Is the universe a computer simulation?

A team of physicists claim that they have evidence that the universe is a computer simulation, according to an article on Technology Review. The hypothesis that was being investigated is “that the observed universe is a numerical simulation performed on a cubic space-time lattice or grid.” If intelligence keeps evolving and expanding (as it indisputably has on this planet), then eventually it would develop the technology to create other universes.

I’ve only read the abstract of the paper, and it is clearly beyond my expertise. However what interests me about the paper is that it returns the discussion “intelligent design”. The term is loaded of course, and enough to get steam coming from many a scientist’s ears. However the discussion is often focussed upon biological evolution. The anthropic principle – essentially that the universe is just too darned neatly suited to the existence of life like ours for it to be pure coincidence – is another important facet of the discussion. Physicists Beane et al appear to be tantalisingly close to treading the same territory. The investigation surely invites a return to discussions of (and terms like) “creator”, “God” and “gods”.

But where does it all begin? From where did the first intelligence (call it God if you will) arise?

It is intriguing to me that only when the discourse is centred on the computer/machine metaphor that discussions of first causes (the greater origins or meaning of all things) are generally entertained in mainstream science. And it is normally only via geometric abstraction and mathematical extrapolation that truth claims are considered. I wonder how their paper would be received if the scientists had begun with a different metaphor – say, that the universe is a great mind, or a great organism? Would anyone in science pay much attention? And the physicists had used introspection as their prime way of knowing? For millennia mystics have related profound insights into the nature of mind and cosmos. Yet the knowledge is only available through a relaxed, receptive attitude where the mind falls into quiet presence. It is only then that the chattering verbiage of the neocortex dissipates, and the illusion of boundary begins to fall. In contrast, the distance between knower and known is still vast in modern science, and the mechanistic paradigm is still with us.

Perhaps if the right and left brains could meet in a place where introspection and verbal/linguistic abstraction worked in harmony, we would have a powerful new science that was not afraid to embrace its deepest nature.


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Here is the article on Technology Review:

The Measurement That Would Reveal The Universe As A Computer Simulation

Physicists say they may have evidence that the universe is a computer simulation.

How? They made a computer simulation of the universe. And it looks sort of like us.

A long-proposed thought experiment, put forward by both philosophers and popular culture, points out that any civilisation of sufficient size and intelligence would eventually create a simulation universe if such a thing were possible.

And since there would therefore be many more simulations (within simulations, within simulations) than real universes, it is therefore more likely than not that our world is artificial.

Now a team of researchers at the University of Bonn in Germany led by Silas Beane say they have evidence this may be true.

In a paper named ‘Constraints on the Universe as a Numerical Simulation’, they point out that current simulations of the universe – which do exist, but which are extremely weak and small – naturally put limits on physical laws.

Technology Review explains that “the problem with all simulations is that the laws of physics, which appear continuous, have to be superimposed onto a discrete three dimensional lattice which advances in steps of time.”

What that basically means is that by just being a simulation, the computer would put limits on, for instance, the energy that particles can have within the program.

These limits would be experienced by those living within the sim – and as it turns out, something which looks just like these limits do in fact exist.

For instance, something known as the Greisen-Zatsepin-Kuzmin, or GZK cut off, is an apparent boundary of the energy that cosmic ray particles can have. This is caused by interaction with cosmic background radiation. But Beane and co’s paper argues that the pattern of this rule mirrors what you might expect from a computer simulation.

Naturally, at this point the science becomes pretty tricky to wade through – and we would advise you read the paper itself to try and get the full detail of the idea.

But the basic impression is an intriguing one.

Like a prisoner in a pitch-black cell, we may never be able to see the ‘walls’ of our prison — but through physics we may be able to reach out and touch them.


1 thought on “Is the universe a computer simulation?”

  1. Robin, have you worked with sianumtiols? My own experience with them suggests it is much more of an open question whether the being simulated will ever have consciousness. ESPECIALLY since we are essentially clueless about where our own consciousness comes from. In a sim, you tend to build in an 1) approximation of the rules that 2) you know about. Consider the lowly neuron, we know it fires in a randomish way with increasing rate under some circumstance, with decreasing rate under other circumstances. In the sim, do we just put in the fixed rates? Do we use a random number generator to populate a randomish variation which we think has some of the same statistics as the real neurons? The problem is that what seems randomish may, and often does, reflect some more underlying rules. What if that randomish variation is not random at all, or not completely random, but rather is part of some mechanism associated with consciousness? We believe consciousness is weakly connected to the brain. We know we can focus our consciousness on some things the brain is dealing with, the text box on the screen in front of me, the part of my brain holding these ideas and transforming them to language. What if that wandering weak focus is mediated through some mechanism that shows up, in our state of ignorance, as randomish variations in neuronal firing rates? Then our sim would MISS this entirely. As with any complex functioning system, it is much easier to build something that doesn’t work than something that does. The naive engine builder puts all the pieces together and goes to fire up the engine, and it won’t even rotate forget-about firing up. The programmer is constantly building something that doesn’t work and then working hard to figure out why it doesn’t work. I realize I am sounding just pessimistic. Of course work should go forward on this, and will anyway as coding increasingly complex processors is one of the best ways to create valuable capital these days (in addition to being unbelievably fun). But I would expect brain sims to go wrong in a lot of ways for a long time. And that consciousness with shifting focus and motivation and humor and insignt and the ability to invent and triage inventions I wouldn’t expect that to show up in the sims until somewhere between pretty late in the game and never. When I first started forming my thoughts about sims, I recognized two things. 1) in a simulation of a nuclear explosion, nothing is destroyed, no energy is released. It is gigantically different from an actual nuclear explosion. 2) We already simulate people. In Vice City, I shoot cops and passing civilians all the time. The sims of people are way simpler that real people and I think beyond reasonable doubt they have no more consciousness than do the cars or the buildings in Vice City. Does consciousness just pop in by magic at some point as we make the sim more complex? Or do we actually have to understand how consiousness works, and put the necessary physics to support it into our sim, whereas we would currently just use random number generators which reflect not the physics, but our ignorance of the physics? Having worked hard to get things to work, I am pretty sure it is the latter. We will not have conscious sims until we have some idea how consciousness works, and is connected wtih brains and neurons.

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