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How Real Is Reality? It's Rather Hard to Tell

The very fact that the world is so difficult to replicate is part of the reason we intuit that the real world is actually real.​​

I'd like to think that in the old man bars of SimCity the old timers chatter about just how time flies. It boggles the mind, they say, to think that the same mayor has been in charge since they were young'uns, and that as these denizens get older, time just seems to keep picking up pace, even if it drags on at times—or, occasionally, feels like everything is at a standstill.

Once you really start diving into the academic nuts and bolts of reality, you start to realize just how tenuous our definition of what's real actually is. Take time. We don't have someone out there flipping the speed of our world in and out of Cheetah Speed, as is the case for our SimCity residents, but sometimes it feels like that, doesn't it?


This week on Motherboard we're celebrating our Perfect Worlds theme, which aims to probe at the real by exploring simulations. SimCity is a great case study, for as brilliant as the franchise is, it still makes for a poor analog of real-life cities, which are infinitely more complex. That's an obvious conclusion, but it's a point that's inherent to our own conception of reality.

Think about time. Time, one of the more strictly quantifiable measures in our universe, is bendy. Even the most precise clock in the world, which relies on trapping atoms of strontium in a lattice of lasers, is still beset by a bit of uncertainty. We intuitively assume that time moves forward, a perception that's surprisingly difficult to model. While Einstein's special relativity has seen challenges on the road to physics' holy grail, the theory of everything, there remains a natural allure to the concept of spacetime—the idea that matter and time are woven together in a fabric that's as malleable as we tend to perceive.

The very fact that the world is so difficult to replicate is part of the reason we intuit that the real world is actually real.

If we can accept that time is less strictly precise than we tend to take as given, the big question to follow is simple: If time's bendy, what else is?

Simulating and modeling the real world is incredibly difficult, if not impossible. For example, we still can't predict the weather more than a few days out partly because we simply don't have the processing power to model global weather data with enough resolution to provide long-scale predictive power. And the very fact that the world is so difficult to replicate is part of the reason we intuit that the real world is actually real.


Take a game like EVE Online, a massive alternate universe that's so complex, so immersive, and so real that user-run media conglomerates have popped up just to report on the real-life happenings in the game. Even there, slight imperfections add up to shatter the fourth wall; for as much as we get sucked into our digital lives, which can feel just as real as anything else, all it takes is one glance past the screen to remember that the real world is out here.

The digital constructs we work and play in are more and more convincing every year. It's old hat by now to observe that our physical and digital lives have blurred to become one and the same. And yet even then, we're learning that the real world we live in is less real than we actually think.

The more we learn about quantum mechanics, the more it seems like the special sauce that's missing from our simulated worlds is the sheer weirdness of our universe. The hypothesis that we're actually living in a multiverse is naturally compelling. We know our universe is expanding, but it's not as clear whether it's finite or not. If there is an edge to the universe, what's beyond the rim? Is there an edge where it just stops and sheer emptiness—if emptiness can even exist—remains? Or is our universe bouncing off of parallel universes, manipulating the very fabric of physics as they do so? And if things really are so malleable, how do we know that anything's really real at all?


Well, maybe we don't, at least on a universal scale. There's growing evidence for the hypothesis that our universe is not actually three dimensional at all, but instead is essentially a two dimensional hologram.

If correct, the hologram hypothesis would mean that, like time, matter and space itself are more flexible than we perceive. As Craig Hogan, the director of the Department of Energy's Fermilab Center for Particle Astrophysics, told Jason Koebler last August, "For thousands of years, we have assumed that space is made of points and lines. Maybe that is not right—it might be made of waves, the way that matter and energy are."

We assume that reality is concrete, despite it measurably being weird at times, in part because it's so hard to simulate and in part because it's so tangible. How do the residents of SimCity perceive time and reality when the game is off and stored in a save? They don't, because, well, they're not real. We humans, however? We can literally go out and touch the world and know it's there.

But can we? As Hogan explained, the profound conclusion of the hologram concept is that the "real world is the ultimate 4-dimensional video display." In other words, our perfect world is beginning to look a whole lot like a simulation.

Perfect Worlds is a series on Motherboard about simulations, imitations, and models. Follow along here.

Correction: This post originally stated the universe is finite because it is expanding, an incorrect logical leap that the author would like to think was due to a lack of coffee, and not his own inability to parse the basics of astrophysics.