Are We a Whole, or Many Holes?

For those of you who have read several (or most) of these “Reflections” essays, it might seem that they present a disjointed picture of yours truly. There isn’t much of an “autobiographical narrative” here. Which brings up a very interesting – indeed, even hugely “personal-philosophical” – question for each and every one of us. Through a lifetime, does a person consist of a stable “self”?

At the most basic biological level, you are not the same person you were yesterday – and certainly not what you were a few months ago, given that almost every cell in your body has died and regrown since then. We shed skin and water – with new skin and liquids constantly replenished; we lose bone and cartilage – and grow new cells to keep our bodies functioning; all the while, “zillions” of bacteria and viruses who reside permanently in our gut and elsewhere are constantly dying off with others taking their place. Most fantastically (and still perplexing neuroscientists) is the fact that even our brain cells are constantly dying, and new ones take their place – so how do we retain our memories??

Nevertheless, my initial question above is not biological but rather psychological: are we the same person(ality) we were yesteryear in our thoughts, our emotions, our way(s) of viewing and dealing with the world? Is there any consistent “me” from childhood to late adulthood? Notice that I don’t even include here “infancy” or “dotage” because clearly at the very start and very end of our life we are mostly not the person we will become or was. However, in the vast middle – are we really the same “person” in the deepest psychological and behavioral sense of the term?

There is no clear answer. On the one hand, most of us would unthinkingly say “of course I’m the same Sam”. Although our face and body changes through the years, we can see the gradual progression; although we might be somewhat more “mature” later in life, we still react to things in the generally same idiosyncratic fashion as before.

Or do we? Here we come to the other side of the coin: memory. If we wish to view ourselves as the same person we always were, there has to be some internal narrative to support this. But except for the very few (un)lucky individuals who can recall every moment of their life, we have huge holes in our “internal narrative”. Even worse, much of what we do “remember” did not happen in the way we “recall”; in other words, much of the time we “invent” our life. This is a common (heavily researched and proven) problem in court cases where witnesses literally “re”member what they saw or heard. Little do we know that we are quite bad “witnesses” of our own life!

And now for the BIG question: do you (past or present) try to “make sense” of your life, to see some overarching framework in what you have accomplished (personally and professionally)? In other words, notwithstanding the memory holes we share, even if we remembered everything, would that in itself constitute a “life narrative” with any motif? In fact, have you ever asked yourself that question?

I definitely do not mean to suggest that if you haven’t even asked it (meta-self-examination), there’s something wrong with you. You might actually believe – perhaps correctly – that there is no such thing as a “life narrative” that is stable, consistent, and unchanging. The reason there might not be such a thing is that we are not completely sovereign over our life; our social environment (broadly defined) affects and influences us every moment of the day. Thus, like a ship at sea buffeted by the waves, winds and currents, our life deals more with “staying alive” than inexorably charging forward to our self-defined “life-goal”. Moreover, we also might not feel that there’s a consistent narrative because we actively tried “maturing” and changing “who we were”. Why look at a steady life as something admirable? As someone once opined: “consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds”.

Yet ultimately that is somewhat unsatisfying because we want to feel that we “stand for something”, i.e., that there’s a “there, there” within us. We all want to believe that we have some control over who we were, and are, and will be – and if we do change, then at least it’s because we willed it.

The American moral philosopher J. David Velleman put it pithily: “We invent ourselves… but we really are the characters we invent.” In short, even if we aren’t in full control of who we actually are, we are in total control of who we say (to ourselves, and to a lesser extent to others) what we are. Some of us see in ourselves a one-act play; others perceive ourselves to be a kaleidoscope of colors and shapes. Whether whole or full of holes, human beings are at least free to paint on their own canvas – even if the picture isn’t Realistic but rather Impressionistic or Surrealistic.

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