The Uniqueness Paradox

The Uniqueness Paradox says that you are unique, just like everyone else!

The statement is paradoxical because it looks self-undermining: Being unique means not being like everybody else. And so, if you are not like everyone else, then how can this be just like everyone else? Yet we readily think that it may be true that every person is unique in some way or other. But how could it be true?

So the challenge of this paradox is to account for how it is possible that everyone could be unique. An absence of an account would indicate that it is impossible for everyone to be unique.

To resolve this paradox, let’s be painstakingly clear about what the property of uniqueness, or being unique, picks out. So if I say that a Picasso painting, for example, is unique, I mean that there is nothing else like it. Yet how do I mean that nothing else is like it? That there are no other paintings? That there are no other painting by Picasso? Certainly not. I probably mean something like that there are no other paintings that depict the very thing that this painting does and that was created by Picasso. This painting is unique for being the only one of that type.

Likewise for people. We can easily think that there is something about each person that singles them out as being the person they are to the exclusion of every other person. Perhaps some people have the same exact hair color, for example; but do they all have the same amount of hair? The same length of hair? The same quickness in doing basic arithmetic? Even if someone were alike with another person in many qualities, it is difficult to believe that they would be alike in every category. Once the difference in a category is known, then it is also known that they are a unique person. So uniqueness is at the very least having at least one sort of property that is different from those of other things. I say “at the very least”, because we might wish to add something like being of the same category or type of thing (e.g. paintings, when discussing which paintings are unique). After all, if there is one thing here and another thing over there, then they will already be unique in a most basic sense for not sharing the property of their own self-identity (i.e. if one thing is named A and the other B, then A has the property being A and B has the property being B.). (Besides, this, from the spatial indicators “here” and “there” they will have different spatial properties.)

Regardless of that, once we are clear that the property of uniqueness is having a property that differs from those of other things, the final step is to simply realize that having this property in no way contradicts there being the same properties or properties in common among such things, and crucially for us this includes the very property of uniqueness.

So for example, again, two people can have the same color hair, and yet have a different amount or length of hair. If they have amounts or lengths that are also different from those of everyone else, then they are unique people. And yet, all of the other properties that these two have can be exactly the same. They might have all the same measurements besides amount and length of hair. And so, it matters not one bit that they also share the property of being unique, since they already differ in that property that makes them unique. Moreover, the reason why they share the property of being unique is for having a property that is different from those of everyone else. So if we were to explain why they have the same property of being unique, it is for the particular property that is different; appealing merely to this property of uniqueness alone would not explain why they have it.

“You are so unique, as is everyone” works as a joke regardless, since it evokes that the person uttering these words has in mind exactly what it is about you that makes you unique, and then completely negates this by thinking aloud that, after all, everyone else has those very features that were just considered to make you unique! But don’t worry—you are guaranteed to be unique in regard to the hair on your skull!

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