First, we can establish that being conscious of something is not necessary to be it: I am not conscious of myself when I am asleep, for example, but I am still myself. With this in mind, we can say that I was myself before I was conscious of it. I was me before my brain developed. We can then ask: before the sperm and egg came together to form me, was I the sperm, or the egg? There are four options: 1. I was neither, 2. I was both, 3. the sperm, 4. the egg. 1. is clearly absurd: if I was neither, I would not have been myself when they came together. I would have had no connection with them whatsoever. 2. is equally absurd. There is no reason that I would have been both the sperm and egg when they were at that point completely separate and in the bodies of different people. And to pick 3 over 4 seems arbitrary. So which option is the most sensible?
Answer by Geoffrey Klempner
I have an answer for you, Brett, which I guarantee you won’t like. I don’t like it either. When that happens in philosophy, when following what seems an ineluctable line of argument you reach a conclusion that you find impossible to believe if not fantastical, then all you can do is lay the arguments out and let others decide.
I am with you on the point that I must surely exist during periods of unconsciousness. Every night I go to sleep and every morning I wake up. Sometimes, when I sleep I dream, but I don’t dream all the time, at least I don’t seem to.
Let’s now follow every step in the genesis of GK. Before there was GK there was a sperm and an egg. The sperm came from my father and the egg came from my mother. We can trace the components of GK further back. The sperm and egg were made of atoms and molecules, and every atom, for example every atom of Carbon, originated in a star. The stars and galaxies came into being, we are told, after the Big Bang.
Having gone right back to the beginning of the Universe, let’s now go forward. Trace the genesis of each atom that composed the sperm and egg, and all the atoms that subsequently joined the clump of cells that eventually developed into a newborn baby, born on such-and-such a date. If you like, we can follow the development of the young child as it gradually develops its mental powers, and at some indeterminate point, expresses its first ‘I-thought’.
I wonder what that would be? When was the first time, the very first time, you thought of yourself as ‘I’?
The growing child GK has a sense of his own existence. He refers to himself as ‘I’. As we all did, and do. But there is one thing missing from this story. Can you guess what it is? I am talking about GK as just some person, in exactly the same way as I would talk about you, Brett. Some person was born at such-and-such a date, studied Philosophy, went on to become the moderator of ‘Ask a Philosopher’. But nowhere in this story is there any explanation of how I came to be that person:
I might not have existed but someone exactly like me might have existed in my place.
This isn’t about me being ‘special’ in any way. It is just as much about you, or any other living human being. Whatever story you tell about human biology or the brain or consciousness can never account for the genesis of the individual I call ‘I’ where previously there was ‘no-I’.
The conclusion? It seems to be that, contrary to all the empirical evidence, I have always existed, since the beginning of time. I am uncreated. And so are you. Do I believe this? No, I do not. I don’t know what to believe. However, I will just end on this point:
There has been a huge amount of discussion of the nature of the mind and mental events, consciousness, the relation between mind and body etc. But the one thing that philosophers have so far failed dismally to get their heads around is the question what consciousness is. When you try to describe consciousness you end up describing everything else except consciousness. You can discourse endlessly on the things that consciousness does or enables us to do, but that isn’t describing consciousness any more that saying what a motor car enables one to do explains what a motor car is.
I don’t know what I am or how I came to be, if I indeed came to be. I am not satisfied with that answer but that’s all you’re going to get for the moment.