New hypothesis argues the universe simulates itself into existence

A physics paper proposes neither you nor the world around you are real.

Tetrahedrons in the sky above New York City

Tetrahedrons representing the quasicrystalline spin network (QSN), the fundamental substructure of spacetime, according to emergence theory.

Credit: Quantum Gravity Institute
  • A new hypothesis says the universe self-simulates itself in a "strange loop".
  • A paper from the Quantum Gravity Research institute proposes there is an underlying panconsciousness.
  • The work looks to unify insight from quantum mechanics with a non-materialistic perspective.

How real are you? What if everything you are, everything you know, all the people in your life as well as all the events were not physically there but just a very elaborate simulation? Philosopher Nick Bostrom famously considered this in his seminal paper "Are you living in a computer simulation?," where he proposed that all of our existence may be just a product of very sophisticated computer simulations ran by advanced beings whose real nature we may never be able to know. Now a new theory has come along that takes it a step further – what if there are no advanced beings either and everything in "reality" is a self-simulation that generates itself from pure thought?

The physical universe is a "strange loop" says the new paper titled "The Self-Simulation Hypothesis Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics" from the team at the Quantum Gravity Research, a Los Angeles-based theoretical physics institute founded by the scientist and entrepreneur Klee Irwin. They take Bostrom's simulation hypothesis, which maintains that all of reality is an extremely detailed computer program, and ask, rather than relying on advanced lifeforms to create the amazing technology necessary to compose everything within our world, isn't it more efficient to propose that the universe itself is a "mental self-simulation"? They tie this idea to quantum mechanics, seeing the universe as one of many possible quantum gravity models.

One important aspect that differentiates this view relates to the fact that Bostrom's original hypothesis is materialistic, seeing the universe as inherently physical. To Bostrom, we could simply be part of an ancestor simulation, engineered by posthumans. Even the process of evolution itself could just be a mechanism by which the future beings are testing countless processes, purposefully moving humans through levels of biological and technological growth. In this way they also generate the supposed information or history of our world. Ultimately, we wouldn't know the difference.

But where does the physical reality that would generate the simulations comes from, wonder the researchers? Their hypothesis takes a non-materialistic approach, saying that everything is information expressed as thought. As such, the universe "self-actualizes" itself into existence, relying on underlying algorithms and a rule they call "the principle of efficient language."

Under this proposal, the entire simulation of everything in existence is just one "grand thought." How would the simulation itself be originated? It was always there, say the researchers, explaining the concept of "timeless emergentism." According to this idea, time isn't there at all. Instead, the all-encompassing thought that is our reality offers a nested semblance of a hierarchical order, full of "sub-thoughts" that reach all the way down the rabbit hole towards the base mathematics and fundamental particles. This is also where the rule of efficient language comes in, suggesting that humans themselves are such "emergent sub-thoughts" and they experience and find meaning in the world through other sub-thoughts (called "code-steps or actions") in the most economical fashion.

In correspondence with Big Think, physicist David Chester elaborated: "While many scientists presume materialism to be true, we believe that quantum mechanics may provide hints that our reality is a mental construct. Recent advances in quantum gravity, such as seeing spacetime emergent via a hologram, also is a hint that spacetime is not fundamental. This is also compatible with ancient Hermetic and Indian philosophy. In a sense, the mental construct of reality creates spacetime to efficiently understand itself by creating a network of subconscious entities that can interact and explore the totality of possibilities."

The scientists link their hypothesis to panpsychism, which sees everything as thought or consciousness. The authors think that their "panpsychic self-simulation model" can even explain the origin of an overarching panconsciousness at the foundational level of the simulations, which "self-actualizes itself in a strange loop via self-simulation." This panconsciousness also has free will and its various nested levels essentially have the ability to select what code to actualize, while making syntax choices. The goal of this consciousness? To generate meaning or information.

If all of this is hard to grasp, the authors offer another interesting idea that may link your everyday experience to these philosophical considerations. Think of your dreams as your own personal self-simulations, postulates the team. While they are rather primitive (by super-intelligent future AI standards), dreams tend to provide better resolution than current computer modeling and are a great example of the evolution of the human mind. As the scientists write, "What is most remarkable is the ultra-high-fidelity resolution of these mind-based simulations and the accuracy of the physics therein." They point especially to lucid dreams, where the dreamer is aware of being in a dream, as instances of very accurate simulations created by your mind that may be impossible to distinguish from any other reality. To that end, now that you're sitting here reading this article, how do you really know you're not in a dream? The experience seems very high in resolution but so do some dreams. It's not too much of a reach to imagine that an extremely powerful computer that we may be able to make in not-too-distant future could duplicate this level of detail.

The team also proposes that in the coming years we will be able to create designer consciousnesses for ourselves as advancements in gene editing could allow us to make our own mind-simulations much more powerful. We may also see minds emerging that do not require matter at all.

While some of these ideas are certainly controversial in the mainstream science circles, Klee and his team respond that "We must critically think about consciousness and certain aspects of philosophy that are uncomfortable subjects to some scientists."

Want to know more? You can read the full paper online in the journal Entropy.

More on the hypothesis and the backstory of the Quantum Gravity Research institute —

From 1.8 million years ago, earliest evidence of human activity found

Scientists discover what our human ancestors were making inside the Wonderwerk Cave in South Africa 1.8 million years ago.

Inside the Kalahari Desert Wonderwerk Cave

Credit: Michael Chazan / Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Surprising Science
  • Researchers find evidence of early tool-making and fire use inside the Wonderwerk Cave in Africa.
  • The scientists date the human activity in the cave to 1.8 million years ago.
  • The evidence is the earliest found yet and advances our understanding of human evolution.
Keep reading Show less

How cell phone data can help redesign cities

With the rise of Big Data, methods used to study the movement of stars or atoms can now reveal the movement of people. This could have important implications for cities.

Credit: Getty Images
13-8
  • A treasure trove of mobility data from devices like smartphones has allowed the field of "city science" to blossom.
  • I recently was part of team that compared mobility patterns in Brazilian and American cities.
  • We found that, in many cities, low-income and high-income residents rarely travel to the same geographic locations. Such segregation has major implications for urban design.
Keep reading Show less

The never-ending trip: LSD flashbacks and a psychedelic disorder that can last forever

A small percentage of people who consume psychedelics experience strange lingering effects, sometimes years after they took the drug.

Digital illustration of a fractal

Imageman Rez via Adobe Stock
Mind & Brain
  • LSD flashbacks have been studied for decades, though scientists still aren't quite sure why some people experience them.
  • A subset of people who take psychedelics and then experience flashbacks develop hallucinogen persisting perception disorder (HPPD), a rare condition in which people experience regular or near-constant psychedelic symptoms.
  • There's currently no cure for the disorder, though some studies suggest medications may alleviate symptoms.
Keep reading Show less
Mind & Brain

Mind and God: The new science of neurotheology

Studies show that religion and spirituality are positively linked to good mental health. Our research aims to figure out how and why.

Quantcast