Is the Universe a Computer Simulation?

“There is a theory which states that if ever anyone discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable.  There is another theory which states that this has already happened.”—Douglas Adams, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe


This article is based primarily on two sources: “Are You Living in a Computer Simulation?” by Prof. Nick Bostrom and “Constraints on the Universe as a Numerical Simulation” by physicists Silas Beane, Zohreh Davoudi and Martin J. Savage. They approach the problem of determining if our reality is a computer simulation from the philosophical and scientific perspectives respectively. There’s no shortage of others who have plenty to say on the subject, but I like these guys because Bostrom seems to be the first respectable, academic type to take the possibility seriously, and Beane et al. because they actually came up with a potential way to test for it. Of course, my primary interest in this topic is how it could be related to what we experience as the paranormal. UFOs, ghosts, psychic phenomena and any other form of weirdness you can think of take on a whole new meaning if they are a part of a system controlled by an intelligence that frequently intervenes in its simulation in weird ways and/or has a huge number of “bugs” in its program.

computer codeI make no apologies for not being able to better describe what types of technology could make simulations on this scale possible because there is most likely no one “alive” in this simulation (if it is one) who can. Also, the term “posthuman” gets used a lot by most of the authors who write about this subject without ever really defining what that means and for the same reason as above: no one really knows what a posthuman civilization will look like or if it ever has or will happen. A posthuman society might be in possession of unimaginable computers, or they could be fused with their technology so that they are as much machines as organic matter…or something else that we can’t even presently conceive of. Although I’ve never seen it explicitly stated, some of the writers on this subject do tend to hint that they are including possible non-terrestrial civilizations as our simulation creators. Personally, I wouldn’t dream of leaving extraterrestrials out of the mix. They make it so much more fun to think about.

Prof. Bostrom’s exploration into the possibility that our reality is a simulation has more to do with logic and probability than science. Nevertheless, he makes an interesting case. He basically breaks his reasoning down into three possibilities:

  1. Few, if any, civilizations make it to a posthuman stage, and so the possibility of them running any advanced reality simulations is moot.
  2. Some civilizations do make it to a posthuman state but have no interest in running simulations.
  3. Some civilizations do make it to a posthuman state and do run massive computer simulations – maybe lots of them. Therefore, there are likely many more simulated realities than real realities, which means that we are most likely living in a simulation.

He seems to think that possibility 3 is the most likely. I tend to lean toward possibility 2 for reasons that I’ll get into later.

My apologies to Prof. Bostrom if I have oversimplified too much. Then again, philosophers do tend to be rather long-winded .And they do like to use a lot of big words and technical terms just to show us peasants how much smarter they are than those of us who have to actually work for a living and contribute something tangible to society. So upon reflection, too damn bad Bostrom if you don’t like it that I made your windbag ramblings coherent to the masses.

Wow. Apparently I have some real pent-up hostilities toward philosophers.

He doesn’t elaborate much on the third possibility except to say that it is, naturally, the only one that really matters for simulation theorists. This lack of elaboration may be due to the limitations imposed on him by not wanting to cross academic boundaries by engaging in needless speculation, a hindrance that I am not bound by and fully intend to walk all over with impunity. (There are some perks to not being a professor of philosophy at Oxford, although I’m guessing that this is one of the few.) He does use the term “ancestral simulations” a number of times, implying that the only ones who could be running these simulations are our descendants, apparently for reasons of historical curiosity. However, we need not limit ourselves so arbitrarily. Who these people or beings are and what their motivations and intentions may be is fair game for wild speculation by us laymen. More on this to come.

Now for the science portion of our presentation – always more interesting than philosophy.

If our universe is a simulation, then it is logical to conclude that there must be some limits imposed on it. A program of infinite complexity would require a computer with infinite capabilities, or so it would seem to us today. While such a computer might someday be possible, we can’t take it for granted that such a machine is running our proposed simulation. With this in mind, physicists Silas Beane, Zohreh Davoudi and Martin J. Savage theorize that if our universe is a simulation being done using a three-dimensional lattice design like the ones currently being used to create mini-universe simulations, then some of these limitations ought to be detectable, most likely in the area of high energy physics. ”This means that if the universe as we know it is actually a computer simulation, there ought to be a cut off in the spectrum of high energy particles. And it just happens that there is exactly this kind of cut off in the energy of cosmic rays, a limit known as the Greisen–Zatsepin–Kuzmin (GZK) cut off.” ¹

For those of you who want to read it straight from the horse’s hoof, here’s one of the highlights from near the end of their Constraints on the Universe as a Numerical Simulation.



Well duh. Tell us something we don’t know. That was the basic premise of my fourth grade science fair project. I came in second to a kid who made a model of the solar system out of ping pong balls.

For the tiny number of you who don’t have a solid working knowledge of advanced physics, let me put it in terms that even you poor sods can understand.cosmic rays

Think of a computer simulated universe in digital photography terms. The reason digital photos get pixelated if you enlarge them too much is that you start to see each individual pixel, which is actually one square on a grid, each containing only one color. Digital photographs, like impressionist paintings, are best viewed from a distance. If you get too close, all you see are splotches of color. In a computer simulation lattice, each cell in the grid could be thought of as a pixel in our reality, but our simulated universe is so high-resolution that our senses and even our most advanced devices can’t detect them. It takes an ultra-high-energy source like a cosmic ray and the GZK cut off to “pixelate” a cell in the lattice, revealing cosmic rays to be anisotropic (non-uniform) and thereby, theoretically, exposing our universe for what it really is…maybe

(If this analogy isn’t accurate enough for some of you science geeks, then write your own damn article, Poindexter.)

There are a number of potential problems with this theory, most notably that the whole thing could be completely wrong. Another is that cosmic rays aren’t a phenomenon that are easily isolated and measured like the actual length of a Subway sandwich. But it does indicate that there may be good reasons to consider that our reality may, in fact, be a computer simulation. Naturally, all of this raises a lot of deep questions like “What if the creators of our simulation are a simulation themselves?” If you’re interested in that sort of thing, I refer you to Mark Solomon’s On Computer Simulated Universes. Those sorts of questions are really beyond the scope of this work. Dr. Solomon managed to write a whole book about them, albeit a short one.

What isn’t beyond the scope of this article and is, in fact, my whole reason for writing it is to ask that if our reality is a simulation, then why are they (whoever they are) running it? All of the academic types just assume that it is us in the future doing it for reasons of historical curiosity, but that makes absolutely no sense to me. To run an accurate simulation of the past would require a vast amount of information about the lives and motivations of billions of people. If you really look at history, sometimes seemingly insignificant people made huge differences, and these are just the ones that we know about. We couldn’t possibly simulate the differences made by those that we don’t know about. Without knowing every action and all of the ramifications of each one for every human being who has ever lived, how could your simulation be accurate? And if it isn’t accurate, it’s just insanely complex historical fiction. Of what possible use could that be?

If we are able to someday confirm the digital nature of our existence, what would that mean for us? Are we still sentient, or is the illusion of sentience just part of the program? Do our programmers know or care that we are starting to ascertain the nature of our existence? Could that be our purpose? Is understanding the nature of your existence what makes you truly sentient? Do our creators care any more about us than we care about characters in a video game? (So many questions. Help us, Dr. Solomon!)

If our simulation is some sort of test, it would stand to reason to suppose that there is at least one way to pass and probably more than one way to fail. If that is the case, does the outcome matter to our creators? Might they be willing to alter the program to make it harder or easier if they decide we’re having too easy or difficult of a time? There are a number of events in history that would seem to suggest some sort of “intervention from above.” Were these fate, miracles, happenstance, dumb luck, or something else? Of course, the only way that they would have to interact with us to achieve their desired effects would be through the program—either by altering it from the outside or interfacing with it somehow. How might that look? Could our “aliens” and other assorted paranormal beasties actually be the designers tweaking their program? In a computer simulation, any form of weirdness could occur, either by design or due to a glitch in the system. A ghost could be an artifact of a character that wasn’t properly deleted by the system after their “death.” Elementals, or tulpas—entities allegedly created by humans either by an act of will or fervent belief—could be another sort of glitch. I have long suspected that something like this is behind the religious miracles that have defied explanation, although I lean more toward a sympathetic magic type explanation. There may turn out to be no real difference between the two if we are all just code. Or maybe the program can alter itself in ways its designers may or may not have been aware of at the outset. Perhaps even parts of a sufficiently advanced program can have, or develop, freewill.

So if this is right, it turns out that there really is a God and his angels, it’s just that in this case, God is the project coordinator and the angels are the software engineers who do all of the actual work. Maybe religion has had it all wrong from the very beginning. God isn’t supernatural; He’s super-technological. Is that sacrilege or just another way of looking at things? In his book The Key, Whitley Strieber reports that the one he calls the Master of the Key told him that everything, even the soul, is science. The Master also stated that some gases could be used for memory storage in advanced forms of artificial intelligence, an idea that seemed absurd at the time but may turn out to be correct. He sounds like someone who knows a lot about AI. Perhaps he was a messenger from our programmers, although some of the other stuff that he said wouldn’t make much sense in that context. So could we be part of a program and still have some sort of a soul? Is God diminished if he is a scientist rather than a spirit? I leave that to the individual to decide.

Some argue that simulated people would be “philosophical zombies,” to which I reply, “You think that most people aren’t philosophical zombies?” But seriously, the concept of the philosophical zombie does pretty accurately describe many of our paranormal visitors. Perhaps our programmers feel that these beings serve a worthwhile function in the simulation, but they see no need to waste their time making them fully sentient as their interactions with us are relatively brief. In The Mothman Prophecies, John Keel wrote about a phone conversation he had with an entity that called itself Mr. Appel and was somehow involved in all of the weirdness going on around Point Pleasant, West Virginia in 1966-67. Keel said that it became apparent as they spoke that there was nothing that Mr. Appel didn’t seem to know—except who or what he was—two pretty important things not to know about one’s self. Creatures as diverse as the grays, the Men in Black in their various guises, some apparitions (particularly the ones labeled “psychic impressions”), and even the disembodied voices heard by schizophrenics often seem to have no real sense of self. The grays and MIBs in particular have been describes in many cases as being machine-like.

multiple earthsA simulation could also account for some of the oddities of quantum physics that have led to exotic ideas like the multiple universes theory, in which everything that can happen does, in separate but equally real universes. Maybe all of the new universes being constantly created in this theory are just new facets of the simulation being created in order to explore all possible outcomes. Perhaps the physics of the “real world” of our programmers is pretty straightforward and simple. They might have decided to make the rules of this reality more bizarre, complicated and unpredictable just to see how we would deal with it. That really wouldn’t make this place much different from the realities that we create for lab rats which have very little in common with their natural habitat. Very few rats live in mazes or are routinely injected with mind altering chemicals in their natural state. We do this to them because we learn from their reactions to the simulated realities that we create for them. Should we suppose that we are different, especially if we’re just pieces of code in a program? Maybe they don’t care for our feelings any more than most of us care for the wellbeing of rats. There could even be a fringe group of goofy extremists fighting for our rights called PETODE: People for the Ethical Treatment of Digital Entities. If so, I’d say that they’re losing.

Jacques Vallee has said many times that the UFO phenomena seem to act as a “belief control system.” What better way to alter the beliefs of some of your simulated people than to inject something that they previously believed was impossible into their routine existence? Something as benign as a dog passing us on the street and bidding us a good morning would send most of us scurrying to see the next available psychiatrist for fear that we were losing our marbles.²

It might be hard for you to think of yourself as part of a computer program. Nobody wants to find out that they’re imaginary. But think of it this way…

Okay, I’ve got no way to frame that possibility in any way that will make you feel any better about possibly being a fictional character. On the other hand, if you are an imaginary character, then so is everybody else. All of those people who have done more with their lives than you could have ever dreamed of doing only did so because that’s how they were programmed. Bill Gates is only a billionaire computer genius because he’s a tiny piece of advanced software being run by a computer so complex that even he could never possibly conceive of it. That’s what really made him more successful than you. Feel better now?

Tune in next time when we’ll look into the possibility that our universe is actually a hologram. After that, we’ll take a look at the most bizarre UFO abduction case that I’ve ever encountered and see if either the simulation or hologram scenarios could possibly be able to account for all of the mind-bending, credulity straining insanity contained therein.


1. Damien Gayle, Do We Live in the Matrix?

2. Something like that did supposedly happen to a couple of police officers once, by the way. I think it was in Chicago in the early 1900s.

and all the devils are here




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