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The Case Against Reality - Summary & Review

This one is possibly a weird one. But oh so interesting!

Alrighty, so. Let's talk about science. Science looks to explain the world in various ways with various tools depending on the sub-field. In general, though, it's basically trial and error. Something is hypothesized, an experiment is performed and then the results are examined to see if they confirm the hypothesis or not. Basically just trying stuff and seeing what reality says about it.

New theories replace old theories as things get refined and improved, venturing ever closer to the ultimate truth of reality. Einstein replaced Newton and one day something will replace Einstein. New theories must preserve the truths of old ones while adding more explanatory power, sophistication, or specificity - this is what makes them better.

While Einstein's Theory of General Relativity is spoken about almost as if a final destination, it leaves much to be desired. There are plenty of areas where you see the edges start to fray. Einstein even said so himself: "General Relativity is similar to a building, one wing of which is made of fine marble, but the other wing of which is built of low grade wood" (source).

Physicists would agree that Einstein's days are numbered. If not to be replaced then at least to be significantly modified. But what will replace it?

Enter Don Hoffman. Hoffman is squarely in the "Einstein is to be replaced" camp as opposed to modifying or improving the theories. I warn you, this next part is going to sound crazy.

Hoffman is working on what he calls the Interface Theory of Perception (ITP). In short, he basically believes that the entire concept of Spacetime is wrong and even the concept of physical matter being the basis for reality is wrong. He argues that the fundamental unit of reality is what he calls "conscious agents'', aka "consciousness is the fundamental basis of reality" (my words). Like I said, kind of crazy.

The best part is that this is not some new woo-woo thing. Hoffman is a disciplined scientist. He even admits that he's most probably wrong, his goal is simply to be "specifically wrong". That way others in the future can take his work and be able to further it, improving the wrong parts until it may actually end up being true. This is science.

So where does one get such a wacky idea? It stems, in part, from what's called the mind-body problem. The problem, simply put, is that science has basically nothing to say about consciousness. Sure, there are what's called NCCs (neural correlates of consciousness) where certain things are mapped to general areas of the brain, but it has no explanation at all concerning the experience of consciousness.

Maybe it's just a matter of time for the current scientific trajectory to answer this question but Hoffman thinks otherwise. He argues this is a fundamental gap that cannot be bridged by current scientific concepts.

He believes science has basically reached a false summit and to go higher we must head back down the mountain and up a new incline instead. He believes that new incline to be a focus on consciousness as the fundamental unit. Again, even he thinks he's most likely wrong but that someone's got to do it. Maybe this road leads somewhere or nowhere, there's only one way to find out.

Hoffman goes into detail in the book on what scientific theories he's building off of, explains his theory and methods (mathematical formulas), explores some weird things that can’t be explained by current science but could be explained with his theory and he pulls at some of those frayed edges of current science - things that follow from the current theories but don’t make much sense. Not only do they make sense with his theory, Interface Theory would predict it to be so. Such as Hawking and Bekenstein’s discovery of redundancy.

As mentioned above, new theories need to preserve the truths of past theories while expanding into new truths about reality. This is the project Hoffman has given himself. He is looking to replace the concept of Spacetime with something else so he needs to ensure his theory conserves all the things we currently know, in a way.

Starting from different beginnings, he is looking to reinvent science as we know it. No small task. Current science starts with matter and hopes to eventually explain consciousness. Hoffman starts with consciousness and needs to get to matter.

What does that look like exactly? Enter a metaphor. Think about your computer desktop. When you see a file that is blue, rectangular and in the center of the screen, does that mean the actual file is blue, rectangular and in the center of the screen? Of course not. The desktop is an interface designed specifically to simplify the action of interacting with the computer. Aka hide the truth. If you had to toggle transistors, voltages and magnetic fields to write an email then no one would ever hear from you.

You take the desktop seriously, but not literally. Hoffman argues to apply the same attitude towards reality itself. Everything about what we see/think of as reality is an interface that's been created for us by evolution to simplify the truth of reality down to simple "icons" that allow us to interact with reality and perform tasks.

You're already comfortable with the concept of there being plenty of aspects of reality you don't see or experience but know are there. Take the visible spectrum for example. There are plenty of other wavelengths we don't see but that doesn't mean they're not there. ITP is this kind of thinking on steroids.

Some have poked fun at Hoffman saying if he doesn't think reality is real he should jump in front of a car and see how real it is. This misses the entire argument. Back to the desktop metaphor, the interface is to be taken seriously just not literally. He's not saying that what we perceive as a car isn't there, he's saying that there is much more to reality than we know or see. That there is a deeper truth to reality beyond the interface. We can't ever escape our interface, but with the tools of science we can get behind it. We can possibly pull the curtain back and understand how things work.

What are the implications for daily life? Absolutely none. For the moment. Does the fact that the Earth orbits the Sun and not the other way around really change anything about your day-to-day? No. But the truth of it is important nonetheless. Einstein would have had a hard time coming up with General Relativity if he were born into a world that believed in Geocentrism. He would have a lot of foundational work to do first. So it is with all of science, it builds on earlier work and we don't know where it will lead but the truth of it, the correctness of it, brings power. All of modern electronics and technology has roots in physics discoveries and this most certainly impacts your daily life. Some would say it brings too much power (Twin Nuclei Problem) but that's for another day.

To sum up, Hoffman argues that just as we had to give up the cherished belief of Geocentrism we must next give up our current ideas of reality itself. Of Spacetime.

I highly recommend this book simply because of how fascinating Hoffman's theory is and it's implications. If my explanation here sucked, don't fault him for it. He does a much better job explaining things in the book (obviously).

Start with a quick search of his name on YouTube and you'll see many talks and interviews of varying length on various shows, from 20 min to 3 hours, explaining his theory in different ways to different people. I approve of this rabbit hole.

This summary just scratches the surface so you can bet on a much more in-depth explanation and exploration on this blog in the future. If that sounds interesting to you, be sure to sign up for the newsletter to be notified.

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