What If You Don't Exist? | Unveiled

VOICE OVER: Noah Baum WRITTEN BY: Dylan Musselman
If there's one thing we can all be sure of it's that we exist, right? Well, maybe not! In this video, Unveiled discovers that your life experience might not be as it seems... We could all be part of a digital simulation controlled by a higher power! Or we could simply be dreaming our lives, completely unaware that we're asleep! Or, our entire existence could be little more than a near death experience!!

What If You Don’t Exist?

The broad question of existence is one that human beings have pondered for thousands of years - both before and after the likes of Plato in Ancient Greece. René Descartes once said “I think, therefore I am,” but does that cover all the bases? Life seems real, but could it all be an illusion?

This is Unveiled and today we’re answering the extraordinary question; What if you don’t exist?

According to Michael Nelson, writing in the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, the problem of existence can be thought of around two basic questions: First, is existence the property of individuals? In other words, does it come about because of us? If we assume that it does, then the second question asks; are there any individuals that lack it? Most would argue that because you can feel your body and think, as Descartes said, then you must exist in reality… but there are different scenarios that could create you without you really existing.

You could be a product of someone else’s dream, you could be living in a simulation, or your brain could simply be fooling you and hallucinating your reality. Cotard’s syndrome is a very rare condition but it highlights how our ideas on “what’s real” can change. Sufferers are convinced that they or a part of their body doesn’t actually exist, with reports of patients even insisting that their brains aren’t really there, despite being able to walk and talk. So, if we really don’t exist, or if you’re an individual severely questioning existence, then what is reality?

When it comes down to it, the reality that we experience is just that - it’s human experience. Our senses work together to conjure an image of what we see, smell, touch - of what’s real. Since that’s the case, however, we know for a fact that we aren’t ever seeing or feeling all of reality. We only see around 1% of the electromagnetic spectrum, for example. We’re blind to many different types of light like gamma rays, x rays, radio waves and microwaves. And while the human eye is undoubtedly an amazing biological structure, the three photoreceptors it holds (red, blue, and green) are significantly bested by some other animals, like the mantis shrimp, which has an astounding sixteen photoreceptors - meaning it “sees” over five times more of “reality” than we do. Similarly, we’re also beaten by birds, many of which are able to migrate for the winter because they can visualize earth’s magnetosphere - something else that we humans can’t do.

It shows that we’re only ever capable of seeing and experiencing what our bodies allow us to, so to some extent the human experience really is a hallucination in that it’s always governed by what it is and isn’t possible for us to understand. After all, at their core, every visible item is simply made up of the same particles rearranged into different patterns. Our eyes see a chair as a chair but, were human perception to somehow change, then perhaps we’d see the individual atoms instead.

Our inability to distinguish true reality is arguably most evident when we dream. Often people don’t realize that they’re dreaming, even when seemingly impossible events occur. The movie “Inception” famously played with this concept by blurring the distinction between dreams and reality, forcing the viewer to constantly question if a moment was actually happening or if it was only occurring in a dream. And since we’re ultimately unable to make this distinction, our lives as we know them could be little more than an endless fantasy. According to some theories, there’s even the possibility that we’re only extras in someone else’s dream!

And, in some ways, it’s an idea that adds up. In discussing reality, the Oxford University professor Jan Westerhoff calculates that; assuming eight hours of sleep, and that humans only dream during REM sleep, we get about 1.6 hours of “dream consciousness” every night. Add that to the 16 hours that we’re seemingly “awake” for, and there’s roughly a 1 in 10 chance that we’re dreaming at any given moment. And if you think you’re awake because nothing strange is happening, think again… Because reality appears to follow certain “rules” and consistencies only until you reach the quantum level - where particles pass through walls like ghosts and change depending on whether or not people are looking at them. In effect, everything’s possible, even the apparent impossibilities that play out when we assume we’re dreaming. So, if you subscribe to the idea, then there’s every chance that reality’s a dream or vice versa.

However, according to various other thinkers, public figures and scientists - from Elon Musk to Neil deGrasse Tyson - the more likely scenario is that our reality is a simulation. According to supporters of the theory, our technology (as we understand it) is now reaching a point where reality is almost indistinguishable from video games and next-gen media… and it’s a trend which shows no signs of slowing down. And, if that’s the case, how can we be so sure that the same thing hasn’t already happened (somewhere else at some other time), and that we’re merely the product of it; a simulation created by higher beings?

In this situation, reality is nothing more than computer code. You could simply exist the same way a protagonist in a video game does, thinking he has free will when he’s really being controlled by someone else. In fact, as quantum mechanics proves that reality only becomes concrete when we decide to observe it, existing is nothing more than probability before then…. And video games use this exact trick to save memory capacity by only loading environments when your character enters into them. Could the same thing be happening in our own lives? Does the supermarket only exist when we visit it? Are our homes only real once we open the front door? Our worlds are already kinda similar in the way that they’re composed, with the pixels of video games mirroring atoms in our own lives.

But then, even if our reality is really our reality and not a simulation, it could still be merely a remembrance of a life that we’re not actually experiencing right now. It’s theorised that N-Dimethyltryptamine, or DMT, a powerful hallucinogenic with effects including extreme time dilation, can be released naturally in our brains when we sleep (in some way explaining our crazy dreamscapes) but also at the moment before we die. It ties in with the idea that our lives “flash before our eyes” in the moments before we pass away, but extends it to encompass everything that we think our lives are - so our experience is actually an incredibly detailed replay rolled out at our final moments. That would mean that this moment right now doesn’t truly exist, but only does so in your memory… And that every decision you make has already been made because your life has already been lived, but your brain is remembering every thought and feeling that went through your head at the original time, forcing you to re-experience it. In this way, our true “last moments” could actually be spent realizing that our lives were really just “flashing before our eyes” the entire time - so the theory goes.

Nevertheless, the idea of not truly existing shouldn’t worry you. If we really don’t exist, it doesn’t alter the way we live our lives… Because even if they’re false, things like food, water, homes, money and happiness still feel real. In that sense nothing changes, and we can still live life reliably, pondering the question of reality but not succumbing to it. Whether or not life is a dream, a simulation, or even just a memory brought on by a dying brain, you still have a compelling experience of it.