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Assumptions

Peter Roberts is a poet who every now and again writes fiction. His training in mathematics often influences his writings (including this story). A complete list of his published fiction can be found at: god-and-country.info/Fictions.html, & a list of published poems at: http://god-and-country.info/poems.html. There are other potentially interesting items on the website, but the About the Author page is increasingly out of date.
It was a beautiful day, bright and almost cloudless. Sunlight slanted through the tall windows that ran along the east side of the gently aging, 60's-era Sciences Building. The effect, Vikram sometimes thought, was like being in an open corridor in a cloister. He was heading back to his office, having just refreshed his cup of tea, when the door of the Department Head's office opened, and the great woman herself stepped out. Vikram knew that this was not a coincidence; it never was.
"I just saw your paper in Physical Review, Vikram. I thought it was very well done. However..."
Feeling a certain amount of honest pride, Vikram began, perhaps a little overeagerly, "Thank you, Ma'am. I--" The Head of Department cut him off.
"You claim to have disproved the hypothesis, which certain theorists have been putting forward recently, that our universe could be nothing more than someone else's simulation or model. You seem to think that you've resolved the issue once and for all."
The Department Head always spoke with precision, but she had a habit of not quite saying what was on her mind--instead she would nudge the conversation in a certain direction by asking a leading question, or making a comment that might obliquely cast light on the matter at hand. This was probably the product of her years spent as a teacher: it was her version of the Socratic Method. Vikram was aware of these tendencies, so he was not entirely unprepared for the possibility that this conversation might veer off in an unanticipated direction.
"Yes, Ma'am. We showed that the universe couldn't possibly be a simulation. We calculated the energy required even for a highly detailed--"
"One thing I always try very hard to do, especially when exploring relatively new areas of investigation, is to thoroughly examine all the assumptions underlying the results--the assumptions I have made, as well as the assumptions that have been made by others. That might be a line of inquiry worth considering in regard to this work, don't you think?"
"Well, but we did consider the need for any modeler to take shortcuts, to save resources, to make the process of creating... to create a model that's smaller than the universe it's supposed to represent, and--"
"Yes, but what is being assumed about the universe being modeled, and the relationship between the model and the world it exists in?"
"Of course we started from the idea that the laws of the universe are still the same...."
"Consider, for a moment, what we do when we run a simulation. We are, of course, constrained by the limitations of the method we utilize. If we choose a pencil-and-paper model, we usually have no choice but to employ more than a few tricks and simplifications. But, these days, we more often find ourselves turning to the computer to handle the complicated and often overwhelming details of our calculations."
"Yes, yes, we started with the assumption that the universe might be some sort of computer program, or something similar. That was the whole point."
"But with a computer simulation, do we employ the exact same laws that we think exist in the world?"
"Precisely! That was the hypothesis being tested." Vikram was beginning to experience a touch of exasperation at this unnecessary recapitulation of the ideas he himself had already so painstakingly worked through.
"A computer, however," the Department Head continued, "is a digital, not analog, device. We can only make use of numerical methods. There is an inherent graininess to it all."
"Are you suggesting that by using a computer we forfeit the validity of our conclusions? Because such a view would discredit a great many recent results."
"I was thinking more about the graininess, the--" This time it was the Department Head's turn to be cut of mid-sentence.
"I don't see what you're getting at." Vikram said, a bit more sharply than he had intended, now feeling truly irritated.
"Let me ask you this, Vikram: Haven't you ever wondered why the universe is quantized? Now consider the simulation hypothesis. What if the world being represented is continuous, but, simply to make a simulation easier, the model is composed of discrete elements?"
Vikram paused, truly taken aback, and considered the implications of what the Department Head had just said. A hard, cold feeling began to move through him.
"But that would be terrible!" He exclaimed after a moment. "It would mean we've been wasting our time. All the beautiful and bizarre results, all the wonderful quantum theories we've created, they would be nothing more than our attempt to understand a faulty model--a faulty reality! All the lovely quantum effects and structures would simply be the result of errors in the simulation. But why? How? Surely an intelligence capable of creating the universe as a mere model wouldn't have made such a crude, elementary error."
Vikram was now staring off into space, seeming not to be paying attention. The Department Head, on the other hand, had not changed her demeanor: she looked calm and thoughtful, and perhaps just a little bit aloof.
"Perhaps we are just a student project," she suggested, "and the instructor will come along at any moment to critique the student's efforts, to offer constructive suggestions for improvements. Perhaps it is just a matter of time until our world is abandoned or aborted."
"Maybe," said Vikram, "it already has been."
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, February 16th, 2016

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