Is it all in the imagination?
I’ve never felt that was the case: that everything you see and sense on a psilocybin trip is the projection of your chemically supercharged mind, the product and projection of an intoxicated brain. That’s not how it feels; rather, it feels as if perceptual filters have been lifted, as if some of the scales have fallen from your eyes and you are witnessing a little more of what’s actually around than you do in your normal state: something closer to the Istigkeit, the Kantian Ding an Sich — that is, under psilocybin you are receiving powerful hints of the noumenon, as distinct from the phenomenon; reality as opposed to appearance. Except that it’s not distinct or opposed; noumenon lives inside phenomenon — truth within appearance — essence within attributes— as Aldous Huxley put it, a “sacramental vision of reality”.
Recently I listened to some interviews with Dr Donald Hoffman, talking about his book The Case Against Reality — Why Evolution Hid the Truth from our Eyes. I liked his approach, because he seemed to understand that science is a branch of philosophy. Dr Hoffman is a cognitive scientist and mathematician — and while he doesn’t neglect the science, he remembers to put the philosophy first. His questions are philosophical. Is there an objective reality and what is its nature? Are we machines or is there something else? What is there, and do we see it as it is? Do we know where we are? We spend all our time thinking about who we are. But do we even know what we are?
Hoffman claims to have created mathematical models of perception which prove his case. Now, I have no idea what that means — I’d have to read the book — so for me this is just rhetoric. But I was interested by what he claims came out of the models.
The math, he says, shows that we don’t necessarily see the truth; what we see is a rendering of reality rather than reality itself. This distinction is not controversial, indeed it is found in Kant, Henri Bergson, even Plato. All Hoffman has to add at this point is a contemporary metaphor: reality as we render it is equivalent to a graphic user interface, and everything in it is a mental construct, a visual tool, analogous to an icon on a computer desktop, or an object in a computer game. But what is really there? Take a magnifying glass and look at the screen. Pixels. And behind that, circuits and software. Zeros and ones, voltage gates, diodes and resistors.
So it’s an interface theory of perception. We pay good money for our computer interfaces, so we don’t have to deal with the reality of computers. And so with truth: evolution has hidden it from our eyes. All we see is our icons of reality, not reality itself. Perception, then, is a virtual reality headset. Even the parameters of space and time are constructs of our interface, having no independent existence, as we might conceive of a pre-existing stage upon which we enter and exit.
There has always been a tendency for us to project our latest technologies onto reality. To the ancients, the sun was a fire. When humans achieved nuclear fusion, it became a great reactor in the sky. When Tesla and Birkeland gave us the beginnings of plasma cosmology, an electric universe was born, and now the sun became a transformer. Likewise, as soon as we conceived of virtual reality, some started thinking we might be living in a simulation. We should be cautious of the contemporary allure of such projections, and not assume that our latest metaphor marks a final arrival at truth.
For me, simulation theory of reality has always gone against intuition, as something which takes us away from the truth rather than towards it — a rearguard action or smokescreen, like multiverse theory, against the growth of quasi-vitalist philosophies gaining traction in the sciences; since a simulation, by definition, is something designed, the simulation hypothesis can be used to hijack the evidence for intelligent design, substituting a technologist, human or otherwise, for a deity or universal mind. Simulation theory is reductive and demoralising, since it literally denies the reality of reality, and sustains a machine model of the universe in its most extreme form. The universe, in this model, is not alive, and the only consciousness you can be sure exists within it is your own. It’s the Descartian error scaled up to infinity; and, simultaneously, a vision of nightmarish claustrophobia. The ethical danger of the simulation model is that it means you can doubt the reality of the other characters you interact with, who might just be computer artefacts, Non-Playable Characters, programmed, automatic, insentient — and that is a psychopathic view of reality, leading us only to de Sade and the horrors of Thélème.
That is not what Hoffman is saying, and if it were I would quickly lose interest. He is not a solipsist. Our perceptual field may be analogous to a graphic user-interface, but it’s a multi-player game: the other players in the game have an objective existence and are conscious agents just like us. We may not know the reality of their existence, seeing only an icon, an avatar — except in as far as we can find a portal into their consciousness. But that does not deny their reality or agency. Some, we cannot. We cannot sense the consciousness of rocks, for example, but this does not mean they are not conscious. For Hoffman, as for Planck and Schrödinger, consciousness comes first, driving rather than emerging from neural activity. Consciousness does not emerge in a complex brain, or any arrangement of matter; it precedes matter; this is an inversion of emergence theory, the emergence of matter from mind.
Thus far, there is nothing new about Hoffman’s theory. He belongs to the tradition of academic skepticism which rejects the Stoic dogma of katalepsis, the possibility of grasping reality through intellectual intuition. To a skeptic like Hoffman, all perceptions are acataleptic, bearing no conformity to the objects perceived, or if they do bear any conformity it can never be known. This is because the force of evolution, in Hoffman’s phrase, has hidden reality from our eyes. Natural selection does not favour organisms that see reality as it is. The game points in this biological reality are fitness pay-offs: and the fitness pay-offs are not homomorphisms of structures in reality. In fact they do not carry information about reality at all, but actually destroy it. Life is not about truth, in other words, it’s about survival. Truth is too complicated and takes too much time and energy. And here’s the punch-line: in Hoffman’s evolutionary simulations, organisms that saw the truth went extinct when competing against organisms of equal complexity that saw none of it and were just attuned to the fitness pay-offs. Truth is selected out.
It’s a poignant idea, and a vicious irony. Fitness pay-offs destroy information about reality. Therefore, those who gather the most fitness pay-offs and get to the top of our society know least about reality.
Explains a lot, right?
The less of the truth you understand, the further you’ll go in this game.
And ain’t that the truth, conspiracy theorists like me?
Hoffman claims that the theorem has been proved mathematically, but of course it makes perfect sense without the math. I think it would strike anyone who has used LSD or psilocybin, for example, as being along the right lines, as per Aldous Huxley’s Doors of Perception thesis — that psychedelics disarm the biological filters we use to enable us to navigate and negotiate reality and find the fitness pay-offs: they open the doors of perception, allowing us see more of what is really there than we need to see.
Huxley references Cambridge philosopher Dr. C. D. Broad’s account of “the type of theory which (Henri) Bergson put forward in connection with memory and sense perception. The suggestion is that the function of the brain and nervous system and sense organs is in the main eliminative and not productive. Each person is at each moment capable of remembering all that has ever happened to him and of perceiving everything that is happening everywhere in the universe. The function of the brain and nervous system is to protect us from being overwhelmed and confused by this mass of largely useless and irrelevant knowledge, by shutting out most of what we should otherwise perceive or remember at any moment, and leaving only that very small and special selection which is likely to be practically useful.” (The Doors of Perception, p6)
Thus, the brain does not generate consciousness, as materialistic science assumes, but channels and reduces it:
“According to such a theory, each one of us is potentially Mind at Large. But in so far as we are animals, our business is at all costs to survive. To make biological survival possible, Mind at Large has to be funneled through the reducing valve of the brain and nervous system. What comes out at the other end is a measly trickle of the kind of consciousness which will help us to stay alive on the surface of this particular planet.”
There is a key difference between this and Hoffman’s user-interface analogy. A desk-top icon bears no resemblance to the reality of pixels, circuits and software that underlies it. It is part of a code, bearing the same arbitrary relationship to reality as a word does to the thing it denotes; our reality, then, is constructed like a language; our perceptions merely signifiers, not sacraments.
The question for me is why this would be? If we grant that the brain is a ‘reducing valve’ protecting us from being overwhelmed, the phenomenon still has a direct relationship to the noumenon: a paler version, ordered and stabilised by the brain’s eliminatory mechanisms. What we perceive as the phenomenon of, say, a tree is intimately connected with the noumenon of tree; it participates in and is formed by the deepest principles of nature. The observation of dendritic morphology throughout nature, from lightning strikes to root systems to mycelial and neural networks or coral formations, leads us into deeper understanding of the animating mathematics of creation, the relationships between frequency and matter, and closer to the Istigkeit, the isness, the Ding an Sich — the noumenon. What we see can indeed evoke the infinite depth of a fractal reality. The relationship, then, is more than iconic: it is symbolic.
So then, if evolution has no use for truth, where does that leave me, or you? On the edge of extinction, no doubt. My experience would certainly seem to confirm that truth is not a fitness pay-off; it disables one’s ability to survive in a system of delusion, which every society is, to a greater or lesser extent. Truth, then, is something closer to a lethal text.
The fitness pay-offs never drew me. I found them too mundane. And I know I’ll pay the price for this cavalier attitude: it’ll shorten my life, no doubt, but I can’t help it and never could, so I have to accept this karma.
But is there not an evolutionary reason why my attitude exists? Of course — it’s the same fundamental reason you need genetic variation within a population; and that is that environments change. When normal conditions apply, the well-adapted will be fine, scurrying around gathering their fitness pay-offs.
However — and Hoffman doesn’t consider this, at least in the talks and interviews I’ve seen — what applies under normal circumstances may not apply at the evolutionary bottlenecks, the mass extinctions. There may be times when the fitness pay-offs are not enough, and only the ability to see the truth gives you any chance of survival. In fact we may be in one now.
Surprisingly, Hoffman has never taken psychedelics, though he says he will one day. A psychonautic excursion or two might help extend his theories and provide an experiential counterpoint.
Clearly it’s true, as in Huxley, that the brain filters reality in accordance with our biological needs, and that the effect of psychedelic drugs is to disable the filters, opening the doors of perception to more of reality than we can normally afford to experience. That’s what it has always felt like, to me; rather than the intoxicated mind extemporising on reality, it feels like a revelation of reality, a stripping away of filters, a falling of scales from the eyes. In fact there have been experimental studies which have confirmed decreased cerebral activity and blood-flow to the brain during psilocybin trips. This is counterintuitive, given the intense excitement of the mind during these experiences. But if consciousness, as Hoffman believes, is the ground of all existence rather than a late and rather pointless byproduct of organic complexity, then the brain must be conceived not as a generator but a transducer of consciousness; a device, in fact, for limiting consciousness, focusing and controlling it. Reality, then, emerges as the brain relaxes. The difference is quantitative not qualitative. The qualia are not inventions. That has always been my impression — that under the influence of psilcybin I was seeing a little further into reality as it is, like taking one step into a forest. And of course the mind gets involved and interprets and projects to a degree. But in my experience there isn’t a lot of interpreting going on. In normal mental states, on the other hand, most of brain’s activity is taken up in the necessary effort to limit, stabilise and stereotype sensory input, to shield us against reality. We look at the world through spread fingers.
This in turn provides a new and perhaps more convincing rational for the Stoic doctrine of catalepsis — the ability intuitively to ‘grasp’ the noumena — except that the key would be to conceive it in more passive mode, not so much a seizing of as possession by an object or entity. My belief, then, is that reality, the noumenal, is knowable, to whatever degree. Why should the relationship between phenomenon and noumenon be as distant as in Hoffman’s user-interface analogy? Why should reality be thus reinvented? Veiled, yes, but not denatured. What would the premise be for such an arrangement? What place could such a disjunction of sense and sensed have in the Logos? So I don’t believe, as Kant did, that we are utterly ignorant of the noumenal realm. Which is not to say that we can put what we know of it into words — or not without great difficulty.
Hoffman should put himself under the mushroom. I think he would find that his ‘icons’ are not just convenient inventions; that we perceive not fictions but reflections, notwithstanding their reduced or tempered state, of the noumenon.
Consider this: if all we see of anything, in our normal state, is a veiled, diminished, stabilised, manageable version of the reality… if a leaf in the forest is revealed under psilocybin as a divine, living architecture, numinal, a fountain of energy, its curves, ratios and symmetries a direct experience of the Logos… what then of human beings? If the brain is a reducing valve for consciousness, that includes consciousness of self. If everything around is revealed as so much more than our daily experience can grasp… Then the phenomenon of the human being, too, is as nothing to its noumenon.
Do we know what we are? Do we have even the faintest conception?
And if one, through an act of inspired catalepsis, could grasp that… could it be accounted in game-theory mathematics? It might just change the game entirely.