Notecard: On consciousness

He set out to do so with math, with something called evolutionary game theory, which allows a researcher to assign points to different adaptations and to determine the odds of each winning in a hypothetical game. And, incredibly, it worked. It turned out, according to Hoffman’s peer-reviewed research, that when he pitted fitness against truth in such simulations, when he and his collaborators asked whether an organism would earn more points if it prioritized accuracy or survival when it perceived, survival won over and over again. Not only that, but these simulations showed something even more counterintuitive: that truth and fitness are opposed, that “seeing truth hides fitness, and seeing fitness hides truth.” 

And so evolution built us an interface—what we usually call reality—that condensed and encoded the richer truth into a form we can navigate and manipulate and believe in. Perception, in other words, conceals the truth of reality in order to aid us in our survival. What we see is not accurate—but it’s not arbitrary either. It is something to be taken “seriously, but not literally.” It should be viewed like an icon on a desktop or an avatar in a VR headset: laden with meaning but entirely artificial; a construct that “guides adaptive behavior”—that helps us, in short, to reproduce. 

Everything physical is like this, according to Hoffman’s theory: expressive of something deeper. A beanbag, for example, is a symbol that evolution encoded to efficiently package information about how to soften your landing and keep you from harm. And it’s not just a beanbag, of course. A library, a cartoonish log, a book about reality, a spent condom, a half-drunk Mountain Dew bottle, a high-rise hotel with dirty windows, a Lyft driver in a Tesla—nothing is what it seems to be, because everything in Hoffman’s confounding worldview is an “adaptive fiction,” a useful lie.


“So then the question is: What am I? Who am I? And the physicalist answer is: Well, you’re just a little package of particles. You’re a piece of meat inside space and time. And when that package of meat dies, you and all your consciousness go with it. 

“Well, but spacetime isn’t fundamental. That whole story just doesn’t hold water. So I switched around from thinking, I’m just meat that has some consciousness associated with it, to saying, No, that assumes spacetime is fundamental; that violates our best science, so that’s not right. And, best I can understand is, I’m not separate from that unbounded intelligence. Hoffman is just an avatar in spacetime of this unbounded intelligence. I’m just a projection of it. And so are you.

“So from this point of view, Don and Ted are just avatars of the one unbounded intelligence. And this unbounded intelligence is doing something that I’m very interested in understanding.” 

When he left the room to take a break, I peeked behind the curtains that occupied one of the lab’s long walls. Instead of windows, I found that the curtains were covering mirrors because, Hoffman explained later, the lab had been used to observe the unwitting child subjects of psychology experiments before he took over the space. I couldn’t follow the math or the physics at the heart of Hoffman’s thinking, but standing before the reflective side of the one-way glass, I was starting to understand more of what he meant: that when we’re looking out at the world, we’re actually looking inward; that the state of our consciousness really is determinative of what we perceive; that we might be able to decode the significance seeping into everything if we were willing to remind ourselves anew that reality is inherently strange. 

- from Adaptive Fictions by Ted McDermott via The Believer

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