A reader asks me a philosophy question. I’m not a philosopher, and if I were, I’d probably be a bad one.
I am aware from your blog Pharyngula that you are a materialist when it comes to the issue of consciousness, and that you feel that neuroscience and physIcal processes are enough to explain consciousness. But I have a question for you about your views regarding this.
There is one very puzzling aspect of consciousness which I have always puzzled over; and that is the very perplexing question of why, out of the numerous consciousnesses existing in the universe at all places and all time periods, the consciousness of this particular individual is the only one that is actually ME. A common way this question is often phrased is “Why am I me and not someone else?” The philosopher Benj Hellie calls it the vertiginous question, and he puts it like this: “Of all the subjects of experience out there, why is this one — the one corresponding to the human being referred to as Benj Hellie (substitute yourself for him) — the one whose experiences are actually live (i.e., present, or available, or currently being experienced).
It seems to me like this is a perplexing question regardless of whether materialism or dualism is true, because either way, it seems equally irresolvable. If materialism is true, you can ask “Why am I this brain and not some other brain?”, and if dualism is true, you can ask “Why am I this soul and not some other soul?” Neither option provides any more of an answer than the other. So it seems this question is separate from, and neutral with regard to, the whole materialism vs. dualism question.
So do you have any ideas on how this very puzzling mystery could possibly be explained?
Thank you, and good luck with your blog and everything else!
I know nothing of Benj Hellie and have never read anything by him. I don’t even understand the question, which may be why I don’t find it “puzzling” or “perplexing”. As a materialist, my consciousness and sense of self is entirely local, a product of the physical properties of my brain. I wouldn’t hold up a rock and ask, “Why is this rock this rock, and not that other rock?” I don’t think objects are interchangeable, therefore selves are not interchangeable.
I must be missing something, because the question just looks stupid to a materialist and doesn’t seem to resolve anything about dualism. Maybe someone out there can find something that makes sense of it.