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Is form empty? A scientist argues that it is.

As we go about our daily lives, we tend to assume that our perceptions — sights, sounds, textures, tastes — are an accurate portrayal of the real world. Sure, when we stop and think about it — or when we find ourselves fooled by a perceptual illusion — we realize with a jolt that what we perceive is never the world directly, but rather our brain’s best guess at what that world is like, a kind of internal simulation of an external reality. Still, we bank on the fact that our simulation is a reasonably decent one. If it wasn’t, wouldn’t evolution have weeded us out by now? The true reality might be forever beyond our reach, but surely our senses give us at least an inkling of what it’s really like.

Not so, says Donald D. Hoffman, a professor of cognitive science at the University of California, Irvine. Hoffman has spent the past three decades studying perception, artificial intelligence, evolutionary game theory and the brain, and his conclusion is a dramatic one: 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.

https://www.quantamagazine.org/20160421-the-evolutionary-argument-against-reality/

personDhammaDragonShoshin

Comments

  • DhammaDragonDhammaDragon Carpe Diem switzerland Veteran
    edited December 2016

    I like this quote from the article:
    "Objective reality is just conscious agents, just points of view."

    Buddhism has been saying all along that individuals, "me," objects, are merely convenient terms for everyday speech, but have no veritable reality.
    Reality is nothing but the perpetually changing combination of the five aggregates and the four elements.
    We are not beings, but processes.

  • SpinyNormanSpinyNorman It's still all old bollocks Veteran
    edited December 2016

    And yet there is a remarkable degree of consensus about the stuff we perceive. How is that explained?

  • pegembarapegembara Veteran
    edited December 2016

    Actually we don't even agree with "ourselves".

    “It looked like two separate mental systems were struggling for their view of the world.”

    "Split-brain research was arguably one of the first scientific demonstrations that the divided self has a real, physical basis."

    “The fact that each hemisphere supports its own coherent, conscious stream of thought highlights that consciousness is a product of brain activity,” he told me. “The notion that there is a single entity called consciousness, without components or parts, is false.”

    http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2015/07/split-brain-research-sperry-gazzaniga/399290/

    And yet there is a remarkable degree of consensus about the stuff we perceive. How is that explained?

    We learned them from parents, teachers, peers, books, TV etc.

    When a child goes to school and doesn't know the difference between red and blue, the teacher has not educated that child. Everyone knows what an apple looks like.

    Is there consensus on who goes to heaven?

  • SpinyNormanSpinyNorman It's still all old bollocks Veteran
    edited December 2016

    It isn't just about learning names. We have scientific instruments which measure and quantify a wide range of physical phenomena, and we can build and mass-produce complex machines. How is any of that possible is there is no objective basis to "out there"?

    And how can we really tell how accurate our mental model of the world is, given that we are using the same mental model to make the judgement? It's circular.

    I found the OP article rather muddled, connections not made clear, more speculation than objective evidence. And how exactly does it relate to emptiness?

  • @SpinyNorman I've been reflecting on this.

    Thus far, I've tended to focus on form is emptiness, but the next sentence in the Heart Sutra is emptiness is form.

    From what I can gather this means that we cast our minds onto the outside world to create edges to the world around us (form is emptiness) but it's also the case that the thing is there even though our perception of what's there varies from person to person (emptiness is form).

    Cinorjer
  • SpinyNormanSpinyNorman It's still all old bollocks Veteran

    It just means that form arises in dependence on conditions.

  • lobsterlobster Veteran
    edited December 2016

    Is form empty?

    Depends on what arrangement of 'emptiness' you talk to.
    For example lobsters only manage their environment with 100 000 neurons. Even with so few brain cells, the permutations of simultaneously firing synapses is potentially infinite ...

    The mathematician Georg Canto:
    Cantor's method of proof of this theorem implies the existence of an "infinity of infinities".
    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Georg_Cantor

    ... maybe only Bodhi Baby Jesus can save us from science?
    http://www.dailydawdle.com/2011/10/10-epic-portraits-of-jesus-and.html

    [lobster orders white van ... and gibbers into the distance]

  • And yet we have scientific instruments which measure and quantify a wide range of physical phenomena, and we can build and mass-produce complex machines. How is any of that possible is there is no objective basis to "out there"?

    Who do we learn science from? That is how "objective" things are. But those things that we learn are changing all the time! That's the nature of science.

    Our world view is based on our perceptions.

    Who would have imagined that you don't fall off the edge of a "flat" earth or that the earth actually goes round the sun when our eyes says otherwise?

  • SpinyNormanSpinyNorman It's still all old bollocks Veteran
    edited December 2016

    @pegembara said:

    And yet we have scientific instruments which measure and quantify a wide range of physical phenomena, and we can build and mass-produce complex machines. How is any of that possible is there is no objective basis to "out there"?

    Who do we learn science from? That is how "objective" things are. But those things that we learn are changing all the time! That's the nature of science.

    Our world view is based on our perceptions.

    Who would have imagined that you don't fall off the edge of a "flat" earth or that the earth actually goes round the sun when our eyes says otherwise?

    Obviously our world view is based on perceptions, and clearly we create a mental model of "out there". And yet there is a strong degree of consensus about these perceptions and mental models, and science provides a high level of objectivity.

    And so? I'm still not clear how this relates to sunyata.

    Cinorjer
  • pegembarapegembara Veteran
    edited December 2016

    "Science is not true either, it is only a commentary on appearances within emptiness, and itself is empty no matter how functional it is within the appearance that is the world. It is a science of the hollow."

    The fact that scientific ideas change all the time is proof that there is no objective reality. They are all mental constructs/fabricated or sankharas.

  • KeromeKerome Did I fall in the forest? Europe Veteran

    @pegembara said:
    "Science is not true either, it is only a commentary on appearances within emptiness, and itself is empty no matter how functional it is within the appearance that is the world. It is a science of the hollow."

    The fact that scientific ideas change all the time is proof that there is no objective reality. They are all mental constructs/fabricated or sankharas.

    Well... we do all inhabit a shared reality, and science is our best tool for investigating this shared reality. Empty or not, it changes our understanding of our experience, and is therefore both relevant and significant.

    SpinyNorman
  • SpinyNormanSpinyNorman It's still all old bollocks Veteran
    edited December 2016

    @pegembara said:> The fact that scientific ideas change all the time is proof that there is no objective reality.

    Actually it isn't, it just means that science is continually making discoveries and refining our understanding of what is "out there". Obviously our senses our limited and we only get a partial view, though that view has been extended by scientific instruments, so for example we can now detect the full electromagnetic spectrum, rather than just the visible part we see with our eyes.

    In any case there clearly is something "out there", otherwise there would be no phenomena, nothing to perceive, nothing to base our mental construct on. The question is then how accurate or reliable that mental construct is. I didn't find the OP article very clear or illuminating on this question.

    I'm afraid I still don't see a direct connection to sunyata here, I think you are comparing apples and oranges.

  • @Kerome said:

    Well... we do all inhabit a shared reality, and science is our best tool for investigating this shared reality. Empty or not, it changes our understanding of our experience, and is therefore both relevant and significant.

    That is the fitness test that was mentioned. The findings are indeed relevant and significant but not the objective reality.

    "Fitness and truth are distinct concepts in evolutionary theory. To specify a fitness function one must specify not just the state of the world but also, inter alia, a particular organism, a particular state of that organism, and a particular action. Dark chocolates can kill cats, but are a fitting gift from a suitor on Valentine's Day.

    We must take our perceptions seriously. They have been shaped by natural selection to guide adaptive behaviors and to keep us alive long enough to reproduce. We should avoid cliffs and snakes. But we must not take our perceptions literally. They are not the truth; they are simply a species-specific guide to behavior.

    Observation is the empirical foundation of science. The predicates of this foundation, including space, time, physical objects and causality, are a species-specific adaptation, not an insight. Thus this view of perception has implications for fields beyond perceptual science, including physics, neuroscience and the philosophy of science. The old assumption that fitter perceptions are truer perceptions is deeply woven into our conception of science. The funeral of this assumption will not be snubbed with a back-page obituary, but heralded with regime change."

    https://www.edge.org/response-detail/25450

  • Will_BakerWill_Baker Vermont Veteran

    @SpinyNorman said:
    And yet there is a remarkable degree of consensus about the stuff we perceive. How is that explained?

    ...think of the following use of language: I send someone shopping. I give him a slip marked 'five red apples'. He takes the slip to the shopkeeper, who opens the drawer marked 'apples', then he looks up the word 'red' in a table and finds a colour sample opposite it; then he says the series of cardinal numbers—I assume that he knows them by heart—up to the word 'five' and for each number he takes an apple of the same colour as the sample out of the drawer.—It is in this and similar ways that one operates with words—"But how does he know where and how he is to look up the word 'red' and what he is to do with the word 'five'?" Well, I assume that he acts as I have described. Explanations come to an end somewhere.—But what is the meaning of the word 'five'? No such thing was in question here, only how the word 'five' is used.[4]

    • Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations
  • CinorjerCinorjer Veteran
    edited December 2016

    (Student to Master) "I understand! Nothing is real! Everything is illusion. Form is emptiness!"
    (Master hits Student on head with stick)
    (Student): "OW!"
    (Master): "Where did the pain come from then, if the stick is an illusion? What felt the pain, if the mind is an illusion?"

    I have some major reservations about what the man is saying. First, I think there is an objective reality we live in independent of our consciousness. If you stand under a falling tree you are going to get squashed, no matter if you are aware the tree is there or about to fall or that being under a falling tree is fatal. If that tree is part of a dry forest that catches fire once in a while, a person who ignores this and builds a home in the middle of it is going to get burned, no matter if he thinks it won't happen to him. Ignore the objective reality of the world and be removed from the genetic pool quickly.

    The example given, that of a person who knows water is necessary but ignores too much water is also a problem, is ludicrous. It's the "spherical cow" error of oversimplifying a problem (google it if you're unfamiliar). Perceptions matching objective reality means you know too much rain causes floods. People who live in places prone to flooding certainly have perceptions that match this objective reality. Evolutionary survival is very much driven by how closely our perceptions match the reality of the world.

    Now, he makes a good case that the reality of the world is a slippery thing to pin down. I suppose we call that Buddha Nature in my own school and say don't bother to paint a still picture of a moving target. But we don't say Buddha Nature doesn't exist, only that our perceptions by our very natures give us an illusion of what's actually happening and that our minds mistake this illusion for reality, then distort the illusion further through emotions and fears and desires for what we want it to be.

    lobsterperson
  • @pegembara said:

    Not so, says Donald D. Hoffman, a professor of cognitive science at the University of California, Irvine. Hoffman has spent the past three decades studying perception, artificial intelligence, evolutionary game theory and the brain, and his conclusion is a dramatic one: 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.

    https://www.quantamagazine.org/20160421-the-evolutionary-argument-against-reality/

    Apparantly that is part of a longer interview. My feeling is as others say, his basic premise as stated is correct but his examples and arguments seem flawed.

    In other words unlike with dharma, there is no examination of the very internal flawed processing that states 'our perception is nothing like reality'. He seems to have fallen into the trap his own research reveals.

    As dharma aims to clarify, hone and objectify our sense of perception/awareness, we may be considered experts in mind science. If we are befuddled by drugs, narrow practices, samsara, ignorance, guru glamour etc. then clearly we may be pseudo-experts or unskilful ...

    I feel @Cinorjer has stated something similar, with the excellent example of how emotions, desires and fears can cloud perception. The three poisons and different realms are examples of how thought is filtered by perception:
    http://ichinensanzen.ca/the-three-poisons-ignorance-greed-and-anger/

    CinorjerDhammaDragon
  • personperson Where is my mind? 'Merica! Veteran

    I think I have to say that the world is just conscious agents is a possibility. Alan Wallace argues much the same thing and it agrees with certain notions of reality by mystics.

    A major block for me accepting it fully is the question about how does the universe develop and evolve prior to conscious agents? I've heard Buddhism, particularly in the Aggama sutta, talk about beings floating, non corporeally above the Earth to account for this. Aside from the lack of evidence argument, space is tremendously yuge, wouldn't we have to imagine beings permeating every bit of space to account for the activity of matter or energy in those areas?

    Another argument I've heard from spiritual proponents of this sort of idealism is that we collectively create the "external" world via our collective perceptions and karma. Wouldn't that then mean that since people in the western world don't believe in karma and rebirth then these things don't exist for them?

  • KeromeKerome Did I fall in the forest? Europe Veteran

    I tend more to the view that everything in the world has a certain background consciousness. Animals like monkeys can learn a kind of speech via keyboards, and can even make jokes. Plants in a time lapse video can be shown to seek things out. The very soil is alive with microbe communities. And quite a few mystics say that even stones and mountains have a slow kind of consciousness.

  • personperson Where is my mind? 'Merica! Veteran

    @Kerome said:
    I tend more to the view that everything in the world has a certain background consciousness. Animals like monkeys can learn a kind of speech via keyboards, and can even make jokes. Plants in a time lapse video can be shown to seek things out. The very soil is alive with microbe communities. And quite a few mystics say that even stones and mountains have a slow kind of consciousness.

    So you mean like matter evolving prior to conscious beings isn't an issue because all matter is infused with a sort of proto consciousness?

  • ShoshinShoshin No one in particular Nowhere Special Veteran

    Samsara (form) = Mind turned outwards lost in its projection...

    Nirvana ( emptiness) = Mind turned inwards recognising its true nature...

    Lonely_TravellerlobsterCinorjer
  • SpinyNormanSpinyNorman It's still all old bollocks Veteran
    edited December 2016

    @person said:> A major block for me accepting it fully is the question about how does the universe develop and evolve prior to conscious agents?

    Me too. I have heard the suggestion that the big bang was an "event in consciousness", but it seems far-fetched to me. It seems like a matter of religious belief and speculation, not anything which can be "proved".
    Some argue a case for "quantum consciousness", but that looks like a can of worms. http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Quantum_consciousness

    Another argument I've heard from spiritual proponents of this sort of idealism is that we collectively create the "external" world via our collective perceptions and karma. Wouldn't that then mean that since people in the western world don't believe in karma and rebirth then these things don't exist for them?

    It doesn't make much sense to me either, given that our perceptions are remarkably consistent, and given the scientific method. And presumably this would mean that our planet only came into existence when the first humans appeared...it sounds reminiscent of Young Earth Creationism. ;)

    lobster
  • SpinyNormanSpinyNorman It's still all old bollocks Veteran
    edited December 2016

    @Kerome said:
    I tend more to the view that everything in the world has a certain background consciousness. Animals like monkeys can learn a kind of speech via keyboards, and can even make jokes. Plants in a time lapse video can be shown to seek things out. The very soil is alive with microbe communities. And quite a few mystics say that even stones and mountains have a slow kind of consciousness.

    I think consciousness can adequately be explained in evolutionary terms. Even simple organisms have an awareness of their environment, so consciousness in higher mammals can be seen as the most sophisticated kind of awareness.

    Awareness and consciousness invariably seem to be a function of biological life, so I don't get the idea that rocks have consciousness - it looks like anthropomorphism.

  • federicafederica seeker of the clear blue sky Moderator

    Yes. I've never once been struck by a pebble that has subsequently apologised for the impact....

    lobster
  • upekkaupekka Veteran
    edited December 2016

    living in this world (conventional truth) and knowing the reality (Absolute Truth) are two different thing

    we need to learn living skills (language, maths, etc.) live in this world
    we are indebted to our parents, teachers, friends, society, radio, tv, magazine, books etc for the knowledge we have now

    we are indebted to Buddha, Dhamma and Sangaha for teaching us about the reality
    it is our duty to test what we have learned (Buddha's Teaching) to see the reality

    most of the time we mix both
    we think about dhamma we have heard and read, according to the knowledge we gain from outside (parents, teachers etc.)- we need to do this
    and
    then we have to meditate - during the meditation we do not do anything, we wait and see what appears through our six sense bases
    and see how we know that experience
    in this instance we do not need our eyes to see

    Cinorjerlobster
  • CinorjerCinorjer Veteran
    edited December 2016

    Yes, in attempts to make sense of our place in the universe, we are almost certain to place the importance of humanity and intelligence several orders of magnitude above what it should be. People start imagining the universe revolves around a tiny dust spec of a world with life that has existed for an eye blink in universal time scale. We don't say the universal creator God did it all for us like some people, but we don't escape the ego trap. We say the universe is designed (somehow) to create enlightened beings through reincarnation or that we somehow have an effect on the universe by observing it.

    The other thing we do is attempt to paint our consciousness and mind as more important than it is by redefining consciousness until it loses its meaning and can be applied to the universe as a whole. Are trees conscious beings? No. Are crystals growing in a cave alive? No. Is the universe conscious? Not in any manner that matters to us. Does an electron know we are observing it? No.

    However, if we ask the right question, "Is the universe itself alive?" we might come down with a yes. We are created by and part of it, after all. We can be as certain as anything without actual proof that in this immense universe we are not the only life. The rocks that abound are not alive, but then neither is our fingernail. But it's a huge leap to go from there to "Is the universe conscious?" or is consciousness somehow an important element of the universe.

    SpinyNorman
  • SpinyNormanSpinyNorman It's still all old bollocks Veteran
    edited December 2016

    @Cinorjer said:But it's a huge leap to go from there to "Is the universe conscious?" or is consciousness somehow an important element of the universe.

    Yes, it's a huge leap, and I suspect there is a large element of anthropomorphism involved in such claims. The other thing I notice in religious traditions is a tendency to project out internal "spiritual" experiences, and assume they must correspond to some larger reality, or God, or whatever. I think these assumptions come with a large element of wishful thinking and confirmation bias. I also think such assumptions are rather egocentric, the idea that our subjective internal experiences define the cosmos in some sense.

    Cinorjerlobster
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