Dennis O’Neil: I Think, Therefore I Yam What I Yam

A Guy Named Descartes

A Guy Named Descartes

So, you think you exist, do you?

Okay, you probably do, but not in the way you’ve always believed you do. (And let’s be wary of that word “always.” Might be a slippery one, that “always.”) Way back when, in the seventeenth century, a brainy guy, a philosopher and mathematician named René Descartes put cogito ergo sum” into the world’s head. A lot of you know that René’s observation means, in the usual English translation, “I think therefore I am.”

What he was trying to do, our René, was find Truth with a capital T – some fact that could not be doubted, no matter what, no matter who. He asked us to imagine that there exists an evil demon who has created a vastly elaborate illusion. We’re just a brain, or something akin to brains, floating in demon porridge or maybe suspended from a demon ceiling and everything else is a part of demon’s foolery. It just ain’t. But someone other than the demon must be on the receiving end of the demonic sniggery, or else the sniggery itself couldn’t exist. That someone is me.

I can’t be sure about you. How do I know that you’re there?

Our movie-going friends may have already noticed something familiar here. Yeah, that flick – The Matrix, written and directed by siblings named Wachowski and released in 1999. Same idea: bad machines have humans in some kind of suspended animation, and the humans don’t know it because they’re being caused to hallucinate a fully populated and developed Earth.

This is a bit like what I do/did for a living. Sketch out characters who don’t exist except as brain blops and jerrybuild an imaginary world for them to inhabit, then present the fruits of this labor to others. Usually, for me, that involved writing comic book scripts.

And you? Well, for purposes of this discussion we’ll assume that you do exist, though how and in what form and why we won’t stipulate.

Here we nod to philosopher Nick Bostrum who, in 2003, offered the theory that the universe is a computer simulation. Some people believed him – Elon Musk and Neil deGrasse Tyson among them. It’s been estimated that there’s approximately a 20 percent chance that Bostrum’s wacky theory reflects reality, albeit a reality we can’t comprehend and might not recognize if we found ourselves plunked down in the middle of it.

As for that reality’s inhabitants… who can guess? I’m wondering if they, covertly, interact with us and if they hear what we say and see what we do. And if such is the case, how do we know that they aren’t inhuman doppelgangers able to coexist in the same space that we occupy? And hey, you doppled others, what’s your deal? What are you up to, anyway? Playing a game with a gamepiece that’sme? Running an experiment? Doing something my brain is not configured to understand, or even to perceive?

Waiting for me to make a mistake? Well, that shouldn’t take long, but if you control me, wouldn’t the mistake be yours?

I could get to like this game.


Dennis O’Neil is one of the top writer-editors in comics, having guided the careers of just about every superhero the world has ever heard of. He’s also a damn fine writer of TV. LB still remembers that time he and Denny collaborated, without ever knowing they were doing so. Or knowing each other either. Ah, the magic of TV! This post was first published in Denny’s column at ComicMix.