Sunday, December 15, 2019

Do We Live in a Simulated Universe?

Some time ago a reader asked me to look at a video by "Inspiring Philosophy" that discussed whether or not our universe might only be a simulation so that we might actually live in a virtual reality universe rather than a physical universe. That video was based on a 2007 paper by the informational computer scientist Brian Whitworth titled "The Physical World as a Virtual Reality." The reader's question, the video, and the paper sent me on a prolonged investigation as I read various papers on this provocative notion that we live not in an actual physical universe, but in some kind of computer simulation. The modern form of this argument was proposed by the philosopher Nick Bostrom in his 2003 paper "Are You Living in a Computer Simulation?" It seems appropriate that I was sucked into the "rabbit hole" of the virtual reality hypothesis since one of the classic movies that proposed our world is just a computer simulation was the 1999 film The Matrix, which also referenced the Alice in Wonderland rabbit hole in the dialogue when Morpheus is about to reveal to Neo the truth about their simulated universe and he says, "You take the blue pill—the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill—you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes." This journey of mine investigating the rabbit hole of a simulated reality has taken some time and consequently, I have not written a blog entry in about a month.

In some sense I'm not sure that this post is warranted or relevant for my blog. The purpose of my blog is to discuss various aspects of the relationship between science, Christian faith, and objective thought. I don't believe that my investigation into this subject necessarily gives much insight or adds much to the many writings that discuss this idea. Most of the articles that I find persuasive actually debunk the idea that we are simply a simulated universe such as those by physicists Sean Carroll or Sabine Hossenfelder or by informational scientist Brian Eggleston, and you can follow the links by clicking those authors' names above to find good reasons to disregard the simulation idea. It seems to me that those who take the idea seriously are not so much the educated scientists, but popular tech figures like Elon Musk who has promoted and popularized the simulation idea. I tend to side with the vast majority of expert scientists who believe there is much more evidence against the idea that we live in a simulation, rather than the few computer scientists and popular figures who have promoted the idea as probable.

But since I have spent far too much time deep in the rabbit's burrow on this subject, I probably should devote some space here to discuss a few ideas and see if there is any way I can relate the subject to the broader theme of this blog: that of science and the Christian faith. Rather than focus on the philosophical aspect of the simulation hypothesis (after all, the modern resurgence of this idea came from a philosopher not a scientist), I will focus on some of the scientific aspects of the original video (which was actually entitled "Digital Arguments for God's Existence") and the paper by Brian Whitworth on which it was based. In my next blog post I will discuss some of Whithworth's assumptions that are biased, presumptuous, and erroneous, and show that once those assumptions are reconsidered, then the idea that there is a transcendent intelligent creator God actually best explains his data.

The first thing to note is that the "science" that Whitworth presents to make a case that our universe is more likely a virtual reality rather than a physical reality shows a lack of clear understanding of what we actually know scientifically. After all, Whitworth has a Ph.D. degree in information systems, not in physics. But what I found most disturbing about the article is that Whitworth selectively skews aspects of science to support his hypothesis when they could just as easily refute his hypothesis. Let me provide an example of these two problems in tandem in the next paragraph, which will provide a fairly technical description, and so it may be challenging to understand if you don't like technical details. Suffice it to say that I will show that Whitworth doesn't totally understand the science and is selectively choosing effects that align with his proposal even though they could also be chosen to disprove his proposal.

Whitworth states that in a simulation all points on the "screen" are equal distance from the computer processor so there can be non-local effects like quantum entanglement. The wave function of two entangled objects can simultaneously be affected. But then he says that the finite processing speed of a computer would limit the maximum speed that a pixel could move across a screen, just as nothing in our universe can move faster than light. In fact, what we actually know is that entangled objects that are extremely far from each other do seem to be able to collapse their wave function simultaneously, but in doing so no information can be sent across the vast distances because information cannot be transported faster than the speed of light. Now if our universe were actually a computer simulation then information could be sent from one point in the screen to another point in the screen at the same rate the wave function is collapsed since all points of the screen are equal distance from the CPU. If that equidistance implies simultaneous collapse of the quantum wave function it must also imply that entangled objects should be able to send information instantaneously as their wave functions collapse, which definitely does not happen in our universe. It is inconsistent and illogical to use the fact that the screen is equidistance from the CPU to explain the simultaneity of entanglement, but then neglect that fact when trying to explain the finite speed of light because the speed of light is not just about how fast objects move, but also about how fast information can be sent from one place in the universe to another.

Whitworth also claims that all of the math of the universe should be simple because frequently used computer calculations must be simple. To show that the math of the universe is not so simple, I have put the math that describes the fundamental particles and forces of the universe, the so-called Standard Model, in the figure at the end of this article. Is this a "simple" algorithm that Whithworth requires to substantiate his hypothesis?

In order to support his idea, Whitworth makes assumptions about how the computer simulation might work that are not only arbitrary but seem unwarranted. He claims that Heisenberg's uncertainty principle could occur because the computer might use the same memory location for complementary object properties. But why would a computer large enough and powerful enough to simulate a whole universe with sentient beings try to conserve memory by putting complementary properties in the same memory location? Any computer with those capacities shouldn't have problems using a few extra bits, or maybe qubits, to provide sufficient memory to individually store information about complementary properties. Any programmer concerned with saving a few bits of memory is more likely programming on an old mainframe computer from the 1980's, not one that could simulate an entire universe.

At one point in the article Withworth says, "Science warns against selecting data to support a theory" but that is exactly what he has done in order to support his theory. He selectively chooses aspects of quantum theory that he thinks supports his theory, though he doesn't seem to understand quantum theory as most physicists do. He argues that all calculations must avoid infinities, yet our current understanding of Quantum Field Theory is full of infinities that we systematically and mathematically remove. To make his hypothesis work both space and time must be quantized (that is, have a minimal possible size) so he hypothesizes that they are, even though we have no supporting evidence and such quantization creates inconsistencies with Einstein's theory of special relativity (though these may be solvable.) He continually assumes that quantum theory is "strange" to objective reality but not to virtual reality, when actually it is only "strange" to a fully macroscopic understanding of objective reality. My critique of his science and his scientific and computational assumptions could go on for many more paragraphs, but my point has probably been made. His scientific understanding seems to be lacking and his choice of which science to use and how to apply it is highly selective. These reasons, among others, are why so few scientists accept the simulation hypothesis as having any real merit.

In the next blog post about this subject, I will discuss some of the erroneous and bias assumptions that must be made to support the virtual reality hypothesis. I will present an alternative idea: that the hypothesis of a transcendent intelligent creator God better fits the factual and relevant data presented by those who propose a simulated universe.

The Standard Model Lagrangian that describes the fundamental particles and forces in the universe. According to Whithworth the algorithms that describe the universe should be simple math. Is this simple math?


  1. the simulated universe idea is rather silly, but there is still no evidence for a transcendent intelligent Christian god or any other creator god.

    for a scientist, you make some very bad arguments. The universe may or not have begun with the Big Bang. In any case, it does not match the creation story in the bible. If you want to chuck that, then there is no need for the rest of the bible, no Adam from dirt, no need for Jesus Christ.

    The universe only appears designed to someone who needs a job for their god.

    There is nothing to show that the earth is special.

    Math does describe nature, and that has nothing to do with a god. Math and the laws of physics can simply be, no god needed.

    1. Actually, The creation of the universe from nothing (Big Bang) and what science has figured out about the development of the earth look a lot like Genesis 1. I first notice this similarity watching the History Channel Documentary on "How the Earth Was Made" back in 2008. You can get it on youtube or on Amazon. There is no way the Bible gets it correct without there being a God and it is the God of the Bible.

    2. Please show me where my arguments are bad in a way that doesn't just spout unsubstantiated rhetoric as you have done. The big bang exactly matches the Genesis story of creation as I have written many times about for instance at Design in the universe is not a religious idea but an idea found in scientific papers and journals. I suggest you read A Fortunate Universe by Lewis and Barnes. Also most scientists know the earth is special. I suggest you read Rare Earth by Ward and Brownlee. Maybe if you actually read the scientific literature rather than simply ridicule actual scientists, you might learn something.

    3. Isn't Luke Barnes a Christian?

    4. Luke Barnes is a Christian but Geraint Lewis isn't. The book A Fortunate Universe shows that two astrophysicists, whether Christian or atheist, agree that the design in the universe is real and unmistakeable and that the universe is finely tuned. That fact is undeniable. The Christian attributes the design to God and the atheist to a multiverse. But to deny that there is real design is to deny the published peer-reviewed science.

    5. There is, may I suggest, evidence for not only a transcendent intelligent Christian God, but a creator God. That evidence is the Nation of Israel, and the Hebrew people that exist today as they did 3500 years ago. Their great ‘come back’ in 1948 shows a intelligent being making this miracle and prophesy happen. Thus showing this Earth very special.
      As for math not needing God, we know the one who brought forth Infinitesimal Calculus, and also said, glorifying God; "Gravity explains the motions of the planets, but it cannot explain who set the planets in motion. God governs all things and knows all that is or can be done." Also saying; “Since every particle of space is always, and every indivisible moment of duration is every where, certainly the Maker and Lord of all things cannot be never and no where....God is the same God, always and every where. He is omnipresent not virtually only, but also substantially; for virtue cannot subsist without substance.…It is allowed by all that the Supreme God exists necessarily; and by the same necessity he exists always and every where....And thus much concerning God; to discourse of whom from the appearance of things, does certainly belong to Natural Philosophy” This is Sir Isaac Newton, perhaps the most influential scientist of all time, and believer.

  2. Over my earlier career I have developed in conjunction with other peers simulations of plant processes,military aircraft fire control system performance, projected investment projects and many others. In every case the purpose was to test that which was simulated under varying conditions, assumptions, uncertainties and "costs".

    Every simulation was of a real possible physical sequence of events that required understanding of and data from a very small portion of the universe where there existed an observable counterpart to that being simulated, where understanding would include the mathematics and physics. So the proposed simulation idea would require an entity to design and program the computer based on such knowledge of an actual universe essentially identical in all important ways to the simulation. This could easily become an infinite regress of course since that designer/simulator could be a simulation by another entity... Does there exist any simulation of a totally imaginary something that has no counterpart or source that in the simulators frame is totally existent from which the concepts and data are drawn? Doesn't seem possible. And further any earthly simulator is "inside" that which they simulate but the proposed simulator would by definition be outside or transcendent. That kind of being sounds identical to the GOd of the bible and being omniscient would have no need to create a simulated universe, et al to experiment, test etc. because Their design would be perfect having considered and known completely all outcomes and the result real by any definition.