Reality Used to be a Friend of Mine

One of my favorite bands in high school was P.M. Dawn. They were pseudo-philosophers with an attraction to all things eastern. But as a teenager I thought songs like “Reality Used to be a Friend of Mine” were about acne and girls. It was theme music for the drive home from school on a bad day.

But now I see that the lyrics were far worse than being about pimples and breakups. It was ultimately about despair and the hope of finding joy in the rejection of rationally grounded values. Titles like “Set Adrift on Memory Bliss” and “To Serenade a Rainbow” suggest a kind of airy, intellectual utopia that awaits the person who can transcend the ordinary. If you think this sounds a bit like the hippie music of the sixties, I think you’re on to something.

Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised to discover existential thought in pop culture. But what about when we see a rejection of reality coming from leaders in the hard sciences? What if rock stars aren’t the only ones out of step with reality?

David Hoffman, a professor of cognitive science at the University of California, challenges the notion that evolution is leading us to a true perception of reality in an article he contributed to for The Journal for Theoretical Biology by the title of “Natural Selection and Veridical Perceptions.” If the academic references are tempting you to click away, please allow me to simplify. Hoffman suggests that the traditional arguments about how the evolutionary process can lead us to truth are not nearly as strong as some insist.

In a recent interview with The Atlantic Hoffman gave this explanation:

“The classic argument is that those of our ancestors who saw more accurately had a competitive advantage over those who saw less accurately and thus were more likely to pass on their genes that coded for those more accurate perceptions, so after thousands of generations we can be quite confident that we’re the offspring of those who saw accurately, and so we see accurately. That sounds very plausible. But I think it is utterly false. It misunderstands the fundamental fact about evolution, which is that it’s about fitness functions—mathematical functions that describe how well a given strategy achieves the goals of survival and reproduction. The mathematical physicist Chetan Prakash proved a theorem that I devised that says: According to evolution by natural selection, an organism that sees reality as it is will never be more fit than an organism of equal complexity that sees none of reality but is just tuned to fitness. Never.”

Hoffman has raised some controversy in his skepticism of the evolved brain’s ability to present us with a reliable vision of reality. The famed author H.G. Wells did something similar years ago when he offered a related argument in his lecture “Skepticism of the Instrument.” Wells wrote:

“When you have realized to the marrow, that all the physical organs of man and all his physical structure are what they are through a series of adaptations and approximations, and that they are kept up to a level of practical efficiency only by the elimination of death, and that this is true also of his brain and of his instincts and of many of his mental predispositions, you are not going to take his thinking apparatus unquestioningly as being in any way mysteriously different and better . . . . It [the brain] is a thing no more perfect than the human eye or the human ear, though like those other instruments it may have undefined possibilities of evolution towards increased range, and increased power.”

Maybe P.M. Dawn was right. Maybe reality isn’t our BFF. That fits with what Hoffman says in his interview that evolution can make sure an organism’s “perceptions will be tuned to fitness, but not to truth.” It seems that a reliable guide to reality might be forever out of our reach.

We seem to be stuck in this horrid position unless (a) there is an author to reality who has (b) created us to know truth. This is what the Christian philosopher Francis Schaeffer had in mind when he said, “Christians should point out that there is no answer to these questions except that God is there and he is not silent.” This shines a whole new light on Jesus’ words, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”

It may sound trite but I believe it’s true: only Jesus can save reality.