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An Inside Job: Perceptions From a Simulated Universe

19/09/2013 12:34 BST | Updated 18/11/2013 10:12 GMT

Evidence from recent tests suggests that the entire universe, everything about our existence and perception, is part of a simulation, but what does this really mean for science and philosophy?

This may sound like a ludicrous suggestion and you may think I've been watching too much of The Matrix, but this exists as a genuine scientific theory that's currently being put to the test by physicists in Bonn, Germany, and at the University of Washington. Whenever we think about moving around, we think we have free realm; any point in space can be occupied by us. However, the researchers in Bonn have results that question this apparent misconception and argue that we are in in fact living by a set of rules, in a simulation, created by a possible "post-human" being.

So what does this really mean? In everyday life, not a lot. We're still organic beings with emotions, senses and memories, it just means our understanding of the universe changes.

And this is where it gets exciting.

This opens up a brand new realm for philosophy and science if it becomes accepted as a theory. We have brand new answers to the big questions; why we're here, how we started, what happens after we die, etc. From a religious perspective too, we could see belief systems adapting in the same way some of them did to incorporate evolution 150-odd years ago. Granted, we may not see a massive ideological shift come quickly, but the possibilities for change are seemingly endless (they're not, due to the now-apparent finite nature of the universe, but stick with me here).

A devoutly Christian author gave a personal view of the theory on the blog naturalnews.com, suggesting that, if the concept is true, then it scientifically 'proves' the existence of intelligent design and a 'creator' of sorts. From this perspective, it's easy to see why monotheistic religion may adopt this stance should the theory become adopted into the mainstream. Seeing the society that runs the simulation as a collective god seems like a logical progression, although we're much more likely to see a shift into Buddhism - but that's an entirely different discussion.

In the Natural News article, the author states that "upon death in the simulation, your consciousness leaves the simulation and returns to its source, which is the actual reality that transcends this one". Although this is a pretty bold statement to make at this stage in the theory's life, the idea behind it is an interesting one, as spiritualism could take the path of interpreting heaven/nirvana/moksa etc. as transcendence into the universe outside of ours. Although there is no scientific evidence that we can go beyond the reaches of the simulated universe we inhabit, religious followers would put faith in it as they have for thousands of years. It's the perfect marriage of science and religion many have waited for.

From a philosophical perspective, the simulation theory provides interesting new answers to the big questions, namely the all-time favourite 'why are we here?' Personally I quite like the fairly romantic idea that the authority running the simulation is searching for a way to perpetuate their existence, which may be in danger or simply as a precautionary measure. As evolved beings, it's ingrained within us to survive, and as the universe will one day come to an end, we will look to science to see how to prolong it. One way to do this could be to run amazingly in-depth simulations, one of which we could be living in now.

But this idea is far from universal (I had to get a pun in there somewhere), as other suggestions for the simulation include 'to have a human experience', 'to test ourselves' or even 'as a gimmick', amongst others. While all these suggestions are quite different from one another, they all have some sort of justification behind them, the first opening up even more philosophical questions about the society operating the simulation, the second leaning towards spiritualism, and the third more of a comment on the way we use technology.

This brings us onto how much the outside society tampers with our universe, if at all. Obviously, we'd like to think that we're free-willed and autonomous (why would we be allowed to think we're living in a simulation in the first place?), but again, we can't be sure how much of what we do is of our own accord.

There's no definite proof that we are in a simulation, but additionally there's a lack of evidence to contrast the theory. With more and more evidence appearing out of the Bonn experiments, it's looking exceedingly likely that the simulation theory may become part of mainstream debate over the coming years.