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 —

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7 most notorious and excessive Roman Emperors

These Roman Emperors were infamous for their debauchery and cruelty.

Nero's Torches. A group of early Christian martyrs about to be burned alive during the reign of emperor Nero in 64 AD.

1876. Painted by Henryk Siemiradzki.
Politics & Current Affairs
  • Roman Emperors were known for their excesses and violent behavior.
  • From Caligula to Elagabalus, the emperors exercised total power in the service of their often-strange desires.
  • Most of these emperors met violent ends themselves.

We rightfully complain about many of our politicians and leaders today, but historically speaking, humanity has seen much worse. Arguably no set of rulers has been as debauched, ingenious in their cruelty, and prone to excess as the Roman Emperors.

While this list is certainly not exhaustive, here are seven Roman rulers who were perhaps the worst of the worst in what was one of the largest empires that ever existed, lasting for over a thousand years.

1. Caligula

Officially known as Gaius (Gaius Caesar Augustus Germanicus), Caligula was the third Roman Emperor, ruling from 37 to 41 AD. He acquired the nickname "Caligula" (meaning "little [soldier's] boot") from his father's soldiers during a campaign.

While recognized for some positive measures in the early days of his rule, he became famous throughout the ages as an absolutely insane emperor, who killed anyone when it pleased him, spent exorbitantly, was obsessed with perverse sex, and proclaimed himself to be a living god.

Caligula gives his horse Incitatus a drink during a banquet. Credit: An engraving by Persichini from a drawing by Pinelli, from "The History of the Roman Emperors" from Augustus to Constantine, by Jean Baptiste Louis Crevier. 1836.

Among his litany of misdeeds, according to the accounts of Caligula's contemporaries Philo of Alexandria and Seneca the Younger, he slept with whomever he wanted, brazenly taking other men's wives (even on their wedding nights) and publicly talking about it.

He also had an insatiable blood thirst, killing for mere amusement. Once, as reports historian Suetonius, when the bridge across the sea at Puteoli was being blessed, he had a number of spectators who were there to inspect it thrown off into the water. When some tried to cling to the ships' rudders, Caligula had them dislodged with hooks and oars so they would drown. On another occasion, he got so bored that he had his guards throw a whole section of the audience into the arena during the intermission so they would be eaten by wild beasts. He also allegedly executed two consuls who forgot his birthday.

Suetonius relayed further atrocities of the mad emperor's character, writing that Caligula "frequently had trials by torture held in his presence while he was eating or otherwise enjoying himself; and kept an expert headsman in readiness to decapitate the prisoners brought in from gaol." One particular form of torture associated with Caligula involved having people sawed in half.

He caused mass starvation and purposefully wasted money and resources, like making his troops stage fake battles just for theater. If that wasn't enough, he turned his palace into a brothel and was accused of incest with his sisters, Agrippina the Younger, Drusilla, and Livilla, whom he also prostituted to other men. Perhaps most famously, he was planning to appoint his favorite horse Incitatus a consul and went as far as making the horse into a priest.

In early 41 AD, Caligula was assassinated by a conspiracy of Praetorian Guard officers, senators, and other members of the court.

2. Nero

Fully named Nero Claudius Caesar, Nero ruled from 54 to 68 AD and was arguably an even worse madman than his uncle Caligula. He had his step-brother Britannicus killed, his wife Octavia executed, and his mother Agrippina stabbed and murdered. He personally kicked to death his lover Poppeaea while she was pregnant with his child — a horrific action the Roman historian Tacitus depicted as "a casual outburst of rage."

He spent exorbitantly and built a 100-foot-tall bronze statue of himself called the Colossus Neronis.

He is also remembered for being strangely obsessed with music. He sang and played the lyre, although it's not likely he really fiddled as Rome burned in what is a popular myth about this crazed tyrant. As misplaced retribution for the fire which burned down a sizable portion of Rome in the year 64, he executed scores of early Christians, some of them outfitted in animal skins and brutalized by dogs, with others burned at the stake.

He died by suicide.

Roman Emperor Nero in the burning ruins of Rome. July 64 AD.Credit: From an original painting by S.J. Ferris. (Photo by Kean Collection / Getty Images)

3. Commodus

Like some of his counterparts, Commodus (a.k.a. Lucius Aelius Aurelius Commodus) thought he was a god — in his case, a reincarnation of the Greek demigod Hercules. Ruling from 176 to 192 AD, he was also known for his debauched ways and strange stunts that seemed designed to affirm his divine status. Numerous statues around the empire showed him as Hercules, a warrior who fought both men and beasts. He fought hundreds of exotic animals in an arena like a gladiator, confusing and terrifying his subjects. Once, he killed 100 lions in a single day.

Emperor Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) questions the loyalty of his sister Lucilla (Connie Nielsen) In Dreamworks Pictures' and Universal Pictures' Oscar-winning drama "Gladiator," directed by Ridley Scott.Credit: Photo By Getty Images

The burning desire to kill living creatures as a gladiator for the New Year's Day celebrations in 193 AD brought about his demise. After Commodus shot hundreds of animals with arrows and javelins every morning as part of the Plebeian Games leading up to New Year's, his fitness coach (aptly named Narcissus), choked the emperor to death in his bath.

4. Elagabalus

Officially named Marcus Aurelius Antoninus II, Elagabalus's nickname comes from his priesthood in the cult of the Syrian god Elagabal. Ruling as emperor from 218 to 222 AD, he was so devoted to the cult, which he tried to spread in Rome, that he had himself circumcised to prove his dedication. He further offended the religious sensitivities of his compatriots by essentially replacing the main Roman god Jupiter with Elagabal as the chief deity. In another nod to his convictions, he installed on Palatine Hill a cone-like fetish made of black stone as a symbol of the Syrian sun god Sol Invictus Elagabalus.

His sexual proclivities were also not well received at the time. He was likely transgender (wearing makeup and wigs), had five marriages, and was quite open about his male lovers. According to the Roman historian (and the emperor's contemporary) Cassius Dio, Elagabalus prostituted himself in brothels and taverns and was one of the first historical figures on record to be looking for sex reassignment surgery.

He was eventually murdered in 222 in an assassination plot engineered by his own grandmother Julia Maesa.

5. Vitellius

Emperor for just eight months, from April 19th to December 20th of the year 69 AD, Vitellius made some key administrative contributions to the empire but is ultimately remembered as a cruel glutton. He was described by Suetonius as overly fond of eating and drinking, to the point where he would eat at banquets four times a day while sending out the Roman navy to get him rare foods. He also had little social grace, inviting himself over to the houses of different noblemen to eat at their banquets, too.

Vitellius dragged through the streets of Rome.Credit: Georges Rochegrosse. 1883.

He was also quite vicious and reportedly either had his own mother starved to death or approved a poison with which she committed suicide.

Vitellius was ultimately murdered in brutal fashion by supporters of the rival emperor Vespasian, who dragged him through Rome's streets, then likely beheaded him and threw his body into the Tiber river. "Yet I was once your emperor," were supposedly his last words, wrote historian Cassius Dio.

6. Caracalla

Marcus Aurelius Antoninus I ruled Rome from 211 to 217 AD on his own (while previously co-ruling with his father Septimius Severus from 198). "Caracalla"' was his nickname, referencing a hooded coat from Gaul that he brought into Roman fashion.

He started off his rise to individual power by murdering his younger brother Geta, who was named co-heir by their father. Caracalla's bloodthirsty tyranny didn't stop there. He wiped out Geta's supporters and was known to execute any opponents to his or Roman rule. For instance, he slaughtered up to 20,000 citizens of Alexandria after a local theatrical satire dared to mock him.

Geta Dying in His Mother's Arms.Credit: Jacques Pajou (1766-1828)

One of the positive outcomes of his rule was the Edict of Caracalla, which gave Roman citizenship to all free men in the empire. He was also known for building gigantic baths.

Like others on this list, Caracalla met a brutal end, being assassinated by army officers, including the Praetorian prefect Opellius Macrinus, who installed himself as the next emperor.

7. Tiberius

As the second emperor, Tiberius (ruling from 42 BC to 16 AD) is known for a number of accomplishments, especially his military exploits. He was one of the Roman Empire's most successful generals, conquering Pannonia, Dalmatia, Raetia, and parts of Germania.

He was also remembered by his contemporaries as a rather sullen, perverse, and angry man. In the chapter on his life from The Lives of the Twelve Caesars by the historian Suetonius, Tiberius is said to have been disliked from an early age for his personality by even his family. Suetonius wrote that his mother Antonia often called him "an abortion of a man, that had been only begun, but never finished, by nature."

"Orgy of the Times of Tiberius on Capri".Painting by Henryk Siemiradzki. 1881.

Suetonius also paints a damning picture of Tiberius after he retreated from public life to the island of Capri. His years on the island would put Jeffrey Epstein to shame. A horrendous pedophile, Tiberius had a reputation for "depravities that one can hardly bear to tell or be told, let alone believe," Suetonius wrote, describing how "in Capri's woods and groves he arranged a number of nooks of venery where boys and girls got up as Pans and nymphs solicited outside bowers and grottoes: people openly called this 'the old goat's garden,' punning on the island's name."

There's much, much more — far too salacious and, frankly, disgusting to repeat here. For the intrepid or morbidly curious reader, here's a link for more information.

After he died, Tiberius was fittingly succeeded in emperorship by his grandnephew and adopted grandson Caligula.

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