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 to calculate a specific number. That complication aside, 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 Rhett Butler not not given a damn… 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 read on, 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. I’ve got some questions and puzzles to put to you about it.
In Parts I-III I consider these assumptions about our origins, and also about our current existence. What caused me to exist? Could I have existed as someone else? Do I even exist right now? In Parts III and IV, I try to turn our beliefs about our existence on their head. I conclude that we should change what we believe about our coming into existence, and this forces a change in what we believe 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 other salutary effects as well. It dissolves the ego, widening the scope of each person’s self-interest to the point that it includes not just themselves and things that affect themselves, but everyone and everything that affects anyone. We find an essential unity to all of the apparently separate existences of different people, even in a purely material universe. (If this sounds like Buddhism to you, that is coincidental, but not wrong.) If my view is true and belief in it becomes widespread, I feel it could not help but drive people to create a better world than the one of environmental desolation and grave injustices that humanity is currently creating.
Before we start, a couple background notes, to give context and avoid confusion.
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 of that work (I renamed it the gamete-dependence claim in this work), which is the basis of his well-known non-identity problem. This is not specifically a criticism of Parfit, since, as I pointed out above, the essential idea of the gamete/time-dependence 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—I think that rejecting the gamete/time-dependence claim is the best way to make sense of his argument about personal identity—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.
I can give you this as a sort of philosopher’s abstract of the argument: my problem with the gamete/time-dependence claim is that 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/time-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. As a result of this, it turns out that there is no non-identity problem, at least in the way some theorists have conceived of it. An overview of the steps I take to get to this point, and where I take it from there, can be further gleaned from the detailed table of contents below.
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 two paragraphs, 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. (It is a tangential goal to also speak to anyone interested in the good of the world.) 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. If you are truly interested in this topic or in my conclusions, then I think your efforts will be rewarded even if you don’t have the background to understand everything I talk about.
I assume that materialism is true in this essay from the start. 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 spiritual energies and no non-physical places outside the physical universe such as heaven or hell or any other sort of afterlife or spiritual realms. In other words, that everything about our existence is due just to the material world. I have good reasons for believing this, some of which will come out in the essay, but actually part of the point of this inquiry was to see if explaining everything I wanted to explain about my own existence required postulating a non-physical thing such as a soul. For a while I thought that it did, but ultimately I found that it did not. But due to how pervasive agreement with the principles about coming into existence 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.
Now let’s get down to business. I ended the first part of the introduction talking about death and the good of the world. I must now backtrack. While I know that these things are most pressing concerns, thinking about them before their time comes up here would be a distraction. I do not argue for or toward these conclusions, they are just where I ended up when I attempted a dispassionate and narrowly focused examination of origins. I think you will get best results if you adhere to this process too. The first 80% of the essay is focused almost exclusively on this topic of your origins as a person, which is itself pretty baffling when you look at the details, in many ways much more so than death. So as we set off here on this journey, put yourself back into the mind just of your own coming into existence, with no anticipation of anything else. We will get to the rest in due time.
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.
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
Feedback on this essay is welcome. There is a private email correspondence form at the end of this post. You may also post a public comment as usual.
The full text of this work, running to just over 100,000 words, is posted 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–the section numbering reflected in the outline above was not preserved when I pasted the full text into the blog, for example–a Word doc or pdf is available on request. (If I don’t know you, please include some details about your interest.) Page numbers in the table of contents refer to that version. At the time of this writing, this blog version is about 98% identical with the current version.