How Do You Know You Exist? A Mind-Bending Animated Homage to Descartes Exploring the Conundrum of Reality

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“When you’re awake, you know you’re awake. But when you aren’t, you don’t know you aren’t.”

“We don’t need to credit an all-seeing God with the creation of life and matter,” wrote Douglas Rushkoff, “to suspect that something wonderfully strange is going on in the dimension we call reality.” But what is the thing we call reality, exactly, and how are we even sure it is in the first place? Long before Philip K. Dick proclaimed that “reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away” and E.F. Schumacher considered how we know what we know, the great French philosopher and mathematician René Descartes (March 31, 1596–February 11, 1650) tussled with these questions in his foundational 1641 treatise Meditations on First Philosophy (public library) — a quest to shake and uproot all beliefs not grounded in what is known with absolute certainty, and to advance a framework for what we can know beyond a shadow of a doubt.

This pleasantly mind-bending animation from James Zucker and TED-Ed turns our most fundamental sense of certainty on its head by directing Descartes’s inquiry at the most seemingly solid bastion of reality — the self: How do you know you’re real?

When you’re awake, you know you’re awake. But when you aren’t, you don’t know you aren’t — so you can’t prove you aren’t dreaming. Maybe the body you perceive yourself to have isn’t really there. Maybe all of reality, even its abstract concepts like time, shape, color, and number are false.

Complement with Alan Watts on what we really mean by “reality”, Mark Strand’s poetic ode to dreams, and a wonderful animated take on Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, which remains humanity’s greatest parable about the nature of reality, then find a necessary counterpoint in astrophysicist Marcelo Gleiser’s beautiful case for living with mystery in a culture obsessed with certitude.

Previous TED-Ed primers have explored how melancholy enhances our creativity, why we love repetition in music, how to detect lies, and why bees build perfect hexagons.

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