One for All and All for One

By David Pearce (response to Quora question: “What does David Pearce think of closed, empty, and open individualism?“)

Vedanta teaches that consciousness is singular, all happenings are played out in one universal consciousness and there is no multiplicity of selves.


– Erwin Schrödinger, ‘My View of the World’, 1951

Enlightenment came to me suddenly and unexpectedly one afternoon in March [1939] when I was walking up to the school notice board to see whether my name was on the list for tomorrow’s football game. I was not on the list. And in a blinding flash of inner light I saw the answer to both my problems, the problem of war and the problem of injustice. The answer was amazingly simple. I called it Cosmic Unity. Cosmic Unity said: There is only one of us. We are all the same person. I am you and I am Winston Churchill and Hitler and Gandhi and everybody. There is no problem of injustice because your sufferings are also mine. There will be no problem of war as soon as you understand that in killing me you are only killing yourself.


– Freeman Dyson, ‘Disturbing the Universe’, 1979

Common sense assumes “closed” individualism: we are born, live awhile, and then die. Common sense is wrong about most things, and the assumption of enduring metaphysical egos is true to form. Philosophers sometimes speak of the “indiscernibility of identicals”. If a = b, then everything true of a is true of b. This basic principle of logic is trivially true. Our legal system, economy, politics, academic institutions and personal relationships assume it’s false. Violation of elementary logic is a precondition of everyday social life. It’s hard to imagine any human society that wasn’t founded on such a fiction. The myth of enduring metaphysical egos and “closed” individualism also leads to a justice system based on scapegoating. If we were accurately individuated, then such scapegoating would seem absurd.

Among the world’s major belief-systems, Buddhism comes closest to acknowledging “empty” individualism: enduring egos are a myth (cf. “non-self” or Anatta – Wikipedia). But Buddhism isn’t consistent. All our woes are supposedly the product of bad “karma”, the sum of our actions in this and previous states of existence. Karma as understood by Buddhists isn’t the deterministic cause and effect of classical physics, but rather the contribution of bad intent and bad deeds to bad rebirths.

Among secular philosophers, the best-known defender of (what we would now call) empty individualism minus the metaphysical accretions is often reckoned David Hume. Yet Hume was also a “bundle theorist”, sceptical of the diachronic and the synchronic unity of the self. At any given moment, you aren’t a unified subject (“For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat, cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I can never catch myself at any time without a perception, and can never observe anything but the perception” (‘On Personal Identity’, A Treatise of Human Nature, 1739)). So strictly, Hume wasn’t even an empty individualist. Contrast Kant’s “transcendental unity of apperception”, aka the unity of the self.

An advocate of common-sense closed individualism might object that critics are abusing language. Thus “Winston Churchill”, say, is just the name given to an extended person born in 1874 who died in 1965. But adhering to this usage would mean abandoning the concept of agency. When you raise your hand, a temporally extended entity born decades ago doesn’t raise its collective hand. Raising your hand is a specific, spatio-temporally located event. In order to make sense of agency, only a “thin” sense of personal identity can work.

According to “open” individualism, there exists only one numerically identical subject who is everyone at all times. Open individualism was christened by philosopher Daniel Kolak, author of I Am You (2004). The roots of open individualism are ancient, stretching back at least to the Upanishads. The older name is monopsychism. I am Jesus, Moses and Einstein, but also Hitler, Stalin and Genghis Khan. And I am also all pigs, dinosaurs and ants: subjects of experience date to the late Pre-Cambrian, if not earlier.

My view?
My ethical sympathies lie with open individualism; but as it stands, I don’t see how a monopsychist theory of identity can be true. Open or closed individualism might (tenuously) be defensible if we were electrons (cfOne-electron universe – Wikipedia). However, sentient beings are qualitatively and numerically different. For example, the half-life of a typical protein in the brain is an estimated 12–14 days. Identity over time is a genetically adaptive fiction for the fleetingly unified subjects of experience generated by the CNS of animals evolved under pressure of natural selection (cfWas Parfit correct we’re not the same person that we were when we were born?). Even memory is a mode of present experience. Both open and closed individualism are false.

By contrast, the fleeting synchronic unity of the self is real, scientifically unexplained (cfthe binding problem) and genetically adaptive. How a pack of supposedly decohered membrane-bound neurons achieves a classically impossible feat of virtual world-making leads us into deep philosophical waters. But whatever the explanation, I think empty individualism is true. Thus I share with my namesakes – the authors of The Hedonistic Imperative (1995) – the view that we ought to abolish the biology of suffering in favour of genetically-programmed gradients of superhuman bliss. Yet my namesakes elsewhere in tenselessly existing space-time (or Hilbert space) physically differ from the multiple David Pearces (DPs) responding to your question. Using numerical superscripts, e.g. DP^564356, DP^54346 (etc), might be less inappropriate than using a single name. But even “DP” here is misleading because such usage suggests an enduring carrier of identity. No such enduring carrier exists, merely modestly dynamically stable patterns of fundamental quantum fields. Primitive primate minds were not designed to “carve Nature at the joints”.

However, just because a theory is true doesn’t mean humans ought to believe in it. What matters are its ethical consequences. Will the world be a better or worse place if most of us are closed, empty or open individualists? Psychologically, empty individualism is probably the least emotionally satisfying account of personal identity – convenient when informing an importunate debt-collection company they are confusing you with someone else, but otherwise a recipe for fecklessness, irresponsibility and overly-demanding feats of altruism. Humans would be more civilised if most people believed in open individualism. The factory-farmed pig destined to be turned into a bacon sandwich is really youthe conventional distinction between selfishness and altruism collapses. Selfish behaviour is actually self-harming. Not just moral decency, but decision-theoretic rationality dictates choosing a veggie burger rather than a meat burger. Contrast the metaphysical closed individualism assumed by, say, the Less Wrong Decision Theory FAQ. And indeed, all first-person facts, not least the distress of a horribly abused pig, are equally real. None are ontologically privileged. More speculatively, if non-materialist physicalism is true, then fields of subjectivity are what the mathematical formalism of quantum field theory describes. The intrinsic nature argument proposes that only experience is physically real. On this story, the mathematical machinery of modern physics is transposed to an idealist ontology. This conjecture is hard to swallow; I’m agnostic.

Bern, 20. 5. 2003 Copyright Peter Mosimann: Kuppel

One for all, all for one” – unofficial motto of Switzerland.

Speculative solutions to the Hard Problem of consciousness aside, the egocentric delusion of Darwinian life is too strong for most people to embrace open individualism with conviction. Closed individualism is massively fitness-enhancing (cfAre you the center of the universe?). Moreover, temperamentally happy people tend to have a strong sense of enduring personal identity and agency; depressives have a weaker sense of personhood. Most of the worthwhile things in this world (as well as its biggest horrors) are accomplished by narcissistic closed individualists with towering egos. Consider the transhumanist agenda. Working on a cure for the terrible disorder we know as aging might in theory be undertaken by empty individualists or open individualists; but in practice, the impetus for defeating death and aging comes from strong-minded and “selfish” closed individualists who don’t want their enduring metaphysical egos to perish. Likewise, the well-being of all sentience in our forward light-cone – the primary focus of most DPs – will probably be delivered by closed individualists. Benevolent egomaniacs will most likely save the world.

One for all, all for one”, as Alexandre Dumas put it in The Three Musketeers?
Maybe one day: full-spectrum superintelligence won’t have a false theory of personal identity. “Unus pro omnibus, omnes pro uno” is the unofficial motto of Switzerland. It deserves to be the ethos of the universe.



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  2. edralis · December 28, 2019

    Hi. I’ve been interested in OI and adjacent theories for a long time. In my understanding, the claim of OI (which is the same that as the key insight of e.g. Advaita Vedanta) is not about persons in the sense of human beings. It is not properly about the boundaries of objects in the world (people) – rather, OI is saying that there is only a single awareness, which “experiences” all the POVs of the world that exist.
    If more than one awareness/subjectivity/I/dimension/now-here of experience exist, then either closed or empty individualism, as I understand these positions, is true – there is more than one experience that is “you”, but not all experiences are. On CI, the “I” is only “filled” with certain experiences, whereas others are closed from it – it experiences the world from a particular POV, not all of them.
    Empty individualism (applied to subjects of experience/awareness/atman/now-here), more specifically, would be the claim that there is an infinite (or extremely large) number of awarenesses, one for *every* experience. It would literally mean that “you” (the experiencing subject, the dimension of awareness) will cease existing next moment, and a new I/awareness takes your place. It would mean that the only thing that is live and given to “you” is this particular, infinitesimally short moment.
    It seems to me nobody really believes this or could believe it – I don’t think Parfit believes this, and I don’t think Pearce believes it, either. So it leads me to a suspicion that they, and perhaps Kolak, too, understand something else by Empty Individualism – which means that they must understand something else by Open Individualism too, otherwise they (Pearce, Kolak) wouldn’t be listing them as incompatible hypotheses about how the world really is. Which baffles me immensely.
    OI tends to be presented as a theory about “persons”, relevant to the problem of personal identity. In my view, the key insight of OI, which is that there is only a single subject of experience, is easily consistent with the view that there is more than one person (e.g. closed or empty individualism), depending on what entities we count as “persons”. Which is why I sometimes prefer to talk about “subject solipsism” and “subject pluralism” instead of OI/EI/CI – with the former being simply hypotheses about how many subjects of experience (awarenesses, dimensions of experience) there are, as opposed to how many *persons* there are.
    It seems to me the claim about how many persons, human beings, there are, needs to be properly distinguished from the claim about how many subjects of experience (in the sense of awareness/dimension of experience/now-here etc.) there are. I honestly find it hard to believe that anybody truly holds the empty individualist view as applied to subjects (which I prefer to call “blipism” – because “I” is here only for a single “blip” of existence, of experience) even though I think it is perhaps theoretically conceivable. Literally, it would mean that the next moment from the POV of the human being that you are is not as live, immediately given, *now here* as this moment now, of your reading this word, but as “alien” to “you” as any other experience. It would mean you literally cease existing immediately after you come into being.
    So, it seems to me if somebody honestly claims to be an EI-ist, they do not actually subscribe to the EI as I understand it (i.e. blipism). Rather, I suspect, “I” is, for them, a particular human being – as opposed to my understanding that “I” refers to the dimension of experience itself, not a human being, a body, a mind, etc. I also suspect when asked, they wouldn’t find it conceivable to reincarnate tabula rasa (without any memory or psychological connection to their former selves), and neither would it make sense to them to imagine being born as a different person, or that some other I would be born as them.
    This is a key distinction between people that I noticed – some people (probably the majority) seem to be unable to imagine themselves to have been “somebody else”, whereas others find it intituitively non-problematic. It seems to me unless you *can* conceive of it, you haven’t properly grasped the concept you need to grasp in order to understand the key insight of OI, i.e. you haven’t understood what is this “I” that conceivably could be everybody at all times.
    “as it stands, I don’t see how a monopsychist theory of identity can be true. Open or closed individualism might (tenuously) be defensible if we were electrons (cf. One-electron universe – Wikipedia). However, sentient beings are qualitatively and numerically different. The half-life of a typical protein in the brain is an estimated 12–14 days. Identity over time is a genetically adaptive fiction for the fleetingly unified subjects of experience generated by the CNS of animals evolved under pressure of natural selection (cf. Was Parfit correct we’re not the same person that we were when we were born?). Even memory is a mode of present experience. Both open and closed individualism are false.”
    As I understand it, awareness/I is not something that is made out of atoms. It is not localized in space. It is not extended in time. It is not an object. It is awareness – in all its modalities and qualities. Perhaps there is only one, in which case OI/subject solipsism/Advaita Vedanta have it right, or there are many – many “dimensions of experience”, similarly to how there could many parallel dimension of space / worlds – in which case CI/EI/subject pluralism is correct.
    So to be arguing against OI listing facts about the changeable nature of material clusters is missing the point entirely. The I, the subject is not made out of matter – and indeed, because there are seemingly no fixed metaphysical boundaries in matter, it would seem the I cannot be emergent from matter, because it (I) *does* have clear boundaries. Every experience is either yours, or it is not. It cannot be partially yours (“in” the same awareness). But the boundaries of objects are fuzzy. So if an object (e.g. a brain) is what brings awareness into being and determines its content, then there needs to be non-fuzzy boundaries in matter, but I don’t see how that could be the case.
    I don’t understand how can Pearce arrive at his conclusion that both OI or CI are false – I don’t follow his reasoning. It seems to me either OI or CI could hypothetically be true, even though CI is more parsimonious than OI – EI, on the other hand, seems psychologically impossible to believe in, even though seemingly conceivable.
    Sorry for rambling, I wanted to write a concise, clear, and perfectly summarizing post, but in the end gave up and decided that it’s more important that I at least try and communicate some of my reservations/questions/frustration here.
    To try and summarize a bit:
    1) in my understanding, the key claim of OI is that there is only a single awareness/I/dimension of experience/now-here, which is identical to the key insight of AV (and perhaps also (some) Buddhisms etc., using a different conceptualization);
    2) if we understand EI to be a claim about the number of awarenesses (that there are infinite number of them, one for every infinitesimally small moment), neither Parfit nor Pearce probably believe this view (as opposed to EI being a claim about human beings, somehow). I suspect Parfit and Pearce both would find it inconceivable to have been born as some other person/reincarnated tabula rasa;
    3) I find it unfortunate that OI was formulated as an answer to the problem of personal identity, because for most people, being a “person” is about having certain memories, bodies, psychological attitudes etc., whereas the key claim of OI is about something which is *underneath* these;
    4) I found none of Pearce’s arguments against OI (in the sense of subject solipsism) persuasive. I suspect that he wasn’t really arguing against OI in this sense, but his understanding of this position is different, because his understanding of what his “I” is is different.
    5) We need to make it clear what kinds of entities we are talking about when talking about persons/Is/subjects of experience etc. It seems to me people seem to disagree with each other about what is conceivable and what is probable simply because they aren’t talking about the same entities, and so their claims aren’t actually incompatible. For example, I find Parfit’s views about personal identity perfectly compatible with OI – but Kolak does not. Which implies that I am not properly grasping Kolak’s views, I guess. But I think I grasp *some* view, very adjacent to OI/AV etc., a view that is extremely interesting and, if true, mindblowingly significant.
    The one key question here is “what is ‘I’?”.
    Once again, I apologize for being rambly and unclear. Hopefully at least something gets through.
    Happy New Year!

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