One of the more thought-provoking philosophical developments over the last decade is the theory that we might be living inside some sort of computer simulation. While I’m not sure I put much belief in the theory, it’s fascinating to see how technology has now begun to influence ontology. Since most of our daily interactions and institutions are now governed by computers, it’s natural that some of us would begin to think that perhaps reality itself is governed by them as well. The idea isn’t exactly new, however. Since the dawn of civilization, philosophers have come up with all sorts of allegories and metaphors to describe how reality might be some sort of simulation or dream-like state. The computer simulation theory essentially takes Plato’s cave allegory and wraps it up in today’s technological vocabulary.
While the computer simulation theory is an interesting thought experiment, no one has yet to find any concrete evidence that this might indeed be true. In fact, a team of Oxford physicists has just found the opposite. Zohar Ringel and Dmitry Kovrizhin created a computer model (ironically) that simulated quantum phenomena inside metals. By calculating the amount of computing resources necessary for the quantum effects and gravitational anomalies experienced by each particle, the researchers found that the amount of computing power it would take to simulate our entire universe would be essentially larger than our universe itself:
If the amount of computational resources required for a quantum simulation increases slowly (e.g. linearly) with the number of particles in the system, then one has to double a number of processors, memory, etc. in order to be able to simulate a system twice as large in the same amount of time. But if the growth is exponential, or in other words if for every extra particle one has to double the number of processors, memory, etc., then this task becomes intractable. Note, that even just to store the information about a few hundred electrons on a computer one would require a memory built from more atoms than there are in the Universe.
Their extremely technical methods and data are published in Science Advances. While I’m not sure I can believe we are indeed living in a simulation, I’m not sure their work is the best way to ‘prove’ that we’re not. Their entire methodology is based on the computer technology available to us today. Sure, such a simulation is indeed impossible with our technology. But what about modes of computing and types of technology we can’t even imagine? Who knows what kinds of computers could hypothetically exist in distant galaxies or even alternate dimensions – if they exist.
The reason such thought experiments have persisted throughout history (and science fiction) is precisely because we can’t conclusively disprove them. We could be living in a cave of shadows or inside a butterfly’s dream and will never know it. We could be inside a computer program. Reality could be created by a Flying Spaghetti Monster. At the end of the day, reality is what we make of it.
Now let’s figure out a way to get out of this hellish dystopian timeline and back into the one where cyborg JFK is still president and new seasons of Firefly are on TV.