Is our universe one big virtual reality? How to check if we are really living in a computer simulation

By Melvin M. Vopson, University of Portsmouth

Physicists have long struggled to explain why the universe began with conditions suitable for life to evolve. Why do physical laws and constants take on the precise 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 stick together rather than be torn apart.

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

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

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

In 2003, philosopher Nick Bostrom of the University of Oxford in the UK formulated his simulation hypothesis. This argues that it is actually highly probable that we are living in a simulation. This is because an advanced civilization would have to reach a point where its technology is so sophisticated that simulations would be indistinguishable from reality and participants would not be aware that they were in a simulation.

Physicist Seth Lloyd of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the United States has taken the simulation hypothesis to the next level by suggesting that the entire universe could be one giant quantum computer. And in 2016, Elon Musk concluded “We are most likely in a simulation” (see video above).

Empirical evidence

There is some evidence to suggest that our physical reality may 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. This means that everything is eventually digitized or pixelated down to a minimum size that can’t be subdivided any further: bits. This seems to mimic our reality according to the theory of quantum mechanics, which governs the world of atoms and particles. It states that there is the smallest discrete unit of energy, length and time. Similarly, elementary particles, which make up all 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 the lines of computer code that a simulation would follow in executing the program. Furthermore, mathematical equations, numbers and geometric patterns are everywhere: the world seems to be entirely mathematical.

Another curiosity in physics that supports 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 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 in the vicinity of a black hole.

Perhaps the strongest evidence in support of the simulation hypothesis comes from quantum mechanics. This suggests that nature isn’t “real”: particles in certain states, such as specific places, don’t appear to exist unless you actually observe or measure them. Instead, they are in a mix of different states simultaneously. Similarly, VR needs an observer or a programmer for things to happen.

Quantum “entanglement” also allows two particles to be spectrally connected so that if you manipulate one, it automatically and immediately manipulates the other as well, no matter how far away they are from each other – apparently faster than quantum entanglement. speed of light, which should be impossible.

This could, however, also be explained by the fact that within a virtual reality code, all “positions” (points) should be approximately equally distant from a central processor. So while we may think of two particles as being 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 kind of experiments could we implement from within the simulation to demonstrate this?

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

I postulated that information is in fact a fifth form of matter in the universe. I 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 within elementary particles by letting them and their antiparticles (all particles have “anti” versions of themselves that are identical but oppositely charged) annihilate in a flash of energy – by emitting “photons”, or particles of light.

I predicted the exact expected frequency range 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 make it happen.

There are other approaches as well. The late physicist John Barrow argued that a simulation would create small computational errors that the programmer would have to fix to keep running. He suggested that we might experience such fixation as contradictory experimental results that suddenly appear, like the constants of nature changing. So monitoring the values ​​of these constants is another option.

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

Melvin M. Vopson is 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.

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