A nine-year-old boy stands on a railway platform – one hand in his mother’s, one hand in his father’s. “So Nemo, have you made up your mind? Do you want to come with me, or do you want to stay with your father?” asks his mother. He looks from his father to his mother. To his father. To his mother.
Mr. Nobody (2009) is the best film I’ve seen. And I don’t say this lightly. The movie deals with dozens of psychological and philosophical issues. It interweaves questions around freedom, death, love, time, incest, string theory, and memory to such a degree that the film becomes a love letter to the universe, and a tribute to the capacity of the human imagination.
Above all, Mr. Nobody is a film about the impossibility of choice. How does Nemo choose which parent to spend his life with? How do we, any of us, make the impossibly difficult decisions we inevitably face? How do we decide which partner to marry? Whether to have children? Which career path to pursue? Whether to emigrate?
Thankfully philosophers, and Mr. Nobody, have much to say about these problems. By the end of this (spoiler free) blog post, you may have a fresh perspective on how to make big choices. [Apologies. I sound like (but really am not) a self-help coach – *vomits in mouth*.]
Two weeks ago I proposed to my partner. I’ve made many quips in the past about Mrs. Werbeloff, both because Mrs. Werbeloff isn’t female, and because we’re not married. Little did I know at the time how prescient this reference was. For quite some time before proposing, I grappled with the decision about whether or not to get married. Because in addition to all the relational difficulties associated with getting married (and the legal and social quagmire of gay marriage), there was one massive philosophical problem that plagued me for months:
It’s impossible to get married.
Uhuh. Yup. I hear you. Of course it’s possible to get married. The question isn’t whether you can get married. It’s whether you should?
But here’s where things get interesting. Consider for a moment what’s involved in getting married. Sure, legal contracts are signed. And (hopefully) lots of smiles and congratulations get passed around (or mazeltovs, in the case of my family). But above all, marriage is a promise. It’s a commitment that you will stay with your spouse for the rest of your lives.
Nemo, the nine-year-old boy on the train platform, must make a similar commitment. Does he leave with his mother on the train, or stay with his father? He knows that this choice will alter not just his relationship with his parents, but the sort of life he’ll lead from then on. If he leaves with his mother, he’ll grow up in the city, meet entirely different people, and fall in love with a girl he would never meet if he continued to live with his father. Standing on that platform, which parent does he choose? Which life does he choose?
The movie splits.
We follow the life of Nemo as if he’d left with his mother. And, switching back and forth with gorgeous scene transitions, we follow, in parallel, Nemo’s life as if he’d stayed with his father. And at every point that Nemo faces a critical decision in either of these branches, his life splits again. And then yet again. Until we follow Nemo through a plethora of unique lives.
The concept is mind-tingling. The film’s execution is breathtaking. And the message is clever.
To make an impossibly uncertain decision, Nemo must first imagine, decades ahead, the possible outcomes of his choices. He must, in other words, gather more information in a situation where there is no information available. To do this, he can only construct parallel narratives, or stories, about how his life might turn out.
So far so good. The film suggests we carefully attempt to predict the outcomes of our possible choices before we make them. But there’s a more fundamental problem – a problem that won’t go away even in the presence of complete information about what will happen if we choose a certain path. The issue is this:
When you make a long-term commitment, you choose a life on behalf of a future self who isn’t you.
What the fuck does that mean? you ask. A future what?
Consider who you were five years ago. Ten years ago. Fifteen? How much of yourself today do you have in common with that fifteen-years-younger self? Probably not all that much. First off, you share almost none of your physical matter with that younger self. Over time, all of our body’s cells are replaced. In addition, that younger self was psychologically very different. Fifteen years ago, I was a painfully awkward seventeen-year-old who wasn’t capable of much rationality at all. In hindsight, that seventeen-year-old Jason knew a lot less than he thought he did. In fact, seventeen-year-old me and today’s me are so different, I don’t think we’re the same person.
Imagine your fifteen-year-younger self making decisions on your behalf today. Imagine asking that upstart what career decisions you should make, or which partner you should marry. Hell, imagine asking them to choose what you should drink tonight. They’d probably make very different choices to the decisions you’d make today.
But when you get married today, you’re making a promise not only that you’ll stay with your partner while you’re still this self. You’re also promising that your future selves, which will become more and more dissimilar to your current self over time, will love and cherish this partner’s future selves (which will also become more and more dissimilar to the partner you marry today).
It’s a mess. In fact, it’s the kind of mess that’s so messy, we might think it’s impossible.
Suppose you’re walking through a shopping mall with a friend. You point to a random stranger, and say to your friend, “I promise that he will buy you an ice cream.” Your friend would probably look at you with equal parts concern and confusion. “But you can’t make that promise for him. You don’t even know him?”
And that’s the problem. Seventeen-year-old Jason doesn’t know me. He isn’t me. He can’t make promises on my behalf, just as you can’t make promises on behalf of the random stranger in the shopping mall. Suppose you walked up to this stranger, and informed him that he now owes your friend an ice-cream. He’d deny that he made the promise. And if you told him you made the promise on his behalf, he’d probably tell you where to shove it. The problem is this:
It’s impossible to make a promise on behalf of someone else. And with enough time, your future self is not you.
So it’s impossible to make a long-term commitment, or promise, of any sort at all.
Another way of stating the problem is this. Over years, our qualities change – the features of our bodies and minds. But with enough qualitative change, there is also a numerical change. The me of today and the me of fifteen years ago are so qualitatively different, we no longer count as a single individual. We’re now two people. We’re numerically distinct. And you can’t make a commitment, or promise, on behalf of a numerically distinct person.
Hold on! you shout. This is crazy. We do make long-term commitments. People get married. They choose career paths. They emigrate. They do make these decisions. Long-term commitments. So how’s it possible that they’re making these commitments if such commitment is logically impossible? What’s going on in those cases?
Think for a moment what life is actually like if I’m right that you are a numerically distinct person from your younger self. Your entire life is a series of experiences not of your choosing.
You’re repeatedly saddled with situations that a prior version of you (who isn’t you) chose on your behalf, and you do the best you can with the situation you’ve got.
What a life.
But we still haven’t answered our initial question. How do we decide between two options that will dramatically alter our life’s trajectory, no matter which we choose? How does nine-year-old Nemo decide which parent to live with? How do I decide whether to propose to my partner?
The answer, I think, relies on the notion of an opportunity loss. Sure, you have no right, and maybe you’re not even capable, of making a choice on behalf of your future self. But not making that choice is also a choice. If I marry my partner now, my future self is saddled with a promise he didn’t make. But if I don’t marry my partner today, my future self is deprived of a union he may yet want. He’s deprived of an opportunity I could have given him.
So you do something impossible. Something crazy. You cobble together the little information you can, and with eyes mostly shut … you point to a random future version of yourself who isn’t you, and promise the world on his behalf. You take the plunge. And like future Nemo, you do it with a smile.
What’s your view? Do you think you are (numerically) identical with the person you were fifteen years ago? Let me know in the poll, and tell me why you hold your view in the comments section below. I’d love to hear your thoughts.
About the Author
Human. Male. From an obscure planet in the Milky Way Galaxy. Sci-fi novelist with a PhD in philosophy. Likes chocolates, Labradors, and zombies (not necessarily in that order). Werbeloff spends his days constructing thought experiments, while trying to muster enough guilt to go to the gym.
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