conclude, I would argue that if any kind of Karma seems to exists in this world, those Karmic effects are naturally brought about by the kinds of mechanisms I’ve described here.