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Are We Living in a Simulation?


Decades ago, I spent most of my time as an engineer writing and running computer simulations. That was when I first made the connection in my mind between the quantization that must happen in a simulation and the quantization that we know occurs in our universe. Specifically, it hit me how similar the quantization of space, as described by the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, and the quantization of time that physicists know occurs in the real world are to the quantization of space and time in a simulation. For those who don't know, negating computer word length effects, the accuracy of simulations that model real-world phenomena is dependent on the number of points in space and time that are used in the simulations' calculations. The more points, the more accurately a simulation models the real world. Back then, I wondered, in the "analog" world that we live in, why space and time should be quantized. I had no idea. Actually, as far as I know, no one does. But, I realized that if we are living in a simulation, then real-world quantization makes perfect sense.

This idea sounded so crazy that I kept it to myself. I already had been getting a lot of flack from people around me for my outside-the-box thinking, and I didn't want to make it worse. The one exception to my keeping this to myself was when I discussed this with a physicist. I wanted to make sure physicists were in agreement that time is quantized. I told him that the real world being a simulation would explain this. Predictably, his reaction was puzzlement. Neither of us had the foggiest idea how anyone would go about discovering if we are actually living in a simulation.

More recently, many people have been thinking the same thing I was thinking decades ago. Elon Musk has been very vocal about it, saying that the probability that we are not living in a simulation is about one in billions. Physicists have also devised experiments to try to understand what is happening in the quantum mechanical realm, notably variations on the double-slit experiment like the delayed-choice quantum eraser experiment, and they haven't been able to explain the results. Some physicists have gone so far as to question whether objective reality actually exists at all, a question some religions have been posing for thousands of years. Of course, others dispute these physicists interpretations of the experiments. (See here also.) Some scientist say they have proven that we are not living in a simulation. Other people have proposed that reality being a simulation could explain some things about the universe--like the Fermi paradox, the apparent intelligent design of the universe, and others.

Obviously, given that some of the smartest people in the world disagree about whether reality is real, I can't be expected to answer the question here. Perhaps during our lifetime, someone will discover proof that we either are or are not living in a simulation. Until then, it's a fun question to think about.



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