Are We Living in a Computer Game? Neil deGrasse Tyson weighs in on the debate about whether our universe is real or simply a simulation.

By Abigail Beall for MAILONLINE

Originally published April 6, 2016

  • Neil deGrasse Tyson gathered a group of scientists for the debate
  • These included theoretical physicists Max Tegmark and Zohreh Davoudi
  • Tegmark explained quarks and leptons behave entirely mathematically
  • Some equations have the same kind of codes that make browsers work
  • Davoudi added if it is a simulation, we can measure its physical limits

Everything around us seems real enough, but recently a growing number of scientists have started to wonder whether life is all just an incredibly sophisticated simulation.

Although the debate has been raging for years, Neil deGrasse Tyson recently gathered a group of eminent scientists in an attempt to put the theory to bed – or at least discuss ways to test it.

And the mathematical evidence seemingly points to the fact that our lives could be nothing more than an elaborate computer game-style existence.


DeGrasse Tyson gathered a group of scientists at the New York City’s American Museum of Natural History on Tuesday night for the debate.

Zohreh Davoudi, a theoretical physicist at MIT, was one of the panellists.



She has been working on a paper called ‘Constraints on the Universe as a Numerical Simulation’.

The paper proposes that if the universe is a simulation, we can measure predictable physical limits that are inevitable given the nature of any simulation.GroupPhoto

If predicted limits are found, it could be proof that our reality isn’t real.

When asked whether the idea scared her, Davoudi said ‘no I think it’s a fun idea!’

The event was part of the museum’s Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate series, which is held each year to commemorate the life of the science fiction author.

‘If you look at how these quarks move around, the rules are entirely mathematical as far as we can say’ said Max Tegmark, a cosmologist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

‘That makes me wonder if I were a character in a computer game that started asking the same kind of big questions about my game world, I would also discover eventually that the rules seemed completely rigid and mathematical.’

James Gates, a theoretical physicist at the University of Maryland, did not want to believe in the idea but was forced to by maths, he said.

He was solving equations a couple of years ago about quarks and leptons, when he discovered codes that make browsers work. ‘Why were they in the equations that I was studying about quarks and leptons and supersymmetry?’ he said.

‘That’s what brought me to this very stark realisation that I could no longer say that people like Max were crazy.’

Lisa Randall is a theoretical physicist at Harvard University, and does not believe in the idea.

She said the question of whether the universe is a simulation is only interesting in as far as we can test it.

‘Really, at first approximation we can’t distinguish it’ she explained.

‘So I think the interesting question is why do we feel compelled to want this to be true or even think this could be true?’

David Chalmers, a professor of philosophy at New York University, added that the question of whether we are in a simulation is a contemporary version of questions asked by Descartes about the nature of reality.

When asked the question of how likely the universe is a simulation, Tegmark said 17 per cent, and Randall said zero.

Philosopher Chalmers continued ‘we’re not going to get conclusive proof that we’re not in a simulation, because any proof would be simulated.’

However, the idea of the universe being a simulation is different to the hologram theory.

The holographic principle claims gravity in the universe comes from thin, vibrating strings. These strings are holograms of events that take place in a simpler, flatter cosmos.

The theory claims data containing a description of a volume of space – such as a human or a comet – could be hidden in a region of this flattened, ‘real’ version of the universe.

In a black hole, for instance, all the objects that ever fall into it would be entirely contained in surface fluctuations, almost like a piece of computer memory on contained in a chip.

In a larger sense, the theory suggests that the entire universe can be seen as a ‘two-dimensional structure projected onto a cosmological horizon’ – or in simpler terms, a projection.

If we could understand the laws that govern physics on that distant surface, the principle suggests we would grasp all there is to know about reality.

1 Comment on "Are We Living in a Computer Game? Neil deGrasse Tyson weighs in on the debate about whether our universe is real or simply a simulation."

  1. Very interesting!

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