Is reality an illusion? If so, does it matter?

Hoffman_1KDonald D. Hoffman, a psychologist at the University of California, Irving, has been getting a lot of attention recently for his views, that evolutionary evidence indicates that reality is an illusion, that the only thing that exists are conscious minds.

This is a modern version of an ancient concept, called idealism.  The earliest writings about it come from the ancient Greeks, although they were almost certainly influenced by the Indian ascetics and sages.

Hoffman’s version is built using ideas of modern science.  He starts with the observation that we aren’t evolved to perceive reality as it is, but in a way that is adaptive, that ensures our survival.  He then brings in quantum physics, noting the often held understanding that consciousness is what causes quantum decoherence (aka wave function collapses).  From this, he deduces that the external world is an illusion, that conscious minds are all that exist.  (This is admittedly a very quick and dirty summation.  Read the articles for a more thorough, and perhaps fairer summary, or watch one of his talks or debates.)

Hoffman has a very valid point about our minds not being evolved to accurately comprehend reality.  This is something that has been understood for a long time.  The idea that we can’t naively trust our perceptions is ancient, and has been well known throughout the history of modern science.  (For example, see Francis Bacon’s Idols of the Mind.)  Reality is not as we perceive it, although it’s a large jump from that common understanding to concluding that reality overall is an illusion.

Image credit: Dhatfield via Wikipedia
Image credit: Dhatfield via Wikipedia

To bridge that gap, Hoffman brings in quantum physics.  To be clear, quantum physics is bizarre.  The more people seem to understand it, the more bizarre it seems to them.  However, Hoffman’s understanding of consciousness causing quantum decoherence might be a bit dated.

Quantum decoherence is now commonly described by physicists to happen from any interaction with the environment.  Only isolated quantum objects, such as individual subatomic particles before they interact with anything (such as hitting the screen in the double-slit experiment), or molecules kept in very isolated laboratory conditions, can remain in a superposition wave state.  In other words, Schrodinger’s Cat either lived or died before the box was opened, since a cat is definitely a noisy system in terms of quantum interference.

This makes sense when you consider why scientists and engineers are struggling to build quantum computers.  Keeping qubits, quantum computing’s version of binary bits, in superposition, preventing them from decohering, is a major challenge.  It’s also why most proto-quantum processors have to operate at near absolute zero temperature, to avoid disturbing the superposition state of the processor’s internals.  If preventing conscious interaction were all that were necessary to prevent decoherence, it seems like these designs could be much simpler.

There’s also the broader difficulty that using sensory experience to conclude that all sensory experience is an illusion, that is, using data from that illusion to conclude it is an illusion, seems problematic.  Of course, someone could say they find logical contradictions or absurdity in that data, hence the illusion conclusion.  But then I have to ask, contradicting what?  Or absurd by what standard?

But, just for the sake of argument, let’s bracket those difficulties, and assume Hoffman is right.  Idealism is true.  One of the other issues I’ve always seen with idealism is that it exempts other minds from this logic.  If everything else is an illusion, what prevents any other minds I perceive to be out there from also being an illusion?  Maybe I’m the only mind that exists.  Or maybe you are and I’m the illusion.  Of course, this is solipsism.  But I’ve  never been able to see what stops idealism from being a logical slippery slope into solipsism.

Furthermore, if we’re going to engage in this kind of skepticism, we can’t even be sure about our own memories.  Maybe everything outside of your mind is an illusion.  Maybe you came into existence 30 seconds ago together with your existing memories.  Perhaps you are in fact a Boltzmann brain, a conscious entity that emerged from random fluctuations a few seconds ago, and will disappear back into those fluctuations in a few more seconds.

All of this is aside from the issue that if reality is an illusion, that illusion appears to exact unpleasant, often painful consequences for not taking it seriously, including consequences for aspects of that illusion we don’t know about, or forget about, or any of the other problems caused by what we normally think of as objective, mind independent reality.

Essentially this makes the illusion our reality, our universe.  And that all the people who insist that there is a reality outside of the universe are right.  We can only hope, if anyone is controlling this illusion, that they’re kindly disposed toward us, or at least not hostile.  The border between this line of reasoning and theology seems like a blurry one.

All of which is to say, if reality is an illusion, then we have little choice but to play the game.  It makes sense to play that game as well as we can, which means understanding it in the most reliable way we can, which brings us back to the methods of science and philosophy for understanding what we commonly call objective reality.

Unless, of course, I have logical holes in my reasoning.

46 thoughts on “Is reality an illusion? If so, does it matter?

  1. I just want to clarify something. “There’s also the broader difficulty that using sensory experience to conclude that all sensory experience is an illusion, that is, using data from that illusion to conclude it is an illusion, seems problematic.” Sensory experience is not an illusion. Sensory experience is the reality. Mind-independent objects (which presumably cause sensory experience) is what is an illusion. But your sensory experience is what constitutes your whole world. So he’s using data from sense-experience and concluding, not that sense-experience is an illusion, but that mind-independent objects are.

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    1. Thanks for the clarification. I admit I was conflating those.

      But I think if we’re calling into question mind-independent objects, then sensory experience isn’t really sensory experience. The experience may exist, but it wouldn’t be sensory in the sense of coming from sight, hearing, touch, etc. It would be either communication from another mind, or something our mind was creating on its own. Unless I’m still missing something?

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      1. No, it seems you’re right Mike. For the Idealist (I’m not one), then the physical senses themselves can only be wrongly inferred by others to be mind-independent objects. The Idealist doesn’t take, say, the olfactory sense and its processes to be ‘real’ in the accepted sense of their being physically extant.

        This is going to be an awkward discussion, because we’re necessarily using vague terms like ‘mind’, ‘real’, ‘idea’, and so on.

        I respectfully don’t agree with RGBuzz when he asserts that “sensory experience is the reality”. What exists outside of this putative ‘reality’ that is not ‘real’? Illusion and hallucination of perception are still phenomena; they’re still ‘real’. There is no phenomenon that is not ‘real’.

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          1. Introducing the idea of ‘reality’ doesn’t help, given that there is no thing that is unreal. I think it’s better to talk about inference and the nature of its referents.

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          2. I’m just arguing against bandying around the philosophically unhelpful concept of ‘reality’, Mike. If I perceive a unicorn, then as you suggest, the percept is an actual phenomenon – i.e. something happened (both physically and psychically). As there is no objectively existent unicorn-creature as a referent to that percept, then there is nothing which can be deemed ‘unreal’, and the perception remains ‘real’ (in the accepted sense of that philosophically unhelpful word). We can wrongly infer that there is a unicorn out there, but that inference too is what is called ‘real’. What then, sets the ‘real’ apart from the ‘unreal’? Nothing; it comes down only to the efficacy of the inference and the nature of its referents – are they objectively ‘out there’, or are they subjectively ‘in here’ (as the idea that unicorns exist).


          3. I would say that the word “real” is still a useful label for an inference with a high efficacy and “unreal” for an inference with a low efficacy. In other words, what is “real” is what is pragmatically useful for us to regard as “real”.

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        1. I don’t like the term “reality” any more than you do, but the conversation in the comments made use of the term, and I tried to conform to its use as best I can. What I mean to say is that sense-data is the only thing that we are directly acquainted with. That is, the immediate phenomenal qualities of our experience. These will be sensations of a particular kind. Any inference from these sensations to a mind-independent object in the external world is going to be unjustified. Consequently, our experience and knowledge is only of things mind-dependent. Whether this maps onto some notion of “reality” or not is less important because the term isn’t exactly clear.

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      2. The distinction which you draw between sense and what is sensed is difficult to justify.
        Suppose that you have a picture of a rose on your computer screen. We accept that the picture is a representation of an actual rose. But is that the case?
        If the picture is a sensory experience, and our experience of the actual rose is also a sensory experience of some actual rose, then the picture is a representation of a sensory experience, which is in turn a representation of the actual object. If so, then whence the actual object? How do we hope to characterize the actual object which makes the representation true, in a correlative sense?
        Maybe math. It seems to have an internal consistency which holds up on its own. Yet math references our experience, of identity at least, in the end. To turn around Plato’s cave analogy, it is hard to speak of the shapes and their shadows as other than a system.
        In fact, if all the action is happening on the cave wall, it is hard to see the shapes as anything but epiphenomenal – they don’t do anything as shapes themselves, but instead act on the basis of the shadow-casting mechanism.
        Theories of truth in which we discover the really real reality behind the curtain,all seem to fail.

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        1. Hey Keith,
          Not sure if you’re addressing me, rgbuzz, or Hariod, but I do think a distinction can be made between the perceptions we experience and what is actually out in the world. The experience is definitely there. We have direct experience with it.

          But for things actually out there (assuming anything is), for objective reality, all we can ever have are provisional theories. I can have a high degree of confidence that the keyboard I’m typing this on exists, is black, and sitting on a white desk, because I perceive them with my senses, but there’s always the chance that things aren’t what they seem. For instance, we know that “white” isn’t real, but is actually mashup of all colors, which our brains simply translate into what we perceive of as “white”.

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          1. Yeah, I agree. But I would also agree that Hariod that white is real as well, or at least true, as far as it goes.
            The point is that truth can’t be taken very far, and certainly can’t be subjected to theoretical treatment.

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        2. Keith,
          We don’t have to accept that the picture is a representation of an actual rose. This is because there is no corresponding (rose) object, and anyone looking at the picture would know and understand that there is no corresponding object.. Our sense experience is of a screen display an array of color. The perceptual experience may be more robust, such that we have a “what-it-is-like to see a rose” experience – but this should not be confused with the experience of a veridical rose. Strictly speaking, the object that the sense experience of the picture “represents” an actual object – but the actual object represented is an array of dots on a screen (and, curiously enough, this is what the sense experience is of – that is, this is the cause of the sense-experience).

          Also, mathematical truths are a priori – that is, they are known to be true without having experience.

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      3. Yeah, it wouldn’t be sensory experience insofar as sensory experience depends on mind-independent objects to cause sensation. But there would still be sensation, and there would still be experience

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        1. I’m not sure “sensation” is a word I’d use here either, but I’m pretty sure I understand the concept you’re conveying. The experience would still be there, even if it isn’t coming from actual senses, but either from another mind or another component of our own mind.


          1. Yeah, that’s about it. But I do think that “sensation” is the right word. When you refer to a sensation of yours, you are referring to a feeling or experience of yours. For me to have a sensation of pain is to feel pain. “Sensation” is independent from the thing causing the sensation.

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      4. I think there may be some misunderstanding on the part of the person writing the Atlantic article, but it’s not at all clear. (And I admit, I didn’t watch the video or read more than this article.) The author seems to think he’s saying: “The world presented to us by our perceptions is nothing like reality.” This statement implies that reality is an illusion (and so does the title). Which implies that there is some reality apart from our experience of it. In other words, it’s our experience that fails us. (Sensory perception would be included in “experience,” I assume.)

        But that doesn’t jive with what Hoffman says later, at the end of the article: “The experiences of everyday life—my real feeling of a headache, my real taste of chocolate—that really is the ultimate nature of reality.” Which seems to say that there is no reality BUT the one we experience. That’s the opposite of what the article implies. Unless I’m missing something?

        Something’s not right here. That’s all I can say without watching the video or reading more from Hoffman (which I don’t feel like doing). I don’t know whether Hoffman’s being inconsistent or whether the author of the article misunderstood him. In any case, I think it’s strange to come at the idea that experience is the ultimate nature of reality from the POV of quantum physics. His statements probably need to be toned down, if he’s saying what I think he’s saying.

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        1. Having watched the videos, my definite impression is that Hoffman always reaches the same conclusion, that external reality is an illusion. I think what you might be getting caught on, is that he typically tries to lead the audience / reader to this conclusion in stages.
          1. Reality is not as we perceive it (which isn’t controversial among scientists and philosophers)
          2. Quantum physics calls into question our most fundamental assumptions about reality.
          3. Quantum physics indicates that reality depends on consciousness (a notion I pushed back on in the post)
          4. Therefore, all of reality is an illusion.

          In some ways, Hoffman might have been better off if he had just penned an article for Quanta rather than responding to the interview format. His viewpoint ended up being a bit chopped up as a result. I had already seen him in multiple video debates and discussions and was somewhat familiar with his views, but I can see that format being confusing if this was your intro to it.

          As I indicated in the post, it’s not a view I find particularly productive.

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          1. Unfortunately, I don’t know much I could add for clarification. If you do decide you want to understand his views, here’s his participation in a discussion with Chalmers, Dennett, and Hammeroff. (I think the whole discussion is worth listening to, but Hoffman starts talking at the 1h22m mark. I mostly end up aligning with Dennett in this discussion.)

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  2. Hoffman obviously has read too many popular books on quantum physics and hasn’t spoken to enough current researchers. As you say, the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics is nearly a century out of date, and was ridiculed at the time by Schrodinger with his cat. Recent experiments in quantum computing underline the fact that there is nothing special about conscious observers in QM.

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    1. Thanks Steve. There seems to be disagreement on whether the Copenhagen interpretation actually says anything about conscious interaction. From what I’ve read, some early descriptions of it do (with Einstein reportedly once asking if the consciousness of a mouse was sufficient), but over time a more epistemically cautious version became dominant, one that emphasizes what we know and eschews what we don’t (the “shut up and calculate” philosophy). As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to respect this view, even while recognizing that it’s deeply unsatisfying.

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  3. Hi Mike,

    I don’t think you have the right picture of decoherence. You seem to think that decoherence is a kind of objective waveform collapse, but it isn’t. Rather it’s a spreading out of the superposition beyond the system being studied, so that subjectively it appears to be a case of waveform collapse.

    This from the Wikipedia article:
    “Decoherence does not generate actual wave function collapse. It only provides an explanation for the observation of wave function collapse, as the quantum nature of the system “leaks” into the environment. ”

    Once again, quantum mechanics is stranger than supposed! Schrödinger’s cat is still (apparently) alive and dead at the same time unless you bring in the Copenhagen interpretation or some other objective waveform collapse interpretation or perhaps a hidden variable theory. Decoherence does not resolve the issue.

    And nor could it, if you think about it. To say that a superposition is destroyed when a quantum system interacts with its environment, you’d have to have an objective distinction between a quantum system and its environment, but no such distinction can be drawn (although some objective waveform collapse interpretations do make such an attempt) — no matter where we draw the borders, everything inside is a quantum system and everything outside is its environment. All we can say from an objective perspective is that the superposition is more or less confined. Decoherence is a subjective phenomenon that occurs when the superposition has spread to include the observer.

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    1. Hi DM,
      I almost put in a disclaimer about the MWI, but held off because it would have clouded the main point I was trying to make, that whatever is happening, consciousness isn’t the significant aspect.

      You’re right, under the MWI, the cat remains both alive and dead. But even under the MWI, whether you will be part of the spreading superposition where it is alive, or part of the spreading superposition where it is dead, is determined before the box is opened.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Hi SAP,

        I don’t mean to say that the MWI is the only way to look at it, I just mean to say that you need something more than decoherence to get away from the cat being both alive and dead. Decoherence alone doesn’t do the job.

        whether you will be part of the spreading superposition where it is alive, or part of the spreading superposition where it is dead, is determined before the box is opened.

        Yeah, in practical terms. But I don’t think we know in principle that you couldn’t isolate the box so well from its environment that the superposition would not spread until the box was opened. We started off with superpositions of atoms, now we can do molecules and groups of molecules and even larger objects (see We may be able to superpose a cat one day, who knows?

        My point is that the idea that the Schrödinger’s cat problem is somehow no longer much of an issue is just wrong, even given decoherence. Some people actually do still think the act of observation is what collapses the wave function. That idea still has currency, unfortunately, so the guy you’re critiquing isn’t that out of touch after all.

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        1. Hi DM,
          Regarding isolating the cat in the box, I think that was my main point: it’s isolation that allows the superposition to avoid decoherence. For the cat example in particular, it’s worth noting that if consciousness is the deciding factor, the fact that the cat is conscious might be an issue, which is why I think Shrodinger constructed this thought experiment in the way he did.

          On some people still thinking consciousness matters, that’s why I used the word “might” in the post. But again, I have to come back to the travails of quantum computing. Preventing observation of intermediate results seems relatively straightforward, yet much more stringent isolation seems to be required.

          That said, do you know of a physicist I could read who has made the case recently, after the experiments Steve mentions, for consciousness remaining the crucial factor? I’d like to be more familiar with that viewpoint.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Hi Mike,

            I don’t know that many prominent or public-engaging physicists espouse the idea that consciousness plays a big role. I suspect it’s mostly the default opinion of physicists who don’t care to think too much about these issues. It seems to turn up in opinion polls about QM interpretations more than in articles explaining the view. It was more popular in the past, I think, with Eugene Wigner and Rudolf Peierls apparently supporting it at one time or another. I would certainly agree that it is now a minority view. Henry Stapp seems to be the main proponent these days.

            Liked by 1 person

          2. Thanks DM. After asking, it also occurs to me that Jim Al-Khalili often emphasizes the role of the observer in his science education about quantum phenomena, although when you read him at length, it’s not clear exactly what his actual opinion is. (In one blog post, he admits to not considering the question of hidden variables to be settled, only local ones.)

            On surveys, yeah, the problem seems to be that they usually ask physicists which interpretation they prefer, with “Copenhagen” as one of the options. But “Copenhagen” doesn’t seem to mean the exact same thing to all adherents. It’s not clear to me that all of them, or even most, still consider consciousness the deciding factor. There appears to even be disagreement about whether the wave-function collapse is objective under Copenhagen (which I guess is just the consciousness question from another angle).

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  4. I feel like if you do have holes in your logic, your preceding argument contains the contingencies to allow for such holes – giving you an ironic sort of consistency in any potential consistency. It would almost be wrong to be perfectly logical!

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  5. Hi Mike!
    Ah, the confluence of so many things right here (ahem… Guilty of posting the Quanta article to my own blog to be read later… ahem). A good article, again. Thank you! And thanks to the commenters for so much also – it’s the icing on the cake 😉

    On the question of illusion and reality, often, when my thoughts get ‘too heady’ (in both senses!) I like to think of ‘the philosopher’s barstool’: Give it a read for a nice dose of absurdist conspiracist discordian humour – but it does have the damned barstool! Here’s a short excerpt (verse 3, p16):

    Therefore the wise spags lead
    by knowing
    their Prison
    and staying pragmatic.
    Like hitting someone with a Barstool
    to prove that it actually exists,
    call people on their Bullshit
    so there will be no narcissism to exploit.
    By understanding your Cell, you will understand others’.

    To add: solipsism is nefarious and if you haunt any of the philosophy fora online, you will soon see that newcomers (often angst ridden teens or barely young-adults) usually pour-in, depressed, sometimes suicidal, and utterly drowning in solipsism. It’s a tough slog to bring them back out.
    The thing is, and Hariod put it well, there are ‘philosophically unhelpful’ words – and I agree with both of you – yes, ‘reality’ is a trouble-making word, but it is also useful when used clearly (Hariod cautions against ‘bandying [them] about’ so he probably doesn’t disagree with you either regarding their – parsimonious – utility). What gets me in a twist is when people say things along the lines of “It’s all consciousness” or “It’s all God” (panentheism I think?). Consciousness, like ‘reality’ is another trouble-maker. If you’re gonna say “It’s all …” do you /have/ to use that word? What difference does that word make? You could arguably say “It’s all cheese” and it would amount to the same – but choosing ‘consciousness’ is personal, y’know? It means ME, YOU, etc. And I’m not ready to say my table is made of consciousness just yet, thank you very much. I allow myself to say this because just few days ago, I posted my own variant: “It’s all transformations”… facepalm… but I feel less awkward talking about transformations as ‘the stuff of reality’ (sorry Harriod!) because it seems /less/ personal, and I’m more ready to accept that impersonal transformations can be misconstrued as ‘illusory’ – and what Buddhists call ’empty’. Transformations are as real as they need to be (the philosopher’s barstool!) and yet are ’empty’ in that transformations are ‘somehow’ (I haven’t figured it all out yet, gimme a break) immaterial also. And there’s the added bonus of keeping me (and hopefully any readers) well away from solipsism!
    I look forward to your feedback (here and there!)

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    1. Hi Tom,
      Just realized that the Atlantic article is a reprint of the Quanta one. I read them several days apart from each other and didn’t catch that they were the same. (Well, to be accurate I scanned the Quanta one, then later read the Atlantic one when someone called my attention to it.) Oops.

      Your comments about consciousness remind me of a discussion (read: argument) I had with someone a few years ago. We were debating whether consciousness was crucial to quantum decoherence, and when I pointed out that a photon bouncing off of an electron could cause the electron to decohere, he (I assumed it was a he) said that was fine, since he defined consciousness as anything that interacted with the environment, which made photons conscious (he was a panpsychist) which made my statement compatible with his outlook, given his definitions.

      Often when someone says “it’s all X”, they’re using a definition of X that is so wide that it’s useless except for the specific point they’re making. Your discussion that when we define a thing, it’s equally important to distinguish what it’s not, seems applicable. If our definition doesn’t exclude things, it seems impotent.

      Of course, grounded in the title of this site is my observation that everything is ultimately patterns of fermions and bosons, and even those may be patterns of strings or something else. It may be patterns all the way down. My own version of “it’s all X”. Although in my defence I do leave room for uncertainty in this.

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      1. Given that you are very skeptical of the MUH, I’m curious to know how “it’s all patterns” is different from “it’s all math”. Math is just the study of patterns, or at least that’s one way of conceiving of it, it seems to me.

        If you think a pattern has to be physically instantiated, that is, a pattern has to be made of physical stuff, then it isn’t all patterns, because you have stuff as well as patterns.

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        1. I am skeptical of the overall MUH, although the adjective “very” is really an overstatement of where I am.

          I think the pattern equivalent of the MUH would be to assert that every pattern exists in the same manner as physical patterns. My response to that proposition is the same as my response to the MUH; that it’s a candidate for a model of reality, but I can’t see anything that can’t be accounted for if it turns out to be false.

          I fall slightly on the skeptic side because, historically, most notions in this epistemic state turn out to be wrong. That doesn’t mean I strongly think it is wrong, just that I think that reality may be something different, probably far stranger.

          I’ve noted before that I do think mathematics are driven by patterns in reality, but I’m not yet prepared to buy that the reverse is true, that every pattern in mathematics exists in reality, at least outside of the abstract realm we often refer to as mathematical reality.

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  6. SelfAwarePatterns,

    You wrote, “I do think mathematics are driven by patterns in reality”

    I have two questions about this:
    1. What do you mean by “reality” ?
    2. Why do you think that mathematics are driven by patterns in reality?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. By “reality” above, I meant all that is real, that is, all that is actually out there, independent of our minds.

      “Driven” was probably not a good word here. This is an area where every time I try to express my viewpoint, I feel the limitations of language.

      I think the foundations of mathematics (and logic) are empirical. By that, I mean that they are based on observable patterns in the world.

      Now, some walk-backs.

      First, I don’t mean to imply that I think mathematicians do empirical investigation. I think evolution has programmed some instincts into us for the most fundamental patterns, things we seem to know innately. And mathematicians can build on those patterns and create new patterns, without ever looking for them in the world. (Although many advances in mathematics came about from real world needs, such as Newton inventing calculus to help with gravitational calculations.)

      Second, just because the foundations are based on real world patterns, it doesn’t mean that all the derived patterns are in the world. Many turn out to be, but others don’t. What is the nature of these purely abstract patterns? I weighed this question for a long time.

      I’ve concluded they occupy the same space as logically rigorous but inaccurate scientific theories. Like the inaccurate theories, they don’t exist because their composition is missing one or more crucial elements that are in reality. But since mathematics isn’t necessarily concerned with reality, the abstract patterns are often valued while the inaccurate scientific theories tend to be discarded.

      That’s what I meant by my last paragraph above. Hope this make sense.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Hi Mike,

        I chuckled at the “And now for some walk-backs” – I totally know how that feels! Language is a B*tch 🙂
        I find your perspective interesting on the difference between mathematical theories and scientific theories – if I understood it correctly, might one say that rigorous but ‘wrong’ scientific theories, had they not been discarded, might’ve been kept as ‘pure science’ (à la ‘pure maths’)? By that I mean it seems to me that you place mathematical theories that do not apply to reality (but remain true in the rule-system in which they were developed) into the ‘pure math’ (i.e. ‘abstract math’) category – and you say that what science does with ‘abstract science’ is discard them because they don’t apply to reality (i.e. experimental evidence) – is that roughly it?
        If that is, my question for you and anyone reading would be – is it a mistake to ‘discard’ (high quality, rigorous) scientific theories that don’t have experimental evidence? Yes, we have archives and published counter-proofs etc. so discarded theories can be ‘found again’ – but in pure mathematics, those theories having been ‘kept alive’ remain available to science like a box of spare parts to be rooted through and picked up wherever some aspect of an experiment doesn’t fit with the current working scientific theory. I seem to have answered my own question, but bear with me: what if the experimental evidence itself was dependent upon our understanding of it? Measuring something presupposes we know what we’re measuring – that we know what to look for in order to measure it. What if we’ve been completely mistaken and what we’re measuring is not at all what we think we’re measuring? What if our understanding is radically changed? Would it not then be worthwhile to return to those previously discarded theories to see if the new understanding is now proper evidence for a previously-discarded theory? Look at the latest ‘understanding’ of gravitational waves – it may turn out that they don’t come from black holes, but what they’re calling ‘gravastars’ :
        In short – is science too quick to discard theories?

        Liked by 2 people

      2. Hi SelfAwarePatterns,

        “You wrote, By “reality” above, I meant all that is real, that is, all that is actually out there, independent of our minds.”

        Any examples of “real”?


        1. Hi ontologicalrealist,
          Examples of “real”? Well, the chair I’m sitting in certainly seems real, as does the vehicle I drove to and from work today. My body seems real, as does the laptop I’m typing this reply on.

          Of course, we never have absolute knowledge of reality. Only theories inferred from what we perceive. But I feel comfortable regarding objects I and others perceive consistently and reliably, such as the above items, as real.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Hi SelfAwarePatterns,

            Humans mostly perceive or cognize what is “real” as you describe. This is only what humans cognize to be “real”, it is not what is “real”. If, for instance, let us say some extraterrestrial conscious being comes to your house, who has very different cognizing faculties than humans, he will cognize and experience what is “real” in a very different way which may be unimaginable and inconceivable to human scientists and philosophers.

            The examples you have given of “real” are only examples of what humans cognize to be “real” and not of what is “real”.

            Liked by 2 people

          2. Hi ontologicalrealist,
            I agree, but with some caveats. There is reality and there is interpretation of that reality. It does pay to remember that the latter is far vaster than the former.

            The senses of the alien might be radically different than ours. For example, visible light for them might be a completely different range of the electromagnetic spectrum, there’s no reason to suspect they’d have our sense of color (a construction of our brains), and they might consciously perceive magnetic fields, among many other possibilities. All of which would radically change how they perceive the world.

            But the aliens would still exist in the same universe and operate within the same laws of physics. Earth, as a spherical body that orbits the Sun, would still be a spherical body that orbits the Sun. The Moon would still be a spherical satellite of the Earth.

            Among the things I listed above, they would still be physical objects for the alien. It might not understand their functions, and even if it did, they might be utterly useless for it. But even objects like the chair would remain an object in the world, made out of a combination of matter from the local biosphere (wood, cloth, etc) and other compounds such as the metal of the springs.

            So, yes, the alien’s overall perception of reality might be radically different than ours, but there would still be commonalities we could share. Of course, it would require intelligence on both sides to find and use those commonalities for understanding each other’s perceptual world.

            Liked by 1 person

  7. Hi Tom,
    “if I understood it correctly, might one say that rigorous but ‘wrong’ scientific theories, had they not been discarded, might’ve been kept as ‘pure science’ (à la ‘pure maths’)?”

    You have it. I’d just note that science is vitally concerned with reality. To the extent that if we’re not talking about reality, most scientists would save we’re no longer being scientific.

    “If that is, my question for you and anyone reading would be – is it a mistake to ‘discard’ (high quality, rigorous) scientific theories that don’t have experimental evidence?”

    If by “discard” you mean erase them from all literature and never allow anyone to speak of them ever again, then yes, I think it would be a serious mistake. But what I meant by “discard” was that we simply stop thinking of them as a component of our understanding of reality.

    In practice, I think failed theories often provide value. String theory, which growing numbers of physicists seem to be skeptical of, has apparently provided new mathematical insights, which may provide a value far outlasting the theories themselves. Of course, without the theories, this may be a value only to mathematics.

    But, although it’s rare, once in a while discarded theories, or even parts of theories, do see a resurrection of sorts. I’m thinking of Einstein’s cosmological constant, which many physicists now see as essentially the same thing as dark energy. (This isn’t an ontological assertion. In both cases, they’re just place holders, plugs that are hopefully temporary to bring theory in line with observations.)

    And often, if nothing else, failed theories can serve as instructive examples when evaluating modern speculative theories. Understanding how people arrived at those failed theories, and why they were ultimately wrong, can make us conscious of vulnerabilities that may exist in modern theories. A good example here is the Ptolemaic understanding of the universe. It was pretty mathematically rigorous (at least for its time) and pretty predictive of observations, but we now know its understanding of the universe was very wrong.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Hi SelfAwarePatterns,
    You said, “There is reality and there is interpretation of that reality.”

    I completely agree that interpretation or representation of reality is not reality.
    Seems to me that things like tables, chairs, stars galaxies and universes are human interpretation or representation of reality and are not reality. In the worldview of other than human conscious beings there may not be any such things but instead there will be other things, may be sometimes of a very different kind which humans can neither perceive nor understand. To them it will seem that humans are living and functioning in their interpretation of reality; but they would not call it their interpretation of reality, they will call it reality. To them it will seem that things in their interpretation or representation of reality are reality and not interpretation.

    I do not know if it is clear or not but perhaps thinking of relativity of motion may be helpful in understanding this idea.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi ontologicalrealist,
      I guess it depends on whether you think there is an objective reality, and to what degree you think we can know it. My view is that the success of science seems to show that there is an objective reality and we can know it, at least to increasingly accurate approximations.

      But maybe we’ve been fooling ourselves for the last 500 years. Maybe the real nature of reality is so utterly strange that we don’t really know it at all. If that’s true, then not only might aliens have a different perception of reality, they might already be here, with us too disconnected to even recognize each other. Maybe, for instance, rocks are intelligent and have complex societies with sophisticated philosophies, but are too alien for us to even recognize them.

      Maybe, but if so, there is no evidence for it. We can speculate endlessly on aspects of reality that are completely disconnected from us, but it seems hard to do much more than speculate. Eventually, to make progress, it seems like we have little choice but to back up and focus on the universe that we can have some causal interactions with, and what we can learn about it.


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