Neil deGrasse Tyson
Neil deGrasse TysonGetty Images

Neil deGrasse Tyson has said we should not dismiss ideas that the universe is a simulation created by a far more advanced alien civilisation. He said he would find such a situation easy to imagine, adding the chances of the universe actually being a simulation "may be very high".

The astrophysicist was speaking at the 2016 Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate, held at the American Museum of Natural History. Tyson was joined by a panel of experts, including Harvard physicist Lisa Randall and MIT cosmologist Max Tegmark. They were posed the question: Is the universe a simulation?

The idea of a simulated universe involves an advanced civilisation creating an artificial world for their own entertainment. Humans already use computer programmes to create alternative realities, through virtual reality and computer gaming - so if a far more technologically advanced civilisation did the same, it is reasonable to believe their simulation would be extensive.

Astronomer Royal Martin Rees (who was not at the debate) once said that: "It's not crazy to believe that sometime in the far future, there could be computers which could simulate a fairly large fraction of a world."

At the debate, Randall said the chances that the universe is not real are close to zero. One of the arguments for a simulated universe is that if we are living in a computer programme, everything would be software so there might be error codes we could find. But, Randall said that universes where errors could spread would break down – not like our own, apparently stable universe.

But Tyson disagreed. He said he would not be surprised if the universe was created by a far more intelligent lifeform than ourselves. "What would we look like to them?" he said. "We would be drooling, blithering idiots in their presence?"

"If that's the case, it is easy for me to imagine that everything in our lives is just the creation of some other entity for their entertainment. I'm saying, the day we learn that it is true, I will be the only one in the room saying: 'I'm not surprised'."