Paul P. Mealing

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Sunday, 13 November 2016

When evolution is not evolution

No, I’m not talking about creationism (a subject I’ve discussed many times on this blog) but a rather esoteric argument produced by Donald D Hoffman and Chetan Prakash in an academic paper titled Objects of Consciousness. Their discussion on evolution is almost a side issue, and came up in their responses to the many objections they’ve fielded. I read the paper when I was sent a link by someone who knows I’m interested in this stuff.

Donald Hoffman is a cognitive scientist with a Ph.D. in Computational Psychology and is now a full professor at University of California, Irvine. Chetan Prakash is a Professor Emeritus at California State University, San Bernardino and has a Master of Science in Physics and a Master of Science in Applied Mathematics.

I should point out at the outset, that their thesis is so out there, that I seriously wondered if it was a hoax. But given their academic credentials and the many academic citations and references in their paper, I assume that the authors really believe in what they’re arguing. And what they’re arguing, in a nutshell, is that everyone’s (and I mean every person’s) perception of the world is false, because, aside from conscious agents, every thing else, including spacetime, is impermanent.

Their paper is 20 pages long (including 5-6 pages of objections and replies) most of which are densely worded interspersed with some diagrams and equations. To distil someone’s treatise into a single paragraph is always a tad unfair, so I’ll rely heavily on direct quotations and references to impart their arguments. Besides, you can always read the entire paper for yourself. Basically, they argue that ‘interacting conscious agents’ are the only reality and that nothing else exists ‘unperceived’. They formulate a mathematical model of consciousness, from which they derive a wave function that is the bedrock of quantum mechanics (which I’ll refer to as QM for brevity). In other words, they argue that the Copenhagen interpretation of QM requires consciousness to bring objects into reality (except consciousness) which are all impermanent.

It’s a well known philosophical conundrum that you can’t prove that you’re not a ‘brain-in-a-vat’, and theirs is a similar point of view in that it can’t be proved that they’re wrong, even though, as they point out themselves, we mostly all believe their view is wrong. I don’t know of anyone (other than the authors) who think that the world ceases to exist when they’re not looking. This is known as solipsism and there is a very good argument against solipsism even though it can’t be proved it’s wrong. In fact, solipsism is absolutely true when you’re in a dream, so it’s not always wrong. The point is that when we’re in a dream, despite all its inconsistencies, we actually don’t know we’re in a dream, so how can you be sure you’re not in a dream when you’re consciously awake? The argument against solipsism is that it can only be held by one person: it’s impossible to believe that everyone else is a solipsist too.

In the objections, item 6, they ‘reject solipsism’, yet ‘also reject permanence, viz., the doctrine that 3D space and physical objects exist when they are not perceived [but not conscious agents]. To claim that conscious agents exist unperceived differs from the claim that unconscious objects and space-time exist unperceived.’ In other words, consciousness is the only reality, a point they make in response to Objection 19: ‘reality consists of interacting conscious agents.’ But if one takes this seriously, then even the bodies that we take for granted don’t exist ‘unperceived’ whilst our consciousness does. It’s utter nonsense, except in a dream. What they are describing is exactly the reality one perceives in a dream, so their theory is effectively that the reality we all believe we inhabit is, in fact, a dream. Which is effectively a variation on solipsism. The only difference is that we all inhabit the same dream together. So we’re all brains in a vat, only connected. The authors, I’m sure, would reject this interpretation, yet it fits exactly with what they’re arguing. Only in a dream do objects, including our own bodies, cease to exist unperceived.

Evolution comes up a lot in their paper because one of the centrepieces of their thesis is that evolution by natural selection produces perceptions that favour ‘fitness’ over ‘truth’. They claim to run 'genetic algorithms’ that show that evolution by natural selection benefits perception for ‘fitness’ over ‘accuracy’. The point is that we must take this assertion on face value, because we don’t know what algorithms they’re using or how they even define fitness, perceptions and truth. In fact, Objection 12 asks this very question. Part of the authors' response goes: ‘For the sake of brevity, we omitted our definition of truth and perception… But they are defined precisely in Monte Carlo simulations of evolutionary games and genetic algorithms…’

In particular, the authors use vision to make their case. It’s well known that the brain creates a facsimile of what we see in ways that we are still trying to understand, and to which, to date, we’ve failed to engineer to the same degree of accuracy in artificial intelligence (AI). But theoretical algorithms and Monte Carlo simulations aside, we have the means to compare what we subjectively see with an objective representation.

It so happens that we have invented devices that create images (both stationary and dynamic) through chemical-electronic-mechanical means independently of the human brain and they show remarkable, but unsurprising, veracity with what our brain perceives subjectively. Now, you might say that the same brain perceives this simulated vision, so one would expect it to provide the same image. I think this is a long bow to draw, because the image effectively gets ‘processed’ twice: once through the device and once through the brain, yet the result is unequivocally the same without the interim process. In fact, the interim process can show what we miss, like the famous example of a gorilla moving through a room while you are concentrating on a thrown ball. But, in the context of their thesis, the camera is not a conscious entity yet it captures an image that is supposedly nonexistent when unperceived. And cameras can be set up to capture images without the interaction of so-called ‘conscious agents’.

Now the authors are correct when they point out that colour, for example, is a completely psychological phenomenon – it only exists in some creature’s mind, and it varies from species to species – this is well known and well understood. We also know that it’s caused by reflected light which can be scientifically explained by Richard Feynman’s (I know it’s not his alone) QED (Quantum Electrodynamics) and that the subjective experience of colour is a direct consequence of the frequency of electromagnetic radiation.  But the fact that colour is subjective doesn’t make the objects, from which the effect is consequential, subjective as well.

Regarding the other mathematical contribution to their thesis, the authors have created a mathematical model of consciousness, from which they derive the wave function for QM. I’m not a logician, so I can’t say one way or another how valid this is. However, it should be pointed out that Erwin Schrodinger, who originally proposed the wave function, in his famous eponymous equation, didn’t derive it from anything. So the authors claim they’ve done something that the original creator of the wave function couldn’t do himself. As Richard Feynman once said: ‘Schrodinger’s equation can’t be derived from anything we know.’ However, the authors claim it can be derived from consciousness. I’m sceptical.

You may wonder what all this has to do with the title of this post. Well, in response to objection 19, the authors propose to come up with a ‘new theory of evolution’ based on their theory of conscious agents. To quote: ‘When the new evolutionary theory is projected onto the spacetime perceptual interface of H. Sapiens we must get back the standard evolutionary theory.’ This means that the DNA, and the molecules that make the DNA, that allowed consciousness to evolve are actually dependent on said consciousness, so the ‘new theory of evolution’ must logically contradict the ‘standard theory of evolution’.

As part of their thesis, the authors make an analogy between a computer desktop and spacetime, only, the way they describe it, it appears to be more than an analogy to them.

Space and time are the desktop of our personal interface, and three-dimensional objects are icons on the desktop. Our interface gives the impression that it reveals true cause and effect… But this appearance of cause and effect is simply a useful fiction, just as it is for the icons on the computer desktop.

(The interface, to which they refer, is a ‘species-specific interface’, which means it’s a human consciousness interface. They don’t say if this interface applies to other sentient creatures, or just us.)

The issue of cause and effect being a ‘useful fiction’ was taken up by someone (authors of objections are not given) in objection 17, to which the authors of the theory responded thus:

Our views on causality are consistent with interpretations of quantum theory that abandon microphysical causality… The burden of proof is surely on one who would abandon microphysical causation but still cling to macrophysical causation.

I could respond to this challenge, but it’s not relevant to my argument. The point is that the authors obviously don’t ‘cling to macrophysical causation’, which I would contend creates a problem when discussing evolutionary theory. The point is that according to every discussion on biological evolution I’ve read, extant species are consequentially dependent on earlier species, which means there is a causal chain going back to the first eukaryota. If this causal chain is a ‘useful fiction’ then it is hard to see how any theory of evolution that excludes it could be called evolutionary. With or without this useful fiction, the authors ‘new theory’ turns evolution on its head, with conscious agents taking precedence over physical objects, including species, all of which are impermanent. In spite of this ontological difficulty, the authors believe that when they ‘project’ their ‘new theory’ onto the ‘species-specific interface’ of impermanent spacetime (which doesn’t exist unperceived), the old ‘standard theory of evolution’ will be found.

I’ve left a comment on the bottom of the web page (link given in intro above) which challenges this specific aspect of their theory (using different words). If I get a response I’ll update this post accordingly.

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