The Mumonkan of Perception

So my friend Naomi posted a link to a TED talk by Donald Hoffman about what the tools of evolutionary theory have to say about how well our perception of reality can and should align with actual, objective reality. The surprising answer was, not well. Not only that, but that in all their math and models there was strong, uniform selection pressure AGAINST conforming perceptions with the facts in favor of conforming perceptions with the more evolutionarily fundamental concept of “fitness” – one of the core variables in their calculus. To my layman’s eye, this distinction revolves around the selection of perceptual systems that try to re-construct the outside world out of internal representations of “things that matter,” with little regard for details that don’t matter. So the poor Australian beetle sees the brown, shiny, dimpled beer bottle as a really big, hot beetle-babe despite the many clues to the contrary, and we see The Dress as one color or the other because seeing the “real” color of the dress regardless of ambient light color matters more than seeing the “objective” color of the photons reaching our eyes.  Most fundamentally challenging for me was the conclusion that our perceptions aren’t even SUPPOSED to match reality, they are supposed to pick out examples of “things that matter” from the massive perceptual noise coming from whatever is “out there” and help us interact with them. My initial reaction was shock and surprise, but by the end, I found I had already integrated the core concept into my worldview at a very basic level.

I’ve always felt, like Einstein did, that there was something massively wrong with some of what the fabulously predictive quantum mechanical paradigm seemed to be saying about the world. That the cat, for example, is both dead and alive until somebody gets around to opening the box. One of the things I’ve always hated most about that idea is that it gives “The Observer” such a preposterously important role in cause and effect. In essence, I can’t escape the thought that if the cat can exist in an intuitively impossible both-alive-and-dead superposition of states, then the tree that falls in the lonely forest not only doesn’t make a sound, it hasn’t even fallen… Common sense got me out of it by just saying that everything else in the universe counts as an observer if their world-lines intersect – so inside the even horizon of a black hole the cat might be alive-dead, but out here, the air inside the box observed the death/survival by bumping into the either alive OR dead cat and saying that some human has to open the box to collapse the probability function is just sophistry and arrogance… But the data doesn’t really support that conclusion, they tell me. So much for common sense. The many worlds hypothesis gets around this distasteful alive-dead cat problem by making new universes every time you decay that atom with the lid closed (or whatever the trigger was,) but to me that answer, while extremely fertile ground for fiction, always stunk of waste and inflation – demanding the creation of a quadrillion universes in a blink of an eye every second since the dawn of time to account for every quantum mechanical event in every point in spacetime. A googleplex universes? Really? Occam would just give up and grow a beard…

I watched “Stranger Things” on HBO last week, a show about a single, other universe intersecting with ours. In the buzz surrounding the show I found a Popular Science interview with Brian Greene the theory that things like Schroedinger’s cat and other, “spooky action at a distance” things like quantum teleportation don’t require such ridiculously counter-intuitive solutions if you consider that space and time are expressions of another, deeper truth. That atoms are a shape the universe takes under certain conditions. That the act of looking for, or at something can create it, not because it didn’t physically exist before, but because the way we try to investigate a red tomato is different from the way we try to investigate the reflection of a red tomato so we force the clay of the universe (a new analogy I’m trying out) to take the shape of a red tomato? Now I don’t buy that, but it seems certainly true that we force light to be either a particle or a wave by how we try to measure it, or an electron to be either in a specific place, or moving at a specific velocity, or a proton to split into quarks and quarks to split into whatever’s next, hoping that at some energy level we’ll hit the very smallest pieces of the world and can call that the ultimate building block. Professor Greene was referring to string theory and mathematical entities called “branes,” which is a term that abstracts to n-dimensions the thing you call a point in one dimension, a line in two, and a plane in three (a mem-brane.) So it seems that you could explain some of the weirdness in the world as quirks of n-dimensional branes (17 dimensions is a number I heard thrown around when I was first encountering string theory) intersecting with the three dimensions (plus time) our brain uses to reconstruct the world for us. So things like electrons going directly from point A to point B without ever passing through the space between becomes as simple as, I don’t know, a trout leaping after a mayfly in one spot, then another. Cool as a specific way of explaining particles, cooler for providing some actually testable string theory predictions (apparently, expansion and contraction of space would cause a “wild string” to emit specific gravity waves some future gravity wave detector could look for,) but coolest for its implications that spacetime is actually an emergent phenomenon, not the fundamental nature of reality. Of course, I don’t have the math to have the foggiest idea when I wander off course, but all this isn’t even the point, it’s just the path. It’s where this TED talk led me from here that I wanted to share.

The thing I was missing was WHY?!? Why, when we look really hard at the world, does it get so squirrelly? Especially when we look farther afield from where we evolved: into deep space, the remotest past, or the tiniest scales and largest energies. My gut said we were making it weird with our expectations, but that always felt lame and ad-hoc and incomplete. Now, my new paradigm, is that we’re trying to understand everything we encounter, from vast to miniscule, as more examples of icons from our evolutionary desktop. Of course they don’t correspond well any more, we’re comparing apples to infinity and we didn’t evolve an icon for infinity – we just never needed it to stay alive long enough to get laid so it didn’t really exist for us. But math exists, and logic exists, and the evolutionary pressure for them corresponding to objective reality is NOT uniformly against, so we turn an 8 on it’s side and beat our lizard brains into accepting that it means something long enough to have an interesting conversation or devise a new experiment.

I could come to terms with the fact that it’s not realistic to imagine that I could directly grasp the concept of infinity, that I could appreciate the objective reality of it, but that always felt like admitting failure because I thought my job was to understand reality as well as possible. But maybe that just isn’t the case. Maybe I don’t need to directly perceive infinity, and quantum entanglement, and alive-dead cats, I just need to come up with new icons and get used to the idea that understanding the true nature of reality isn’t the point. The point is developing a really kick-ass interface with reality so we can stay alive, have kids, and hopefully be awed and inspired and entertained and enlightened along the way.

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