Physicists have long struggled to explain why the universe began under conditions suitable for life to evolve. Why do the physical laws and constants take on the very specific values that give rise to stars, planets and ultimately life? The expansive force of the universe, dark energy, for example, is much weaker than theory suggests – it causes matter to clump together instead of being torn 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 turned out to be ours. But another is that our universe is a computer simulation in which someone (perhaps an advanced alien species) is fine-tuning 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 essentially information that creates our experience of spacetime. In comparison, temperature “arises” from the collective movement of atoms. In principle, no single atom has a temperature.
This leads to the extraordinary possibility that our entire universe is actually a computer simulation. The idea is not that new. In 1989, legendary physicist John Archibald Wheeler proposed that the universe is fundamentally mathematical and made up of information. He coined the famous aphorism “it from bit”.
In 2003, the philosopher Nick Bostrom from the University of Oxford in the UK formulated his simulation hypothesis. This suggests that it is indeed very likely that we are living in a simulation. That’s because an advanced civilization should reach a point where its technology has matured enough that simulations would be indistinguishable from reality and the participants would not be aware that they were in a simulation.
Physicist Seth Lloyd of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the US took the simulation hypothesis to the next level by proposing that the entire universe could be one giant quantum computer.
And in 2016, business tycoon Elon Musk concluded: “We are most likely in a simulation” (see video above).
There is evidence that our physical reality may be a simulated virtual reality rather than an objective world existing independently of the observer.
Every virtual reality world is based on information processing. That means everything is digitized or pixelated to a minimum size that cannot be further divided: bits. This appears to mimic our reality according to the theory of quantum mechanics, which governs the world of atoms and particles. It states that there is a 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. Put simply, our world is pixelated.
The laws of physics that govern everything in the universe are also similar to lines of computer code that a simulation would follow when running the program. In addition, mathematical equations, numbers and geometric patterns are present everywhere – the world seems to be completely mathematical.
Another oddity in physics that supports the simulation hypothesis is the top speed in our universe, the speed of light. In a virtual reality, this limit would correspond to the processor’s 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 supporting evidence for the simulation hypothesis comes from quantum mechanics. This suggests that nature is not “real”: particles in certain states, such as in certain places, don’t seem to exist unless you actually observe or measure them. Instead, they are in a mixture of different states at the same time. Similarly, virtual reality needs an observer or programmer for things to happen.
Quantum “entanglement” also allows two particles to be eerily connected, so that if you manipulate one, you automatically and instantly manipulate the other, no matter how far apart they are – with the effect that it appears to move faster is than the speed of light, which is supposed to be impossible.
However, this could also be explained by the fact that within a virtual reality code all “locations” (points) should be about the same distance from a central processor. So while we might think that two particles are millions of light-years apart, if they were created in a simulation they wouldn’t be.
Assuming the universe is indeed a simulation, what kind of experiments could we run inside the simulation to prove it?
It is reasonable to assume that a simulated universe would contain many bits of information all around us. These bits of information represent the code itself. Therefore, capturing these bits of information will prove the simulation hypothesis. The recently proposed mass-energy-information (M/E/I) equivalence principle—stating that mass can be expressed in terms of energy or information, or vice versa—states that information bits must have small mass. That gives us something to look for.
I have postulated that information is actually 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 in elementary particles by having them and their antiparticles (all particles have “anti” versions of themselves, which are identical but oppositely charged) annihilated in a flash of energy – where “photons” are or light particles are emitted.
I have predicted the exact range of expected frequencies of the resulting photons based on information physics. The experiment is very doable with our existing tools and we started a crowdfunding website to achieve it.
There are other approaches too. The late physicist John Barrow has argued that a simulation would build up minor computational errors that the programmer would have to fix to keep it running. He suggested that we might experience such a fixation as conflicting experimental results suddenly emerging, such as nature’s constants changing. Therefore, 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 will one day be able to prove or disprove it.