I could be a fairly strict, cut-and-dry philosophical naturalist (or “materialist”, or “physicalist”, or wavefunctionist, or whatever name you like) – except for one phenomenal experience question. And no, it’s not one of the usual questions about qualia or the “Hard Problem” of consciousness. With the right evidence, I might be persuaded that qualia and most aspects of phenomenal experience could emerge from neurochemistry and brain dynamics. Complex yes, but still ordinary physics and chemistry, if you show me convincing details. Neural correlation is not causation, but a wealth of detail can go a long way towards mitigating any doubt.
But there is a far more baffling “meta” consciousness question that is seldom asked – at least openly, even though it’s simple enough for any curious child to understand: it’s the common why-am-I-me question, in all its manifestations. I will ignore any irrelevant word games one can play with this childhood-language question, and attempt to rephrase it more understandably. Many often choose to rephrase this question as “why am I in this body, and not another?”, but this implies a complete transfer of personal identity which is an incoherent idea and not supportable. Instead of the word “I”, the word “experience” may be more helpful in understanding the deeper semantics of this question – and by “experience”, I mean anything from immediate sensory perception, to the observation of one’s own thought processes (the word “observation” could also be used). With this in mind, I will rephrase why-am-I-me more usefully as, “why is reality being experienced from the perspective of my body, rather than from the perspective of someone or something else’s body?”. For example, you’re having dinner with a few friends and you’re wondering why the dinner is being experienced from your viewpoint, and not from one of theirs, or from the viewpoint of your friend’s dog curled up on the floor, or from a fly’s perspective on the ceiling. That’s it. A very simple, straightforward question. It directs attention to a basic assumption about reality that is normally taken for granted. Everything depends on it, and yet it has no conceivable physical explanation. Note however, that it is still a phenomenal question, and not objective. But unlike asking why the color “red” is experienced the way it is (qualia), this question has far more significant and wide-ranging consequences for what reality is and is not.
A purely objective thinker will say that reality is being experienced from your perspective because your consciousness is associated with physical processes in the brain that create complex feedback loops, abstract self-referencing representations, and so on. These processes eventually constitute a unified conscious “self” or “I” at some level. In effect, they are saying that reality is being experienced from your perspective because you have a complex physical brain. But this is actually of little relevance and merely changes the why-am-I-me question to why-this-brain-and-not-another. Other conscious beings also have physical brains with such mechanisms. Why isn’t reality being experienced from one of their perspectives? What’s so special about your brain as opposed to theirs?
Others will argue that your experience is not unique and that reality is indeed being experienced subjectively by many other conscious beings. While this may be true, it can only be known by inference. The only instance of subjective experience that can be known directly, is your own. There are many observable instances of brains, but only one directly observable instance of subjective experience. Why is this “direct” subjective experience associated with your particular brain, and not another? Why does this asymmetry exist? You can’t just say, “well, if you were someone else, you’d ask the same thing.” You are not someone else – that is the whole point. Reality is being directly experienced from your perspective. That is what is being observed. That is what is manifestly real. Why is it this way? You may insist that your consciousness has a purely physical basis, and that other beings do as well. Nevertheless, their experience is inferred and yours is “direct”. Why you?
Some might also argue that the why-am-I-me question is simply an unexplainable identity question – similar to asking, “why is a cat a cat?” or “why are trees trees?”. But it’s more than a simple identity question. It refers to the seemingly arbitrary association between two concepts: 1) direct subjective experience, and 2) a physical body. And even if it was an identity question, a strong case can be made that “physical identity” and “conscious identity” are two very different things (see papers and articles on multiple realizability). Theoretically, you could replace all the neurons in your brain, one by one, with equivalent synthetic components and you’d still be the same conscious “you”. Physically you’d be entirely different, but consciously you’d be the same being.
The why-am-I-me question is so baffling because there seems to be no way to approach it scientifically. At least with the basic Hard Problem of consciousness, you can physically probe specific areas of the brain to see if someone experiences “redness”, or you can show someone a red picture and see which areas of the brain light up. I’m sure many other experiments and techniques can be devised. But can you think of any tests you could perform that would help you to understand why reality is being directly experienced from your perspective, as opposed to your dog’s perspective? You can perform tests that affirm that fact to your own level of satisfaction. But can you “reduce” the problem, or explain it in terms of something else (neurons, chemistry, quantum physics, etc)? In science, if something cannot be reduced or explained in terms of something else, it is usually considered to be “fundamental”, at least until an explanation can be found.
The why-am-I-me question also seems to touch upon or call attention to some intriguing properties of consciousness – very basic assumptions normally taken for granted. For example:
1. The fact that reality is “directly” experienced from one viewpoint exclusively, not zero or three or an infinite number, and the fact that this viewpoint corresponds to a specific, seemingly arbitrary point in space and time, and a specific universe.
2. What I might call the paradox of the self: how can you (a) not be unique, and at the same time, (b) be “directly” experiencing reality? Nothing can be known with more certainty than (b), but to deny (a) seems absurd.
3. The fact that this “direct” experience appears to be continuously associated with one specific brain (yours). Although, I suppose there would be no way to know if this single conscious viewpoint were actually shifting from one being to another, say, every second – whatever being currently had the “focus” of experience would not realize that the shift had occurred, and would feel that his or her consciousness was continuous and had always been that way, due to memory.
To appreciate the full scope of the why-am-I-me question, stand on a hilltop on a starry night and try to imagine all the other consciousnesses, great and small, animal, human, and even artificial, that may exist on our planet. Then add to that all of the conscious beings that must exist elsewhere in the vastness of our universe, in our galaxy and in hundreds of billions of other galaxies. Then (assuming a real multiverse), add to that any sentient beings that may exist in countless numbers of other universes. If you’re religious, you can even include a sentient God or Gods, angels, demons etc. in the total. There may be more than quadrillions of such beings on earth alone, not even counting the rest of our universe or other universes. But consider this: out of all the immense multitudes of possible conscious beings in all universes, the truly mind-boggling, undeniable fact is that reality is being experienced as you – right here and now, from your viewpoint directly, not directly from any of theirs. That is what is observed and real. The entire multiverse seems to have a preference for viewing itself through your eyes – here on this rock, around an ordinary star, in an unremarkable galaxy, somewhere in a vast universe, possibly just one among countless others. Doesn’t it seem odd? Isn’t reality supposed to be objective? Why you, and why here? Why not your next door neighbor? Or your dog? Or a pair of ragged claws on the sea floor? [T.S. Eliot] Or an alien in another galaxy? Or a “spirit” in another universe? Or Dan Dennett? Or if you are religious, God?
It is possible that you may change a great deal over the course of your life. The person you are at eighty years of age may be unrecognizable to the person you are at eight. But no matter what you do, or who you become, or how much you drink, or what strange drugs you injest – you will never, ever experience reality from the perspective of another conscious being. The strange thing though, is that no one can tell you exactly why that is impossible – perhaps that is because no one can tell you exactly why reality is being experienced from your perspective in the first place.
In my opinion, the why-am-I-me question is one of the most profound and troubling questions that can be asked. Once you become fully aware of it, it may haunt you for the rest of your days. Explaining consciousness in physical terms is a very worthy and fascinating endeavor, but it won’t help in this case. Science can’t touch this question since there is no conceivable physical explanation, not unless our current notions of physicality are drastically revised (not likely). Religion has no answers either, except for the concept of a “soul” which is merely a name for a conscious identity that is presumed to survive death (but why this “soul” and not another?). And philosophy? You would think a question that most people ask at some point, and that is fundamental to all being and experience, would at least receive some serious philosophical treatment. But you’ll find very little. The why-am-I-me question is a fine example of a simple, very meaningful question that almost everyone has apparently chosen to ignore.
I’ve pondered this question on and off for a long time, and chased it down deeper and deeper rabbit holes. It’s all been very interesting and educational (and occasionally frightening), but I’ve made almost no progress in answering it. I can only offer three possible generic answers:
- Just because. This question is beyond your ability to understand, possibly forever. Does an ape understand philosophy or calculus? Who told you that everything can be understood, especially by a limited, ephemeral being like yourself? Did science give you that impression?
- Perhaps there is something unknown and special about consciousness and the way it relates to the physical world, or the physical world is not what it seems to be. Maybe it requires a complete re-think of everything – an astonishing, imaginative leap or a context-switch of some kind.
- Solipsism. Reality is being experienced from your perspective because you are all that there is. This answer may also coexist to some degree with #1 or #2.
The first answer is of course, not much of an answer. We don’t like to be told that a problem has no hope of being solved, especially one so fundamental to our experience. In addition, we are actually able to define and pinpoint a meaningful question – as far as we know, an ape can’t do that with philosophy. Ultimately, this answer may be a cop-out. But then again, we will all go to our graves leaving a variety of questions unanswered.
The second answer may be a bit more encouraging, but still not much of an answer. It seems unlikely that something so special and fundamental would have been overlooked for so long by so many smart people. And so what if this particular question can’t be answered? That’s no reason to throw out all of our existing science (which seems to work quite well), and start over. And if we did start over, where would we begin? Well, a good start would be a more comprehensive and deeper understanding of consciousness. Most scientists (but not all) currently assume that consciousness emerges from ordinary physical processes, and this notion would have to be proven at least partially false, or the concept of consciousness would have to be split apart or redefined somehow. New experiments in quantum mechanics could also dramatically change our perspective. Until we reach that point, or an astonishing insight occurs to some genius, there’s little we can do.
I would also include in the second answer any probabilistic claims. For example, some might consider the why-am-I-me question analogous to a poker game where a player is amazed by the low probability of being dealt the particular hand they were dealt. But that presupposes that a hand must be dealt – i.e. that reality must be experienced as one consciousness, and one alone (in this case, you). That’s a rather strange rule for the multiverse to have, and difficult to distinguish from solipsism. Especially since one can observe others apparently experiencing the same reality (although of course, their consciousness cannot be directly observed). And even if you accept such a rule, you are still left with the problem of explaining the random assignment of experience in physical terms.
The third answer (solipsism – you are all there is) is the easiest, and at first glance actually seems to make the most logical sense, but it is also the most shocking, repellent, and difficult to accept. Conversely, the why-am-I-me question is the first question one is confronted with upon rejecting solipsism (if not the only mind, then why this mind?). There are different types of solipsism, and it’s important to understand that “absolute” solipsism is the only answer that works here – not for example, the transient solipsism you experience in a dream, where others are later assumed to be a part of yourself. The ontological status of dreams is philosophically debatable, but the why-am-I-me question is still deferred to another waking reality. Unlike physical questions, the why-am-I-me question applies across dream realities and simulation scenarios. Waking up from a dream empirically demonstrates that conscious identity transcends apparent physical realities, and naturally leads one to speculate whether or not the waking reality can also be transcended, and if so, how far up it goes.
There are some who naively see solipsism as narcissistic and self-serving, but I disagree completely. To actually consider solipsism as a very real possibility is terrifying beyond words. You would be the only true consciousness that is or ever was, and there is no hope of ever perceiving anything real outside yourself. No one “else” can ever truly understand you or help you in your quest to determine the ultimate nature of things. The universe is a stupendous exaggeration in your own mind, and is actually much smaller and simpler than it appears to be. You are utterly, finally, and terribly alone, now and forever. I’d hardly call that narcissism. Solipsism also necessarily implies that the physical world is not what it appears to be. The universe would not be 13 billion years old. It would be as old as you are. If you’re a solipsist, your birth was the big bang. The universe was defined when you were an “infant”, partially by ineffable choices you made, now long forgotten. The “symmetry-breaking”, the separation of your conscious self from the objective world, the emergence of what you perceive as space and time, matter and energy – and this is the result. You have only yourself to blame for this mess.
One surprising “answer” suggested by a minority of people, is that the why-am-I-me question is irrelevant, since they believe consciousness and the self are an “illusion” and do not actually exist. One must wonder then, who is actually having this illusion (and who is raising this objection). It is true that our perceptions are easily misled, and that we have all kinds of illusions, including those we aren’t even aware of. But if we can’t trust any of our perceptions, then nothing can be known about anything. At least one of our perceptions must be trustworthy, otherwise there is no real knowledge. For example in a dream, none of our perceptions are normally considered to be trustworthy – except for our sense of self, which is the only perception that survives the transition to a waking reality. And even in the waking world, how do you determine that the perception of your brain as a collection of neurons is more trustworthy than the perception of your own conscious identity? And in “your” reasoning, how do you avoid using pronouns like “I”, “me”, “you”, etc that necessarily imply conscious identity? Can you list a single perception or thought that is independent of “you” thinking about it or perceiving it in some way? No, the self is a very real boundary. You cannot think another’s thoughts. Conscious identity is a strongbox from which there is no escape, other than unconsciousness or death. The cartesian perception of our own existence is perhaps the only thing we can claim to have direct knowledge of (Kant’s ding an sich). All knowledge is inextricably intertwined with its viewpoint and cannot be separated from it. If it is an illusion, then all of reality is an illusion.
So, do I favor any of these generic answers? I have, at various times, leaned towards each one of the three. Currently, I’m giving a slight edge to #1. Physicist Neils Bohr did not think that reality could ever be completely understood (although his student, John Wheeler, was more optimistic). The why-am-I-me question has left a small, but stubborn wrinkle of cognitive dissonance in my previously smooth Weltanshauung. Unfortunately, any attempt to flatten it out creates embarrassingly huge wrinkles elsewhere, so I may just have to live with it. The wrinkle could also be a telltale sign that something is terribly wrong (possibly with my sanity).
In the end, some basic truths must be acknowledged. The fact is that what you perceive as reality has never been separated from your consciousness. You will never have the certainty of seeing things as they truly “are”, independent of yourself and your way of seeing, and it is literally impossible to say that anything can even exist if you don’t. You have this model of an objective universe in your mind, but in reality there is no omnipresent viewpoint or third person perspective on anything. There is only the first person imagining himself or herself in such a position. It actually takes a bit of faith to view the world objectively, which is not to say that such faith is misplaced, but that objectivity is uncertain. It would seem that the physical universe and phenomenal experience are two vastly different, incompatible things. And yet, whatever they are, they are brought together and united in your mind, where they interact somehow to define everything that is. No other reality can be known.
“The world is given to me only once, not one existing and one perceived. Subject and object are only one. The barrier between them cannot be said to have broken down as a result of recent experience in the physical sciences, for this barrier does not exist.” – Erwin Schroedinger