Academic journal article Psychonomic Bulletin & Review

Where Does Fitness Fit in Theories of Perception?

Academic journal article Psychonomic Bulletin & Review

Where Does Fitness Fit in Theories of Perception?

Article excerpt

Published online: 18 September 2015

© Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2014

Abstract Interface theory asserts that neither our perceptual experience of the world nor the scientific constructs used to describe the world are veridical. The primary argument used to uphold this claim is that (1) evolution is driven by a process of natural selection that favors fitness over veridicality, and (2) payoffs do not vary monotonically with truth. I argue that both the arguments used to bolster this claim and the conclusions derived from it are flawed. Interface theory assumes that perception evolved to directly track fitness but fails to consider the role of adaptation on ontogenetic time scales. I argue that the ubiquity of nonmonotonic payofffunctions requires that (1) perception tracks "truth" for species that adapt on ontogenetic time scales and (2) that perception should be distinct from utility. These conditions are required to pursue an adaptive strategy to mitigate homeostatic imbalances. I also discuss issues with the interface metaphor, the particular formulation of veridicality that is considered, and the relationship of interface theory to the history of ideas on these topics.

Keywords Visual perception . Comparative psychology

The "interface theory of perception" (hereafter, IT) is a theoretical framework that has been refined by Hoffman and colleagues for more than a decade, the main results of which are summarized in the target article. The main premise of IT is that evolution favors fitness over veridicality, and hence, there is no reason to believe that any aspect of our experience reflects the world "as it is." Rather, perception should be construed as an adaptive interface, similar to the user interface that allows humans to interact with computers. I am in agreement with the central role of fitness and evolution in shaping perceptual systems, but I believe that there are issues with the arguments presented, the metaphor itself, and inferences that the authors draw based on these considerations. I begin with the metaphor.

The metaphor

The core concept of IT is that there is nothing in perception that resembles or reveals veridical properties of the world. Instead, just as the icons of a computer interface obscure the inner workings of the computer, our perceptual interface obscures "truth" about the world, providing us with merely an adaptive tool for reproduction. This is a provocative assertion, as there are some fundamental differences between computer interfaces and the world. For a realist, the interface metaphor fails because a computer interface does not reveal anything directly about either what the computer does or its structure. It is a tool engineered by man, and the interface is an artificial construct designed to allow humans to interact effectively with a tool. By contrast, a realist assumes that the structure that forms the basis of sensory input is created by the world. For vision, it is the interaction of light sources with the surfaces and materials of objects and substances that populate the world; for audition, it is the pattern of pressure waves created by mechanical disturbances; for the chemical senses, it is the distribution of and identity of chemicals; and so on. The bold claim of IT is that our concepts of the physical world in the preceding sentences are themselves merely adaptive interfaces and have nothing but a weak probabilistic bearing on the nature of the objective world as it "truly is." The core argument offered by Hoffman et al. (hereafter HSP) in support of this radical view is that evolution favors fitness ("payoffs"), and because payoffs do not vary monotonically with truth there is no reason to believe that perceptual experience tracks veridical properties of the world. In what follows, I argue that this argument constitutes the central flaw of the theory and that the conclusion that evolutionary games demonstrate that interface strategies drive realist strategies ("veridicality") to extinction only follows for the special case that they have considered. …

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