The Truth About True Models:

I recently came across Dr. Donald Hoffman’s idea of Fitness-Beats-Truth or FBT Theorem. This is the idea that evolution stamps out true perceptions. In other words, an organism is more likely to survive if it does not have a true and accurate perception. As Hoffman explains it:

Suppose there is an objective reality of some kind. Then the FBT Theorem says that natural selection does not shape us to perceive the structure of that reality. It shapes us to perceive fitness points, and how to get them… The FBT Theorem has been tested and confirmed in many simulations. They reveal that Truth often goes extinct even if Fitness is far less complex.

Hoffman suggests that natural selection did not shape us to perceive the structure of an objective reality. Evolution gave us a less complex but efficient perceptual network that takes shortcuts to perceive “fitness points.” Evolution by natural selection does not favor true perceptions—it routinely drives them to extinction. Instead, natural selection favors perceptions that hide the truth and guide useful action.

An easy to way to digest this idea is to consider our ancient ancestors. If they heard a rustling sound in the grass, it benefitted them to not analyze and capture the entire surrounding to get an accurate and true model of the reality. Instead, they would survive only if they got a “quick and dirty” or good-enough model of the surrounding. They did not gain anything by having an elaborate and accurate perception. Their quick and dirty heuristics such as “if you hear a rustling on the grass, then flee” allowed them to survive and pass of their genes. In other words, their fitter perception did not comprise of a true and accurate perception of the world around them. They gained (they survived) based on fitness rather than truth. As Hoffman noted, having true perception would have been detrimental because it avoided shortcuts and heuristics that saved time. As complexity increases, heuristics work much better.

The idea of FBT aligns pretty well with the ideas of second order cybernetics (SOC) and radical constructivism. From an SOC standpoint, the emphasis for the representation of the world is not that of a model of causality, but of a model of constraints. As Ernst von Glasersfeld explains this:

In the biological theory of evolution, we speak of variability and selection, of environmental constraints and of survival. If an organism survives individually or as a species it means that, so far at least, it has been viable in the environment in which it happens to live. To survive, however, does not mean that the organism must in any sense reflect the character or the qualities of his environment. Gregory Bateson (1967) was the first who noticed that this theory of evolution, Darwin’s theory, is really a cybernetic theory because it is based on the concept of constraint rather than on the concept of causation.

In order to remain among the survivors, an organism has to ‘‘get by” the constraints which the environment poses. It has to squeeze between the bars of the constraints, to coin a metaphor. The environment does not determine how that might he achieved. It does not cause certain organisms to have certain characteristics or capabilities or to be a certain way. The environment merely eliminates those organisms that knock against its constraints. Anyone who by any means manages to get by the constraints, survives… All the environment contributes is constraints that knock out some of the changed organisms while others are left to survive. Thus, we can say that the only indication we may get of the ‘‘real” structure of the environment is through the organisms and the species that have been extinguished; the viable ones that survive merely constitute a selection of solutions among an infinity of potential solutions that might be equally viable.

Nature prefers efficient solutions that does the work most of the time, rather than effective solutions that work all of the time – solutions that prefer least energy expenditure, least number of parts etc. This approach also resonates with Occam’s razor. It is always advisable to have the least number of assumptions in your model. Another way to look at this is – the design with the least number of moving parts is always preferred.

The idea that true perceptions are not always advantageous may be counterintuitive. As complexity increases, we lack the perceptual network to truly comprehend the complexity. How we perceive our world around us depends a lot on our perceptual network, which is unique to our species. Our reality consists of omitting most of the attributes of the world around us. As Hoffman explains – the reality becomes simply a species-specific representation of fitness points on offer, and how we can act to get those points. Evolution has shaped us with perceptions that allow us to survive. But part of that involves hiding from us the stuff we don’t need to know.

Complexity also favors this approach of viable solutions/fitter perceptions. Hoffman notes:

We find that increasing the complexity of objective reality, or perceptual systems, or the temporal dynamics of fitness functions, increases the selection pressures against veridical perceptions.

I will add more thoughts on the FBT theorem at a later time. I encourage the readers to check out Hoffman’s book, The Case Against Reality.

Please maintain social distance and wear masks. Stay safe and Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Talking about Constraints in Cybernetics:

4 thoughts on “The Truth About True Models:

  1. I find this difficult to understand… a simple version would be appreciated – looks like this is the conclusion.

    We find that increasing the complexity of objective reality, or perceptual systems, or the temporal dynamics of fitness functions, increases the selection pressures against veridical perceptions.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s