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Kartik Agaram 2023-02-13 05:52:55

Donald Hoffman: "Evolution is like a videogame"

(Quote is from, which I'm not sure if I'll finish.)

Kartik Agaram 2023-02-13 06:20:14

Ivan Reese and Jimmy Miller you should do an episode on this. A sequel to This guy is blowing the empiricists out of the water by out-Ryle-ing Gilbert Ryle.

Paul Tarvydas 2023-02-13 09:27:19

Reminds me of “The Interpreter” in Gazzaniga’s Gifford Lectures. IIRC, he says that the brain makes up an interpretation of what happened - after the fact.

Jimmy Miller 2023-02-13 16:56:53

Yeah, going to be honest, not a fan at all. In the most charitable version of this, it is just Kant's view dressed up with some "science" to back it. In the worst it is a global skepticism that is self defeating.

He definitely isn't blowing any empiricists out of the water, but just repeating things philosophers have explored in much more depth and rigor elsewhere.

To try to be concrete, the argument in the TED talk is just bad.

I ran a game theory simulation and found that in my simulation reality tracking was not the most fit setup. In the simulation, the non-reality tracking "organisms" out competed all. Therefore, in actual reality we don't track reality."

There are so many steps missing here. hopefully it is clear that this isn't a valid argument.

But it also becomes a mess when applied to itself. The evolution that "follows these equations" is the evolution in the phenomenal world, the world as we see it (the desktop in his metaphor). But what we are interested in is not that evolution, but the real evolution, the one that actually shapes our cognitive faculties. Why think it obeys these equations? By this very commitment, we have no access to that evolution. So, we have no reason to think it follows the equations.

So when coming to accept this view, we get an undercutting defeater (a belief that undermines the support we had) for the very belief we just adopted. Once we adopt this interface view, we realize we didn't see Evolution, we saw the Interface that we call evolution and have no reason to think this is the evolution of reality, it is merely the evolution of our interface. Therefore, it does not follow that Evolution causes us not to see reality.

Kartik Agaram 2023-02-13 18:03:57

(Were you already aware of this?)

There is a you and a me, we aren't just interface constructs. We can't trust our perceptions, but consciousness is consciousness and death is death. And if you have life and death, you still have evolution and fitness. Organisms reproducing to create new consciousness is not just an interface construct. I don't (yet) see how this is self-defeating.

If somebody showed how the laws of physics emerge from the laws of a cellular automaton, I'd call that science. It's a model that explains observations, that you can use to make predictions. Did Newton or Einstein do anything more? An equation is just a kind of model.

A lot of modern models have a lot of variables, which brings in questions of are we just p-hacking. But that doesn't refute model-building as an endeavor. It seems to me that persuasive models are the currency of science, along with data.

Now, to be fair, in the second link he says he's trying to find the underpinnings of evolution, which feels a bit woo. I'm not sure how you would do science on that question. He gives up all the experiments and theorems he's built up over the last 20 years and now has to start from scratch. I'm gonna read his book to better understand the plan of work.

Jimmy Miller 2023-02-13 18:21:44

I was not aware of this.

Organisms reproducing to create new consciousness is not just an interface construct.

On his view everything is interface, because that's the only thing we have access to. We have no access to the world at all. Our cognitive faculties are not mapped to truth at all. Nothing we know is true. As for why this statement is interface? Organisms are things that exist in space and time. As he tells us, space and time don't exist. They are interfaces. So if organisms exist in space and time and space and time don't exist, organisms don't exist.

If I'm honest, this kind of stuff bothers me so much. I see it as pure sophistry. I truly recommend reading Kant or Berkeley, or James or Pierce or Rorty, or Putnum or any philosopher in the Kantian or pragmatist bent over this stuff.

Kartik Agaram 2023-02-13 19:00:28

Organisms don't exist in space and time.

We do have access to the world -- through math. He's making the strongest case I've yet seen for model building over empiricism, reason over the senses.

Why would I read philosophers over this? They don't make testable predictions, he does. It's apples and oranges. It's super useful to see points of agreement and contradiction, but I don't see one side obviating the other.

I guess I'll stop here. (Though really if it bothers you, shouldn't you just stop reading this thread and control your own reality? 😂)

Jimmy Miller 2023-02-13 19:02:07

This is literally just a bad rehash of what philosophy has talked about for so long. It is literally a strawman version of what Kant said.

Kartik Agaram 2023-02-13 19:02:47

Except Kant could be right, Kant could be wrong. With this guy we can check. Seems worth rehashing.

Kartik Agaram 2023-02-13 19:06:06

If you weren't aware of this before, I don't think you can justify having such a strong reaction to such a tiny exposure. Literally (in the same sense as you use the word) every single argument you've made was mentioned in the 20-minute video. I think you're reacting to stupid shit other people have said that just happens to sound similar to what he's saying.

Jimmy Miller 2023-02-13 19:44:07

This is an old argument that people have been making for decades now. There’s nothing new. It is an evolutionary debunking argument. You can find tons of them in the literature. Maybe you are right that I shouldn’t have such a negative reaction. But I do.

This is too much of a nerd-snipe topic for me. If you want to read him go ahead. But I’d at least recommend reading critiques of his work as well.

Robert Kajic 2023-02-14 02:45:03

Donald also discussed this idea a few months ago on the Lex Fridman podcast

Jack Rusher 2023-02-14 06:59:49

It's very weird to me how many intelligent people with technical training have not gotten past the "what if we are brains in vats?" stage of philosophical investigation. I'm with Jimmy Miller on this one.

Konrad Hinsen 2023-02-16 07:25:04

"Can we know reality as it is?" is indeed a question philosophers have been discussing for quite a while. And in this general form, it's outside of science - you can't check this empirically. But specific aspects of how perception (human or otherwise) is based on both incoming signals and a priori models are very well accessible to scientific inquiry, and add a useful perspective in my opinion (but then, I am biased by being a card-carrying scientist).

Jack Rusher 2023-02-16 10:43:14

Konrad Hinsen... which is, itself, a philosophical position. A position I happen to share!

That said, the logical conclusion of Hoffman's argument is that you can't reliably test Hoffman's argument, having no transhuman means to do so. The same situation occurs with "brain in vat"/simulationist (and similar back to Plato) thought experiments.

So, some of us decide (philosophically) that we're going to rely on the evidence of our senses because it's the best we can do as agents in the world (Heidegger). After which, all the standard cog-sci limits of perception/cognition stuff that's already in the textbooks applies, plus a steady stream of new and fascinating findings. 🤷‍♂️

Konrad Hinsen 2023-02-16 13:32:38

Jack Rusher That's indeed the weak point in Hoffman's arguments - he should have applied them to themselves, or at least mentioned this issue. But... TED is TED.

My main issue with "brain in a vat" is that it's uninteresting. A dead end in thinking and exploring. At the opposite end (as I see it), there's Terence Deacon's teleodynamics theory (see his book "Incomplete Nature"). Not quite empirically testable right now, there's a lot of preliminary work to be done, but empirically testable in principle, and I am confident that the road to there will yield interesting insights.

Kartik Agaram 2023-02-16 15:43:30

Jimmy and I went back and forth on it a bunch in private, and I'm not eager to do that again. We did find that our disagreement hinged on different interpretations of the words "reality", "true" and "false". I'm not going to tag him in case he's (understandably) muted this thread.


  • Were you aware of this talk already? Is your position coming from having thought about it years ago when he did the rounds? Or did you actually watch the whole TED talk after I posted it? (Just the 20-minute talk. I'm not expecting others to watch the 2-hour interview.)
  • Can you first state what you think his argument is in your own words? In particular, do you think he considered your previous comments? I draw attention in particular to the experiments he describes, and the analogies with the train, the cliff, the lion.
  • If you think he's obviously vapid, can you try to imagine what nearby consistent+testable thing he might be saying?

It's totally fine if that seems like too much effort, and you're sure there's no there there. We can just agree to disagree and move on.

Jack Rusher 2023-02-17 16:26:27

Kartik Agaram I ran into his stuff years ago, when it first made the rounds. I'll watch the 20-minute talk at 2x out of fondness for you and continue this convo in another channel. 🙂

Kartik Agaram 2023-02-18 16:13:13

After reading the paper [1] (which I hadn't gotten around to locating until Jack Rusher shoved it under my nose), I still don't quite see (heh) the philosophical refutation. However, it seems clear to me that:

The full generality of his theory is not needed by his experiments, and not testable with similar experiments.

The screenshot below feels like a representative example of the sorts of perceptions his experiments evolve. It shows the organism's perceptions "folding" the real resource level around its optimum desired level of some resource. This seems reasonable. But it doesn't seem reasonable or testable to go from "the perceptual space is not identical to the world space" to "there is no world space," to focus on just one of his broader claims. As a concrete example, I have a hard time imagining the world not being a metric space ( Hoffman would agree that even if there isn't really a lion, there's something that can affect your fitness -- and this something "moves" unlike the static resource. More precisely, your perception of where you are is decoupled from the fitness of this location. This bank of the river has high fitness if the lion's on the other side, but low fitness if the lion's on the same side.

It's hard to imagine any static mapping from a non-metric space to a metric space being consistently adaptive, i.e. consistently yielding good fitness. I think the null hypothesis here should be that selection will tend towards noisy but unbiased mappings when it comes to space simply because of the wide variety of scenarios an organism will get into in its life. Perceived distance will correspond to real distance. It's hard to imagine a world in which this null hypothesis is false. (Though I did ping Greg Egan in hopes of nerdsniping him to come up with one[2].)

Obviously, further comments and refutations most appreciated, both on the conclusions and on the means by which I arrived at them. I don't science/critical-think too good.

[1] is from 2015 and seems like a decent summary of all their past work. It covers all the ground in the TED talk.


📷 image.png

Konrad Hinsen 2023-02-19 09:37:13

Kartik Agaram There have been various proposed scientific theories/models that include alternatives to metric spaces. The most recent and ambitious one is the Wolfram Physics Project: In all these proposals, metric spaces become pragmatic approximations to reality, rather than a fundamental part of it.

On the philosophical side, just look at the number of Wikipedia pages on "realism" to see the importance of such questions:

Kartik Agaram 2023-02-19 09:44:58

I tend to think Wolfram's theories and string theories all don't go so far as to say, "there is no space." The metric thing is just a concrete example to think about, though then again I don't know how to think about where in Wolfram's theory the space becomes metric..

Jack Rusher 2023-02-19 11:51:34

📷 image.png

Konrad Hinsen 2023-02-19 20:13:11

Metrics are derived from measurements, and measurements at small scales (small lengths, small energies) have limited precision due to quantum effects (the “uncertainty principle”). Wolfram’s theories are for even smaller scales, so metrics are not relevant.

Kartik Agaram 2023-02-19 20:24:41

I mean metric spaces in the topological sense.

Basically I'm trying to get at least a rough sense for how Hoffman's lay language "there's no space" might be meaningful. Wolfram wouldn't say there's no space, I think, just that 3D space at large scales is an emergent property of a very different space.

If space just has more dimensions than we perceive, that doesn't feel like justification to say there is no space in the world. Projection feels like a familiar transform.

However, if the transform is much more complicated, such as the one described in, then the statement starts to seem meaningful.

Jimmy Miller 2023-02-19 20:27:35

The “there’s no space” part is the reasonable bit about his stuff. That’s just Kant. (Space is a category we impose just like causality)

Jack Rusher 2023-02-14 10:16:06

There's loads of good stuff in this one.

Lu Wilson 2023-02-15 22:29:38

Towards "Text-Editor-ish"

I like this kind of 'hybrid' editor direction!

Peter Saxton 2023-02-16 08:06:23

nice guidance. seems sensible

Paul Tarvydas 2023-02-17 19:51:33

The Reasoned Schemer reading / learning: