Theories questioning the true nature of the reality in which human civilization and all of the universe’s constituent parts resides in has represented a frequent topic for exploration in popular culture and scholarly inquiries.
These paradoxical questions on the “truth” of what we deem to be reality can be traced all the way to the third century BC, with the ancient Chinese text written by the Daoist philosopher and author, Zhuang Zhou, titled, “Zhuangzi” (1).
One story of this ancient text features the author’s assumption of the role of a first-person narrator, recounting how he would wonder whether he was the Zhang Zhou which dreamed of being a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming it was Zhang Zhou dreaming of being a butterfly and so forth. This infinitely paradoxical perception of the innate truth of reality demonstrates the primitive source code and ideas on the concept of reality which would be further refined and developed, culminating in a more contemporary approach today which questions whether the reality seen around us is actually a computer simulation run by an external force.
While initially seeming to be a preposterous conjecture, the reputable list of those sympathetic with the theory, including great minds like Neil de Grasse Tyson, Stephen Hawking, and Elon Musk, may prompt a more serious reflection on the implications and substance of the hypothesis. In propagating the legitimacy of the theory, many proponents point to pieces of evidence recently uncovered, evidence increasing in its rate of discovery.
Striking examples of such evidence largely includes the research of those in the field of quantum mechanics and the physical sciences, with a frequently cited example being the research of James Gates, a physicist at the University of Maryland who specializes on superstring theory (2).
Within the theoretical equations forming the foundation of string theory, Gates found an underlying system of computational, error-correcting codes which resembled binary code, the base language for computer technologies. While further substantiating a simulation hypothesis, his finding certainly does not absolve the theory of any skepticism and has only sparked further interest in the topic, both professional and popularly.
While certain groups of physicists and other scientists are actively seeking further evidence to solidify the claim that the universe is merely a complex, “artificially” simulated system, there is an equally rapid effusion of research proving otherwise. One of the most significant of such efforts was conducted by theoretical physicists Zohar Ringel and Dmitry Kovrizhin from the University of Oxford and the Hebrew University of Israel respectively (3).
In order to conduct the study, the researchers, “applied Monte Carlo simulations (computations used to generate probabilities) to quantum objects moving through various dimensions and found that classical systems cannot create the mathematics necessary to describe quantum systems. They showed this by proving that classical physics can’t erase the sign problem, a particular quirk of quantum Monte Carlo simulations of gravitational anomalies.”.
In simplified language, the research essentially confirmed that all the natural processes involved in a functioning universe could not be computationally possible to run on a computer system with contemporary capabilities and computing power. Of course, ardent supporters of simulation theory often respond to such research by exclaiming how we may be underestimating the degree to which an “original” civilization has advanced in its technological capabilities past our current state, an argument which cannot be as easily supported through research from within the possible simulation.
Despite the ongoing contention on the true nature of reality and our role within this world, the lives of individuals on this side will ultimately not change considerably, and whether in a simulation or not, I’m still going to need to review for tomorrow’s chemistry test.
References and Footnotes
- Zhuangzi, and Youlan Feng. Chuang-Tzu: a New Selected Translation with an Exposition of the Philosophy of Kuo Hsiang. Foreign Languages Press, 1989.
- Lewin, Sarah. “Is the Universe a Simulation? Scientists Debate.” com, Space.com, 12 Apr. 2016, amp.space.com/32543-universe-a-simulation-asimov-debate.html
- Eck, Allison. “Physicists Confirm That We’re Not Living In a Computer Simulation.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, 3 Oct. 2017, www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/next/physics/physicists-confirm-that-were-not-living-in-a-computer-simulation/.
- Cover image found on Getty Images