By Arnold Zuboff, University College London




            Brain bisection, the surgical cutting of the connection between the hemispheres of the brain at the bridge of nerves that normally joins them (the corpus callosum), was an operation that gave relief to epileptics. But experimenters working with split-brain patients in the 1960s discovered an additional result of this surgery that was startling and disturbing. When they fed markedly different information into each hemisphere, the subject would, it seemed, possess two mutually excluding experiences at one time.

            Let me dramatize the puzzle in this by asking you to engage in a variation on one of the thought experiments in Derek Parfit’s paper ‘Personal Identity’.[1] Imagine that by pressing a certain button you could cause your corpus callosum to be anaesthetized, so that the communication between the hemispheres of your brain would be stopped temporarily.

            Tonight a concert of your favourite music is going to be broadcast on the radio, but you have to do some tedious studying from audio tapes. Well, why not arrange that the music will go into only the right hemisphere of your brain while the study material will go into only the left after the button has been pushed and the integration of the activities of the hemispheres has been stopped? But then the big question arises: what would your evening be like?

            The ordinary understanding of what a person is does not allow that you could be both enjoying the concert and suffering through the studying, since each of these experiences seems to exclude the other. Yet it cannot be that you only enjoy the concert or alternatively only suffer through the studying or that you somehow experience neither. For following a more extensive anaesthetizing, or a stroke, that completely incapacitated one hemisphere you would certainly have had whichever experience was in the remaining functioning hemisphere. The concert would be yours if there was only the right hemisphere and the studying would be yours if there was only the left. In our case there are both.

            The answer must be that you will experience both the concert and the studying, though each will seem falsely to be the whole of your experience. I shall contend that it is this same false seeming, the same illusion, that hides the fact that all experience actually is yours. This is a view I call “universalism”. All the experience in all the separate nervous systems of the world is yours, though what is discovered in each necessarily seems falsely to be the whole of what is yours. Next I shall argue for this larger claim, but the case of brain bisection has shown this much already: that seeming limits of experience can mislead you into thinking you are less than you are. Then what is it that really sets your limits? What, really, are you?

In Thomas Nagel’s paper “Physicalism”[2], he asks us to consider “everything that can be said about the world without employing any token-reflexive expressions.” (Token-reflexive expressions are used to refer to things from a particular perspective to which the expressions are anchored by the individual occurrences, the tokens, of the words. Examples are ‘I’, ‘you’, ‘here’, ‘there’, ‘now’, ‘then’, ‘yesterday’, and ‘tomorrow’.) Thus the description of the world Nagel has in mind does not seem to originate from any perspective. It is also a description that is aimed at comprehending everything (“everything that can be said about the world without employing any token-reflexive expressions”). And therefore, though originating from no particular perspective, the description would by no means be lacking in perspectives (plural) in its content. For a description that aspired to a perfect comprehensiveness would need to include within it a description of all the perspectives that sentient beings will occupy. (Notice that it would not necessarily endorse the perceptions had and the judgments made from those perspectives but it would have to register perfectly what all of these were like).

And so (after mentioning the exhaustive account of all straightforwardly physical things and their states in the description we are considering) Nagel says, “It will also include a description of all the persons in the world and their histories, memories, thoughts, sensations, perceptions, intentions and so forth. I can thus describe without token-reflexives the entire world and everything that is happening in it--and this will include a description of Thomas Nagel and what he is thinking and feeling.” Let me point out that there will, then, have to be many token-reflexive expressions showing up in this description after all; but all of these will be, at least figuratively, placed within quotes, as used in the description of what it is like to be within each and every perspective that the world contains. But the spirit of Nagel’s prohibition is still respected in all such quoted use of token-reflexives because no single, dominating perspective on the world will be implied, as one would have been through a use of the unquoted expressions: There will be no unquoted I, here and now belonging to a describer of the world who occupies some single particular perspective within the world.

Then Nagel goes on to say, “Even when everything that can be said in the specified manner has been said, and the world has in a sense been completely described, there seems to remain one fact which has not been expressed, and that is the fact that I am Thomas Nagel. This is not, of course, the fact ordinarily conveyed by those words, when they are used to inform someone else who the speaker is--for that could easily be expressed otherwise. It is rather the fact that I am the subject of these experiences; this body is my body; the subject or center of my world is this person, Thomas Nagel.” (It would also seem that other, similar facts had remained unexpressed--like that this place is here, this time is now and a particular day is tomorrow.)

I have already pointed out that there must be in such a description the fullest recognition of the perspectival character of the experience of conscious beings, as might be represented in the use of something like quoted token-reflexives. And Nagel himself points out that his own thoughts are included. So let me simply pinpoint that any complete such description would have to register (though in quoted fashion, of course) the very thought that Nagel is having when he says that “I am the subject of these experiences”. Well, then, is he not therein expressing the fact he has in mind, and thus expressing it within the description? So how can there yet seem to be a fact expressed in Nagel’s thought but not expressed in the description?

What ruins this inclusion of Nagel’s thought as an expression of what Nagel means to be thinking about a special fact is that, as it occurs within that description, Nagel’s thinking that thought can be clearly seen to be itself nothing special. For the description reveals that every conscious state would equally feel itself to be the only one that was “this consciousness, this experience”. And that seeming exclusivity, as the one and only experience that was “this experience”, would within each experience seem to be a most impressive and important fact. After all, the subject would seem to be discovering its own identity, as the sole fit subject of its own self-interest, by picking itself out as “this subject”, “me”, from within the only experience that was “this experience”. “I am the subject of these experiences”, as Nagel says. And it is having experiences that are these as opposed to those (others) that gives self-interest all its bite. The only pain that really hurts me is this one, the one experienced here and now as mine.

Now, an experience being this as opposed to that (other) experience could have nothing to do with any of the particular specifications of either its subjective content or its objective context. After all, with the very same specifications in its content and its context it will count as this experience from within it and as that (other) experience from outside it. Being this experience is just what any experience is within itself, from the inside. That’s all that makes it this, now (at this time), here (at this place) and mine (belonging to this experiencer). And all experiences have all such being this equally within them. All are this, now, here and mine.

            Think about what you ordinarily would recognize to be “these experiences”, “mine”. What makes them "mine" for you? Is it the detail of their content? If the colours you were seeing had been different, would the experiences have failed to be these, yours? Think of all the features of this experience that could be varied while its character of being "mine" remained untouched. If you had fallen asleep and were now in the midst of a wild dream that had little in common with any of the usual content of your experience, would that experience have therein failed to be experienced as "mine"? If you had eaten different particular items of food over the past years (as you might so easily have done), so that all the particular atoms in the structure of the body were different in numerical identity from those in your body now, would the experience have failed to have that character of being "mine"? Must you take care with the particularity of the food that you eat because it is determining the identity of an experiencer, of the subject of self-interest? If the experience were had in a different location, if it were at a different time, would the experience not still have had that same character within it of being this and being mine?

            What makes an experience yours is none of the specification of its content or of the particularity or other properties of its possessor. All that is required for an experience to be yours, to be “mine”, is that it be immediate in its character as its character is experienced within it, that it be first person. My pains are pains that are not remote like those that belong to another. My pains are those that are immediate. They have internality. They are experienced in a first person way. They are subjectively at the centre of the world, here in me. But all real pains must be had with this quality of immediacy that makes them “mine”. What could really be a pain without its thus hurting?

Let’s look at the case of the two of us, the writer of this discussion and the reader of it: Could we discover as expressed in a description of both of us that was made without the use of unquoted token-reflexives that one of these, writer or reader, was you and the other was I?

Well, can’t I just find myself, the writer, the one who is called Arnold Zuboff, in the description? Yes, I can find someone called Arnold Zuboff there, but what in the description we are considering expresses that he’s I and not you rather than the other way around? Well, he would be the possessor of this experience, of writing, and could therefore from within the experience identify the one called Zuboff as this experiencer, “me”. But, of course, in the description we see clearly that each experience, of writing or of reading, is equally discovered to be exclusively “this experience” from within it and that each experiencer is equally discovered to be exclusively “this experiencer”, “me”.

But if, as I am apt to think, the person I am just is the one called Arnold Zuboff, isn’t the distinction that exists in the description between Arnold Zuboff and the reader enough in itself to distinguish the person who is I from the other who is you? It is tempting to think, then, that I am properly discovered to be me when the Zuboff in that description is picking himself out as “me”. (This is, of course, just like the occurrence of Nagel’s thought within the description of the world made without unquoted token-reflexives.)

But no, drawing this objective distinction between organisms must still be useless at expressing on which side of the distinction I fall till it has been somehow expressed in the description that I am indeed the one called Arnold Zuboff and not the reader. They both pick themselves out as “me”. There is nothing expressed in the description that could possibly distinguish which was you from which was me. Each in that description would be seen to be me, with the other you, as far as it was concerned.

Just as Nagel claimed, then, there does at any rate “seem” to be a missing fact--that one of them is really I while the other is (if you’ll forgive me for putting it this way) merely you.

But where do I discover this alleged fact? Perhaps I can discover it from outside of the description, from this, my “own” perspective (as I take it to be)? But all my efforts to distinguish myself either inside or outside the description must be futile. For it is illusory to think that my “own” perspective can occupy some special privileged position lying outside the description. Every perspective is there within the description. The description is merely revealing the truth about every perspective, that there is nothing distinctive about its being “mine”.

As Nagel claimed, there seems to be a missing fact--that only one is I, that one of these is really I, while the other is merely you.

But a description of everything in the world that can be described without the employment of unquoted token-reflexives plainly must show us the whole of the world as it actually is (if we may put aside any unconnected problems with whether everything of the world is describable). There could be nothing that is real outside it. It seems to me that any perfectly comprehensive description must conform to the prohibition imposed by Nagel because any perfectly comprehensive description could not be confined to any one perspective. A description that was confined to a perspective would be by definition partial--and would be open to illusion. Could we, then, have lost anything that was real just because our description of reality was the properly comprehensive one?

Let’s briefly throw into our consideration a parallel question regarding a time being this time, being now. From within the experience of my writing of this discussion the time of the writing is now and the time of your reading is then, sometime in the future. From within the experience of your reading the writing would be then, in the past, while the reading would be this time, now. So is there an additional fact that the time of the writing (or of the reading) is the one that is really now?

What I think about both questions, concerning both the time and the experiencer, could be stated in two claims:

1) Being me is settled simply by the first-person perspective of an organism’s experience rather than by the identity of the organism itself. One can find nothing in the identity of an organism to make it me apart from this perspective it has on itself, as being “this subject”. With that it is I; without that it is not I. Being now is settled by the present-tense character of the experience rather than the objective identity of the time in which the experience is occurring. In both cases there is a similar illusion--that being me is based on the objective identity conditions of the organism happening to be the ones required for it to be me or that my experience being now is based on the time of the experience happening to be a unique objective present. We shall see that having to meet such narrow conditions would make both my coming into existence and the time of my experience being now enormously improbable from its own perspective. Thus these hypotheses will have to be rejected for being overwhelmingly unlikely, as well as incoherent.

2) There is a mere illusion of uniqueness in each such perspective. Being me seems like the only being me and being now seems like the only being now. That is why they fasten themselves onto the particular objective conditions of the experience. For these do have uniqueness. The reality is that all conscious organisms are equally experienced as “me” and all experienced times are equally experienced as “now”. And that’s all there is to the determinations of being me and now. They are subjective despite seeming objective.

Notice that I certainly am not saying there is no real I. On the contrary, I am saying that being me, really being me, extends equally to all conscious things.

And so what I am saying has spectacular implications: It means that my self-interest reaches fully into the life of every conscious organism, each of which I equally am, and that the death of any one of these does not annihilate me so long as there still is any other conscious thing anywhere in all reality--since I will be that thing. And every experience in any time is experienced by me with all the same urgency of its happening now. All of it equally is mine and now.

Let me stress that I don’t ever wish to be questioning the distinctness from each other of different times or the distinctness from each other of different organisms. I’m assuredly not saying there’s only one time or only one organism. What I am challenging is that it is a fact that some one of those distinct times is the only one that is now and that it is a fact that some one of those distinct organisms is the only one that is I. And if none of those organisms is exclusively me, if the seeming to be so in each of them is just an illusion of perspective, then, it is wrong to consider those distinct organisms to be also distinct as experiencers, persons, me’s. They would all turn out--distinct as they are as organisms--to be the same experiencer, the same person, the same me. As me, they would be the same. (Though just how this is put is unimportant as long as the understanding is there. We might express this as “all persons are I” or rather as “you and I are the same person”. We are interested here in the things and not the language.)

Please for a moment try just to imagine with me that there are no such additional facts respecting which time or organism or experience is the only one that is really now or I or mine or this. Imagine that the exclusivity of this, of me and of now are illusory and have no place in any proper description of the world. Imagine that being this experience is in that fashion universal in all experience and that no experiencer, time or place can be exclusively this one, exclusively me, now or here (though that is how it would seem in every case). I believe that without such a shift away from our natural thinking a complete and accurate scientific and philosophical understanding of the world is impossible.

            I’ve mentioned the involvement of probability in this, and also the implications for science. If we do not shift our view regarding the identity of the subject, then there are two incalculably big, intolerable bumps of improbability in our view of the world that just must be smoothed. As I shall explain, one bump sits on top of the other.

If I shall exist as any conscious organism, if my perspective on the world is totally open to any consciousness at all, as universalism has it, then there is no improbability attached to either my existence or the existence of any of the organisms that I am. If my perspective on the world is limited, however, because I would only have existed if the narrow identity conditions of an individual organism had happened to have been realized, then from this limited perspective both my own existence and the existence of the single organism on which this is supposed to have depended become incredibly improbable occurrences. Hence accepting such a narrowing hypothesis becomes impossible on account of the immense improbability it implies for the evidence I have--that, whichever I am, wide or narrow, I do exist.

The ordinary view of a person says that your coming to be was winning a very hard game to win, whereas universalism says it was a very easy game. Just consider the history of begettings that would have been required for you to exist on the ordinary view. Let’s say conservatively that during your conception there were 200 million sperm cells competing with each other to reach the egg first. And on the ordinary view if any sperm cell but the one that did happen to make it had got through to the egg instead you would never have been around. So you had only a one in 200 million chance of being produced from that conception. But it gets far worse than that, because in order for that conception to have occurred, your parents had to have been conceived, and in each of their conceptions the chance of it turning out right for your later existence was, with our conservative estimate of the number of sperm cells, again one in 200 million. So the chance of your emerging from those three conceptions was one in 200 million to the third power, or one in 8 septillion--pretty slim. And, of course, all the begettings had to be just the right ones for your future existence, the number multiplied in each preceding generation, and all of it going back to the time of the dinosaurs and far before that. Otherwise it would have been eternally blank for you. You would have had no experience whatever. Only others would have been in the world instead.

From the single perspective you are supposed to occupy within the ordinary view, the production of others would not have been improbable, since, once you existed (which is the hard part), you would be in the relaxed position of simply seeing any winners there might be in the begettings of others. Universalism puts you into this same relaxed position regarding all conscious organisms bar none. (There is no hard part.) For universalism, of course, makes it irrelevant to whether you exist what sperm cells hit what eggs. All experiencers would be you merely on account of the immediacy, the internality, the first-person character of their experience. So you are always a winner, and seeing yourself as a winner, no matter what.

Notice that universalism and the ordinary view can agree completely on the mental and physical descriptions of conscious organisms. They disagree only on which of the properties are necessary for you to exist and which are merely accidental, contingent, inessential. They can agree on some of this. For example, within both universalism and the ordinary view, that you are wearing the clothing you are wearing is not a necessary condition for the person in question to be you. Wearing that particular clothing is an inessential property. But the ordinary view has it that some other of your properties are necessary to its being you. The conditions thought essential would have to do with the particularity of the body or with the integrity of the mental processes or patterns or some such thing (and there is great disagreement over this). According to universalism such specifications are no more essential than the clothing. It would still be you if these were different. There are not any detailed specifications necessary as conditions for your existing. And it is for that reason that there is no (literally) unbelievable chance or luck involved in your existing. You would exist no matter how such things turned out.

            I mentioned that without the shift of our thinking to universalism there would be two bumps of improbability, one sitting on the other. And the other bump is that the universe you find yourself in happens to meet all the requirements in its basic character for the existence of living things. Our universe embodies in its basic laws what is often called the Anthropic (human-centred) Principle.

            In A Brief History of Time Stephen Hawking writes, “The laws of science, as we know them at present, contain many fundamental numbers, like the size of the electric charge of the electron and the ratio of the masses of the proton and the electron. We cannot, at the moment at least, predict the values of these numbers from theory--we have to find them by observation. It may be that one day we shall discover a complete unified theory that predicts them all, but it is also possible that some or all of them vary from universe to universe or within a single universe. The remarkable fact is that the values of these numbers seem to have been very finely adjusted to make possible the development of life. For example if the electric charge of the electron had been only slightly different, stars either would have been unable to burn hydrogen and helium, or else they would have exploded.”[3]

            If such fundamental numbers did result from a physical or mathematical necessity within the nature of matter itself, the agreement between this and the requirements for life would be a stupendously improbable coincidence. But if matter instead is extremely protean in countless varied universes, no coincidence would have been involved in a very small fraction of these varied physical worlds displaying fundamental numbers that happen to agree with the what life requires in a universe. Hawking describes such a view as follows: “According to this theory, there are either many different universes or many different regions of a single universe, each with its own initial configuration and, perhaps, with its own set of laws of science. In most of these universes the conditions would not be right for the development of complicated organisms; only in the few universes that are like ours would intelligent beings develop and ask the question: ‘Why is the universe the way we see it?” The answer is then simple: If it had been different, we would not be here!’”

But that last point is surely useless: That we could not have been in our universe if it were in that respect different cannot possibly tell us why specifically our universe happened not to be different (happened not to fail to be anthropic, as did the vast majority of universes), with us indeed not being here. That would have been immensely more probable. That we would then not have been here to ask about its failure makes it not one bit less probable that it would fail.

            No, the answer can’t be that simple. Universalism must be added to the many-worlds hypothesis before it can explain why our particular world did not fail to be amenable to life. On the ordinary view of a person, even if there are enough varied physical worlds to eliminate the coincidence of there somewhere in physical reality being an amenable universe, from the observer’s perspective it would nevertheless be as great a coincidence that the observer’s universe, that your universe was amenable, as it would have been if there was only one physical world and yet that was amenable to life. To eliminate the anthropic coincidence from our view, as rationality regarding the probabilities requires, we must loosen the conditions for personal identity, so that you, the observer, would automatically be in any of the universes in which the right conditions occurred. Then “my” universe is guaranteed to be amenable. My universe will be every universe that is a host to consciousness. Only combined with universalism can the many-worlds hypothesis make probable the amenable character of our world.

Here we are extending the statistical argument in which I had previously focussed on your begetting, the statistical argument for a view of yourself, and of your world, that could allow the evidence--that you exist--to escape immense improbability from your perspective.

Now, a scientist who failed to see through the illusion of uniqueness would seem to be tied to a universe doomed to remain terrifically unlikely to have the sorts of laws that we find it to have. Such a scientist could thus never properly explain those laws. The seeming uniqueness of me and mine, taken as objective local determinations, will distort the way the world is seen so that a full discovery of its universal, objective law-like character must be impossible.

 But this explanation of the laws of physics would come at the end of a long line of discoveries within those laws that were only made when other aspects of this same illusion were given up.

The inevitable experience of the place of experience as here might have seemed to put that place at the objective centre of the world to a conscious being that didn’t get around. But we can easily see through this illusion in the case of our personal spatial position because of our mobility. For the place that is here could so obviously have been there instead. Yet our general place, earth, was mistakenly viewed as at the centre of existence till reasoning and an increasing familiarity with what was beyond the earth brought informed people to see that this centrality was only subjective. Getting past that illusion was essential to the Copernican and Newtonian revolutions.

            The one-directional character of time does not allow us the sort of mobility we have in space. And time, unlike position, also seems not to allow for a distinction between a personal and a general one. The time that is now for me looks to be the same across the world. These factors make the illusion regarding now, that it is the objective centre of time, much harder to shake off than the similar illusion regarding here.

Yet when we imagine, as in at least a crude way we can, travelling in time with some of the freedom of our movements in space, we can easily see that any past or future time would simply be the present to any time-traveller who had arrived in that time. And we can do something similar to help us shake free of the illusion regarding who we are. We can imagine a kind of mobility in this too. That is what we were doing when earlier I asked you to consider all the changed conditions that would still leave your experience being “mine”. If the first-person character, the immediacy of the experience remains (and how could it not in anything that could count as experience?), we can imagine a continuum of hypothetical physical and psychological differences in an experiencer that could in principle take us through all the objective and subjective conditions of all possible consciousness without the slightest change in the experience being mine and the experiencer being me.

What we are doing in this reminds me of Newton’s famous cannonball thought experiment. He showed that the distinction in kind between the matter of objects on the earth, called “terrestrial”, and the matter of a distant body like the moon, called “celestial”, was false by asking us to imagine that a cannonball, clearly terrestrial, is fired repeatedly from a very high mountain with progressively greater velocities. At no stage is there any change at all in the sort of matter in the cannonball. Changes of velocity are in the wrong category to constitute changes from terrestrial to celestial matter. Yet, finally, there must be a velocity that will give the cannonball the moon’s sort of motion around the earth. The relevant distinction between the matter of the earth-bound cannonball and the matter of the moon was one of circumstance and not of kind. And the same general laws of motion could therefore be discovered to be governing both.

            The universalist view of time, as well as space, is already at the heart of physics. Relativity theory depends on letting go of an objective present time. I am arguing here that only an extension of this treatment of space and time to personal identity will allow us to solve the most fundamental problem of physics--discovering what is behind the laws of physics. To do so we must see that being here, being now and being mine are none of them due to exclusive objective conditions, as they seem to be, but rather to the universal subjective impression of immediacy in every experience of a place, time or organism. We must see that all places, times and conscious organisms are equally "this one". For a failure to see this must distort our view by forcing us to accommodate in it what seems to be our own special objective status; and that awkward accommodation must then ruin any prospect of discovering the truly objective universal principles that govern the world.

[1] Derek Parfit, “Personal Identity”, The Philosophical Review, vol. LXXX (1970), pp. 3-27. The variation on Parfit’s thought experiment described here and much else related to the present paper can be found in my earlier paper “One Self: The Logic of Experience”, Inquiry, vol. XXXIII (1990), pp. 39-68.

[2] Thomas Nagel, “Physicalism”, The Philosophical Review 74 (July 1965). The passage from which I shall be quoting is on pp. 354-5.

[3] Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time, (London: Bantam Press, 1988). Everything I shall be quoting is on pp. 124-5. At the end of this first quoted passage I have taken the liberty of changing “or else they would not have exploded”, as it is in the book, to “or else they would have exploded”. The former makes no sense; it seems to me there was an error of transcription.