Thursday, August 25, 2016


Discrete Events and Narrative Lives (Part 3)

            Last week I introduced the “skeptical worry.”  The skeptical worry builds on undeniable facts about our personal stories.  First, the narratives we tell often deceive us about the likelihood of discrete events in the future—Allen Average’s chance of getting a hit in his next at-bat is unchanged by the fact that he already has three hits today.  Second, the stories we tell about ourselves, including those we tell to ourselves, are very often factually wrong about our past.  We forget things, we fill in the holes of memory with inventions, and we over or underemphasize things according to our narrative goals.  Third, at best our self-stories are comprised of a tiny fraction of the events that made up our lives to this point.  We remember very little of what we did last week, and the distant past is a fog. 
Therefore, the skeptical worry concludes, we ought to regard our self-stories as fictions.  Our narratives are merely stories, which we make up.
I think it is philosophically and morally important that we not regard our self-stories as fictions.  A person’s self-understanding, her identity, is wrapped up in her self-story.  Our narratives tell us who we are and what we ought to become.  Getting self-story right is crucial to living a good life.  I’m going to argue for my position, but before I do so, I will dredge up yet another undeniable fact that seems to support the skeptical worry, and that fact is this: sometimes our lives change in dramatic ways.
A car accident kills a mother, leaving her husband to care for two children.  The other driver in the accident is convicted of driving under the influence; he is sentenced to prison.  A drug-addict wanders into the gospel mission and gets sober.  A middle-aged man visits a casino for the first time and starts gambling compulsively.  Someone receives an unexpected inheritance.  In such stories, people change; sometimes we say, “She isn’t the same person anymore.”  The dramatic change may be sudden, as in the case of a stroke, or gradual, as in the case of a prisoner who changes from an angry twenty-year-old on the day of sentencing to the restrained and wiser forty-five-year-old who is finally released.
We have story-telling devices for describing such changes.  “That was my life, gradually sinking into despair, until I entered therapy.”  “Everything was fine until the recession hit.  We lost our jobs and in ten months we were homeless.”  These story-telling devices make sense of the before-and-after; they show how someone who “isn’t the same person” in one sense is, in another sense, still the same person.
Philosophers theorize about such things.  They ask: What is it that constitutes a person’s identity over time?  In what sense is the old woman the same person as the little girl of seventy years ago?  Is it because the current 75 year-old body has come into being through countless incremental changes of a 5 year-old body?  Is the rule “same body, same person” (provided the earlier body gradually morphed into the later one)?  Or do we need to have some kind of psychological connectedness to the earlier self?  Is the rule “same mind, same person”?  Or should we say “same soul, same person”?
As you might expect, Philosophy of Mind, the branch of philosophy that explores these questions, is complicated.  Students’ eyes sometimes glaze over when exposed to philosophers’ arguments and counter-arguments.  The questions become abstruse.  We need to remind ourselves the matter is important, and it troubles non-philosophers.  To quote Supertramp:

There are times when all the world’s asleep,
The questions run too deep
For such a simple man.
Won’t you please, please tell me what we’ve learned
I know it sounds absurd
But please tell me who I am.

“… tell me who I am” is the plaintive cry of ordinary persons, not only philosophers.  If I don’t know who I am, how can I act responsibly?  And who am I, if not the subject of my story?
Someone might argue that moral agency and/or responsibility hangs on one’s status as a rational being, not on the accidents of one’s history.  The eighteenth century philosopher Immanuel Kant would be a representative voice of this view.  Our moral duty is to obey the categorical imperative, Kant said.  The details of one’s life—one’s family, culture, century, health, and other such—merely create specific situations.  One’s duty as a rational being is to interpret the categorical imperative for each situation.
I suspect there are other philosophers who would agree with Kant’s conclusion—narrative doesn’t matter morally—without accepting his overall philosophy.  Kant was, after all, the quintessential modern philosopher.  Post-modernists reject his basic assumptions.  I think a post-modern philosopher like Richard Rorty would argue that we should regard our deepest moral intuitions as nothing more than accidents (not the product of “Reason” with a capital R).  And yet, Rorty would say, such judgments are our deepest intuitions, so we may as well go forward with them.  Kant thinks we can know our true duty without history.  Rorty thinks there is no “true” duty, because our stories are fictions; nevertheless, our intuitions about duty are all we’ve got.
I don’t believe in autonomous reason.  (One of the chapters in my dissertation is about Kant and what I call “the myth of autonomous reason.”)  I don’t believe in moral duty without history.  Against Rorty, I don’t believe ironic convictions can carry the freight of real moral living.  They don’t answer the cry: “Please tell me who I am.”  
We need to know who we are.  In spite of the reasons behind the skeptical worry, it won’t suffice to regard our stories as fictions.  Next week I will suggest a way forward.

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