Sunday, May 02, 2010

talking about the future.

suppose someone proposed to you the following arrangement: you trade in your life for a new one. this new life will be measurably better. your life will be arranged in such a way as to score markedly higher by all quality of life indexes. you will, they can guarantee, accurately report higher levels of satisfaction-- less anxiety, more opportunity to engage directly in the projects you find most meaningful, better fit with those you are closest to, etc. you just live a new life, in a new place, with a new social network, and new projects. suppose you knew that your central values, preferences, and strengths could remain the same-- these places and projects and social networks would be better by your own lights-- you wouldn't be a happy executioner or anything like that. suppose also that you wouldn't even have to worry about missing your old life because you wouldn't have to remember it. you could wake up one day living this new life as though you'd been living it forever. you wouldn't miss a beat, or friend.

would you be inclined to take this person up on their offer?

people's answer to questions like this is almost invariably (and surprisingly/unsurprisingly) no. this holds true even when people are quite dissatisfied with their actual lives. we seem to be attached to the lives we live for reasons that aren't reducible to happiness or satisfaction, or even values and projects.

there are a mess of thought experiments in the literature on personal identity that have a remarkably similar ring to them. (personal identity is a branch of metaphysics devoted to questions of what a person is such that it persists through time as a single entity, though it may change drastically in its composition-- part of a larger literature on identity in general, concerned with the question of how anything persists in this way.) only the question here is a theoretical question: not 'would you choose to live this new life?' but 'would this new person still be you in any meaningful sense? in any sense at all? in what sense?' is it memory that unifies us? character? commitment to particular projects and values? the continuity of the body? of the brain? at what point do changes in any of these constitute the end of a person? are you the same person if your memory is wiped clean? if you find jesus? if your brain were transplanted into a new body? half of your brain? are you the same person if you step into a teletransporter and are perfectly reconstituted on a distant planet out of different atoms? what if there's a glitch at point A, and you are reconstituted at point B without ever having been unconstituted? what if there's a lag and you see, in the monitor, yourself at point B and you see, through the window, the teleportation operators working frantically to fix their mistake? you know they will succeed in just a moment and these atoms will be blown apart. do you feel you are about to die, or that you'll lived on? are you bored as though merely stuck in traffic? who is that person in the monitor to you? the questions are so strange, but our answers, if we look at them, can help us to understand who it is we think we are.

people keep asking me about the future. i don't know what to say. am i so excited? no, i can't say that i'm excited. what i mostly feel is a determined resignation-- sadly certain and a little scared. but not because i believe i'll be unhappy or that i've made the wrong choice-- quite the contrary. i think i'll be happy in california. more than happy. if there's something i know about myself it's that i'm good at beginnings, and i'm going to begin work i know i'm good at. but this 'i' i'm looking at in the monitor, with all of my values and strengths, most of my memories, who shares some of my projects and commitments and feelings and is alienated from or uninterested in others, she is primarily this to me: who i'll die for. and that's cool and that's right, because her life will fit to her the way this life here has been fit to me but would cease to be if i couldn't bring myself to do what i have to do, which is die so i can live. it sounds dramatic, i know. but my feelings aren't dramatic. they're barely even feelings. whatever they are, though, i'm determined to do them justice. i don't mind dying-- letting my own accomplished, failed, and deferred projects give way to someone else's-- but i'm not inclined to pretend that i feel something i don't, or that i'm someone i'm not yet. and i don't need anyone to explain to me that things will be awesome, as though my hesitation is a sign that i don't know-- as though i'm not the one willing to die for it. knowing one as fully as i can know it does nothing to undermine the other.

i'm so lucky in my life and place and projects and network, and it's not a question of waking up one day having lost all that, it's true. but there's a real sense in which a chapter has come to a close, and i can't say i didn't cling more than a little before i let go, or that i won't have to fight the urge to cling a little yet. because it's been so fucking good and so fucking bad and all mine. the future, for better and worse, is someone else's. and that's cool, and wonderful, and inevitable, and also sad.


Mary said...

hi laura! I really like how you put this. I have certainly undergone something similar in my pre-grad-school / post-grad-school experience. I didn't think I'd come back to New York after I went to Indiana, and I had to contend, when I knew I did want to come back, with the fact that the life I left was no longer there, and that I would have to create something entirely new for myself. A kind of death—yes—this feels like the perfect word for such an inevitably final departure. I can't wait to hear about your new life, and hope you record the transition. California is such a bundle of ideas, especially LA. I presume you've read Mike Davis's City of Quartz. . . if not, I highly recommend. . .

laura.g said...

i haven't read it, no. it's now officially on my summer reading list though. your recommendations get a special place on my queue, MAS.

Drew said...

Am I the only person that would've answered 'yes' to that proposition? It just seems obvious to me that we should answer 'yes' to that question. A little further afield, though - isn't hanging on to some robust sense of one's 'personhood' or 'identity' what breeds pretension and narrow-mindedness?

I guess I've started thinking about personal identity in a very pragmatic, consequentialist sort of way. It just seems like the people I encounter (in life, in the news, in movies, etc.) who are really tied to some conception or other of themselves are sort of less good people, morally, for that. In that Susan Wolf-moral saint kind of way, i.e., they're not the sort of friend I would like to have. I know this sounds sort of like a cheap shot, but it's just an observation. In fact, for me, thinking about the absurdity of the very question that animates the personal identity debate is often quite humbling. So, from my ethical perch, I think I'd prefer the person who, at one sophomoric Caulfieldian moment in her life (or not), contemplated the personal identity question and side-stepped positing an answer precisely because she thought that was the better cognitive route.