Donald Hoffman, Worldviews in Science, Evolution vs. Truth

This is really more of a philosophical post, and I’m interested to learn what scientists think of it.

Disclaimer: I’m not a scientist. I am a YEC and Christian. I recently came across a video on Donald Hoffman’s Conscious Agent theory because I’ve viewed some of ZDoggMD’s stuff on COVID. It’s here

The first part of the interview was interesting - in some ways, sort of confirming a Christian worldview. The second part was religious and sort of creepy and felt demonic. I’ve spent some time trying to figure out what he’s actually proved and what is just hypotheses. But thinking about this brought to mind:

I’m curious where scientists draw the line between neutral science, and stuff like his where it’s postulating how the world might be or what reality is.

To back up: what I got from watching some of his interviews is this. He says his theorem, based on evolutionary game theory simulations is this: “Organisms that see reality as it is are never more fit than organisms of equal complexity that see none of reality and are just attuned to fitness payoffs.”

So I read that and think - right, truth exists outside of ourselves, and we all need a Savior to be right with truth/God. There is no virtue or truth in evolution by natural selection as a means to sustain nature or humankind. Evolution is in contrast to wisdom/truth in Proverbs 8 Proverbs 8:22-36 ESV - “The LORD possessed me at the - Bible Gateway where searching for wisdom is virtuous because wisdom itself is what gives life. Striking I came across that in Bible reading today as I was deciding whether to post this.

Hoffman takes his theorem and does something quite different. Some quotes I wrote down from interviews:

  • If our senses evolved and were shaped by natural selection, the probability that we see reality is 0.
  • We can’t use the language of space and time to describe reality
  • If you waste your time and energy on truth, you are wasting your time and energy

So his worldview is obviously affecting his theories. I find his theories deeply unsatisfying, and literally thank God I have different beliefs. I realized also the reason why I found his conscious agent theory sort of demonic is that if he’s out there determining what is a conscious agent, he might find that some of them are not so benign :frowning:

So how do you feel about worldviews in science and the rabbit hole that Don Hoffman is going down?


Hiya Valerie,
I don’t have time for a long video just now (maybe later?), but I can give you a few thoughts.

It’s not a bit surprising that seeing the world as it is promotes fitness. The question should be, can perceiving concepts with no material form also promote fitness. For example, as an agnostic I may not “see” God, but I see church communities that provide aid and comfort to members and others. Surely that is a form of promoting communal fitness.

Now consider, in our world of rapidly growing populations and limited resources, knowing about the sciences, including evolution, is a truth that helps us see and adapt our behaviors in the world. It may not be truth and virtue in the Biblical sense, but seeing how evolution works is another way of promoting communal fitness.

OTOH, a scientific theory that is wrong, or any false belief about how the world works, isn’t likely to be much good to anyone.

I think your visual system is a reasonable analog of mental processes. Our eyes help us perceive much that’s true, but they also allow us to experience optical illusions, false impressions of what we’re looking at. The visual system operates by heuristics, rules that work most of the time but can sometimes fail. If you think of thought processes as the same kind of thing, I think you would have a better picture of how they operate and how selection could arrive at them.

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That’s because “evolution by natural selection” is a process of interactions between reproducing entities in a population, not a sort of “worldview” or “philosophy of life”. Another type of physical process of interactions between populations of entities is a chain reaction, or evaporation, or condensation.

I get the impression you’re dealing with a very deep sort of conflation of ideas from entirely different categories.

Is there virtue or truth in the chain reaction, or a means to sustain nature or humankind(well besides the fact that nuclear chain reactions can be harnessed for electricity)? Well no, because it’s just a physical process of interactions between physical entities.

It sounds like you want the physical process to give you something it can’t provide. Something it’s not supposed to provide. Answers to questions about what the meaning of your life is, how we should treat each other and our surroundings.

But if you can understand why it doesn’t make sense to demand solutions or answers to such questions from the chain reaction, or from evaporation, you can also understand why it doesn’t make sense to demand it from evolution.
That’s because it’s not really a sort of “worldview” in the sense you appear to be treating it. Evolution by natural selection isn’t a philosophy of life. It doesn’t tell you what you should do with your life, it isn’t meant to provide you with a life-goal or meaning. It is just a description of process that can happen to populations of living organisms over time.


Firstly, I won’t be watching the video – it is too long.

I have watched a video of Hoffman, but I think it was a different one.

I am not at all persuaded of illusionism. I think it’s a mistake.

Hoffman talks about whether we see reality as it is. There isn’t any way that reality is. There is only a way that we see reality.

I sometimes see an ant climbing a tree. Yesterday, an ant was climbing me. Presumably, an ant cannot easily distinguish me from a tree. The way that an ant sees reality is different from the way that we see reality. How we see reality is unavoidably dependent on our biology.

The proponents of illusionism argue that truth is not a requirement for perception. Of course, they are right about that. But they have the issue backwards. It should be that perception is a requirement for truth. We make true statements about cats and dogs. But if we were unable to perceive cats and dogs, we would not be making those statements.

I always find such statements don’t sit well with me. Perhaps you’re just overstating something?

How could you know that there isn’t a way that reality is, if all you know is the experiences you have? There really may be some “objective” fact of the matter with respect to how reality is really like, it’s just that we have some inherent limitations that we can’t get around, so we can never get to somehow know what that reality is really like. That does not indicate that reality is not some particular way.

But would there still be something that was objectively true about cats and dogs even if we couldn’t perceive them? "If a tree falls in the forest and there’s no-one around… "

I’m pretty sure the moon doesn’t stop existing just because I’m not looking directly at it. I have to wonder how it got it’s craters if it was not in existence until someone looked in it’s direction, and I have to wonder how it knows when to pop into existence (and where to do it), when they do.

One wonders how Hoffman crosses the street. Are the oncoming cars an illusion? Should I just ignore them because they are simply a worldview?

I don’t know enough about Hoffman, but I think he’s saying that we can still make logical and scientific statements because we see cats and dogs in our “interface” not that they actually are reality.

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He says the moon does not exist until you look at it.

Who does?

No, no, no. He’s proved exactly the opposite and mathematically. Seeing reality makes you go extinct. If you don’t see reality, you gain more fitness points.

Has he though?

There I was trying to summarize what I understand him as saying. I would agree with you.

idk. I’m not a scientist :sweat_smile: In the interview he said he and graduate students ran thousands of simulations and a mathematician friend of his proved it as well.

Thank you all for the replies so far. I think it takes some more familiarity with Hoffman to see what I’m trying to ask. But I was thinking about it last night and came to this conclusion of where he’s trying to go:

In the evolutionary game simulations, he had to see that if any of us could determine reality, we’d already be extinct. Therefore “sense” is something from the consciousness. That is reality, and not the physical world we perceive. Therefore, he’s got this conscious agent theory.

BUT, I was realizing that he has decided NOT to go down the other road his theorem presses upon us - that he could throw out the underlying assumption of his theorem and say that iit is false. i.e. there is something in addition to or other than evolution by natural selection that sustains life.

Either way, I do believe if his theorem is correct, it presents us with a worldview choice: Either our perceptions do not show us any reality OR there is a cause that helps to sustain life or does sustain it.

Fair enough, I just have to wonder what he means by such statements. I can see different interpretations of the claim that I could agree or disagree with.

To take an example, suppose I literally saw every individual molecule in the air. I probably couldn’t see very far, as my vision would be quickly obscured by the layers of molecules immediately in front of my eyes. Those molecules are part of “reality”, but if I couldn’t avoid seeing them, I couldn’t see the bus coming at me in front of me. In this sense there is obviously survival value in NOT seeing ALL of reality, but that doesn’t mean that I’m not seeing reality. I’m just not seeing ALL of it “as it is”. The bus behind the air molecules is still there, as a part of reality that I do see.

So in that sense I do agree with him. But if, as I suspected, some were to take this to mean everything we see is sort of illusory, in the sense that I see a bus coming at me, but “in reality” there isn’t even a bus there, and I’m actually a sort of software running on a laptop computer hooked up to the Matrix instead, and evolution has made me believe that I’m a flesh-and-blood human organism beause this promoted the survival of the laptop computer, then I disagree with it as I don’t think that makes any sense. Evolution has to work with what actually happens, even if that means some times filtering out some things (because not seeing them doesn’t harm you) and enhancing others(because seeing those are important to your survival).

I hope the point I am making makes sense.

Yes, it does make sense. See my latest comment below. What I’m trying to explain is that he’s saying the evolutionary game theory simulations show that
your statement I’m quoting here is absolutely false. You either go down his road of everything is an illusion, or you can decide to no longer be an atheist.

But there’s another important point to make here I think, which is that I don’t think the kind of problem I have just described can be sort of “solved” or avoided by making a choice between “worldviews”.

Whether you accept evolution or not, whether you believe in God or not, either way you have to contend with the fact that we don’t see the air molecules, we see the bus coming behind them. So whether we evolved, or God made us, there are parts of reality we weren’t created/evolved to see. So it seems that even if we posit that Christianity is true and that we were made in the image of God, God has made us so that there are parts of reality we don’t see because this promotes our survival. God must have wanted us to not see the air molecules, but see the bus instead. Hence we are still left with the problem that we aren’t created to perceive all true things directly through our senses.

I’m quite certain he’s not saying that.

I just explained how that doesn’t follow in my above post.

YESSSS!!! Exactly. We cannot perceive all true things or we would be God. This is what Eve and Adam tried to do in the garden and they fell into sin. We are not meant to be truth but instead to pursue truth.