Are we all just living in The Matrix?
Professor Donald Hoffman of University of California, Irvine delivers a TED Talk that might scramble your damn neurons – literally.
According to Professor Hoffman, a cognitive scientist, our perception of reality is an illusion.
At first, I wasn’t that impressed. I took a few philosophy courses in my day, and I was reminded of Bishop Berkeley, a Sixteenth Century theologian who claimed, in simplified terms here, that the universe was nothing more than a mental projection.
In other words, physical reality does not exist – only the mind is real.
But Hoffman’s TED Talk quickly separates itself from Berkeley’s metaphysics. There’s a reality out there, we just have no clue as to its true nature.
How is this possible?
“When I have a perceptual experience that I describe as a red tomato,” says Hoffman, “I am interacting with reality. But that reality is not a reality of a red tomato and is nothing like a red tomato.”
Let’s consider an example he employs. Hoffman compares our perception of reality to a computer desktop. What we see on the monitor is not the reality of the computer but rather a way for us to understand the computer.
A folder icon on the desktop, for example, isn’t really where those files are being stored, nor are the documents it contains the true nature of what the computer is storing.
The reality of the computer is complex circuitry, diodes, binary language, and so on. To paraphrase Hoffman, if we had to contend with the reality of the computer to create a document, it would never get created.
So, the computer provides us a simple visual representation of its reality that we are able to navigate. And that’s pretty much what our brains are doing – they’re providing us with a kind of desktop so that we can interact with reality.
Here’s where Hoffman gets radical…
So far, Professor Hoffman hasn’t really said anything new. These kinds of epistemological observations have been around for a very long time.
But Hoffman takes his theory a step further. “Space, time, and objects,” he says, “are not the nature of reality.”
We commonly accept that math and science penetrate representations and provide us with an unmolested glimpse of reality. As he says, we can peek at that folder icon through a magnifying glass and observe that it’s nothing more than thousands of pixels.
But that is still not reality. We are still observing the desktop, which is still only a visual representation of the computer’s reality. There might be truth in mathematics, but our calculations remain nothing more than user-friendly illusions.