Picture:  Why me? There are a few philosophical problems which occur spontaneously to people who know nothing of academic philosophy but have a naturally thoughtful inclination. The problem of free will is one, I think, and probably so is qualia; many people who never heard of David Chalmers sometimes ponder the ‘hard question’, asking themselves how they know that the blue they see ‘in their heads’ is the same as the blue other people see. David M. Black has put his finger on another of these problems in his paper on The Ownership of Consciousness. Why am I me and not someone else? Black’s main purpose lies elsewhere – he wants to suggest that talk of spirituality can be a valuable way of discussing structures in the subjective part of the world, complementing the reductive scientific account which deals with the objective aspects. That’s an attractive project (though I think he allows himself too much too easily in assuming that subjective experience has causal effects).But it was the issue posed by the title of the paper that particularly caught my attention.

Now of course, there is a sense in which this is is an absurd enquiry. Whoever I am, that person is me: I can’t not be me, by definition. Self and consciousness are intertwined, so that the ownership of my consciousness can never really be in doubt. I am my consciousness. It would make more sense to ask why I have this body than to ask why I have this consciousness. So it might seem that the mystery of why I am who I am is really about on a par with the mystery of how I was lucky enough to be born on Earth, rather than on a planet without an atmosphere; not really a mystery at all.

But suppose, we might say, we strip away the details of my body and my life and pare me down to the essential nub of experiencing entity. What makes this nub any different from other such nubs, and why is it linked with the life of this particular human organism rather than any other?

Some would say in response that there is no such nub; it’s exactly my history and my physical constitution that make my consciousness what it is; so again it’s no surprise, properly understood, that my experiences belong to me and not to anyone else. Strip away all those supposedly inessential features, and you strip me away with them. Others would accept that it’s my history and composition that define me as me, but feel, possibly on the basis of introspection, that there still is something to me over and above all that. They might find this final ingredient in an inscrutable panpsychic quality of matter itself; others have suggested a kind of universal experiential substrate or background. Instead of individual nubs, we have a kind of Universal self; a line of thought which is highly compatible with some religious and mystical views.

However, I think both sides of this argument are missing the point. To say that my individual consciousness arises from or is constituted by my physical nature and background is not actually to dispose of the essential problem at all, because my physical nature and background are also inexplicably particular. Perhaps the underlying problem is the vexed question of why anything is anything in particular: it’s just that in the case of my own experience and my own existence the question hits me with a force it lacks when I’m merely wondering about a chair. The basic problem is haecceity or thisness (the same problem which in my view lies at the root of the qualia problem).

The difficulty of this issue is that it seems no kind of explanation will do. One way to explain the arbitrary complexity of the world would be to assume that everything is really a logical necessity, so if we were clever enough we could deduce all truths from first principles, like Douglas Adams’ Deep Thought which, beginning with the cogito had got as far as deducing the existence of rice pudding and income tax before anyone could switch it off, if I remember correctly. Even if we could pull off such staggering feats of deduction, the explanation is no good because if everything exists only by virtue of logical necessity everything exists in an eternal Platonic world, the opposite of the mutable diversity we set out to explain. A more scientific view would have it that the current state of the world derives from previous states in accordance with the laws of physics, so that the explanation is essentially historical. But this is no better. We now have an expanded set of laws; beside those of logic, we need those of mathematics and those of physics. But they’re still laws, so we’re still Platonic and immutable unless some arbitrary graininess somehow crept in at the beginning of it all. Nowadays we’re readier to accept that huge chaotic complexity can arise out of small beginnings; but not out of nothing. Explaining that original graininess is as difficult as explaining the haecceity of the world was to start with.

And what about those laws of physics? Do they too reduce to logical or mathematical necessity, or is there some arbitrary element involved; and if so, how do you explain that? One line we could take is to say that all the possible variations of the underlying constants are realized in some possible world. The problem of how we got these particular laws of physics then turns into the same sort of vacuous problem as the ones mentioned above: if the laws weren’t like that, you wouldn’t be here to wonder about it.

But that’s no good. Even if we could get over the problems involved in the idea of parallel worlds, which seems to involve the problematic retention of identity between non-identical entities, how can we deal with the concept of all possible sets of laws of physics? Typically in these discussions it is assumed that we’re talking about variations in the value of a few constants, but things are much worse than that. Apart from the sheer bogglement of universes where the value of gravity is determined by quadripedal blurpton interactions in the trouser-pocket of fourth-order fried bread, if all possible sets of laws are realised, that includes universes whose laws and constitution are the same as ours up until 2009, when the blurptons abruptly take over. In short, anything could happen at any time; to say that all possible laws of physics are realised in some universe is in effect to declare that there are no laws of physics and that everything happens arbitrarily.

That is another possible position, of course, though an utterly unsatisfactory one. Taking a more traditional tack, we could say that the world is the way it is because of the will of God; but for philosophers, that’s no good. We need to know whether God was working on logical principles, and if it wasn’t pure logic, where did His axioms or His quirks of personality come from?

In the last century it was finally established that there is something in maths that isn’t reducible to logic; not much, but an essential little something which can be construed in different ways. It seems to me that in the same way there’s some fundamental element in metaphysics that isn’t any kind of law; but I have no idea how to construe it at all.


  1. 1. Wheeze Puppet says:

    Interesting post!

    Question on the very last paragraph: when you say “there is something in maths that isn’t reducible to logic…” are you referring to Godel’s incompleteness theorem? Or something else? I didn’t quite follow you there…

  2. 2. Peter says:

    Thanks. No, I was thinking of the collapse of Frege’s attempt to reduce mathematics to pure logic when Russell showed he could get a paradox out of Frege’s system. The system can be patched up in more than one way – with extra rules, as Russell himself suggested, or with an added axiom: but however you do it, you have to add a little something which is not derivable from logic alone.

  3. 3. Kar says:

    Another interesting topic.
    To me, this “thisness” problem is the center of the qualia problem. It is probably also the root of the “hard problem”. Indeed, questions like “what is the probability for me to be born this person instead of that person” has been asked by many people. I just heard it on the radio few months back, asked by a call-in listener in a talk show interview with a physicist who just came out with a new book on randomness. Unfortunately, many people will also point out that this question may be ill-defined as it assumes the existence of some personal identity before the person was even born, and the association with the body afterward. Accepting physicalism will necessarily lead one to consider this question ill-defined, and thus “I am of course me”. As someone who is inclined to take the view that physicalism is true but incomplete, just because of the existence of qualia, I find the possibility of a universal self very appealing: 1) It solved the “thisness” problem, 2) It solved the hard problem by providing an owner of qualia, 3) It does not violate any law of physics, and 4) It provides a way to comprehend why those physical constants, such as the fine structure constant, have the values they have.

    Let me elaborate on the fourth point. Paul Davies, a physicist and a writer teaching in Australia, suggests in his book “cosmic Jackpot: Why Our Universe Is Just Right for Life “”” that it is no coincidence that physical constants take on the valuen that just happen to make life possible. It is that quantum reality has to be realized by observation by some intelligent beings, or minds (think about Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics), which find its expression through life. As such, the universe can only be realized by having the physical laws just right, with physical constants of the right values, so as to make the observation (the realization process) possible. That is, the universe goes through a self tuning process to make life possible so as to realize itself. Now, here is my addition. One can ask, if life is nothing other than some formation of material already included in the universe, why are these formations special and their action (observation) essential to the realization of reality”. The possible existence of a universal self is therefore a welcome ingredient that can fill the gap, if this universal self is the source of qualia, and it finds its expression through lifes/brains.

    I have to admit that I have not read Paul Davies’ “Cosmic Jackpot”, but only heard him talking about it in an interview, and came away with the above understanding. However, I found in another book (Page 40, 2005 paper back edition to be exact) by Davies (“About Time-Einstein’s unfinished revolution”) a description of a plot in a novel “October the first is too late” by the late astronomer Sir Fred Hoyle in which Hoyle used a series of numbered pigeonholes, each one containing messages about neighboring pigeonholes, to depict events happening in the universe. Pigeonholes with smaller numbers represent events happened earlier in time. Your consciousness at a particular moment is formed as soon as some agent takes a look at a particular pigeonhole’s message, which forms the state of mind and memory at that moment. A stream of consciousness is formed as the pigeonholes are inspected sequentially. Then there exist another row of pigeonholes with messages for another conscious being. When this second row of pigeonholes are inspected in sequence, a stream of consciousness flow through this second conscious being. Then you can add a third row, a fourth row, and so on for more and more individuals. As there are more conscious beings, the inspection agent gets busier and busier. He jumps from row to row, and even mixing up time ordering and the sequence of events. However, since each individual’s brain state and memory at a particular moment is completely determined by the messages in the pigeonholes, and they are consistent with each other, the conscious being is tricked into believing that time always flows forward, and he always lives at the present moment even the agent did the inspection out of sequence.

    Now, there exists a possibility that there is one and only one conscious being, but with multiple rows of pigeonholes of message, and the conscious being is tricked to believe that he is a different person each time a different row of pigeonholes are inspected because his brain state and memory now takes on the messages from a different row of pigeonholes, and he assumes a different identity.

    This is exactly the concept of a universal self, already contained in this novel by Hoyle.

    Does it prove anything? No. But it is just interesting for me to find out that this concept have been thought of by different individuals who may or may not have any association with any mystical religions.

  4. 4. steve esser says:

    Your post touches on lots of deep issues, I’d like to respond to one. As you say, we have a deep intuition that not only are the particular events in our world contingent (could have been different), but even the laws and initial conditions could be very different. Why is it we have this contingent self and world? Do the myriad other possibilities actually exist? If they don’t, why such an arbitrary outcome (like the Deep Thought example). This is the kind of stuff that has led me to consider that reality may need to be grounded by some mega-entity which comprises or can generate all possibilities. I don’t think it needs to be the personal god of tradition. But it seems if one wants an ultimate metaphysical explanation, you get pushed further and further to what used to seem overly extravagant territory.

    For Kar: I noticed that Justin has just posted a review and some thoughts on the Davies’ book (called The Goldilocks Enigma or The Cosmic Jackpot in the UK/USA or vice versa) at his blog “Panexperientialism”.

    Best regards,
    – Steve Esser

  5. 5. Kar says:

    Thanks Steve.
    I just typed Panexperientialism and Justin into Google and wha la there is the website. (Works for yahoo as well, but MSN did not pick it up..) Amazing modern day search engines!

  6. 6. Peter says:

    Steve’s current series of commentaries on Logos versus Chaos is recommended.

  7. 7. Kar says:

    I read the postings. These are nice works. I have greatly expanded my reading on current debate among philosophers on the fine tuning problem, especially from the links inside Steve’s and Justin’s postings. Two clarifications regarding the concept of “multiverse” seems in order:
    1) When physicists talk about many world interpretation (or multiverse), they refer to the parallel universes that get branched off from the same universe when a measurement is carried out. These universes are “somewhat connected”, in quantum mechanical sense.
    2) On the other hand, those possible universes that are deviants of the “Standard Model” (another usage of “multiverse” by some) in which some phenomenologically determined constants deviate from their standard model values, are not in anyway connected. These are just possibilities. It therefore makes no sense to speak of them being created “at once” (which universe’s time are we using to measure against?), or ask about what is happening “now” in these other universes. They are simply temporally and spatially disjointed. One is not an earlier version of another. Therefore, the concept of their (deviants of the standard model) existence makes no sense to us earthlings, because one is using the space-time dimension of our own universe to measure another possible universe which are outside of our space-time, and has it own space-time dimensions.

    Then one comment:
    Even one can imagine the “existence” (whatever it means) of different universes, with intelligent humans in them, you don’t have to find yourself in one of them, looking out from one special viewpoint, at this particular moment. In fact, why is “now” now? Who decides which frame to play at this moment in this gigantic cosmic movie? That brings us back to the topic of your current posting from the “fine-tuning” side track.

  8. 8. Denise says:

    Great post Peter!

    The presence of a friend who had recently passed away came to me in a Chinese restaurant in Canyon City, Colorado. Sandy was the brightest woman I knew, having grown up the daughter of the owners of Salter’s Books, across from Columbia University; I think Sandy had read and could recall with comprehension every word of every book in the store. She and I used to have many deep discussions. Her words to me in that very strong visitation: “You’ll be really surprised.”

  9. 9. Chris says:

    It seems to me one of the big problems is the insistence of people on fitting all phenomena into a material/physical model of the universe, but such is the mindset of the current day. The existence of qualia and the Hard Problem are proof positive that there is another basic mode of existence/understanding aside from reductionary logic/physics. Not proof in the logical sense of the term that we are used to, but proof in an empirical sense – and when it comes down to it, the subjective mode of knowledge which is represented by qualia is really the only one we actually have direct access to, since the objective rational mode of knowledge has to be filtered through this subjective layer before it can be experienced by the human mind (as Kant has exhaustively discussed). I propose that mankind really needs another basic way of understanding things – another fundamental theory of knowledge that would be just as enormously impactful as the rise of scientific thought was during the Renaissance – a theory of the subjective. Because it is fundamentally different, it could not be discussed rationally or logically, but it COULD be discussed empirically. That way we could have two branches of the theory of knowledge, one objective and rational, the other subjective and irrational, but both based on empiricism, which is the only tool the human mind really has to systematically gather knowledge. This would be a huge development – we need to stop trying to define the one as a product of the other – the subjective and the objective are fundamentally different and irreconcilable. Of course, they could be reconcilable at a level that transcends both, which is what many of the pure philosophical and religious propositions discussed try to do, but let’s get both the branches nailed down before we move on to the trunk.

  10. 10. Denise says:

    You go, Chris!

  11. 11. Me says:

    Hi! Stumbled onto this…

    I’m sorry but I think this question of consciousness and qualia (a new term for me =)) is merely overthought and overanalyzed. The way I see it, the particular exists because the universe is ordered. So it (and its parts) settles into various definable forms w/c we know to be the particular. The human being’s propensity to ponder about alternatives are just that. It’s because they have the ability to imagine the potential of things–things as they are NOT. And that’s the point, human beings can conceive of non-existent things.

    The question of “why am I me?” is merely a manifestation of this ability. It is in essence that person putting himself OUTSIDE OF HIS EXPERIENCE and POSTULATING ALTERNATIVES, sometimes applying it to other realities. But they need not be real, however possible–even probable–his imaginations may look like. Just as the person imagines himself outside of his experience, to suggest an alternative to the apparent particular is–at its most extreme–to challenge the very reality of the real; because the particular, not the alternative, is real. Because of this, and again, to me this question is merely an exercise in perceiving potential and not really a question at all.

    That’s just me. (Hope I was able to contribute.) Glad to finally come across some kind of intelligence in the internet. Keep it up guys.

  12. 12. Lloyd Rice says:

    Chris, if I’m not mistaken, I believe that Ken Wilbur’s discussion of the alternate ways of knowing comes very close to “another basic way of understanding things” which you refer to above in comment 9. He considers the distinction between “I” vs “others”, or the basic me/you view, as two fundamentally distinct modes of knowledge. Each of these ways of knowledge is then elaborated into many subsets, such as singular/plural (I/me, you/you-all, etc.) the distinction between 2nd person and 3rd person (you/they), and many other such subcategories. But to me, the basic I/other distinction is the fundamental issue.

    Peter, I’m a bit surprised that Wilbur does not seem to have been discussed on this blog. Or have I missed it?

  13. 13. Peter says:

    He’s somewhere on my list of people to read, Lloyd (I’ve seen your review of Eye to Eye), but I’m afraid it’s a longish list.

  14. 14. Lloyd Rice says:

    I’m not particularly happy that he’s chosen to charge a monthly fee in order to view all of his latest stuff on his website. But that’s capitalism for you.

  15. 15. Lloyd Rice says:

    And it is “Wilber”, not “Wilbur”. Sorry, Ken.

  16. 16. Chris says:

    Yeah, the self vs. the other is central to the idea, though I think it would be easy to discuss objective ways of understanding the distinction, even if you might not get to the very root of the matter. I think the main point I wanted to make is in the way we receive knowledge. Objective/scientific/rational knowledge can be objective because it is quantified, which lets it pass from one subjective view to another without changing the content of that knowledge. The immediate subjective knowledge of consciousness, though, cannot be quantified (only qualified), and as such we have no idea whether it is changing or not as it passes from one consciousness to another. The basic idea that we realize it cannot be quantified is what has lead to our recognition of “qualia”, but, unfortunately, we don’t really have anything solid to hang our hats on in that area of knowledge except for the recognition that there’s something there, and it’s real, and it behaves differently somehow.

  17. 17. Lloyd Rice says:

    I cling to the hope that one day we will understand enough about the brain that we can look at what it is doing and quantify some of the things you are talking about, if only in the sense that we can look at computer code and “understand” what the program will do. In my view, that’s as close as we could ever get to understanding another’s qualia.

  18. 18. Martin Woodhouse says:

    I’m really just checking in: if you visit my web site http://www.martin-woodhouse.co.uk you will see why I do so.

    I’d just like to point out that the monism/dualism thing has a severely practical aspect; I’m coming up to 77 and I’d like to think that, just like the religions tell us — except of course that they have the detail all wrong — I am going to drop dead some time soon and wake up somewhere else; that dying is, more or less, like leaving school for university.

    I’ve looked at the matter pretty hard and can find not the faintest weight which would incline a thoughtful person either way in the argument over whether consciousness is an emergent property of neurones arranged in such and such a fashion, or is a property of an immaterial entity called a person, which interacts with the physical world via a set of neurones arranged in such and such a fashion.

    I can see, therefore, that I am going to have to work my way through the whole of this (simply stunning, incidentally) site . . .


  19. 19. Peter says:

    Thanks for your kind words, Martin. That is indeed ‘quite an interesting site’ of yours. I loved the Avengers – but Supercar! That programme is in a place of high honour somewhere lodged deep in my unconscious mind.

  20. 20. Why is it, that SOMETHING exists in the universe, rather than NOTHING AT ALL? | Quantum Biochemistry says:

    […] discussed once before that old philosophical puzzler: why is there actually anything at all? Jim Holt’s new book Why […]

  21. 21. Geoff says:

    Over at least 70 years I have heard many of these arguments before including the argy-bargy of the barrack room. Tedious and vexatious trawling through meaningless jargon is a waste of time and energy. Whatever will be will be. Apparently, patience is a virtue. I have realised that as we get closer to describing the miracle of life the further we get from the answer. That is how it will remain, until after we as individuals die. What will never happen is that the diode which carries experience forward and not backwards will never break down.

  22. 22. Jack Llewelyn says:

    Hi, when I was a small boy I spent a lot of time wondering about life, the universe and everything. I liked to put a few tablespoons full of earth into a jam jar of water, shake it up and then watch as the murky water settled into many layers of silt, the grains of different size and colour naturally falling into some kind of order, very clearly defined. The universe is very much like that jam jar of earth and water. It settles into some kind of order because the laws of physics demand that it does. It gives it no alternative but to be what it is, in the way that it is. As for life, all life not just humans, that is the universes way of knowing itself, understanding itself. The ultimate entity is the universe, one or many and every life form that senses its surroundings is merely a tool of the ultimate entity, the universe.

  23. 23. Sci says:

    Interesting post Peter. In my search for scientists who grapple with philosophy rather than mere philosophers I’ve recently begun perusing a collection of email correspondences to/from physicist Christopher Fuchs:


    Interestingly enough Fuchs is a big fan of William James and wrote a book on the dual aspect monism of Pauli & Jung. I don’t pretend to understand all of this as it’s been awhile since my last foray into physics, but there’s enough there to keep me plodding along. For example I did like this quote attributed to one A.Kent:

    “[Functionalism is] a view which has little to recommend it except a pleasing sense of
    answering a deep question with no work, and so naturally has become very widely held and respected among philosophers of mind. In this, it eerily parallels the Everett interpretation.

    It is only fitting that the two should be combined into a grander exercise in question-begging.”

    For a more summary presentation of Fuch’s ideas, the physicist actually had a recent interview in Wired:


  24. 24. Peter says:

    Thanks for the links, Sci!

  25. 25. Sci says:

    Hope you enjoy it Peter. Be warned that there is a lot of biographical content. It’s interesting/amusing to me as it shows all the varied human particulars (what Fuchs, referencing James, refers to as temperament) that influence what theories appeal to people. Not a slight against Fuchs, I think he’s pretty upfront about this reality of bias.

    I think there is a lot of motivations people have for wanting a particular theory to be true, which is why I wish there were more of these email collections to sort through. If I can see a person’s biases as well as follow their road to understanding it helps me sort out which theories seem more grounded.

  26. 26. Kim Mig says:

    May I refer your whole article,translating it into Chinese?

  27. 27. Peter says:

    Yes, by all means. I’d appreciate a link.

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