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papo   The third hypothesis
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What is the problem

"Veder volea come si convenne
l'imago al cerchio, e come vi si indova;
ma non eran da ciò le proprie penne."
(Dante Alighieri, Paradiso XXXIII, vv.137-139)

There is a fundamental contradiction inherent in our existence, about which we are by now so much in the habit of accepting as an incontrovertible matter of fact that we have all but removed it and live without thinking about it, in a sort of indolent agnosticism which shakes us up only in occasion of those events which, good or bad, upset our lives completely. This contradiction consists in our awareness of the fact that, on the one hand our individual existence is nothing more than an ephemeral contingent event coming into effect in a physical world that changes continually and would continue to exist without our presence in it; on the other hand, from his or her particular point of view, each of us has the right to consider our existence as necessary a thing as the existence of the whole external world. If we think that our life is the result of a series of casual events over which we could not have had any type of control, then we are forced to conclude that it represents one single possibility out of a number of alternatives that are practically infinite. We would finish up by thinking that we have won a sort of cosmic lottery in order to gain this, however ephemeral, victory over what would otherwise have been an eternal condition of non-existence; and still, an intimate part of us all is convinced that "the world could not really exist if I were not here to experience it". Traditionally, this problem is resolved (or, rather, "eluded") in different ways, on the basis of the distinctions that I have introduced between the three hypotheses. Nevertheless, it is only the third hypothesis which manages to give it a definitive solution.

The first hypothesis takes the life that we are living in the present as our unique life, or, at least, our only "earthly" life. In this case, we have to distinguish between the atheistic and the religious versions: in other words, if we believe in God we can hold that we represent an expression of God’s will; otherwise we can only consider that we have been "born by chance". Even if we judge the indetermination that seems to reign in the material world as an illusion (despite the fact that the opposite has now been accepted by almost all theoretical physicists) from our own subjective point of view, the fact that we really represent one of the possible existences "foreseen" by this hypothetical predetermination, would still point towards an inexplicable stroke of luck. In one way or another, we have to admit that we have been lucky (that is, of course, if we hold that living is a positive thing). The only provisional explanation that can make sense of this "stroke of luck" is that seeing as we are the result of one single "lucky combination", in the eternal evolution of the world "sooner or later" our own combination had to turn up trumps. This hypothesis is sustainable only if you admit the existence of many universes that can, taken together, exhaust all those possible "birth combinations" that are theoretically admissible. The only thing is, thinking it over on these grounds, we would have to admit that all those conditions that can "sooner or later" come about once, can happen "a little less sooner", and "a little more later" two, three or an infinite number of times. In this case, we have to decide whether we prefer to claim – every time that the same conditions come about – that it is the same mind that manifests itself or not. If we decide that is so, it is the same thing as thinking that each of us will be reborn an infinite number of times, under the same starting out conditions; if we decide not, we are still left with the problem of what could have made it possible for me to be born on this occasion in the place of my infinite number of potential clones. Each of these two cases are difficult to maintain.

If we analyze the "one single life" hypothesis in its religious variant, in which the motivation for our existence is as an expression of God’s will, we cannot but notice that it can finally be brought back to a variation of the preceding case: the fact that we are souls "predestined to life" by God’s will finds its solution in the discovery that we have been very lucky to have been chosen for this privilege. The only way out of considering this merely a case of "good luck" consists once again in supposing that God in his infinite foresight has disposed things in such a way that sooner or later "everyone will have his or her opportunity of life". This forces us to conclude that there must be an infinite number of opportunities and that the dimension and the time span of our world must also be infinite or that, on the other hand, an infinite number of worlds must have been created, all of which have finite dimensions or duration. Otherwise we would have to suppose that we are part of a restricted number of "created souls" which, even if they were countless, would nevertheless have to be finite in number, which means that I personally must consider myself the holder of an absolutely exclusive privilege. Once again it would be difficult to explain why I should be so "lucky" because before being created I could not already have particular merits that would distinguish me from the other potentially "creatable beings".

The second hypothesis foresees that each of us can live out more than one experience of life, and that our individuality is able to migrate from one body to another. Here we are not interested in discussing whether we can experience a different state of existence between one life and the next, or even of the possibility of moving out of the potentially infinite cycle of subsequent reincarnations; the characteristic aspect of this second hypothesis is to release the probabilities of our individual existence from the probabilities of the contingent conditions in which it has occurred: if my soul was not born in its present circumstances, it would, anyway, have had other opportunities to be born. Even in this case, we suppose that our souls are already included among an infinite number of souls, and that, after their first birth and then a series of experiences perhaps subdivided into many subsequent lives, they can have access to a state of existence that will free them from the unwanted labours of this earthly world.

In all of these models, even before I can establish my participation among the those forms of life that have had the privilege effectively to live, I must always presume that I was part of a previous category of "potential experiencers" of life on earth. In the atheist version of the first hypothesis, in the place of souls, I have to presume the existence of "minds that may emerge and manifest themselves in a physical brain", and even if I persist in considering mental phenomena as an illusion produced by the function of a physical brain, I am still forced to recognize the existence of a subject that experiences this illusion: that self that everyone feels as his or her own and which cannot be denied because of that same existential certainty acknowledged by Descartes: if I doubt, I am thinking, and if I think therefore I am. If we do not wish to accept the third possibility, we have to admit the possibility of a potentially infinite set of "possible experiencers" of life on earth, or whatever you wish to call them: souls, minds or "subjects of an illusion", whose elements are forced to accept their destiny to be or not to be born on the basis of events over which they have no control at all.

Why do I feel ill at ease when I think about this group of which I must evidently be a part? Even when I consider that the elements composing the set are infinite, I must look upon it as a transcendental privilege that I am one of them; as well as that, it is clear to me that their number would not be exhaustive without my presence in it. It is not enough to conclude that, seeing as the group is infinite in itself, I must necessarily be part of it. If we follow a similar line of thought, I would have to be a part of any set of infinite elements, which is absurd. The simple idea that this number might ever be considered in any way exhaustive provokes in me a profound sense of perplexity, and I doubt whether the effective birth events will ever be enough to give an opportunity of life to all the potential elements of the group.

The fact is that it would not be possible to distinguish in any way between these hypothetical "individualities" without singling out physical differences or discrepancies of character: in any case, seeing as nothing could stop two "individualities" from having identical characteristics, not even an infinite list of characteristics to compare would be enough to distinguish between them. As well as that, if you think that each of them would be able to express an individual will, not even their behaviour could be predictable. These characteristics imply that the total number of "possible experiencers" is of a cardinality infinitely greater than that of integers as you could demonstrate using Georg Cantor’s "diagonal argument" for real numbers. This means that we can not be sure, however long we wait, that sooner or later everyone will have his or her occasion of birth. Lastly, this set of multitudes of individualities implies that for every new life conceived there exists a precise moment in which one particular "possible experiencer" is chosen, which presupposes a dualism that cannot be eliminated between the mind and the body. Any alternative to the third hypothesis must come to terms with these problems. At a first superficial glance they might not seem so serious. To me they are untenable prejudices from which we must free ourselves.

Continued on the next page: "What is the solution".


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