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

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 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 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.[1]

If this is the way you think right now, then read on, because this belief is mostly what this book 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 if you believe it, and some different questions to put to you if you do not.

In Part I, I lay out what our existing beliefs about existence are. It is an essential foundation to talking about existence to try to first get clear what it is that we are talking about when we talk about existence. In Part II, I tease out some problems with these beliefs. Part III tackles some alternatives to the beliefs of Part I, and argues for keeping some of the central intuitions about existence from Part I. Parts IV and  V work toward a new belief about coming into existence, and this forces us into a new belief 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 come to 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.

But 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. Remember, this book is mostly about origins. We’re going to start with them, and spend the first 80% of our time on them. 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 that.

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I’ve tried to write this book in a way that will be understandable to anyone who is interested in their own existence and death (which is to say, basically everyone), regardless of prior knowledge, while remaining in conversation with the most rigorous of modern philosophy. There is a philosopher’s introduction and abstract at the end of the book, as well as an overview of the path I take and summaries of each chapter that a general audience can understand as well. I like the idea of just setting off on a journey of philosophical discovery and being surprised at each new turn, but if you need such guides and overviews, you can go there now, or at any time during your progress.

Note:

[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.

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This book is currently in revision. If you’d like to continue reading, go to the revised first part here:

https://docs.google.com/document/d/1rNwfOXEbZS-JL_vDCPfYlh4Pb73EvxQonrybXB25B_c/edit

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.

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