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Hoffman's Conscious Realism:
A Critical Review

2. Fitness Beats Truth (FBT) Theorem

2.2 Self Refuting

Book cover: Metaphysics: A Very Short Introduction by Stephen Mumford

Let's assume that Hoffman et al [2015a: 1499] are right in thinking that 'all perceptions are fundamentally non-veridical'. Even with this concession, Hoffman et al's Fitness Beats Truth (FBT) Theorem just seems self-refuting. Consider this. Hoffman is the result of human evolution and yet, purportedly, he discerns many facts grounded in observation.

Here is just one such fact about the world that Hoffman discovered from his observations of evolutionary processes and from working with his peers. He states that the classic argument that veridical perception offers a competitive advantage 'misunderstands the fundamental fact about evolution, which is that it's about fitness functions — mathematical functions that describe how well a given strategy achieves the goals of survival and reproduction' [Gefter 2016]. If we can't know anything about a world external to conscious minds undergoing selective environmental pressures, then how can Hoffman have found out that fact about just such a world?

Now, Hoffman could respond here that no observations were involved in these mathematical simulations. However, note that Hoffman did not make the required mathematical calculations in his mind, or even on pencil and paper. The mathematical models were programmed into physical computers and the calculations performed by same. He also communicated with his colleagues using physical telephones, exchanged ideas via written papers, and so on. All of these activities involved a myriad of everyday observations using his sense organs. If all of these observations are non-veridical, as he claims, then on what basis can he propose his supposed 'fact about evolution'?

Or take this other fact that Hoffman supposedly knows about the world:

The environment in which our species evolved is a highly structured place, containing many regularities. Light tends to come from overhead, there is a prevalence of symmetric structures, objects tend to be compact and composed of parts that are largely convex, and so on. Over the course of evolution, such regularities have been internalized by the visual system (Feldman, 2013; Geisler, 2008; Shepard, 1994).

[Hoffman et al 2015a: 1490]

Again, this raises the question that if the operation of Hoffman's eyes and visual system are always non-veridical, as he claims, then how can he know so much about how they evolved and how they function? Hoffman seems to want his cake and eat it too.

The upshot here is that if Hoffman's perception of an external world populated by biological organisms undergoing selective pressures is all 'non-veridical', then so is any Hoffmanian theory built on it, no matter how elegant the mathematical models he produces. Here, Hoffman faces the horns of a dilemma of his own making. Either the observational data he relies on to produce his theory is veridical or it is not. If it is veridical, his FBT theory is false. In this case, his observational data is the case that breaks his FBT rule. On the other hand, if his observational data is non-veridical, his FBT theory is false as it is based on false premises.

Murphy [2020] makes exactly this point in his little piece when he writes:

Hoffman does and does not believe that there's a reality as it is. He believes that there is a reality as it is when he discusses evolutionary theory/biology (i.e., when discussing our ancestors). And he doesn't believe there is a reality as it is when it comes to his philosophical position of conscious realism.

Hoffman and Prakash [2014: 17] make an early attempt to get around this objection that their conclusion that all of perception is non-veridical is self-defeating. They write in response:

We claim that perception evolved by natural selection. Call this statement E. Now E is indeed informed by the results of experiments, and thus by our perceptions. We observe, from evolutionary game theory, that one mathematical prediction of E is that natural selection generically drives true perceptions to extinction when they compete with perceptions tuned to fitness.

Suppose E is true. Then our perceptions evolved by natural selection. This logically entails that our perceptions are generically about fitness rather than truth. Is this a contradiction? Not at all. It is a scientific hypothesis that makes testable predictions.

The problem with Hoffman and Prakash's response here is that whether the conclusion, 'Natural selection generically drives true perceptions to extinction', makes predictions or not is wholly irrelevant to whether relying on perceptual evidence to support E contradicts the conclusion.

The following is a mutually inconsistent set of propositions.

DPerception supports E

EPerception evolved by natural selection

FNatural selection generically drives true perceptions to extinction

Hoffman and Prakash concede D. Now, even if we grant that we know F is true without using our perceptual capacities, we still need to remove at least D or F from the set to make it a consistent set.

Also, there is a certain irony in Hoffman and Prakash relying on what they say are non-veridical perceptions to test the truth of a scientific hypothesis.

Book cover: Free Will by Sam Harris

In a later paper, Hoffman et al [2015a: 1500] try again to get around this objection. Here, they reply that their mathematical proof that natural selection does not favour veridical perceptions 'does not entail that all cognitive faculties are not reliable' and then proceed to defend the hypothesis that perhaps our ability to do maths and logic is accurate. However, our competence in maths and logic is beside the point. Hoffman et al's mathematical simulations manipulate the conditions for the evolution of organisms in a natural physical environment. Their mathematical games have content. They have a subject matter. If the subject matter of those games (particular organisms with particular properties existing in particular environments) is not in actuality what they say it is, then no amount of mathematical manipulation will lead to anything other than erroneous results. If we can add flawlessly two and two to deduce four, that is of no help in adding two apples to two apples to arrive at four apples if the apples are not really apples, but oranges. As the saying goes, 'garbage in, garbage out'.

Later again, Hoffman [2018: 10] tries a different tack in answering a similar objection. As stated [Objection 4], the objection is that Hoffman's FBT Theorem assumes the truth of the theory of biological evolution with all its attendant biological entities, which are the self-same physical entities he is trying to prove that we know nothing about. Here again, Hoffman [Reply 4] defaults to pointing to the 'algorithmic core' of evolutionary theory, devoid of its ontological commitments. As he writes, 'Our theories are ladders to new levels of understanding, and sometimes a new level of understanding leads us to kick away the very ladder that led to it.' However, on that ladder is the very engine of the evolutionary process. For Hoffman [2018: 11], his FBT Theorem 'entails that DNA does not exist when it is not perceived'. In kicking away the very entities that form the ontological core of species' evolution (organisms, DNA, food resources, and so on), he leaves evolution a process without a subject. If Hoffman ends by denying the subject matter of evolution, what is there for the processes of reproduction and natural selection to work on?

Copyright © 2020, 2022

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