donald_d_hoffman's picture
Cognitive Scientist, UC, Irvine; Author, The Case Against Reality
Veridical Perception

I have changed my mind about the nature of perception. I thought that a goal of perception is to estimate properties of an objective physical world, and that perception is useful precisely to the extent that its estimates are veridical. After all, incorrect perceptions beget incorrect actions, and incorrect actions beget fewer offspring than correct actions. Hence, on evolutionary grounds, veridical perceptions should proliferate.

Although the image at the eye, for instance, contains insufficient information by itself to recover the true state of the world, natural selection has built into the visual system the correct prior assumptions about the world, and about how it projects onto our retinas, so that our visual estimates are, in general, veridical. And we can verify that this is the case, by deducing those prior assumptions from psychological experiments, and comparing them with the world. Vision scientists are now succeeding in this enterprise. But we need not wait for their final report to conclude with confidence that perception is veridical. All we need is the obvious rhetorical question: Of what possible use is non-veridical perception?

I now think that perception is useful because it is not veridical. The argument that evolution favors veridical perceptions is wrong, both theoretically and empirically. It is wrong in theory, because natural selection hinges on reproductive fitness, not on truth, and the two are not the same: Reproductive fitness in a particular niche might, for instance, be enhanced by reducing expenditures of time and energy in perception; true perceptions, in consequence, might be less fit than niche-specific shortcuts. It is wrong empirically: mimicry, camouflage, mating errors and supernormal stimuli are ubiquitous in nature, and all are predicated on non-veridical perceptions. The cockroach, we suspect, sees little of the truth, but is quite fit, though easily fooled, with its niche-specific perceptual hacks. Moreover, computational simulations based on evolutionary game theory, in which virtual animals that perceive the truth compete with others that sacrifice truth for speed and energy-efficiency, find that true perception generally goes extinct.

It used to be hard to imagine how perceptions could possibly be useful if they were not true. Now, thanks to technology, we have a metaphor that makes it clear — the windows interface of the personal computer. This interface sports colorful geometric icons on a two-dimensional screen. The colors, shapes and positions of the icons on the screen are not true depictions of what they represent inside the computer. And that is why the interface is useful. It hides the complexity of the diodes, resistors, voltages and magnetic fields inside the computer. It allows us to effectively interact with the truth because it hides the truth.

It has not been easy for me to change my mind about the nature of perception. The culprit, I think, is natural selection. I have been shaped by it to take my perceptions seriously. After all, those of our predecessors who did not, for instance, take their tiger or viper or cliff perceptions seriously had less chance of becoming our ancestors. It is apparently a small step, though not a logical one, from taking perception seriously to taking it literally. 

Unfortunately our ancestors faced no selective pressures that would prevent them from conflating the serious with the literal: One who takes the cliff both seriously and literally avoids harms just as much as one who takes the cliff seriously but not literally. Hence our collective history of believing in flat earth, geocentric cosmology, and veridical perception. I should very much like to join Samuel Johnson in rejecting the claim that perception is not veridical, by kicking a stone and exclaiming "I refute it thus." But even as my foot ached from the ill-advised kick, I would still harbor the skeptical thought, "Yes, you should have taken that rock more seriously, but should you take it literally?"