Our Virtual Reality Universe

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)

64 Replies to “Our Virtual Reality Universe”

  1. I believe that some people have argued that if intelligent life is at all possible in the Universe (or perhaps that should be Multiverse these days?) then it is *more* likely that we are living in a simulated universe than a real one, arguing that once a single civilization reaches the point where simulating universes is possible, then they will generate a whole bunch of them (or something like that).

    Of course, since we probably would never be able to tell the difference (sim vs real) then I see little point in worrying about it!

  2. Not too hard to believe, at least for me. But its not really an answer to life, the universe, and everything. It still leaves open the question of who made the computer, why was it made etc…
    Funny, we are really good at answering the hows but never they whys. Its still a really fun theory though

  3. So, is this website real? Am I really typing? How do I know this guy exists. I’ve never met him. Then again, that wouldn’t matter if I’m biological pixels would it?

    Rubbish! Certainly we can contemplate our own navels more intellegently than this?

  4. This is an interesting theory.

    I’d have to think that as physics (and ourselves) progress, we would begin to unravel the “code” of the universe. We could possibly even add our own “sub-routines” to this code.

    This could allow us to overcome many, if not all, all of the problems we see in physics today. Overcoming the light speed barrier, time travel, even harnessing energy and resources on a galactic scale!

    Not to mention the cheat codes we could add in to give ourselves infinite lives 🙂

  5. (con’t from above…)

    Perhaps once we get to the level that we could re-program the universe’s code, the level that the creators of the simulation themselves are at, maybe we “win” (or lose, depending on how you look at it) and it’s game over…

  6. LOL, that was indeed funny Kevin. Thanks for the lift out of the heavy thinking! Funny though, nobody has mentioned String Theory which is quite agreeable with virtual actualities.

  7. Arthur C. Clarke wrote an extremely short Sci-Fi story once. It goes like this:

    God said: ‘End program.’
    Then the Universe ceased to exist.
    God spoke again: ‘Delete program.’
    And the Universe has never been in existence.

  8. in response to rory, it might matter a lot whether the universe was made with great intentionally or more experimentally like a video game. When humans are able to create fully immerseable virtual worlds that are as convincing as our physical reality we might casually spin off virtual worlds with no forethought of the inhabitants’ experiences.

    Making any potential God a “great designer” or a computer programmer just knocking out a convincing simulation.

  9. Mmm interesting…

    I note two “curious” things:

    1. Speed limit. As the paper goes, the light speed limit is set by “processor speed”. If we were indeed in a VR universe, then this limit would increase eventually. Or the processors in the reality outside our VR aren’t upgradeable?

    2. As in a videogame, in wich everything is created as you turn to see it, our universe is created as we measure it. To “save resources” in the supposed processor. Well, what about alien life? Is more than likely that the universe is plagued with life, so, at any given point, all the universe must be created because any number of aliens will be observing all of it at the same time.

  10. For me was one of concepts, besides game or playground of some programmers or etc, of our existence in virtual world – to solve problems, which are confused our creators. for example if they can create thousands of virtual worlds, then they can experiment with so much different concepts and ideas. and if our virtual world reaches point, where we are beginning to create our virtual world, then maybe we are able to solve or help solve puzzles of our gods. for example an ability of some being to understand himself from the higher level, than it’s existence level.

    we solving our existence, when we are just SPORE game in someone’s hands 🙂

  11. Someone once suggested that all those times when you are looking for something that you cannot find like a teapot or a pair of shoes that then suddenly turn up right where you were looking previously maybe evidence that the universe has just had a glitch in a sub routine. If everyone logs when these experiences occur then we can check to see if there is any correlation. This being a tentative first step to proving whether we are real or not.

  12. There are at least two possibilities for our identities, using this thought experiment: either we’re beings in another universe experiencing a virtual world, or we’re virtual beings ourselves. The latter would require vastly more computing power, but since we don’t know the conditions of the universe that has created our simulation, that’s not necessarily a problem.

    Ending the VR program would have markedly different effects upon each scenario–we’d either “wake up” in another universe or we’d simply cease to exist.

  13. i guess religion is not far from the truth then, we die to awaken in the real world. right?

  14. Well one difference would be that, in a simulation, one would expect the universe to exhibit quantisation effects (oh… it does). In a “real” universe, while there’s no reason quantisation effects could not exist, there’s also no reason to suppose that they would.

    Additionally if we are indeed in a virtual universe, there’s the interesting possibility of being able to contact whoever built it. I find it extremely unlikely that such a possibility exists for the “real” universe (whether that happens to be ours, or some other universe in which ours is being simulated).

  15. It’s The Brain in a jar all over again. A little updated but the same concept. Think about this, the entire population of the world is involved in this simulation? If not then I just Imagined you guys out there wrote all of the above for my amussement. Which one of you Is’nt Real?

  16. Neo where are you when we need you? Maybe we are a simulation within a simulation within a simulation, in an endless chain folding back on itself. If we were to awake from our present simulation, we’d have to do it all over again in the next. If we have any control over how the simulation goes, I’m up for lots of money, willing women, and fast cars in the next level up. C U there!

  17. I actually scanned this paper. A few notes: Whitworth is not a cosmologist, he’s an information specialist. This doesn’t invalidate his theory, but I found the detail at least a little interesting.

    This is not a new idea (and Whitworth admits the same in his paper, citing The Matrix at a couple points in the paper. David Brin also wrote a rather fun novella on the same idea, where the narrator-hero finds out that he is one of several computer programs competing to be the best–and whoever wins will be lifted up to the next level of competition. Greg Bear also wrote a marvelous novel called MOVING MARS where the universe was just a bunch of data. Flip a bit and you could change the property of that data, including the location (come to think of it, the same idea was in his novel, ANVIL OF STARS). Then there was that movie, I believe it was called The Thirteenth Level, or something. So no one comfortable reading or watching SF should be surprised at the idea.

    My personal take: ahhh shades of Intelligent Design…

  18. A scientific theory should be verifiable. What possible experiment would prove this theory? Also, it assumes consciousness is nothing but computation (so if a computer is sufficently fast, it will be conscious.) I find this assumption more than a little strange.

    Finally, running windows in a virtual machine is less efficient than running it in on bare hardware. And even a vm requires a real physical computer to run on, unless the vm is running on a vm, etc. but even in that case, you can’t get away from paying for an actual computer! So even if the theory is assumed, it doesn’t eliminate physical reality; just moves it elsewhere (or elsewhen?) Consciousness and reality exist; just maybe they’re not what we think!

  19. I rather like this theory. It makes sense of the very credible notion that time does not exist (see Barbour, Stenger, Gödel, et al.) As Einstein said it is a persistent illusion. A virtual universe might account for our time sense. Using our own experience with virtual computer worlds we know that the “creatures” inhabiting these realms have a very different sense of time than we on the “outside” do. Eons can pass for them while it is only a matter of hours for us. And we also know that a clock doesn’t measure anything “real” or objective. Relativity theory tells us that. It actually just measures distance as it relates to the speed of light.

    And then there is the matter of conscious creatures communicating with one another. Truly a great mystery. Telepathy is the ideal form of communication, obviating the need for so many media and devices. In a virtual reality that should be possible. It might also explain why SETI has been such a bust. Would telepathic creatures have a need for radio?

  20. it occurs to me that there is a certain narrow mindedness here, call me crazy but the last time I checked I was not made of numbers. While they are an amazing way of approxiamting reality, it is, in the end, only an approximation. An equation describing something is a long way from what it actualy describes. This whole view seems to me to be yet another anthropocentric claim that starts with a deluge of assumptions on the nature of life in the universe and the nature of our understanding of the universe. It is a fun idea but that is about it, at least at this stage in our understanding anyway.

  21. in response to Prince Mishkin, I would say to look into the temporal asymetry that many plainly see in entropy. As well I would find it hard to argue for the perception of time by any thing in a simulation we have thus far created. Until there is a level of self awareness I don’t think that it can be, validly, said to have a sense of time at all.

  22. A. John, the movie was The Thirteenth Floor.
    B. If we are all part of a simulation then “101010” could be the answer.
    C. What is the point of debating something that can never be proved or observed? It just wastes clock cycles.
    Remember: If we are in a simulation then our parameters are already fixed and will prevent us from proving it. If we are not then we are wasting our time on imaginary journies!

  23. Further to Haplo’s two interesting notes further up regarding the light speed limit being set by processor speed and everything is created as you turn to see it.

    The light speed limit wouldn’t really need to be set by processor speed if we are all virtual the program could take as long as it likes to calculate any moment and as we’re part of the program we wouldn’t even notice as all of our calculations and inputs would all be relative to that anyway. Also most of space could be like a precalculated set of data sitting ready and just feeding into our program to speed things up. And as they could run a simulated universe it’s ok to assume that they’d beable to have a universe without life in it presimulated and recorded so that active calculations could focus on the simulated life and wherever it gets to. Which also sort of covers the point of would everything be calculated as you look at it as a pre simulated environment would be far easier than having to calculate every persons view, one which if alot of us decided to look through telescopes (or indeed with many more picture capturing telescopes) would suddenly increase the amount of processing needed. If need be the whole simulation could be paused to give it upgrades such as when a probe or people are sent out into space you can imagine that a internal program event would trip that would pause the program and allow for say a moon or mars environment to be properly set up for the appropriate amount of individuals in the simulation.

  24. I submitted that I am the VR program and all of you are simply stimuli sent to me to illicit a response and improve the simulation.

  25. Reminds me of Terry Pratchett’s excellent book ‘The Science of Discworld’…

    Or that perpetual favourite ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide…’.

    In all seriousness though – it is a great deal of fun to contemplate such a theory, but it’s hard to not think about the TREMENDOUS computational requirements for such a simulation. Imagine precisely describing the time-evolution of the position and velocity of even just 1 Kg of ordinary particles! Even that is neglecting the description of their interations, quantum effects etc.

    It’d put the BlueGene supercomputers to shame anyway…

  26. about cpu upgrade…don’t think, that outer world, where we are simulated, can have other aspects, that represent time for example. maybe million years for us, aren’t TIME for observers?

    don’t forget, that “101010” isn’t for sure true answer, that’s our present model how we see computation, but even in our progress it can change by reaching new knowledges. so who knows, what model they use? if they can model such universe, then i am pretty sure, they have some other way to compute complex simulations.

  27. Serious now…

    About computers, stop thinking linear. Linear computers are computers like Blue gene/L and for that matter, your pc on your desk.

    Computers powerful enough to calculate an entire universe will be quantum computers. Quantum computers have this weird property that whatever it has to calculate, the answers pops out the moment you put the “question” in, no matter how comlex the calculation is.

  28. if computer will stop – you will not know that fact.

    if you freeze all this thing, we even have no chance to notice, due that fact, that we are in freeze state too. after loading save file, we continuing to live, like it was no stopping at all. we are lucky bastards for that case and we are immortal in some way 🙂

  29. Never seen so many responces to a subject, and answers thar were mostly garbage.

    Willie, Shakes, said… “to be, or not to be, that is the question! Therefore, if you are = REAL

    Virtual = Abstract thought = NOT REAL

    Look up at the night sky through a telescope, and ask yourself… “Is thar Abstract, or Real?”
    If, your answer is REAL, then you are! If, its’ not then you don’t exist, your virtual, at least in your own mind. Get a GRIP. . .

    OK, now thar you’ve done that… Get a LIFE, and keep it real.

  30. What if the virtual world is so real that you think it’s real to you (in your perspective)? Cause i mean we’re in the simulation right so what ever we se in the simulation will seem to be real to us.

  31. I can’t believe how narrow-minded some people are.
    This idea is not new, I have already thought of this before.

    See it like this: Imagine a video game, the characters on that video game live there and that is all they know, everything is real to them because their universe and them are of the same matter. They have no idea that they are part of a video game and that actually everything they do is being watched by the outside world, the creator/s of the video game- the REAL reality. Obviously you have to imagine a more advanced video game where the creator (or user/player) is not actually playing the characters but that the characters instead were created with free will and do as they please.
    It is all very feasible to me, we think this is the real reality because this is all we know. We cannot see the creators of the program because it’s impossible (can the video game characters see YOU?) however I think it could be possible to somehow communicate with them.

    As another guy here said before, the big bang could have just have been the start up of this virtual reality (virtual to the creators but the real reality to us). Our reality is enclosed within this universe that’s why it would be impossible for us to know or prove what was there before the big bang or whether there are other universes out there. This is our boundary.

    Just think about it…

  32. In reponse to Adriana – it’s like the ripples on a fish pond theory. The fish inside the pond sense that there may be more to the universe upon seeing the ripples – but they don’t have the capacity to ever find out. The ripples mean a very different thing to the fish then they do to the observer of the pond.

    Even if we (humans hypothetically feel we are sound in our theoretical knowledge of the universe (our environment), the possibilities for what is contained outside can only be conceived of, in our minds, relative to the limitations of everything within the universe.

    It simply isn’t within our capacity to imagine something which isn’t grounded in our own observable experience.

  33. Valid. But nevertheless is a good way of trying to make sense of us and the environment we live in. There is a good probability we will never know the actual and utter truth of everything.

  34. I’ve read the paper and my God, it’s the truth!
    It explains everything.

    So religion is right after all. There is a ‘god’ who runs us. And we will never find out why. And we also never will find out if this ‘god’ is real, or whether this ‘god’ is in a virtual reality of its own.

    And if he is, how many more virtual reality levels are there above us? And why? Does a final level exist? If so, what caused the existance of that final level?

    Why does anything exist? The simple fact that we can ask this question (whether we are real or not) implies that ‘nothing’ isn’t an option anymore. Something/someone decided that existance exists…

    So, even more questions which will never be answered. If ‘matter’ isn’t real, does life matter?

    We’d better make the best of ‘our’ world, because there’s no way out of this ‘godgame’.

    Just a few thoughts…

  35. wow just reading all these theories… my pizza is beconing pixellated on my virtual plate, better assimilate it before i terminate!!!

  36. this may only be interesting to me, but one question i’m pondering is, if this is indeed a virtual reality and it has been ‘designed’, does our universe have to be this big to produce self-aware lifeforms?

    to restate – if it is as rare as it seems for intelligent life to evolve on a planet in our reality then maybe the vastness of the apparent universe is really necessary.

    that would make the universe more of an experiment i.e. if the “Creator” sets certain parameters and laws for a hypothetical universe, then how many planets will eventually evolve intelligent life out of the billions and billions that exist?

    we may be more rare than we realize, even in the vast universe.

    the whole thing’s a mind bender and i like it. perhaps true evolution for a human being is being open to the unknown possibilities of the universe. y’know, life Q advised to Picard in the last Next Gen episode.

    maybe the way to survive the simulation and be eternal is to have really interesting thoughts and ideas and an openness to unknown possibilities. science only ever got anyone so far. as far as i’m concerned the next great leap is embracing the mystery.

  37. hmmm… so, we (and everything in the universe/multiverse) could be a bunch of networked kids playing The Sims (or Civilisation, etc)?! … and now we are all going down the same path, where generations from now, we will simulate our own “universes”… which means evolved humans will be “Gods”…

  38. Thanks Chuck, at least two of us gotta’ grip!

    Look all you brainy people, ask yourself one question… “Does your virtual world contain ANY organtic life forms? Point out ANY non-organtic life-form on this planet that’s ALIVE?

    Because both-sides of the “Looking Glass” it is either “Organic”, or “Robotic”, can’t have it both ways — Sorry!

    Again, get a GRIP… then get a LIFE (a real one).

  39. Quantum Physics states that nothing exists until it is observed. Therefore our reality is virtual.

    If everything exists regardless of observation only then is reality actual.

    The laws of conservation therefore favor our reality as virtual.

    Also due to conservation laws reality is based on a fractal pattern which is why it looks all the more real to us.

  40. When you assume we are living in a VR, maybe you’ll find out that the real creator’s universe may look similarly to our virtual one. For example, just take
    any simulation game like Sims etc. The world in such a game is represented to be fairly identical to our world, there’re
    trees, houses, skies, clouds… people, animals; there’re some physics. We simply like to emulate our world and sometimes
    enhancing some of its features or adding new ones.
    Additionally, no simulation is perfect of 100%,
    sometimes there occur things (bugs etc.) that we point out to be unreal. Unreal for us. Everything we simulate
    is absolutely real for the hypothetical beings in that game’s virtual reality. You can define a new
    sun in the sky, change the physical laws respectively and the people in there will believe that.

    Now just think of us as the virtual beings. The physical laws we’re experiencing every day is an obviosity for us.
    The gravity force works. The light travels through space. But what if the creators are just “laughing” on this because they cannot
    imagine this to be real in their own universe and it’s everything just a result of “someone’s fantasy”?

    We can make any sci-fi VR, we can simulate any physical law and it’s effects. What if this is being done
    by the intelligence that created our world?

  41. Everyone has gone digital insane but if you look at the nature of existence it all seems to be one big sinewave and so if you run fast enough you’ll see your own backside in the distance!

    food for thought!

  42. The universe gave the birth of bio life.
    Bio live gave the birth of the information life.
    information life gave birth to the universe

    and right maybe be do all this around a lot of time ago.. and run it on any place of universe to generate new v realities, or bio lifes, et, all as same way programmed.. . the most intertesting is were is the backup files 🙂

  43. The universe gave birth bio life
    Bio live gave birth to information life
    information life gave birth to the universe

    so we are in vritual world , lol, yes like that video game .. and like Arthur C. Clarke wrote,.. so our mind must be the only way to connect with outside of the reality and.. am sure the Creator make some code backup and of course has all controls under his hand.. the only question if he is alive too , if he dead , we are lost 🙂


    1. Aware one is living in a spectrum of reality.

    2. Develop the ability to view other spectrums of reality. (Good old fashion Shamanism).

    3. Develop the ability to travel and live freely within other spectrums of reality.

    4. Create one’s own spectrum of reality, dimension or universe.

    5. Place other beings in this created spectrum of reality to create simulated situations as a study tool and potential energy supply.

    An alien species of enough technological advancement could in fact create a simulated environment as elaborate as this world, reality and universe. If in fact it was flawless, one would not know whether one was in it or not and this remains the case.

    Movies: The Truman Show, The Matrix, This

  45. It’s clear that the people who don’t understand this theory, know very little about computation, and the governing laws of our universe. So disregard their petty attempts at disproving a THEORY.

    As for the constant question of “Why” on this theory, heres a thought….

    say, in 1,000 years from now, the battle between Creation and The Big Bang still rage on.

    So announces his solution to the debate…

    He uses the massive quantum computational power available in his time to create a computer simulation.

    Based on what science knows, he recreates the Big Bang, making sure all physical laws are identical to his own.

    The outcome would determine whether the Big Band Theory really could spawn life.

  46. Or if you want to get deep. Maybe our simulated universe is just an assignment for some higher level Physics Class.

    Tomorrows Homework:

    With the software provided, create a simulated universe. Set your own Physical Laws and record the results. Was life able to evolve? Were any species sentient? If so, how far did they advance within the alloted time frame?

  47. e=mc2
    ie, slowing down energy is possible to create mass. this is what CERN is seeking at this minute , ie the Higgs bosson or God particle, the particle that creates mass. Once we find it, in about 10 years time maximum, we just need to combine it with the part of the code of the universe that we know [newton, einstein etc equations] ie, the programming of this VR, and we will be able to create our own 3-d VR. for instance i can imagine we will soon have a machine, similar to a microwaves, where inputting rubbish, to be decomposed at atomic level, will output whatever we ask for, say, a diamond.

  48. It reminds me of the scene in Animal House where Tom Hulce and Donald Sutherland, sitting in the bathroom… in the dark… stoned out of their minds… get into a conversation about how our universe may be a molecule in the thumbnail of some giant and, the inevitable evolution of that theory, that one molecule in our thumbnail could be an entire universe….

  49. interesting topic….been going since january….(conversation)….if this in a vr wouldnt one of the primary laws be “comprehension of vr “unimaginable” ? it could get sticky if all the ants realize what the ant farm looked like , was made of, and where all the sand came from….and not to mention whos running it!!!! but …..why?….

  50. I find this theory extremely interesting and worth investigating with our own minds.

    I find it fascinating how similar it is to the “holographic universe theory” and how elegantly it fits with what wise, sincere followers of a Creator have said.

    How interesting it is to realize that this theory could even be a possibility! Regardless if you believe in a Creator or not, we have to admit that this universe it not what we see it as.

  51. Having found this topic by accident when searching for an update to the ‘Big Bang’ experiment at CERN, I have been reading with delight that so many other people seem to find this aspect of a Virtual Reality, real. Sorry, no pun intended.

    I have thought, that we each live in our own VR, sort of like a mini-universe, that is evolved purely by our own individual actions.
    And whilst we interact with other VR universes (other people), when things happen in our lives, we see it a certain way because the other people in our lives, are just the projections of VR.
    So, for you (the other people), you also have this mini-universe that you live in. So, if I were to interact with you, I would perceive this interaction one way and you (in your mini-universe) would perceive it, completely differently.
    So, in effect we are the only ‘real’ people in each of our own mini-universes.

    But, with this theory comes a major headache.
    If we each are ‘real’ and the universes and people therein for each of us, is Virtual, who made them. Well I suppose the answer would have to be ‘us’.
    Did that mean that some major catastrophy happened and now we can only live in this way. i.e. there is now no real universe, only our VR mini-universes?

    But if not so, and you explanations of our VR is the true version, and ‘someone’ is playing the ‘game of the century’ with us, can you tell me, why did they make us so that we only use 10% of our brain capacity. Does that mean they intend for us to evolve to higher beings; or was just it a glitch in ‘programming’,
    Anyone have an answer for the excess brain capacity we don’t currently use?

  52. Imagine you went back in time 1000 years ago and showed people the technology we have today. They would think you were a god or God. They would not be able to understand what you were telling them. Dr. Timothy Leary proposed the idea that our brain power will increase as we evolve and move out into space. Think about all the advances we have made in the last 100 years and think about all the advances we will make in the future. We are just now starting to grasp what makes our universe tick and I love that I have the ability to use my imagination and expand my thinking and experience. The journey is more important than the destination.

  53. OK it doesnt neccesarily mean the world is fake. Think what every holy book sais. The bible and what not. You dont have to think of it as God is a computer programer but mor eon the lines of there realy is another dimmension. Outside the universe there is a god. There is a soul there is a heaven and hell. Im not trying to get all preachy on you people but it does make sence.

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