When I was a child, I started asking myself: Why am I me? Why do I exist instead of not existing?
Now as an adult, this question started bothering me again as I started trying for a baby. With each cycle, I wondered, what if I conceive a baby today and not tomorrow? If a baby was to be conceived in any case, they would be a different person depending on if we have sex today or tomorrow.
What if my own parents had had sex on another day? They might have had another child that wouldn’t have been me, hence I would have never existed. Of course then I would not have been there to ask the question. But why am I there to ask? What if I didn’t exist at all? It’s like I’m feeling my own consciousness looking at itself in the mirror for the first time and realizing it exists!
Then it brings me to the idea that if I didn’t exist (or when I’ll cease to exist when I die), my entire perception of the world will cease to exist too. Then it will be as if the world didn’t exist at all, at least from my own point of view (which will be no more!). The/ my entire world will just cease to exist. The real world might as well cease to exist too. This really makes my brain hurt.
It just really freaks me out that I exist instead of not existing. I can’t imagine stopping to exist. This fills me with incredible anxiety.
My question actually is: Are there any philosophers who wrote about this? I would very much like to read them and find a bit of comfort in knowing I am not alone with my existential anxiety. I would also like to know more about this kind of double-sided perception of the world, for instance the idea that popped into my head that if I stop existing then the world will stop too (because I won’t be there to be conscious of it). I know it’s not how reality works but now that I’ve seen it from this point of view I cannot un-see it.
Answer by Geoffrey Klempner
Cassandra, I know exactly what you mean. Just so that you can be reassured that you are not alone in your existential anxiety, here is a comment that was posted three weeks ago on my very first YouTube video from 2013 Why am I here?:
Why am I here?… How am I here? I have been asking myself these questions every single day since I was a child. I think about it very deeply. “Why me?” “Why not a world without me?” “How and why am I in and of this existence.” I just can’t get my head around it. But I feel very lucky to be here and I’m glad I’m here. I just don’t know how or why! The only thing I think I know is that we must be conscious and self aware on another level. Most people I know have never asked these questions to themselves. Makes me think everyone is an unconscious robot, running on DNA programming and there is only a few truly conscious beings in this world.
The author, ‘Gaming Junkie’, has a YouTube channel for video gaming — which just goes to show that you can never predict the kind of person who will be grasped by your question, which is also very much my question.
But why are you so sure that, ‘if my own parents had had sex on another day… they might have had another child that wouldn’t have been me, hence I would have never existed’? How do you know that? As I have stated more than once on these pages, I might not have existed but someone exactly like me might have existed in my place. Meaning: it isn’t even necessary to suppose that your parents might have had sex on a different day. Everything could have been the same, down to the very last subatomic particle, and you might not be here now, the entire universe remaining exactly as it is, unchanged.
What do I mean? I would still be here, answering Cassandra’s question. Cassandra would still have asked her question. But you would not be Cassandra, because you would not be, period.
Then what about the world? How can I be so sure that the world would still exist if I had not existed?
As I once argued (in my book Naive Metaphysics: A theory of subjective and objective worlds, 1994) the view that the world would not exist if I did not, or ‘solipsism’ to give its popular name, runs into serious difficulties with the concept of truth. I become the sole arbiter of what is true or false and my judgement always goes. If I change my mind about any topic I was right to change my mind, and if I change my mind again I was right to change my mind again. Without a world there is no external standard, nothing to relate my judgements to except my other judgements. The world becomes my private dream.
As an illustration of this point, imagine a variant of the game of archery, where each arrow has a little target attached to the arrow head. Then you can never fail to hit ‘the target’. Wherever the arrow lands, you score a bull’s-eye every time!
So what? What does that prove? Absolutely nothing. One of the fundamental errors made by academic philosophers is believing that logic, or ‘discursive reason’ can establish firm conclusions on the ultimate questions of philosophy. It would be perfectly possible to argue, on the basis of the theory of materialism — which is not a new theory but has been around for 2,500 years — that my statement, ‘I might not have existed but someone exactly like me might have existed in my place’ is exactly what a material being would say and believe, on the basis of a ‘necessary illusion’ generated by the nature of consciousness. The only problem is that the theory of materialism is itself unproved and unprovable. And also, in my opinion, absurd.
In my latest YouTube video, Descartes and the soul I go so far as to describe materialists as ‘cretins’ and I stand by that judgement. Maybe, as Gaming Junkie suggests, they are in fact zombies. I could believe that. But a knock-down, conclusive proof I have not. If you look at the literature on philosophy in the analytic tradition you will find reams of articles on various thought experiments that philosophers have explored such as Frank Jackson’s ‘Mary the super-scientist’ or John Searle’s ‘Chinese Room’, with utterly inconclusive results. Believe what you want to believe.
We don’t know what consciousness is. We think we do. We think we have the human mind more or less taped. As I argue in my video, knowing the functions of the mental isn’t knowing what it is any more than knowing that a car can turn right or left, or go 100 miles in one hour, or has lights that you can switch on in the dark, tells you what a car is.
Something that looks, talks and walks like a duck can still be a fake duck. When so much is uncertain, we have to hold fast to what we know to be undeniable. I know that I exist, or, at least, that I exist now, at this very moment. And you know the same about you. What follows from that, no-one can know for sure.