Me and my consciousness

Brett asked:

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 Jürgen Lawrenz

The issue you have raised is undoubtedly a burning question in both scientific and philosophical research on conscious identity; and no-one from either quarter could confidently say it has been solved. The only positive criterion we have about consciousness is its phenomenology, which means that we don’t genuinely know “what it is”, only that we possess a certain sensitivity that encourages belief in it.

But on the way you have presented your question, I regrettably have to say that you militate against your own propositions by a choice of arguments that don’t really make a coherent case. The problems are twofold. First, you take too many things for granted, among them the concept of “me”, its role in establishing personal identity, and its relation to the body which is “me” as well. How many identities might this train of thought amount to? There is no clear cut answer, as a religious person would say “obviously one”; whereas a computer programmer might reply “four”.

You seem also somewhat confused about the relation between “me” and the brain. Since the central nervous system is the first organ to be constructed in a new birth, there can be no “me” before this happens — unless of course you subscribe to the notion that a “me” can exist idealiter before existing realiter. But this is a religious argument again, and you give no hint that this is what you are interested in.

Finally, sperms and eggs. Here your argument is based on a simple misconception, namely that a “me” could somehow be contained in them. But sperm is a carrier of genes and the egg a recipient; and the outcome of fertilisation is not the building of a “me” but of a DNA molecule, which contains only body building information. It is during the actual construction that a “me” can be said to be actualised from the coordination of the various organs, glands etc. etc. in their various phases of construction.

What then is your most sensible option? It appears that priority lies with biological rather than conceptual or metaphysical criteria. You might find that casting your presuppositions overboard and delving into the organic aspects of memory and identity a more useful way of approaching these issues.

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