The Very Real Questions About a Simulated Universe

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Are we living in the universe as we think about it, or a digital simulation of that universe so advanced that it even simulates our own consciousness? What would be the difference between the two, and how could we tell? 

Asimov Grab

You can watch the 2016 Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate live on April 5.

© AMNH


First posed more than a decade ago, these questions may sound like the stuff of science fiction, but they’re generating increasingly serious inquiry from philosophers and physicists alike.

At the 2016 Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate, five distinguished panelists will join host Neil deGrasse Tyson to discuss whether the world we live in is a software simulation—and if it is, what that means for everything from the laws of physics to whether you still have to pay your rent (which, probably yes).

NGC 4414

We can see galaxy NGC-4414, but is it real, or just part of a computer simulation?

© NASA


Tickets to the April 5 debate, which is one of the Museum’s most anticipated annual events, are sold out, but you’ll still be able to watch the debate live from the LeFrak Theater.

However you’re watching, we’ve put together a crash course of pieces to read and watch on the subject before show time—or after the debate, if you just can’t get enough.

Are You Living in a Computer Simulation?—While various pieces of fiction have speculated along similar lines, this 2003 paper by philosopher Nick Bostrom sparked serious scientific debate.

Is Our Universe a Fake?—Space.com presents an essay from author and intellectual Robert Lawrence Kuhn featuring numerous voices on both sides of the conversation.

Cosmic rays offer clue our universe could be a computer simulation—If our universe is a simulation, there should be some evidence right? Some researchers suggest we’re already seeing hints to that effect.

If you’re looking for material to watch rather than read, this 2009 presentation by Australian philosopher and Asimov Debate panelist David Chalmers offers a quality breakdown of the ideas at play that you can put away during lunch.

For a more encyclopedic listing of resources, visit Nick Bostrom’s website, where he curates content about the argument from voices around the world.