Since I was a child, I have wondered why I look out of my eyes and not someone else’s. I am seeing the world through my eyes from this body with a mind that knows I can only see the reflection of my face. If I am seeing through my specific set of eyes, and with this realization, do I have a greater purpose? I have asked many people if they ponder this though, but almost all have no clue what I’m talking about. Most say, “You are looking out of your eyes because those are yours and someone else’s eyes are theirs.”. That is not at all the inquiry; absolutely logical and generic. My therapist chalked this up to “depersonalization” or “derealization”, but this is a wonder I have had since elementary school.
Answer by Geoffrey Klempner
Thank you for this question, Kati. There is nothing wrong with you. I’ve answered variations of this question before. From my experience, less than ten per cent of human beings are puzzled by this, and few of those who experience the puzzlement are able to find the words to express it. I once called it the ‘idiotic conundrum’ but I have come to see it as neither foolish nor idiotic although it remains a conundrum, a puzzle for which I cannot see a solution.
First of all, we need to eliminate a popular misconception. Let’s say you get up one morning in a strange bedroom. You go to the mirror and look at your face and you see the familiar features of Beyoncé. Looking around your bedroom, you see the trappings of luxury that you could never afford. But you are still you and not Beyoncé. You have your memories and not Beyoncé’s. Your speaking voice may be Beyoncé’s voice but you can’t sing, you don’t have the skill or experience. To imagine being Beyoncé is to imagine your not existing and Beyoncé existing in your place.
There is a better way to express your puzzlement. Imagine a universe exactly like the present universe down to the tiniest detail. But you are not there. In your place is someone exactly like you down to the tiniest detail, a person called ‘Kati’ who posted this same question on ‘Ask a Philosopher’, word for word. But you are not that person. Or as I state in my recent book, I might not have existed but someone exactly like me might have existed in my place.
You might be tempted to explain this by saying that you are a ‘soul’ and your exact doppelganger has a different ‘soul’. The problem with this imagined solution is that a soul is just a thing or ‘substance’ as Descartes called it. The same problem arises with soul substance as for material substance. If a material body can be duplicated so can the soul. It’s a non-solution. If you woke up one morning with a different ‘soul’ you would still be you — a point made by John Locke, in his parable of the prince and the pauper who exchange souls. Or as Kant expressed it, your ‘soul’ could be continually replaced and you would never know, because your memories are passed from one soul to the next like a line of colliding pool balls.
The closest I’ve seen to a solution is the one proposed by Thomas Nagel. There is only one ‘objective I’, the singular subject of experience who looks out of Kati’s eyes, and mine, and Beyoné’s, and every other conscious subject in the universe. But you are unaware of this. Call it a kind of ‘metaphysical amnesia’. However, I don’t see how such a theory helps. First of all, it’s just a belief that could never be verified, unless by some miracle you came to be aware of all your millions and billions of ‘selves’. And more to the point, talk of ‘identity’ is meaningless in this context. It is no less likely that every morning every human being is non-identical to the person who went to bed the previous night. or every time you or I blink our eyes.
Better to admit that there are insoluble conundrums, despite what generations of philosophers have said or believed. Conundrums don’t have a solution, but rather are things to wonder at, the surest proof that the universe — or existence — is more than either science or religion can explain.