You Aren’t Here — a short story

Posted on 2012 January 22


. . . Perhaps there will really be nothing for anyone after me, and the whole world, as soon as my consciousness is extinguished, will also be extinguished like a phantom, as part of my consciousness only, and be utterly abolished, since perhaps all this world and all these men are myself alone. — Dostoyevsky

Let’s imagine I’m sitting in a Starbucks with a friend. And let’s imagine the friend is a skeptic. Skeptics are science oriented: they’re suspicious of reports about ESP, alien abductions, demons, Bigfoot, etc. They’re cautious, rational, realistic.

My skeptic friend and I are surrounded by the usual collection of college students, office workers on break, and a few kids. Patrons are hunched over their laptops, reading or writing; others hug cellphones to their ears, chattering. It’s a pleasant, convivial, small-town atmosphere. A good place for conversation. Steam rises from cups filled with various caffeinated concoctions. My skeptic friend holds a Latte Vente; I’m nursing a Mocha Grande, nonfat, no whip. (I mixed in a packet of Splenda. I have a sweet tooth.)

I say to my friend, “You do realize that skeptics believe in ghosts.”

Startled, my friend looks up. “What on Earth do you mean by that?” The friend looks perturbed, maybe even a bit irritated with me.

I say, “First off, you believe in a real world that exists whether anybody sees it or not.”

“Well, yes, of course. It’s logical.”

“And then you have human consciousness witnessing that real world.”

My friend takes a sip of latte. “Um, yes, I guess.”

“So consciousness is like a ghost floating through the real world. But how can that be? It’s like two different types of reality, meeting in the same place. It’s kind of weird. It doesn’t really make sense.”

My friend says, “Yes, but everybody sees the world this way. And just because it’s puzzling doesn’t mean it’s wrong.”

I sip my mocha. Chocolate and coffee — food of the gods. “Just because everybody agrees about it doesn’t make it right. Besides, you’re supposed to be a skeptic. What are you doing, hiding behind a mob? It’s not as if we can arrive at the truth by voting on it.”

My friend looks sheepish. “Okay, okay, let’s drop that argument. But I stand by my contention that consciousness and reality together are a puzzle, not a mistake.”

“On the other hand, maybe it’s confusing precisely because it is a mistake. An error in logic. Maybe we’re all deluded into thinking our awareness is a bubble of unexplainable fog floating through the world. Maybe it’s not that way at all.”

My friend leans back, arms folded. “Like how?”

Another sip of mocha. Aah. “Remember epicycles? From the Middle Ages?”

My friend’s head shakes no.

“The Catholic church and the philosophers agreed that everything in the heavens orbited the Earth. The sun and moon and stars and planets all circled us. The only big problem with this theory was epicycles. Every couple of years, a planet like Mars would suddenly travel backward for a few weeks, then revert to its normal path. Nobody could explain it, not with the Earth in the center of the universe. So they made up these cosmic gears that allowed Mars to roll back now and then. Epicycles. Today it all seems silly, because we understand that the Earth orbits the sun just like Mars does, and, when we speed past Mars, it seems to move backward like a slower car in the next lane over. But a few centuries ago it was a life-and-death issue. I mean, Galileo got arrested for daring to argue that the Earth orbited the sun.

“Anyway, the scientific evidence for the sun’s central place became so overwhelming that even the Church finally relented. Now everybody understands that we’re on a planet orbiting a star. It’s much simpler.”

Arms still folded, my friend asks, “But what does that have to do with awareness as a ‘ghost in the machine’, so to speak?”

I smile. “I’m so glad you asked! I propose that — like epicycles that strained to describe something complicated that could be explained much more simply — there is no separate physical universe at all. Our ghostly consciousnesses are actually the only things that exist. The ‘real world’ of science is imaginary. It lives only as ideas and theories in our minds, like well-drawn maps of our experiences. And it’s our minds — our awarenesses — that are the true stuff of reality. So there’s no outside machine for our minds to float through. There are just minds — you know, consciousness, awareness. And nothing else.”

My friend leans forward, stares at me, then frowns, then unfolds the arms, then refolds them, then leans back. “That’s ridiculous.”


“Well, for one thing, how can science learn anything if it’s not describing a physical world?”

“Let’s not assume the purpose of science is to describe a physical universe. The purpose of science is to find the truth, whatever that might be.”

My friend sips the latte. “But what truth is there, if it’s just experiences in somebody’s mind?”

“Your awareness makes maps of itself. Some of those maps have the formality of science. Some are informal. There’s room for lots of maps in your mind. They’re useful and often very accurate. But all they describe is various possible states of awareness. To think that they describe a separate physical reality, apart from awareness, is to add a redundant level. There’s no need for the ‘epicycle’ of a physical universe.”

“But how can science communicate about reality if there is none? What connection does my awareness have with yours, if there’s no central reality we can refer to?”

I laugh. “Sorry, it’s tricky to describe this stuff clearly. In my scenario, the mind — awareness — is reality. It’s all there is. Science, then, merely describes states of awareness. Any awareness, any consciousness, that includes the same general details as yours will tend to appear in your own awareness as a person you can talk to. And so science makes progress as different awarenesses ‘compare notes’, so to speak.”

My friend glares at me. “This is absurdly counter-intuitive.”

I nod. “Sure. But only because we’re so used to thinking about it in a complicated way, like those epicycles. Maybe I can make it easier. Here’s a thought problem: where’s the edge of your awareness?”

My friend frowns. “Well, there’s my field of vision–“

“Sure, and it’s surrounded by a kind of blankness. But what surrounds the vision and the blankness? Or think about sound. Sometimes sounds are loud, sometimes they’re soft. Sometimes everything is quiet. But where’s the edge of our awareness of sound?”

My friend protests, “You’re asking for borders where there aren’t any!”

“Exactly. Your awareness — including your feelings, sensations, and thoughts — has no edge. Even if there were an edge and you could see it, you’d still be aware that there’s something beyond the edge. So what’s beyond would automatically be included in your awareness. Awareness doesn’t come to a stop and then something else begins. Awareness includes everything. There’s no edge. No border.”

My friend looks perturbed. “But that means there’s nothing outside of awareness, which means … “

“Which means there’s nothing except awareness.”

“Oh my gosh. No, wait, this can’t be right–“

“Ah, but it is! Your awareness is all that exists. It has no boundary. It doesn’t come out of something else. It doesn’t start or stop. It’s the whole shebang.”

My friend frowns. (My friend has been frowning a lot.) “Your idea just seems too weird. I mean, science can look at the outside of a watch and figure out what’s inside. Why can’t it look at our sensory data and conclude there’s an ‘inside’ reality behind our awareness?”

I shrug. “Because it’s an untestable conclusion. Science can reach into the watch, but how can it reach into a separate reality? There’s no way to prove a distinct physical sphere, because all of our data come from our senses, from within our awareness. There’s no escaping awareness! You can’t get inside that watch because there’s no way to prove you’re outside your own consciousness, visiting a different form of reality.

“Anyway, here’s another thought problem. Imagine that you’re dreaming right now. This conversation, this life of yours, it’s just your own personal dream. There’s no ‘outside’ to this dream. You certainly don’t need a separate, parallel physical world that somehow replicates the dream outside your awareness. The dream is sufficient unto itself. Making up an extra universe would be silly.”

“Okay … “

“Now imagine that you’re completely insane, and your entire life is just a lunatic fantasy while your real body lies strapped to a gurney in a nut house.”

“Well, then the ‘real’ world is the nut house.”

“Maybe, but your fantasy world itself, like a dream, needs no parallel reality because it’s just a fantasy.”

“I’m getting lost.”

“I know the feeling. Now imagine that your awareness is real, not a fantasy, but you’re the only conscious being in the universe. Everyone else — me, the other people in Starbucks, all the Chinese and Africans and everybody else on the planet — are just props in your consciousness, with no separate awareness for themselves. You’re the only one of us who is conscious. You’re all alone, like a Robinson Crusoe of the mind, with nobody else sharing your island of consciousness.”

“Um … okay.” My friend looks out the window. “So it doesn’t matter if I’m dreaming or crazy or alone. In each case, my awareness is all there needs to be, and no extraneous physical universe is required to explain it.”

“Exactly. In fact, there’s no way to tell if this is real or a dream or crazy imaginings. You might very well be all alone here within your awareness. And what would be the point of a separate physical universe that you can never contact, if your awareness is the only consciousness? It’s redundant. And if it’s redundant when you’re the only awareness around, it’s equally redundant if there are zillions of other conscious beings. It’s extra. It’s unnecessary.”

My friend’s eyes get wide. “Wait a minute! What if everybody else does have a conscious awareness? If my awareness is everything, then where does your awareness fit in? Your experience is different from mine, so it must be separate. But how can my awareness be everything if your awareness is also everything? Solve that one!” My friend’s head bobs in triumph.

I smile mischievously. My friend looks wary. I say, “Can I get you another latte? I’m feeling like something extra myself.” My friend thanks me and I get up from our little table and wander over to the order line, where I pick up a fresh latte, plus a strawberry-banana smoothie for myself. (I did mention my sweet tooth.)

Back at the table, we busy ourselves with our new beverages. I dab at my mouth with a napkin and continue. “Remember in high school, we studied equations, like in algebra and trig?”

“Of course.”

“You took an equation and messed with each side until you got a totally different-looking equation that still equaled the original one. That way, you could do useful things with the new equation that you couldn’t do with the earlier version.”

“Right. They were called ‘math identities’. They made lots of things possible.”

“In the same way, if your awareness is all-and-everything, and if my awareness is all-and-everything, then they’re equal to each other, just like an equation. They’re both the same thing! But your awareness is, how shall we say, ‘written differently’ than mine. Same thing, looks different.”

“So then, everybody–“

“Every consciousness is equal to every other consciousness, except expressed differently. Let’s say I hold up a globe of the world. You see one side, with North and South America, and I see the other side, with Africa and Europe and Asia. It’s the same globe, just seen from different angles.”

“Okay, then if my awareness is like an equation … “

“It’d be a really long one.”

My friend laughs. “Mine especially. So every awareness is like an equation that’s mathematically equal to all other awarenesses. So we’re all the same thing.”

“Yes. Every awareness is simply a version of every other awareness, except each of us has a different point of view.” I sip my smoothie. “I know it seems weird. And I’ll grant you that a lot of people would consider my notion just as difficult as the more common idea that awareness is a ghost in a physical universe. But my concept is simpler. It explains everything elegantly, without needing two kinds of universes interacting in indefinable ways.”

“Okay, but it still doesn’t explain where my car is parked! I have to assume the car is there whether I go to it or not.”

“Well, I’d make a slight change. I wouldn’t say, ‘Your car is in the parking lot.’ I’d say, ‘If I walk through that door, then I predict that my awareness will unfold in such a way that the car will appear at the end of my footfalls.’ It’s a bit more formal, but it still allows me to make scientific predictions and test them. And any awarenesses sufficiently similar to each other — whose ‘equations’ look somewhat alike — can compare their states of awareness and find the commonalities. And that’s science.”

I lean back. “As a practical matter, we can continue to behave as if there were a real physical universe outside our consciousness. It’s a useful shorthand, like saying, ‘It’s raining” without asking, “What is raining?” But in a larger sense we don’t want to make the mistake of the hungry man who walks into a restaurant and begins eating the menu instead of the meal. We don’t want to assume that, if we travel to Equador, we can stand on the beach and see the equator as a gigantic dotted line floating on the ocean toward the west.”

My friend giggles.

“In other words, we don’t want to start thinking that our ideas are more real than our experiences. But that’s what most scientists, and most people, tend to do. It’s an illusion, and a compelling one, that there’s a real world out there beyond our awarenss, and we only visit it indirectly through our consciousness. I’m asserting that there’s no such physical world at all. It is, at best, a shorthand, a map that describes a large portion of our awareness. It’s an idea, not a thing.”

My friend says, “I have another question. You’ve gotten rid of the external universe, and all that’s left is awareness. But what has become of us? Who are we? I like to think that I’m this solid person, especially if I’m floating through some other reality. But now there’s nothing to float through, and if my awareness is everything, where’s the me?”

I grin. “Good question. If it’s all just awareness, then either you are your awareness, or there’s no you at all. It kind of depends on your taste. But if awareness is everything, then it’s a bit weird to assert that everything is you. That’s like saying, ‘I am everything.’ What’s the point? It doesn’t define much.”

My straw sucks noisily at the bottom of the smoothie. “Maybe we don’t exist at all,” I say. “Maybe we’re just making up stories called ‘you’ and ‘me’ and propping them up with histories and memories, when it’s all just thoughts inside awareness. I mean, when you’re not thinking about yourself, where are you? Maybe there’s nothing concrete about you. Maybe … just maybe … you aren’t here at all.”

My friend leans forward and kisses me. “If I’m not here, then where did that kiss come from?” She smiles and stands. “I don’t know if I believe all this,” she says, “But I do know that I have to get back to campus. My students await. Call me tonight?”

“You got it.”

She gathers her jacket and purse. I rise and walk her to the door. Another brief kiss, and she’s gone.

I turn back to the counter. Any of these pastries will taste good, real or not. Maybe a slice of lemon cake to go?

Man, do I have a sweet tooth.

* * * *

UPDATE: Is Time the only reality, and the laws of physics illusional?

MORE on this topic by Yours Truly, right here and here.