What happens when simulation theory becomes more than a fascinating thought experiment?
- Simulation theory proposes that our world is likely a simulation created by beings with super-powerful computers.
- In "A Glitch in the Matrix," filmmaker Rodney Ascher explores the philosophy behind simulation theory, and interviews a handful of people who believe the world is a simulation.
- "A Glitch in the Matrix" premiered at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival and is now available to stream online.
Rodney Ascher / "A Glitch in the Matrix"<p><strong>Throughout 2020, many people seemed to talk about the world being a simulation, especially on Twitter. What do you make of that?</strong></p><p>I see that just as sort of evidence of how deep the idea [of simulation theory] is penetrating our culture. You know, I'm addicted to Twitter, and everyday something strange happens in the news, and people make some jokes about, "This simulation is misfiring," or, "What am I doing in the dumbest possible timeline?"</p><p>I enjoy those conversations. But two things about them: On the one hand, they're using simulation theory as a way to let off steam, right? "Well, this world is so absurd, perhaps that's an explanation for it," or, "Maybe at the end of the day it doesn't matter that much because this isn't the real world."</p><p>But also, when you talk about the strange or horrifying, or bizarre unlikely things that happen as evidence [for the simulation], then that begs the question, well what is the simulation for, and why would these things happen? They could be an error or glitch in the matrix. [...] Or those strange things that happen might be the whole point [of the simulation].</p><p><strong>How do you view the connections between religious ideas and simulation theory?</strong><br></p><p>I kind of went in [to making the film] thinking that this was, in large part, going to be a discussion of the science. And people very quickly went to, you know, religious and sort of ethical places.</p><p>I think that connection made itself clearest when I talked to Erik Davis, who wrote a book called "<a href="https://books.google.com/books/about/TechGnosis.html?id=lh_XAAAAMAAJ&source=kp_book_description" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Techgnosis</a>", which is specifically about the convergence of religion and technology. He wanted to make it clear that, from his point of view, simulation theory was sort of a 21st-century spin on earlier ideas, some of them quite ancient.</p><p>To say that [religion and simulation theory] are exactly the same thing is sort of pushing it. [...] You could say that if simulation theory is correct, and that we are genuinely in some sort of digitally created world, that earlier traditions wouldn't have had the vocabulary for that.</p><p>So, they would have talked about it in terms of magic. But by the same token, if those are two alternative, if similar, explanations for how the world works, I think one of the interesting things that it does is that either one suggests something different about the creator itself.</p><p>In a religious tradition, the creator is this omnipotent, supernatural being. But in simulation theory, it could be a fifth-grader who just happens to have access to an incredibly powerful computer [laughs].</p>
Rodney Ascher / "A Glitch in the Matrix"<p><strong>How did your views on simulation theory change since you started working on this documentary?</strong></p><p>I think what's changed my mind the most in the course of working on the film is how powerful it is as a metaphor for understanding the here-and-now world, without necessarily having to believe in [simulation theory] literally.</p><p><a href="https://medium.com/form-and-resonance/are-we-living-in-a-simulation-52ddf27c04cd" target="_blank">Emily Pothast</a> brought up the idea of <a href="https://ethics.org.au/ethics-explainer-platos-cave/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Plato's cave</a> as sort of an early thought experiment that is kind of resonant of simulation theory. And she expands upon it, talking about how, in 21st-century America, the shadows that we're seeing of the real world are much more vivid. You know, the media diets that we all absorb, that are all reflections of the real world.</p><p>But the danger that the ones you're seeing aren't accurate—whether that's just signal loss from mistakes made by journalists working in good faith, or whether it's intentional distortion by somebody with an agenda—that leads to a really provocative idea about the artificial world, the simulated world, that each of us create, and then live in, based on our upbringing, our biases, and our media diet. That makes me stop and pause from time to time.</p><p><strong><span></span>Do you see any connections between mental illness, or an inability to empathize with others, and some peoples' obsession with simulation theory?</strong></p><p>It can certainly lead to strange, obsessive thinking. [Laughs] For some reason, I feel like I have to defend [people who believe in simulation theory], or qualify it. But you can get into the same sort of non-adaptive behavior obsessing on, you know, the Beatles or the Bible, or anything. [Charles] Manson was all obsessed on "The White Album." He didn't need simulation theory to send him down some very dark paths.</p>
Credit: K_e_n via AdobeStock<p><strong>Why do you think people are attracted to simulation theory?</strong></p><p>You might be attracted to it because your peer group is attracted to it, or people that you admire are attracted to it, which lends it credibility. But also like, just the way you and I are talking about it now, it's a juicy topic that extends in a thousand different ways.</p><p>And despite the cautionary tales that come up in the film, I've had a huge amount of fascinating social conversations with people because of my interest in simulation theory, and I imagine it's true about a lot of people who spend a lot of time thinking about it. I don't know if they all think about it alone, right? Or if it's something that they enjoy talking about with other people.</p><p><strong>If technology became sufficiently advanced, would you create a simulated world?</strong></p><p>It'd be very tempting, especially if I could add the power of flight or something like that [laughs]. I think the biggest reason not to, and I just saw this on a comment on Twitter yesterday, and I don't know if it had occurred to me, but what might stop me is all the responsibility I'd feel to all the people within it, right? If this were an accurate simulation of planet Earth, the amounts of suffering that occurs there for all the creatures and what they went through, that might be what stops me from doing it.</p><p><strong>If you discovered you were living in a simulation, would it change the way you behave in the world?</strong></p><p>I think I would need more information about what the nature of the purpose of the simulation is. If I found out that I was the only person in a very elaborate virtual-reality game, and I had forgotten who I really was, well then I would act very differently then I would if I learned this is an accurate simulation of 21st-century America as conceived by aliens or people in the far future, in which case I think things would stay more or less the same — you know, my closest personal relationships, and my responsibility to my family and friends.</p><p>Just that we're in a simulation isn't enough. If all we know is that it's a simulation, kind of the weirdness is that that word "simulation" starts to mean less. Because whatever qualities the real world has and ours doesn't is inconceivable to us. This is still as real as real gets.</p>
Technology of the future is shaped by the questions we ask and the ethical decisions we make today.
- Robots (from the Czech word for laborer) began appearing in science fiction in the early 1900s as metaphors for real world ideas and issues surrounding class struggles, labor, and intelligence. Author Ken MacLeod says that the idea that robots would one day rebel was baked into the narrative from the start. As technologies have advanced, so too have our fears.
- "Science fiction can help us to look at the social consequences, to understand the technologies that are beginning to change our lives," says MacLeod. He argues that while robots in science fiction are a reflection of humanity, they have little to do with our actual machines and are "very little help at all in understanding what the real problems and the real opportunities actually are."
- AI has made the threat of "autonomous killer robots" much more of a possibility today than when Asimov wrote his three laws, but it's the decisions we make now that will determine the future. "None of these developments are inevitable," says MacLeod. "They're all the consequences of human actions, and we can always step back and say, 'Do we really want to do this?'"
Welcome to the 13.8 relaunch, a new Big Think column led by physicists and friends Adam Frank and Marcelo Gleiser.
- 13.8 is relaunching on Big Think today! Visit 13.8 every week to join physicists Adam Frank and Marcelo Gleiser as they tackle the big, serious, silly, and small questions in science.
- What will you learn at 13.8? Adam and Marcelo will look critically at straight-up science news, from life in the universe and cognitive science to particle physics and everything that blows their minds.
- They're also going to spend a lot of ink on where science and culture meet. That means book and movie reviews, pieces on the overlap between Buddhist views on mind and current neuroscience, and how we can tackle climate change in the face of science denial.
Physicists and 13.8 co-founders Adam Frank (left) and Marcelo Gleiser (right).<p>If you are not familiar with 13.8 (and we invite you to take a look at past material <a href="https://bigthink.com/13-8/" target="_blank">here</a>), let us tell you what you can expect from our postings on Big Think. Sometimes we will cover straight-up science news. From life in the universe to the frontiers of cosmology and particle physics, or the latest developments in artificial intelligence and cognitive science, we are going to be exploring the cutting edges of science with a researcher's eye to what's solid, what's silly, and what blows our minds.</p><p>But we are also going to spend a lot of ink, (ok, not ink but electrons) on where science and culture meet. In the weeks that follow you'll find book and movie reviews, as well as pieces on the overlap between Buddhist views on mind and current neuroscience, or how the technology of Triple-A video games (like "The Last of Us II") change the art of storytelling. There will also be a lot about the future of humanity. How can we find a way forward with climate change in the face of such powerful science denial? How concerned should we really be about artificial intelligence? And what about other existential threats to our species?</p><p>We are incredibly excited to be working with Big Think on this next phase of 13.8's journey into science and the human experience. We hope you will join us and our community of followers on this exploration of the boundless frontier.</p>
Clinical trials at the Feinstein Institutes for Medical Research focus on stabilizing cognitive loss and alleviating the psychotic symptoms that change our loved ones.
- Alzheimer's is a neurodegenerative disease that is estimated to affect twice as many Americans by 2050, making it a troubling eventuality for many young adults.
- There's currently no cure for Alzheimer's, but clinical trials of immunotherapy approaches show promise.
- Immunotherapies may also alleviate the psychotic symptoms of Alzheimer's, like agitation, aggression, and paranoia.
What causes Alzheimer’s disease?<p>While the costs of Alzheimer's are clear, its exact causes remain frustratingly mysterious. Currently, there's no cure for the disease, nor treatments that stop its progression.</p><p>"Alzheimer's is this brain problem, and everyone sort of knows what's probably causing the problem, but nobody's been able to do anything about it," said Dr. Jeremy Koppel, a geriatric psychiatrist and co-director of the Litwin-Zucker Alzheimer Research Center.</p><p>But in recent decades, researchers have zeroed in on likely contributors to the disease. The brains of Alzheimer's patients reliably show two abnormalities: build-ups of proteins called abnormal tau and beta-amyloid. As these proteins accumulate in the brain, they disrupt healthy communication between neurons. Over time, neurons get injured and die, and brain tissue shrinks.</p><p>Still, it's unclear exactly how these proteins, or other factors such as <a href="https://feinstein.northwell.edu/news/the-latest/alzheimer-s-drug-cuts-hallmark-inflammation-related-to-metabolic-syndrome-by-25-percent" target="_blank">inflammation</a>, may drive Alzheimer's.</p><p>"We are dealing with very complicated components," said Dr. Philippe Marambaud, a professor at the Feinstein Institutes and co-director of the Litwin-Zucker Alzheimer Research Center. "The actual culprit is not clearly defined. We know there are three possible culprits [tau, beta-amyloid, inflammation]. They're working in concert, or maybe in isolation. We don't know precisely."</p><p>Many Alzheimer's researchers have spent years developing therapies that target beta-amyloid, which can accumulate to form plaques in the brain. The Alzheimer's Association <a href="https://www.alz.org/national/documents/topicsheet_betaamyloid.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">writes</a>:</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"According to the amyloid hypothesis, these stages of beta-amyloid aggregation disrupt cell-to-cell communication and activate immune cells. These immune cells trigger inflammation. Ultimately, the brain cells are destroyed."</p><p>Unfortunately, clinical trials of therapies that target beta-amyloid haven't been effective in treating Alzheimer's.</p>
Anti-tau immunotherapies: The holy grail of Alzheimer’s?<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTUzMzQ5NS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0MDk2Nzg0NH0.8pYVGXtj3bc_qEf2jHkttvLrnli8_w9K8e2rvu72WHU/img.jpg?width=980" id="a287d" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="77cb60062a1b38bfe21f74bdde7add95" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="3873" data-height="3873" />
In brains with Alzheimer's disease, tau proteins lose their structure and form neurofibrillary tangles that block communication between synapses.
Credit: Adobe Stock<p>At the Feinstein Institutes, Dr. Marambaud and his colleagues have been focusing on the lesser-explored Alzheimer's component: abnormal tau.</p><p>In healthy brains, tau plays several important functions, including stabilizing internal <a href="https://www.brightfocus.org/alzheimers-disease/infographic/progression-alzheimers-disease" target="_blank">microtubules</a> in neurons. But in the brains of Alzheimer's patients, a process called phosphorylation changes the structure of tau proteins. This blocks synaptic communication.</p><p>Dr. Marambaud said there are good reasons to think anti-tau therapies may effectively treat Alzheimer's.</p><p>"The main argument around why [anti-tau therapies] could be more beneficial is that we've known for a very long time that tau pathology in the brain of the Alzheimer's patient correlates much better with the disease progression, and the loss of neuronal material in the brain," compared to beta-amyloid, Dr. Marambaud said. </p><p>"The second strong argument is that there are inherited dementias, called tauopathies, which are caused by mutations in the gene coding for the tau protein. So, there is a direct genetic link between dementia and tau pathology."</p><p>To better understand how this protein interacts with Alzheimer's, Dr. Marambaud and his colleagues have been <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30134961/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">developing immunotherapies that target abnormal tau</a>.</p><p>Immunotherapies, such as vaccines, typically target infectious diseases. But it's also possible to use the body's immune system to prevent or treat some non-infectious diseases. Scientists have recently succeeded in treating certain forms of cancer with immunotherapies, for example.</p><p>"We have developed a series of monoclonal antibodies, which are basically the therapeutics that are required when you want to do immunotherapy," Dr. Marambaud said.</p>
Alzheimer’s and psychosis<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTUzMzQ4My9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0NDc5MzUzN30.riUe5nW2qpCqI54cWxLVnpklZoTpOtWoaVCiIOAWHMY/img.jpg?width=980" id="5482a" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ddded1499c8f2e6f446393446981cd0f" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1313" data-height="875" />
Credit: Getty Images<p>When most people think of Alzheimer's, they tend to focus on the erosion of memory. But the darkest effects of the disease are often psychotic symptoms like agitation, aggression and paranoia, according to Dr. Koppel, who, in addition to researching Alzheimer's, spent decades treating Alzheimer's patients as a clinician.</p><p>"My research focus comes out of 20 years of sitting with Alzheimer's families and listening to what the primary issue is," said Dr. Koppel. "It's never memory. It starts out with memory as a diagnostic issue. But the real suffering comes from the changes that happen in the personality and the belief system that make Alzheimer's patients" ostracized or even become violent toward their loved ones.</p><p>At the Feinstein Institutes, Dr. Koppel's research focuses on alleviating Alzheimer's-related psychotic symptoms through anti-tau immunotherapies. </p><p>"It's our hypothesis that abnormal tau proteins in the brain somehow, downstream, impact the way that people think," Dr. Koppel said. "And the impact that it has is this paranoid, agitated, psychotic phenotype."</p><p>Supporting this hypothesis is research on <a href="https://www.northwell.edu/news/insights/what-we-need-to-know-about-cte" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE)</a>, a degenerative disease that involves the accumulation of abnormal tau. CTE, common among professional football players, also causes psychotic symptoms like agitation, aggression and paranoia.</p><p>What's more, <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25151619/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">research shows</a> that as Alzheimer's patients accumulate more abnormal tau in their brains, as measured through cerebrospinal fluid, they exhibit more psychotic symptoms, and are more likely to die sooner than patients with less abnormal tau.</p><p>Given these strong connections between psychosis and abnormal tau, Dr. Koppel and his colleagues hope that anti-tau immunotherapies will alleviate psychosis in Alzheimer's patients, who currently lack safe and effective treatment options and are often given medication that is meant to alleviate psychosis in people with schizophrenia.</p><p>"We are giving medications to Alzheimer's patients that hasten their cognitive decline and lead to bad outcomes, like stroke and sudden death," Dr. Koppel said. "Nonetheless, the schizophrenia medications do treat some of the psychotic symptoms and aggressive behavior related to Alzheimer's disease, and for many families this is crucial. We just don't have many options, and we desperately need more."</p><p>Beyond treating Alzheimer's patients, anti-tau immunotherapies may shed light on other mental illnesses.</p><p>"Alzheimer's may give us a window into what happens in the brain that makes people psychotic," Dr. Koppel said. "Once you have a biologic treatment for psychosis that gets at an underlying pathophysiology, believe me, you could look at schizophrenia in new ways. Maybe it's not going to be tau, but it may be a paradigm for treating mental illness."</p>
The future of Alzheimer’s treatments<p>Dr. Marambaud said the long-term goal of anti-tau immunotherapies is to prevent Alzheimer's. But that's currently impossible because scientists lack the biomarkers and diagnostic tools needed to detect the disease before cognitive symptoms appear. It could take decades before prevention becomes possible, if it ever does.</p><p>In the short term, stabilizing Alzheimer's is a more realistic goal.</p><p>"Our hope is that the treatments will be aggressive enough so that we can at least stabilize the disease in patients identified to be already affected by dementia, with cognitive tests that can be done by the clinicians," Dr. Marambaud said. "And even better, maybe reduce the cognitive impairments."</p><p>Dr. Marambaud said he encourages the public not to lose faith.</p><p>"Be patient. It's a very complicated disease," he said. "A lot of labs are really committed to making a difference. Congress has also realized that this is a huge priority. In the past five years, [National Institutes of Health] funding has increased tremendously. So the scientific field is working very hard. The politicians are behind us in funding this research. And it's a complicated disease. But we will make a difference in the years to come."</p><p>In the meantime, the Alzheimer's Association <a href="https://www.alz.org/alzheimers-dementia/research_progress/prevention" target="_blank">notes</a> that physical activity and a healthy diet can reduce the chances of developing Alzheimer's, though more large-scale studies are needed to better understand how these factors interact with the disease.</p><p>"Many of these lifestyle changes have been shown to lower the risk of other diseases, like heart disease and diabetes, which have been linked to Alzheimer's," the association wrote. "With few drawbacks and plenty of known benefits, healthy lifestyle choices can improve your health and possibly protect your brain."</p>
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