Overlapping Magisteria

Evolving perceptions of reality

Humans are always splitting, grouping, and distinguishing; so much so that the, “there are two kinds of people,” meme is a meta statement on this fact. Our brains work by dissecting—to understand parts—to reconstruct the whole. Of course, this is not necessarily how nature—or our experience of it—works.

One of the first places we run into this is when we try to investigate the link and usefulness of quantum field theory to what is called—to a rough approximation—the macroscopic world.

As everyone understands, quantum physics defies (or seems to defy) understanding. That a quantum particle can be a 0-dimensional point and a wave, its nature largely described probabilistically, and with little adherence to locality or communication speed limits, seems the beliefs of religious zealotry. Yet, most modern digital technology—from the logic and memory utilized in today’s semiconductors responsible for the operation of phones, computers, and the internet to global positioning and communication are thanks to the engineering of machines based in these theories.

It is as if the craziness of the quantum world communicates with us through the black mirror of our phones. There is truly little purchase between quantum and macro to be had elsewhere. We are told tables and things like them—solids in phase and experience—are anything but. More space than stuff. Our perceptions seem to be from a wholly different place than the fields that created them—it is as if we do not see reality at all.

Enter here Donald Hoffman and his team of cognitive scientists and physicists at the University of California—Irvine. Hoffman’s conjecture is that, for perception, fitness beats truth, that evolution has found that an algorithm based in the nature of reality—spacetime and quantum field theory—is of less use in the survival of our selfish genes than is a user interface that we create to perceive the fitness function of the object. A snake is more snakelike, an entangled quantum field less entangled or field-like in our GUI or graphical user interface, for that is what has helped us survive... that is what makes us human.

We have even agreed upon this GUI through its evolution as a feature in our system of fitness. Is there an “apple” on the “table” when no one is looking? No, the GUI is dependent on humans. Does the same “apple” appear when some independent human adult enters the kitchen? Yes! Where does the “apple” go when no one views it? Back to whatever it is in reality when not being manipulated by our GUI.

This shocking conclusion is another of nature’s overlapping magisteria that only “shock” us if we have been trained that human evolution is not multimodal and is not very integrated with the working of our brains and our minds. Instead, it is likely that our success depended on human animals evolving a unique sensory perceptive graphical user interface based not in reality but in the exact algorithm that was determining survival—that is, fitness to natural selection. If the delta between reality and fitness was great enough and this GUI evolved far enough back in time, our experience of the GUI would give us an advantage that we have exploited and was only recently uncovered by our advances in science and engineering.

If what we perceive, what we remember and plan, and all but what our most unintuitive scientific thought is a GUI created by our evolving brain, are we living in an illusion? Not exactly, there is still a reality driven by quantum physics and whatever a snake or an apple is in reality, these items are harmful or helpful, respectively to your fitness and recorded as such on the GUI. While an “apple” may taste more like Tasty Wheat, it still fulfills a positive fitness function.

Consciousness is both the firm ground of human experience and our shared relationship to one another as a species. Consciousness overlaps among us, our shared user interface evolving to create the vividness of what we need to survive and our feelings about it. This dynamic drove a desire for pleasure and the avoidance of unsatisfactory and restless outcomes. But now our modern world is developing tech from reality faster than our GUI and our shared conscious experience can evolve. Furthermore, the evolution we need is counterintuitive, one that is equanimous to both pleasure and pain due to their transitory nature and one that offers good intentions to other gene-carrying human organisms that may technically be in genetic competition with us. Our knowledge of our experiential evolution and the current limits of our GUI to make us happy and wise together—as a society—must be recognized if we are going to make improvements that ensure our bright and exponential future.