Doug Bonderud

Jul 14th 2020

Is Our Entire Universe Just a Simulated Reality?


Are we living in a computer simulation? Is everything in our universe — from the smallest atom to the largest galaxy — nothing more than a computer science project on some omnipotent being’s hard drive? At first glance, the notion of simulated reality seems ludicrous, but consider advances humankind has already made in computer gaming, virtual reality and robotics. Are we inadvertently strengthening the case for simulation theory?

The Simulation Argument

Also called the simulation hypothesis, the argument here is simple: All reality is actually an artificial simulation, most likely one run by an advanced supercomputer.

In just a few short decades, innovators have developed devices with the capacity to learn and mimic many basic characteristics of human intelligence. If computing power continues to increase along its existing trajectory, it’s possible future humans (or other intelligent life) could easily create a universe simulation.

Support for Simulation Theory

Several well-known scientists and pioneers have expressed their support for simulation theory. As noted by Scientific American, during the 2016 Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate, scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson said the odds of our universe as simulated reality were 50-50. He pointed to the large intelligence gap between chimpanzees and humans despite our 98 percent DNA overlap, arguing that a creature many times our intelligence could both exist and potentially run simulations.

Other arguments for simulation theory come from philosopher Nick Bostrum and theoretical physicist James Gates. In 2003, Bostrum suggested that advanced civilizations with massive computing power might decide to run simulations of their ancestors — us — and, given the sophistication of the technology, we wouldn’t know that we’re nothing more than computer programs. Gates, meanwhile, found “error-correcting codes” — similar in principle to those used in Web browsers — while studying equations about electrons and quarks, said Scientific American. Even more concerning if you’re worried about a universe simulation? It’s almost impossible to prove we’re in a real universe because any “evidence” could be part of the program.

Evidence of a “Real” Existence?

Despite solid philosophical and theoretical arguments, a team from Oxford University has found reasonably solid evidence that our universe is more than a mobile application. The proof? Attempting to model specific quantum phenomena such as the Hall effect quickly gets out of hand — according to Cosmos, modeling just a few hundred electrons using the quantum Monte Carlo technique requires more atoms than exist in the universe. As noted by Fast Company, storing just 20 spins of one particle using this model would require one terabyte of RAM.

The Nature of Reality

So what happens if we’re living in a simulation? Some experts theorize that as the program continues to run, problems will emerge — glitches in the matrix, so to speak. Consider the 2017 Oscars gaffe, when old-Hollywood musical “La La Land” was mistakenly given the award for best picture. Cast and crew arrived on stage to deliver their speeches while chaos ensued behind the scenes, culminating in a mea culpa that announced the real winner: “Moonlight.”

What does this say about simulation theory? According to The New Yorker, some philosophers — such as David Chalmers of NYU — suggest that increasingly bizarre events in the “real” world may be evidence that our universe is someone else’s simulation. Beyond universe simulation, these events may represent divergent “points” in reality; in another universe the mix-up didn’t happen. In another reality, “La La Landactually won.

Every choice, no matter how minuscule, could create its own universe. Another option is multiverse theory, where our universe is just one of many with its own set of physical laws and properties. And what’s more simulation-like than running multiple instances of something to see which one works best?

Mind Over Matter

From the standpoint of human existence and the quest for a greater understanding of the universe, this simulation debate is largely academic. We’re still seemingly gifted with free will, have the power to investigate our own reality and discover what (if any) fundamental scientific truths emerge. If we’re nothing but a simulation, the outcome of our efforts may change but this doesn’t lessen their impact.

Is This Real Life? Is This Just Fantasy?

Maybe Queen asked the right question in “Bohemian Rhapsody” — is life just fantasy? While strange happenings and the oddly ordered nature of fundamental mathematics points to the possibility of a computer-generated existence, recent quantum research suggests a universe too complex for simulation.