Perception or Reality—Which is Better

Do we experience the world as it actually is, or as we need it to be?

Does natural selection really favor seeing reality as it is? Fortunately, we don’t have to wave our hands and guess; evolution is a mathematically precise theory. We can use the equations of evolution to check this out. We can have various organisms in artificial worlds compete and see which survive and which thrive, which sensory systems are more fit.

So, in my lab, we have run hundreds of thousands of evolutionary game simulations with lots of different randomly chosen worlds and organisms that compete for resources in those worlds. Some of the organisms see all of the reality, others see just part of the reality, and some see none of the reality, only fitness. Who wins?

Well, I hate to break it to you, but perception of reality goes extinct. In almost every simulation, organisms that see none of reality but are just tuned to fitness drive to extinction all the organisms that perceive reality as it is. So the bottom line is, evolution does not favor veridical, or accurate perceptions. Those perceptions of reality go extinct.

We’re inclined to think that perception is like a window on reality as it is. The theory of evolution is telling us that this is an incorrect interpretation of our perceptions. Instead, reality is more like a 3D desktop that’s designed to hide the complexity of the real world and guide adaptive behavior. Space as you perceive it is your desktop. Physical objects are just the icons in that desktop.

Once we let go of our massively intuitive but massively false assumption about the nature of reality, it opens up new ways to think about life’s greatest mystery. I bet that reality will end up turning out to be more fascinating and unexpected than we’ve ever imagined.

The theory of evolution presents us with the ultimate dare: Dare to recognize that perception is not about seeing truth, it’s about having kids—Cognitive Scientist Donald Hoffman


So, do we experience the world as it actually is, or as we need it to be? It seems more and more that life is an illusion. Not of the hocus pocus kind, but as a means of survival —