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")

4) The Individual Existential Problem
What we mean when we ask ourselves "Could I have never existed?", and why only OI can give a rational answer. An overlook to the General Existential Problem.

So far we have seen that, despite what appears at a first look, a careful evaluation shows that OI does not need anything of technically weirder than what alternative theories would require. It just uses as normal rules some phenomena that alternative theories are forced to admit in exceptional circumstances. Everybody has their personal beliefs and may well think that some problems are destined to remain unanswered, but by evaluating the problem that I am introducing, you should acknowledge that OI can lead us one step beyond all the alternative theories. We just need to acknowledge and overcome our usual preconceptions.

Under the name of "existential problems" a few questions arise which could usefully be divided in two groups: one related to the "Individual Existential Problem" (IEP) and the other related to the "General Existential Problem" (GEP).

The IEP concerns questions as "why (even) I exist?", "could I never have existed?", "which are the conditions required for my existence?", "what is the probability that these may happen?" and also "can the world really exist without me?"

The GEP concerns questions as "why life exists?", "could life never have existed?", "which are the conditions required for the existence of life?", "what is the probability that these may happen?" and also "can the world really exist without life?"

You may see that the questions in these two groups are essentially the same, the former referred to a specific subject (me), the latter, more generally, to all the living beings (and could be restricted to all the conscious living beings). In extreme synthesis the OI strength over all the alternative theories is that it solves IEP directly reducing it to GEP. My existence is no more an individual problem but becomes a general problem. This may seem a minor advantage, but it truly is the only way to eliminate an otherwise unavoidable feeling of having been the subject of some grace or luck or something of irrational and inexplicable. But let us see this in detail.

About IEP, we have to notice that all the mystery comes from the existence of other conscious beings who are different from me. Even if we adopt the informatics model according to which each of us is represented by a row in the table of All the possible Conscious Living Beings (the ACLB table), each having an univocal set of attributes, this doesn't prevent me from wondering when finding that I am the “exclusive user” of the specific row that contains my description. I am aware that all the admissible descriptions are present, so I am not wondering about the basic fact that my specific row exists, but I wonder how even I am one of the holders of one of the descriptions listed in the ACLB table. The simple fact that according to any alternative to OI, each other row in ACLB table describes a structure that once actualized lets another "instance of consciousness" different from mine emerge, forces me to realize that a priori nothing in any row could ever reveal that it will let my "instance of consciousness" exactly emerge instead of another one different from mine, no matter if using exactly the same data that happen to define me. The pure fact that "I" find myself to be the instance of consciousness that emerged from a given row is a thing that I have to take as given only a posteriori, but it cannot have any intrinsic motivation. The limit of every reductionist theory is that all they can say is “how” the things are, “how” the phenomena work, but they cannot say anything about “who” somebody is. Even if we could have all the available information, all what these theories could say about me and you would be that I correspond to the description in the row X and you correspond to the description in the row Y. But they cannot give any reason about why I find myself to correspond to X and not to Y, or why I find myself to exist anyhow, considering that according to any non-OI theory I must assume that the whole world would exist even without my humble presence. This is the fundament of IEP: for each non-OI theory, my personal existence will remain forever an unavoidable mystery.

This line of reasoning is easily misunderstood or rejected as it seems to be fatally dualistic, so I will try to explain it in more detail. I understand that this reasoning requires to imagine to be "floating over the world" and examine the table, the rows, me and my description from a transcendental and dualist point of view, but consider it as a free speculation like the use of complex numbers while computing some mathematical equations: what really matters is that the result is expressed only using real values. I fully realize that even when assuming that the conditions for my birth are somewhat complex, as they are finite in number, sooner or later they could materialize and so, considering all the possible worlds, it may sometime happen that I am born. I have dedicated the previous chapter to explain that it must be considered true for every reductionist theory that does not assume the need of an infinitely lengthy description to define a given conscious being, so I do not wonder why sometimes my combination is selected, but this does not resolve the IEP. The deeper mystery is to find myself alive, whatever the combination I find myself associated with. The Ticket Holder Problem that I presented in my first writings would mean exactly this. If I imagine to codify all the content in my "personal row" of the ACLB table in a single integer number (very huge indeed), the result could be considered as my ticket number in the lottery of life. When the fate’s hand extracts my number, I come to life. I do not wonder why I have one number instead of another one, as I do not wonder about my hair or eye colour or other attributes of mine. I do not wonder how small is the probability that my ticket number was extracted in the lottery of life, because I am perfectly aware that anyhow, sooner or later my turn will come, as the extractions are infinite and can be considered fairly random, as we discussed early. I just wonder about the basic fact of finding myself with a ticket in my hands, gazing at it and wondering why. The real mystery of the Individual Existential Problem is not the circumstance to be occasionally one of the winners of the game, but the more basic observation to be a player of the game.

The mystery is how it happens that I own a lottery ticket, not that my ticket was extracted. The mystery is that a specific row exists in the ACLB table which defines exactly an entity that, once actualized, lets my personal subject-in-itself emerge. This doesn't mean that a row like the one that defines me could not have existed. This means that, as other rows generate a person who is not me (a "non-me" person), I can easily imagine that even my row could have generated another one "non-me" person, letting me out of the game. If I imagine to examine all the rows in the table, I can imagine to find the row that defines me, but I can also imagine that I could have been generated by another row, even if it's not the case, and I can also imagine that I could have not been generated by any row at all. Even if I understand that my row is a necessary element of the ACLB table, which would be uncompleted otherwise, there's no reason that could explain why I found myself to be one of the subjects generated by whatever row in the table. I cannot see the necessity of my being a subject-in-itself, as many other ones exist and I can well imagine that one more "other one" could well take my part, leaving me outside the game. This problem is raised as I realize that other people exist, and the world will exist even without me, so it is unavoidable for all kind of non-OI theories, be them Closed or Empty Individualism, of reductionist or dualist type. At this point I am forced to accept as a inexplicable mystery the simple fact of being one of the many subjects generated by some row of ACLB table.

This cannot be simply dismissed saying that it is not a reductionist way of reasoning, because this answer does not resolve the mystery of being part of the game. I am aware that I am speaking about an abstract subject-in-itself that should be interpreted as a phenomenon generated by a physical process, but even in a strictly reductionist theory I can well distinguish between all the material things required to generate a phenomenon and the phenomenon in itself. I can accept to consider myself as an illusory subject that emerges from a sequence of mental states that are originated as side-effects of the brain activity, but what constitutes the illusion must not be confused with the subject experiencing the illusion. The fact that each neural network may create its own illusion different from others does not imply that the subject that experiences it should be considered necessarily a different subject. This is what we experience directly in each instant, as we remain the same person through the continuous changes of our brain’s neural network. This is why reductionist theories that deny OI must admit EI, that considers the persistence of the subject just another illusion, even if our memory deceives us, letting us believe to have a continuous existence. But even this explanation cannot give a reason of my being one “instance of consciousness” gifted with the exclusive owning of a “life fragment” that allows me to be alive by time in time.

Even if you do not accept this line of reasoning as a non-reductionist, I wonder how you may feel comfortable imagining that your destiny is linked forever to a specific key value combination, without the feeling that this implies some kind of 'exclusive privilege', even if you do not assume that your key value combination necessarily imply your current welfare state. How can you not wonder about the fact that there are some events which are able to cause your existence, and let you become (or let you feel like you were) an actual "instance of consciousness"? You have to accept as 'given' the fact that your destiny ab aeterno was to represent the consciousness when and only when it emerges in a body that has those attributes that are supposed to define you. We must be aware that considering each "instance of consciousness" permanently associated to a row, enables them to be considered as some absolute metaphysical entity like the non-instantiable consciousness of OI is considered to be. To think to have been 'graced' to be one of the allowed “instances of consciousness” is not less mystical than assuming that the consciousness is always the same, because the “instances of consciousness” delegated from the eternity to manifest themselves in some specific circumstances have the same “absoluteness” of the “Cosmic Soul”, but it cannot give an answer to the IEP as OI does. The supremacy of reductionist OI over non-OI reductionist theories consists in the fact that it does not require us to accept any kind of gift or luck, nor anything of inexplicable from a rational point of view, that should be accepted as ‘given’.

OI solves the Individual Existential Problem reducing it to the General Existential Problem, that is a huge problem common to all the theories. It may seem a minor difference, because its referring to GEP means that even the OI answer to IEP will remain incomplete, but it is the only solution that does not require us to surrender to accept IEP as a given fact, without any possibility of explanation. IEP is generated simply noting that the (presumed) existence of other persons different from me is a undeniable statement that the world could have existed even without my humble presence, and this is just what forces me to consider myself the recipient of a special grace or lucky. Until we don't break down the (presumed) distinctions between different "instances of consciousness", nothing will prevent me to wonder why even my personal “instance of consciousness” was one of those gifted by the exclusive owning of a specific row in the ACLB table, whatever row it finds itself to be generated from.

Considering each "instance of consciousness" as a different entity just because generated by different structures, force us to face the IEP. Force us to believe that our “instance of consciousness” had necessarily to be one of those existing. This is not a rational consequence of the fact that all the possible events, sooner or later, will happen. OI may seem to require an even greater 'privilege' ("why just my instance of consciousness happens to be the only one existing?"), but it really does not, as there is nobody who may remain 'excluded'. Imagining that even the non-instantiable consciousness of OI raises the same problem is a logical error, because it implies that we consider that other possible consciousnesses are arbitrarily eliminated to let the consciousness be one (one random from the many). This reasoning has lost view of the basic fact that we are here examining the possibility that the consciousness will be non instantiable, exactly because the concept of "multiple instantiation" leads to many unmanageable problems. So, we don't have to “choose one” and always use it: we have to postulate that the consciousness is non instantiable and so it exists or does not exist, it manifests itself or it does not, but it can never be chosen from no alternatives at all.

After what we said about the problem with the concept of individual instances of consciousness, the non-locality, the mystical appearance of multiple births and other technical problems that seemed to afflict only OI, we saw that it is sufficient simply to apply in a different scale the same solutions that all the reductionist alternatives need to apply in exceptional circumstances. Once eliminated all preconception of additional technical difficulty for OI, nothing else still impedes to consider OI a viable solution, the only one that can offer an explanation to the IEP. Someone still could prefer to think to IEP as a unanswered problem. But, as it is originated by the simple existence of other supposed “instances of consciousness” different from mine, without OI it is destined to remain a unanswered problem forever. Once we saw that a solution exists, and that solution is the only possible solution, we should take it as true, at least until someone gives evidence of some error or proposes a better one (that, I imagine, will not confute it but refine it).

It is worth to mention that OI offers an easy solution to all the questions on personal identity which alternative theories have to manage introducing artificial hypotheses, none of them being definitively convincing, as described at, where OI is not even mentioned. Moreover, it resolves the problem of determining the instant when a foetus begins to have a personal identity, as it has not to be chosen or determined in a precise moment, and can become a gradual event like our everyday awakening. Many other questions related to the “Doomsday Argument”, to the “Self Indicating Assumption” and in general to all those that involve the observation selection effects (described by Nick Bostrom at, can be managed using OI avoiding the paradoxes described in the article. But all these questions may allow alternative explanations than the ones provided by OI, at least if we acknowledge the possibility of multiple births in the same world. Instead IEP is a problem that is caused by the mere fact of considering other conscious beings as having a different personal identity from me, so it is an unavoidable and unanswerable problem common to all non-OI metaphysics.

The key point in OI is the acknowledgement that personal identity doesn't depend by any set of data, but directly by the function of consciousness, so that the data may give each time the form and the limits that the consciousness experiences, it may define "how" the consciousness is, but it cannot influence "who" the consciousness is. This does not require any form of shared information nor shared willingness among us. Each time we live a life, our thoughts are limited by the information stored in our memory and our individual intelligence and imagination. Realizing that logically we must be always the very same person doesn’t gives us instantly any paranormal faculties. But I can attest that it gives us more reciprocal empathy or, at least, more willingness to be more sympathetic. In my ordinary life, I try to give my best using my faculties in the more useful way I can find, but at the same time I can deal with my failures with more courage, knowing that even the successes of others will be always my successes too.

About GEP, we have to notice that is not influenced by OI/EI/CI in their reductionist or dualist versions. It represents the most difficult problem we can ever face, and I wonder if we really can imagine a solution. It can be split in two problems:

1) The Theoretical Problem: We have to take notice that, between all the possible worlds that could ever exist, there exists at least one that allows the presence of life. This is not to be taken for granted. The existence of life could have been a problem without any solution. But our presence here demonstrates that at least one solution exists.

2) The Practical Problem: Once a theoretical solution is given, this doesn't mean that the corresponding world must actually exist. We know that everything can be created as a void fluctuation, but even this implies that the void exists as also the rule that it can have fluctuations. The difference is the same between a project of an engine and the existence of a fully functional engine. It is what Stephen Hawking asks at the end of his book "From Big Bang to Black Holes": "What is it that gives life to equations?".

Maybe the answer is really beyond our faculties. My wildest imagination leads me to think that the basic rule-of-all-the-rules is composed by two conditions for the actual existence of a world: the internal logical coherency and the presence of consciousness. According to this view, each possible world can be expressed as a formal system complex enough to allow the enunciation of Gödel’s proposition: "I am not demonstrable in this formal system". This is how I conceive the consciousness in a material world. Something that emerges from the specific world's rules, but is not demonstrable inside those rules. This could be possible only if we concede that the world could have some rule that is not completely deterministic, but just probabilistic, as the quantum mechanics is supposed to have. This indemonstrability could be the root reason why it is questioned if the consciousness requires an unavoidable dualist conception. The comparison of the consciousness phenomenon with an indemonstrable proposition in a formal system shows that it does not require to presuppose the existence of any metaphysical substance other than the material substance which the world requires already, and it can be interpreted in a logical and non-mystical way, even if it will stay forever beyond the possibility of any definitive scientific explanation. Here I am speculating, but I am not using the Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem to advance the OI cause, just to show how the phenomenon of consciousness might be something that manifests itself in this world, even if it cannot be demonstrated by the physical laws.

The Theoretical Problem may help us to understand the main issue of IEP: the problem with my individual existence is not linked to the improbability of the actualization of all the conditions that are presumed to be required for my individual birth. This would be the equivalent to the Anthropic Principle that explains why our universe is fine-tuned for life postulating the existence of many other universes: it is obvious that we could never have been born in a world unapt to life, so we have not to wonder about the perfect conditions that we notice in our one. It is the application of the selection effect due to the presence of observers explained by Nick Bostrom in his paper. I understand and agree, but the correct comparison is with the Theoretical Problem of GEP: the real inexplicable mystery is the mere fact that there exists a whatever combination of fine-tuned forces and laws of physics that allows the existence of life, that the problem admits at least one theoretical solution.

The same problem cannot be avoided also when we are reasoning in a non-OI way about the IEP: what I wonder about is that there exists a whatever combination of fine-tuned attributes that define a living being that, once actualized, allow the emergence of my "instance of consciousness". I wonder about the problem of the emergence of my "instance of consciousness" that admits at least one theoretical solution. I cannot accept it as 'given', without the feeling of accepting some mystic assumption. How can we feel comfortable with it, even when assuming the most radical reductionist theory? I know that all the possible cases may happen. But where is it written that my individual consciousness could arise as a side-effect of one (whatever one) of these cases? Where is it written that my individual consciousness had to exist anyway? OI solves the Gordian node stating that you are the consciousness, so if consciousness is possible, you have not to be thought as a particular "instance" of it, but just as a different form of the consciousness phenomenon. If you look back to the table with all the conscious beings we have discussed, you can see that anyway, every traditional reductionist theory it forces you to consider yourself as "the consciousness, when it is instantiated with some peculiar key attributes". So where is the trouble in considering yourself as "the consciousness, however this is instantiated"?

In this way, the consciousness may be considered a basic concept as time and space are, a fundamental element required to give an actual existence to any kind of possible world, even if each time it comes to existence, its conditions are necessarily relative to the context world. This may seem a solipsist view, and in a certain sense it is. Daniel Kolak in "I am You" uses the term "Independence-Friendly solipsism". But traditional solipsism denied the existence of others, or at least the possibility of the demonstration of their real existence. According to my view of OI, each of us has a real life, but our lives are always experienced by the same "I", even if each time it assumes different form and memory. According to this view, OI may allow us to define a 'real' experience distinguishing it from one that is just imagined: an experience is real only if its consequences are experienced by our common "I" more than once. Imagine you had a dream where you meet a friend and give him an information, and your friend had the same dream, so once awake he can use that information. I think that your dreamed experience should be classified as 'true', not just as an imaginary one. The “I” must be considered being always the same also in every possible parallel universes and even in every eventual artificial consciousness created inside a virtual world. No matter how many levels of abstraction you may imagine, the experience of the consciousness has always the same subject: you. This is allowed by the general nature of our informatics approach, and is required by the IEP, otherwise it will reappear as the spectre of the unanswerable question: “why I exist?”.

To conceive the world as the cross product between the consciousness and all the possible contexts that allow the consciousness to emerge lets us imagine the highest possible level of freedom. We can consider us experiencing all the possible variants of multiverse proposed by Max Tegmark in his article “Parallel Universes”, or all the possible stories that we could find in “The Babel Library” narrated by Jorge Luis Borges. We may even imagine the possibility to generate artificial consciousness, in some virtual world, and we must be certain that, if a real consciousness emerges, that will be another one of our own real experiences, just like the one that we undergo today. We should not be envious or uncaring about other people’s life conditions. Everybody else’s life is always another experience of our own. We should always keep this in mind when relating to each other, trying to gain the best for everybody from the available world resources. There’s no need of imagining an afterlife, or of hoping for a form of complete awareness of all the universe. Maybe our current human condition is already one of the best forms of consciousness that is possible to attain, and becoming conscious of the necessity of Open Individualism is the only way to elevate us from our short-sighted lives and to motivate our efforts to build a more comfortable world for everybody.


Stephen Hawking, “From Big Bang to Black Holes”, Bantam Press, 1988
Douglas Hofstadter, “Gödel, Escher, Bach”, Basic Books, 1979
Douglas Hofstadter and Daniel Dennett, “The Mind’s I“, Bantam Books, 1982
Douglas Hofstadter, “I Am a Strange Loop“, Basic Books, 2007
Daniel Kolak, “I Am You” , Springer, 2005
Derek Parfit, “Reasons and Persons” , Oxford University Press, 1984
Julian Barbour, "The end of time", Oxford University Press, 1999
Jorge Luis Borges, ”The Library of Babel”, Editorial Sur, 1944
Paul Davies, "Cosmic Jackpot ", Hougthn Mifflin, 2007
Roger Penrose, "Emperor's New Mind", Oxford University Press, 1989
Max Tegmark, “Parallel Universes”, Scientific American, 2003
Nick Bostrom, “Anthropic Bias: Observation Selection Effects in Science and Philosophy”, Routledge, 2002
Eric Olson, “Personal Identity”, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2010

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