I am Not Luke Roelofs

Yesterday I argued that human beings have no real individuality – we can treat them, approximately, as individuals but questions about their identity over time will sometimes have no determinate answer.

But this feels deeply wrong, and I think that feeling of wrongness is correct. Certainly, it’s hugely, hugely inadequate when philosophers draw the above conclusion, and leave it at that. The problem, you see, is that I am without doubt a substance.

Remember the thought-experiments I mentioned briefly? About the teleporter, and the body-splitting? To say that there’s no fact about whether the person about to step into a teleporter will be the same person as the one who steps out is completely inadequate, because it gives no answer to that person’s insistent question “but what should I expect to experience?” Indeed, it says explicitly that this question may have no answer.

But the question “what should I expect to experience?” is just a way of saying “what will I experience?”, and to say that there’s no fact about this seems to imply that at some point in the future, there will be experiences of which it’s indeterminate whether you are experiencing them. And that seems to make no more sense than to imagine that right now, it might be indeterminate whether you’re experiencing a certain experience.

Suppose, for instance, that the teleporter will deconstruct and scan you, recreate a copy of you on another planet, which will then be tortured horribly for days, and then reconsistute your body here, where it will live in comfort and security.

The question “will I experience intense pain or intense comfort?” has to have a determinate answer, because we know that there will be some pain and some comfort, and it makes no sense to say that I will be ‘indeterminately experiencing and not experiencing’ them. After all, the person being tortured won’t experience the pain through a haze of indeterminacy – it won’t be ‘half as intense’ because of some metaphysical technicality.

This amounts to simply a reminder of Descartes’ ‘Cogito, ergo Sum’. As long as I am, or will be, experiencing anything, I exist, and I exist determinately. I am not a summary, approximation, or abbreviation of more fundamental things, not observer-relative, parameter dependent, or intermittently indeterminate. I am the most fundamental thing that I know of.

In short, I am a substance. And yet human beings are modes. Elementary logic, then, concludes that I am not a human being – and certainly not that gangly humanoid Luke Roelofs. He’s just something I do, not who I am.

It now becomes extremely important to have some idea of what substances there are. Here are the roughly three options that I see:

1) Each physical particle is a separate substance, and there are no other substances;

2) The entire physical world is a single substance, and there are no other substances;

3) There are physical substances of some sort, but there are also non-physical substances, who interact with the latter in some unspecified or unknown way.

Now, if 1. is true, then I’m a physical particle – a single electron. If 3. is true, then I’m probably a ‘soul’. And if 2. is true, then I’m the entire universe.

I’ve never heard of anyone who defends option 1., although I suspect Leibniz would have to if he ever grew some balls. A lot of people have defended option 3., in various forms, but I think it’s a non-starter, because it has no real evidence for these non-physical substances beyond their convenience for resolving all of these worries about individuation. Usually this is fudged by soothing words about some sort of powerful totem-spirit called ‘God’.

Option 2. is Spinoza’s doctrine, although the consequence – that I am the entire universe, or what he calls ‘God’ – is not one that he explicitly draws.

There are some reasons for not phrasing it in this way: the word ‘I’ is often used to mean something like “the human being that is speaking” – but I think his explicit doctrines commit him to it, if the word ‘I’ means, among other things, “the substance that is speaking.” Which, I’ve tried to suggest, it does.

Now, I haven’t given definite grounds for believing that there is only one, physical, substance. There might be many – and there might even be some non-physical substances. But if the options are what I’ve laid out above, substance-monism actually becomes the most attractive and ‘intuitive’ option, for people who respect science. Further argument is of course needed to fully substantiate this.

Similarly, I haven’t fully explained the consequences of me being God. One of the most striking consequences is that you, dear reader, are also God, i.e. are also me. If this is true – if I am everybody in the universe, all at once – then I have even more repressed unconscious thoughts, and an even less well-integrated personality, than I had suspected. Similarly, if I am God then I don’t need to worry so much about dying. Because I won’t. I’ll just stop Lukeing and start doing other things.

To explain and defend these results requires enormous amounts of philosophical work. A measure of this work has been performed by a motley crew of mystics, Buddhists, and Germans, but they have by no means entirely succeeded.

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