Is our universe a big virtual reality? How do we test if we are really living in a computer simulation

Written by Melvin M. University of Portsmouth

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

The popular answer is that we live in an infinite multiverse, so we shouldn’t be surprised that at least one universe has morphed into ours. But the other thing is that our universe is a computer simulation, with someone (possibly an advanced alien species) adjusting 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, physical reality consists mainly of bits of information, from which our experience of space-time emerges. In comparison, temperature “pops” from the collective motion of atoms. There is no core temperature for a single atom.

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

In 2003, philosopher Nick Bostrom of the University of Oxford in the UK formulated his simulation hypothesis. This argues that it is very likely in fact that we are living in a simulation. That’s because an advanced civilization would have to reach a point where its technology would be so advanced that the simulation would be indistinguishable from reality, and the participants would not realize they were in a simulation.

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

Experimental evidence

There is some evidence to suggest 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 depend on information processing. This means that everything is eventually digitized or cut down to the minimum size that cannot be further divided into parts: bits. This seems to simulate our reality according to the quantum mechanics theory that governs the world of atoms and particles. It states that there is the smallest discrete unit of energy, length, and time. Likewise, elementary particles, which make up all visible matter in the universe, are the smallest units of matter. Simply put, our world is divided.

The laws of physics that govern everything in the universe are also like lines of computer code that simulations would follow in executing a program. Moreover, mathematical equations, numbers, and geometric patterns are everywhere – the world seems to be entirely mathematical.

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

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

Quantum entanglement also allows two particles to be so eerily connected that if you manipulate one, you automatically and instantly also manipulate the other, no matter the distance between them – with the effect apparently faster than the speed of light, which should be impossible.

However, this can also be explained by the fact that within a VR code, all “locations” (points) must be approximately equally far from the central processor. So while we 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, what kind of experiments can we deploy from within the simulation to prove it?

It is reasonable to assume that the simulated universe would contain a lot of information all around us. These bits of information represent the code itself. Hence, detecting these bits of information will prove the simulation hypothesis. The recently proposed principle of mass-energy-information equivalence (M/E/I)—suggesting that 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 look for.

I assumed that information is actually the fifth form of matter in the universe. I calculated the expected information content for each elementary particle. These studies led to the publication in 2022 of an experimental protocol to test these predictions. The experiment involves erasing the information inside elementary particles by allowing them and their antiparticles (all particles have identical “anti” copies but opposite charges) to perish in a flash of energy—they emit “photons,” or particles of light.

It predicted the exact range of expected frequencies for the resulting photons based on information physics. The experiment is highly achievable with our existing tools, and we’ve launched a crowdfunding site) to make it happen.

There are other ways too. The late physicist John Barrow argued that simulations would introduce minor arithmetic errors that the programmer would need to fix in order for it to continue. He suggested that we might experience such a fix as contradictory experimental results suddenly appearing, such as the variable constants of nature. 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 seriously we take the simulation hypothesis, the higher the chances that it will be proven or disproved one day.

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

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