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papo   The third hypothesis
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Arguments Supporting Open Individualism

by Iacopo Vettori – January 2012

“But he has nothing on at all!” said a little child at last.
(Hans Christian Andersen, "The Emperor's New Clothes")

This paper is the transcript of four comments I posted in the Facebook group “I am You: Discussions on Open Individualism” in October 2011, where I expounded my latest account of the arguments that led me to subscribe to Open Individualism (“OI”), whilst adopting a specific version that I provocatively called “Reductionist O.I.”, which I think might be considered as an evolution of the traditional layman materialist metaphysical view. Actually this proposal has some characteristics that allow it to override the distinction between reductionism and dualism, but as Open Individualism is easily misunderstood as implying a sort of religiously charged “Cosmic Soul”, my aim in classifying it as “reductionist” was to demonstrate that this mystical view is unnecessary and misleading. This transcript integrates in the text some paragraphs added to better explain what I found somehow unclear at a second reading and the notes I wrote to reply to the comments made by other members of our group, which I want to thank and mention here: Gordon Cornwall, Denis Antonov, David Nyman, Jeff Henry, Luke Clayborn Hopper, Steven Blair, Andres Gomez Emilsson. I wish thank also Daniel Kolak, Edward Miller and Jonas Muller for previous discussions that helped me to refine my arguments. A special thank to my dear friend Corrado La Torre who helped me to write these pages in a decent english prose.

This document is available as pdf file at

0) Preface
An overview of the issues related to personal identity with an introduction to the used terminology.

Since in the following discussion are used terms familiar to members of the Facebook group “I Am You: Discussion on Open Individualism”, but this paper intention is to address a wider audience, it seemed appropriate to add this brief preface. One of the most important issues with personal identity is the one about the persistence of the subject. From physiology we know that in our lifetime our body undergoes changes so vast that no physical or psychological element remains unchanged, nevertheless we are sure to be the same person that we were when we were children, how far we can push our memory. This is expressed by saying that even if we dramatically changed both physically and psychologically, we did not change our personal identity. Historically, there are two families of alternative theories: dualist theories and reductionist theories. According with dualist theories, each of us has a soul that is not material and that is able to remain the same through all the physical changes we experience. The modern dualist theories do not use the term "soul" which has religious valences, but they must appeal to something unidentifiable in physical terms, and because the existence of this "something" cannot be proven, they are charged of being not scientific theories. According to reductionist theories there is nothing that is not reducible to the matter, but once it is ascertained that our body is constantly changing in both its structure and the matter composing it, it is difficult to solve the problem of the persistence of our personal identity.

Derek Parfit in his book "Reason and Persons" in 1984, proposes to consider illusory this continuity of personal identity: as the differences between a person at the time of childhood and the same person into adulthood are huge, scientifically there are no good reason to believe that they are really the same person: this illusion would be solely due to the fact that the adult person has inherited from the original person the memory and all the individual characteristics that have been preserved through all the changes occurred in the growth. In practice, Parfit denies that personal identity can persist unchanged for the entire life, but this means that, despite any appearance, the child I was, the adult that I am today and the old man maybe I will be in the future are not really the same person as now I believe: I would have started to live some time ago in a body that was already grown and with all the memories that I feel like mine, and in some time I will fade away again, replaced by another "I" who will inherit the body and the memories that I inherited, with the changes occurred in my presence. There are different opinions about how much could be long the interval of time available to me. In the most radical form of this theory, my life would not be longer than a moment.

Daniel Kolak has developed an alternative theory that solves the problem of the persistence and described it in his book "I Am You." He also proposed a nomenclature that distinguishes the three families of theories in question. The traditional theory, according to which each of us has a precise identity that lasts from birth to death, is called "Closed Individualism" (CI), or "Closed Individual View of Personal Identity", meaning that the personal identity of each individual is separated from the one of others and it is somehow linked to the physical body, even if this requires a solution that has not yet clearly defined for the persistence’s problem. Parfit's theory is called "Empty Individualism" (EI), or "Empty Individual View of Personal Identity", meaning that personal identity is reduced to something very ephemeral and, in its most radical form, virtually nothing. The persistence’s problem is solved just giving up the persistence. The new theory that Kolak proposes is called "Open Individualism", or "Open Individual View of Personal Identity", meaning that personal identity is not something tied to a single physical body, but it is the same in all the living beings, at least those who have self-awareness. This also solves the problem of persistence because you no longer need to find something that is transmitted unchanged through an entire life: in every moment of awareness of every conscious being, the "I", i.e. the experiencer of that moment of life is always the same, even if it is present simultaneously in all the people living in that same moment.

Expressing it in this way it seems a crazy idea, but carefully examining all the issues related to personal identity, we can see that this theory is the only one able to offer always rational response. Moreover, considering some very special cases, we can see that all the weirdness that it seems to require are in fact inevitable for every alternative theory. Finally, the more you test this theory, the more it is strengthened, while the differences with the alternatives end up being marginal. I was lucky enough to get independently to this theoretical solution, which I had initially called “the third hypothesis", and I discovered that it had illustrious predecessors in the East, in some currents of Hinduism, and also in the Western philosophical tradition, by Siger of Brabant and Averroes who dates it back to Aristotle. Later, it was declared heretical and then abandoned for many centuries. When I knew the work of Kolak, I was happy to see that the idea had been reintroduced again in a modern form. After studying his book, and become aware of the current debate about personal identity, I tried to refine the presentation of the ideas that led me to embrace this theory, with a point of view sometime very personal, but trying to express it better in terms familiar to specialists of this debate. I hope that my efforts will be useful to suggest arguments and thoughts both to those who already agree with this idea, and to those who believe it is not still convincing.

Continued on the next page An informatics model of personal identity.


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