The Odds of You Existing: On Personal Existence and its Absence

What are the odds that you would have come into existence? My impression is that a great many people, among both the general public and respected philosophers and scientists, think this question makes sense, even if calculating a specific number is next to impossible. 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 a second earlier or later, had your mother been called away on business that week, had your parents never met, had your parents never even existed, or had Napoleon not lost at Waterloo or had Billie Holiday not sang “God Bless the Child”… And so on. The basic idea is that had that sperm not joined with that ovum, then you would simply not be.  And so we are all winners, and should all be grateful.[1]

This belief is essentially what this book is about. I’m going to call it the standard belief about coming into existence, or standard belief for short. 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. Yet, there is something wrong with it. It cannot possibly be correct.

What the standard belief amounts to is that some physical factors in the world, such as your DNA, have brought you into existence. The problem with this is, where do we find the essential connection between DNA and your existence? For example, why couldn’t the human being that you are have come into existence and not been you, in the same way that all of the other human beings in the world came into existence and were not you? In the same way, in fact, that a lot of other people with your same sequence of DNA could have come into existence and not been you? There’s an unlimited number of possible identical twins to you, or clones of you, and yet only one would be you. Why that one? Or why one of them at all, rather than none of them? Or, here’s a question few ever think about, but which is dumbfounding once you ask it and understand it: why was your existence even a possibility in the universe at all? Why was it the case that any organism at all would have brought you into existence, rather than not?

These are deep and surprising questions that some may grasp in an instant, with a sort of vertiginous existential intuition that may seem inexpressible in words. This existential intuition can come and go, depending on your state of mind. It may strike you at odd and random moments, like washing dishes on a random Thursday, or at particularly poignant moments, such as confronting the reality of the vast expanse of the universe stretching out before you on a clear moonless night. And once this insight into your own existence hits you, you may quickly lose it and be unable to get it back. And so, one of my aims in this book is to give you tools to grasp onto this existential intuition and hold it for long periods, so you can examine it and better understand it.

Some of you may not grasp these kinds of questions at all though, may have never had this existential intuition. The questions may seem quite mundane and easily answered, or even opaque and confusing. Another of my aims in this book then is to bring those who feel this way around to seeing what these questions are really about, through descriptions and stories and arguments and analysis. I want to stir in you that vertiginous and confounding experience of your own existence too.

Others of you still will immediately judge these questions to be misguided, resting on basic errors. I’ll also speak to you. I’m going to show you why they are not misguided, why in fact they and others like them are unavoidable questions. But here’s the key: they are unavoidable, if you hold the standard belief about coming into existence as I described in the first paragraph. The reasons for this are somewhat complicated, but I will try to make them clear.

These questions and the existential intuition they elicit are what I will explore in detail in Part II. The purpose of this exploration is to get you dissatisfied with the standard belief. I want you to see the problems I see with it, and this will leave you wanting a better belief. This better belief about existence will be described in Parts IV and V.

Now, some people might think that this unbridgeable gap between the essence of our existence and our physical human bodies points to the necessary existence of a soul. This was actually my first conclusion, many years ago, after much time considering my own coming into being through the by now well-known physical processes of the standard belief. I didn’t see how any physical process like evolution or the joining of two gametes actually explained why I existed—they explained why my physical body exists, but not why I exist—and I thought the problems with the standard belief pointed to an essential mystery of existence that materialism (the belief that all that exists is part of our material universe, i.e., there are no gods and no souls) simply couldn’t account for. But I have come to find this false on three counts.

First, there is a perfectly good materialist way to answer these questions, to resolve these paradoxes, without bringing in a soul. This is what I’ll be describing and arguing for in Parts IV and V. Second, there are many very good reasons for not believing in a soul, and many other very good reasons for believing in materialism, so if materialism can provide satisfactory answers to our existential mysteries, then it should be our belief. I’ll give some of the good reasons for not believing in a soul in this book, but not all of them. Third, much later I will show that a soul view, even if it were plausible, wouldn’t actually provide a satisfactory answer to these questions anyway. So the choice is clear.

What then is this perfectly good materialist way to answer these questions about coming into existence, to resolve their paradoxes? The short version is this: you should not believe that any particular physical factors—such as a particular set of parents, a particular pair of gametes, or a particular combination of DNA—were required for you to come into existence. You should instead believe that you would have come into existence no matter which human beings came into existence. In other words, if you weren’t the human being you are right now, you would be someone else. And this belief has a necessary and, if I may say so, quite revolutionary consequence: you should also not believe that you will cease to exist when you die. You will rather simply become someone else. Well, “simply” is the wrong word. It’s actually just about impossible for us to conceive of the correct way of viewing death under this new belief—it relates closely to the impossibility of conceiving the correct way of viewing time—but it is something like becoming someone else. Something like becoming all people, all conscious beings, in fact. It is at any rate definitely not ceasing to exist, any more than living another ten years of your life right now would be ceasing to exist. If you are happy that you will exist in ten years should your human body survive to that point, then you should also be happy (if not quite equally happy, for reasons we will come to) that you will exist after your human body dies and you become another human body. You can think of it as a sort of materialist reincarnation.

I don’t blame you if you are wondering how this belief could possibly be materialist, how any kind of reincarnation could be true without the existence of souls. It is difficult to conceive. If I’m just a material object, then what exactly is it that survives, or moves to the next body, upon the death of this one? This is not a question that has an answer, but once you understand how we arrive at the belief in materialist reincarnation in Parts IV and V, you will see that it needs no answer. More fundamentally, once you understand from Part II what is wrong with believing that you only exist because of the coming into being of the human body you are now, in other words, because of the joining of a certain sperm and ovum (which is the standard belief), then this resistance to any alternative materialist view disappears. You see that you’ve been tacitly assuming your existence to be something it cannot be, something that is incoherent in the details. There is simply no way to make the standard belief consistent or non-paradoxical. It must be amended.


It is always a challenge to write a book for multiple different readers, and a great many people have done it before me, so I won’t bemoan my difficulties doing it here. I’ll simply point out that that’s what I’ve done, and the result is that in some places I’ll be addressing some people more directly than others. For example, I’ve had to include much that speaks directly to professional philosophers and well-read amateurs such as myself who already know this topic very well and already have strong opinions on it. There is a lot of existing philosophy on this topic, and I intend this book to be fully a part of that discussion, drawing deeply and widely from it and adding several new ideas to it. But by far my guiding principle has been to speak mostly to those who are unfamiliar with that existing philosophy, who may be unfamiliar with philosophy at all in fact, but who are nonetheless very interested in their own existence and death. I am incredibly excited about these ideas, and I feel it is important to share them with as many people as possible. Their consequences could be great for both individual lives and the world as a whole. And so, my goal is for any average reader of books of ideas like this to be able to understand this one. I won’t say it will be easy—these are heady, esoteric concepts here, after all—but you will not be stopped short by a discussion to which you feel you have not been invited, either. I try always to start from widely shared and easily understood terms and facts and principles, and to move step by step from there into the heights of abstraction and analysis, where we must necessarily go if we are to discover what we should really believe about our own existence.

One thing I have done to make this journey easier for everyone is to shunt a large portion of the discussion aimed at philosophers and experts to one place, Part III. Many non-expert readers would for the most part be able to skip this part without loss to the essential point I want to make. This is why: In Part III I introduce an alternative way to amend the standard belief than materialist reincarnation, a way that most experts know well already and many accept. But then I argue that it is wrong, and conclude that we should instead retain most of the intuitions I bring out in Parts I and II that this alternative view rejects. Most people know nothing about this alternative way of amending the standard belief, and so most people would not notice if I said nothing about it, but instead just charged ahead from Part II to Part IV assuming that our common unspoken intuitions are correct. That said, I have aimed to write Part III as I have everything else in the book, as a discussion all are invited to, not just those who have been involved in it for some time already. I’ll say more about this when we get to that point in the book.

For the experts, I’m being deliberately vague here about these alternate beliefs because I don’t want to complicate matters for non-expert readers just yet. But I can give you a little secret insider signaling as a preview: Part III has much to do with Derek Parfit, one of the great influences on and inspirations of this present work (and my life in general). I think we should take most of what he says about personal identity as being correct, but it should be amended where needed to lead us to my new belief, materialist reincarnation, which maintains the common sense intuitions I deem important while accepting the almost irresistible force of Parfit’s analysis of personal identity. And there is one point where I think Parfit himself is self-contradictory, because he affirms the standard belief about coming into existence from my first paragraph (at the very beginning of the fourth part of Reasons and Persons), yet I find that accepting the standard belief doesn’t really accord with his own view of personal identity. And, since his affirmation of the standard belief is the source of his famous Non-Identity Problem, my new view dissolves it. All of this will be explained in detail in Part III.


There is one issue we need to settle before we do any of this though, and that is a question that has likely been nagging some of you since my second paragraph: just what exactly do I mean by “existence” anyway? I keep saying that term and making bold claims about it, as though we all know exactly what I mean. But do we?

Almost certainly not. Some people mean what I mean by it. Some people consciously do, a great many more unconsciously. Some people reject what I mean by it. Some people have no idea what I mean by it. Some people quite explicitly mean something different by it, and will argue at length for their own meaning, and that I am dead wrong. And so, we must get this straight before we do anything else. This I will do in Part I, aptly titled “Foundations”, where I attempt a definition of what I have so far called just “existence”, but eventually will more precisely call by the name in the title of this book, “personal existence”, to distinguish it from other types of existence.

To give you at least a preliminary idea of what I will be aiming to accomplish in Part I, let me first point out two things people think they mean when they say “I exist” that I consider wrong, or at least not always right.

Some people consider their existence to be a construction, built up over years of socializing and education, and situated within a context of a culture and community of people. Some would go so far as to say this entirely defines what they mean when they say “I exist”. They are simply the bundle of these ideas and attitudes and everything else they’ve collected over the years. This is a fine and important answer, but it is an answer to a different question than the one I’m asking, though the form of the question may sometimes appear the same. It is thus the right answer only some of the time. This construction, social or otherwise, is one part of what I will call “content”, the content of our lives and thoughts, and is distinct from what I’m going to call “existence”. One of my primary goals in fact is to isolate our concept of existence from content, to avoid the muddles we often get into when discussing existence. The largest tool I will bring to bear on this task is a science fiction thought experiment I call the perfect doppelgänger. (Some people will strenuously resist this attempt to separate content from existence, so if you find yourself wondering why I am going on at such length in Part I to establish this isolation, that is why.)

Alternately, some people just assume, quite naturally and sensibly, that when they say “I exist” they are simply saying that a particular human being exists, the one produced by those two gametes many years ago with that particular DNA. In other words, they claim that what is happening there is 1) they are a human body, and 2) that human body is uttering the words “I exist”, and that’s all there is to it. This too is right, but again only some of the time. Some of the time, especially when we are asking questions about our existence such as those I pose in this book, we are not actually talking about a human body. And this is so even for some who strongly insist they are. I will bring out a considerable amount of evidence to support this assertion.

The thing I want to show you, the actual referent of “I exist”, the thing we are actually pointing to when we say that, is not either of these things. It’s deeper, harder to see. In fact, we’re better off just getting right to my attempt to get you to see it rather than trying to describe it or the journey to it any further. I’m going to wrap up this introduction shortly so we can do just that.


The survival of death I’ve promised to reach by the end of this book will undoubtedly be good news for a great many people, just for purely selfish reasons if nothing else (though it does have its downsides too, which I will also explore). But it 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 this 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.

All of those topics will be explored in Book 2, Meaning in a Material World. It is called a whole separate book because Book 1 is an argument for why you should believe a certain way about your existence, while Book 2 is an essay about how this belief can transform your life, and maybe even the world. (I’m an optimistic realist about that.)

But let’s not think about all of that just yet. Let’s start from the beginning. Though death and the good of the world are undoubtedly most pressing concerns, thinking about them before their time comes up here would be a distraction. Always remember: this book is mostly about origins. We’re going to start with them, and spend the first 80% of our time on them. I’m not arguing toward any particular conclusions about death. That’s not how these ideas came to me in the first place. They came to me because I found the standard belief about my own coming into existence baffling and incomplete. Conclusions about death will merely follow from what we conclude about origins, and conclusions about self-interest and the good of the world will follow from those.

[1] 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.



This book is currently in revision. If you’d like to continue directly to the “Part I: Foundations” I introduced above, go to the revised version here:

What follows below is the first draft, including a fully linked table of contents. You’re welcome to click around that if you’d like, but I most highly recommend reading Parts III and IV. They constitute the heart of my argument for my new belief, and are likely to change the least from this draft to the final version. If you’d like to get straight to the point, you can start right in at the beginning of what is labelled as Part III in this table of contents (which corresponds to what I introduced as Part IV in the introduction above).