Another discussion. Also a while ago. But I thought that I’d type it out before I left Stephens and my comfortable room: S-9. So the discussion began like this… No, wait! It had already begun. In fact, I could here screams (or whelps) from two rooms adjacent to mine. I presumed that either someone was getting slain in some heroic duel or perhaps Arnab Goswami had paid our block a visit. In any event, my curiosity had to be satiated and what better way than to peek from a safe distance. The art of peeking is quite intricate and I’ll dedicate another blog post to that. But it’ll suffice to say that it begins with something along the lines that you mistook their room to be someone else’s and before they realise that you are a fraud, you rove your eyes about the room and scoot with enough of their secrets now safe in your cerebrum. Or was it hypothalamus. Okay, somewhere in the region above your medulla oblongata.
But this peek proved to be different. Of all the topics possible, they were discussing Reality and God! Sigh! Ultra-mega-supercalifragilisticexpialidocious-sigh! I mean, there is world hunger, poverty, terrorism, oh, and more importantly, class tests and university exams and all that they could discuss were whether the world we were living in was real? (God will take up another post!) Woohoo!! Then they were just my kind of people and I sidled into the room uninvited but excited nonetheless.
So, usually, there is this perfunctory introduction about your name and blah blah.. which no one really cares about anyway. Yeah. Well, that didn’t happen here. I was instead subjected to decide immediately in favour of a debate which had been ensuing for quite a while before curiosity asked me to check out the murders happening 2 rooms next to mine! Oh, it was marvellous. Entreaties were made and convincing arguments put forward. I could not be a realist agnostic: I had to choose. Well, and choose I did. Silenced them up a bit as suddenly they ganged up on me. Poor folks. Humanities types, all of them. Their arguments were getting more and more ridiculous till they suddenly claimed, that perhaps the world doesn’t exist the way we see it, neither does the window or the door through which I entered. I snapped back. I asked the most agitated guy to jump out of the window if he didn’t believe in gravity. That sobered them up for a while. But only just.
So, I did a bit of reading on my own instead. A particular TED talk by Donald Hoffman was most interesting as was a recent article I read on The Atlantic while perusing Facebook. Nonetheless, that is what compelled me to sit down and type. anyway. So here we go:
The crux of his article and talk focussed on how or why “a fitness function” was all that was essential for the survival of a species. And that when simulating mathematical models which mimicked evolution, those species survived who maximised the fitness function than those who maximised the reality function. It’ll be important to take a step back here to understand that a fitness function or a reality function is a parameter in any simulation which abstracts the species whose evolution we are mapping, to a system which inputs certain parameters and outputs certain values. Corresponding to changes in these parameters: fitness and reality, we see how these simulations map out. Now, we usually want or expect certain values to be spat out by the simulation program. If these conform with those in tune with the parameters suggested by Hoffman et al., we know that these affect the system, and thus by extrapolation, also the organism whose evolution we are mapping.
It turns out that Hoffman and his team found that fitness rather than reality defined the evolution of a species and in Darwin’s lingo would be the fittest to survive.
The mathematical physicist Chetan Prakash proved a theorem that I devised that says: According to evolution by natural selection, an organism that sees reality as it is will never be more fit than an organism of equal complexity that sees none of reality but is just tuned to fitness. Never.
That could have been a surprising proposition. But I’ll suggest a few arguments below which might lead you to consider such an excitement premature if not futile. In fact, I think he goes on to make a few more sensational claims following this regarding quantum physics and the observer effect which make them more dubious. Here is what he says:
The neuroscientists are saying, “We don’t need to invoke those kind of quantum processes, we don’t need quantum wave functions collapsing inside neurons, we can just use classical physics to describe processes in the brain.” I’m emphasizing the larger lesson of quantum mechanics: Neurons, brains, space … these are just symbols we use, they’re not real. It’s not that there’s a classical brain that does some quantum magic. It’s that there’s no brain! Quantum mechanics says that classical objects—including brains—don’t exist. So this is a far more radical claim about the nature of reality and does not involve the brain pulling off some tricky quantum computation.
He could be a genius. As Phoebe in F.R.I.E.N.D.S. pointed out,
The mark of a genius is not being appreciated in one’s time!
But, I’m inclined to disagree here! Yes, sadly, I feel that Hoffman hasn’t struck gold as he might have led the gullible editors of The Atlantic to believe.
Firstly, quantum mechanics says nothing to the tune of brains not existing. They say that any object can be described by a quantum state and that for a large enough system, there would be way too many external influences such that it would well nigh impossible to consider the whole thing as a system. And with the system being so messy, it would be impossible to practically apply Quantum Mechanics. Thus classical mechanics tends to rule in these realms. (Yay, Newton!) What I think Hoffman and most popular science readers miss is that: The moon exists even if we do not look at it. (Einstein was philosophically musing! It doesn’t make sense to extrapolate each and every sentence of his! Phew!) Because such a system is hopelessly entangled with many other systems. And we, the observer, are either one of those systems or interacting with it anyway to make any meaningful observation which could be theoretically described. Thus, Penrose is right, when he claims that the brains need to be looked at classically. Yep, one could look at possible tunnelling effects vis a vis neurons, which are strictly quantum, but it is important to realise that this says nothing about the brain not being there. Or the moon for that matter. Or you. Yes, quantum mechanics doesn’t preach anything as such. (Sigh!)
Lastly, Hoffman’s simulation is flawed. His simulation holds an inherent bias. He takes reality and fitness to be independent parameters and plots the survival of various species. That, of course, will lead to the conclusion as posited by Chetan Prakash’s theorem, if we can call it that. A species which survives maximises its fitness. Then we check whether it maximises “reality” or “fitness”. Obviously, it’s a foregone conclusion that fitness will be maximised. Because incredibly that is the assumption that we have set out with. Hoffman chose fitness as an independent parameter from reality and found what was expected, that fitness needs to maximised for survival. A principle enshrined in Darwin’s “Survival of the fittest” paradigm. He chose reality as an independent parameter. In short, his findings are nothing spectacular at all.
At least that is what I understood from the presentation on TED and the article on The Atlantic. I did try running a search on Google Scholar, but it was pretty hard finding it. Maybe you could blame me for lack of effort, but this is more than what I am willing to do in my hobby time.
In any event, I believe that one needs to run a correlation simulation between “fitness” and “reality”. And see why or in which areas, deviations from reality, provide a better fitness. Unlike Plato, I don’t think we will find data which points to us being twice removed from reality. Such a species will perish. The obvious places to look for deviations from reality would be to enhance data abstraction or encapsulation of more data. But, the closest thing to an example, Hoffman provides is the icon on a desktop PC. (None from the real world.) However, I beg to differ here as well. In the case of our PC, we make a conscious effort to avoid the more intricate details. If we opened the CPU, we would still find the wiring.
When we look at a human being, we don’t see bones and flesh. Or blood. That doesn’t mean that we don’t see reality.
It only means we choose not to. And that’s a difference. A big one.