I was treated to this on my Facebook timeline from Brainpickings. It’s an OK read, but a cracking video in which Josh Knobe discusses some ideas about the Self in his work on experimental philosophy. Knobe poses some thought experiments which are designed to get us thinking about whether the Self that we become in the future can really be described as the same person as the Self now. Imagine a time when 30 years from now there are people doing their day-to-day things and one of them might be a person who you could describe as being you. But, that version of you may well have entirely different beliefs, ambitions and goals to those you possess currently. Is it really the same person as you are now? He goes further, and refers to some work which reveals that if we are given a strong sense of future self, we may even become competitive with that Self. If you begin saving money now, you won’t feel the benefit – it will be a future Self that does.
Watching this coincided with some existential angst I’ve been having following my cardiac arrest in February. So it goes. You may have had the pleasure of watching the rather superb French television series The Returned. I had begun to see myself as a character in that show – brought back from the dead, to the joy of some but to the disgust or fear of others. Somehow I felt slightly out of place, a re-animated version of Me that I couldn’t quite recognise. This was confounded by the effects on my short-term memory and my speech – something no-one else noticed but that made me feel like Frankenstein’s creature trying so desperately to learn how to articulate.
But more recently I have begun to wonder if this is an opportunity. Imagine you are given a blank sheet and given the chance to design a new Self for you to be. What would it be like? Which bits of your former or current Self would you choose to keep? Which new bits would you like to try out? If you could design a Self, how similar to or different from your existing Self would it be?
When the Eighth Doctor is given the choice of what kind of man to become, in the context of the Time War, he chooses “warrior”. But he also realises that this will mean he can’t be called the Doctor anymore. His future selves choose to bury this version away deep in his subconscious, as he chooses to be the Doctor again.
We don’t really need dramatic events such as Time Wars or dicky tickers to be given this opportunity, of course. Each day is a rebirth with the endless potential for change and renewal. We may be able to reinvent ourselves each morning: “Today I choose to be …”
Or is this an illusion? Perhaps Vonnegut’s Tralfamadorians are right:
If I hadn’t spent so much time studying Earthlings,” said the Tralfamadorian, “I wouldn’t have any idea what was meant by ‘free will.’ I’ve visited thirty-one inhabited planets in the universe, and I have studied reports on one hundred more. Only on Earth is there any talk of free will.” (Slaughterhouse Five)
Is it possible to re-carve the Self, or are we destined to inhabit a Self beyond our own control? “That’s the problem with regeneration. You never know what you’re going to get” (The Fifth Doctor). In either case, what am I going to be now? A zombie or a phoenix? Am I going to try and carry on being the former Me, but not quite getting it right? Or am I going to rise above all that and soar above the flames of my old Self? And what would that even look like?
And if I find this difficult – facing a choice about who I might want to be – how do children feel? What concept of Self do they have? How do they perceive their future Self? Perhaps they don’t, and perhaps this is why teaching them is so difficult. For younger children this might not be an issue. I doubt they let concepts of Self worry them too much.
I asked my daughter yesterday: “What’s it like being four?”
She thought about this for a short while and replied, “Hurting yourself”. I think she means from falling over, or jumping into things. But it sounded deeply profound to me. Perhaps she was demonstrating a fundamental awareness that what we do as a child has huge implications for the Self we become as adults.
But I suspect this becomes a problem for teenagers. We constantly expect them to develop a sense of future Self, and to invest time and effort into making life comfortable for that future Self. But the current Self doesn’t get the reward. Perhaps we need to shift attention way from knowing stuff to pass exams in order to get a good job. These ideas are future-locked and for many young people the future is as alien as the surface of Venus.
Perhaps we need to encourage a love of knowledge that will serve the present Self. Knowledge in and of itself is rewarding, and yet we so rarely say this in schools.