Is Our Universe Fake (a “Whole-World Simulation)? – Scientists Answer

Written by on September 14, 2016 in Earth & Space, Sci-Tech with 17 Comments

Credit: NASA, ESA, H. Teplitz, M. Rafelski (IPAC/Caltech), A. Koekemoer (STScI), R. Windhorst (Arizona State University), and Z. Levay (STScI)

By Robert Lawrence Kuhn |

I began bemused. The notion that humanity might be living in an artificial reality — a simulated universe — seemed sophomoric, at best science fiction.

But speaking with scientists and philosophers on “Closer to Truth,” I realized that the notion that everything humans see and know is a gigantic computer game of sorts, the creation of supersmart hackers existing somewhere else, is not a joke. Exploring a “whole-world simulation,” I discovered, is a deep probe of reality.

David Brin, sci-fi writer and space scientist, relates the Chinese parable of an emperor dreaming that he was a butterfly dreaming that he was an emperor. In contemporary versions, Brin said, it may be the year 2050 and people are living in a computer simulation of what life was like in the early 21st century — or it may be billions of years from now, and people are in a simulation of what primitive planets and people were once like.

Philosopher Nick Bostrom, director of the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University, describes a fake universe as a “richly detailed software simulation of people, including their historical predecessors, by a very technologically advanced civilization.”

It’s like the movie “The Matrix,” Bostrom said, except that “instead of having brains in vats that are fed by sensory inputs from a simulator, the brains themselves would also be part of the simulation. It would be one big computer program simulating everything, including human brains down to neurons and synapses.”

Bostrum is not saying that humanity is living in such a simulation. Rather, his “Simulation Argument” seeks to show that one of three possible scenarios must be true (assuming there are other intelligent civilizations):

  1. All civilizations become extinct before becoming technologically mature;
  2. All technologically mature civilizations lose interest in creating simulations;
  3. Humanity is literally living in a computer simulation.

His point is that all cosmic civilizations either disappear (e.g., destroy themselves) before becoming technologically capable, or all decide not to generate whole-world simulations (e.g., decide such creations are not ethical, or get bored with them). The operative word is “all” — because if even one civilization anywhere in the cosmos could generate such simulations, then simulated worlds would multiply rapidly and almost certainly humanity would be in one.

As technology visionary Ray Kurzweil put it, “maybe our whole universe is a science experiment of some junior high school student in another universe.” (Given how things are going, he jokes, she may not get a good grade.)

Kurzweil’s worldview is based on the profound implications of what happens over time when computing power grows exponentially. To Kurzweil, a precise simulation is not meaningfully different from real reality. Corroborating the evidence that this universe runs on a computer, he says, is that “physical laws are sets of computational processes” and “information is constantly changing, being manipulated, running on some computational substrate.” And that would mean, he concluded, “the universe is a computer.” Kurzweil said he considers himself to be a “pattern of information.”

“I’m a patternist,” he said. “I think patterns, which means that information is the fundamental reality.”

How could people know?

If people are in a whole-world simulation, how could they know it? Brin suggests a “back door” in the simulation program that would enable the alleged programmers to control people (much like countries accuse each other of installing “back doors” in code to conduct espionage).

“If we are living in a simulation, then everything is software, including every atom in our bodies,” Brin said, “and there may be ‘back doors’ that the programmers left ajar.”

I asked Marvin Minsky, a legendary founder of artificial intelligence, to distinguish among three kinds of simulations: (i) brains in vats, (ii) universal simulation as pure software and (iii) universal simulation as real physical stuff.

“It would be very hard to distinguish among those,” Minsky said, “unless the programmer has made some slips — if you notice that some laws of physics aren’t quite right, if you find rounding-off errors, you might sense some of the grain of the computer showing through.”

If that were the case, he says, it would mean that the universe is easier to understand than scientists had imagined, and that they might even find ways to change it.

The thought that this level of reality might not be ultimate reality can be unsettling, but not to Minsky: “Wouldn’t it be nice to know that we are part of a larger reality?” [Incredible Technology: How Future Space Missions May Hunt for Alien Planets]

For a reality check, I visited Martin Rees, U.K. Astronomer Royal, a bold visionary and hard-nosed realist.

“Well, it’s a bit flaky, but a fascinating idea,” he said. “The real question is what are the limits of computing powers.”

Astronomers are already doing simulations of parts of universes. “We can’t do experiments on stars and galaxies,” Rees explained, “but we can have a virtual universe in our computer, and calculate what happens if you crash galaxies together, evolve stars, etc. So, because we can simulate some cosmic features in a gross sense, we have to ask, ‘As computers become vastly more powerful, what more could we simulate?’

“It’s not crazy to believe that some time in the far future,” he said, “there could be computers which could simulate a fairly large fraction of a world.”

A prime assumption of all simulation theories is that consciousness — the inner sense of awareness, like the sound of Gershwin or the smell of garlic — can be simulated; in other words, that a replication of the complete physical states of the brain will yield, ipso facto, the complete mental states of the mind. (This direct correspondence usually assumes, unknowingly, the veracity of what’s known in philosophy of mind as “identity theory,” one among many competing theories seeking to solve the intractable “mind-body problem”.) Such a brain-only mechanism to account for consciousness, required for whole-world simulations and promulgated by physicalists, is to me not obvious.

I asked Rees whether human-level consciousness and self-consciousness can be simulated.

“That may be the kind of question that would demand a superhuman intelligence to answer,” which, he adds, “could be forever beyond our capacity.”

Physicist Paul Davies has a different take. He uses simulation theory to tease out possible contradictions in the multiple universe (multiverse) theory, which is his countercultural challenge to today’s mainstream cosmology.

“If you take seriously the theory of all possible universes, including all possible variations,” Davies said, “at least some of them must have intelligent civilizations with enough computing power to simulate entire fake worlds. Simulated universes are much cheaper to make than the real thing, and so the number of fake universes would proliferate and vastly outnumber the real ones. And assuming we’re just typical observers, then we’re overwhelmingly likely to find ourselves in a fake universe, not a real one.”

So far it’s the normal argument.

Then Davies makes his move. He claims that because the theoretical existence of multiple universes is based on the laws of physics in our universe, if this universe is simulated, then its laws of physics are also simulated, which would mean that this universe’s physics is a fake. Therefore, Davies reasoned, “We cannot use the argument that the physics in our universe leads to multiple universes, because it also leads to a fake universe with fake physics.” That undermines the whole argument that fundamental physics generates multiple universes, because the reasoning collapses in circularity.

Davies concluded, “While multiple universes seem almost inevitable given our understanding of the Big Bang, using them to explain all existence is a dangerous, slippery slope, leading to apparently absurd conclusions.”


About the Author

Robert Lawrence Kuhn is the creator, writer and host of “Closer to Truth,” a public television and multimedia program that features the world’s leading thinkers exploring humanity’s deepest questions. Kuhn is co-editor, with John Leslie, of “The Mystery of Existence: Why Is There Anything at All?” (Wiley-Blackwell, 2013). This article is based on a “Closer to Truth” episode produced and directed by Peter Getzels. Kuhn contributed this article to’s Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

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  1.' Vicki Macoubrie says:

    Better get real it isn’t a game

  2.' Steve Winnicki says:

    Yawn…it’s called infinity… Space is infinite… Therefore possibilities contained within are infinite…yes this reality you think you believe and perceive may just be you on another planet or in another dimension …

  3.' June Davis Fish says:

    It seems to me this may be true, when you consider two people can have such a different perspective of the same situation. Each person creates and lives in their own world, as they see it. Which world is the “real” world?

  4.' Ken Armstrong says:

    someone’s been watching too much Matrix…

  5.' Tashan J Punch says:

    The only thing that stops us from reaching our full potential is doubt

  6.' Hana Viktoria Fogl says:

    Can we move beyond this stipulation already?

  7.' Jurgen Knorr says:

    i think we have just a little bit of evidence to prove otherwise. this is truly a stupid theory along with gods

  8.' Thomas Chenhall says:

    Reconstructing Spacetime Curvature

    Through my investigations into the hyper dimensional applications of the bell curve, I have found what I call Pascalloids are parallel yet different from Absolute Pascalloids, where decimals extend out in a field from a solid cluster of whole numbers into gradually decreasing decimals in all directions. These decimals very significantly emulate a field, but result only when absolute value is taken as a precursor operation at any point where a factorial (!) takes place.

    Now for a model. We have Einsteins great dimensionally reduced model of Spacetime as an elastic surface. However, this does not account for Gravity as a repulsive force at great distances in any way. So what’s the next model?

    Take a cylindrical swimming pool and fill it up with water. Put the elastic surface adjacent to the surface of the water. Get the air bubbles out. This is still a dimensionally reduced model of Spacetime, but now, when a mass like a bowling ball is placed on the elastic sealed over the swimming pool, though it creates a gravity well that could bring golf-balls into orbit around it (simulating attractive gravity), yet there is a displacement of water from this. Both the displacements of water from the mass of the bowling ball and the masses of the golf balls will cause water at the periphery of the system to bulge upwards to handle the displacements of water. This bulge around the periphery of the system sets up the topology of Spacetime for repulsive effect at a great distance away from the system (depending on the size of the modeled “swimming pool”).

    I reached this conclusion not long after college. Years ago I fact. I just don’t know how to handle the equations of General Relativity correctly in order to account for this “peripheral displacement”.

    Back to the numeric structures I call Pascalloids. Primarily these structures are finite, 2, 3 or 4 dimensional, and when applying absolute values the shapes have a lattice of decimal values surrounding it extending to infinity as they decrease, much like a field.

    If we take the whole number values as the concrete matter of the heavenly body, then the numeric field lattice can represent the action-at-a-distance field. However at no point will these decimals less than one become negative numbers, at no point can they create a repulsion force.

    So the model is adjusted… Firstly these decimal values decrease at a rate that is compatible with the bell curve, and only partially aligns with 1/r^2 (the decay rate of a typical field inversely proportional to the square of radius from its source). However this known simplification only models gravity as from a single point in space.

    The whole-number structure of a Pascalloid already contains (3d/4d) a bell curve that is closer to the actual curvature of space within what in Newtonian gravity is just a point of mass, however there are problems.

    If the goal is to find the appropriate field decay rate, then it actually does depend on what geometry of field source we examine.

    The source of the repulsion force of gravity at great distances can then be remodeled. In any holographic informational space, there is a computational limit to how far the tiny decimals can extend – the edge of the spreadsheet – the virtual edge of a Spacetime field.

    If we take the field values for our decimals at this critical distance (the holographic field-edge) and set them equal to zero with a tiny subtraction, this tiny subtraction applies within the entire finite field area. Everywhere outside the finite field, the same tiny subtraction is implied, sending the tiny decimals to negative value.

    It’s about the sign of this subtraction. The tiny decimals of positive value represent a curved Spacetime. Where they go to zero, there is no longer attractive force. Beyond that distance, the tiny displacement sends the decimals to negative value, creating a tiny repulsion force.

  9.' Stacy Pereira says:

    Nicole McGlashan Wow. Just wow.

  10.' Stacy Pereira says:

    Michael Pereira

  11.' Nicole McGlashan says:

    Stacy Pereira why the matrix is hands down one of my fav movies x

  12.' Erik Albert says:

    Your brain allows you to think anything you want. It constantly tries to make sense of your shared reality, by interpreting it through language. However, the universe, and nature as a consequence, go beyond language. The universe is a superlayer. Your essence, through energy, is a direct result of this superlayer.

    Describing the universe becomes utterly unnecessary, when perceiving absolute essence. In other words, you can define models, for analizing purposes. but a model, as accurate as it may be, lacks the fundamental essence for it go and trigger a universe by itself.

    When using your brain just to analize, it stops creating, because it avoids purpose, on purpose. You can only create, when you tap into the absolute essence of energy, where creating becomes your purpose.

  13.' Lead Robster Von Goldsmith says:

    Holographic yes…fake? Nah

  14.' Kim Rice says:

    I like considering such possibilities but caution you not to reveal this hypothesis to the GOP. Their ‘I hate science’ heads would explode.

  15.' Jester Maya says:

    I think it is science’s way of restating what mystics have always said. Reality is an illusion, Maya, a dream. Science restates it as the holographic universe. All labels that imply the same thing.

  16.' Zach Mckinney says:

    Between the Higgs field and Schrödingers cat and the double slit experiment, it’s hard to imagine anything being there without an observer.
    I mean aren’t the top quantom mechanic scientists in agreement that on a fundamental level are universe is composed programming of ones and zeros?
    It’s an electric universe

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