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Why I have no future

Galen Strawson argues that it makes no difference whether he lives or dies

galen200If, in any normal, non-depressed period of life, I ask myself whether I’d rather be alive than dead tomorrow morning, and completely put aside the fact that some people would be unhappy if I were dead, I find I have no preference either way. The fact that I’m trying to finish a book, or about to go on holiday, or happy, or in love, or looking forward to something, makes no difference. More specifically: when I put this question to myself and suppose that my death is going to be a matter of instant annihilation, completely unexperienced, completely unforeseen, it seems plain to me that I—the human being that I am now, GS—would lose nothing. My future life or experience doesn’t belong to me in such a way that it’s something that can be taken away from me. It can’t be thought of as possession in that way. To think that it’s something that can be taken away from me is like thinking that life could be deprived of life, or that something is taken away from an existing piece of string by the fact that it isn’t longer than it is. It’s just a mistake, like thinking that Paris is the capital of Argentina.

I’ll call this view No Ownership of the Future—NOF for short. Most will think it absurd, and I don’t expect to be able to change their minds. A few, though, will know immediately what I mean and think it obvious. It’s worth noting that it can take some effort to imagine one’s imminent death in a vivid way and at the same time imagine that it’s completely unforeseen, so that life is absolutely normal up to the moment of annihilation. (There is no fear, no suffering. Nothing bad is experienced.)

NOF isn’t a position taken up after reflection on Epicurus’ famously unsatisfying argument that death is not an evil. (This, briefly, has two parts: [1] You don’t mind that that you didn’t exist for an eternity before you were born, so you shouldn’t mind if you don’t exist for an eternity after you’re dead, [2] there’s no one there after death to experience harm, so no harm is done to anyone, so death is not a harm.) In the case of people like myself NOF is a natural, untutored, pre-philosophical given. It’s compatible with fear of death, which I feel, and it has nothing to do with Epicurus’ argument, which is meant to be a palliative or cure for fear of death. It isn’t meant to make anyone feel better about death, much as I would like to. It’s just a report of what I find I think—feel.

* * * * *

We all know that human beings last from birth (or before) to death and we all know that we’re human beings. But when one thinks of oneself as a self or inner person, one doesn’t necessarily think of oneself as something that begins at birth (or before) and ends at death. When Henry James writes in a letter about one of his early books

I think of … the masterpiece in question … as the work of quite another person than myself … a rich relation, say, who … suffers me still to claim a shy fourth cousinship

he knows perfectly well that he’s the same human being as the author of that book, the human being HJ that lasts from birth to death, but he doesn’t feel he’s the same person or self.

This feeling is familiar to most of us in one form or another, but we differ greatly in how it affects us. If one is Diachronic, as I will say, one naturally experiences oneself-considered-as-a-self-rather-than-a-whole-human-being (“oneself*” for short) as something that was there in the further past and will be there in the further future. If one is Episodic, by contrast, one doesn’t: in so far as one does consider oneself* as something extended in time, one experiences oneself* as something that was not there in the further past and will not be there in the further future. People differ greatly. A strong Diachronic has a vivid sense that the self (the he*) that he now feels himself to be is there throughout life. A strong Episodic has no significant sense that the self (the she*) that she now feels herself to be exists outside the present moment.

I’ve introduced this distinction because I’m fairly strongly Episodic, and this may be thought to explain why I feel that NOF is true. But I don’t think it does. I think that a Diachronic person has as much reason to think that NOF is true as I do. Suppose someone called Louis L. thinks of himself* Diachronically as something that will be there in the further future so long as LL (the human being that he is) doesn’t die. It doesn’t follow that there’s any sense in which he thinks of his future as something that can be taken away from him*, as something that is already there in a store cupboard, as it were, that can as such be taken from him*. That said, one can drop the asterisks, because exactly the same is true if Louis is thinking of himself as a whole human being rather than as a self.

* * * * *

I take it, then, that NOF is true for all people, not only for Episodics who have little sense that they themselves* will exist in the future. Whether I’m Episodic or Diachronic, my future can’t be correctly thought of as my property in a way that provides for the possibility of its being correct to say that it is something that can be taken away from me. This is not to say that one can’t have strong preferences about how one’s life goes given that one’s going to go on existing. Plainly one can. It’s just to say that one can have these preferences without having any preference for continuing to exist as opposed to ceasing to exist.

Let me put this in a stilted way that may be helpful. Suppose Louis lives for forty years from 1968 until 2008, when he dies accidentally under anaesthetic. Suppose he would otherwise have lived for forty more happy years. Consider [A] the portion of reality that consists of Louis from 1968-2008, and [B] the portion of reality that would have existed from 2008-48 if Louis had not died. According to NOF, [A] contains nothing, no thing, no entity, which can be said to have had anything in [B] taken away from it. This is so although [A] contains Louis ([A] just is Louis).

This is obviously not to say that people can’t feel strongly that their future is theirs in such a way that it does make sense to say that it can be taken from them; many have just such a feeling. It’s just to say that thinking in this way involves a mistake. Many things that seem to presuppose this way of thinking, such as fear of death, don’t do so in fact. I can be viscerally frightened by the prospect of eternal future non-existence without thinking of my future life—life that I will live if I am not painlessly terminated at midnight—as something which is in any sense mine in such a way that it can be taken from me.

* * * * *

Someone who wanted to argue for NOF might appeal to the theory of relativity, the “block-universe” or “four-dimensionalist” (“4D”) view of reality according to which—crudely—time is not really a matter of flow. I don’t want to do this, because NOF doesn’t depend on the 4D view of things either logically or psychologically. Nor is there anything in the ordinary everyday 3D view of things that supports the rejection of NOF. Still, the 4D view seems worth mentioning. The central idea is that time is in fact spacelike in the sense of being spread out and in some sense existent as a whole in the way we intuitively imagine space to be. We’re wrong to think of physical objects, including human beings, as 3D objects situated “in” and moving “through” time. They’re 4D objects with three spatial dimensions and one temporal dimension. As such they are in some sense always already (in Kant’s phrase) all there. This view seems to support NOF, because one (earlier) temporal part of a 4D object plainly can’t be said to own another (later) temporal part in such a way that the latter can be said to be taken away from the former—one might as well think that one section of a piece of a string conceived of in the normal 3D way can be said to own another non-overlapping section—and this is so even when the 4D object in question is a human being, i.e. something that can think explicitly about past and future.

* * * * *

If NOF is true then you can harm people in all sorts of ways but you can’t harm them simply by bringing about their painless and unforeseen death (by “simply” I mean that their death is considered completely independently of any consequences it may have for others). To think otherwise is to make mistake about what people are—about what conscious being in time is. I fear I’m merely repeating myself, but the point has seemed evident to me since I was a young child with no belief in an afterlife who had great trouble sleeping and who thought about death every night (it seemed plain to me then that it did not matter when death occurred, given that it would be for ever).

Perhaps this idea is active—attractively or not—in the common intuition that sudden death (in a shoot out, for example) is an inadequate punishment for someone guilty of great wickedness: “Death is too good for him!” Many people are mystified by the idea that death is the most severe punishment there is.

—Suppose we read of a man who hears of his wife’s death and decides to kill his three children and then himself. He puts the children to bed, fatally drugged, and they go to bed happy, knowing nothing of their mother’s death. Then he kills himself. The grief we feel for the children has a special character, and it is, at least in part, a grief felt for them because of the life they didn’t have. We feel precisely that they’ve been deprived of something— everything— although their death is entirely unfelt and unforeseen by them.

This is true, it causes an ache in the heart. I think though, that the feeling rests on a mistake. Those who are harmed by death are those left behind to mourn. The mistake has its sources, perhaps, in the fact that we take the third-person point of view, not the first-person view from inside the actual life of the child, and are subject to the common (and sometimes benign) Fallacy of Excessive Sympathy. If we consider the children’s point of view, if we consider their actual lives, nothing bad is to be found. In another version of the story the parents act together, for whatever reason, and the children are not saved from any sorrow.

I’m not appealing to Menander’s claim that “those whom the gods love die young” because I take it that this is too young. Nor am I following Solon’s advice to count no person happy until they’re dead, because I think he meant that disaster could always strike one so long as one was alive.

The philosopher Jeff McMahan has disagreed (in correspondence) with my claim that those who are harmed by death are those left behind to mourn. He thinks it implies “a rather impoverished conception of mourning. Mourning typically has two dimensions: grief for the person who has died because of the misfortune he has suffered and distress at the gap that has been torn in one’s own life. By claiming that the first dimension is irrational, you imply that rational mourning is wholly egoistic (except insofar as mourning involves sadness on behalf of other survivors who, like oneself, have lost something important in their lives).” I quote this because I think that many will agree with him, but I remain unmoved.

* * * * *

—Suppose you know you’re going to die in three days time, before you can make peace with someone you love and are estranged from, or before you can meet a child or parent you’ve never known. This can cause the most extreme unhappiness. It’s true that it’s not a case of imminent, painless, unforeseen death, but it seems none the less to show that it’s not actually a mistake to think of the future experiences one is not going to have, but would have had if one had not been going to die in three days time, as a loss to oneself.

I agree about the force of this feeling (it is vividly expressed in Thomas Hardy’s 1912-13 poems, written after his wife died unexpectedly at a time when they were estranged), but I think it’s easy to be misled. It helps to observe that what you feel will be essentially the same if you know that it’s not you who is going to die in three days’ time, but the person you want to meet—before you can reach her. The source of your unhappiness is not the fact that you’re going to be deprived of some temporal part of your life, for you may know, in this variation of the case, that you’re predicted a long life (or even that one consequence of her dying will be that you’ll live longer than you would have otherwise).

Suppose you discover that you would have met her last year if only you’d turned right at the crossroads instead of left; now it’s too late. The basic feeling is the same—the regret is felt for experiences not had—and the fact that the basic feeling is the same shows that the feeling doesn’t depend in any way at all on one’s thinking of one’s own future as a possession in such a way that it makes sense to think that it can be taken away from one, although one may well also think in this way (many do). In the original case of wholly unforeseen and wholly unexperienced death, of course, there is no scope for regret.

When Gareth Evans was dying, he felt intense regret that he wouldn’t live to grow old with his wife Antonia. He spoke of his regret, of how beautiful Antonia would be when she was fifty, and of how he wouldn’t see this. I don’t think this regret involves any sort of metaphysical mistake. My claim is that regret of this kind is regret that one will not have certain experiences, and doesn’t depend in any way on one’s thinking of one’s future as being some sort of possession that can be taken away from one (although one may well also think in this way), still less on one’s being right to think of one’s future in this way. You could feel exactly the same regret if you knew you were going to be completely cut off from the person you love, irrevocably and for the rest of your life, although neither of you were going to die (this is what happened to Héloise and Abelard).

* * * * *

We can suffer in many ways, but none of them, I think, puts NOF in doubt. That apart, I think I agree with Marcus Aurelius, who is almost as repetitious as I am, although he may well have metaphysical motivations that I lack:

Whether you live three thousand years or thirty thousand, remember that the only life you can lose is the one you are living now in the present …. In this sense the longest life and the shortest come to the same thing, for life in the present is the same for all…. One’s loss is limited to that one fleeting instant; one cannot lose either the past or the future, for no one can take from one what one does not have…. So when the longest- and the shortest-lived among us die their loss is precisely equal, because the only life of which one can be deprived is life in the present, since this is all one has. (Meditations II.14.)

Everything seems to cohere, more or less, but a large problem remains: when I was severely depressed I wanted not to continue to live. This seems inconsistent with NOF, because any reason one has for thinking that one’s future is not something that can be taken away from one should be equally a reason for thinking that one’s future is not something of which one can be relieved—something that one can be spared.

Perhaps I’m simply inconsistent. Perhaps I’m not emotionally or affectively neutral, when it comes to the consideration of my future, in the way that rationality at least would seem to require. Or perhaps I’m generally rational and consistent in my natural commitment to NOF, but become irrational when depressed. It’s striking that vivid thoughts about extreme future suffering that occur outside depression don’t produce the wish not to continue to live—not even when they are thoughts about the extreme suffering of depression. It seems that the effect occurs only when things are seen from inside the perspective of severe depression.

Would I perhaps feel the same if I suffered chronic extreme pain but was not depressed? Perhaps—but this prompts the realization that what I wanted when I was depressed was simply for the present to stop at any cost, with no thought for the future. This seems accurate, and the same might apply in the case of chronic extreme pain.

When I was severely depressed my Episodic nature seemed untouched. It seemed as clear as ever that I* would not be there in the future. But this didn’t help, because, again, it was the present moment that had to be escaped from at all costs. Was my Episodicity also sometimes weakened, at least so far as the experience of depression was concerned, so that when I was faced with the prospect of continuing experience of depression I did somehow feel that I* would be there in the future? This doesn’t seem right, and yet it seems accurate to say that I sometimes felt as I would have felt if I did think that I* would be there in the future although I still didn’t think that I* would be there in the future.

I don’t know what rôle my intense childhood preoccupation with death has played in my holding NOF. I’ve only ever explained it to five people, of whom four thought it obviously false (two were philosophers of physics committed to the block-universe view). The fifth knew immediately what I meant and thought it obvious. She had at a young age been made vividly aware of the fact that she might not lead a long life, on account of an illness.

In Larry Niven’s science-fiction novel Ringworld there is a race of creatures called the Puppeteers who can die as a result of accident but are otherwise naturally immortal. They are fabulously cautious creatures and have developed impenetrable hulls for spaceships. The question arises whether I would feel the same if I were a Puppeteer. I like to think so.

Galen Strawson is professor of philosophy at the University of Reading and the author of Selves (Oxford University Press)


13 comments for “Why I have no future”

  1. What does GS mean by truth here? The article finishes with discussions that discuss the truth of NOF, but I know what ownership means (roughly) in contemporary legal system, but I can’t say that I understand the word being used in this context.

    A story was related to me of a quite accomplished Tibetan-Buddhist practitioner who accidentally drove of a cliff. His automatic response was to pray to his teacher, a great (living) meditation master, asking him ‘What has happened?’ ‘You are dead!’ ‘Oh!’ and he got on with (post-mortem) meditation practice. (We know of the story through the living meditation master, of course).

    From a Buddhist perspective, after someone has painlessly brought your life to a close, there is no guarantee at all that you will end up regaining a cushy number where you can study philosophy and gain the insights necessary for a more transcendental and enlightened existence. We only need to look around us to see a great deal of suffering–human and otherwise.

    If you are still having difficulty with this point, what is the difference between painlessly terminating someone’s life and pushing them into a fire? The person burning in the fire is not the same as the one that was pushed, right?

    The here is that–in this view the painless killing of somebody is very far from an ethically neutral act, though maybe not for physicalists (but then I have yet to see much in the way of sensible ethics explained from a physicalist perspective).

    Why do modern philosophers just assume a physicalist metaphysics and press on into some very strange ethical territory? Contemplations on death and how identity changes over time are part of the contemplative stock and trade of every religious tradition, yet embedded in rational systems of thought that accord with reality– be it ethical, psychological or even physical reality.

    Contemporary physics itself is known to have some stubbornly idealistic elements–Einstein was famously unhappy with them–yet as Feynman said, as unpalatable as they may be to physicists, that is the reality we have.

    And it is no longer necessary to rely on esoteric reports from foreign cultures to cast doubts on our 19th century physical reality, unless you are really determined to ignore the work the late Ian Stephenson and his colleagues at Virginia, which does indeed seem to be the case.

    Posted by Chris Dornan | October 12, 2009, 9:14 am
  2. What do I possess of my past? My memories; of varying accuracy and evident incompleteness. These are a valuable possession. I will sacrifice much not to lose them.

    What do I possess of my future? Expectations and aspirations, no more. These, too, are valuable possessions that I will sacrifice to keep.

    I accept that my memories, expectations and aspirations might come to seem valueless were I extremely depressed, or inordinately exalted. But in my rational mind, I place considerable value on avoiding either of those states.

    Whatever the state of my mind (short of delusion)I have no ownership of events and situations that I cannot remember, nor of those that have not yet occurred. In that sense, No Ownership of What I Cannot Know (NOWICK) applies. NOF is a subset.

    It was perhaps emotionally easier for me to accapt this conclusion because (as I remember it) I took in the inevitability of death at the age of eight. But that has no bearing on the reality of the conclusion.

    However, apart from my expectations and aspirations for the future, I also have duties to it. I will treat a current skin infection to prevent it being troublesome in the future. I have written my Last Will and Testament. Etc. In part, my future owns me, though I cannot own it.

    Posted by David Heigham | October 13, 2009, 6:14 pm
  3. [...] Galen Strawson on "No Ownership of the Future," courtesy of The [...]

    Posted by Etl World News | Assorted links | October 13, 2009, 9:03 pm
  4. [...] write about this now because I have just read Galen Strawson, who writes on something similar in The Philosophy Magazine. I also wonder about the wider implications: for example, is working in [...]

    Posted by When does dying matter? | October 13, 2009, 9:38 pm
  5. [...] | Posted by Chill on 14 Oct 2009 at 02:54 am | Speaking of philosophy, this was pretty interesting. [...]

    Posted by Michael Alan Miller » NOF | October 14, 2009, 6:54 am
  6. [...] TPM: The Philosophers’ Magazine | Why I have no future [...]

    Posted by links for 2009-10-17 « Rumblegumption | October 18, 2009, 12:45 am
  7. [...] en kommentar » Professor Galen Strawson presenterar en syn på liv och död som jag finner [...]

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  9. [...] a taste of some real philosophy, take a look at Galen Strawson’s piece, Why I Have No Future. The earlier piece where he draws the distinction between being episodic or diachronic will be [...]

    Posted by Having a Future « Bandits No More | August 26, 2010, 3:38 pm
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  11. [...] philosopher Galen Strawson has a new piece in The Philosopher’s Magazine on a subject near to my heart: If, in any normal, non-depressed period of life, I ask myself [...]

    Posted by Alive or dead? No real preference… | Stuart Austin | August 27, 2010, 1:42 pm
  12. Short form: Louis dies at 50 instead of 80. There is no longer a “Louis”, therefore one can’t say that Louis lost anything.

    Posted by Laserlight | August 27, 2010, 2:46 pm
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