The idea that the universe is a simulation seems like the plot of a novel where a dedicated astronomer discovers the truth and, against all odds, tries to prove it to a disbelieving public. While there has been no proof of such a theory, many mathematicians and philosophers have discussed the notion that the universe is nothing but a hologram created by a futuristic developer.
“Is the universe a simulation?” is the headline for the New York Times op-ed, which was written by Edward Frenkel, a professor of mathematics at the University of California, Berkeley. Frenkel discusses the unique line of thinking from mathematicians and philosophers, analyzing the history of abstract thought as well as the concept that everything we know is a hologram.
Frenkel’s op-ed discusses Platonism, the view that abstract objects exist. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy uses the example of “3 is prime” can describe an object much like the sentence “the moon is round.” According to Platonists, there is a difference between the number 3 and the moon as 3 does not exist in time and space, is not an idea that exists in our head and is not a physical object, but it exists. “It is more accurate to say that in the Platonist view, numbers exist (independently of us and our thoughts) but do not exist in space and time,” says the dictionary.
This abstract thinking has been the source of much discussion and philosophical debates as everyone can agree on math and can derive the same conclusions, be it the Pythagorean Theorem or a simple algebraic equation, but the ability to discover math remains a mystery. “It seems spooky to suggest that mathematical entities actually exist in and of themselves,” says Frenkel.
To resolve this mystery, some have made the argument that the universe is a computer simulation and that math and other discoveries are just parts of the code used by the computer designer of the future, notes Frenkel. The most popular proponent of the theory is Nick Bostrom, from Oxford University.
Bostrom’s research, known as the Simulation Argument, is hypothetical and its premise is based on the idea that a “post-human” civilization, described as the point “where humankind has acquired most of the technological capabilities that one can currently show to be consistent with physical laws and with material and energy constraints,” has incredible computing power.
With this computing ability, it’s very likely that someone will create a simulation, or multiple simulations, of the past and “statistically speaking, therefore, we are more likely to be living in a simulated world than the real one,” argues Frenkel. The simulation theory gained even more traction in 2012 when a group of researchers said there was a way to test this hypothesis by analyzing cosmic rays for any anomalies.
For now, the universe simulation hypothesis but even if it is wrong, Frenkel says the answer to understanding reality may be found in Platonism. Understanding how numbers can exist independent of humanity “may hold the key to understanding our own reality.”
A video of Bostrom discussing the Simulation Argument can be viewed below.