Book review. The case against reality

Every so often you come across a book that is so new in its ideas and propositions that you have to wonder whether the author is a genius of totally new dimensions or you have just been exposed to sheer lunacy. Donald Hoffman’s THE CASE AGAINST REALITY easily falls in that category as what the author is proposing is nothing short of extraordinary.

In summary, Hoffman is proposing the following: reality, as it is experienced by everybody, is not true. It is a cognitive construct that evolution has provided us to better navigate our universe. Very early in his book, Hoffman presents his case by arguing two points. The first one involves the NECKER CUBE, the optical illusion that by now everybody has seen and which represents a cube floating in space. Due to its flatness, one can pick one “face” of the cube as being up front and, with little mental manipulation needed, one can then move that same face to the back. Hoffman then proposes his initial thesis: you cannot see the same face both as front and back simultaneously; ergo, your reality is simply a construct of what the cube really is. The cube is created by YOU, not by the reality you see.

A second example “comes” then from evolution. Hoffman decides that evolution hid reality from us because it needed to make us fitter, not to see such truth. Hoffman presents as an argument our need for oxygen, creating a bell-shaped graph in which he explains that too little oxygen kills us, but too much will kill us too; therefore, the optimal amount is somewhere in the middle (assuming we could have an atmosphere that were 100% oxygen). Consequently, it is not a reality of how much oxygen we need or there is around us, it is a fitness construct to help us exist in this narrow band of oxygen homeostasis.

These two instances start giving you a hint of how Hoffman thinks, and where he goes wrong. The Necker cube is a good example: he misses the point that the cube is not a cube, it is a 2D representation of a 3D object, and it is a wrong representation of it. The Necker cube with dashed liners portraying the back edges voids the illusion, but Hoffman fails to see that or simply does not mention it. In his second example, he misses the point too. Sure, too much oxygen will kill us (you basically would burn yourself up) but that is only for our relation with chemicals; you can substitute oxygen for sulphur, chloride or phosphate and it is the same. But setting chemicals aside, there is no such thing, evolutionarily speaking, as too much food, or too much water (to drink) or too many possible mates. He also paints the relationship as an Either/Or, not explaining why evolution would have to chose between making us fitter or letting us see the truth, while not elucidating why these two options are mutually exclusive.

By then Hoffman starts delivering his heavy points. In page 86 he tells us that his theory helps us avoid “our false believe that the moon is there when no one looks”. When you are reaching for an object, not only is that object nothing more than a cognitive construct of your perception, even you hand is, as he tells us that “Your hand itself is an icon of your interface, not an objective reality”. Hoffman is not telling us that “seeing is believing”; he is telling us that “seeing is creating” as nothing exists the moment we stop having an interaction with it, or before. Through most of the writing he compares our reality to nothing more than a GUI in a computer, telling us that what we see in reality are nothing more than icons that represent other “objects” or concepts that are embedded in a deeper stratum of the universe.

His examples are not hard to defuse. Let’s assume that the moon really is not there when NO ONE is looking. Well, in our world, there will always be somebody looking at the moon at any given time so the moon does not dissolve into a meaningless puff of nothingness because someone always beholds it. But then, what happens to celestial discoveries? If you need to “know or see” that the object is there in order to have an interaction with it, how and why did Galileo see 4 moons that he did not know of when he pointed his telescope to Jupiter? How did he manage to reach that interface if he had no conscious understanding of their existence because, after all, they only exist when somebody looks at them? Did Uranus and Neptune materialize only in the late 1700’ and mid 1800’s, respectively, when they were observed? Why was nature so devious as to place data that we can observe that tells us that galaxies are billions of light-years away and therefore were there billions of years ago to emit the light that is reaching us now, when we did not exist those billions of years ago? About your hand: do you need to feel it and see it for it to become real? Let’s grant that but if so, what happens to all those organs that you do not see or feel? Is your liver real? Your kidneys? We know by now that they are there but if you start “feeling” any of those it usually spells bad news (in the form of some disease). What about that most special organ, the brain? If you need to feel or see your brain before it materializes, before it become reality, how does that loop start? No brain and you can’t see or have a cognitive impression of a brain, so the brain does not come into existence which leads to no brain, a loop that goes into infinity.

Hoffman eventually reaches for the most vapid examples. Quoting The Matrix (yes, the movie) he proposes that we may be nothing more than a simulation, created by a higher organism. Of course, as he is disserting seriously he needs to consider that those organisms in turn can be another simulation, created by a higher one, on and on. But then he pulls a fantastic stop: somewhere, the simulations end and a real civilization does exist, in full reality. Why that real civilization is not us is not explained. For Hoffman, it is turtles all the way down until one turtle sustains all the rest. If you follow Hoffman’s ideas to its extreme, then the safest way to cross a busy street in Los Angeles is to wear a helmet that allows no sensory input whatsoever to reach you, as all those vehicles, not seen by you, are not a reality. If you get hit one can expect Hoffman to claim that you did have a sensorial connection, mainly, the tactile input of being run over, and therefore his thesis stands, failing to see the impossibility of effects preceding causes. He reaches the stage in which he claims that when he talks to a friend he must “assume” she is conscious although he cannot conclude that, because he cannot experience her train of thoughts, she therefore must be unconscious. Yet, he has previously stated that if you cannot perceive something, it is not there, reducing all of our acquaintances and loved one to mere ghosts, produced only when we interact with them (us being ghosts too, only “present” when they interact with us). In the end, Hoffman is telling us, scientifically, what Edgar Allan Poe said: “All that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream”. Or he is trying to. He peppers his writing with claims that because there is no answer to the hard question of consciousness (how can it rise from unconscious matter?) then consciousness has no answers in our traditional scientific mind-frame and we must dash off to give it a metaphysical presence that precedes our understanding. Echoes of impatience seem to paint that position.

Hoffman book is important; there are no two ways about it. Either what he is proposing is revolutionary to a stage which makes the Copernican revolution trivial, or he is an example of what happens when smart people lose sight of, indeed, reality. If he is correct, any previous scientific idea fails to compare in magnitude, is nothing more than a side note in our understanding of reality because, after all, he claims reality does not exist. On the back of the book, a reviewer tells us that “Hoffman… takes us down a rabbit hole where we learn that all reality is virtual”; the poor choice of metaphor (a rabbit hole?) tells us that some people ascribe to the idea, which makes this thought dangerous. If serious scientists can be so confused, what can we expect of more “mundane” intellects? The idea reminds me of String Theory, sprung up from a simple question that had no evidential support: what if the universe is composed of strings? Yes, what if but first, why would we assume that the universe is made so?

Hoffman is a university professor and has published his book; he has tenure and is obviously well versed in the subject. But he brings a position that currently is dangerous: proposing such radical ideas is food for science and our understanding, but only because they need to be analyzed and shot down; they are at the far end of proper scientific thought and clarity. In the end, this is no science: this is metaphysics, a convoluted way to try to explain some aspects of how our minds interact with our universe. Following Hoffman’s thesis is not leaving Occam’s razor behind, it is dulling its sharp blade with the bluntest of stones. In the end, all that is needed to comprehend the value of the book is in the back: Deepak Chopra calls it a “masterpiece”. And the value of such praise is something that we can all clearly see.