Is Our Universe A Computer Simulation?


In the above image snapped at the Getty Villa in Malibu, poor crocodile is no crocodile at all, but the representation of a crocodile; the simulacrum of a crocodile.

Might you be a simulacrum as well? 

This post is about the Matrix or Lattice theory of the universe–the notion that we live, not in a painting, but in a computer simulation. recently reported that physicist Martin Savage thinks this might actually be the case, and that the idea is testable:

Savage and colleagues […] suggest that the [simulator] signature could show up as a limitation in the energy of cosmic rays. In a paper they have posted on arXiv, […] they say that the highest-energy cosmic rays would not travel along the edges of the lattice in the model but would travel diagonally, and they would not interact equally in all directions as they otherwise would be expected to do [under Einstein’s theory of relativity]. “This is the first testable signature of such an idea,” Savage said.

This is how US News describes the proposed test:

[A] few creative researchers from the University of Washington believe they’ve developed a way to test the [Matrix or Lattice] theory [of the universe]. […]


By studying the highest-energy cosmic rays known in the universe to see if they travel in straight lines along the edges of the space-time continuum (which would likely mean that we’re not in a simulation), or if they cheat a bit and cut across it diagonally (a “signature” limitation in the energy of these cosmic rays that would tell us we’re actually living in a highly complex, but still resource-constrained, simulation).

In other words, the Matrix may be moving from a speculative idea in philosophy to a testable idea in physics. Here’s how Ray Villard puts it at Discovery News:

The popular film trilogy, The Matrix, presented a cyberuniverse where humans live in a simulated reality created by sentient machines.

Now, a philosopher and team of physicists imagine that we might really be living inside a computer-generated universe that you could call The Lattice. What’s more, we may be able to detect it.


Villard notes the idea’s implication for intelligent design:

As off-the-wall as this sounds, a team of physicists at the University of Washington (UW) recently announced that there is a potential test to see if we actually live in The Lattice. Ironically, it would be the first such observation for scientifically hypothesized evidence of intelligent design behind the cosmos.

The UW team too propose that super-intelligent entities, bored with their current universe, do numerical simulations to explore all possibilities in the landscape of the underlying quantum vacuum (from which the big bang percolated) through universe simulations. “This is perhaps the most profound quest that can be undertaken by a sentient being,” write the authors.

Before you dismiss this idea as completely loony, the reality of such a Sim Universe might solve a lot of eerie mysteries about the cosmos. About two-dozen of the universe’s fundamental constants happen to fall within the narrow range thought to be compatible with life. At first glance it seems as unlikely as balancing a pencil on its tip. Jiggle these parameters and life as we know it would have never appeared. Not even stars and galaxies. This is called the Anthropic principle.


Here’s US News describing the potential Matrix or Lattice test in more detail:

Current supercomputers use something called “lattice quantum chromodynamics” to study fundamental laws of physics throughout the universe. Computer scientists program and build a small part of the universe virtually and then test physics laws and theories against it. But, not surprisingly, these supercomputers can only simulate a tiny portion of the universe – something on the order of the size of a nucleus of an atom.

In our current, very small, simulations of the universe in supercomputers that are running these lattices, there are tell-tale resource constraints that can be detected if you know what you’re looking for. These resource constraints keep us from building a large-scale, virtual supercomputer model of the universe, and those restraints can be detected.

So, the Washington researchers, theorized, if we can detect those resource constraints at a small scale, we ought to detect them at a large scale where there might be analogous resource constraints. And because Albert Einstein and others have shown us what a non-constrained universe should look like along the edges of such a real-time lattice in space-time, we can study it – and see if it is, in fact, constrained.

And here’s a HuffPo video discussing The Lattice test idea:



Here’s an excerpt from philosopher Nick Bostrom’s 2003 Philosophical Quarterly journal article that stimulated Savage and his colleagues to take up The Lattice idea from the science side:

One thing that later generations might do with their super‐powerful computers is run detailed simulations of their forebears or of people like their forebears. Because their computers would be so powerful, they could run a great many such simulations. Suppose that these simulated people are conscious (as they would be if the simulations were sufficiently fine‐grained and if a certain quite widely accepted position in the philosophy of mind is correct). Then it could be the case that the vast majority of minds like ours do not belong to the original race but rather to people simulated by the advanced descendants of an original race. It is then possible to argue that, if this were the case, we would be rational to think that we are likely among the simulated minds rather than among the original biological ones. Therefore, if we don’t think that we are currently living in a computer simulation, we are not entitled to believe that we will have descendants who will run lots of such simulations of their forebears. That is the basic idea.

Ray Villard at Discovery News summarizes some other highlights from Nick Bostrom’s 2003 paper:

Bostrom imagined “stacked” levels of reality, “we would have to suspect that the post-humans running our simulation are themselves simulated beings; and their creators, in turn, may also be simulated beings. Here may be room for a large number of levels of reality, and the number could be increasing over time.”

To compound this even further, Bostrom imagined a hierarchy of deities, “In some ways, the post-humans running a simulation are like gods. However, all the demigods except those at the fundamental level of reality are subject to sanctions by the more powerful gods living at lower levels.”

No, this is not coming from the Onion; the Matrix really is being treated seriously. My question: if the Matrix (or The Lattice) is real, why are we experiencing consciousness within a mathematical simulation? What makes the mere running of the numbers catch sentient fire? It’s not enough, in my view, to just assert that complexity at a certain point “turns on” consciousness. And here’s a question the researchers are asking (according to Villard):

If the parallel universes are all running on the same computer platform could we communicate with them?

That’s a mind-blowing question. Scientists hoping for one world to intersect with another is akin to the hope of monotheistic messianism: is the discovery of the Kingdom of Parallel Simulations nigh and when will it break on through to this other side?



Any detractors at this point? One is David Klinghoffer, a Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute. He doesn’t like the implications for God, observing that The Lattice is a “moral, intellectual and spiritual […] version of ‘intelligent design’ that could meet with contemporary academic acceptance.” By this he means that “It has to begin with premises that exclude theism.” Other qualifications for “academic acceptance,” according to Klinghoffer, include the following:

There would be no limits placed on the wildness of it[s] speculations, even as theorists and the media assure us it is entirely “plausible.” It would share affinities with a scary sci-fi version of eugenics that dispensed with traditional moral sensitivities.

In short, it would be a bit of a nightmare.

This, by Klinghoffer’s reckoning, is what the contemporary scientific and secular culture salivates to, and this sets the parameters for acceptable ID speculation. The Lattice satisfies these parameters.

Klinghoffer’s sociological critique sounds like sour grapes to me. Obviously, if physicists have thought of a way to exclude an idea from philosophy by actually testing it, why not do the experiment?

Nevertheless, Klinghoffer has a point. The speculation is nightmarish, and over the past century it is undeniable that science has been converging on a disorienting notion: that we live deep within layers upon layers of something infinite (or nearly so), whether it be of galaxies in an inflationary cosmos, of multiverses, or, as in the above speculation, of simulations. We seem to be in a hall of mirrors of some sort; a matryoshka doll inside a matryoshka doll. But which one–or even ones?


What Klinghoffer calls a “nightmare” Jorge Luis Borges termed the “Total Library” (a library containing all possible combinations of letters, punctuation, and spacing). In the first paragraph of his 1939 essay “The Total Library,” Borges writes the following:

It’s a wonder how long it took mankind to think of the idea. . . . Democritus and Leucippus clearly prefigure it, but its belated inventor is Gustav Theodor Fechner [of Leipzig], and its first exponent, Kurd Lasswitz. . . . it is a typographical avatar of that doctrine of the Eternal Return . . .

The “doctrine of the Eternal Return” (the notion that, if you wait long enough and atoms and void are infinite, things are bound to repeat themselves by chance alone) is most typically associated with the Roman poet Lucretius and later Nietzsche, and it is given its most obvious expression today via the multiverse hypotheses of theoretical physicists like Stephen Hawking and Brian Greene.

And for Borges, Aristotle is also an important actor in bringing into the world the ideas of Eternal Return and the Total Library:

The oldest glimpse of it is in the first book of Aristotle’s Metaphysics. I speak of the passage that expounds the cosmogony of Leucippus: the formation of the world by the fortuitous conjunction of atoms.

Perhaps Aristotle himself derived his distinction between the material and formal causes of things from thinking about Leucippus and atomism: how the same material (such as wood) can evolve or be shaped, over time, into very different forms (a tree, a bush, a table, a fence, an infant’s crib, a door, a labyrinth, a cross, a pine cone).

Borges also sees intellectual opinion forking over the Total Library—with figures like Cicero and Pascal rejecting it, and Huxley and Lewis Carroll favoring it. He quotes Cicero as writing that he is dumbfounded that anyone could believe that “the fortuitous collision of […] particles produces this beautiful world that we see.”

But Borges himself sides with Huxley and Carrol against Cicero and Pascal concerning the plausibility of the Total Library, and concludes his essay thus:

One of the habits of the mind is the invention of horrible imaginings. The mind has invented Hell, it has invented predestination to Hell, it has imagined the Platonic ideas, the chimera, the sphinx, abnormal transformite numbers (whose parts are no smaller than the whole), masks, mirrors, operas, the teratalogical Trinity: the Father, the Son, and the unresolvable Ghost, articulated into a single organism. . . . I have tried to rescue from oblivion a subaltern horror: the vast, contradictory Library, whose vertical wilderness of books run the incessant risk of changing into others that affirm, deny, and confuse everything like a delirious god.

And Borges turned the idea of The Total Library into an unforgettable Kafkaesque short story, “The Library of Babel” (1941), the first sentence of which is the following:

The universe (which others call the Library) is composed of an indefinite, perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries.

Some form of the Total Library is where contemporary physics seems headed; it is the “subaltern horror” that is fast replacing the terror of God in the human psyche: the Hell Mouth epiphany of a blind Moloch opening wide. This Moloch shows its fangs and molars dividing and tumbling matter and information, creating fresh combinations with each new revolve of the jaw, eating and ingesting all, forever and ever, amen. Nothing escapes this Total Library, as John Updike anticipated back in 1985:

[O]ur century’s revelations of unthinkable largeness and unimaginable smallness, of abysmal stretches of geological time when we were nothing, of supernumerary galaxies and indeterminate subatomic behavior, of a kind of mad mathematical violence at the heart of matter have scorched us deeper than we know.

And the Total Library is where God may go to die because even Leibniz’s famous question—Why is there something when there might have been nothing?—has an answer within it, as the physicist Brian Greene notes (on page 295 of his extraordinary book, The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos):

In the Ultimate Multiverse, a universe consisting of nothing does exist. As far as we can tell, nothingness is a perfectly logical possibility and so must be included in a multiverse that embraces all universes.

And Green reminds us that the Total Library needn’t just be thought of in alphabetic terms; it may be mathematically infinite as well:

It’s a version of Jorge Luis Borges’ story ‘La Biblioteca de Babel,’ in which the books of Babel are written in the language of mathematics, and so contain all possible sensible, non-self-contradictory strings of mathematical symbols.

So there it is. No exit from Updike’s “mad mathematical violence.” And within that Total Library may be mathematical simulations of parts of the Total Library itself. You may be in one of those. You might think you’re flesh and blood, but you might just be a very near simulation of flesh and blood running on a computer. Like a crocodile represented in pigment, you may be a human being represented in electricity passing through ones and zeroes. Your form is convincing; your origin and material medium for expression different from what you suppose. You might be the illusion of a presence that is standing in for an absence (part of Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s definition of art, by the way). That’s the possibility–the nightmare–Martin Savage is looking for ways to test.

Pleasant dreams?

File:Goya - Caprichos (43) - Sleep of Reason.jpg

Goya’s “The sleep of reason produces monsters.” Image source: Wikidpedia Commons.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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3 Responses to Is Our Universe A Computer Simulation?

  1. Pingback: My World View: Mechanical Atheism – The Matrix? « myatheistlife

  2. Pingback: An Infinity of Doppelgängers: The Jaw Dropping NYT Science News Story You May Have Missed | Prometheus Unbound

  3. Pingback: And the “computer sim universe” is still running in the background too, it seems | Uncommon Descent

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