Our Virtual Reality Universe

by Ian O'Neill on January 15, 2008


What if the Universe was in fact a simulation? A product of some information processor, creating space and time, energy and matter? What if the Big Bang was the whole simulation booting up, beginning billions of years of space and time calculations? Can we possibly understand our consciousness as a subroutine in an advanced number crunching machine? A new paper published by the Centre for Discrete Mathematics and Theoretical Computer Science, University of Auckland, asks us to keep an open mind and suggests if we look at the complexity of physical laws of our known universe, many paradoxes may be explained if we view our physical reality as a virtual reality.

Virtual reality is a term that has been used frequently in sci-fi novels and movies since the early 1980’s but the term artificial reality can be traced back to the 1970’s. Movies such as Tron, The Matrix and Lawnmower Man centre around the possibility of fully immersible virtual realities. It is only very recently however, with advanced interactive gaming systems and the design of complex virtual worlds online and on home computers, that we can experience worlds of sufficient detail that we can be fooled into believing what we are experiencing approximates physical reality. Additional systems have been engineered to provide the user with feedback from the virtual world they are interacting with (whether it is a rumble in the joypad or wired gloves giving the user a sense of touch), enhancing the experience beyond purely a visual one.

Taking a look at physics in our universe, many paradoxes and uncertainties exist. Quantum physics is one such field highlighted in Brian Whitworth’s research and considered to be “strange” physics, giving some justification to his theory we might actually be immersed in a virtual reality world:

While virtual reality theory seems strange, so do other current theories of physics, e.g. the many-world view of quantum physics proposes that each quantum choice divides the universe into parallel universes. [...] Even relatively main-stream physics theories are quite strange.” – The Physical World as a Virtual Reality.

Although this research pushes the envelope of the most outlandish physics theories, it is not so hard to imagine that advanced information processing may be complex enough to govern the dynamics of an entire universe (if the information processor was advanced enough). Our physical universe, after all, is approximated through physical equations and mathematical reasoning, why can’t the laws of our “physical” reality be approximated by virtual reality? If this can be done, do we actually exist in a virtual world?

Source: arXiv.org publication (abstract and full paper download)

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Hello! My name is Ian O'Neill and I've been writing for the Universe Today since December 2007. I am a solar physics doctor, but my space interests are wide-ranging. Since becoming a science writer I have been drawn to the more extreme astrophysics concepts (like black hole dynamics), high energy physics (getting excited about the LHC!) and general space colonization efforts. I am also heavily involved with the Mars Homestead project (run by the Mars Foundation), an international organization to advance our settlement concepts on Mars. I also run my own space physics blog: Astroengine.com, be sure to check it out!

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