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What if the world doesn't exist?
It's not woo-woo metaphysics. It's the brain telling stories.
I know what you’re thinking: You’ve stumbled into the philosopher’s corner of the library by accident, and suddenly everyone’s wearing turtlenecks and smoking pipes. You were looking for something practical and helpful to read — something that might actually apply to real life — and now here’s this guy talking about how maybe nothing exists. It’s annoying. And, given the length of all our to-do lists, pointless.
Of course the world exists. NEXT. Move along. There’s nothing to see here.
Well, hang on a second. When I say that the world might not exist, I mean it in a very specific way. I mean it in a way that’s different from how you’ve heard it pitched before: a way that you can, with some personal experimentation and thinking, experience for yourself.
There’s no shortage of new-age types out there gazing at crystals and burning incense and talking about how we create our own realities in ways that only sound right while high on shrooms. That’s not what this is. This is about story, because story is what I do.
In my opinion at least, the information in this post is practical. It’s observational. It’s also highly problematic if you’re fooled by the stuff I’ll talk about, which most of us are. But the truth is out there, people. You’ll just have to suspend your skepticism for as long as it takes to read this.
Afterward, you might never look at life the same way again.
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Let’s try an experiment
The longer we talk about this weird shit without nailing down an example, the harder and more pointless it’s going to feel. So let’s get right to brass tacks, shall we?
The easiest way to grasp the concept — and hopefully start to care about it — is to experience it for yourself. So before I start explaining what I mean, let’s consider an example.
Take a look at this lovely royalty-free image I found and tell me what you see:
I’m guessing you said “car on fire.” You might also have said “crashed car,” “destroyed car,” or even “firebombed car.” If you happen to know where this photo was taken or any other background about it, those elements might be part of your analysis, too. Personally, I know nothing specific, but I could see the image above as being part of a riot, or civil unrest, or maybe even a product of war.
The photo above also might evoke emotions within you. If that’s the case, you might go deeper than just a physical description in describing it. If you live in or have visited areas with civil unrest, an image like this might be triggering. You might have a personal memory tied to something like it. You might have seen a fire like this in person (or can imagine seeing it in person) and therefore re-experience some trauma. Maybe a clue in the image even suggests to you that a certain faction did this, and you either agree with the faction’s ideals or won't. The more experience you’ve had with scenes like this, the more you’ll be able to glean from the picture.
Okay. So that’s what you’d tell me you see: at the very least, “a burning car.”
But in truth, that’s not what you see at all.
Experiencing is not the same as seeing
Assuming for a second that all of our eyes work the same (or, for those with visual impairments, you can adapt this experiment to sound), what we’re actually seeing in the photo isn’t a car at all.
We’re seeing a bunch of shapes and colors. “Car,” on the other hand, is a deduction we’re drawing.
In terms of what’s actually in the photo (without deductions), there’s a lot of dark around the edges, then an area of bright yellow and orange in the middle. About two-thirds of the way to the right of the photo, there’s a narrow, vertical gray shape. I can get really specific if you want, starting with the pixel in the upper left of the image, which is rendered in hexadecimal color #000000. Left to right, there are a few hundred #000000 pixels before the hex code starts changing.
That’s what you actually see: Colors. Shapes. Gradients. Comparative dimensions. In terms of raw sensory input (the objective information provided to your eye, presumably by things out there in the real world), that’s all you have. Photons of light are coming from your screen, entering your eye, inverting as they pass through the lens, and being projected on the retina.
There is no “car” in what you see. There is no “fire.” There is no “pole” or “building” or “lamppost.” There’s also no “in front of” or “behind,” as in “the burning car is in front of the building.” There’s definitely no “financial loss to whoever owns the car,” though you might have found yourself thinking as much, imagining yourself seeing this in front of your own home. There’s no “riots” or “war” — not even a “random person walking by who just so happened to be holding a Molotov cocktail and decided to have some fun.”
Not one of those things actually exists in your raw sensory experience of the image above. You only think you see those things because every one of them is a concept added by the brain.
If you don’t believe me or just don’t get it, chances are you’re thinking too hard about this. The truth of this is incredibly simple and incredibly obvious. You don’t need to think more to understand it. In a very real way, you have to think less.
Try this: Pretend you’re a gnat.
Gnats have eyes. Gnats see the world. If you were a gnat flying around in the room, you could look at that exact same image. The image wouldn’t mean anything to you if you were a gnat, but that’s kind of the point. You’d take in the exact same sensory information as a gnat, adjusting for differences in anatomy.
However, because a gnat has no clue what a car is, it can’t see a car. It sees shapes. “Car” is added in a sort of cerebral post-production studio between human eyes (the collectors of raw light data) and “the real, sentient you.”
Okay, Johnny. This exercise in mental acrobatics was fun, but …
Yeah, yeah. I see you out there, rolling your eyes and holding your finger above the Comment button below, just waiting to tell me this is all dumb because it’s only semantics.
Is he really saying that cars don’t exist just because gnats don’t understand what they are? That’s just wordplay. Nothing’s changed out here with those of us who live in the real world … instead of the navel-gazing, mentally masturbatory hole you seem to live in with all the other weirdoes, Johnny.
But hang on. I’m not saying cars don’t exist. I’m saying that if you look at the raw sensory data received by your senses, there’s nothing in that raw sensory data that says “car.”
To make things simpler, there’s also nothing in your raw sensory data that says “red.” If we unplugged your optic nerves from your brain and plugged them into a computer instead, the computer wouldn’t say “red” unless you programmed a definition of “red” into it. If the computer told you anything without that added baggage, it’d tell you that its sensor detected light energy at a wavelength of 7000 angstroms.
There’s no mind-bending philosophy in my argument here. There’s no spirituality, no deep-dive into the nature of consciousness. There’s no new-age, no concepts embraced only by hippies on LSD. It’s just a fact about what’s given and the meaning created from what’s given. Think about it.
Even if you experience “red,” you only see (i.e., receive raw sensory input equating to) photons of light at 7000 angstroms. The same is true of “car.” You see shapes, colors, and gradients. It’s your brain that takes that raw data and says “that’s a car” — which turns into our experience of a car.
It’s a simple conclusion, but it means everything. Think about this enough and you’ll start to realize that nearly every concept you have originates in the brain. Although those concepts might be prompted by and correlate with objects in the real world, they are not the same things.
Don’t believe me? Try being a dog.
Raw sensory experiences aren’t the same for everyone
Forty percent more of a dog’s brain is dedicated to smell than it is for humans. They have 25-50 times the number of smell receptors as we do. They see with their eyes, of course, but experientially, they “see” most vividly through smell.
Stop for a second and imagine what it would be like to experience the world through smell. I don’t know about you, but I can’t do it. Smell is pretty one-dimensional for me. I either smell apple pie or I don’t smell apple pie. It’s not that way for dogs.
Not weird enough? Okay, imagine being a bat. They “see” with sonar, and not just vaguely. Bat sonar insanely fine-grained. Using sound waves, a bat can find objects the width of a human hair.
Oh, now it’s too weird? Well, if you want something closer to your own species, imagine being a synesthete. People with synesthesia see sounds, feel smells, and all sorts of other weird stuff. A synesthete named Michael Watson described the taste of spearmint as “running my hands down a cool column of marble or glass.”
No matter which alternate sensory experience you choose, there’s absolutely nothing inevitable about the way any one of us experiences the world. There are all sorts of people and organisms out there who receive the exact same inputs as us but have entirely different experiences from those inputs — experiences we might not even be able to fathom no longer how we think about it.
It’s as if we’re all running slightly different operating systems, many on the exact same hardware.
That might sound trivial (the world is the world no matter how you experience it, after all), but it’s not trivial at all. Because in practice — all the time, in our everyday lives — we don’t EVER experience the world directly. We don’t receive nerve signals from our sensory organs and “see” those raw signals. Instead, there’s an interpreter between the signals and our cognition, and that interpreter is the brain.
But see, the brain isn’t a blank slate. It’s not passive, and it’s not impartial. The brain’s job is to add meaning, so “add meaning” is what it does constantly. If the raw data coming from the photo of the burning car really is just random shades, lines, and shapes, that’s not helpful as far as the brain is concerned. “Random shades, lines, and shapes” doesn’t have any meaning.
“Car,” however, does have meaning. “Burning car” has more meaning. But really what the brain wants to do is to help us survive … and because of that, “car” is only interesting to the brain if we can do something with it. And so, from a surviving-and-thriving standpoint, here are a few quasi-evolutionary things the car might actually mean to our brains:
A car is a way to get to where we can acquire food.
It’s a way get away from someone who wants to hurt us.
It’s a way to go to somewhere we might find (or entertain, or whatever) a potential mate so that we can reproduce.
For your classic alpha male, it might be a way, again, to impress a mate by demonstrating 1) plumage (don’t laugh; a Corvette is no different than a male peacock’s tail feathers) or 2) evolutionary fitness (because in our world, financial stability is a measure of fitness, and cars cost money).
Even if it doesn’t connote evolutionary superiority, it at least connotes adequacy — at least in places where most people own cars.
It’s a way to acquire more resources to provide for oneself, one’s mate, and one’s offspring, because people with cars usually have more job options, and hence might be able to land a better-paying (and less risky) one.
When you see a car, you’re thinking at least some of the above on an instinctual level. But here are some other things that pop into the back of your brain when you see a car, even if you aren’t consciously aware of it:
If you were hit by a car crossing the street in the past, some manifestations of “car” might imply injury, harm, or fear deep down.
If you see a picture of a burning car on some writer’s blog, you probably think that someone set that fire rather than it just happening. Thus it might conjure images of riots, war, or what-have-you.
The point is that there are two components to our experience of the world: the information that our senses actually give us, plus the meaning we’ve built around those sensory patterns.
Here’s another example: If I were to walk up behind your car at an intersection carrying red and blue flashing lights, you’d probably think a cop was trying to pull you over. The information from your senses is a certain pattern of flashing light … but the meaning that comes to you from that information is that you’re about to get a ticket. Which, in turn, evokes emotional responses in the seconds before you realize it’s just me back there playing a trick: anger, frustration, embarrassment, or whatever else.
Here’s the point of all of this: Most people think that our experience of the world is a faithful re-creation of what’s actually out there. It’s not, though. The brain is a pattern-recognition machine, and over time it creates so much “shorthand meaning” to go with sensory data that eventually the shorthand becomes confused with what’s there.
You’re not seeing the objective world. What you call “the real world” is mostly just your lazy-ass brain’s generalizations and shortcuts.
But wait. I’m not that dumb.
Nobody’s saying you’re dumb. It’s not about being dumb. It’s about being human.
Maybe a more normal example would help.
I have a friend who’s afraid of dogs. He was attacked by a dog once, and the memory of it never left his amygdala. When I see a dog, I see something I can pet, play with, and maybe throw a ball for. He, on the other hand, sees something he should back away from less he be injured. Simply put, he sees a threat.
Including my dog. And come on — this is my dog:
There’s no threat there. And still … he sees it anyway.
This isn’t trivial because almost none of us think about the meaning attached to raw information from our senses. As far as we’re concerned, the meaning our brain adds to sights, sounds, feels, smells, and tastes are simply “how that thing actually is,” when actually it’s just stories invented by our brain.
It doesn’t matter much if a car means “transportation” to me but “fun” to you because whether it’s fun or transportation, the real car in the real world gets both of us where we need to go. It doesn’t matter much when it comes to dogs, either, seeing as my friend knows intellectually that my dog won’t hurt him.
But what about all the people on one side of the political spectrum in America who think the people on the other side are ruining the world, corrupting liberties, or generally flushing the future down the toilet … while the folks on the other side think the exact same thing? Get into a political debate and you’ll learn pretty quickly that it’s not about simple disagreement. In modern America, those on one side know the other side is ruining the world. To them, it’s fact. Except that “ruining” isn’t a factual thing. It’s an opinion. The same thing that “ruins” one person’s world might “save” another’s.
No wonder we’re so angry and unhappy. We’re all living in subtly different worlds with subtly different operating systems, and nobody realizes it. If you and I disagree on something important and become frustrated because of it, we’re frustrated because we each think each other sees the same “facts” about the world as we do and is just an idiot who can’t see understand them. We don’t see the same “facts,” though — in part because this isn’t the domain of facts.
Everyone in the debate had an experience here that gave them one point of reference, then an experience over there that gave them a second point of reference. Where they grew up taught them a bunch of “immutable beliefs” that weren’t objective at all. Their parents taught them even more “immutable beliefs,” as did peers, jobs, and circumstances.
Almost all of the time, our operating systems (and their differences) are subconscious. We don’t think when we stop at a red light; we stop because we were told it’s the law and the right thing to do. But still, law is arbitrary. It’s a semiotic majority opinion. There’s nothing about “a red light hanging up high,” in and of itself, that demands stopping that collection of shapes and shades and metal and glass that you call a car.
So how does that mean the world doesn’t exist?
It means it in the same way that it means that we do actually create our own realities … but not in some metaphysical woo-woo sense. I’m talking about a very specific, very grounded, and infinitely relevant sense.
I don’t mean there’s no world.
I mean that what our brains show us as “the world we inhabit” is composed of 1% sensory information and 99% post-sensation meaning. The former is objective, scientific, and verifiable. The latter is only in our heads.
If those percentages are accurate (they’re not; they’re hyperbolic but in the ballpark), it means that only one percent of “my world” versus “your world” shares the same basis in reality. A lot of the other 99% might end up the same because we both live in the modern world, in the same type of society, and are human — but that’s happenstance. Nothing about the commonalities we share in the “brain-added 99” is inevitable.
A bat and I can agree that there’s something of XYZ shape and size over there, but the story our brains tells about what that thing is (that added 99%) will be entirely different.
I see the world differently from you, same as I see it differently from a bat.
The brain is the ultimate storyteller.
Because I write so many novels (and because I tend to write like a puzzlemaker, filling my fiction with mind-bending concepts), I’ve been tossing weird-as-hell ideas around for a while now. If you’ve read my books, you know how often they introduce big ideas. You don’t need to be a PhD to read what I write, but you should definitely be curious.
So maybe it’s no surprise that I’ve gone down this rabbit hole. Others may find the whole thing pretentious at best, irrelevant at worst.
“So I think different things than others,” you might be thinking. “So I have different memories and different conditions from others, and because of it I attach different meaning to what I see and hear. So what? The world is still the world. You’re playing word games. It just doesn’t matter.”
I hate to point it out, but “this idea doesn’t matter” is also just an opinion, and hence as arbitrary as anything else. It’s a thought, not a fact. You might live in a world where there’s no point in examining the way your brain perceives your environment, but I live in a world where there’s every point in the world.
If that’s true, it’s one tiny difference between us. Add a few billion other tiny differences and it still barely makes a dent, right? Our experience contains trillions and trillions and trillions of tiny caveats and presumptions … so for the most part, we should still agree the world is still more or less the same for everyone.
Hmm. I’m not so sure about that. The minute you realize that very little of what you experience is objective and almost everything you experience is really just constructed meaning, it gets a lot harder to say our worlds must be the same. They may be the same, but they wouldn’t be if we were living two thousand years apart on different planets and had different sensory apparatus. I mean, shit. Just being blind changes everything. How often does a sighted person say, “that person’s face feels pretty”?
If we were robots, this would all be so much easier. Less interesting, but easier. Robots — at least the kind that don’t form Skynet and murder us all — would detect the light and sound waves and olfactory-compatible molecules around them and interpret them exactly the same way. A robot’s experience of an apple wouldn’t be hijacked by a memory of throwing up after an apple fritter or being pummeled with apples by bullies, and therefore their raw sensory input would be identical to their experience. They’d all be able to agree on what’s real and true. Not so simple for those of us with human backstories.
And that right there is what our brains are: They’re backstory machines. In a book, a cruel man is cruel because he was abused growing up and a shy woman is shy because her siblings always made fun of her. A character is how they are not because of what’s going on around them right now … but because of what happened in their past, comprising their backstory.
The same is true for real people, except that the brain is the maker, forger, and keeper of your own individual backstory. Thanks to our backstories, we experience nothing raw. Every single thing we experience is experienced in the context of our backstory. We aren’t ever just who we are right now. Instead, we’re mostly who our lives have made us … which influences the way we see (and react to) every single thing. Very little is objective. What we call “the world around us” is mostly data filtered through backstory and the person it created.
We aren’t actually experiencing the world. It’s more true to say we’re creating it, as I add some of you to my doings and mix my stuff into some of yours. Your worldview rubs off on mine and mine rubs off on you.
The closest thing we have to a consensus world — one we all agree on — is really just a story we’re telling. We go to school because we’ve collectively decided that in our society, going to school is just what’s done. “You must go to school” isn’t something real. It’s made up. Same as “you should have a job” is a made up: just a story. Pensioned retirement hasn’t been a thing for decades, but that story’s still stuck to our “job” story like gum to the bottom of a shoe … and so many people end up disappointed when they find out that part of the story was a lie.
The world is a story we’re all telling together. And you thought your days of having to write essays with the idiot kid beside you ended in elementary school.
Change your story, change your world.
A few years ago, I wrote a book called The Story Solution. It’s all about seeing your individual life as if it were a story, then rewriting it (no actual writing required) as desired.
The closer you look at life, the more you see that the ups and downs need not be arbitrary. They’re not endings; they’re plot points. You’ll start to see the supporting characters in your life and the way they influence the arc of the protagonist, which is you. My promise in that book was that just as a novel is deliberately designed by an author, so too can anyone deliberately design the life they want. Within limits, sure … but with a hell of a lot more focus than the scribbled bullshit most people call their life’s novel.
I thought The Story Solution was a one-off. I thought I needed to write that book to get the ideas out of my head and onto the page, and afterward I’d be done with the whole topic. But I think I was wrong, because my mind keeps coming back to it. I keep seeing story in life as if I can write facets of my reality, not just books. I keep talking about this stuff to weird friends who like exploring the same strange things.
I’ve started to think that another “Story Solution style” book might still be inside me, wanting to be born.
The Story Solution was practical: You could understand and use the information in it without feeling like you needed to smoke all the weed in the world, if only because it applied to only one person at a time: you, the reader.
But recently I’ve been wondering if I should write about the same thing on a worldwide level, like I did in this essay. The result would be a book sort of like The Story Solution — but with the whacked-out, mindbender, what-the-hell-are-you-talking-about tone of the post you just finished reading.
What do you think? Is this way too fucking complex, and I should knock it off? Or do you want to hear more … and in the words of Morpheus from The Matrix, see just how deep the rabbit hole goes?
Tell me what you think in the comments below.