The Depressingly Short Life Expectancy Of The Self
(Originally Posted on 11/2/2018)
You have probably heard of the following story:
A lumberjack is hacking away at a tree when he eventually decides that he’s tired of getting splinters from the handle which is not the same smooth shiny handle it once was. So he decides to go and replace the handle, because the blade is still sharp and strong and there’s no point buying a completely new axe. Years later The blade is now rusty and blunt, but the handle has remained remarkably comfortable, so the lumberjack, again thinking there’s no point buying a completely new axe, goes and buys a new blade to replace the old one with. He goes back to work hacking away at trees with the newfound efficiency of a sharp blade and thinks ‘Despite the fact that this axe has had some ups and downs, I’m amazed it’s lasted so long’.
But has the axe really lasted that long? The axe he started with, in the context of being the union of a handle and a blade, is no more, because both the handle and the blade have been replaced, meaning not a single atom of the original axe remains in the one he is currently using. Yet the lumberjack never really replaced the axe directly with another one.
You could argue that you could pinpoint the time that the axe was properly replaced by saying ‘At point A, the axe had a certain number of components, and at point B (when the blade was replaced), each of those components was now gone, and at that point the axe was no longer the same axe’. But what about a more complicated object like, for example, a ship? Ships have thousands of pieces, and due to the roughness of operating on the seas, every piece may need to be replaced at some point. If a ship lasts years with its pieces being randomly replaced, and has all of its pieces replaced several times over, how many times has the ship in its entirety been replaced? How many lives has it had? Did any of the crew notice? Would it be the same ship if there was a single splinter of wood on it that never got replaced?
What about a slightly more complex object: a human. With what we currently know about human cell regeneration and even molecules within cells being swapped out, your body might be 7–10 years old. I’m hoping that either makes you skeptically suspicious about where those numbers come from, or existentially anxious. If you’re not convinced that the axe is the same after having each of its parts swapped out, then as far as you’re concerned, the kid you were in kindergarten is now well and truly dead, and the worst part is that they didn’t even know it was happening.
If you’re looking forward to getting a fake tan and playing a lot of tennis as a shrivelly old retiree in your 70’s, you can forget about it, because you won’t even be there for it. There’ll be a person there, who has the same name as you, and roughly the same appearance minus some wrinkles, and probably a roughly similar set of personality traits, but you won’t be there, because you won’t be anywhere. The constituent atoms that constitute you will have dispersed and will be in a bunch of random places, just as conscious as dirt is conscious (I have a theory that dirt is slightly conscious but that’s for another blog post).
What if you read the story about the axe and thought ‘who cares if the constituent elements have all been replaced? The axe is greater than the sum of its parts, and even if all parts get swapped out, the axe is still there’. Well, by that argument if you were to clone the axe on an atom-by-atom basis, then use a teleporter (not much of a stretch if atom-by-atom cloning devices exist) to swap the position of the two axes in a single moment, which axe would be the original? The one that rests in the same physical location as the original axe, or the one in the new location? The one in the new location has all the same atoms as the original, but if we don’t care about constituent atoms, then we would say that the one in the original location is the original axe. But what’s so special about location?
While I’m on the topic I’m copyrighting the idea of a star trek show where a crewman is shown irrefutable proof that using a teleporter has effectively destroyed his former self, and the show basically ends up being about his existential struggles, imposter syndrome, and affected sex life with his significant other who shares the belief that the lumberjack’s axe really is not the same axe as before when it’s had its parts all swapped.
Okay so we have established that not only have we been alive for a shorter period of time than we thought, inheriting the memories of our younger selves as if they were our own, we will also die far sooner than expected and we won’t even know when it happens because by the time it does, somebody else will be there calling themselves <your name> and in their first breath they’ll be thinking ‘yup, I’m still alive’. (I am aware the concept of a first breath is ridiculous in this model but that I still find that funny)
I suppose you could step this up to a whole other level by going full buddhist mode and claiming there was no axe to begin with. Looking at a group of related objects (i.e. a handle and a blade that are coincidentally stuck together) and designating that group of objects as being ‘an axe’ is a completely human thing to do, and though it has great utility (i.e. usefulness) for humans to give names to things and think about things in terms persisting entities, it doesn’t have any truth beyond the utility.
Perhaps the same is true of the ‘self’. Buddhists claim that if you really introspect and you really think about your moment to moment experience and what’s actually happening inside your head, you’ll realise there is no self; no persisting entity worth giving a name like <your name> to.
But fuck that! I’m fine with the concept that I will die a silent death only to be replaced by a complete imposter who will not even realise the imposter-ness of his existence as he inherits all my memories and relationships, but the concept that I don’t even have a self to begin with? No way am I going to let that enter my worldview.
I’m being facetious but I actually did spend some time trying to live under the concept that there is no self, and I can’t really ever say conclusively that it’s a fruitless and pointless endeavour because that’s like saying maths is useless based on the fact I failed a maths test, but I’m confident that different personality types at least require different assumptions about the nature of being, and my personality (oriented towards goal attainment and aptly named self-actualisation) basically screams ‘I’ll have all the ‘concept of self’ you got!’
Anyway when in doubt about the nature of reality and being, the next best thing is to just think about what’s the best psychologically. Given that humans are endowed with a natural fear of death, obviously framing the gradual replacement of our atoms over time as a clear-cut ‘death’ is going to trigger the neural circuits in our brains that make us feel fear and dread, so the fact we feel fear and dread is more of a reflection of how our brains are structured rather than an accurate emotional response to the concept of impermanence of self.
So what is the best perspective if you want to be a generally happy person? In the same way that I think our brain’s aren’t equipped to consider us as continually dying deaths all the time, I don’t think we’re equipped to truly walk around thinking the self is an illusion. And even if we could, it would only serve to debilitate us. I think walking around each day really believing there is no self is about as useful as being a lumberjack who goes to work each day thinking there is no axe, and that they’re really just cutting down trees with a coincidentally conjoined handle and blade. Every time they finish their work break they go ‘where did I place my handle and blade? I suspect the two, wherever they are, are conjoined because that has been 99% the case throughout my time having them in my possession’.
Yes, inventing and assigning extra meaning to the combination of the handle and blade means that if somebody dismantles it as a prank, the lumberjack is going to be emotionally distraught because this thing he’s assigned meaning to has now been destroyed, even though it never really existed in the first place and its constituent parts are all still there, but that’s a small price to pay for the functional utility of conceptualising the handle and blade as a single persisting entity.
The same is true of the self. The reason people have emotional breakdowns over out-of-character things they did while intoxicated like random violence is because their self-concept has been thrown into question and all these assumptions they made about what constitutes them are shown far less reliable than they thought.
And though that may be a steeper price to pay for living day to day as if the ‘self’ is a real thing, it’s far outweighed by the benefits. Believing in a self enables goal setting, because you identify with a future-you who you are willing to make sacrifices for. Setting and attaining goals, as far as I’m concerned, is the single greatest factor determining whether a person is happy. If you really act as if the self is an illusion, and deny the continuity of yourself across time, you free yourself of things like guilt of past actions, and desire of future pleasures, but those emotions are there because humans are biologically engineered to improve themselves across time.
From what I’ve seen if you truly want to live out the fact that the self is an illusion, you basically have two choices: become a monk, or start smoking bulk marijuana. I’m sure there are plenty of happy monks, but I can’t think of many people smoking bulk marijuana who regularly invoke buddhist concepts of the illusion of self who are actually that happy, and I have a bad feeling that a lot of people living that lifestyle are moreso doing it out of fear than out of a pursuit of truth. But it could also just be a personality thing and maybe that is the ideal lifestyle for certain personality types and there’s no self-delusion involved (and not just because there’s no ‘self’ to delude in the first place).
Regardless of whether there is a self, or if it’s swapped out every 7–10 years, all you need to worry about is how to live your life in the way that best aligns with who you are. For me that means living as if there is a self even if, when questioned on it, I’d respond saying it’s all an illusion. For others, maybe the self-is-an-illusion lifestyle aligns better. But don’t let objective truth get in the way of a life well lived, because for all we know, even that is an illusion.