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

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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.[1]

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.

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A couple background notes.

I’ve tried to make this essay understandable to everyone, regardless of prior knowledge, while remaining in conversation with the most rigorous of modern philosophy. You can click here for a philosopher’s introduction and summary of the argument, and it is also included at the very end of this post. You may be interested to know that this work builds on and is in part a response to Derek Parfit’s work on personal identity and the non-identity problem.

As I said, I assume that materialism is true in this inquiry. 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.

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Though I was talking about death and the good of the world just now, my real topic is origins, specifically the origins of an individual person such as yourself, as in my first paragraph. While I know that death is a most pressing concern, thinking about it before its time comes up here would be a distraction. I do not argue for or toward any conclusions about death, they are just where I ended up—quite by surprise and late in the game in fact—when I attempted a dispassionate and narrowly focused examination of origins, which takes up the first 80% of the essay. It is itself pretty baffling when you look at the details, in many ways much more so than death. So before we start, put yourself back into the mind just of your own coming into existence—really focus on your beliefs and experiences of that—and try to avoid anticipating anything else. We will get to the rest in due time.

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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Feedback on this essay is welcome. You can comment publicly at the end, or you can contact me directly here.

A pdf of this essay is available here.

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