(6) 22 May 2013 – Projects and Bucket Lists
1. Right chest wall.
2. Left chest wall.
3. Upper abdomen.
4. Colon (outer surface).
5. Mesentery (tissue that anchors the intestines to the abdominal wall).
6. Right buttock (previously diagnosed).
Good news: nothing in liver, lungs, or brain—locations which, if melanoma settles in them, indicate a shorter life expectancy. And nothing bigger than 1.5 cm in diameter. Even so, I’m in a Stage IV sub-category with a one-year survival rate of roughly 54%.
Luckily for me, survival, as it is usually thought of, is an illusion. Believe it or not, knowing this makes a huge difference to the quality of my life right now. I don’t worry at all about the unlikelihood of checking off all the experiences on my bucket list. I don’t feel as though the melanoma threatens to rob me of my future. None of us have a future, in that sense. The idea of the ongoing self, which makes those imagined losses seem so real, and so profoundly regrettable, is a metaphysical fiction. Like God, it has no place in a scientific worldview.
The only way we survive is in the effects of our actions—and effects do not stop at the boundaries of the organism in which the actions originate. The wheels we set in motion keep turning, bursting through our skins and rolling on long beyond our biological lifetimes.
A case in point. A few days ago I met a family—mother, father and three boys. How and why I met them is not essential to the story. You should know that they are good people—a happy, loving family—the sort of people you would think of as making the world a better place, if you were to meet them.
The mother of the family was born out of wedlock, over forty years ago. When the pregnancy become known, her mother came under family pressure to abort. But she wasn’t sure this was the right solution, and consulted her favourite aunt. During a long walk on the beach, aunt and niece examined the available options. The aunt, who happened to be a social worker, knew that if the baby were placed for adoption, it would have an excellent chance of being brought up in a loving household and getting a good start in life. The niece decided to call off the abortion.
The aunt in this story died eight years ago. When I met the family, I was confronted by the living outcome of the talk she had with her niece in 1968. Rarely have I had the opportunity to see, so clearly, such profound consequences of a decision made decades ago. A mother of three, happy to be alive. Her husband who, when the story was told, said how grateful he felt to his wife’s mother and her aunt for having made the choice they did. The three boys, who would not exist if that talk between aunt and niece had not taken place. There will be many more consequences in years to come.
Don’t misunderstand me. I am not arguing for or against any principle or policy about abortion. The fact that this case concerns an avoided abortion is dramatic, but incidental. I could have come up with, or dreamed up, another case of an action with far-flung consequences, one that had nothing to do with abortion. I chose this example because it struck me so forcibly when I heard the story—from the people it most directly concerned—and because it is fresh in my mind.
My point is about the long reach of a person’s life.
The aunt in these events was someone I knew well. She was a compassionate, understanding person, who was reluctant to pass judgement on others. She was good at seeing situations from another person’s point of view; she could easily imagine herself in someone else’s shoes. She was also a practical person. Her advice to her niece was grounded in years of experience working with families. She had overseen many adoptions, and knew how they went from all points of view: the child’s, the natural mother’s, and the adoptive parents’. She had seen the good and the bad. If you talked to her openly about a personal problem, you would discover that she could gently probe your heart, and reflect its contents back to you.
After giving birth, the niece wrote a letter to the baby—a letter conveying love, and perhaps wishes that things could have worked out differently in some respects—a letter containing an address that enabled a reunion, many years later, that allowed me, after more years passed, to hear the story and write this post. All these events remind me of the character, and the will, of the aunt. They are expressive of her attitude towards life, her way of interacting with the world, and with people she knew. Also with people she didn’t know. She was not someone who would walk past a shabbily-dressed stranger lying unconscious on a sidewalk. She would stop and try to help.
All of which goes to show why I don’t have a bucket list. I have projects instead. The difference between the two is subtle, and illuminating. Central to the notion of a bucket list is that the items on it be crossed off by the person whose list it is. Stand-ins don’t count. If a bungee jump from the Brooklyn Bridge is on your bucket list, it’s no good if I sub for you, because—so this idea goes—it wouldn’t be your experience.
To have a project, on the other hand, is to focus on a goal. What matters is that the goal be achieved, not who achieves it. A central goal of the Phantom Self project is to persuade people that their ideas of bucket lists (ideas to which everyone is occasionally susceptible, certainly including myself) are completely bogus.
That bucket lists are bogus is a hard idea to get across, and I don’t expect anyone to understand it on the basis of what I can write in one post. If you came across this cold, and want to know more, I’ll refer you back to my post on The Illusion of Survival, and other posts that preceded it.
Projects and goals make sense; bucket lists don’t. The compelling force of the bucket list idea—that some wonderful experience could be mine, unless I die before I have it, in which case, regrettably, I miss out—depends entirely on the idea that there is a special relation between me, now, and myself in the future that gives me a reason to anticipate my future experiences with either eagerness or dread. This special relation is thought to be one that does not hold between me and other people. But there is no such special relation. That idea is bankrupt. No scientific evidence can be found indicating that such a relation exists. We have the basis of an explanation of why we are so strongly inclined to believe in the reality of this relation. That belief helped our Paleolithic ancestors survive and thrive, and thus was favoured by natural selection. Whether it remains adaptive in today’s world is an open question; I have my doubts. In any case, the belief is false. You have a number of important relationships to your future self, but they are the same kinds of relationships you have to other people. Your present actions can profoundly impact your future life—and the lives of others. You have a moral responsibility to look out for your own future well-being, because your future self depends on you. If you have young children, they also depend on you; and so does the trusting stranger who crosses the road in front of your car. You have a duty to be careful, to minimize the damage of your trajectory through life, and try to leave the world a better place than you found it.
These subjects are more or less covered in earlier Phantom Self posts. I want to add something more, about death and life.
I’ve argued that biological death is not as terrible as we imagine it to be, because, in an important sense, we don’t really survive from day to day anyway. I realize this line of thought could be construed as taking the position that death is unimportant. I don’t think that at all. Biological death is a profound loss. I do not regard the death threat posed by my melanoma with indifference. I take it very seriously, and fight it as best I can. As long as I remain alive and strong, there are things I can do that would not get done if I were dead. One thing I am doing is working on a book, on the same subject as this blog. (Writing the book is the main reason I haven’t posted so often in the past six months.) I feel that the subject deserves a book treatment, because to understand what the Phantom Self is about requires looking at the subject, in detail, through the lenses of several academic disciplines, drawing from research in biology, psychology, ethology, neuroscience, and philosophy. Most people don’t read blogs that way. Blog posts should be short and self-contained; Phantom Self posts are neither. Also, even if someone were to read my whole blog in order (a few people have done so) they will get it in the order I wrote it, which more or less reflects my process of discovery, but is not the ideal order for exposition. A book allows me to reshape the material, edit out some of the mistakes, bolster the arguments with new material where needed, with—hopefully—a result that illuminates its subject better.
I’m now about 80 pages into the first draft, working on chapter 4. The book outline has 20 chapters. I don’t know if I’ll live to finish it. If I don’t, is it possible someone else will? That depends on a lot of things—how far I get with it, whether anyone else would have the desire and time to take up the torch, how well I’ve managed to get these ideas across so far. Most likely, it wouldn’t be the same book. (Heh, heh! Sorry, couldn’t resist an inside joke.) What I care about is that a book is written—that these ideas come out. That’s if they’re sound ideas, of course. I can’t rule out the possibility that I could be utterly wrong, in which case, the book would become a less important, although still possibly instructive, exercise in explaining a theory which turned out to be false. The history of thought is full of such exercises. But since, like anyone else, I can’t help following my lights, I’m likely to keep operating under the assumption that the theory is substantially correct.
Whether I finish this book or not, it won’t be the last word on the subject. I encourage readers to contribute. Just wade in to the discussion.
What matters is not just book projects and the like. If I die, I will no longer be able to kiss Claudia’s neck in a distinctive way that is familiar to us both. She will be left with memories of being kissed—which is not the same thing at all.
Biological death matters. But what matters more is life. I think we can now see the outlines of a concept of a life—the life of an individual person—which is not so narrowly confined to the spatio-temporal boundaries of its host organism as has been traditionally supposed. I make this statement, as I trust you understand, within a framework of scientific physicalism. I’m certainly not talking about religious ideas of an afterlife, all of which depend hopelessly on the now-busted concept of self. I’m talking about chains of cause and effect, the wheels we set in motion with our actions, that roll on and on.
Derek Parfit frequently invoked the relations of continuity and connectedness that unite the life of a person. Ray Kurzweil describes a life as a ‘profound pattern.’ This sort of talk is imprecise, in that it is not very useful for delineating the boundaries between lives—for deciding whether we have one person or two in doubtful cases, or at what point one person’s life leaves off and another begins. Society needs precise delineators of personhood for many legal and practical purposes. At our current state of technological development, each individual person still depends for his existence on one and only one biological organism, a fact which makes persons relatively easy to individuate (although there are still some difficult cases: conjoined twins, multiple personalities, split brain cases, severe psychological disruptions brought about by rapid-onset dementia or religious conversion, and others). We don’t yet have the complications of human replication, mind-transfer, and uploading to robotic bodies to deal with. Advances along those lines will further challenge the traditional concept of a person, which is already leaking at the seams. But I have no doubt that we will rise to this challenge, partly by means of conceptual reform and partly by regulation, so as to preserve a robust concept of personhood that will answer legal and moral needs. That is not what I am talking about now.
I am talking about our emotional investment in our lives. Once we are rid of the illusion of survival, the boundaries between persons appear much less important. The continuity and connectedness that make a person recognizable from day to day and year to year are ordinary causal relations. If I have a thought, I may remember it. If I tell someone else my thought, she may remember it. If I solve a problem by behaving badly, I am more likely to do it again; repeated often enough, it becomes ingrained in my character. To behave badly is also to set a bad example to others, and as we all know, people learn by example. I influence my own future self in the same ways I influence other people. I do things, build things, coin a phrase, write a post, kiss my wife, console her, be there for my kids when they need me, try to reduce my carbon footprint, help a Green candidate for public office. Such ordinary causal influences are what matter in life. They are all that matter. To call the sum total of my causal influences “my life” does not seem like too much of a stretch. I care about my life, in this sense. My life, in this sense, does not end with my biological death.