Are You Awake or Asleep Right Now?

Are You Awake or Asleep Right Now? -

For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith. Romans 1:17

This page is addressed to anyone who feels a deep need to have things "proven" to them before they can believe in something. The purpose of the page is to point out that we can actually, really, prove a lot less than most people usually realise. And, most importantly, that we live by faith a lot more than is commonly acknowledged.

So, having said that, your question of the day for today (or perhaps tonight ;) is... "Are you awake right now?"

I mean that literally. Are you literally awake right this moment, as you're reading this line of text — or are you asleep lying in your bed right now, and you're reading this line of text as part of a dream that you're having? Can you prove that you're awake right now?

Warning: Too much thinking along these lines can be slightly (or sometimes more than slightly) de-stabilising to one's sanity. I first began to deal with this issue a long time ago. Eventually I decided that rather than to continue considering how I might really prove whether or not I'm awake, or asleep, it's much better just to go with faith. I didn't even think of it in terms of the actual word "faith" at that time — but with the benefit of hindsight, faith is exactly what I was using. This point is explained in more detail at the end of the web page, after giving a practical example of how it works.

Back to the question: Are you awake right now? I'm sure you think you know the answer. But that subtle distinction between what we think we know, and what we truly know (and can prove) leaves a lot more open than we ordinarily think about. And within that opening, there's room for a vastly different view of the world (and of the entire nature of reality) to the view held by most people who think that they only believe in things which can be proven to them.

If there was an award for the most mind-bending page on this website so far, it would have to go to this page. So let's get on with it — down the rabbit hole, we go...

My "General Theory of Reality"

The following is a true account of an experience which happened to me years ago, while I was studying for my physics degree. I haven't done any recent checking of the accuracy of what I said about Einstein's theory. The way I describe it here is exactly the same as how I described it originally.

I was talking to a close friend (who wasn't a physics major) about how Einstein first thought of the ideas which later became his General Theory of Relativity. Which was Einstein's crowning achievement — according to Wikipedia, "General relativity has often been described as the most beautiful of all existing physical theories".

As I explained to my friend, Einstein imagined being inside an elevator with the doors closed and no windows (so you can't see what's outside). If the elevator was sitting there not moving, you'd feel normal Earth gravity, i.e. you feel just like your normal weight.

Imagine that you're inside this elevator. There are no windows and you can't see out.

Imagine that you're inside this elevator. There are no windows and you can't see out. Photo by coombesy / Pixabay.

Case One: Imagine that now the elevator starts to move up. Which means it accelerates upwards. Because of this acceleration, you feel heavier than your usual Earth weight. Now imagine you get to the top, and someone cuts the lift cables. Imagine this elevator has no backup safety brakes or other emergency safety mechanisms (unlike modern ones which do), and the lift just falls down, due to gravity, with nothing to slow it. You (inside the lift) and the lift itself are both falling freely, accelerating towards the Earth's surface, at exactly the same rate. The Earth's gravity pull both you and the lift downwards, falling freely towards the Earth. Inside the lift you would feel no gravity at all. You would feel completely weightless. And you'd float around freely inside the lift, just like an astronaut in space in a freely orbiting spaceship.

Case Two: Now imagine that you're back on the ground again, just the same as at the start of Case One. (And you didn't get hurt from the fall, or perhaps the fall never happened — but either way you're back to the same original starting situation). This time, instead of the lift moving, imagine that the lift stays still but the planet Earth suddenly disappears. So now you're in the lift, out in space, just floating along, not accelerating. With no nearby planet to exert a gravitational pull on it (or on you inside it) you'd also be weightless, and float around freely inside the lift. Just the same as when the lift cable broke and you were accelerating towards the Earth under the Earth's pull of gravity. Remember the lift has no windows and you can't see outside to know the planet has gone. You're just floating around and feeling no gravity.

Now (still part of Case Two, with no planet): Imagine that someone attached a cable to the top of your lift, and pulled it upwards. The lift accelerates upwards so that for every second of time, the speed of the lift increases by exactly 9.8 meters per second. (This number was chosen because it happens to be exactly the same as the acceleration due to gravity at the Earth's surface. My friend had done a little physics in high school and first-year uni and knew that number already).

If this is feeling overly complicated, try to stay with it — we're getting closer to the punch line now...

So, to repeat Case Two, you're in a stationary elevator (that you can't see out of), with no planet anywhere near it. You're floating around weightlessly inside it. But then the elevator starts to accelerate upwards, increasing its speed by 9.8 metres per second every second. You would feel pulled towards the floor of the lift exactly like as if the lift was back on Earth but it wasn't accelerating. You'd feel exactly the same weight as you do right now while reading this web page (assuming you're not reading it on your phone in a vertically accelerating lift or aeroplane, or skydiving, or something).

This is a summary of the story so far: I've explained to my friend that while inside a lift, you wouldn't know if the weight force you feel is because of gravity or acceleration. And similarly, if you felt weightless in a lift, you wouldn't know if you were freely falling (and accelerating, because of gravity) towards a planet, or if there was no planet and no gravity and you weren't accelerating at all.

From inside the elevator, the effects of acceleration and gravity are indistinguishable.

From inside the elevator, the effects of acceleration and gravity are indistinguishable. Photo by Daniel Nettesheim / Pexels.

Then Einstein made a big leap of thought. He realised that from inside the lift, not only would these two phenomena (gravity and acceleration) appear to be the same, there would be no possible way you could tell the difference between them (without looking outside to see if there was a planet there or not, and if you were falling towards it, or not). That is, it would be impossible to tell if you were feeling an acceleration force because the lift was changing its speed, or you were feeling a gravitational force from sitting next to a large massive object (such as a planet).

Einstein went even further:

(Also, consider here that the original concept of science was that everything scientific must be based on observable and repeatable experimental evidence). Einstein thought about this elevator situation deeply. Eventually he concluded that, from inside the lift, if there was no possible physical experiment that could be performed to tell the difference between the effects of gravity, and the effects of acceleration, then (in terms of your frame of reference inside the elevator) they must be exactly the same thing. Since what meaning can there be saying two things are different if there was no possible experiment that could ever tell them apart?

A big idea in Relativity is that the laws of physics must be valid in all frames of reference. Which includes inside an elevator. So, within any given reference frame, if every detail about two things that could ever possibly be observed is identical, then the two things themselves must be identical. Einstein later went on to elaborate on this. And to describe it using mathematical formulas, which was the most difficult part (and we can ignore that part here).

So there I was, a physics student, explaining all this to my friend. And then I had another idea. Something I'd never thought of before in my life, but which followed on directly from that conversation.

I said to my friend, "By that same logic, what if there was no possible physical experiment that could determine whether you're awake at any given time, or if you're actually asleep and in the middle of a dream? Wouldn't that also mean that they were exactly the same thing?"

Just like the elevator situation, any possible difference between the two states (awake and asleep) could therefore only be relevant if you're outside the elevator, or outside the "dream / real life state". But as long as you're still inside (either the dream or real life), and as long as there's no possible physical experiment you can (or could ever) perform to tell the difference between the two states, then, they must literally be the same thing. Since what meaning can there be in saying there different if there's no possible way to reliably and consistently observe any measureable difference between them?

That sounded like pretty good logic, and by that time I was feeling pretty impressed with myself for thinking of something that deep. But almost immediately, (after a few seconds pause to say something like "Woooo, that's deep!"), my unfazed friend brushed my great and amazing idea off casually with, "But we can tell the difference... Of course we can tell. You just kind of somehow know. Like how we know we're awake right now." And I agreed, "Yeah, you're right. We do just know we're awake... It's just obvious that we are... You can just tell."

And finally the punch line. (I'm wondering how many readers saw this coming a mile off, and how many will be completely surprised)... Then I woke up.

Things are not always as they seem, and this is a normal part of life.

Things are not always as they seem, and this is a normal part of life. Photo by Alexandra Gorn / Unsplash.

And that whole entire conversation was only a dream. I'll add more detail to this page later.... but after that experience I spent a while seriously thinking about how I might be able to physically determine, with certainty, if I was awake or asleep. I would deliberately try to go to sleep and dream about certain things to do and to test out while in the dream state, and see if the same effects were observed in that state compared to when awake.

When I thought about it quietly to myself, I thought of it as my "General Theory of Reality", which was a private joke based on Einstein's "General Theory of Relativity". I don't think I used that name with anyone else, since I thought they might not see the humour and it would sound pretentious, like I was imagining myself as going further and deeper than Einstein. I did come to a few conclusions (I'll add more of this when I have more time...) But I never found a way that I could definitely, 100% reliably prove if I was awake or asleep.

Faith is Already the Foundation of Your Life

Eventually, after I wasn't getting any further, I decided the best approach was to not be too concerned about it. And to just go with whatever state I was in at any time. Just like I'd been doing all my life until I thought about that elevator idea, and applying it to awake vs. asleep. I didn't realise it at the time, nor did I use this word for it — but what I'd been doing all my life until then, which is also what everyone else does (as far as I know), is basing this aspect of life entirely on faith.

So finally — if you consider yourself to only believe in things "that can be proven", can you even prove that you're awake right now? I mean really prove? Or are you operating on the basis of faith?

Faith is a normal part of life — it's not something only for the weak-minded. Or only for those not intellectual enough to understand how science can prove everything that's logical and important and real, and disprove ancient, "superstitious" things such as Christianity which are largely based on faith.

We really do know know a lot less than what we think we know. And even though our culture doesn't acknowledge it much anymore, it's faith that makes up for that difference.

See also: Quick and Easy Proof that God Exists

Cover image by fizkes / Shutterstock.

See Also