Physicists Prove That Reality Is Not — Repeat, Not — a Computer Simulation

Mathematical roadblocks with quantum mechanics indicate that the so-called simulation hypothesis is impossible.

Even more mind-blowing: Quite a few physicists and philosophers believe that the computer simulation theory might actually be true. These aren’t cranks, either. At this year’s Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate conference in Washington, DC, celebrity scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson estimated that the odds are about 50-50 that all of reality is actually a computer simulation run by an advanced civilization. Elon Musk has suggested that it’s almost a certainty.

The good news, for those of us who prefer our reality unsimulated, is that a team of physicists in Europe recently discovered proof that it is mathematically impossible for the known universe to be a computer simulation. Theoretical physicists Zohar Ringel and Dmitry Kovrizhin from the University of Oxford and the Hebrew University in Israel published their findings last week in the journal Science Advances.

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The details get rather complicated — more on that in a bit — but to fully appreciate the development, it’s helpful to know more about the simulation hypothesis.

It goes like this, according to proponents: Assuming that enormous amounts of computing power will be available in the future, then it’s likely that future generations will use these computers to run detailed simulations on the history of the species. These sims would be so powerful that individual characters within the simulation — you and I — would essentially be conscious entities.

In fact, if we accept the idea that future computing power will be practically limitless, then it’s actually probable that we’re already living in some kind of cosmic hard drive. If future computers can spit out limitless simulated universes, then the likelihood of our current reality being the “base reality” are virtually zero.

It’s worth reading up on the simulation hypothesis, if for no other reason than it keeps your speculative synapses limber. Physicists and metaphysicists both have built some genuinely persuasive arguments for the idea, citing various mathematical and logic anomalies that suggest we’re in a cosmic computer simulation.

Getting back to the hard math, the authors of the new research paper actually stumbled across their evidence while trying to develop a computer simulation of their own.

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Kovrizhin, co-author of the research, said that the team was simulating certain quantum phenomena occurring in metals when they ran into a subatomic brick wall.

“In quantum mechanics, which is our basis for understanding of nature, a system of particles is described by a Hamiltonian, an object which can be written as a matrix,” Kovrizhin wrote in an email to Seeker. “In order to simulate a quantum mechanical system one would have to diagonalize this matrix on a computer, which is a computationally difficult task when the size of the matrix becomes large.”

As an example, Kovrizhin described the mathematics required to simulate just a few particles spinning in a particular quantum state. Due to the nature of quantum physics, the computational resources required to simulate such a system would grow rapidly and exponentially.

“Storage of such a matrix for 20 spins would require a terabyte of RAM,” he said. “If one tries to extrapolate this to few hundreds of spins, then building a computer with such a memory would require more atoms than there are in the universe.”

In other words, when you factor in the complexity of the quantum world — a surreal level of reality that we can observe and can prove exists — then any kind of traditional computer simulation model would quickly fail.

The specifics of the proof get a lot more complicated, of course. If you speak math, you can peruse the full text of the open-access journal article here.

From a strictly pop philosophy point of view, an obvious question still remains. If we are indeed trapped in a cosmic computer simulation, isn’t it possible that the advanced civilization programmed this very discovery into the system, as a way to throw us off the scent?

“This is an interesting philosophical question,” Kovrizhin acknowledged. “But it is outside physics, so I would rather not comment on it.”

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