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Reduction to Open Individualism

by Iacopo Vettori - September 2016

Chapter 5: The General and the Individual Existential Problems

55. A definitive argument may be given: Open Individualism ends up being the only possible answer to what I called “the Individual Existential Problem”, which only by adopting Open Individualism can be reduced to what I called “the General Existential Problem”, which is a problem common to every theory of ontology, even if such theory does not imply any theory about personal identity. Unfortunately, it is not easy to understand the cogency of this argument, so it may appear irrelevant to those who do not grasp it. But I think that once understood, it is so strong that all the other arguments may be regarded as accessory consequences of this main argument.

56. It is useful to begin by speaking about the General Existential Problem. This is the name that I use for the old question: “Why does the world exist?”. Here the question does not seek to suggest that there is some immanent purpose to the existence of the world, it just expresses our wonder at the occurrence of all the events that make possible the existence of the world and life. It is useful to consider two aspects of this problem: the Theoretical Aspect and the Practical Aspect.

57. The Theoretical Aspect is related to the architecture of the world, and more specifically, to the architecture of a world containing life. We know that in nature there is a set of absolute numbers (for example, the ratio between the four fundamental forces) that have to be carefully calibrated to make possible the existence of atoms and molecules as we know them. If you were God (by “God” I mean a cosmic architect, not a magician), you would have to find this calibration to create the world, and you would possibly not even know whether a working calibration could ever exist. So you would perform a lot of theoretical work, calculating formulas and checking results, and then finally you might find the right formula. If you did, you would have solved the theoretical problem. Now you could become the “cosmic bricklayer” and build an actual world with that exact calibration of the fundamental forces. If you could also build it materially, then you would also have solved the practical problem.

58. The Theoretical Aspect of the General Existential Problem should make us wonder, because it could not have been guessed that at least one theoretical solution was possible. It could have been that the appearance of life would require some impossible conditions, such as requiring that the solution of a3 + b3 = c3 be integers for a, b and c. A priori, nothing can guarantee that there would have existed at least one mathematical model of the universe that left room for the appearance of the mind. It could be the case that the appearance of the mind required contradictory conditions. In fact, we know that at least one solution is possible only because we are here.

59. The Practical Aspect of the General Existential Problem is the same idea that Stephen Hawking wrote about in his book A Brief History of Time: “What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe?”. That is, if you were God, once you resolve the Theoretical Aspect of the problem, you still have to practically build an instance of the theoretical model. To have the complete documentation needed to build a plane does not mean that you may fly: you still have to build the plane.

60. Actually, the reasoning regarding the vanishing of differences between the “type” and the “instance” concept, introduced when we criticized the identity concept applied to objects, and in particular, applied to the universe as a whole, led me to think that the Practical Aspect of the General Existential Problem is not as urgent as the Theoretical Aspect is. The “type” of our actual universe corresponds to its mathematical model. The “instance” of an object is something that derives from the combination of the chosen type and one identity. We already discussed how identity for objects is always reducible to a convention, based on the internal structure of the object and its geometrical relations with other objects (the latter being not applicable to the model of a complete universe). The only concept of identity that is not reducible to a convention is the identity of the minds that experience life in that universe. According this view, the identity of the universe becomes a projection of the mind of the living beings experiencing it. Open Individualism allows us to regard those minds as different forms of the subjectivity phenomenon, so that eventually, the identity of the mind and the identity of the universe become useless. According to this view, the Practical Aspect is reduced to the direct experiencing of the model by the subjectivity phenomenon, without the need to create an instance of the model.

61. Now we are ready to face what I call the Critical Point of the General Existential Problem. Our bare existence in the universe demonstrates that the existence of the mind is something that is allowed by a special set of very complex mathematical and physical rules. We may wish to overlook the problem of finding a design for a universe that can host life somehow. We may think that, considering all the possible theoretical models of the universe, it is normal that some of them, and at least for sure our universe model, will allow the appearance of life. But I think that overlooking this problem is wrong. This is the Critical Point of the General Existential Problem, concerning both the Theoretical Aspect and the Practical Aspect: even if we find a complete and mathematically coherent world model that theoretically leaves room for the presence of the mind, strictly reasoning in mathematical or physical terms, nothing can ensure that the actualization of such a world model should imply the actualization of the mind that the model allows. The actualization of the model, despite the room it leaves for the mind, might result in a zombie-world. This is due to the objectivity that characterizes all the mathematical and physical conditions, and the fact that the experience of the mind is something that we have only subjectively, by our direct experience. We of course are convinced that other people also have a real mind, but we can be absolutely sure only of the existence of our own mind. We have to acknowledge that the actualization of a world model that allowed the existence of a mind has been the necessary context for the existence of this mind, but we could not have taken it for granted before this would have happened. It simply happened. This point is critical because it mixes objective and logical reasoning about the coherence and the rationality of the world model with the immediate and unquestionable fact of our subjective experience of the existence of the mind. Keep in mind that the existence of the mind cannot be deduced by any physical law: we have to accept it, to acknowledge that it happened; it is not subject to scientific investigation, because it implies a subjective factor.

62. The Practical Aspect is meaningless without this Critical Point. And actually, I wonder about the meaning of “existence” when referring to a zombie-world or to any other world without any observers which could not exchange any information with our universe. The existence of a world that is not experienced by any mind poses a serious challenge to the meaning of the word “existence”. How can we say that a world is “actualized” if it allows no observer, or if it is populated by zombies without an effective mind? This is why I think that the solution to the Practical Aspect, the actualization of a theoretical model in a “real” world, depends on the actualization of the mind that the model allows to exist.

63. This position is the same as that of the physicist John Wheeler, who proposed “the Participatory Anthropic Principle”, according to which the existence of the mind is the key condition for the actualization of a theoretical world model. The theoretical world model is a coherent mathematical model that allows the mind to exist, and conversely, the existence of the mind brings the theoretical world into actual existence. For this reciprocal dependence, it is not a dualist model, but rather it is better classified as dual-aspect monism, or even idealism, because it is the mind that discriminates what the theoretical structures are that can be actualized. At any rate, these classifications are limited to my considerations of the General Existential Problem from an Open Individualist perspective, but they are not mandatory for any Open Individualist View. You may think that, in some sense, all the different kinds of universes you may image do really exist somewhere, but the Critical Point still remains: the actualization of the mind cannot be predicted to occur just from actualizing a model of a universe theoretically compatible with it.

64. Now we can begin to exert some reasoning on the Individual Existential Problem, keeping in mind the reasoning we have done on the General Existential Problem. The Individual Existential Problem is related to our personal presence among the total number of living beings. Once we accept the fact that life exists, we may wonder about the fact of finding ourselves being part of this multiform existence. Accepting Open Individualism, we can immediately avoid this question. But if you think that every living being, or at least every conscious being, has their own numerically different personal identity, then you have to face this problem: “Because all the other living beings are ‘not-me’, a priori nothing can guarantee that there would be one living being who is exactly ‘me’. So, I have to think that, even if my actual birth was a matter of chance, I am and I always have been the beneficiary of one chance to be born, which was a sort of exclusive privilege, even if it was only one single chance within the whole set of all the possible worlds”.

65. The General Existential Problem reflects longstanding questions about the existence of the world, or better, questions about a world that allowed the appearance of life. The Individual Existential Problem reflects the individual wonder at finding myself being a participant in this world. As we did for the General Existential Problem, we may distinguish between the Theoretical Aspect, the Practical Aspect and the Critical Point of the Individual Existential Problem.

66. The Practical Aspect of the Individual Existential Problem is in some ways manageable even if we do not consider Open Individualism, but we have to be aware that to manage it we have to accept some consequences that are not widely acknowledged, because they force us to accept assertions that are not falsifiable. But the Theoretical Aspect and the Critical Point of the Individual Existential Problem are more complex to understand, and they can be managed only by Open Individualism. For this reason, it is convenient to begin by discussing the Practical Aspect of the Individual Existential Problem.

67. The Practical Aspect of the General Existential Problem is related to the actualization of one of the theoretical models of the universe that makes life possible, accepting as given that at least one universe of this kind is possible. In the same way, the Practical Aspect of the Individual Existential Problem is related to the actualization of my individual person, i.e. my own birth, accepting as given that at least one of all the possible living beings has all the necessary conditions to make my mind emerge. You may already see that from an Open Individualist perspective this is not an issue, because according to Open Individualism every possible living being is a different experience of the very same subjectivity phenomenon that I am currently experiencing as ‘my mind’. But let us see if other views can somehow manage the bare facts of my actual existence.

68. In every other theory besides Open Individualism, your personal identity is defined by some conditions that univocally characterize you. These conditions are not clearly defined because the problems of personal identity in these theories have no clear solutions. For reductionist theories, these conditions must be physical conditions; they have to be linked to the matter that constitutes your brain or to the configuration currently implemented by neurons in your brain. Non-reductionist theories introduce something non-physical to differentiate ‘me’ from ‘you’, so these conditions are undefinable in physical terms, but non-reductionists think the conditions have to exist in some form, as they agree that ‘me’ is not ‘you’.

69. The Practical Aspect of the Individual Existential Problem is about the probabilities of these conditions coming to be. Often this problem is referred to with the question, “what were the chances of me coming into existence?”. Considering all the facts that preceded your life that you may regard as being required for you being alive, such as being born to your parents at some specific time, you may conclude that the chances were incredibly small. A good example of such calculations can be found at . In his essay, Joe Kern formalized this reasoning more precisely, calling it “the gamete-dependence claim”. This is probably the most well-known version of this view, but other thinkers attach personal identity to something more ephemeral than an entire life, so they may propose an alternative computing of the chances. For example, reductionists such as Parfit think that during the entire life of your body, many personal identities may follow one another in succession, as the psychological connectedness between them becomes weaker and weaker. According to this view, your existing, defined by the persistence of your single personal identity in this relay race, may be a matter of years or maybe months or even a shorter interval of time. Nonetheless, even on this view, there exist a number of conditions that are currently satisfied so that you exist now, and it seems clear that these odds will all continue to be incredibly small.

70. To balance this smallness of odds, if you do not want to accept the Open Individualism View, the most reasonable solution is to postulate that many alternative universes are possible, so that you just find yourself appearing in the one where all the conditions required for your existence have been realized. This is the unfalsifiable conjecture that views other than Open Individualism have to accept in order to give an account of our individual existences when the chances are so incredibly small. Open Individualism does not require this conjecture to explain the actualization of my existence, but I am nonetheless inclined to accept the conjecture, because I think that other universes are just as probable as this one. If you think that other universes are possible, keep in mind that Open Individualism, to be effective, has to work the same through all the possible universes.

71. Max Tegmark, in a famous article (“Parallel Universes”, Scientific American, 2003) about the classification of all the universes theoretically possible, comes to the definitive generalization that every mathematical structure is a universe, but to support life they have to be very big and complex, as the model of our universe is. In his generalization, he considers not only all the different types of universes, but also all the possible evolutions of the same universe. This is compatible with the idea that, despite the incredibly small chances you had to come into existence, you may currently find yourself alive here. And the model also suggests that in some other universes, these conditions can be actualized again and again, letting you live all the possible variations of your current life. This is a side effect of regarding the actualization of our existence as being justified by the existence of a sufficient number of alternative universes. Many of them may be identical to our current universe up to now, and begin to be different only starting from one moment in the future. I want to remark that considering reasonable that you may live all the possible variations of your current life is conceptually not very different from considering reasonable that you may live all the possible variations of all possible lives.

72. This conclusion is difficult to accept by thinkers who appeal to rationality and reductionism, because it resembles the reincarnation concept of some religious views. Some thinkers are more inclined to accept that every possible universe exists, but that your individual existence is limited to this one, and any person in any different universe has a different personal identity from your current one, even if the differences between that universe and our current universe are relative only to a time in the future of your life. This implies that your current personal identity is defined by some future event. This is possible if we accept that such future events are determined by some hidden information that already exists at some hidden level of our current reality. It is also possible to think that personal identity is strictly limited to a small interval in the lifetime of the body, so that any future variation will occur anyway to a different person, no matter what universe they find themselves in. All these conjectures are unfalsifiable, so different thinkers may charge others with believing in something unscientific.

73. Despite all these subtleties, we must not mistake the Practical Aspect of the Individual Existential Problem for the Theoretical Aspect. All the things that we discussed up to now about the probability of your existence are related to the probability that an individual coming to exist would have all the characteristics that you may want to consider crucial to having your own personal identity. In this recitation, it does not matter if you think that such events may correspond to the circumstances that led to your birth, or to some circumstances that may be true of many different births, or are related only to an ephemeral state of your brain that tomorrow will already be gone. The requirements for your existence can even be met only for a single instant in the entire life of your body. In all those views, we always take as given that the existence of your mind was somehow possible, in other words, that the Theoretical Aspect of the Individual Existential Problem had to have a solution. But the fact that your existence proves that somehow your existence was possible does not answer to the fact that you had to find yourself being the recipient of one of these existences, no matter how improbable. The deepest question about my personal existence is not the actualization of my opportunity to exist, but the bare fact that I am a participant in the set of all the possible perceivers of an opportunity to exist. As we think that each of us owns their specific personal identity, it will always be possible to wonder: “It happened that I am one of the many. Do I have to accept this participation as given ‘by chance’, without any possible explication?”

74. To understand the problem, I find useful the metaphor of the owner of a lottery ticket. Imagine that you find yourself to be the owner of a lottery ticket. The ticket has a univocal number that identifies you as the owner. You may assume that the number is composed of millions of digits, codifying in some way all the conditions that you may think are necessary to bring you into existence. The lottery is going on, with numbers being extracted. Imagine that every time that a number is extracted, the owner of the ticket with the corresponding number comes into existence. Despite the extremely huge number of tickets around, if the extractions continue to be done indefinitely, sooner or later your number has to be extracted, and you come to life. This is the Practical Aspect of the Individual Existential Problem, and as you may see, the solution is to keep on extracting numbers indefinitely. You may imagine that once extracted, every number is put back inside the bowl, so you may be born infinite times, or is thrown away, so that you cannot be born twice. This is the case if you think that all the possible stories of all the possible worlds will come to exist exactly one time each. Ultimately, these two cases are not really different in an eternalist framework.

75. The real disconcert with the metaphor of the owner of a lottery ticket comes if you consider that, after all, you are the recipient of one ticket; you are participating in the lottery. This disconcert comes when you consider the Theoretical Aspect of the Individual Existential Problem. If you think that each individual has their own personal identity, and that your personal identity is different from all the others, then you have to answer to the fact that you are engaged in “the game of all the possible lives” despite the fact that the game would have existed and would be going on even if you never existed. Thus, you cannot give any rational reason to explain why your participation had to be necessary. Do not be misled by thinking that it never had to be necessary, that it was just your birth by chance that made your participation become a fact of the game. This is only the Practical Aspect of the problem. The Theoretical Aspect says that your engagement was necessary at least as a possible outcome. It is like saying that the lottery can’t start until you buy a ticket. Then the lottery started and eventually you won. It sounds like a fraud.

76. At this point, a common remark is that even the conditions necessary to my existence had to be accounted for within the sum of all the possible events, and this means that we cannot be surprised of their existence. It is like saying that my ticket number had to exist, despite my opinion about it. Because the ticket numbers are infinite, every number had to be on a ticket and can be extracted, sooner or later. No matter what your number is, even if it would never be extracted, all the numbers have necessarily to exist, available to be extracted the next time. But this remark does not really answer to my disconcert about finding myself here, participating in the game.

77. The Critical Point of the Individual Existential Problem is that nothing can ever ensure that I had to be assigned any ticket number. Having said all that we have already said, it is not the number of my ticket that defines my personal identity, it is my personal identity that allows me to define the number of the ticket as “my number”. Any number, or any set of causes that you may consider necessary to bring me into existence does not have nor define any identity from which I can inherit my personal identity. I can always easily imagine me owning a different ticket with a different number, that corresponds to imagining being born elsewhere, from other parents, with different personal characteristics. And I can even imagine not being born at all, which would correspond to imagining myself not owning any lottery ticket at all. My ticket could have been owned by “someone else”, like every other ticket actually is, as long as I believe that every person has their own distinct personal identity.

78. Some people have criticized this example as dualist, because to express this problem I am forced to ask you to reason as though we were spirits waiting for a chance to live, owning numbered tickets. Please keep in mind that this is only a metaphor to explain the Theoretical Aspect of the Individual Existential Problem, and that the metaphor is valid only if we do not accept the Open Individualism View. If we do accept it, we no longer have any need to imagine tickets and lotteries. The metaphor shows that in denying Open Individualism, we have to give an account of our engagement in life’s game, no matter what the contingent causalities of our existence are.

79. The bare fact that there exist other people different from me leads me to imagine that even the individual with my body and my brain could well be another person (or “other people”) instead of being “me”, in the same way that a perfect copy of me would not really be me, especially if I am still alive at the same time. You may advocate any number of reasons to justify why I should not wonder about it, but they are condemned to be ineffective. And this is not imputable to the fact that I am not intelligent enough or willing to follow your reasoning: it is because from the first-person point-of-view standpoint, it is always legitimate for me (or for anybody else) to consider all the reasons you may advocate to explain my own existence as not being fully explanatory, as these reasons should encompass and give an account for all the elements that concurred to define precisely my own personal identity. This is impossible for the same reasons that make personal identity so hard to define: that actually nothing has an absolute identity, but rather all identities eventually appear to be founded on arbitrary conventions or some hidden and indemonstrable dualist concept, and eventually it is my (illusory) personal identity that makes it possible to define the identity of my body, not the other way around. I know that I am the individual that I am just because I find myself already being it, but this does not demonstrate that I will come into existence each time a body exactly as mine is somehow created.

80. The Critical Point of the Individual Existential Problem has the same criticality as the Critical Point of the General Existential Problem: they try to give some objective reasons (physical matter, structures and events) to explain the subjective fact of the existence of the mind, and, for the Individual Existential Problem, of a very specific mind. It is useless to try to define physically the identity of an objectively ascertainable object (based on material or physical elements) in which to anchor the identity of a specific mind. As long as I believe that I have a personal identity different from all of the other people who exist or might have existed, whatever reasoning you may advocate, you can never find any objective reason to prove objectively that a particular instance of the subjectivity phenomenon necessarily had to exist (due to the existence of a particular physical object, for example). We cannot use objectivity to demonstrate something that is purely subjective. I know that the subjectivity phenomenon exists only because I undergo it personally. As long as I believe I have my own personal identity, my own instance of subjectivity phenomenon, different from that of every other living being, I can always imagine myself staring at the ticket in my hands and wondering how I found myself there, with that ticket, having to accept it as an inescapable fate.

81. The Critical Point of the Individual Existential Problem is definitively unsolvable even for dualist theories. Even in this case, and I would say especially in this case, my personal existence is deferred to something inexplicable that we have to accept as given, without any further question. And in this case too, as long as I believe that I have my own personal identity, I can always imagine myself staring at the ticket in my hands and wondering how I found myself there, with that ticket, having to accept it as an inescapable fate.

82. Now, consider again the Open Individualism View: at the price of a new conception of time that is nonetheless coherent with our experience, it offers the only possible solution to the Critical Point of the Individual Existential Problem, it reduces the Theoretical Aspect of the Individual Existential Problem to the Theoretical Aspect of the General Existential Problem (which is independent of any view of personal identity), and offers a straight explication of the Practical Aspect of the Individual Existential Problem, leaving open the complete range of choices for your favorite theory of the universe. I can understand how it happens that I am the owner of my lottery ticket: actually, I am the owner of all the tickets. Once the distinction between an external time that does not flow and multiple flowing subjective times is accepted as viable, Open Individualism offers the clearest solutions to all the problems concerning personal identity. Any alternative theory has to be more convincing on at least some of these issues to compete with Open Individualism. And the fact that Open Individualism contradicts our common sense conception of time is not a strong argument against it. Contemporary physics has already demonstrated that our common sense and our conception of time are not good tools or guidelines for understanding what happens in the physical world in extreme conditions. Moreover, Open Individualism offers solutions for a wide variety of problems about consciousness and identity.


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