New experiment could prove world is a simulation

Behind the veil: Computer-simulated reality, as imagined in ‘The Matrix’.

Philosophers have long worried that the world might be an advanced computer simulation. Now, physicists have come up with a way to test whether our Universe is actually a fake.

Researchers at the University of Washington claim to have devised a way of answering one of the deepest questions of philosophy: how can we be sure that the world is really real?

Our senses tell us that we live in a physical, common-sense world – a world of things we can see and smell and touch. But, as we know from dreams and hallucinations, our senses can be deceived sometimes. What if, in fact, they are deceived all of the time?

Philosophers have been worrying about this for centuries. Plato thought humans were like prisoners watching shadows on the wall of a cave. Descartes feared that our senses might be manipulated by an evil demon. Berkeley thought reality was the imagination of God.

More recently, debate has centred around the idea that humans might be plugged into a simulation, generated by a powerful supercomputer. The whole universe, everything we can see and feel, could be nothing but a series of ones and zeros, endlessly calculated and recalculated in the circuitry of some enormous machine.

This is a less ridiculous idea than it might appear. Modern computers can already simulate the workings of the universe. At the moment, though, the area that can be simulated is about the size of the nucleus of an atom. It will take generations before whole-universe simulation is possible, if it ever happens at all.

So why worry? The key argument was made ten years ago by philosopher Nick Bostrom. If you assume, he pointed out, that humans will one day be able to make simulated universes, you should expect that there will be many simulated universes created in the real universe, each with its own simulated population. So, the most likely explanation for what we observe as our ‘world’ is not that we are in the single real universe but that we live in one of the many simulations.

This is where the Washington researchers come in. By looking at the simulations we can do today, and analysing their ‘lattice quantum chromodynamics calculations’ they claim to have discovered subtle and detectable ways in which a simulated universe would be different from the real thing.

Testing the Matrix

Some will say: Quick! Let’s do the test! If the world isn’t really real it will destroy all our ideas of morality and truth. We must find out as soon as possible if we are all really living a lie.

Others might not be in such a hurry to find out. If the world is all fake, they could argue, isn’t it better simply not to know?

Finally, some philosophers argue that it doesn’t matter either way. The objects we see and feel around us are definitely real, they argue, whether they are made out of atoms and particles or just numbers in some futuristic memory core.

You Decide

  1. In the film,The Matrix, the hero, Neo, is offered a choice. Stay in a comfortable but simulated world, or leave the simulation for a life of hardship in the real universe. Which would you choose?
  2. Can you be certain of anything in the world?

Activities

  1. Scientists are trying to answer the philosophical question: How do we know the world is real? In groups, try to think of three other deep philosophical questions. Then, as a class, vote on which one you would like to see answered.
  2. Imagine you discovered that the universe as we know it is really a simulation, built by a race of super-advanced post humans. Would that change how you behaved? Write a brief guide: How to Live in a Virtual World.

Some People Say...

“Life is no more real than a dream.”

What do you think?

Q & A

I don’t believe people actually worry about this stuff!
It’s amazing what people worry about. In this case, though, the fundamental worry is quite an important one: how can we be sure we really know what we think we know?
What? I know what I know!
Do you? I’m sure there have been times when you strongly believe something – you think you know it – and it turns out not to be true. How can you be sure all your beliefs are not like that? There is a whole branch of philosophy, called epistemology, devoted to the study of knowledge: what are the best ways of getting it; how we know it when we have it, etc. That study of knowledge and how to get it leads straight to the great discoveries of modern science.

Word Watch

Plato
The Greek philosopher Plato (427 - 347 BC) believed that the material world of things was a flawed reflection of a higher and more real world of perfect ideas. So, a table in the real world is just an imperfect reflection of the Platonic Ideal of Table.
Descartes
René Descartes (1596 - 1650) speculated that we might be completely deceived in our perceptions by some evil controlling demon. Trying to find one thing he could be certain of, he came up with the famous phrase: ‘I think therefore I am.’ From this basis, he believed, he could prove the existence of a benevolent God.
Berkeley
George Berkeley (1685 - 1753) was an Irish philosopher who believed that perception and reality were the same thing. If something is perceived by the senses, it is real, regardless of whether it is made of physical stuff. Indeed, Berkeley believed that there was no such thing as physical reality or matter – only thoughts and ideas.

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