Is There Only One Mind in the Universe?

Pierz Newton-John
7 min readMay 16, 2024

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Image: Midjourney

When René Descartes, in an attempt to establish a solid foundation for knowledge, meditated on what it is possible to doubt, he famously concluded cogito, ergo sum: “I think therefore I am”. As he wrote in a marginal note, “we cannot doubt of our existence while doubting.” Yet arguably he does not go quite far enough. The Buddha reached a different conclusion in his meditations: the self, as an entity separate from thought itself, does not exist. Perhaps what Descartes should have concluded — rather more awkwardly — was “I think therefore my thoughts exist”.

The existence of a subject to whom experiences happen, and who is the agent of cognition, seems to be self-evident. When I plan for my future, whether for a minute or a decade hence, I think about this future as something that will happen to me, not merely to an experiencing subject who happens to share my body and my memories. If I expect something unpleasant to occur in my future, I fear. If I anticipate pleasures, I experience excitement. Similarly, guilt and pride only make sense if I am the same person who carried out my past actions.

The self is closely bound up with this idea of the continuity of consciousness in time. Even though we often imagine time as a sequence of nows like frames of a movie, it does not really make sense to treat each “now” as if it were severed from its adjacent moments. In reality, we experience time as a flow, and our experiential “now” is a kind of moving temporal smear, not a sequence of cleanly divisible nanosecond slices.

Think about the experience of music, in which emotion is bound up with sound structures that are distributed over seconds and minutes. Pitch, rhythm and melody are intrinsically temporal in nature, and our emotional response is to the music’s whole gestalt or form in time. One cannot freeze an instant of subjective experience like a photograph and retain its essential character.

The idea of the self as a subject underlying moment-to-moment experience but distinct from it stems from this temporal dimension of consciousness. We recognise that our consciousness is extended in time and therefore conclude that there is some stable entity underlying the flux of experience to whom these experiences “happen”.

However when we try to find a basis for this self — to locate it in something like our brain, our memories, or our personality — we start to run into philosophical problems. The following thought experiment, which I refer to as the Cryonic Paradox, illustrates the difficulties.

Imagine a future in which one those cryonic services which freeze people’s bodies for later resuscitation — let’s call it Cryonics Incorporated — has actually come good on its promises and has started reviving some of its long dead clients. Imagine one of its customers — let’s call her Alice — has had her body frozen for a century and is now brought back to life. The question is this: has Alice’s “self” been re-constituted along with her body, or is the reborn Alice actually a new self with Alice’s memories, kind of like a twin?

This may seem like a silly question. “Of course it’s the same self!” you might want to say. “It’s the same brain, so it’s just like she’s been to sleep for a while.” This seems pretty clear-cut. But let’s imagine that Cryonics Inc., in order to save costs, did not actually preserve Alice’s brain, but instead copied the arrangement of all of its neurones into a computer and then rebuilt her brain in such a way that the new brain was functionally identical to the old one. Will the new Alice still be same self?

If you think that this will now be a different self, more like a twin of Alice, and that Alice has not actually been reborn, then consider a scenario in which the company only rebuilds part of her brain from the computer. Perhaps it copies her neuronal structure into the computer but only rebuilds those parts of brain that have deteriorated while in cold storage. At what percentage of original versus new brain cells do we get a new self?

It seems unavoidable that Alice’s “self” has to be dependent on the arrangement of the matter in her brain, not the actual matter itself. After all, our brain cells regularly replace themselves, and we still feel ourselves to be the same person.

If the distinction between Alice’s original self and a copy thereof seems purely semantic, consider the scenario from a different perspective. Imagine it is you being frozen. Imagine your brain is copied into a computer and then reconstructed from these digital blueprints. Now, in order to drive the point home, imagine that Cryonics Inc. is taken over by evil scientists in the future who perform horrible experiments on the resuscitated subjects. Would you feel fear? Or would you merely feel sad for the poor unfortunate copy of you who will have to undergo this ordeal? Would you see the person brought back this way as a continuation of your subjectivity, or as an instance of a different subject altogether, albeit one with your memories?

If we accept that the identity of a subject or a self only depends on a configuration or arrangement of matter, then it seems unavoidable to conclude that fear rather than than sadness would be the appropriate response! You will undergo the evil experiments, not some twin-like “other”.

However, this conclusion leads us to further unwelcome conundrums. Imagine that the evil scientists at Cryonics Incorporated decide that, in the interests of excluding extraneous random variables, their experiments should always be done on identical copies of the same person. Instead of bringing back a single you, they now make a hundred copies of you to experiment on. Among these copies there is clearly no single person that is more the authentic “you” than any other. Your consciousness now seems to be continuing down a hundred different paths…

We’re now only one short step from the mind-bending conclusion of all this. Let us now imagine that the scientists decide that their experiments would benefit from some controlled variability between experimental subjects. They start to introduce variations in the copies by adding or subtracting memories, or dialling up or down certain personality attributes. Some of these variants have very different personalities from the original you. Some have very different memories of their life. At what point do these modified copies cease to be continuations of your consciousness and become “other” selves?

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that there is no true, ontological distinction between “self” and “other”. Minds are separated from one another not by some invisible marker of intrinsic identity — a “self” — but purely by distinctions between their conscious contents.

Obviously, in the everyday world there is a difference between “me” and “you” in that you and I have physically separate bodies and brains. There is no continuum in consciousness between us, whereas there is a continuum between our current selves and our past selves. This separation between our bodies is easily conflated with the separation between our minds.

In the space of consciousness, however, what separates us is not the physical grey stuff inside our skulls, but the different arrangement of the material on which our consciousness depends. We do not have technologies that allow us to copy brains, or arrange parts of my brain to align with yours so that I can experience your memories, for example. If we did, this distinction would become meaningful in a way that it isn’t in our current world, living with our consciousnesses forever locked inside physically separated brain boxes.

Ultimately what these philosophical exercises reveal is that there is, in a sense, only one mind in the universe, experienced in many configurations which seem like separate selves only because they have no way of “remembering” one another.

Quantum physics pioneer Erwin Schrödinger shared this view of the mind. He wrote in My View of the World:

What is this Self of yours? What was the necessary condition for making the thing conceived this time into you, just you and not someone else? What clearly intelligible scientific meaning can this ‘someone else’ really have? If she who is now your mother had cohabited with someone else and had a son by him, and your father had done likewise, would you have come to be? Or were you living in them, and in your father’s father… thousands of years ago? And even if this is so, why are you not your brother, why is your brother not you, why are you not one of your distant cousins? What justifies you in obstinately discovering this difference — the difference between you and someone else — when objectively what is there is the same?

Inconceivable as it seems to ordinary reason, you — and all other conscious beings as such — are all in all. Hence this life of yours which you are living is not merely a piece of the entire existence, but is in a certain sense the whole.

It is clear from the above quotation that Schrödinger arrived at this understanding from rational, philosophical considerations, just as I have. The implications, however, resonate with the teachings of many spiritual traditions. Was there ever a better justification for the Golden Rule than the understanding that the other is not in fact “other” at all, that what one does to another, one also experiences being done to oneself, in another “cell” of the One Mind? Was there ever a more compelling argument for tolerance than the understanding that those who think differently from us are in fact none other than ourselves, informed by different circumstances and clothed in different bodies?

Finally I think this understanding shifts our relationship with death. In this view, death is a relative matter. It represents the end of a certain chain of conscious contents, but it does not represent the death of the self, since this self did not exist in the first place. The fear of annihilation is unjustified. All the minds that wake up into their lives across all universes are none other than your mind, which, for better or worse, can never escape its own existence, in all its infinite, flowering guises.

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Pierz Newton-John

Writer, coder, former psychotherapist, founding member of The School Of Life Melbourne. Essayist for Dumbo Feather magazine, author of Fault Lines (fiction).