University of Bristol, Undergraduate first year Introduction to Metaphysics essay.

ESSAY TITLE: What are possible worlds? Are there any? (other than the actual world)


The idea of possible worlds stems from the basic realization that things appear as if they could have gone differently. A lot of things that happen seem to be down to chance, possibly all of the things that happen, in which case why couldn’t they be happening differently in some other possible world? That all the possible alternatives could be actually happening in totally separate worlds is the basis of possible worlds theories. I shall argue against this being the case.

I shall argue that existence is dependent on conscious experience, which is a panpsychist position. I shall argue that that rather than possible worlds being utterly separate from our own and fundamentally physical, a conscious person is ‘riding a wave of possibility’ and simultaneously creating and experiencing a possible world, or a portion of one. Possible worlds that are totally separate and physical are completely incomprehensible. For example, if someone tries to imagine a possible world where all there is is a big lump of iron floating through space, they are actually imagining themselves imagining a big lump of iron floating through space. They cannot be removed from the equation. Reality is incomprehensible without a subject of experience.

In my argument we are part of a greater Universal mind and we are the imagination of our possible selves, much like in a dream. When someone tells us about a dream they say, “I did this.” But they didn’t. What they did was lie there with their eyes shut fast asleep. It was their imagination of themselves that did anything. I argue this is the same in our waking lives. When we are asleep and dreaming part of our mind is asleep, the world and people we meet are created by our own mind and we believe they are something separate to us. It is like there is a ‘greater mind’ at work in the dream, which is our unconscious mind. I do not argue that during our waking lives everyone is created by ‘my’ unconscious mind, that would be the troublesome philosophy of solipsism; but rather that it is made by a greater mind, a ‘dreamer’ or consciousness that actualizes itself by self-referencing. The ‘dreamer’ may be capable of having many dreams. Perhaps each person is a possible world, or perhaps each perspective, or each instance of time. I will address distinction this later. Regardless, this is only an anthropocentric analogy to explain my theory. The important part is that consciousness is all there really is, in all possible worlds and that there are no separate possible worlds. My argument can be summarized with the following premises:

1. Possible worlds including our own are dependant on one thing: Consciousness. 2. If there are possible worlds separate from our own they are unprovable. Occam’s razor means they should therefore be rejected. 3. Possible worlds that it is possible to think about are part of the consciousness of the actual world.

Conclusion: There are no possible worlds other than the actual world.

According to quantum mechanics we experience a probability spread of subatomic particles which may appear to be conscious themselves, or at least they are dependent on consciousness for existence. I will now explain this and demonstrate how this backs up my argument.

Quantum mechanics

Quantum mechanics is the study of the motion of sub-atomic particles, or ‘quanta’ of which all things that exist are made. Some examples include photons (light particles), electrons, neutrons and protons. In the sub-atomic realm the laws of Newtonian physics and common sense rationality do not apply (Zukav 2001). For example, when a single photon is directed through two-slit grate the photon paradoxically goes through both slits at the same time, creating measurable interference - with itself. The photon somehow knows there are two slits ( Is the photon conscious?

Furthermore, unlike the motion of things that are on a scale we are used to such as cars and footballs, it is not possible to measure both the position and momentum of sub-atomic particles. The more you know about the position, the less you can know about the momentum. If you focus on the exact position, you can know nothing whatsoever about the momentum, and vice versa. This is not due to equipment limitations, but rather the nature of sub-atomic particles (Zukav 2001). We must choose to what extent we measure the position or momentum of a particle.

Nobel Prize winning physicist Neils Bohr (1958) (as cited by Zukav 2001, 95) said:

“Light has no properties independent of us. This is the same as saying it does not exist. Without us, or anything else to interact with, light does not exist. And without light, or anything else for us to interact with, we do not exist”

Quantum mechanics tells us that the only thing that is ever experienced, the only thing that ever exists, is the interaction between the ‘us’ and the ‘it’, or according to Heisenburg; “between the idea of an event, and the actual event” (Heisenburg 1958) (as cited by Zukav 2001, 66). This experience can be called consciousness, or conscious experience. It is the only thing there is. It gives us no reason to believe there are possible worlds separate to the actual world. Our experience of something is what makes something actual. If things that are not happening are somehow happening then that is a contradiction. Contradictions entail everything to be true. If everything is true, then it is true that everything isn’t true, and thus we become stuck in an infinite loop of contradictions. This is surely best avoided. Therefore there are no possible worlds other than the actual world.

The actual world

What the actual world is needs clarifying. I have previously stated that perhaps each person is a possible world, or perhaps each perspective is a possible world or that every instant of time is. A person may hold many perspectives and experience a stretch of time and so there is a problem here of identity through time (1986)(as cited by Crane et al,. 2004). If each person’s experience is unique and their experience actualizes reality then surely each sentient being lives in its own possible world, yet we somehow share a great deal of opinions about how the world works, which is problematic and so this is not my position. Rather, I argue that our language and thinking is limited to using flawed ego-based identity statements, limited by our level of consciousness. Our brains put together a story of our experiences providing us with the illusion of separation from the world. There is no reason to think “I” stop where my body stops. If all my limbs where chopped off and all I had left was a brain I would not be a brain (or a brain with a very complex life support system). “I” refers to my conscious experience, which extends beyond my body, as well as within. Everything is inextricably linked. We are part of each other. The actual world is quite literally staring us in the face. There is only a oneness, a oneness of consciousness.


A potential problem with my argument is that if we are what makes the actual world actual, then the only thing special about the actual world is that we are in it. It could be argued that there are many possible worlds and we just call the one we live in the actual world.

To this I would reply that us being in a world is not a trivial matter, but is in fact a very worthy a reason to call this the actual world. Surely love, music, (philosophy), and the awe inspiring experience of life is not something to be brushed off as insignificant.


I have explained the importance of consciousness and investigated quantum mechanics for answers. I have also provided my position on the actual world. I have argued that possible worlds do not exist because it gives rise to a contradiction that things are happening that are not happening. Possible worlds are nothing more than very useful philosophical tool to allow for theorizing about the way things would have been if a event had gone differently, or for purposes of fiction to entertain and enlighten.


Bohr, N. (1958) Atomic Theory and Human Knowledge, New York: John Wiley

Heisenberg, W. (1958) Physics and Philosophy, New York: Harper and Row

Lewis, D. (1986) Selection from On the Plurality of Worlds, Blackwell in Crane, T. and Farkas, K. (2004) Metaphysics a guide and anthology, New York: Oxford University Press

Many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics. Stanford encyclopedia of Philosophy consulted 28.02.11 <>

Physical reality: photons in two places at once. Oracle Education Foundation consulted 27.02.11 <>

Zukav, G. (2001) The dancing wu li masters, New York: Bantam Books


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