Cognitive scientist explains why perceiving a false reality is beneficial


#1

Originally published at: http://boingboing.net/2017/05/17/cognitive-scientist-explains-w.html


#2

I look at the illustration and see beer.


#3

Too much sanity may be madness — and maddest of all: to see life as it is, and not as it should be!
-Dale Wasserman, Man of La Mancha


#4

So, when the tiger tries to eat me, I… click on the blue rectangle! Got it.

Also, though it’s more of a philosophical take in a similar vein, I must share Sir Terry Pratchett’s words on lies (the ALL CAPS text being Death, of course, because that’s how he speaks:

“All right," said Susan. "I'm not stupid. You're saying humans need... fantasies to make life bearable."

REALLY? AS IF IT WAS SOME KIND OF PINK PILL? NO. HUMANS NEED FANTASY TO BE HUMAN. TO BE THE PLACE WHERE THE FALLING ANGEL MEETS THE RISING APE.

“Tooth fairies? Hogfathers? Little—”

YES. AS PRACTICE. YOU HAVE TO START OUT LEARNING TO BELIEVE THE LITTLE LIES.

“So we can believe the big ones?”

YES. JUSTICE. MERCY. DUTY. THAT SORT OF THING.

“They’re not the same at all!”

YOU THINK SO? THEN TAKE THE UNIVERSE AND GRIND IT DOWN TO THE FINEST POWDER AND SIEVE IT THROUGH THE FINEST SIEVE AND THEN SHOW ME ONE ATOM OF JUSTICE, ONE MOLECULE OF MERCY. AND YET—Death waved a hand. AND YET YOU ACT AS IF THERE IS SOME IDEAL ORDER IN THE WORLD, AS IF THERE IS SOME…SOME RIGHTNESS IN THE UNIVERSE BY WHICH IT MAY BE JUDGED.

“Yes, but people have got to believe that, or what’s the point—”

MY POINT EXACTLY.”
― Terry Pratchett, Hogfather


#5

This “good enough” false reality works just fine when villagers with pitchforks suffice to drive off whatever threatens the homeland.

When the threat to village harmony comes from the village; thats when scapegoats are much easier to find than new, more relevant mental models.


#6

#7

And “Hollywood” sort of added to false reality when it issued a version of Brazil with a happy-happy ending (Sam Lowry is ‘actually’ rescued, reunited with Jill Layton, and they both get away) which is not how Terry Gilliam ended the film.


#8

There’s a metaphor that’s only been available to us in the past 30 or 40 years, and that’s the desktop interface.

Well, that Plato guy did come up with the whole ‘Allegory of the Cave’ thing a little earlier than that.


#9

Yeah, I didn’t know this for years because I saw the legit version of “Brazil” multiple times in theaters before I caught it on broadcast TV in the 90’s, and was confused as hell.

Of course I always say Gilliam’s ending IS a happy ending. . . Sam sure looks happy, right?


#10

Yes. And as long as he’s trapped in that condition, nothing in reality (anything outside of his fantasy) – short of killing him – could change that.


#11

So that means Lovecraft was right?


#12

It’s a duck, not a dick


#13

And yet we insist we are objective observers and the other person is irrational and blinded by prejudice. (Especially ladies.)


#14

I think this comes down to short term vs long term, and individual vs overall survival of the species. For an organism’s genes to survive into the future, it needs to avoid life-ending mishaps,starvation, etc, long enough to reproduce. And in the case that another organism is required for reproduction, an effective mating strategy.

It is pretty easy to see this at work in our human constructed world. Medium proficiency at using a particular computer program is much more likely to pay off , pay off quicker, require fewer resources(time and money) to obtain(while increases the immediate ability to secure resources), and allow more time for meeting potential mates and learning mating strategies, than learning how a computer actually works.


#15

I am reminded of two quotations:

“He substitutes belief for thought. It protects you from self-doubt.” – Garry Trudeau’s comment on George W Bush

“The fundamental cause of the trouble is that, in the modern world, the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.” — Bertrand Russell


#16

“The world presented to us by our perceptions is nothing like reality. What’s more, he says, we have evolution itself to thank for this magnificent illusion, as it maximizes evolutionary fitness by driving truth to extinction.”

If the world presented to us by our perceptions is nothing like reality, how do we know that the theory of evolution, or any scientific theory, isn’t also nothing like reality? Science and mathematics derive from our perceptual construal of the world (which in turn derives from our contingently evolved brains); if we have no reason to assume that the latter is anything like reality, then there is equally no warrant to assume that the former is, either. You can’t build an objectively accurate view of reality on a foundation which is a “magnificent illusion”; you would more likely wind up with magnificent illusion all the way down. This is a basic problem with metaphysical naturalism which I’ve never heard a satisfactory answer to.


#17

Yup.

Brain/mind was not created to provide an accurate perception of reality.

It was evolutionarily selected to maximise reproductive fitness.

Everything you perceive and experience happens within your own mind. Reality is just the background context.


#18

Because there isn’t one. Cogito ergo sum: that was Descarte’s whole point. Apart from the basic fact of existence, nothing is certain.

This is approaching solipsism, which appears to be a hypothesis that is both unfalsifiable and a completely pointless dead end. It doesn’t lead anywhere.

So, the standard philosophical response to solipsism is something akin to the internet response to sealioning: you won’t get anywhere if you try to engage with it, so just ignore it as much as you can.

However, one of the more convincing bits in favour of scientific realism is the “no miracles” argument. Yes, it’s possible that all of our science is total bullshit. But, if that were the case, why does your computer work? It’d be a hell of a coincidence if we’d managed to create a functional technological society by accident…


#19

That’s how scientific research moves forward.

For centuries, it was considered scientifically proven that heavier objects fall faster. And then Galileo came along, and it was scientifically proven that all objects fall at the same rate. And we still use that simplification today, as g=~9.81m/s2

And then Newton came along, and it was scientifically proven that “falling” is entirely the wrong term: all objects are pulled towards each other with a force proportional to the two objects’ masses. And we still use that simplification today, as g = m1 x m2 x G (which, on the Earth’s surface, means an acceleration towards the center of the Earth of ~9.81m/s2).

And then Einstein came along…

Science doesn’t say “This is what is.” Science says “This is what I observe.” And then you use those observations to try to predict what you’ll observe next.

If you can come up with a model which explains your observations, and predicts, within a reasonable level of measurement error, what is going to happen next, it’s a good model. At least, until someone finds a better one.

Science isn’t able to say what the fundamental underlying fabric of reality is. However, it is able to say, “This is a model of one possible fundamental underlying fabric of reality, which matches all of our observations to date, and has proven reliable at predicting future observations.”

So, no, we can’t say if we’re all made up of eleven-dimensional vibrating strings, or coalesced energy, or data flowing around some hyperadvanced alien’s simulation. But we can say, to use your own example, “The theory of evolution matches our observations about how organisms change over multiple generations, it has proven reliable at predicting future changes of the same, and no other model has proven superior to it, therefore we will accept it as our model of reality until we find a better one.”

And that kind of use of the scientific method works whether our perceptions are lying to us, or not. As long as our perceptions are consistently erroneous, and we can model things in such a way that our models work both for past observations and predict future observations, it doesn’t matter how well they represent the truth about the underlying reality.

For most purposes, “things fall” is sufficient.

For nearly all other purposes, “things fall with an acceleration of ~9.81m/s2” is more than sufficient.

Neither of those is an objectively accurate representation of the underlying reality of how gravity works. But, unless you’re modeling objects with sufficient mass to itself have a significant gravitational pull, the models don’t need to be correct. They just need to be useful. And they are. And so is the rest of science, even if our concepts of why it is useful are completely off-base.


#20

Yes, exactly! But I was referring to a problem not for the scientific method, but to the philosophical supposition which is precisely the assertion that science tells us “what is”, ie metaphysical naturalism: “Metaphysical naturalism, also called ontological naturalism, philosophical naturalism, and scientific materialism is a worldview, which holds that there is nothing but natural elements, principles, and relations of the kind studied by the natural sciences.”