Thought Experiment: Would You Rather Have Experienced None of This?

“Try to imagine what it will be like to go to sleep and never wake up… now try to imagine what it was like to wake up having never gone to sleep.”

The above quote from Alan Watts (superb human) describes a deliberate mental exercise. Watts thought that contemplating these scenarios—of moving from existence to non-existence or vice versa—was a kind of yoga that could drive one toward the understanding that one does not begin existing or cease to exist. That is, that one is not separate from the universe, but is, in fact, one with something eternal that has always existed and will forevermore. You = cosmos = belly button lint… or something.

I like this idea of pondering particular scenarios or questions as a means of arriving at certain realizations. A while ago, I suggested that ruminating on how you would live if you were anonymous could provide insight into your motivations and deeper desires.

Claustrophobia by Nina Valetova, 2003. Photo Credit: Wiki Commons

Claustrophobia by Nina Valetova, 2003. Photo Credit: Wiki Commons

Experience: All or Nothing

I have a similar thought experiment that I think can broaden our perspective on the inevitable grimace-inducing aspects of existence and deepen our appreciation for what life can offer (namely, cookies).

Consider this ostensibly simple and trivial question:

Would you rather have experienced none of this?

By this I mean something straightforward: Would you rather have never existed? Would you rather have never known what it is to be startled or melancholy or joyful or pensive or excited or frightened or content or lonely or ecstatic or hungover? Would you rather have never felt what it is to hear ocean waves crashing against the shore, or to watch Saturday morning cartoons, or to lose yourself in a moving song, or to order a greasy breakfast burrito at 3am, or to gaze upon the stars, or to play with an exuberant puppy, or to love people deeply and know that they reciprocate that love?

For me and probably (hopefully) most of you, the intuitive answer to this question is a definitive no, of course not. Of course we want to experience things. It seems so obvious as to be banal, but perhaps there’s something a bit more significant here.

Try to imagine what it would be to never have existed. It’s virtually impossible, a sort of paradox—to try to think of what it would be to have never thought, or to sense what it would be to have never sensed anything. All we know is life, so we can hardly graze this ground with our rational minds.

But humor me: consider how many (theoretically possible) people never experienced a thing. What of the trillions of people who could’ve been born if particular sperm and eggs hadn’t combined in such a precise way as to produce this current set of humans? Or the billions who could have lived if our ancestors had reproduced in slightly different arrangements (say Lucy got with Blaine instead of Gunther)? For these theoretical non-existent persons—no colors, no sounds, no bodies, no thoughts, nada. Not that they have any idea what they’re missing out on, but I digress.

What I’m aiming to convey is that countless minute events across vast seas of time have coalesced against astronomical odds to allow you to watch Pawn Stars give rise to the biological phenomenon that is you (let’s not even begin to discuss the conditions required for life to emerge in the first place). From this vantage point, it seems clear that it would have taken little more than a cosmic shrug of the shoulders for you or I to have instead remained merely a possibility.






And as I’ve hypothesized, when we weigh existence vs. non-existence, most of us will quickly admit that we do not envy those theoretical persons. We would rather have our bodies, ourselves, our being.

I Would Choose Life, Man

Experience can be overbearing and strange and unnecessarily fraught with struggle, but ultimately, am I glad I am able to see and hear and feel and think in this ridiculous world? Yes, I am.

Given the choice, I would prefer to undergo all of this, even the heartbreak, the anxiety, the guilt, the depression. Each of these adds breadth and poignancy to the spectrum of experience, and each is in some way essential to what it is to be a human.

That I would choose to live—would choose to accept all this—is an existence-affirmation of tremendous significance. It is akin to Nietzsche’s idea of a ‘sacred “Yes,”‘ or his related idea of amor fati: the love of one’s fate. Experience alone—just to live it—becomes a purposean end in itself, rather than a means to something transcendent or otherworldly. To go places and do things and meet people and wonder about it all and just be—that is enough. 

So in those times when I am morose, discombobulated, or frazzled, I try to remain in touch with this truth: that on the most fundamental level, I have what I would choose. I have life, I have experience. When I’m aware of this, the slog of unavoidable monotony and tribulation becomes more palatable, and it is possible for gratitude to arise, not directed at any particular entity, but as an amorphous resonance of this colossal All that I am thankful to know.

This world, this life, is countless things both lovely and ghastly. It is peculiar and it is often heavy, but it is ours. It is yours and mine. And I would choose it.

“The meaning of life is just to be alive. It is so plain and so obvious and so simple. And yet, everybody rushes around in a great panic as if it were necessary to achieve something beyond themselves.”
— Alan Watts

“I want to learn more and more to see as beautiful what is necessary in things; then I shall be one of those who makes things beautiful. Amor fati: let that be my love henceforth! I do not want to wage war against what is ugly. I do not want to accuse; I do not even want to accuse those who accuse. Looking away shall be my only negation. And all in all and on the whole: some day I wish to be only a Yes-sayer.”

— Friedrich Nietzsche

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About Jordan Bates

Jordan Bates is a creator, entrepreneur, and perpetually curious autodidact interested in just about everything. He tweets a lot. He questions all the things. He makes unusual rap songs. He wanders the globe and writes about the most vitalizing, useful, and/or world-changing insights he happens upon. He dreams of a more compassionate, cooperative global community in which every human being’s basic needs are met and in which all sentient beings are respected. Befriend him and/or get his free eBook on how to exit the world of traditional work and live a radically free life. Amor fati, humans.

  • Stanley Dorst

    Getting down to the basics can be very helpful, certainly. However, I also have a desire to make a difference in other people’s lives, and in the world. I had to retire recently for medical reasons. I’ve had a strong interest in philosophy for many years, and finally have a chance to pursue that. I struggle, though, between the desire to delve into issues as deeply as possible and the desire to try to correct some of the obvious errors in some of the things I read. Recognizing the errors but not attempting to help people think more clearly about things feels somewhat pointless.

    One of the three ways to discover meaning in life, according to Viktor Frankl (whom you wrote about a few weeks ago), is to “create a work or do a deed.” That seems to me to be more than just “being alive,” as Watts recommends. I think both Frankl and Watts have valuable things to say about this. I just struggle with how to integrate the two. Do you have thoughts about this?

    • Hey Stanley,

      Thanks for commenting. I do have some thoughts on integrating the perspectives of Watts and Frankl.

      Watts’ statement about the meaning of life derives from his background as a student of Eastern philosophy. What he’s saying is that existence needs no purpose beyond itself. It—the game of being—is its own reason. Watts sees mankind (rightfully so, in my view) as no different from all of existence. We are it and it is us. Thus, from this fundamental point of view, just *being* here is an end in itself. Simply to have this experience, to play this game, is the only meaning life requires.

      I feel similarly to Watts, but I also agree with Frankl. How is this? Well, to be alive and experience might be an end in itself, yet most people do not and cannot simply sit on a rock and soak in the majesty for their entire lives. For some, wandering the Earth and enjoying the simple pleasures of living can provide sufficient meaning (I think we should reach for this). For others, such a path might be difficult or impossible. Essentially, there is no one path to meaning.

      I think Watts was speaking in terms of a bare minimum—for him, if seen correctly, my being able to breathe is all the meaning I should ever need. But I think he would agree that to realize this is difficult for most people (particularly Westerners) and that there are, in fact, countless ways to arrive at a subjective sense of meaning. What Frankl does, I think, is provide more insight into general categories of ways in which individuals might arrive at a sense of meaning. For him, as you know, suffering, creation/work, and relationships all have the potential to provide sufficient meaning to the human life.

      So, as I see it, Watts and Frankl are delivering two different takes on how one might arrive at a subjective sense of meaning. Personally, I try to find meaning in many things. Sometimes I am deeply comforted by the idea that nothing is required of me beyond myself. I simply can *be*, and all is peaceful. I find meaning in the simple joys of watching a bird in the sky or hearing a song or smelling a flower. I think it’s a great asset to life to be able to find joy in these simple things. Yet furthermore, I also find profound meaning in my relationships with those I love. I often find a deep sense of purpose and meaning in all of the things I create. And I try to find meaning in the resilience with which I have passed through the most difficult times of my life. That is how I personally integrate the views of both of those men. Please respond if you’d like to comment on what I’ve said. This is an interesting topic for me. Best to you, my friend.

  • Lindsey

    Love it. This reflection calls to mind the quote by Eleanor Roosevelt, “The purpose of life is to live it.” So simple as to almost be too simple, but simple is key in so many things. 🙂

    “See simplicity in the complicated,
    Seek greatness in small things.
    In the Universe, the difficult things
    are done as if they were easy.”

    ~Lao Tsu~
    Tao Te Ching

    Thanks for sharing your words of wisdom on the beauty of staying present, awake, and aware to the fullness of life- in all of its gloriousness and trial. Beautiful reminder. With this, I start my weekend and wish you a happy weekend, as well. Thanks for sharing your words of wisdom with us all!

    Cheers,

    Lindsey T.

    • Lindsey,

      Great quote from the Tao Te Ching. Interestingly, my most recent post is on that very book. It’s my pleasure to share my writing. Glad you could take something from it. I appreciate your note, and don’t be a stranger. Peace to you.

  • Don Juan Valdez

    I disagree. I’d rather have never been anything at all. And I think that most people would agree with me — they just wouldn’t admit it. As to why I think most people would agree (though not admit it) is because humans tend to rate losses as worse than gains — even when the amounts are equal. Losing $20 is worse to us than winning $20 is good to us. Life is a huge loss of $20 to us. It’s worse than winning the $20 of being alive. That’s just a fact, and no rhapsodizing about greasy burritos is going to change it. The more interesting question, is why we lie about this. I think it’s for the same reason that we love our parents the best of all parents or why we think our hometowns are so great (those of us that do): We can’t change those things, so we accept them. To love ourselves, we esteem what we cannot change.

    • Thank you for disagreeing! I would never expect everyone to feel the same way.

      My counterpoint to what you’ve said is this: even if most humans tend to see life’s inevitable losses as overpowering the gains, that doesn’t entail that they would still rather not have experienced anything. Maybe if you think that having some sort of “net positive joy” is the only thing worth living for. I don’t see it that way at all. I’m glad to have experienced my lowest lows, and I think you’d be surprised how many people feel the same way. But cheers to dissent and healthy debate, my friend. Take care.

  • Haley O.

    I ran into this article at a very interesting time, indeed.

    I’ve been single for a while and had an incident where I actually thought I had found someone. We enjoyed our time together immensely, going to museums, on hikes, and hanging with each others’ friends. At the end of our few weeks together, he picks up and leaves to go back to his home state and indicates to me that he never intended on anything happening with us. I felt devastated, like I had wasted precious time with someone who thought of me as nothing. Yet he asked me, quite inquisitively, “Isn’t it better to have experienced our time together than to have never had it at all?”

    While I did not intend the above to be a prototypical example of twentysomething female romantic discontent, I will reiterate that it IS apt for me to have stumbled upon this article. I am a regular reader of your blog but haven’t been around in a while. What really resonated with me in this article was Nietzsche’s idea of purpose: experience. When I travel to Oregon for a week, or try pig’s feet for the first time, or even fall in-like with an emotionally unavailable engineer, I am living life. That makes me not only human, but a human living out its true meaning. As someone deeply struggling with what they really want their life’s work to me (another can of worms), this is comforting. Not that comfort is all I’m seeking 😉

    I dunno man. This article got to me in a good way. Thanks for posting, as always!

    – H

    • Haley,

      It’s taken me so terribly long to get back to you. I apologize. As always, I appreciate your comments and your taking the time to read my stuff.

      It sounds like there was definitely a miscommunication in that particular romantic experience. It’s a shame he wasn’t clearer from the start about his intentions, but you’re right, in my opinion—it’s always better to have an experience of deep connection with another person.

      Sometimes it can be damn hard to say ‘yes’ to experience. That’s for sure. Nietzsche’s idea seems to fit in well with the Eastern philosophical notion of having no expectations. Anything that comes your way = experience = just dandy. It’s basically impossible to feel this way all the time, but in time I seem to come to be grateful to have felt even the most heart-shattering of my experiences.

      I hope that in the last couple months you’ve made progress on figuring out what sort of work you’d like to do, as well as progress in moving past that unfortunate event. I’m glad the article helped you in some way. Cheers, and I hope you’ve had a chance to check out the new site! ^^