THE question of whether we live in a real world or a simulated one has plagued philosophers for centuries – but now scientists believe they finally have found a way to test the theory.
Professor Silas Beane, a theoretical physicist at the University of Bonn in Germany said that his group of scientists have developed a way to test the ‘simulation hypothesis’.
The idea has been debated by the greats of philosophy, from Plato to Descartes, who speculated that the world we see around us could be generated by an ‘evil demon’.
The successful film franchise, ‘The Matrix’, also helped spawn the idea that what we think is our everyday life is in fact a simulation generated by an all-powerful computer.
But now more than two thousand years since Plato suggested that our senses only give us a poor reflection of objective reality, experts believe they have cracked the riddle.
Professor Beane told BBC Radio 4′s Today programme that his proposal could be the beginning of a new period of discovery.
The test would see scientists using mathematical models known as the lattice QCD approach in an attempt to recreate – on a theoretical level – a simulated reality.
To identify what these constraints would be, scientists would have to build their own simulation of the universe.
They hope to see whether such an exercise would be theoretically possible – and what the constraints on the ‘evil demon’ might be.
Lattice QCD is a complex approach that that looks at how particles known as quarks and gluons relate in three dimensions.
Professor Bean said: “We consider ourselves on some level universe simulators because we calculate the interactions of particles by basically replacing space and time by a grid and putting it in a box.”
“In doing that we face lots of problems for instance the box and the grid size breaks Einstein’s special theory of relativity so we know how to fix this in order to get physical predictions that are meaningful.”
“We thought that if we make the assumption that the so-called simulators face some of the same problems that we do in terms of finite resources and so on then, if they are doing a simulation and even though their box size of course is enormous and the grid size can be very small, as long as the resources are finite then the box size will be finite, the grid size will be finite.”
“And therefore at some level for instance there would be violations of Einstein’s special theory of relativity.”
Philosophers have cautioned that there is still some way to go before we find out whether the universe is simulated. Dr Peter Millican of Hertford College, Oxford said: “There are two main issues, one is whether the speculation even makes sense and the other is supposing it makes sense whether there is any good reason to think it is plausible.
“The other problem is evidence. It seems to me that the evidence that is looked for is not that convincing.”
Descartes said the evil demon that he believed controlled the universe is “as clever and deceitful as he is powerful, who has directed his entire effort to misleading me.”
But he countered that his ability to think was, at least, proof enough that he was real, writing: “I think, therefore I am.”
Plato said that reality may be no more than shadows in a cave but the cave dweller, having never left the cave, may not be aware of it.
Lucy Kinder, Telegraph.co.uk