The Simulation Theory Explained In Three Animated Videos

The idea that we are software emanations in a vast, unimaginably complex computer simulation may carry more dizzying philosophical, ethical, and psychological implications than any other metaphysical assumption. It is not, however, quite a new idea, even if machines sophisticated enough to make worlds are only now conceivable. We see ancient sages speculate that solid matter is no more than some sort of graphical (tactile, etc.) user interface originating from the mind of a master coder.

We see a similar idea in the immaterialism of 18th century British empiricist George Berkeley. And where would science fiction be—especially the hallucinatory sci-fi of Philip K. Dick—without varieties of the simulation theory? The TED-Ed lesson on simulation theory, above, by University of Maryland physicist Zohreh Davoudi (animated by Eoin Duffy) opens with a quote from Dick: “This is a cardboard universe, and if you lean too long or too heavily against it, you fall through.”

In Dick’s world, this happens frequently. But if our reality were a simulation, how could we possibly step outside it to confirm? Provable or not, the theory is endlessly compelling. Davoudi walks us through a couple of fascinating scientific attempts to “fall through” by theorizing the evidence we might expect to find if the universe is made of code.

For one thing, there would probably be glitches. To correct for errors, “the simulators could adjust the constants in the laws of nature.” Tiny shifts, perhaps undetectable with current instruments, could signal heuristic revisions. Other theoretical approaches involve using subatomic particles to detect the finite limits of the godlike computer’s power.

Would finding shifts in physical laws prove a simulation. No. And in any case, our entire species could have come and gone before any such shifts have taken place. We cannot presume that humans are the chosen beneficiaries of the simulated universe. Maybe we’re prototypes. Maybe our solar system is someone’s side project. Wouldn’t the simulators notice us figuring it out and prevent us from doing so? (They would, presumably, be watching.)

And why should the great computer have anything resembling the computational limitations of our own machines, Davoudi asks. After all, if it exists outside the universe as we know it and created its physical laws, it’s safe to assume that it exists in a different universe with entirely different laws, which we might never begin to understand. If your mind falls into pools of infinite regress when contemplating the idea—aided by consciousness-raising substances or otherwise—you won’t find anywhere safe to land in the other simulation videos here, from Vox and philosophy YouTube channel Kurzgesagt. But you might begin to see the concept as a little more plausible, and maybe more unsettling, than before.

Elon Musk, for example, drawing on the work of Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom, suggests that the simulators are not extra-dimensional beings (or whatever), but hyper-sophisticated future humans running Sim versions of their past. This version also becomes the philosophical equivalent of mise en abyme as ancestor simulations, run on other planets, create their own simulations, ship them offworld, and so forth....

You can go as far down this rabbit hole as you like. Or, you can do as Samuel Johnson supposedly did when he heard Bishop Berkeley claim that matter didn’t exist. Kick the nearest heavy object and shout, “I refute it thus!”

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness.

An Animated Michael Sandel Explains How Meritocracy Degrades Our Democracy

Imagine if governments and institutions took their policy directives straight from George Orwell’s 1984 or Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal.” We might veer distressingly close to many a literary dystopia in these times, with duckspeak taking over all the discourse. But some lines—bans on thinking or non-procreative sex, or seriously proposing to eat babies—have not yet been crossed.

When it comes, however, to meritocracy—a term that originated in a 1958 satirical dystopian novel by British sociologist Michael Young—it can seem as if the political class had taken fiction as manifesto. Young himself wrote in 2001, “much that was predicted has already come about. It is highly unlikely the prime minister has read the book, but he has caught on to the word without realizing the dangers of what he is advocating.”

In Young's historical analysis, what began as an allegedly democratic impulse, a means of breaking up hereditary castes, became itself a way to solidify and entrench a ruling hierarchy. “The new class has the means at hand,” wrote Young, “and largely under its control, by which it reproduces itself.” (Wealthy people bribing their children's way into elite institutions comes to mind.) Equal opportunity for those who work hard and play by the rules doesn’t actually obtain in the real world, meritocracy's critics demonstrate—prominent among them the man who coined the term “meritocracy.”

One problem, as Harvard’s Michael Sandel frames it in the short RSA animated video above, is an ancient one, characterized by a very ancient word. “Meritocratic hubris,” he says, “the tendency of winners to inhale too deeply of their success,” causes them to “forget the luck and good fortune that helped them on their way.” Accidents of birth are ignored in a hyper-individualist ideology that insists on narcissistic notions of self-made people and a just world (for them).

“The smug conviction that those on the top deserve their fate” comes with its inevitable corollary—“those on the bottom deserve theirs too,” no matter the historical, political, and economic circumstances beyond their control, and no matter how hard they might work or how talented they may be. Meritocracy obviates the idea, Sandel says, that “there but for the grace of God or accidents of fortune go I,” which promoted a healthy degree of humility and an acceptance of life's contingency.

Sandel sees meritocratic attitudes as corrosive to democracy, describing their effects in his upcoming book The Tyranny of Merit. Yale Law Professor Daniel Markovits, another ivy league academic and heir to Michael Young's critique, has also just released a book (The Meritocracy Trap) decrying meritocracy. He describes the system as a “trap” in which “upward mobility has become a fantasy, and the embattled middle classes are now more likely to sink into the working poor than to rise into the professional elite.”

Markovitz, who holds two degrees from Yale and a doctorate from Oxford, admits at The Atlantic that most of his students “unnervingly resemble my younger self: They are, overwhelmingly, products of professional parents and high-class universities.” Once an advocate of the idea of meritocracy as a democratic force, he now argues that its promises “exclude everyone outside of a narrow elite…. Hardworking outsiders no longer enjoy genuine opportunity.”

According to Michael Young, meritocracy’s tireless first critic and theorist (he adapted his satire from his 1955 dissertation), “those judged to have merit of a particular kind,” whether they truly have it or not, always had the potential, as he wrote in The Guardian, to “harden into a new social class without room in it for others.” A class that further dispossessed and disempowered those viewed as losers in the endless rounds of competition for social worth.

Young died in 2002. We can only imagine what he would have made of the exponential extremes of inequality in 2019. A utopian socialist and tireless educator, he also became an MP in the House of Lords and a baron in 1978. Perhaps his new position gave him further vantage to see how “with the coming of the meritocracy, the now leaderless masses were partially disfranchised; a time has gone by, more and more of them have been disengaged, and disaffected to the extent of not even bothering to vote. They no longer have their own people to represent them.”

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

What Would Michel Foucault Think of Social Media, Fake News & Our Post Truth World?

During the late 70s, Michel Foucault gave a series of lectures at the College de France in which he defined the concept of biopolitics, an idea Rachel Adams calls “political rationality which takes the administration of life and populations as its subject.” These ideas have come to have even more resonance in the spread of biometric identification systems and militarized population control policies.

Foucault begins his lecture series on biopolitics with an account of the birth of Neoliberalism, the engineered privatization of public goods and services and the concentration of capital and power into the hands of a few. “Everything I do,” he once said, “I do in order that it might be of use.” What would he have to say about the current situation? asks the BBC video above, a political landscape permeated by fake news, accusations of fake news, and the general admission that we are now "post truth"?

In some sense, Foucault, argued, we have always lived in such a world—not one in which real news and actual truth did not exist, but in which we are conditioned through language to adopt ideological perspectives that may have little to do with fact. What counts as knowledge, Foucault showed, gets authenticated to serve the interests of power. Later in his career, he saw more space for resistance and self-transformation emerge in power relations—and he would have seen such spaces in social media too, the video claims.

After his infamous acid trip in Death Valley, Foucault reportedly (and self-reportedly) returned a changed man, with a much less gloomy, claustrophobic outlook. The earlier Foucault may have emphasized the totalizing mechanisms of surveillance and control in social media, perhaps to the exclusion of any potential for liberation. The video doesn’t make these distinctions between early and late or give us much in the way of a history of his thought, though it acknowledges how critically important history was to Foucault himself.

We can’t know that he would say any of the things attributed to him here. He was a contrarian thinker, who “didn’t believe in all-embracing theories to explain the world,” the narrator admits. Perhaps he would have seen social media as technical elaboration of biopower: harvesting personal data, tracking everyone’s location, getting us all to watch each other. Or as a version of Jeremy Bentham's panopticon, in which we never know when someone's watching us, so we internalize the control system. These are some of the prisons, Foucault might say, that appear under regimes of “security, territory, population.”

The video features Angie Hobbs, Professor of Public Understanding of Philosophy at the University of Sheffield.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Yale Presents an Archive of 170,000 Photographs Documenting the Great Depression

dorothea lange

During the Great Depression, The Farm Security Administration—Office of War Information (FSA-OWI) hired photographers to travel across America to document the poverty that gripped the nation, hoping to build support for New Deal programs being championed by F.D.R.'s administration.

Legendary photographers like Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, and Arthur Rothstein took part in what amounted to the largest photography project ever sponsored by the federal government. All told, 170,000 photographs were taken, then catalogued back in Washington DC. The Library of Congress became their eventual resting place.

walker evans

We first mentioned this historic project back in 2012, when the New York Public Library put a relatively small sampling of these images online. But now we have bigger news.

Yale University has launched Photogrammar, a sophisticated web-based platform for organizing, searching, and visualizing these 170,000 historic photographs.

arthur rothstein

The Photogrammar platform gives you the ability to search through the images by photographer. Do a search for Dorothea Lange's photographs, and you get over 3200 images, including the now iconic photograph at the bottom of this post.

Photogrammar also offers a handy interactive map that lets you gather geographical information about 90,000 photographs in the collection.

And then there's a section called Photogrammar Labs where innovative visualization techniques and data experiments will gradually shed new light on the image archive.

According to Yale, the Photogrammar project was funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). Directed by Laura Wexler, the project was undertaken by Yale’’s Public Humanities Program and its Photographic Memory Workshop.

rothstein 3
Top image: A migrant agricultural worker in Marysville migrant camp, trying to figure out his year's earnings. Taken in California in 1935 by Dorothea Lange.

Second image: Allie Mae Burroughs, wife of cotton sharecropper. Photo taken in Hale County, Alabama in 1935 by Walker Evans.

Third image: Wife and children of sharecropper in Washington County, Arkansas. By Arthur Rothstein. 1935.

Fourth image: Wife of Negro sharecropper, Lee County, Mississippi. Again taken by Arthur Rothstein in 1935.

Bottom image: Destitute pea pickers in California. Mother of seven children. Age thirty-two. Taken by Dorothea Lange in Nipomo, California, 1936.

lange bottom

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Note: An earlier version of this post appeared on our site in 2014.

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A Short Animated Introduction to Hypatia, Ancient Alexandria’s Great Female Philosopher

Ten years ago, a film came out called Agora, a biopic of philosopher and mathematician Hypatia of Alexandria, daughter of mathematician Theon, the last recorded director of the Library of Alexandria. The movie wasn’t well-reviewed or widely seen, which is neither here nor there, but it was heavily criticized for historical inaccuracies. This seemed a little silly. “One does not go to the movies to learn about ancient history but to be entertained,” as Joshua J. Mark writes at the Ancient History Encyclopedia. Agora is not an accurate rendering of the little we know of Hypatia, but neither is Spartacus, a far more entertaining film, an accurate depiction of the 2nd century B.C.E. gladiator and rebel.

And yet, we should know who Hypatia was, and we should understand what happened to her, something many of the film’s religiously-motivated critics refused to admit, claiming that the depiction of hostile, anti-intellectual Christians in the movie was nothing more than prejudicial animus on the part of director Alejandro Amenabar. The truth is that “the anti-intellectual stance of the early church is attested to by early Christian writers,” Mark points out. And “the historical records state” that Hypatia “was beaten and flayed to death by a mob of Christian monks who then burned her in a church.”

The TED-Ed video above calls this mob a “militia” who saw Hypatia’s scientific pursuits as “witchcraft.” The charge is, of course, specifically gendered. The manner of her death was so brutal and shocking that “even those Christian writers who were hostile to her and claimed she was a witch,” Mark writes, “are generally sympathetic in recording her death as a tragedy. These accounts routinely depict Hypatia as a woman who was widely known for her generosity, love of learning, and expertise in teaching in the subjects of Neo-Platonism, mathematics, science, and philosophy.”

As is the case with many ancient figures, none of her own writings survive, but both her contemporary critics and sympathetic students record similar impressions of her intellectual curiosity and scientific knowledge. The short video lesson tells us Hypatia was born around 355 A.C.E., which means she would have been around sixty years old at the time of her death. She lived in Alexandria, “then part of the Egyptian province of the Eastern Roman Empire, and an intellectual center.” Educated by her father, she surpassed him “in both mathematics and philosophy, becoming the city’s foremost scholar.”

She eventually succeeded Theon as head of the Platonic school, “similar to a modern university,” and she served as a trusted advisor to the city’s leaders, including its governor, Orestes, a “moderate Christian” himself. Her achievements were many, but her teaching, drawing on Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, and Pythagoras, was her greatest legacy, the TED-Ed lesson (scripted by Soraya Field Fiorio) asserts. Hypatia’s death not only deprived the city of a beloved teacher and scholar. Her murder, at the behest of Alexandrian bishop Cyril, “was a turning point.” Other philosophers fled the city, and Alexandria’s “role as a center of learning declined.”

“In a very real way,” the lesson tells us, “the spirit of inquisition, openness, and fairness she fostered died with her.”

For a more complete treatment of Hypatia's life and intellectual contributions, read Maria Dzielska's book, Hypatia of Alexandria.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Philosopher Portraits: Famous Philosophers Painted in the Style of Influential Artists

Ludwig Wittgenstein/Piet Mondrian:

Ludwig Wittgenstein & Piet Mondrian

What do the Austrian-British philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein and the Dutch painter Piet Mondrian have in common? For philosopher and artist Renée Jorgensen Bolinger, the two have similar beliefs about the logic of space.

"Many of Mondrian's pieces explore the relationships between adjacent spaces," says Bolinger "and in particular the formative role of each on the boundaries and possibilities of the other. I based this painting [see above] off of Wittgenstein's Tractatus, in which he develops a theory of meaning grounded in the idea that propositions have meaning only insofar as they constrain the ways the world could be; a meaningful proposition is thus very like one of Mondrian's color squares, forming a boundary and limiting the possible configurations of the adjacent spaces."

An Assistant Professor at Princeton, Bolinger studied painting a Biola University before making philosophy her second major. "I actually came to philosophy quite late in my college career," Bolinger says, "only adding the major in my junior year. I was fortunate to have two particularly excellent and philosophic art teachers, Jonathan Puls and Jonathan Anderson, who convinced me that my two passions were not mutually exclusive, and encouraged me to pursue both as I began my graduate education."

Bolinger now works primarily on the philosophy of language, with side interests in logic, epistemology, mind and political philosophy. She continues to paint. We asked her how she reconciles her two passions, which seem to occupy opposite sides of the mind. "I do work in analytic philosophy," she says, "but it's only half true that philosophy and painting engage opposite sides of the mind. The sort of realist drawing and painting that I do is all about analyzing the relationships between the lines, shapes and color tones, and so still very left-brain. Nevertheless, it engages the mind in a different way than do the syllogisms of analytic philosophy. I find that the two types of mental exertion complement each other well, each serving as a productive break from the other."

Bolinger has created a series of philosopher portraits, each one pairing a philosopher with an artist, or art style, in an intriguing way. In addition to Wittgenstein, she painted ten philosophers in her first series, many of them by request. They can all be seen on her web site, where high quality prints can be ordered.

G.E.M. Anscombe/Jackson Pollock:

G.E.M. Anscombe & Jackson Pollock

Bolinger says she paired the British analytic philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe with the American abstract painter Jackson Pollock for two reasons: "First, the loose style of Pollock's action painting fits the argumentative (and organizational) style of Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations, which Anscombe helped to edit and was instrumental in publishing. Second, her primary field of work, in which she wrote a seminal text, is philosophy of action, which has obvious connections to the themes present in any of Pollock's action paintings."

Gottlob Frege/Vincent Van Gogh:

Gottlob Frege & Van Gogh

Bolinger paired the German logician, mathematician and philosopher Gottlob Frege with the Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh as a tongue-in-cheek reference to Van Gogh's famous painting The Starry Night and Frege's puzzle concerning identity statements such as "Hesperus is Phosphorus," or "the evening star is identical to the morning star."

Bertrand Russell/Art Deco:

Bertrand Russell & Art Deco

Bolinger painted the British logician and philosopher Bertrand Russell in the Art Deco style. "This pairing is a bit more about the gestalt, and a bit harder to articulate," says Bolinger. "The simplification of form and reduction to angled planes that takes place in the background of this Art Deco piece are meant to cohere with Russell's locial atomism (the reduction of complex logical propositions to their fundamental logical 'atoms')."

Kurt Gödel/Art Nouveau:

Kurt Godel & Art Nouveau

Bolinger paired the Austrian logician Kurt Gödel with Art Nouveau. "The Art Nouveau movement developed around the theme of mechanization and the repetition of forms," says Bolinger, "and centrally involves a delicate balance between organic shapes -- typically a figure that dominates the portrait -- and schematized or abstracted patterns, often derived from organic shapes, but made uniform and repetitive (often seen in the flower motifs that ornament most Art Nouveau portraits). I paired this style with Kurt Gödel because his work was dedicated to defining computability in terms of recursive functions, and using the notion to prove the Completeness and Incompleteness theorems."

To see more of Renée Jorgensen Bolinger's philosopher portraits, click here to visit her site.

Note: This post originally appeared on our site back in 2013.

Would you like to support the mission of Open Culture? Please consider making a donation to our site. It's hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us continue providing the best free cultural and educational materials to learners everywhere.

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The Unexpected Ways Eastern Philosophy Can Make Us Wiser, More Compassionate & Better Able to Appreciate Our Lives

I feel compelled to start this post with a disclaimer: do not take the eight-and-a-half-minute video above, "Six Ideas from Eastern Philosophy" from Alain de Botton’s School of Life series, as an authoritative statement on Eastern Philosophy.

Not that you would, or that de Botton makes such a claim, but in an age of uncritical overconsumption, infinite scrolling, and individually-wrapped explainers, it seems worth the reminder. No tradition—and certainly not one as incalculably rich, deep, and ancient as the schools of thought summed up as “Eastern Philosophy”—can be paraphrased in an animated list.

Think of “Six Ideas from Eastern Philosophy” as a teaser. If you’ve resigned yourself to the fact that suffering is ever-present and universal—the first idea on de Botton’s list and the Buddha’s first Noble Truth—you might love… or make a good faith effort to appreciate… The Middle Length Discourses, the Shobogenzo, the poetry and songs of Han Shan and Milarepa, or the thousands of translations, commentaries, adaptations, and etcetera about them.

But the video isn't about famous texts. The logocentric characterization of philosophy as only writing persists, despite its serious limitations. In many Eastern traditions, writing and study are only one part of complex religious practices. The first two ideas on de Botton’s list come from early Indian Buddhism; the third from Chinese Chan Buddhism, the fourth and fifth are Daoist concepts; and the sixth, kintsugi, comes from Japanese Zen.

De Botton’s title is misleading. As he goes on to show, in brief, but with vivid examples and comparisons, these are not “ideas” in the broadly Platonic sense of pure abstractions but formalized ways of being with others and being alone, of being with objects and natural formations that embody ethical ideals of balance, equanimity, contentment, kindness, care, and deep appreciation for art and nature, with all their imperfections and disappointments.

Can we make much sense of the adoration of the bodhisattva Guanyin (whom de Botton compares to the Virgin Mary) if we never visit one of her temples or call for her compassionate aid? Can we study the subtleties of bamboo without bamboo? Can we grasp the Four Noble Truths if we can’t sit still long enough for serious self-reflection? Sometimes the practices, landscapes, and iconographies of Eastern philosophy do not seem separable from ideas about them.

If there’s a bow to tie on de Botton’s summary, maybe it’s this: from these Buddhist and Daoist perspectives, the endless bifurcations of Western thought are illusory. Pain, imperfection, and uncertainly are inevitable and not to be feared but compassionately accepted. And philosophy is something that happens in the body and mind together, an idea certainly not alien to the walking thinkers of the West.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him

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