There are two questions about our existence that have gone mostly unnoticed and unanswered.
The first question is, what do we mean when we say “I exist”? What are we actually referring to when we say that? You might think you know the answer to that in your own case, but I think you probably do not. The concept of existence as we apply it to ourselves in the singular first person when we say things like “I exist” (or “I did not exist” or “I would not have existed” or “I will not exist”) is a muddle. This concept is what I am calling personal existence. To truly understand this personal existence, it needs to be isolated from other factors that confuse our discussions about it. I have devised a thought experiment called the perfect doppelgänger as a first attempt to do this.
The second question is, given that you do exist (an assertion I will justify in the argument), what caused you to exist? There are some standard answers to this question, things such as DNA or a particular set of gametes coming from a particular set of parents. But if we correctly understand the answer to the first question, what we are referring to when we say “I exist”, then you will see that these factors cannot possibly be causes or explanations of your existence.
This belief that a particular set of gametes had to join in order for you to exist I’m calling the gamete-dependence claim. (I take DNA and parentage to be subsumed as properties of a particular set of gametes.) This belief is very widespread, held not just by laypeople, but by esteemed philosophers and scientists. It really seems to be almost universally agreed upon. If some do deny it, I have not heard; they must be remaining silent about it, perhaps because they do not have an alternative theory. What this essay does is deny the gamete-dependence claim, and offer a full and justified alternative theory.
The problem with the gamete-dependence claim is that the factors of DNA, parentage, and a particular set of gametes explain why a particular human being came into existence, but they do not explain why the coming into existence of that human being brought me into existence, rather than not. All of the other human beings that have existed did not bring me into existence, but this one did. Why?
The best answer to this question currently available—when the question is noticed at all—is that “I exist” is an indexical, such as the time that is now. But I think this cannot stand as an answer, if we believe in the gamete-dependence claim. This cannot be explained fully in a short space, but essentially it is because I understand my personal existence as something that obtains in my human body now, and obtained in the past of that human body, will obtain in the future of it, and would have obtained in alternate histories of it. I think this is the way everyone understands their own personal existence. But on the gamete-dependence claim, it would not have obtained in any other human body, i.e., a human body coming from any other set of gametes. In other words, a single person’s personal existence is a thing that consistently obtains across a wide variety of different physical objects, but then suddenly no longer obtains in any other physical objects outside of that set. This is a very different thing than what the indexical concept can be used to explain, such as with time, in which every one thing (one point in time) is a single point of a same continuous thing. It also brings up the problem of finding criteria of gamete identity across counterfactual situation, which proves to be impossible; at the time of creation of a gamete, we end up simply making arbitrary stipulations.
And so I offer the alternative theory to the gamete-dependence claim that I referred to above. It is this: Each of us should think we would have come into existence no matter what gametes joined. Even if the world had gone differently and there were entirely different human beings on earth right now, you would be one of them, as would I. As long as some conscious life (or even A.I.) exists, you will be one of them. And if this is so, then there are consequences for how we perceive death. It is not the ceasing to exist that those of us who are materialists—no gods, no souls—have thought it to be. Rather, each of us exists again as another human being after we die. I call this materialist reincarnation. To put both parts of this theory 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. This—and only this—makes it possible to consider my experience of existing here and now as this human being to simply be an indexical.
Materialist reincarnation is radical and I acknowledge that it is surely unbelievable to any sober materialist. It may sound like the sort of fantasy a New Age religion would concoct. But it seems to be an inevitable consequence of denying the gamete-dependence claim. And I think the gamete-dependence claim must be denied. I believe that a close analysis of origins, of coming into existence, shows that it cannot be true.
This work is closely related to Derek Parfit’s work. I take his analysis of personal identity in Part Three of Reasons and Persons to be correct. It is the foundation of my view of my own existence, and so I use it and build upon it in my argument. But it is interesting that among the very many people who explicitly make the gamete-dependence claim, Parfit is one of them. He calls it the time-dependence claim, and makes it right after his analysis of personal identity. (The gamete/time-dependence claim is the basis of his well-known non-identity problem, and so since I deny the gamete-dependence claim, I think there is no non-identity problem.) This is significant, because I think it is much easier to understand his analysis of personal identity and to accept his conclusions—the Reductionist View of personal identity—if we deny the gamete-dependence claim. 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.
And there is another connection: Parfit was surprised to find that analyzing personal identity as rigorously as he did led him to beliefs shared by Buddhism. My work building on Parfit, just as coincidentally, furthers this connection to Buddhism: Materialist reincarnation ends up being a harmonizing of two concepts in Buddhism that seem incompatible, the no self view and reincarnation.
I am ambivalent about emphasizing my conclusions about death at the start. While I recognize that they may be appealing and intriguing and so might gain me readers, my topic is really origins, and I fear talking about death and reincarnation might be a distraction for people going in. Or that such conclusions might seem so fanciful that some people looking for serious, sober, and well-argued philosophy won’t take it seriously enough to bother. The first 80% is an argument about origins and the problems with the way we think about origins, and in truth the conclusions about death are almost tacked on to the end, a most recent addition to a thought process that has gone on for many years. So I hope any incredulity you might be experiencing to my conclusions about death will not prejudice you while attempting to follow my argument about origins.
If I have piqued your interest, you should go now to the main work: The Odds of You Existing: On Personal Existence and its Absence.