Skip to main content

Are We All Just Part of a Computer Simulation?

What if everything -- all of us, the world, the universe -- was not real? What if everything we are, know and do was really just someone's computer simulation?

Image credit: 
Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

The notion that our reality was some kid on a couch in the far future playing with a computer game like a gigantic Sim City, or Civilization, and we are his characters, isn't new. But a group of physicists now thinks they know of a way to test the concept. Three of them propose to test reality by simulating the simulators.
Martin Savage, professor of physics at the University of Washington, Zohreh Davoudi, one of his graduate students, and Silas Beane of the University of New Hampshire, would like to see whether they can find traces of simulation in cosmic rays. The work was uploaded in arXiv, an online archive for drafts of academic research papers. 
The notion that reality is something other than we think it is goes far back in philosophy, including Plato and his Parable of the Cave, which claimed reality was merely shadows of real objects on a cave wall. Sixteenth-century philosopher-mathematician René Descartes thought he proved reality with his famous "I think, therefore, I am," which proposed that he was real and his thoughts had a reality.
Then, in 2003, a British philosopher, Nick Bostrom of the University of Oxford, published a paper that had the philosophy and computer science departments buzzing.
Bostrom suggested three possibilities: "The chances that a species at our current level of development can avoid going extinct before becoming technologically mature is negligibly small," "almost no technologically mature civilizations are interested in running computer simulations of minds like ours,” or we are "almost certainly" a simulation.
All three could be equally possible, he wrote, but if the first two are false, the third must be true. "There will be an astronomically huge number of simulated minds like ours," Bostrom wrote.
His suggestion was that our descendants, far in the future, would have the computer capacity to run simulations that complex, and that there might be millions of simulations, and millions of virtual universes with billions of simulated brains in them.
Bostrom's paper came out four years after the popular film, "The Matrix," in which humans discover they were simulations run by malevolent machines. The popularity of the film possibly contributed to the attention to Bostrom’s paper received at the time, but nothing came of it.
"He put it together in clear terms and came out with probabilities of what is likely and what is not," Savage said. "He crystallized it, at least in my mind."
In the movie and in Savage's proposal, the discovery that reality was virtual came when unexpected errors showed up in life, demonstrating imperfections in the simulation.
Savage and his colleagues assume that any future simulators would use some of the same techniques current scientists use to run simulations, with the same constraints. The future simulators, Savage indicated, would map their universe on a mathematical lattice or grid, consisting of points and lines. This would not be an everyday grid but a "hypercube" consisting of four dimensions, three for space, and one to represent points in time.
A present-day example is lattice quantum chromodynamics, which explores the effects of the strong nuclear force, one of the four fundamental forces in the universe, on tiny elementary particles such as quarks and gluons. In this approach, the particles jump from point to point on a grid, without passing through the space between them. The simulations cause time to pass in a similar way, like the frames of film passing through a movie camera, so that the time that passed between frames is not part of the simulation. This style of simulation requires less computer power than treating space and time as a continuum. 
Because Savage and his colleague assume that future simulators will use a similar approach, he suggests looking at the behavior of very high-energy cosmic ray particles to see whether there is a grid in the energy as a start.
"You look at the very highest energy cosmic rays and look for distributions that have symmetry problems, which are not isotropic," or the same in every direction, he said.
"Everything looks like it is on a continuum,” Savage said. "There is no evidence to show that is not the case at the moment."
"We are looking for something to indicate you don't have a space-time continuum."
That disturbance in the force might be a hint that something in reality is amiss. If the cosmic ray energy levels travel along the grid, like following streets in Manhattan or Salt Lake City, it probably is unlikely to be a simulation; if they unexpectedly travel diagonally, reality may be a computer program. 
Jim Kakalios, a physics professor at the University of Minnesota who was not involved in the paper, said a test such as the one Savage suggests may not prove anything. If they don't find the signatures, it doesn't mean we are not a simulation; our descendants could have used a different grid. If they do find something it also could mean “that's the way space-time is and we never noticed before,” he said.
Two other questions arise. One is whether it is conceivable that computers powerful enough to simulate our hugely complex universe ever will exist. If so, it likely will be very far in the future. 
The second question is linked: Will it ever be possible to simulate human consciousness? After all, we run around thinking and feeling.
"Ultimately, the paper glides over the most interesting point: assume we have infinite computing power and we can create this hypercube," Kakalios said. "They assume [the simulators] would know how to simulate human consciousness."
We are aware of ourselves, he said, aware of our bodies, aware of what is outside of our bodies, he said. Human consciousness is almost indescribably complex.
For generations, science fiction books -- and some science books -- have hypothesized inserting our consciousness into computers so that we essentially live forever. In Caprica, a prequel to the television program Battlestar Galactica, a girl's consciousness is preserved in a computer and it becomes the basis for the evil cyborgs.
"We don't understand consciousness,” Kakalios said. "Neuroscience is where physics was before quantum mechanics."
"It's a more interesting problem than whether you can simulate protons and quarks."
Either way, however, Kakalios said the experiments on cosmic rays are the kind scientists should be doing regardless of the simulation issue.


  1. very intersting, i like this article.

  2. There is no way we are living in a simulation! What would the purpose be of running a simulation where 95% of the people in it were mentally defunct? I think the odds are that if this was a simulation the percentage of highly intellectual minds would be higher and most of the general population wouldn't act like sheep!

    1. Unless...the simulation is based upon simple rules. Perhaps the simulation just starts us off with a big bang and then waits to see what happens next. In fact, we've already created an evolving AI. The computer took 100 individual "brains" which had control of a 3D body...the computer program takes the 2 brains that show the most promise and join them to create a new brain. After 20 gens, the 3D bodies could stand up and walk in straight lines. If you really think about it, everything we see is merely our minds creating a kind of virtual reality based on the info our senses gave it. It's all algorithms...information...mathematical equations

    2. Unbearable comment. What you are saying is due to people being mentally lacking this must be the real world, top of the chain, because they would not have such people in a simulation that is supposed to simulate the real world... Why would they not have people that are in the real world, as you claim if these people exist that is proof of the real world, in a simulation that is intended to simulate reality.

  3. But how much easier it would be to run a simulation if the general population WERE sheep, don't you think? Much easier to hide imperfections in the programming.

    1. Or perhaps the imperfections were intended? After all, what better a way to test variables and plan for the unexpected than through a multiplicity of scenarios? Who knows?

  4. It could all be a simulation used by scientists trying to learn more about their ancestors. If this is so, then the program would be self controlled and tun without outside interference. If it were just a simulation created to view how their ancestors lived, and it continued on without any outside variable changes; It could feasibly be a way for them to see the future. With the past programmed in such a way that the present and future carried on without the necessary adding of data, the program could continue past their present day and shopw them what their own future would be. Just a thought.

    1. Maybe you are a rouge simulater from said (reality) and is trying to tell us something, but you would be seen as a lunatic if you told the general public. So maybe you are warning me (because you knew I would read this) that if the Sim. I am in keeps running, something terrible will happen (like say my Sim. surpassing you said ''reality'' and doing something like reading a hole in space and time) or something like that. This would put a lot of responsibility on me.

      But then again if there are infinite numbers of Sims. you are just as lost in a fake reality as I am.

      All just a thought though :-)

    2. What proof is there that this universe was created for us? We could be just a by product., a virus. Why create a whole universe just to make people? Wouldn`t a solar system or even a galaxy be enough?

    3. Dear Anonymous,

      Does it really matter what you think is enough? Cuz for what it's worth, you're just as Real as I am in this simulation and we're both dumbfounded. If there was Proof, we wouldn't be having this conversation right about now.

    4. Very intriguing take on this theory!

  5. Interesting article. I enjoy reading about this topic. So there is a new book that talks about simulated universes running inside simulated universes and how the physical attributes of universes could evolve over time, through a process similar to natural selection. Simulated universes with certain physical traits would tend to survive longer and produce more habitable environments for more advanced civilizations to produce a higher number of simulated universes themselves with an increased amount of those physical traits, and so on. So, over time, there would be a tendency for simulated civilizations to reside in universes with the physics more suitable for life.

  6. Is that why the Buddha refused to discuss the possibility off a god...just told you how to stop the suffering...suffering is caused by attachment to the ego.. believing that we exsist...

  7. I watch this hour glass and remember just a few seconds ago , i thought i was crazy... The second question is linked: Will it ever be possible to simulate human consciousness? After all, we run around thinking and feeling. well feeling is a thought processes and can be recorded. maybe that's why love is so powerful/ amazing to people , cause it has so many emotions/descriptions?.. or at least that's what we are told to feel/think... i wonder if i contribute to a purpose or THE purpose of living.. living to me after reading this over / purpose is to find LOVE ...


    I've been open to all concepts and Thoeries and have run into this one every now and then. Here's My Take:
    This is a pretty radical theory and the possibility of Superminds is more of less the same as God(s). Or perhaps, Superminds are the Gods, per say. If we Believe that "If there's a creation, there's a creator" and that we're God's creations - Then, that God can very well be the Superminds and "The Simulation" becomes their creation. Of course the existence or non-existence of either can't be proved (Yet!). Many religions might say that We're real and God is real and Superminds theory is bogus cuz most of their Holy Books cite prophecies that have come true - One can debate the statement by the same logic - That this might just also be part of the Simulation - Rules, models, beliefs, methods, systems, functions etc - so that it all seems real to the beings in the simulation. So of course We're Real - For our world, WE ARE!). But some intriguing questions arise:

    How would you explain the existence of Dark Matter and Black Holes?
    How would you explain not being able to find the Edge/end of Universe?
    Of all the planets, stars, moons - Why we can't find Alien life anywhere we point in space?
    How would you explain Deja Vu or Inception like feeling (Lucid Dreaming)?
    How would you explain the theories about existence of parallel universes?
    How do you explain all the war, misery, politics, religion, system, culture, rules?
    How would you explain "Miracles"?
    How would you explain only some people with superhuman potentials - physical or mental?

    To me, It all seems so Roleplayer Game/simulation like ..cuz everything around us is defined ...for enjoyment/fun ..and no God is saving the world from any misery. The Roleplaying games we create/see today - are more of less a reflection of the world around us - Add to those Games a crazy level of Artificial Intelligence and the characters in the game will be thinking and making decisions by themselves (Think of a very advanced form of Virtual Reality - maybe a Disaster Simulations program - where we're represented with many changes - climatic, war, floods, epidemics, diseases etc and Superminds Scientists are writing their papers and developing Preventive/Coping Plans) - essentially creating a universe inside a computer ..just like ours - with no boundaries, no alien life, full of miracles and very real !!

    Matrix, Horton hears a who, Inception - kinda credit this radical theory.

    Long story short - Keep an open mind, free spirited, less governed. Because Everything is as Real as you believe it is!


  9. Define 'real' and virtual. We already live in a world in which we tend to perceive TV images as 'more real' than what each of us experiences subjectively. Robert De Niro said he switched on the TV to verify what he just saw from his NY apartment: the collapse of the Twin-Towers. From a historians' perspective (that's what I am) there is something weird about human history, which can't be explained objectively. I already figured that out for myself, and hope to put it in writing sometime in the future, preferably with an expert in quantum physics.


Post a Comment

Popular Posts

How 4,000 Physicists Gave a Vegas Casino its Worst Week Ever

What happens when several thousand distinguished physicists, researchers, and students descend on the nation’s gambling capital for a conference? The answer is "a bad week for the casino"—but you'd never guess why.

Ask a Physicist: Phone Flash Sharpie Shock!

Lexie and Xavier, from Orlando, FL want to know: "What's going on in this video ? Our science teacher claims that the pain comes from a small electrical shock, but we believe that this is due to the absorption of light. Please help us resolve this dispute!"

The Science of Ice Cream: Part One

Even though it's been a warm couple of months already, it's officially summer. A delicious, science-filled way to beat the heat? Making homemade ice cream. (We've since updated this article to include the science behind vegan ice cream. To learn more about ice cream science, check out The Science of Ice Cream, Redux ) Image Credit: St0rmz via Flickr Over at Physics@Home there's an easy recipe for homemade ice cream. But what kind of milk should you use to make ice cream? And do you really need to chill the ice cream base before making it? Why do ice cream recipes always call for salt on ice?