For a while now, techno-philosophers & Hollywood filmmakers have been suggesting that our world isn’t actually real — that’s it’s just some kind of computer simulation running inside of a higher level of reality.
This is called the “simulation hypothesis”. It was originally proposed by Nick Bostrum in the 2003 paper Are You Living In A Simulation, and recently popularized by Elon Musk — and it’s giving some folks genuine anxiety. We’d all rest easier with definitive proof that we’re actually “real”.
Therein lies a problem: In a perfect simulation such as Bohm’s “Holographic Universe” there’s no way to prove that the universe is a simulation. This dates back to a philosophical proof first used in Plato’s Cave.
If we live in a simulated universe that isn’t perfect, however, then it would be possible to detect imperfections in the simulation — such as shown in The Matrix, The 13th Floor or a real life example of error correcting codes in physics.
Let’s examine some of the leading simulation ideas in greater detail:
Bohm’s Holographic Universe
In Bohm’s Holographic Universe, the “real” universe itself is a simulation, in that what we see as reality is merely how our brain perceives the aggregate effects of quantum particles & waveforms.
This comes out of the observation that the universe looks quite alien to us on a quantum scale — and Bohm was suggesting that the issue is not that the theory is wrong in any way, but that it presents reality to us very differently than it actually is. However, since we are unable to directly experience this “deeper” reality except through the manifold of our everyday existence, our reality is “real”.
Plato’s Cave concluded the same thing as Bohm: in his thought experiment, prisoners in a cave are restrained in such a way so that they cannot see actual objects behind them, merely the shadows cast by those objects on a wall in front of them. The shadows, to their mind, are real — and will remain real until those prisoners are released (at which time they will experience confusion upon seeing the true form of the objects).
In essence, this first philosophical model of Bohm & Plato say that reality is whatever you perceive it to be — which is biologically true since what we consider “real” is always filtered through our nervous system. In other words, if you can’t tell that reality isn’t real, then it is real.
The Matrix posits the assumption that reality is a simulation, but it’s imperfect — meaning that there are detectable deviations from what we expect to be “real” based on it’s true nature as a computer simulation.
In the Matrix, these deviations are both intentional & unintentional. For instance “Agent Smith” is intentionally gifted with superhuman abilities to assist with the control over the human population. At the same time, deja vu experiences when “they change the Matrix”, or physical laws being “bent” in bullet time are described as unintentional flaws in the programming of the Matrix. Thus, in the Matrix, we are able to tell that it’s a simulation and not ultimately real.
The 13th Floor
In The 13th Floor, reality is shown to be a simulation as a result of programming shortcuts (not flaws) used to save processing resources in the simulation.
In the film, characters learn of the simulation by driving to a part of the desert where it ends. This programming practice is common in modern gaming where only objects observable by the player are rendered to save GPU cycles.
The Copenhagen interpretation of Quantum Physics would say that our reality is merely one among countless others — and that on a quantum level, these can and do communicate with each other. What we view as physics could just be the rules and flaws of code running multiple simultaneous simulations in what we’d describe as multiple dimensions (like in Sliders).
Is There Evidence We’re Living In A Simulation?
There may be evidence, but it’s mostly based on the interpretation of existing science to support the hypothesis, making it prone to wishful thinking.
For instance, Quantum Computing solves problems by “collaboration with the multiverse”, which I’ve heard described as a quantum “qbit” doing a single calculation across multiple parallel universes.
This may support Nick Bostrum’s conjecture that future civilizations would likely create multiple simultaneous simulations of their ancestors. If we existed in one of their simulations, it would appear to us as a “multiverse”.
Another example may be Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle — a fundamental part of Quantum Mechanics that may be indicator that we’re living in a simulation.
I’ve read that Heisenberg’s original intent was to illustrate fundamental limits of measurement in physics in order to introduce a new form of mathematical solution (matrix equations). What started as “we can’t measure below this level, so lets measure group properties instead” somehow magically transformed into “quantum strangeness”, allowing entanglement, quantum teleportation, etc.
A property being “not measurable” should not mean the property is “undefined” — but in our universe it does, but only on a quantum scale. These undefined states of “Quantum Superposition” are a handy way to conserve computing power in a simulated universe, and if they’re merely a programming hack then it also explains why they don’t lead to macro-scale paradoxes like Schrodinger’s Cat.
Quantum-scale hacks to conserve computing power would likely lead to problems with transition points to macro-scale behavior. Perhaps that’s why we see strange effects such as a single photon behaving as both a particle and wave, as described in this discussion of the double-slit experiment as proof that we’re living in a simulation.
This brings us full-circle back to error-correcting codes in Quantum Mechanics and String Theory. This has been suggested to be evidence that our own reality is in fact using something similar to “programming shortcuts” from the 13th Floor, although there is no indication as to whether those were artificially introduced or simply natural artifacts of physics. However, it continues to inspire debate surrounding the simulation question.
So far we’ve examined several cases which all implicitly assume that our simulation exists within a larger reality — and despite advances in physics & computing, I tend to believe that Plato’s original interpretation from makes the most sense: if the inhabitants can’t tell if the simulation they live in isn’t real, then it IS in fact real.
What’s important isn’t whether our reality is nested inside another as some kind of simulation, but that it seems equally real to all it’s inhabitants and provides internally consistent measurements within itself.
So rest easy. You’re very, very real — even if you’re not.