Some philosophers dismiss this as a question about a tautology: when Alice asks "Why am I Alice?", this is equivalent to her asking "Why is Alice Alice?", which is not an interesting question. But other philosophers believe that, from a first-person perspective, the question is nontrivial. For example, Benj Hellie, who calls it the vertiginous question, writes in this paper:

The Hellie-subject: why is it me? Why is it the one whose pains are ‘live’, whose volitions are mine, about whom self-interested concern makes sense? That thing there in the objective world: what is so special about it? Why doesn't some other subject of experience there in the objective world ‘go live’ in this way: for instance, the ‘Chalmers-subject’ out there driving around in the human being whose visage matches a photo on a certain driver's licence bearing the name ‘David Chalmers’—why not instead it?

More examples: JJ Valberg expresses a similar question in his book Dream, Death, and the Self, as does Mark Johnston in his book Surviving Death (page 151, "Am I Now Contingently Johnston?"). In this paper, Vincent Conitzer draws the analogy to a world simulated on a computer, where the perspective of one of the creatures in the simulation is displayed on a screen in our own world. He argues that, beyond the code responsible for the simulated physics, there must be additional code that determines which creature's perspective to display, so that there is a further fact, in addition to the simulated physics. Caspar Hare explicitly proposes a metaphysical theory (egocentric presentism) in which one single person's experience is distinguished as the present one. Closely related ideas appear in this paper by Giovanni Merlo.

Interestingly, David Chalmers (page 85 of The Conscious Mind) seems to recognize the question as nontrivial, but he also seems to think that it is not that problematic for a materialistic worldview:

[...] the unexplained fact [that David Chalmers is me] is so "thin" by comparison to the facts about consciousness in all its glory. Admitting this primitive indexical fact would require far less revision of our materialist worldview than would admitting irreducible facts about conscious experience.

So, Chalmers seems to think that this is less of an issue than other philosophers who accept that the question is nontrivial. I am not sure that I understand his position. How, exactly, would we revise our worldview to admit such a fact? Are there other possible responses to the question or ways to deal with it?

Update in response to answers: Of course much depends on what the "I" in the question refers to. If it refers to the human being in question, then it does seem tautological, so those who take the question seriously presumably take it to refer to something else (a transcendental self?). Alternatively, the word "I" could be removed from the question altogether; for example, "Why is this particular human being's perspective present?" (along the lines of Caspar Hare's theory, above). Are there other options?

Please note that this is not a question about personal identity over time (what makes a person at time 1 the same person as that person at time 2); though such questions may be related, the question here concerns a single point in time.

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    I already pointed out at the beginning that some people just consider this a tautology. However, as I also pointed out, there is a significant body of serious work that disagrees that that is all there is to it...
    – present
    Commented Aug 18, 2018 at 17:59
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    I am not familiar with the issue, but Chalmers's position does not surprise me. To the extent that the question is problematic it is of the same nature as "why is our universe the way it is?" or even "why is there something rather than nothing?" Whether such questions are considered reasonable or vacuous cuts across the materialist/idealist divide, and the fact that the tautology response is available to the defending side makes it an ineffective debate issue. Indeed, a stretch of this response to the entire "facts about consciousness" is what is favored by Dennett et al.:"what facts?"
    – Conifold
    Commented Aug 18, 2018 at 20:28
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    Are you asking why experience is personalized (i.e. first person perspective occurs)? It is how people are capable of reflection. It is easily possible for a man to live and function without the intimate feeling of self - depersonalization.
    – ttnphns
    Commented Aug 19, 2018 at 11:13
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    @ttnphns: It is a question about first-person perspective, but just one particular aspect of it. I am not asking why there are qualia. I'm asking why one specific perspective "goes live" as Hellie puts it. Perhaps these aspects are tied together though; in fact Conitzer in his paper referenced in the question argues that these questions are cut from the same cloth.
    – present
    Commented Aug 19, 2018 at 11:40
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    @Chelonian: that's basically right (with body including the brain etc.), though the multiple readings of the word "my" are a bit tricky. Also, if you read, e.g., Hellie's paper above, it's not only as opposed to another body, but also (and perhaps more interestingly) as opposed to no body being distinguished relative to the others at all from the perspective of conscious experience (what Hellie calls the "constellation" view).
    – present
    Commented Aug 20, 2018 at 15:31

16 Answers 16


You could be interested in reading the IV chapter of The view from Nowhere, by Thomas Nagel, since it's all about this topic. His arguments are related to the issue of a subjective/objective view, but they are hard to summarize. A long quote could give you the flavor of his answer:

[...] The thought “I am TN [Thomas Nagel]” presents a similar problem, though the task is not to explain my dual relations of reference to something outside myself, but rather my dual relation to the entire world. In a sense there are two forms of reference to TN here, and we must explain the first-person reference in this philosophical context without trivializing the thought. What happens when I consider the world objectively is that an aspect of my identity comes into prominence which was previously concealed and which produces a sense of detachment from the world. It then comes to seem amazing that I am in fact attached to it at any particular point. The content of the thought that I am TN can be understood once the objective conception closes over itself by locating the subject that forms it at a particular point in the world that it encompasses. The objective self is the only significant aspect under which I can refer to myself subjectively that is supplied by the objective conception of the world alone—because it is the subject of that conception. And it is the only aspect of myself that can seem at first only accidentally connected with TN’s perspective — a self that views the world through the perspective of TN. I believe the possibility of this self-locating thought reveals something about us all, and not only about those who find it remarkable. What it reveals is not just a peculiar form of self-reference but an aspect of what we are. The objective self functions independently enough to have a life of its own. It engages in various forms of detachment from and opposition to the rest of us, and is capable of autonomous development.

Derek Parfit instead is quite dismissive about the issue. While he's debating the (somehow related) topic 'Why Anything? Why This?' in On what matters, he writes:

[...] We cannot sensibly ask why 9 is 9. Nor should we ask why our world is the one it is: why it is this world. That would be like asking, ‘Why are we who we are?’, or ‘Why is it now the time that it is?’ Those, on reflection, are not good questions.

My opinion is closer to Parfit, for a simple reason: I can't be another person, because if I were, I were not myself anymore.

Let's suppose that tomorrow, after a deep sleep, I woke up and I'm another person – let's say Thomas Nagel. I would have his body, his mind, memories, desires, age, intelligence, weakness and so on. Well, there's absolutely no difference with this scenario: tomorrow, after a deep sleep, I die. In both cases Francesco ceases to exist and Thomas Nagel keeps on his life. So, why am I this particular human being? Because if I were another one, I couldn't notice it. Or, if you prefer, because I already am all the others, since inside them there's no room for any "I" apart theirs.

Following Hare, I could still ask: "Why my past qualia and your qualia are not present in the way my qualia right now are?". But this question leads automatically to a bigger one: "why are not every qualia present right now?" Probably because being (or even simply feeling) something excludes the possibility of being (feeling) everything.

  • Thank you for your answer and the carefully selected quotes. Regarding your last paragraph: I agree that there is no way anyone would notice if I (truly) woke up as someone else tomorrow, if we can make sense of that idea. For that reason, I think the most interesting form of the question doesn't concern identity over time, but rather just right now. Right now, this perspective is present and the others are absent (in Hare's terminology). Could another perspective (someone else's, or even the future perspective of this same individual) not have been present instead?
    – present
    Commented Sep 2, 2018 at 22:06
  • Thanks for your interesting question. Perhaps I miss your point: right now another perspective IS present. Many others indeed, but I can't experience them since they are by definition different from mine. Commented Sep 2, 2018 at 22:11
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    Fair enough, the words right now are misleading in a similar way as the word I is. I don't mean "right now" in the sense of a clock. The idea is that in a sense, only this one experience of one individual at one point in time is present (Hare) or live (Hellie) at all. Of course I recall feeling exactly the same way a minute ago, and it is clear that Hare and Hellie have the same thing in mind. And yet all three of these other experiences are not present/live in the way that mine right now is...
    – present
    Commented Sep 2, 2018 at 23:50
  • @present I understand, but Hare and Hellie's being present simply can't be as your being present by definition (for their differences from you etc). This problem looks like a paraphrase of solipsism. A different perspective, but not stronger, since it's not astonishing that you are you, but that you can't state with certainty that you are not the only set of qualia in the world Commented Sep 3, 2018 at 19:00
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    @present "my past qualia and your qualia are not present in the way my qualia right now are" > now I get it, thank you. But this leads automatically to: "why are not every qualia present right now?" Because being something excludes being everything. I will add this to my reply, comments are not the proper place: I'll read Hare anyway :) Commented Sep 3, 2018 at 21:40

If there is an answer to your question, one at least that falls within the scope of philosophy, I can offer only a causal explanation. You exist as a human being, and the particular human being you are, as a result of the specific conjunction of events of which you were the product. Wrapped around this are the conditions that enabled or necessitated that conjunction and a set of physical laws in accordance with which the conjunction triggered your conception, development into a zygote, an embryo, a fetus and eventually the particular human being who is asking this question on PSE. As truncated as this account is scientifically, it can be elaborated to any extent.

If you pose the broader, metaphysical question, why should reality be such that this causal explanation is correct ?, then you are asking why the fundamental nature of reality is as it is, and I don't think a satisfactory answer is likely to be forthcoming here. (This is not to dismiss the question, only to recognise the PSE is designed to answer more slightly more tractable questions.)

A totally different approach would suggest that you exist as the particular human being you are because at some point in the physical processes of the world, God inserted a unique, individual soul which is (somehow) embodied in you. Those who defend this approach may do so.

Note : Chalmers is plainly a brilliant person but he is a 'player' with a variety of complex and controversial positions to defend. You might not find his polemical stance, which contains many presuppositions, the best place from which to start.

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    Thank you for this answer. But I think it is important to emphasize that Hellie is clearly not asking what caused the human being Hellie to become a philosopher, to be born in the first place, etc. Those questions can in principle be answered based on sociology, psychology, biology, ..., all the way down to physics. He is instead referring to what seems to be a further fact about the world as he finds it, the fact that Hellie's experiences are the ones that are live, not unlike the further fact in Conitzer's analogy that one simulated creature's viewpoint is displayed on a screen.
    – present
    Commented Aug 19, 2018 at 18:17
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    Thanks but I didn't think I was trying to say what caused Hellie to become a philosopher or any of the rest. I was addressing the question, why am I person A rather than person B ? To that question I think I gave a relevant answer. But not for the first time I have evidently missed your point. Perhaps your questions and my answers will converge at some future date ;)-
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Commented Aug 19, 2018 at 18:33
  • Person A rather than the numerically and ontologically distinct person B. Kripkean rigid designation was at the back of my mind. Hope that makes my answer appear just a little less off-beam. Best - Geoff
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Commented Aug 19, 2018 at 18:45
  • Regarding the part of the answer involving souls: Hellie argues that introducing souls in and of itself doesn't do much to address the question. He writes: "But any perspective capable of knocking out the individual subject’s embedded point of view [this is Hellie's way of referring to the fact that a unique person's perspective appears "live"] would knock out consciousness, leaving behind a zombie. Load that zombie up with a soul-pellet; paint that soul-pellet in the most garish array of phenomenal properties your imagination allows: all that gets you is a cheerfully decorated zombie."
    – present
    Commented Aug 19, 2018 at 22:05
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    Thanks but I think you probably realised that the soul passage was tongue in cheek. Best - Geoff
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Commented Aug 20, 2018 at 5:58

Why aren't 'you' someone else - that smuggles in a transcendental self, a 'perspective of the universe', instantiated in a particular case. Now, that transcendental self, IS instantiated in all minds in the universe. In that sense 'you' are all minds, each cases of the universe experiencing itself subjectively.

There is a parallel question about multiverses, if they exist: Why this timeline? But the answer is the same, all timelines exist, all containing subjective experience. It is a neccessity that someone be you, living this exact life.

Edited to add in response to comment: Yes but you can only ask these presupposing transcendental unity, and if you do that, your answer will be in that concept. There is a phrase 'First I am you, then you are me'. Consider thr analogy to https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/One-electron_universe Now, I take no position on the literal truth of this. In Buddhism this is oneness. But they also describe the truth of emptiness, everything contingent and empty of stable identity or essence including you in this time line in this moment - nothing to cling to for your identity. Deeply grasped and used in actual life, both truths can be used towards cutting chains of negative causation, a kind of standing outside either. And towards a deeper method still, 'only just like this', not quibbling or distracted, only present, your whole being and knowing right here, right now, not seeking or resisting change, only being awake to each opportunity to turn towards awakening.

  • Thank you for this answer. (And one might add the third question: why this point in time?) Even if we allow in a transcendental self, it's not clear to me that this fully answers the question. Might we not still ask: why this instantiation of the transcendental self? (See also the Hellie passage about how adding souls doesn't resolve the issue for him, quoted in response to Geoff's answer.)
    – present
    Commented Aug 22, 2018 at 17:47
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    @present My response got too long. When we see given exactly the same causes and conditions you would be the other, we see unity. When we see there ate only causes and conditions we see emptiness. When we apply understanding of emptiness, we are free. When we are free, we can just be this.
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Aug 26, 2018 at 0:26
  • Thank you for this response. So one can adopt the view that we're all part of a single transcendental unity that unites many different perspectives. But even then it seems one can ask the question of why this perspective here and now is "live" (as Hellie puts it) and the others are not. Or am I misunderstanding your answer?
    – present
    Commented Aug 27, 2018 at 12:29
  • @present Yes, misunderstanding. Oneness is just a view. Emptiness, magical thinking, just like this, just perspectives. Your only true question is, ehat next? Begin there, and take up or drop assumptions to suit.
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Aug 27, 2018 at 17:15
  • Could you clarify further? It would appear that my question is just about what's now, not what's next...?
    – present
    Commented Sep 9, 2018 at 13:19

Why am I me?

What an incredibly simple question. Four little words and it sends the mind diving to the depths of philosophy and science.

I don't really have a great answer, but I can tell you that there is a growing movement among naturalists that are recognizing that their worldview requires the answer to the question to be, "You could only be you." That is to say, if everything is based solely on physical matter, then your consciousness is solely a result of your physical make up. This leads to a deterministic dead end and conflicts with our idea of identical twins.

This leaves us with a metaphysical answer to "Why am I me?" and first we have to look at the question, "What is a me?"

Surely there are many influences that lead us to certain actions or thoughts, but none of those influences explain why I can perform actions or thoughts?

So why am I this seemingly unique metaphysical free-will being?

I don't believe there to be any other explanation for such a complicated existence than to say, "I am me, because I was created as me."

  • Sounds like "a brute fact". Commented Oct 24, 2018 at 14:15
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    "This leads to a deterministic dead end and conflicts with our idea of identical twins." This is nonsense. Identical twins have different bodies, with different, independent, brains that will continue growing separately all along their life. There is absolutely no reason, under a naturalistic worldview, that they can't have different consciousness and personalities.
    – armand
    Commented Nov 2, 2020 at 6:08

Based on my clarifying comment to your OP, I'm going to use the following as an alternative formulation of your question:

"Why is my conscious experience associated with my body as opposed to someone else's body?"

My conscious experience is composed of the following aspects: my current sensory experiences, emotions, and thoughts. All of those are dependent on the particular nervous system and body I have.

For example, my sensory experiences depend on my specific body's sensory systems. I can taste a strong unpleasant taste in cucumbers, whereas many people cannot. That's due to a particular gene variant I have that creates a change in my gustatory systems. All the various aspects of my sensory systems, and the world they are embedded in, give rise to my particular sensations.

My emotions are due to my particular brain and its history. Maybe I have one or the other variant of the COMT gene, resulting in either the "warrior" or "worrier" phenotype, for example.

My thoughts are due to my particular memories and brain structure.

Given all this, and barring any supernatural views, could you explain how a person's conscious experience could possibly be associated with other than one particular body, the one which is generating those particular experiences based on its physical structure?

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    This is but one version (with popular criticisms). Even Dennett admits that we cannot easily reject qualia - which are hardly identifiable with physical states - with theoretical support since Sellars' Myth of the Given. Theories of emergence are not a bit more consistent or true than dualisms. Especially regarding the mind there are people like e.g. Daniel J. Siegel who urge for a more scientifically justified view on the mind - which is not the rather ideologic physicalism.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Aug 20, 2018 at 17:15

Individual identity is sometimes discussed under the term self. And ‘self’ does sometimes mean ‘person’. But it also means something different: some sort of immaterial subject of consciousness.

Let us first look up the terrain of personal identity.

It raises a wide range of questions that are at best loosely connected.

Who am I?

Outside of philosophy, ‘personal identity’ usually refers to certain properties to which a person feels a special sense of attachment or ownership.

It may be, for instance, that being a philosopher and loving music belong to my identity. One’s personal identity in this sense is contingent and changeable: different properties could have belonged to to the way one defines oneself as a person, and what properties these are can change over time

Persistence. What does it take for a person to persist from one time to another—to continue existing rather than cease to exist?

Suppose you point to a child in an old class photograph and say, “That’s me.” What makes you that one, rather than one of the others? This is sometimes called the question of personal identity over time. An answer to it is an account of our persistence conditions.

Evidence. How do we find out who is who? What evidence bears on the question of whether the person here now is the one who was here yesterday?

One source of evidence is first-person memory: if you remember doing some particular action, or at least seem to remember, and someone really did do it, this supports the claim that that person is you. Another source is physical continuity: if the person who did it looks just like you, or even better if she is in some sense physically or spatio-temporally continuous with you, that too is reason to think she is you. Which of these sources is more fundamental? (good examples include Shoemaker 1963, 1970 and Penelhum 1967, 1970).

Population. If the persistence question asks which of the characters introduced at the beginning of a story have survived to become those at the end of it, we may also ask how many are on the stage at any one time. You may think the number of people at any given time is simply the number of human organisms there are then . But this is disputed. Some say that cutting the main connections between the cerebral hemispheres results in radical disunity of consciousness, and that because of this, two people share a single organism (see e.g. Nagel 1971;

What am I? What sort of things, metaphysically speaking, are you and I and other human people? What are our fundamental properties, in addition to those that make us people? What, for instance, are we made of? Are we composed entirely of matter, as stones are, or are we partly or wholly immaterial? Here are some of the main proposed answers (Olson 2007):

We are biological organisms. We are material things “constituted by” organisms. We are temporal parts of animals: each of us stands to an organism as the first set stands to a tennis match (Lewis 1976). We are spatial parts of animals: brains, perhaps, or parts of brain. We are part less immaterial substances—souls—or compound things made up of an immaterial soul and a material body (Swinburne 1984: 21). We are collections of mental states or events: “bundles of perceptions”, as Hume said . There is nothing that we are: we don’t really exist at all .

There is no consensus or even a dominant view on this question.

What matters in identity?

What is the practical importance of facts about our persistence?

Why does it matter? What reason have you to care whether you yourself continue to exist, rather than someone else just like you existing in your place?

Imagine that surgeons are going to put your brain into my head and that neither of us has any choice about this. Suppose the resulting person will be in terrible pain after the operation unless one of us pays a large sum in advance. If we were both entirely selfish, which of us would have a reason to pay? Will the resulting person—who will presumably think he is you—be responsible for your actions or for mine? (Or both, or neither?) The answer may seem to turn entirely on whether the resulting person would be you or I. Only I can be responsible for my actions.

Understanding the Persistence Question

The question is roughly what is necessary and sufficient for a past or future being to be someone existing now.

The persistence question asks, in this case, whether you would still exist. And the answer to that question is Yes: if you are a different person, then you still exist, just as you do if you remain the same person. When we speak of remaining the same person or of becoming a different person, we mean remaining or ceasing to be the sort of person one is.

This has to do with one’s individual identity in the sense of the who am I? question. It has nothing to do with persistence through time.

The persistence question is often taken to ask what it takes for the same person to exist at two different times.

Locke, for instance, said that a person is “a thinking intelligent being, that has reason and reflection, and can consider itself as itself, the same thinking thing, in different times and places” (1975: 335). Presumably this implies that something is a person at a given time only if it has those mental properties then. And neurologists say that early-term foetuses and human beings in a persistent vegetative state have no mental properties at all That is, a past or future person is you just in the case that you (who are now a person) can now remember an experience she had then, or she can then remember an experience you are having now. Call this the memory criterion

The memory criterion purports to tell us which past or future person you are, but not which past or future thing. It says what it takes for someone to persist as a person, but not what it takes for someone to persist without qualification. So it implies nothing at all about whether you could come to be a vegetable or a corpse. For the same reason it tells us nothing about whether you were ever an embryo. (Olson 1997: 22–26, Mackie 1999: 224–228).

Accounts of Our Identity Through Time

There are three main sorts of answers to the persistence question in the literature. The most popular are psychological-continuity views, according to which the holding of some psychological relation is necessary or sufficient (or both) for one to persist.

You are that future being that in some sense inherits its mental features—beliefs, memories, preferences, the capacity for rational thought, that sort of thing—from you; and you are that past being whose mental features you have inherited in this way. But most philosophers writing on personal identity since the early 20th century have endorsed some version of this view. The memory criterion mentioned earlier is an example. Advocates of psychological-continuity views include Johnston (1987), Garrett (1998), Hudson (2001), Lewis (1976), Nagel (1986: 40), Noonan (2003), Nozick (1981), Parfit (1971; 1984: 207), Perry (1972), Shoemaker (1970; 1984: 90; 1997; 1999), and Unger (1990: ch. 5; 2000).

A second sort of answer is that our persistence consists in some brute physical relation. You are that past or future being that has your body, or that is the same biological organism as you are, or the like. It has nothing to do with psychological facts. Call these brute-physical views. (Don’t confuse them with the view that physical evidence has some sort of priority over psychological evidence in finding out who is who. That has to do with the evidence question.) Their advocates include Ayers (1990: 278–292), Carter (1989), Mackie (1999), Olson (1997), van Inwagen (1990), and Williams (1956–7, 1970).

One may think the truth lies somewhere between the two: we need both mental and physical continuity to survive, or perhaps either would suffice without the other. This usually counts as a psychological-continuity view as we have defined it.

Here is a test case. Imagine that your brain is transplanted into my head. Two beings result: the person who ends up with your cerebrum and (presumably) most of your mental features, and the empty-headed being left behind, which may be biologically alive but has no mental features. Those who say that you would be the one who gets your brain usually say so because they believe that some relation involving psychology suffices for you to persist. Those who say that you would be the empty-headed vegetable say so because they take your persistence to consist in something entirely non-psychological, as brute-physical views have it.

Both psychological-continuity and brute-physical views agree that there is something that it takes for us to persist—that there are informative, nontrivial necessary and sufficient conditions for a person existing at one time to be a thing existing at another time. Psychological-Continuity Views

Most people—most Western philosophy teachers and students, anyway—feel immediately drawn to psychological-continuity views (Nichols and Bruno 2010 give experimental evidence for this). If your brain were transplanted, and that organ would carry with it your memories and other mental features, the resulting person would be convinced that he or she was you. Why should this conviction be mistaken? This can make it easy to suppose that the person would be you, and that this would be so because he or she is psychologically continuous with you. It is notoriously difficult, however, to get from this thought to an attractive answer to the persistence question.

First, suppose a young student is fined for overdue library books. Later, as a middle-aged lawyer, she remembers paying the fine. Later still, in her dotage, she remembers her law career, but has entirely forgotten not only paying the fine but everything else she did in her youth. According to the memory criterion the young student is the middle-aged lawyer, the lawyer is the elderly woman, but the elderly woman is not the young student. This is an impossible result: if x and y are one and y and z are one, x and z cannot be two. Identity is transitive; memory continuity is not.

Second, it seems to belong to the very idea of remembering that you can remember only your own experiences. To remember paying a fine (or the experience of paying) is to remember yourself paying. That makes it trivial and uninformative to say that you are the person whose experiences you can remember—that is, that memory continuity is sufficient for personal identity. One response to the first problem is to modify the memory criterion by switching from direct to indirect memory connections: the old woman is the young student because she can recall experiences the lawyer had at a time when the lawyer remembered the student’s life. The second problem is traditionally met by replacing memory with a new concept, “retrocognition” or “quasi-memory”, which is just like memory but without the identity requirement: even if it is self-contradictory to say that you remember doing something you didn’t do but someone else did, you could still “quasi-remember” it (Penelhum 1970: 85ff., Shoemaker 1970; for criticism see McDowell 1997).

Neither move gets us far, however, as both the original and the modified memory criteria face a more obvious problem: there are many times in one’s past that one cannot remember or quasi-remember at all, and to which one is not linked even indirectly by an overlapping chain of memories. For instance, there is no time when you could recall anything that happened to you while you dreamlessly slept last night. The memory criterion has the absurd implication that you have never existed at any time when you were unconscious. The person sleeping in your bed last night must have been someone else.

A better solution replaces memory with the more general notion of causal dependence (Shoemaker 1984, 89ff.).

It still leaves important questions unanswered, however. Suppose we could somehow copy all the mental contents of your brain to mine, much as we can copy the contents of one computer drive to another, and that this erased the previous contents of both brains. Whether this would be a case of psychological continuity depends on what sort of causal dependence counts. The resulting being (with my brain and your mental contents) would be mentally as you were before, and not as I was. He would have inherited your mental properties in a way—but a funny way. Is it the right way? Could you literally move from one organism to another via “brain-state transfer”? Psychological-continuity theorists disagree (Shoemaker 1984: 108–111 and 1997, Unger 1990: 67–71; see also van Inwagen 1997).

A more serious worry for psychological-continuity views is that you could be psychologically continuous with two past or future people at once. If your cerebrum—the upper part of the brain largely responsible for mental features—were transplanted, the recipient would be psychologically continuous with you by anyone’s lights (even though there would also be important psychological differences).

But now suppose that both hemispheres are transplanted, each into a different empty head. (We needn’t pretend, as some authors do, that the hemispheres are exactly alike.) The two recipients—call them Lefty and Righty—will each be psychologically continuous with you. The psychological-continuity view as we have stated it implies that any future being who is psychologically continuous with you must be you. It follows that you are Lefty and also that you are Righty. But that cannot be: if you and Lefty are one and you and Righty are one, Lefty and Righty cannot be two. And yet they are. To put the point another way, suppose Lefty is hungry at a time when Righty isn’t. If you are Lefty, you are hungry at that time. If you are Righty, you aren’t. If you are Lefty and Righty, you are both hungry and not hungry at once: a contradiction.

But a healthy, adult human organism seems a paradigm case of a thinking being. This raises three apparent problems. First, if the organism we call your body can think, your not being an organism would imply that you are one of two intelligent beings sitting there and reading this entry. More generally, there would be two thinking beings wherever we thought there was just one. Second, the organism would seem to be psychologically indistinguishable from you. That would make it a person, if being a person amounts to having certain mental or behavioral properties (as on Locke’s definition). In that case it cannot be true that all people (or even all human people) persist by virtue of psychological continuity. Some—the animal people—would have brute-physical persistence conditions.

Third, this makes it hard to see how you could know whether you were a non animal person with psychological persistence conditions or an animal person with brute-physical ones. If you thought you were the non animal, the organism would use the same reasoning to conclude that it was too. For all you could ever know, it seems, you might be the one making this mistake.

In the same way, psychological-continuity views raise the questions, “What am I? Am I non animal that would go with its transplanted brain, or an organism that would stay behind with an empty head?” And here too there seem to be no grounds on which to answer them.

These three objections have been called the “too-many-thinkers” or thinking-animal problem. The only way to avoid them altogether is to say that we are organisms (and that there are no beings who persist by virtue of psychological continuity).

Finally, psychological-continuity theorists can concede that human organisms are psychologically indistinguishable from us, but try to explain how we can still know that we are not those organisms. The best-known proposal of this sort focuses on personhood and first-person reference. It says that not just any being with mental properties of the sort that you and I have—rationality and self-consciousness, for instance—counts as a person. A person must also persist by virtue of psychological continuity. It follows that human animals are not people. Further, personal pronouns such as ‘I’, and the thoughts they express, refer only to people. So when your animal body says or thinks ‘I’, it refers not to itself but to you, the person. The organism’s statement ‘I am a person’ does not express the false belief that it is a person, but the true belief that you are.

Brute-Physical Views None of these objections arise on animalism, the view that we are organisms. This does not imply that all organisms, or even all human organisms, are people: as we saw earlier, human embryos and animals in a persistent vegetative state may not count as people. Being a person may be only a temporary property of you, like being a student Assuming that organisms persist by virtue of some sort of brute-physical continuity, animalism implies a version of the brute-physical view. A few philosophers endorse a brute-physical view without saying that we are animals. They say that we are our bodies (Thomson 1997), or that our identity through time consists in the identity of our bodies (Ayer 1936: 194). This has been called the bodily criterion of personal identity. Its relation to animalism is uncertain.

Most versions of the brute-physical view imply that human people have the same persistence conditions as certain non people, such as dogs. And it implies that our persistence conditions differ from those of immaterial people, if they are possible. It follows that there are no persistence conditions for people as such.

The most common objection to brute-physical views is the repugnance of their implication that you would stay behind if your brain were transplanted (e.g. Unger 2000; for an important related objection see Johnston 2007). In other words, brute-physical views are unattractive in just the way that psychological-continuity views are attractive.

Wider Themes

The debate between psychological-continuity and brute-physical views cannot be settled without considering more general matters outside of personal identity. For instance, psychological-continuity theorists need to explain why human organisms are unable to think as we do. This will require an account of the nature of mental properties. Or if human organisms can think, they must explain how we can know that we are not those organisms. This will turn on how the reference of personal pronouns and proper names works, or on the nature of knowledge.

Some general metaphysical views suggest that there is no unique right answer to the persistence question. The best-known example is the ontology of temporal parts mentioned in section 5. It says that for every period of time when you exist, short or long, there is a temporal part of you that exists only then. This gives us many likely candidates for being you—that is, many different beings now sitting there and thinking your thoughts. Suppose you are a material thing, and that we know what determines your spatial boundaries. That should tell us what counts as your current temporal part or “stage”—the temporal part of you located now and at no other time. That stage is a part of a vast number of temporally extended objects (Hudson 2001: ch. 4).

The temporal-parts ontology implies that each of us shares our current thoughts with countless beings that diverge from one another in the past or future. If this were true, which of these things should we be? Of course, we are the things we refer to when we say ‘I’, or more generally the referents of our personal pronouns and proper names. But these words would be unlikely to succeed in referring to just one sort of thing—to only one of the many candidates on each occasion of utterance. There would probably be some indeterminacy of reference, so that each such utterance referred ambiguously to many different candidates. That would make it indeterminate what things, and even what sort of things, we are. And insofar as the candidates have different histories and different persistence conditions, it would be indeterminate when we came into being and what it takes for us to persist (Sider 2001b).

The above note has been prepared on the basis of referenced discussion but many important features could not be included.readers are requested to go through the following reference.



  • Thank you, but this question isn't really about identity over time...
    – present
    Commented Sep 4, 2018 at 2:35
  • @present-but the major question 'who am !' is related to the identity and those variables are part of the definition of a particular human..."Why is this particular human being's perspective present?"
    – drvrm
    Commented Sep 4, 2018 at 6:07
  • I agree that these things are probably related, but they don't seem to be tackling the question head on.
    – present
    Commented Sep 9, 2018 at 14:29
  • @present- actually your question restricts to a particular time frame- but the answer must have signatures spread across a time span -which helps or otherwise of building a creature named Jack or Alice..and the conscious self raises the issue if a 'question mark' has been created...so the whole build up of personal identity has to be philosophically examined.<see the last quote-The temporal-parts ontology implies that each of us shares our current thoughts with countless beings that diverge from one another in the past or future. If this were true, which of these things should we be?>
    – drvrm
    Commented Sep 9, 2018 at 16:23

This question seem complex at first, however it can be reduced to two simple views. In which category a particular treatment falls can be easily discovered by the question: Does this view meet the criteria of scientific rigor.

Firstly the Materialist/Physicalist view would not admit that you have a vantage to contemplate your subjective self. That you may ask such questions are merely an artifact of the recursive processes that comprises consciousness. You are you, because of the culmination of billions of years of galaxies spinning out stars, condensing planets, evolution and so forth. You are where you are for exactly the reasons that the number ten is the number ten.

The second view rests on the idea that there is in fact an independent or semi-dependent objective observer attached to a subject within the world. The observer, or inner self if you will, thus have the ability to contemplate the subject and why it is attached to it. Unfortunately there is no extant method to detect or study this objective inner self. All explanations presuppose and call on an ontology beyond our material experience, something beyond normal comprehension and as such necessarily beyond our capacity to answer. I.e. "God made you, you should ask Him, why".

  • Thank you for your answer. As for the second view, if we are in fact managing to somehow talk about this independent observer/self, then it seems that we have a way to detect and study it... See also philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/54474/…
    – present
    Commented Sep 8, 2018 at 15:30
  • Indeed, the idea of "self" will not easily be dismissed. Though I fear as far as knowledge of it is concerned, we've gained no more than Socrates.
    – christo183
    Commented Sep 8, 2018 at 17:25

People usually confuse Consciousness (qualitative experience), personal identity, and indexicality (encompassing "why am I me rather than someone else, or no one at all?"). And it is understandable, as these three issues are deeply interrelated. But one should try to discern the nuances between them.

For example, David Chalmers is mainly interested in the first one, namely conscious qualitative experience, although he does address the second and the third here and there sometimes. To try to summarize his views: he thinks that qualitative experience is a further fact, he leans towards (but not confident) a deflationary view of personal identity (no further fact), and I think he is agnostic or slightly leans towards a further fact view about indexicality (although he doesn't think that it would entail a significant change to the materialist worldview to accommodate it, as you mentioned).

It is very hard to answer the question about indexicality. Even if you concede a further fact view about both consciousness and personal identity, and become a substance dualist, it still would not solve the problem. For why are you this soul and not this one? To understand this, imagine God infusing two different souls into two embryos who were conceived at the same time (maybe one in Asia and the other in Africa). When the person born in Asia grows up, she would still be able to wonder why was her soul not the one of the person born in Africa. Why is this soul present and not the other?

Is there an answer to this question? Is it really a further fact? Is it absurd to ask this question? It is very difficult to answer these questions.


I’m not quite sure about the meaning of your question. According to the comments I put the question as follows:

  1. Why is my subjective conscious experience associated with my objective body as opposed to someone else's body or no body at all?

    Stated in that terms the questions asks about the relation between the first person stance, i.e. my subjective conscious experience, and the third person stance, i.e. body and brain.

    The subjective experience of my person is accessible only by myself, the objective aspect is accessible for any third person.

    A possible answer considers the subjective experience, how I experience myself, as the content of my self-model which forms part of my interior word-model. The word-model is a datastructure within my mind integrating many unconsciousness processes on a high level. All conscious information processing operates on this high-level data structure. The content of this datastructure of my mind, namely my memory, has been built up during my life from all perceptions and experiences which entered my body through my sense organs. My world-model is centered around my self-model.

    Part of the datastructure of my self-model is the information about the state of my body, e.g. the feedback I get from my wilful actions. Hence the specific relation of my consciousness refers to my body and not to any other body. In addition, without a body my mind would lack most of the input for further processing.

  2. A second question ask’s why am I just this particular person and not any other person, e.g., my neighbour. What is peculiar about the person that’s me? Here the answer reads: Nothing is peculiar about the person that’s me. But I have direct access only to myself, I experience only myself.

    A vague analogue is the question: What is peculiar about the winning number in a lottery where billions of other combinations are possible? The answer reads: A priori, nothing is peculiar, all combinations have the same probability. But a posteriori, the winning number is distinguished just because it has been selected.

  • Thank you for your answer. Regarding the lottery analogy: in that case, mustn't there be some mechanism according to which the winning number is selected? Even if "everyone gets a number" (say, we're assigning rooms by lottery) it appears there must be such a mechanism... (The Conitzer reference in the question similarly discusses assigning simulated agents' perspectives to different screens that users are watching.)
    – present
    Commented Sep 8, 2018 at 15:22
  • @present The mechanism for selecting a number from lotterie is "by chance". But one cannot translate this part of the analogue to your original question. The relation between my self-model and my body is not "by chance", but a causal relation.
    – Jo Wehler
    Commented Sep 9, 2018 at 16:09

The question is an oversimplification of multiple questions (fallacy of causal reductionism), and several assumptions are taken (fallacy of presumption). I'm not telling you that you are wrong by asking that question: no. In general, science and philosophy grow over fallacies that seem not evident. Take the case of thermodynamics: the three laws of thermodynamics were formulated before scientists noticed a catastrophic flaw: temperature is just a feeling. So, the zeroth law of thermodynamics was added, in order to allow the term temperature to be properly used in science.

  • Reduction fallacy: it is an oversimplification to ask why (why ...). We don't know nature at such profound level to know the reason of such phenomenon. Would our mind be able to recognize the causal noumenon of something so transcendental? The oversimplified answer is "we don't know enough".
  • Presumption fallacy: to be a particular human being implies existence (why am I ...). The question is assuming sufficient knowledge about such ideal existence, but that's not a fact. Cogito ergo sum would answer that. If thinking on ourselves gives us of existence, the question would be equivalent to "why do I think of me the way I do?" or something similar. Any other form leads to questions that are manifestly naive.
  • Presumption fallacy: You assume we know (or at least you know) what consciousness is, but that's not a fact. You are "this particular being" and I'm the same (perhaps exactly the same, perhaps a very different one). What's the difference? That would be determined by consciousness, and we don't know what it is.
  • Reduction fallacy: The subject defines the object. There are no a priori objects in the universe (e.g. the same client is different for each seller, the same photon have different behaviors for different observers). When you ask "why am I this particular object", you are assuming that the boundaries of the object are objective and absolute, but that's not a fact. What you call "this" is different for any other person. The best we can do to objectivize such "this" is creating a linguistic agreement. As soon as you start agreeing such "this", you'll see the question starts to exit the fallacy and takes a different, more coherent and concrete form.

There are other presumption fallacies on the question:

  • The idea of further facts assume that the physical realm lies below all things. That's not a fact. At least, I can have a long argument about that. I know Berkeley and would be on my side. Ergo, Conitzer simulation would be a flawed argument and a partial argument. He seems to imply there are only two software perspective functions in such simulations: the universe, and the perception. But that's wrong: either there are an infinite number, describing the universe from a particular perspective, adequate to each entity type (even for an atom, which requires specific rules to interact with other atoms in the neighborhood), or there is just one, the one that the person who asks experiences.
  • The idea of an alternative "self" that is not me requires a solid background to sustain it. For now, we just conjecture that the others can think in a similar or different way. We have no idea of such "self", highly related to the definition of consciousness. I read somewhere that when a killer causes pain, tortures a person, makes him cry, he does not want to do that. A criminal just needs to experience such perception to empathize with it, but he don't really wants to harm the other person, because he just cannot experience external feelings. In the same way, we cannot live others' experience because such thing doesn't really exist for each one of us.

So, trying to address most fallacies, probably a solid answer comes from this direction:

On my last book I make a similar question: Why do we experience this moment of time and not others? Our subjectivity is so profound that we believe to understand the physical universe, but we're far from it. Existing imply having spacetime limits: space, since we experience a world of things (why am I this...), and time, because we exist, we question, we think only as of now. The rest of time we don't exist.

You are asking why your perspective of reality is such one. If you were a soldier, you would ask "why am I on this part of the battlefield?". You are there because existence implies having limitations and a location (in time and space). If not, we would be gods.

  • Thank you for your answer. There are of course many potential problems with the language in the question (see discussion elsewhere of "I") but I don't agree that there are all the fallacies you suggest. The question does not at all require fully understanding what consciousness is or what exactly the self is or what exactly the boundaries of the corresponding individual are, just the recognition that there is an experience that seems to be in some sense local. Which book are you referring to?
    – present
    Commented Sep 9, 2018 at 14:26

I am going to concentrate on the general aspect of this question - consciousness. I am here and now x because universal events have led to x, a conscious being. If we accept the monist panpsychist view that the fundamental stuff of the universe is matter-consciousness, then the existence of a self-conscious being, x, is allowed. Why x is not slightly different (xd) at any particular time, y, depends on all of the events leading up to y having an effect on x. As for the existence of x, that depends on all of the events leading up to the initiation of x. Could x be y, an existing person. How could x supplant the existence of an existing person, y? This is meaningless. Why does the universe exist? If the universe is conscious, it decided to exist ultimately leading to x. It could, however, have led to xd or x0 (non-existence of x). If the universe is z, was zd possible, or z0? Is the universe necessary?

  • Thank you for your answer. But is this answer assuming that there is only one conscious being at a time? If not, it seems there's still the question of why this particular one.
    – present
    Commented Nov 18, 2023 at 12:58
  • No. The same principles that I have applied to the general case, the universe, apply to the particular. So Alice could have been Aliced or Alice0.
    – Meanach
    Commented Nov 18, 2023 at 13:04
  • But if I'm Alice, could I have been Bob instead (who lives at the same time in the same universe as Alice)?
    – present
    Commented Nov 20, 2023 at 2:20
  • Who would Bob be then? Can someone be someone else?
    – Meanach
    Commented Nov 20, 2023 at 7:44
  • I'm not saying that Alice would have been Bob. I'm saying that I would have been Bob. The question is more analogous to finding myself assigned to be the left midfielder in a soccer team, and wondering, "I wonder how I ended up being the left midfielder instead of the goalkeeper -- had some processes, of which I am not aware, gone differently, would I have been the goalkeeper instead?"
    – present
    Commented Nov 21, 2023 at 13:04

Look,feel,think etc, this is Experience. A part of this Experience is an imagined self including internal narratives about self. It is probably your brain that creates the Experience and the narratives that populate it. That a particular brain does this explains why you are you.


This answer may be very creepy and disturbing. Read at your own risk. I'm not creeped out and disturbed by the time I discovered it. Some kids don't like the way their past went so they pretend it went differently. My brain is so good at doing my own thinking independently of the past and getting my past buried in the sand and having a small feel for some abstract thinking that I feel like my past is not real and is just a book. I have an idea of how to pretend what ever I want to about how my past went. I sometimes had a false memory during dreams that my past went totally differently than it did. One recent wierd case of such a dream was one where I was 70. I'm actually only 33. I had a completely false memory that what was going on now was so long ago that my memories of it were very buried in the sand and that my recent past was completely different than it was. I can imagine how I could hear about somebody else's past and then be like my own past feels like it's not real so what's the difference between my awareness of my own past and my awareness of their past. It would not be that I know them so well that it's like their pat is mine. Rather, it would be like I'm so good at feeling like my own past is not real that there is no difference between my awareness of my own and my awareness of theirs. I could pretend my past went in such a way that I was them at that earlier time.

Then we can focus on the question of present perception. For myself, I feel like the present is the absolute present. We cannot settle the question fully but what I can say is that according to my present perception, only my present is real. I could create an imaginary world where my present is like real life and my past or somebody else's recent past is like a story. The longer ago past is like a story in a story and so on and of course, in the story, it's real life and not a story. Also, in one of the stories which is somebody else's past, there is a story which is a longer ago past of mine and just happens to be the same as the story of my own past in the story of my own past, that is, my longer ago past. According to science, we would say each person at each time is predicted to report that they feel like their own present is the one and only absolute person and time. That's because one brain just sees the state of another brain as an image which can be explained and therefore doesn't get that brain to copy the state of the other brain itself.


Well, lately I've done the same question to myself. And my opinion is that it's a question about probability, because it's not only asking about why you are in this particular body, but also:

What is the probability among so many galaxies, so many solar systems, so many planets, so many planets with no possibility of life, with no possibility of complex and intelligent life, that I live on this planet? What is the probability that among so many abiotic constituents, among so many bacteria, among so many fungi, among so many animals, among so many plants, among so many species, I am a human being? How likely is it that in all seven billion human beings, I am this particular human being?

How likely is it that my particular perspective to be this unique person, this rare species on this rare planet? That would be the complete question. And, unfortunalety, there is no reducionist answer that satisfies completely this question.

Being yourself is as statistically unlikely as reverse entropy.


Well, I totally agree / was going to say what is on the Parfitt quote, again:

We cannot sensibly ask why 9 is 9. Nor should we ask why our world is the one it is: why it is this world. That would be like asking, ‘Why are we who we are?’, or ‘Why is it now the time that it is?’ Those, on reflection, are not good questions.

Yesterday was yesterday, in the same way that tomorrow is tomorrow. Does that surprise you? Yes, the exact causal make up of yesterday could have been different, but it is not surprising that today is today, unless you want to deny that tense exists.

Likewise with persons: if you're not talking about the exact make up of your person (and beware the gambler's fallacy if you are), then you would need to show that there is something extraordinary or metaphysically impossible that "me" or "I" refers to in order to say that, that itself needs an explanation.

After-all, "I" cannot be "you", just as the first of January cannot be the 3rd of January. These things exist, in some sense, and I struggle to understand any claim that you need to explain - in any sense explain - that "I" am always "I" and never "you".

  • "We cannot sensibly ask why 9 is 9. Nor should we ask why our world is the one it is: why it is this world." I don't find the second question nearly as obvious, since it asks about [what seem to be] two different things: a) ourselves and b) the world we find ourselves in. In case these apparently two different things are in fact (according to your philosophy) facets of the same thing, a yin-yang relationship, then it would be helpful to explain why you view things in this way. Commented Apr 16, 2023 at 22:00

Just to address Chalmers's position.

I think what he means is that the question of why you are your only window on the world is trivial once we will have solved the problem of where consciousness comes from.

Let's say we have established the materialist theory that our physical body, mainly the brain, is what creates consciousness is true. Then the question of why each of us can only see through our own eyes is solved: we see through the only pair of eyes that is physically linked to our brains and therefore to our consciousness.

The central difficulty here is to explain how inert matter generates consciousness. That would require a real breakthrough in our understanding of the mind. That's why he says that it "would require far less revision of our materialist worldview" to explain why we see through our eyes.

In the same way, if we managed to discover what is a soul, how it happens to be linked to our material body, get sensory signals from it and control it accordingly, finding why a certain soul is connected to a certain body wouldn't be much of a problem.

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