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Is freedom what the mind wants?

Blissful ignorance can be a rational choice.
Credit: araelf / Vector Tradition / Adobe Stock
Key Takeaways
  • Can we learn enough about the brain to simulate alternate realities within our heads?
  • Plato, The Matrix, and the simulation hypothesis all address in some way the question of what freedom means within such a simulated reality.
  • If our reality is simulated, would you want to know you are not actually free? Or would you instead choose to live in blissful ignorance?

The possibility that machines will be able to simulate the human brain is both a scary and an amazing thought. It is different from an AI that approaches the functioning of a human mind, achieving some capacity for data mining and decision-making. 

We know there is a lot of hubris around building sentient machines, as we wrote here recently. In the past 10 years, a lot of money has been poured into the effort. In 2013, former President Barack Obama’s Brain Initiative allocated $100 million to fund research that seeks to create a dynamic picture of the brain — one that will inform us how we think, learn, and remember. That initiative remains very active, with the goal of “ultimately uncovering the complex links between brain function and behavior.” 

That same year in Europe, the €1-billion Human Brain Project began, headed by Henry Markram. The project was initially branded as an effort to recreate the human brain in all its minute detail, so as to engender an artificial mind. It now brands itself somewhat differently, as a locus for “cutting-edge research infrastructure that will allow scientific and industrial researchers to advance our knowledge in the fields of neuroscience, computing, and brain-related medicine.” 

The brains of mice and men

Markram also heads the Blue Brain Project. This is more modest in scope, focusing on the brain of a mouse. “The goal of the Blue Brain Project is to build biologically detailed digital reconstructions and simulations of the mouse brain,” the website states. 

The premise here is that if brains somehow sustain the mind, then by deconstructing the brain in detail and reassembling the information in powerful computers, we should be able to recreate a level of consciousness using a computer code — consciousness that can scale from mice to humans. 

The brain integrates external stimuli to give us our experience of reality. If we learn enough about the human brain through these and other initiatives, could we interfere with it? Could we simulate a different reality so convincingly that it becomes indistinguishable from the real world? 

In his dialogue The Republic, Plato offered the Allegory of the Cave, one of the first meditations on the nature of reality, and on how limited our perception of the world is. The theme has been revisited countless times, for example in the 1999 blockbuster The Matrix. In the 24 centuries separating Plato from Keanu Reeves, we witnessed the advent of modern science. With it came our growing ability to create mind-bogglingly amazing simulations — virtual allegories that imitate or satirize our world. An obvious question, made famous by Oxford University philosopher Nick Bostrom in 2003, is whether we actually live in a simulation. And if we do, the next question is who the simulators are — a question we addressed here recently. 

But today our focus is different. The question that is hiding in these arguments is about the nature of freedom. Can we really be fooled so comprehensively by a simulated reality? And if so, does it matter?

Freedom, from Plato through The Sims

In his Allegory, Plato imagined a group of people chained since birth to a cave. The chained ones could only face forward, toward a wall. Their world was that wall, and the images and shadows they could see on it were their lives. They were unaware that behind them, simulators had built a huge fire. They were lifting various objects in front of the fire, and the images and shadows the chained ones saw, their whole reality, were simply projections made by these objects. Plato’s point was that we are like the chained ones, ignorant of the true nature of reality.

Plato was telling us that our senses recreate a small portion of what is out there. Only in the pure recesses of the mind, through the power of reason, can we understand the true nature of reality. So the only perfect circle is the idea of a circle, not the one we draw. 

We know that Plato was right, at least in part. Our sensorial perception does give us an incomplete picture of the world, even when amplified by scientific tools such as telescopes and microscopes. Every tool has limits, and we can only see as far as it will let us.

I imagine the reader is familiar with the videogame The Sims. As the name already says, it is a simulation of reality, where the characters are people who do the things we normally do everyday: go to school, eat, go to the doctor, take care of children and pets, date, etc. (Well, some activities in the game are pretty weird.)

Now imagine a hyper-advanced version of the game, where the characters have enough autonomy and self-reflection so as to feel real. Even if ultimately the simulators are in control, the characters believe themselves to be free and autonomous, responsible for their actions. 

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These simulated characters are a modern version of the chained ones. They are under the illusion of knowing what their reality is like. More to the point, they have the illusion of personal freedom. That was also the case with characters in The Matrix.

As simulations continue to grow in sophistication, we can imagine that in a not-so-distant future, we should be able to create virtual worlds that are practically indistinguishable from the real world, at least as we are able to perceive and measure it. (The simulations would have to grow in detail as we probe deeper into the nature of things, from subatomic particles to the confines of outer space.) We can thus imagine that other intelligent civilizations might be doing the same, or that our descendants are doing it right now — and that we might be their simulation. That was Bostrom’s claim. If this is the case, we are under the control of the simulators, be they post-human or extraterrestrial. 

But here is the thing: If we are truly unable to tell, does it make a difference whether or not we are in a simulation? Does freedom only matter when we are aware that we don’t have it? 

Note that this is different from having social inequality in the world, with some being freer than others. In the simulation, we are all on the same boat — no one is freer than any other.

Plato argued that if a chained one were freed, the truth would so terrify him that he would quickly run back to his chains and face the wall. He believed that only with knowledge can we break away from the chains and truly ascend to freedom — and this freedom can be blinding and scary. 

So, the question remains. If you had the choice to keep on living your life in blissful ignorance, keeping things just as they are — or, instead, to know the “truth” about the human condition, that we are all victims of a huge hoax, and we are not the owners of our freedom — would you opt to know the truth, or to keep living in blissful ignorance? 

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