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You Do Not Exist

On the non-existence of a personal self

Ayman Sousa
2015

Don't throw this paper away!


If I were you, I'd immediately throw away a paper with this title.
"Of course I exist", I'd say. If there is one thing that cannot be doubted, it is my own
existence. Or, in a worst case scenario, me being captured by aliens, and reduced to a
brain-in-a-vat, where all my perceptions, feelings and thoughts are synthetically
manufactured (see the movie: The Matrix, 1999), it's my brain (or parts of it) that
must exist. Rene Descartes, the French philosopher famously said: "I think, therefore,
I am", meaning that: at least when I'm thinking about the question: "does anything
exist at all? Or is it all an illusion?", there must be something doing the thinking. The
nothing cannot, obviously, think. But is it really you? a self?

What do I mean by "You" in the paper's title?


What I mean is: That which the pronoun "I" refer to in sentences like "I am convinced
of truth A", or "I was offended by that person", or "I am a bad person". I agree that
something does exist, but it is not a personal self in any way.

Why did I write this paper?


First, because I think this idea is true. But something being true doesn't mean it's
important to human life (who cares what the worm in your garden had for breakfast?).
But I think that this idea can have a great influence on how we see the world and
ourselves, and further, how we treat other beings.

Is this a new idea?


The first recorded articulation of the idea of the non-existence of a personal self can
be found in the writings and teachings of Siddhartha Gautama "the Buddha"
(500 BC), and more recently with philosophers like David Hume (1711-1776), among
others.

What makes a self a self?


To show that a thing does not exist, we first have to make sure it is the same thing we
both have in mind, to avoid falling into confusion. Most people think they have
-or rather, are- a self, a large portion of them think that this self is immaterial, and
they call it a soul. So, let's agree on some characteristics of selves, which are
fundamental to it, meaning that: without any of them, there can't be a self.

Most people would agree on the following fundamental characteristics of a self:


1- The self is persistent through time: While most things in the world change
through time, the self is unchanging, permanent. The "I" as a child is the same
"I" as a grown up. The "I" as a capitalist is still the same "I" as a communist.
2- The self is unique: There is only one "me", and there can't be any more than
one. Identical twins have different "selves", they are not one and the same
person.
3- The self has free will: People dont think that a computer, a tree, or a dog,
have selves. They do think that human beings have selves though. And, what
makes that the case is that human beings have free will. Without free will, we
are just organic machines.

What do I aim to do?


For a self to exist, all the characteristics mentioned above must be present. Proving
one of them non-existent, immediately entails the self is non-existent. But luckily,
there are enough arguments to prove the non-existence of all of these characteristics.
I will try to give arguments refuting the existence of each characteristic and other
arguments that show our inability of integrating the self with a consistent worldview.
At the beginning of each argument, I will present it in the format of premises and a
conclusion. With each argument, there will be an extra part to refute the existence of
an immaterial soul as well. But, considering that objective arguments usually do not
have the power to resist the powerful subjective feeling of a self (which I think is
illusory), so I will include with most arguments what I will call a "subjective
experience", that is: a way I propose to get you to feel where that argument leads.
While others have treated this subject countless times, I aim to give a short version of
it (a complete one nonetheless). The following are just my arguments for this belief,
and in no way a history of such arguments.

The arguments:
i.

General arguments against the existence of the soul.

ii.

The argument from impermanence.

iii.

The argument from the possibility of duplicates.

iv.

The argument from determinism.

v.

The argument from the ultimately real.

I- General arguments against the existence of the soul:


Ruling out the existence of the soul from the beginning will make it much easier to
disprove the existence of a self.
-

The immaterial: To postulate the existence of a material but unobserved


substance (such as the atom), it is required to have empirical evidence or
logical necessity for us to believe in its existence. The more unlikely this thing
to exist, the more evidence is required to support its existence. You may
believe a passer-by about the events of an accident, but unlikely to do so about
the event of him flying without aid, without further evidence. Extraordinary
claims require extraordinary evidence. The immaterial substance is an
extraordinary substance (I have not encountered immaterial substances so far),
therefore requires a lot of evidence, which, by definition, cannot be provided
for the immaterial. Also, there is no logical necessity for the existence of the
immaterial soul.

The interaction: Another problem is to explain how an immaterial substance


(the soul) can cause events in a material substance (the brain and body). If
every material event is caused by another material event, how can an
immaterial one cause a material one?

II- The argument from impermanence:


P1

It is impossible for a self to change.

P2

All constituents of X can change.

A self is not a constituent of X.

If the human being is composed of body (including the brain) and mind (feelings,
thoughts and beliefs, and memories), it is hard to see that any of these resist change.
My body is changing both in form and content, all its cells are replaced by new ones
in a few years. My feelings are always changing, my thoughts and beliefs can change,
and my memories can be lost. If every part making up the human being is changed,
he's not the same in any respect. A self is supposed to be permanent, persistent
through time, therefore a self cannot exist.
The soul: It may be argued that the soul is unchanging. I don't have arguments
against this claim other than the ones mentioned in general arguments (I).
Subjective experience: Suppose you were able to interact with various human
beings coming from 50 years into the future, one of them is the future you. It is very
plausible to suppose that you will not be able to identify yourself, either by
appearances or with any amount of discussion with those persons. Shouldn't there be a
"trademark" -a self- that you could identify?

III- The argument from the possibility of duplicates:


P1

It is impossible to duplicate a self.

P2

It is possible to duplicate all constituents of X.

A self is not a constituent of X.

It is logically possible for scientific advance to be able in the future to scan your body
and recreate (atom-by-atom) a human being identical to you. That would include your
mind (beliefs, memories, etc.). Wouldn't that be another you? It is true that these two
"you"s will diverge in personality and memories given their different circumstances,
but at least for a second a duplicate was possible to create. And since a self is unique,
no duplicates should be possible to make, therefore a self cannot exist.
The soul: It may be argued that they are identical persons with different souls.
But this raises the problem of: Where exactly is the point of contact between the
material and the immaterial? For example most people believe that if you take out
their brain and put it in another body, their self (or in this case, their soul), will go
with the brain. So, let's take this thought experiment to the extreme. If it were possible
to take out just the chemical particles responsible for memories (and beliefs, etc) in
their same order and configuration from the brain to another brain. I'd guess most
people will agree their soul will go with the particles responsible for their memories
and not with the piece of meat called the brain. Now, if it were possible to rearrange
particles in another brain, in the same configuration as the old one. I think again that
most people will agree that the soul goes with the configuration not the actual
chemical particles. So, now we have the point of contact between the soul and the
body in something very abstract: the configuration or order of the particles
responsible for memories. That configuration can be applied to different brains.
Which one is in contact with the original soul?
Subjective experience: Imagine you were told by doctors, that you have a
terminal heart disease, which will kill you in a few days, and you must have an
operation immediately, but unluckily it has 10% success probability. And you agree.
It turns out that in fact the disease can't be cured, the doctors instead were to scan and
copy you (atom-by-atom) into the adjacent room, only without heart disease this time,
and reduce the original body to ashes. For all you know, you will wake up in the next
room, extremely happy that the operation was successful.

IV- The argument from determinism:


P1

All natural events are caused by other natural events.

P2

Intentions of X are natural events.

C1

Intentions of X are caused by other natural events.

P3

It is impossible for a self to be caused by natural events.

P4

All constituents of X (including his intentions) are caused by natural events.

C2

A self is not a constituent of X.

First, let's differentiate between two types of freedom, physical freedom and
metaphysical freedom. The first is that you are able to execute whatever thought
comes to your mind, your body is not restrained (with chains for example), that is:
your thoughts are the cause of your bodily actions. The latter is a subject to a branch
of philosophy called metaphysics. If we have metaphysical free will, we are able to
determine our thoughts in the first place, which I think is impossible. The laws of
nature makes it possible -in theory-, with enough knowledge, to predict how every
atom in the natural world is going to behave, years in advance. Since human beings
are part of the natural world, their brain states and behavior -which are after all
determined by the behavior of the atoms in their brains- can be determined. A self
must have -metaphysical- free will, therefore a self cannot exist. It is sometimes
argued that the advances in the field of quantum physics show that some events don't
have causes. If that is true, which I highly doubt, it would create a random or chaotic
universe, still no place for free will.
The soul: It may be argued that the soul, being immaterial, is outside of the
chain of cause and effect, and therefore can have free choice. To check this view, let's
imagine the following. Imagine a soul without a body or brain, an abstract being, and
therefore with no emotions and desires. It may be true that such a soul may possess
genuine free will, but it is hard to see how -without desires- will such a soul prefer
any action to another. It does not feel hunger, pain, love, or hatred, then why should it
do anything at all? What are the motives? No motives, no actions.
Subjective experience: Try to guess what the next though that pops into your
mind is, I guess you will fail. Of course, we can have thoughts about thoughts. But,
there is always a level of thinking that just happens to us, for no apparent choice on
our part.
V- The argument from the ultimately real:
P1

Wholes do not posses ultimate reality.

P2

The self is a whole.

The self does not ultimately exist.

Metaphysics is concerned with questions like "What kinds of substances exist?".


One problem in metaphysics is the problem of the whole and the parts. An important
distinction is usually made between what is ultimately real and what is conventionally
real. A position I am going to be defending is that what is ultimately real are the parts,
while wholes are conventionally real. What does all this mean? An ultimately real

substance is one that does not depend for its existence on other substances, its
existence cannot be explained in terms of other substances, it is what the world is
ultimately made of. On the other side, a conventionally real substance is one that can
be reduced to other substances, and to spacial or temporal relations between those
substances, but it is a way of convention or mutual agreement to have a name
assigned for them that proves to be practically useful. In the language of modern
science, quarks possess ultimate reality. Every larger object or being does not possess
such ultimate reality, but it is nonetheless useful to have a name or concept for it.
Example: Does the thing which the word "Australia" refer to has ultimate reality? No,
because "Australia" is nothing more than the sum of the people inhabiting it, and its
existence can always be explained in terms of their existence. Does a car really (or
ultimately) exist? A car is nothing more than its parts, with specific spacial relations
between them. Applying this way of thinking to the existence of selves: selves are
wholes made of body parts, beliefs and memories, etc, therefore they do not possess
ultimate reality, but it is -practically- useful to have a concept of the self to refer to
this sum of organs, beliefs and memories strongly associated with each other in space
and time.
The soul: It may be argued that the soul is not reducible to parts, and therefore
possesses ultimate reality. I don't have arguments against this claim other than the
ones mentioned in general arguments (I).

Why should this matter?


It is asserted by the people experiencing what is called ego death (usually a mystic, a
psychonaut, or someone suffering from a dissociative disorder), that knowing the
truth of the non-existence of a self, subjectively, not just through rational conviction,
is a life changing experience. It allows one to inspect one's own beliefs without
identifying with them. You no longer have to defend yourself, your ideas or your
actions, just because they are yours. It undermines the pursuit of self-interest. In short,
personal bias is completely eliminated.