You Am Us

We all, as individuals and members of societies, dedicate a lot of effort to finding ways to cope with the idea of death.

Most believers in traditional Western religions imagine resurrection in an afterlife, where they will be forever reunited with loved ones. Most believers in traditional Eastern religions and spiritual traditions think that, while an otherworldly realm beyond physical reality may eventually be attained, most people go through a long string of lives here on Earth (reincarnation).

Eastern reincarnation seems less appealing than Western resurrection, because the memory of past lives is lost. Also, we don't like the idea of coming back to Earth without our loved ones. But mental discipline can perhaps bring back at least some memories of past lives, and perhaps kindred souls "travel together" through time in groups, and find each other - unknowingly - life after life.

I think future science will permit achieving resurrection and/or reincarnation as engineering projects. Our descendants will move out there, join the community of Gods in the universe, and contribute to the development of unimaginably powerful "time magic" technologies. They will find ways to reach back in their past - our present - make ultra-high resolution scans and snapshots of our minds, and copy us to their present - our future - with our past memories (that would be similar to the Western concept of resurrection) or without (Eastern reincarnation).

Please don't ask me how - I don't know, and nobody knows. I guess time-magic is probably beyond us like Einstein is beyond a mouse, and developing it will take thousands of years of research and development for our post-human, super-human descendants.

But what if we don't really need any of that?

What if reincarnation is trivially true in some psychologically acceptable sense?

Eastern philosophies insist that "all is one" - the boundaries between different parts of the world that we perceive, including the all-important boundary between "self" and "other," are permeable and ultimately an illusion conjured-up by our special ways to interpret the world. Also Western mystics throughout the ages have had the powerful intuition that everything in the universe is deeply connected to everything else to the point that, in a fundamental sense, everything is one. It's undeniable that the concept of "self" has important evolutionary advantages - if your ancestor didn't perceive a very clear and very important distinction between himself and a predator, he wouldn't have run fast enough to escape the predator and reproduce. But perhaps, behind the veil of perception and interpretation, consciousness is one: your ancestor and the predator were really one, from a fundamental perspective.

That is the theory of Daniel Kolak. In his book "I Am You: The Metaphysical Foundations for Global Ethics" [Kolak 2004] he proposes the metaphysics (and practical philosophy) of Open Individualism: every consciousness is fundamentally the same, and we are all the same person. He writes:

"The central thesis of I Am You - that we are all the same person - is apt to strike many readers as obviously false or even absurd. How could you be me and Hitler and Gandhi and Jesus and Buddha and Greta Garbo and everybody else in the past, present and future? In this book I explain how this is possible. Moreover, I show that this is the best explanation of who we are for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that it provides the metaphysical foundations for global ethics."

To help the reader imagine a world identical to ours where every consciousness is the same, Kolak describes a model universe where every person is represented by a tower composed of stacked boxes. Boxes are ordered in time, and contain snapshots of instantaneous mental states, with perceptions, thoughts, memories, and expectations for the future. A single consciousness roams the stacks, focusing on one box at a time. When focused on a box, consciousness experiences all (and only) its contents, and the resulting subjective experience is identical to being a particular person (tower) at a particular time (box).

Kolak's model universe is immediately understandable to anyone familiar with how computers work - a single program (think for example of Word) can work with different documents (think of different Word documents open on your desktop), apparently in parallel, but really one at the time. According to Kolak, you should think of yourself not as one of the documents, but as the program that is handling them all. When a document is closed, the consciousness program continues to work on other documents.

After showing us that his model universe is plausible and consistent (and subjectively indistinguishable from the actual reality that we perceive), Kolak dedicated the rest of the book to persuading us that the one-consciousness model, Open Individualism, is a better way of looking at the world, with fascinating arguments ranging from philosophy to fundamental physics.

I like Open Individualism because it explores and formalizes intuitions that I often had. Consciousness shouldn't be thought of as a property of thinkers, but as a property of thinking. My favorite metaphor, essentially similar to Kolak's, is a large room with many windows. Consciousness is the observer in the room, and experiences different individual reality streams looking from different windows. For example, one window could look at children on a playground, and another at a parking lot. Those would be two very different perception streams, but the consciousness experiencing them is one. You are the observer - consciousness - and the views from different windows are different lives.

What happens when the blinds of a window go down? You continue to observe reality from the other windows. What happens when a person dies? Consciousness continues to observe reality from other eyes. What happens after you die? You continue to live, as another person - actually, you continue to live as every other person. You continue to live a myriad of parallel lives, forever and ever. Your lives are not conscious of each other, but are yours in a fundamental sense.

There is a Facebook group for discussing Open Individualism. Once, a member of the group died. The other members discussed the best ways to honor him, and the consensus was that everyone should try to live a good and happy life. If you are satisfied and happy, then he is satisfied and happy, because he continues to live as you. And me. And everyone else.

I don't think Open Individualism can be "demonstrated," because accepting its premises is a largely matter of personal choice (more about that to follow). At the same time, modern physics gives a certain plausibility, sort of, to the idea that consciousness is One. For example, the correlations between two entangled particles with a space-like separation (each is out of the light cone of the other), which cannot be explained by speed-of-light signaling between two separate parts of the physical universe, tell us that the two particles are really one in some sense that our everyday intuition is not equipped to visualize.

As long as the two entangled particles are not observed, they are in a weird global quantum state (for example a superposition of entangled spin-up and spin-down states of each particle, A-up and B-down plus A-down and B-up, impossible to visualize). According to the popular Copenhagen interpretation of quantum physics, the weird quantum state "collapses" as soon as it is observed. So the first observation (for example of particle A) defines the result of a future observation of the other particle. But if the separation between A and B is space-like, according to Einstein there is another, equally valid frame of reference, where the observation of B comes first. So we cannot say which observer, A or B, collapses the system. This seems to say that, in some sense, also the two observers are really one.

There is a simple way to formulate this concept that does not involve weird physics. The observation that “I am,” the bare feeling of existence, may be the same for everyone. I first encountered this intriguing thought in Rudy Rucker's "Infinity and the Mind" [Rucker 1982].

Back to personal choice, the question isn't who you will be after death, but who you want to be. If you identify with your current body, memories and thoughts (a single box in Kolak's model universe), then Open Individualism doesn't offer a new life waiting for you after death. But if you choose to identify as a man living in the early 21st century who loves children and little dogs and science fiction and metaphysics, or just a crew member of Spaceship Earth en-route toward unknown cosmic futures, then there will be a wide range of towers and boxes for you. Isn't it obviously, trivially true that you will live again?

I tend to find Open Individualism persuasive. Following Kolak I am persuaded that, even if no higher power is going to resurrect or reincarnate me, other instances of me will live again, who won't remember having been me. But perhaps they will be Open Individualists, find me in some old Facebook archeology records of the 21st century, and accept me as one of their past selves.

Of course, I would prefer being resurrected with all my thoughts, feelings and memories, together with my loved ones. As I say above, I am persuaded that future science and technology will permit resurrecting the dead. I am hopeful, I really am, but resurrection science can only be developed in the far future, by our post-human mind children who will colonize the universe.

Back to Earth, here and now, Open Individualism as a practical philosophy can make an important positive difference in our lives. If you think that other people are you, you will not harm them, because you would be harming yourself. On the contrary, you will be kind and compassionate to them - to all other instances of you. I can see that suspending disbelief in Open Individualism has a positive impact on my attitude - and, what's really important, behavior - toward others. Open Individualists cherish the future, because that's the place where they will continue to live after death, and strive to create a better world for everyone, and then onward to the stars.


[Kolak 2004] - Kolak, Daniel. I Am You: The Metaphysical Foundations for Global Ethics, Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Synthese Library, Springer.

[Rucker 1982] Rucker, Rudy. Infinity and the Mind: The Science and Philosophy of the Infinite, Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

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