Why am I me?

As a teenager I remember asking myself this question and freaking out over it: why am I me?

It wasn’t just ‘why do I have this body and this set of circumstances’ – I could imagine being transplanted to a different body, family, home, set of friendships, native language, and still being me.

It wasn’t even ‘why do I have this personality’ – I could imagine having a different personality, with different intelligence levels, vices and tastes, and still being me.

I could imagine what it would be like to be me in someone else’s body and life: I could imagine seeing a different face in the mirror, living in Barcelona, going to work as a PR manager. I could imagine somehow inhabiting the other person’s mind, and being able to examine their mental habits, thought patterns and memories flashing up and recognise them as theirs, not mine. I would still be me, but I would be experiencing someone else’s life as me; I wouldn’t be experiencing their life as them. That’s rather harder to imagine.

If the transplant of me-ness to another body, life, personality, set of experiences and perceptions is possible, then me-ness is something over and above these things: it’s that those experiences belong to me (whatever that means), or to the part of me that says ‘I’, or that being the things we are is about having this particular subjective viewpoint. Why do I have (or why am I?) this viewpoint and not someone else’s counterpart, I wondered.

There is a cheat answer to why I am me, which is that there is no answer.

‘Why am I me’ is the same question as ‘why is Russell Brand Russell Brand’. But the entity known as Russell Brand couldn’t ever have been anything other than Russell Brand. A poached egg could have been a fried egg, but had Russell Brand been someone else, he wouldn’t have been Russell Brand – he would have been, say, Britney Spears. (And I’m not talking about the possibility that that entity could have simply been named something else. In that sense, of course Russell Brand could have been (named) Thomas Brand or whatever). Equally there’s no point asking why a spade is a spade, because a spade couldn’t have been a fork, a spade could only have been a spade. So asking why it is a spade is sort of nonsensical. ‘Why’ questions are for things that could have been otherwise: why is it raining, or why did I get a B on my test, or why is my egg poached.

But the cheat answer isn’t very satisfying. My instinct is that there is a substantial question to be drawn out somewhere.

Mark Johnston writes about similar flights of the imagination in his book Surviving Death. He (more or less) thinks they are not just flights of the imagination but possible scenarios: this is because the self – something like what I’ve called the subjective viewpoint – and the person aren’t the same thing and don’t necessarily coincide (although they might in most normal cases), so self-I won’t always be person-I, but could be person-Beyoncé: my viewpoint inhabiting Beyoncé’s mind and body, if you like. If this is a real problem, then we still have our questions to answer:

Why is my subjective viewpoint centered here and not somewhere else? Or, why is it this set of concerns, desires and circumstances, and this body, that the subjective I (whatever is left over after the other things are taken out) is bound to look after: that strike me as the most important thing in the world and that I have nearest knowledge of? Or, why is the world the-world-as-experienced-by-me and not the-world-as-experienced-by-someone-else? What is it that makes me (the subjective viewpoint) associated with me (the person)? If I (the subjective viewpoint) became Beyoncé, what grounds would I have for saying that I was the same I as before; isn’t the subjective viewpoint we’re talking about now Beyoncé’s, rather than mine (i.e. belonging to the previous person it was associated with)?

Are these real questions that someone can elucidate, or is this just word trickery? Answers on a postcard please.

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