Does thinking we live in a simulation say bad things about us?

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Panel from "Are We Living in a Simulation?", featuring Elon Musk as Link. Art by Maki Naro, script by me.

Panel from “Are We Living in a Simulation?”, featuring Elon Musk as Link. Art by Maki Naro, script by me.

I’m obviously a science writer by profession. However, I’m also a lifelong comics fan, starting from reading Peanuts before I got the jokes, continuing through He-Man and the Masters of the Universe mini-comics that came with the action figures, up to today when I read a wide cross-section of comics titles, genres, and media. So, I’ve always wanted to create my own comics, but have been hampered by my lack of drawing ability. (I know, lack of drawing ability hasn’t stopped Scott Adams, but neither has being a misogynistic jerkmobile. But I digress.)

Panel from "Are We Living in a Computer Simulation". Art by Maki Naro, script by me.

Panel from “Are We Living in a Computer Simulation”. Art by Maki Naro, script by me.

The obvious answer is…find an artist to collaborate with. I’m thrilled and privileged to announce a comics collaboration with Maki Naro, one of the better science comics artists around. I wrote and Maki drew a comic for The Nib, about a recent provocative statement tech billionaire Elon Musk made. Musk said it’s most likely that we — and our entire reality — are actually part of a simulation run by a more advanced version of ourselves. Read the comic here, to see why I don’t think this is an optimistic scenario, and why Musk may not be the most objective person when he talks about it.

He recently contributed a regular comic series to Popular Science, along with The Nib and his own long-running science comic Sci-ence. He also writes the award-winning slice-of-life comic Sufficiently Remarkable. Please throw a little money his way.


GLaDOS, the manipulative computer system from the Portal games. The title of this post is a line from the Aeon article that was cut before publication, but I loved it so much I had to use it anyway. [Credit: Half-Life wiki]

It’s one of those nagging thoughts many of us have had: is our existence a reality or an illusion? Philosophers and scientists have grappled with the question, though today much of the discussion focuses on a related question: do we live in a computer simulation? In my (first hopefully of multiple) essays for Aeon magazine, I discussed one possible formulation of the question and how it could be answered — but also why the question may be less scientifically meaningful than many popular accounts would have you believe.

The idea isn’t as crazy as it sounds. A pair of philosophers recently argued that if we accept the eventual complexity of computer hardware, it’s quite probable we’re already part of an ‘ancestor simulation’, a virtual recreation of humanity’s past. Meanwhile, a trio of nuclear physicists has proposed a way to test this hypothesis, based on the notion that every scientific programme makes simplifying assumptions. If we live in a simulation, the thinking goes, we might be able to use experiments to detect these assumptions.

However, both of these perspectives, logical and empirical, leave open the possibility that we could be living in a simulation without being able to tell the difference. [read more….]

Sinners in the hands of an angry GLaDOS