Is our universe one big virtual reality? How to test if we’re really living in a computer simulation

By Melvin M. Vopson, University of Portsmouth

Physicists have long struggled to explain why the universe started out with conditions suitable for life to evolve. Why do the physical laws and constants take the very specific values that allow stars, planets and ultimately life to develop? The expansive force of the universe, dark energy, for example, is much weaker than theory suggests it should be – allowing matter to clump together rather than being ripped apart.

A common answer is that we live in an infinite multiverse of universes, so we shouldn’t be surprised that at least one universe has turned out as ours. But another is that our universe is a computer simulation, with someone (perhaps an advanced alien species) fine-tuning the conditions.

The latter option is supported by a branch of science called information physics, which suggests that space-time and matter are not fundamental phenomena. Instead, the physical reality is fundamentally made up of bits of information, from which our experience of space-time emerges. By comparison, temperature “emerges” from the collective movement of atoms. No single atom fundamentally has temperature.

This leads to the extraordinary possibility that our entire universe might in fact be a computer simulation. The idea is not that new. In 1989, the legendary physicist, John Archibald Wheeler, suggested that the universe is fundamentally mathematical and it can be seen as emerging from information. He coined the famous aphorism “it from bit”.

In 2003, philosopher Nick Bostrom from Oxford University in the UK formulated his simulation hypothesis. This argues that it is actually highly probable that we live in a simulation. That’s because an advanced civilisation should reach a point where their technology is so sophisticated that simulations would be indistinguishable from reality, and the participants would not be aware that they were in a simulation.

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Physicist Seth Lloyd from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the US took the simulation hypothesis to the next level by suggesting that the entire universe could be a giant quantum computer. And in 2016, Elon Musk concluded “We’re most likely in a simulation” (see video above).

Empirical evidence

There is some evidence suggesting that our physical reality could be a simulated virtual reality rather than an objective world that exists independently of the observer.

Any virtual reality world will be based on information processing. That means everything is ultimately digitised or pixelated down to a minimum size that cannot be subdivided further: bits. This appears to mimic our reality according to the theory of quantum mechanics, which rules the world of atoms and particles. It states there is a smallest, discrete unit of energy, length and time. Similarly, elementary particles, which make up all the visible matter in the universe, are the smallest units of matter. To put it simply, our world is pixelated.

The laws of physics that govern everything in the universe also resemble computer code lines that a simulation would follow in the execution of the program. Moreover, mathematical equations, numbers and geometric patterns are present everywhere – the world appears to be entirely mathematical.

Another curiosity in physics supporting the simulation hypothesis is the maximum speed limit in our universe, which is the speed of light. In a virtual reality, this limit would correspond to the speed limit of the processor, or the processing power limit. We know that an overloaded processor slows down computer processing in a simulation. Similarly, Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity shows that time slows in the vicinity of a black hole.

Perhaps the most supportive evidence of the simulation hypothesis comes from quantum mechanics. This suggest nature isn’t “real”: particles in determined states, such as specific locations, don’t seem to exist unless you actually observe or measure them. Instead, they are in a mix of different states simultaneously. Similarly, virtual reality needs an observer or programmer for things to happen.

Quantum “entanglement” also allows two particles to be spookily connected so that if you manipulate one, you automatically and immediately also manipulate the other, no matter how far apart they are – with the effect being seemingly faster than the speed of light, which should be impossible.

This could, however, also be explained by the fact that within a virtual reality code, all “locations” (points) should be roughly equally far from a central processor. So while we may think two particles are millions of light years apart, they wouldn’t be if they were created in a simulation.

Possible experiments

Assuming that the universe is indeed a simulation, then what sort of experiments could we deploy from within the simulation to prove this?

It is reasonable to assume that a simulated universe would contain a lot of information bits everywhere around us. These information bits represent the code itself. Hence, detecting these information bits will prove the simulation hypothesis. The recently proposed mass-energy-information (M/E/I) equivalence principle – suggesting mass can be expressed as energy or information, or vice versa – states that information bits must have a small mass. This gives us something to search for.

I have postulated that information is in fact a fifth form of matter in the universe. I’ve even calculated the expected information content per elementary particle. These studies led to the publication, in 2022, of an experimental protocol to test these predictions. The experiment involves erasing the information contained inside elementary particles by letting them and their antiparticles (all particles have “anti” versions of themselves which are identical but have opposite charge) annihilate in a flash of energy – emitting “photons”, or light particles.

I have predicted the exact range of expected frequencies of the resulting photons based on information physics. The experiment is highly achievable with our existing tools, and we have launched a crowdfunding site) to achieve it.

There are other approaches too. The late physicist John Barrow has argued that a simulation would build up minor computational errors which the programmer would need to fix in order to keep it going. He suggested we might experience such fixing as contradictory experimental results appearing suddenly, such as the constants of nature changing. So monitoring the values of these constants is another option.

The nature of our reality is one of the greatest mysteries out there. The more we take the simulation hypothesis seriously, the greater the chances we may one day prove or disprove it.The Conversation

Melvin M. Vopson is a Senior Lecturer in Physics at the University of Portsmouth. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

About the Author

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  1. The physicist James Gates says he has discovered a type of error correction codes in the basic equations of physics that he is researching . If he is correct , can that happen by a process of natural evolution or does it require an external intelligence to insert the codes ? If the codes are not present then does the quantum entanglement of space and time at the Planck length and Planck time stop happening with the result being the fabric of space-time coming apart like a rotten cloth ?

    1. I much prefer a simple, 8-bit, rural life. Everything revolves around me until I realize there are other players, and I don’t have to know so much.
      I am Pac-Man in the World of Warcraft.
      Posts get too long when we delve into Planct units of measure, quantum physics, and breaking particles down further only to have nothing left but “energy”.).
      Keeping it light hearted, we procreate to give others a turn.
      My legacy will be much like a file on a cassette tape that no one else can read.
      I like the premise of virtual reality. Enjoy the game.

  2. Anti-particles are needed in our reality. Would they be necessary in a virtual universe? If not, then I doubt we’re in a one.

  3. Yes, it is virtual. Guys, it’s been a great game. I hear my mother calling. I’ll die for now and see you again tomorrow. BSOD is so cool.

  4. Are the advanced aliens living in a real world? Someone must be. How did their universe emerge to support real life?

  5. No not a simulation it was reality at one time.But now it comes to us in a a reacuring dream.And at my age and the state of the world where due for a pause an intermission if you will.So tell next time sweet dreams.

  6. Can you imagine being stuck in a simulation bug…

    Imagine you are walking, suddenly everything stop, even you. Forever. Stuck, like an image, forever, wishing that someone, at some point, press Ctrl Alt Delete…

  7. The idea that we live in a simulation has been around for a long time. If it is so, so what? We are stuck in it, with no place else to go.
    The only thing I can say about the idea is that if true, it would seem to dispose of our existing religions. It would also seem to dispose of the often-debated question of free will.

  8. It’s amazing that this scientist is willing to accent that aliens are in charge of this “simulation,” but not God.
    This is because their view of God is an old man up there, instead of an energy being that exists outside of the universe.
    And where is the hardware? It is better to assume that quantum energy itself is that hardware, which is controlled mathematically by God.
    This makes the universe both a simulation and real simultaneously.

  9. If we’re in a simulation, then why would we think our understanding wouldn’t be simulated as well? It’s almost like by proving this theory to be true, you prove that it’s probably false.

  10. What utter flapdoodle! The presented “arguments” that the Universe is really a simulation are, in the final analysis, little more impressive than “The Universe is so remarkable and complex, God must’ve created it.” In other words, a qualitative assertion conditioned by culturally based perceptions. If you’re immersed in a religious culture, it’s God’s agency; if you’re immersed in IT culture, it’s a computer. Consider– the argument of physical quantization as resulting from being implemented in a computer processor. The first computers were analog-based, not digital. If we relied on analog computation, would we still argue that the Universe was a giant simulation?

    1. That answers literally nothing. Statement made without a shred of evidence. Lack of evidence requires belief. Truth stands on its own evidence, it needs no belief to make it so. Don’t get me wrong…I am not disrespecting your thought, only questioning the validity of it.

      People are free to believe what they want, when it comes to religion, it should never be claimed as “truth”. It should never be forced upon others. I lean towards something incredible created the beauty around us…but not the “god” that has been presented to us. Intelligence? Absolutely…all knowing, omniscient, infallible? If that were true, then that entity and the claims of the eye in the sky knowing all makes it complicit and an accessory to the evil within this amazing creation.

      If you know all things, and it is claimed “god’s will is always done”…then it is part of that entities will to allow the stunning sadistic suffering and mental trauma we all live under daily…and that makes the “deity” presented to us not something anyone should want to follow. No “loving” entity would see all and do NOTHING…and the excuses made to relieve this entity of any and all liability is both laughable and tragic.

      There is “free will” claims…problem with that is history and the destruction of young innocents that had no free will to even protect themselves, such as the murder of children 2 years and younger that is claimed in scripture by Herod…”god” just let it happen, so free will plays no role then or now. No such thing in the aspect of how it is taught.

      Blame it on the “devil”…yet the one claimed to possess all power and knows all apparently sits idly by and watched the carnage to this day. That would be like you knowing a murder is about to take place, and you choose to do nothing. Legally, you could be arrested as an accessory.

      The main insult…blame creation it self…due to the actions of tow people in a allegory that claims their actions condemned every single human after them.
      That is not only unjust and vexatious passing down that kind of sentence, it is criminal.

      If you were in inventor…and you produced a faulty invention that harmed others…would you take responsibility for that invention made with your own hands, or would you blame the invention? Think carefully…I care not who agrees with my thoughts, I just want people to THINK.

      What sense is their in believing blindly in something that must lodge threats and use fear to get people to accept it? Red flag number 1. That is called religious tyranny…it definitely has nothing benevolent attached to it…it has become simply, “love me or else”. Eternal punishment? Red flag number 2. Clearly not true or real, as the claim of a loving deity such as what is claimed has been presented in a direct opposite fashion by twisted minds who found nothing can control society as well as fear and religion. Fear is actually the opposite of “love”. Humanity still doesn’t get it, many choose rather to use their religious beliefs to try and influence and control others, they care not for the simple universal principle of “treat others as you desire to be treated.” That was lost a long time ago to something that has caused more damage and mental trauma above any other tool created.

  11. Why do most of the comments here revolve around God?
    If we are in a simulation, God is a programer and heaven and hell might just be the next level.
    If we program NPCs with artificial intelligence, to them their world is real.
    Worrie less with your ego and you might see that either way, our world is real for us.

  12. A real scientist doesn’t try to explain God, he tries to explain nature. If God come into it, that’s for theologians. That being said, a computer with the capacity for a “universe simulation” of our intense detail is as unbelievable to most as God is to some. I like MSDOS’s response; I’m a Pac-man in a War-Craft world! Big problems in physics are another world from the reality of a biomedical scientist.

  13. It seems like the ultimate hubris–we invented computers, so obviously the universe around us must be some sort of computerized reality. We’re making God in our own image, once again.

  14. No one likes the idea of not having free will; but superdeterminism in a holographic universe negates the simulation hypothesis because simulation implies variables lead to an uncertain end-staate (high entropy). Everything that will happen, has already happened if time really exists independent of the univers’s nested conciousnesses. See the hidden variable problem, and why/when/how an observer “decides” to take an measurement such as in a double-slit exp. There’s no point of a sim. or game if the outcome has been pre-ordained by an exclusive arbitrarer of matter/data. This leads us to the question of, what gains are to be had by pulling the strings of concious entities ?

    1. A computer game (life) has all of its possibilites and endings pre-programed by the programmer (God). Every action and possible combos already exists. There’s still freewill for the players, because even the programmer can’t possibly predict what movements or actions the players will take. As we play the “game”, our consciousness move through the program in its sequential order (linear time), thus we can enjoy and experience the game without knowing what or how the outcomes will be or could be. I believe this is what it means when referring to God’s saying, “Even before you ask, I will have answered.” Everything in the universes, all possibilities, were already created for us to explore and manifest. We can choose what to do or not to do with our freewill.

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