This is another tricky topic, so I’ll share how I came to think about this and why.
A few days ago, I was listening to an episode of the podcast Making Sense with Sam Harris, Annaka Harris and Donald Hoffman (episode 178) and they were discussing a very interesting topic.
*I just want to add that I only listened to an hour of the podcast and this topic seemed so complex to me that there is a chance I may not have understood everything correctly. But I think I understood the main idea so I want to share it here to talk about how I understood it and the things I thought about afterwards.
Hoffman has an interesting theory that we do not understand reality as it is. We understand a model of reality that helps us function. And he believes that evolution selected more for the perception of fitness payoffs (things that help us survive and mate) than for the accurate understanding of reality in general.
He worked on some computer simulations that proved that the creatures with a higher understanding of reality could not outcompete with those who could only see the fitness payoffs.
The idea is that the creatures who are optimized for survival and procreation outcompete the creatures who are not optimized for that.
And this made me think about several things. I’ll share a few here.
Since evolution did not select for the accurate understanding of reality, this means that we can survive without it. As long as we understand the essential things we need for survival and procreation, we’re fine.
If we want to understand reality more accurately, we need to put in a lot of time and effort to do this.
I love learning and I want to understand myself and the world more accurately. But if this is not useful for me, should I?
Related to the conversation we had about morality and success in life, it seems obvious to me that understanding reality will not help me be more wealthy or more successful.
I can learn about the world: history, astronomy, psychology, physics and so on and all this would enrich me and make me incredibly happy. But that will still not guarantee I can make a decent living or have an impact on the world.
I have a much higher chance of making money and making a change if I only focus on content creation, marketing and optimizing ads. It doesn’t matter that I would have no idea how the Internet works, how our human brain often makes errors in judgment or how the economy works. It doesn’t matter if I understand myself accurately or if I’m like Donald Trump and claim I’m the best at everything (sadly, this might help!).
So after listening to this podcast, I kept asking myself:
If understanding reality as it is is not important and if it brings no actual benefits, what’s the point?
Why should I (and we) spend so much time reading great non-fiction books to learn about the mysteries of the universe and the intricacies of the human brain?
Why put myself through the pain of analyzing what I think and why and facing the fact that I’m not even that smart and that I have so many things to work on to become better?
Don’t get me wrong, I love learning! For me learning is great in itself and no reward is necessary. I will continue to question what I know and try to understand the world more accurately.
But I still felt despair when I realized that all my knowledge probably won’t give me an advantage in life. And that made me feel sad.
As with morality, true understanding and accurate thinking are things that require sacrifices. You need to give your time, effort and pain to get them. And sadly, that may not give you an edge over the ignorant person who cares little about accurate thinking and doing the right thing.
This makes sense (especially if you think about evolution), but it just feels unfair to me in a way.
I think that both morality and accurate knowledge (or understanding) are so crucial and so valuable that I wish they had more value in the real world. I wish we all cherished them more and make these our overarching goals.
While morality and accurate thinking/ accurate understanding of reality won’t make us rich, they will help advance human knowledge and progress. So is that enough to pursue them?