Consider these questions posed by experimental philosopher Joshua Knobe:
At this moment you have a certain kind of body, you have a certain kind of goals, and beliefs, and values, you have certain emotions. In the future there are going to be all these other people that are going to have certain bodies, they’re going to have certain goals, certain beliefs, certain emotions. Some of them are going to be, to varying degrees, similar and, to varying degrees, different from yours; and one of those people is going to be you. So, what makes that person you?
Imagine what things are going to be like in 30 years. In 30 years, there’s going to be a person around who you might normally think of as you — but that person is actually going to be really, really different from you in a lot of ways. Chances are, a lot of the values you have, a lot of the emotions, a lot of the beliefs, a lot of the goals are not going to be shared by that person. So, in some sense you might think that person is you, but is that person really you? That person is like you in certain respects, but … you might think that person is kind of not me anymore.
(Watch the full video here)
I think Joshua Knobe is asking if who you are today — how you feel, what you believe, what you look like, what you want — is different from who you were 30 years ago and who you’re hopefully going to be 30 years from now, are past you and future you you? Is there some essential, constant you that exists in past, present, and future you?
Hmmm… I don’t know.
What’s interesting about the question is that if you asked me “who are you?”, I’d tell you with certainty my name, what I do, where I live, what I like, what I believe, and so on. But, any answer to that question is an answer that can change. Anything that changes is not your True Self, capital T, capital S. I could change my name, so that’s not who I am. I could get conked on the head like Fred Flintstone and completely forget where I’m from, who my parents are, what I believe, what my goals are so those things aren’t who I am. What about my body? Nope. That’s changing as I type. I’m definitely not my emotions. My feelings have changed since I started writing this paragraph. It’s fascinating that we all insist that we know who we essentially are even though one simple question shows how illusory and flimsy that belief is.
This is very disturbing. I’ve made major life decisions and choices based on this flimsy idea of myself. In a way we’re all forced to make up this lie about our identity and believe it.
Maybe this true self doesn’t want to be pinned down, defined, seen, or known. Maybe this self is change itself. Everything and nothing, everywhere and nowhere. How can we function and not really know who we are?
The only upside I can see in not being able to answer definitively the question “who are you?” is that it is then impossible to judge, criticize and condemn something that is unknown. It’s hard to contrast your unknowable, true self with someone else’s unknowable, true self and compare the two. Without knowing who someone really is or who I really am, how do I know whether or not someone is doing the right or wrong thing or I’m doing the right or wrong thing? There’s no truth to compare to. Somewhere in all this murkiness is where compassion is born. Admitting to yourself that you don’t know anything is the beginning of open-mindedness and open-heartedness. Maybe admitting “I don’t know” is when you can finally be taught the truth.
These questions are uncomfortable and the lack of answers are strangely comforting.
So, what am I certain of, if anything?
The only thing my past, present, and future selves can agree on is that we all really love food. That hasn’t changed.
My true self really loves pie*. And always will.
(*Last year, for months, I had apple pie a la mode for dessert every night. Which is why as soon as 2014 started, I stopped eating sugar or anything a la mode. So I’m remembering and saluting pie. Just because present me isn’t eating it doesn’t mean I don’t love it.)