Is the universe a simulation?

A recent NY Times op-ed reintroduces the philosophical concept of the simulation hypothesis: the idea that the universe we live in is an elaborate computer simulation.

This is kind of based on the idea that mathematics has rules that, while expressed in a human-derived conceptual language, exist in a plane unto themselves. This concept has been explored by folks like Eugene Wigner, but the simulation hypothesis is still certifiably fringe from what I can tell. It would hold that these rules are what controls our simulated existence, and that each time we learn something about them, we’re pulling back the curtain just a little more.

The op-ed featured some recent mathematical research into this topic, which is looking for “observable consequences” of being in a simulation (the fringy-ness should be apparent in the opening to the conclusion: “In this work, we have taken seriously the possibility..”). These folks are saying “if the simulation were a simulation like this (in this case, a latticed hypercube of time-space), we should be able to detect how that world was set up using physical assessments of certain known phenomena (in this case, high energy cosmic rays). They conclude that as long as there is some limit to the resources available to the simulators, there must be ways of detecting the spacing within the lattice. Other research has focused on detecting this through changes in gravity around black holes in universes of different dimensions. It is interesting to me that the solutions proposed by these researchers, at least as described here, follow a method similar to that of Grimm et al.’s pattern-oriented modeling.

Working in simulation brings up plenty of epistemological issues regarding scientific representation. I think some of the most important of these for archaeologists are those which deal with relationship between a modelled entity and its real counterpart, and the nature and validity of computational “experiments”. Of course, that all becomes more or less moot if we are only part of a simulation ourselves. But what has me puzzled on this existential level concerns the more general role of simulation. Simulations are usually models, or ways of representing the interacting variables within a more complex system. They’ve been described elsewhere as “tools to think with”, a feature of the upcoming workshop at the CAA. But if our universe is a simulation, in the sense of a model, then what more complex phenomenon is our universe a model of?

Photo credit:  Sergey Galyonkin via Wikimedia Commons


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