TABLE OF CONTENTS
1.The Perfect Doppelgänger
a. The Perfect Doppelgänger Thought Experiment (PD)
b. The Gamete-Dependence Claim and the Experience of PD
c. Objections to PD: Quantum Mechanics, Determinism, and the Self Fiction
d. The Uses of PD
i. The Content/Existence Distinction
ii. A Problem for Materialism?
2. The Trivial Non-Existence Objection: Were You Just an Ovum? (The DS Acid Test)
3. Grasping at the Inchoate Perplexity of Existence: A Short Autobiography
4. Why Do You Exist, Rather Than Not?
5. Everything is What it is and Not Another Thing (The Butlerian/Indexical View)
6. Gamete Identity: Explanations and Necessary Conditions for Your Existence
a. The Current Beliefs: The Three Conditions of DNA, Gametes and Parentage
b. The Relationship Between the Three Condition
d. Gamete Identity: The Three Conditions, Separately Considered
ii. Other Candidate Essential Properties of Gametes
iv. A Very Special Perfect Doppelgänger
v. Conclusions From Gamete Identity
e. The Original End to My Philosophizing: A Mysterious Non-Materialism
1. What Do We Really Want? Unattaching from the Content of Our Lives
2. What We Have Right Now: Defense of a Partial Cartesianism
a. The Actual Referent of “I Exist”
b. The Counter-Argument: You Are Only Imagining That You Exist
c. The Real Meaning of the Claim That We Don’t Exist
3. Transworld Material Transmigration (TMT)
4. What Else Can We Have?
1. A Gamete Sorites: Could Other Gametes Have Produced You?
a. Matter Sorites
b. Three Tangential Points
i. The Incoherence of Being Partly One Person and Partly Another
ii. Empty Questions
iii. The Hidden Arbitrariness of the Indexical/Butlerian View (A1-X)
c. A Spatial Sorites and Compossibility
e. Identical Twins, Free Will, and Self As The “Driver” Of The Body
f. Compossibility and the Gamete Sorites: The Solution
2. DNA and Other Parents
a. The First Argument: DNA is Information
b. The Second Argument: A DNA Sorites
d. Total Spatial Sorites: Other Parents
1. The Minimal Conclusion: If Things Had Gone Differently
a. The Minimal Conclusion
b. The Arguments Against the Gamete-Dependence Claim, Rehearsed
c. Truly Facing The Odds
2. The Maximal Conclusion: At Last, We Get To Death
a. New Age Dreams
b. Series Persons and Materialist Reincarnation
c. Isn’t This Belief the Same as the No Self View?
d. Is the New Age Dream the Correct Belief After All?
Meaning in a Material World
What Are People?
The Beginning of Infinity
Why Not Believe In A Soul?
David K. Lewis’ Counterparts
What are the odds that you would have come into existence? My feeling is that a great many people, both regular folks and respected philosophers and scientists, think this question makes sense, even if closer investigation reveals that it would be difficult if not impossible or even absurd to try to calculate a specific number. That difficulty notwithstanding, most people would guess that the odds are quite long. At minimum, people generally believe a) that they exist and b) that they might not have, had things gone differently in the time before they were conceived. Had your father gone up to bed five seconds later, had your mother been called away on business that week, had your father had sushi that one night a month before instead of bratwurst, had your parents never met, had your parents never even existed, or had Napoleon not lost at Waterloo or Dan Castellaneta not been cast as the voice of Homer Simpson… And so on. The basic idea is that had that sperm not joined with that ovum, well then… And so we are all winners, and should all be grateful.
If this is the way you think right now, then you’ve come to the right place, because this belief is more or less what this essay is about. I’ve found it to be widely held across all types of people, from theists who believe in souls to atheists who believe in no such thing, and from those who have thought about it deeply to those who barely give it a moment’s consideration when it comes up. It thus seems like the sort of thing we should take a very close look at, in detail and at length.
The essay starts with a thought experiment called the perfect doppelgänger. Though I think—I hope—it is entertaining, its point might not be clear at first. But it lays an essential foundation for everything that follows, because before we answer any questions about our beliefs about our existence, we should get clear about what we even mean by “exist” when we apply it to ourselves. This thought experiment is a first attempt at doing that (several others will be given in both Parts I and II), and moreover proves to be a wellspring of fascinating puzzles and concepts in its own right, and serves as a guide right up to the end.
Eventually, in Parts III and IV, I try to turn our beliefs about how and why each of us came to exist on their head, and I conclude that we should change the way we think about our existence, including the way we think about death. There is good reason to think that death is not the “ceasing to exist” that those of us who are materialists—no gods, no souls—have thought it to be. This will undoubtedly be good news for those who simply want to survive death, but the particular solution I propose has a salutary effect as well: it should greatly widen the scope of each person’s self-interest to the point that it includes everyone and everything.
But though death may be a most pressing concern (and possibly the most pressing concerns), thinking about it before its time comes up here would be a distraction. So to start with, here in Part I, just think about your coming into existence, which is itself pretty baffling when you look at the details. We’ll get to the rest in due time.
A couple background notes.
For those familiar with the contemporary philosophy on this subject, you may be interested to know that this is in part an essay on Derek Parfit and his work on personal identity. Specifically, I believe we should accept his view of personal identity from Part III of Reasons and Persons, but reject the time-dependence claim from Part IV (I renamed it the gamete-dependence claim in my work). This is not specifically a criticism of Parfit, since the essential idea of this claim is widely agreed upon and he did not invent it, but because of the tremendous influence Parfit has had on my thinking in this essay, and because of this essential conflict I perceive in his ideas—rejecting the gamete/time-dependence claim is the best way to make sense of our existence in the way he argues for in Part III, the best way to make his conclusions consistent and true—I return to him and his stated beliefs throughout, as a sort of running theme. However, I do not consider this essay to primarily be a response to him, but rather an attempt at a positive theory of my own, in some cases in my own terms.
In a nutshell, my problem with the gamete/time-dependence claim is this: it seems to require us to establish gamete identity in counterfactual situations, which proves to be impossible, and it doesn’t really provide us with any explanatory benefits. It doesn’t help us make sense of existence, doesn’t answer the question of “why do I exist, rather than not?” Many philosophers have answered that “I exist” is just an indexical, the same as “the time that is now”. But I think this cannot be the answer, if we accept the gamete/time-dependence claim. The only way for “indexical” to be the answer to why I exist right now rather than not is if we reject the gamete-dependence claim, and assume that my existence didn’t depend on those gametes. To put it another way, I should believe that other people, no matter what gametes they come from or how similar or different in character they are to me, are just as good to me—to the obtaining of my personal existence—as alternate possibilities to my own life (if I had moved to France at age 2, for example), or the past and future of my life.
For anyone not already familiar with the modern philosophical discussions about this and related topics, you will find in this essay some portions, such as the above paragraph, that contain name and concept references for which I offer little or no background or explanation, because those with experience in the relevant fields will not need any, and my primary goal in these sections is to communicate to them. But my primary goal overall is to communicate with anyone interested in their own existence and their own death, which is to say, basically everyone. So I endeavored to create a robust and entertaining path through the text that can be pursued without any prior knowledge of the philosophical apparatus and accoutrements. I recommend judiciously skimming over most of the names or terms or topics, and even some of the arguments if you need to, that might otherwise be intimidating or exhausting.
As I said, the theory sketched out in this essay is purely materialist. This term “materialism” here has nothing to do with coveting money or fine luxury items, but simply refers to the belief that all that exists is the material or physical universe, and there are no non-physical things such as gods or souls or no non-physical places outside the physical universe such as heaven or hell or any other sort of afterlife or spiritual realms. I have good reasons for believing this, some of which will come out in the essay, but even just as a point of procedure it seems best to start by assuming as little as possible about reality and seeing if that is enough to explain what you want to explain. So I assume only the facts that are least easy to deny, that matter exists and our bodies and brains are made of it. And in fact I do find that that is enough to explain what I want to explain. But due to how pervasive agreement with the principles in the first paragraph above is, much of what I say here is probably relevant to the beliefs of many dualists (those who believe in two realities, material and spiritual) and religious believers as well.
Unless, of course, you agree with David Benatar (2006) that coming into existence is always bad. Or perhaps Schopenhauer: “Human existence must be a kind of error. It may be said of it; ‘It is bad today and every day it will get worse, until the worst of all happens’.” Personally, I’m pro-existence.
(The full text of this work, running to just over 100,000 words, is available below. It is the version as of August 29, 2016. As I edit and rewrite further I won’t necessarily be updating this post. For the latest version and better formatting, a Word doc or pdf is available on request. Page numbers in the table of contents refer to that version.)