Last time it was alleged that we do not see reality as it is and that a better perception of reality is not a survival advantage.
We debunked that nonsense easily. What nonsense can we debunk today? Let’s see.
Hoffman is, naturally enough, asked how seeing a false reality can be beneficial to an organism’s survival.
He then precedes to give us the analogy of what we see on the screen of our desktop computer.
We see icons on our screen. These icons represent all kinds of files. Say you look at one of the icons on the lower right and it looks like a blue rectangle and if you click on it you get a Word document.
Does this mean that the Word document is blue and a rectangle and lives in the lower right of your computer? Of course not.
That blue rectangular icon guides my behaviour, and it hides a complex reality that I don’t need to know. That’s the key idea. Evolution has shaped us with perceptions that allow us to survive. They guide adaptive behaviours. But part of that involves hiding from us the stuff we don’t need to know. And that’s pretty much all of reality, whatever reality might be. If you had to spend all that time figuring it out, the tiger would eat you.
The icon is indeed an abstract representation of something. It represents a file.
What is a computer file? Does the file itself physically exist on the computer? If so, in what form?
I would argue that no, the file does not physically exist on the computer. What exists is a bunch of electrically charged segments of your storage devices (hard drives, memory and so on). The charge of those segments is read and show on your screen in a certain pattern.
We have an abstraction for that pattern of charges, which we call a “file”. A file or a program refers to a bunch of charged matter and those relationships between the charges is what we call a “file” or a “program” or some section of either.
So, the file is itself an abstraction. The icon we click on to access the file is also an abstraction. It is an abstract way of referencing the file.
But what are we clicking on? When we “click on the icon”, we are moving our mouse and instructing our computer to open that file.
When we “click on an icon” we are engaging in a process which results in our file being read. Which is to say, the process causes those bits of charged matter to be read.
Virtually everything we do with our computer involves many, many abstractions.
What physically exists is a bunch of charged particles. From this, we form the abstraction of “files” to refer to collections of charged particles.
But we need still further abstractions to be able to do things efficiently with our computer. We must form abstractions like “folders” and “desktops” so that we can efficiently deal with abstractions such as “file”.
These abstractions are presented to us in the form of the icons and other visual elements. The icons do not physically exist qua icons. They exist as flashes of light on the screen. But we interpret certain patterns of lights as representations of things such as icons.
Does that mean that when we see the icon, we are not seeing things as they are?
No, it does not.
The icon is not some false perception.
It is an abstraction that allows us to deal with other abstractions such as files.
The icon hides details from us that we do not need to know. It allows us to deal with files without having to find out where on the disk a file is located. Or even which folder on your computer it might be on.
And of course, the folder is itself another abstraction that hides details from us.
But all that means is that when using a computer, we use a lot of abstractions which help us avoid having to deal with a lot of details that we do not need to know about.
It is not an argument against the validity of the senses, for not seeing things as they are as an advantage.
It is an argument for the importance of increasingly higher-level abstractions. Without which it would be very difficult to efficiently do much of what we currently do with our computers.
It’s an application of the epistemological concept called unit-economy.
But we won’t go in much more depth about that here. You can find out more about unit-economy here.
Hoffman is then asked if everything that we see is one big illusion.
We’ve been shaped to have perceptions that keep us alive, so we have to take them seriously. If I see something that I think of as a snake, I don’t pick it up. If I see a train, I don’t step in front of it. I’ve evolved these symbols to keep me alive, so I have to take them seriously. But it’s a logical flaw to think that if we have to take it seriously, we also have to take it literally.
Why should we not take what we see literally? We argued in part one of this series that the senses are valid and do not distort things. We have no reason not to take them literally.
So, Hoffman is then asked if snakes are not snakes and trains are not trains, what are they? A logical enough question.
Snakes and trains, like the particles of physics, have no objective, observer-independent features. The snake I see is a description created by my sensory system to inform me of the fitness consequences of my actions.
Your sensory system gives you sensations from which you can make out objects. One of which is an object which is subsumed under the concept of “snake”.
Your senses give you nothing but sensory data. They just collect data.
It is up to your mind to form abstractions such as “snake” which describe concrete entities subsumed under those abstractions.
Your senses do not know anything about the concept of a snake. It is not able to create some illusion of a snake based on what it thinks a snake is. Your senses feed your brain data and your brain identifies things like a “snake” based on that input.
Any error in identification is not the fault of your senses. It is the fault of your mind for failing to form proper abstractions.
You cannot blame your senses for such mistakes.
Unless, of course, your senses are compromised with medical conditions, old age and the like.
As for snakes and trains and the like having no objective, observer-independent features, that is nonsense. To exist at all is to have objective features. That is part of what it means to exist.
My snakes and trains are my mental representations; your snakes and trains are your mental representations.
We observe the same things. Which we may or may not classify as snakes and trains, depending on how we form these abstractions. Nonetheless, we are observing the same reality.
Hoffman seems to genuinely be trying to argue that “Reality is complicated and it is good that we do not see things as they are. If we did, reality would be too complicated to deal with”.
It is true that every organism only has a certain range of forms of perception. There are countless forms of sensory organs known to exist and no animal has them all. There are only so many ways they perceive things.
But whatever they do perceive is reality as it is. It might, for some organisms, be only a relatively limited window on reality, using primitive sensory organs, but even then, they are seeing what is.
Even if what they sense is part of the whole, they are still sensing what exists objectively in reality.
The senses cannot give us what is not. That is not how they work, as we argued in part one.
Even then, it is hard to see that a distorted perception of reality could be an advantage.
The fact that there are things we do not perceive is not an argument for our senses deceiving us. Our senses do have a limited range. But the fact that they are not omniscient does not mean that they are wrong.
That will do for this part. We will return to this article in the future and see what other insanity Hoffman can “offer” us.