A Future Where Thought Experiments Might Matter

I had started getting into philosophy by my late teens. Nothing too formal, the dry tomes with names of dead European men would elude me for some years. Instead it was the games, the thought experiments. Those moral questions which present you with a choice that betrays who it is you are, and what it is you stand for.

  1. Do you think that plants grown in perfect soil, which are perfectly watered and exposed to light, will invariably thrive? Or would some just wither regardless?
  1. If you spent decades learning everything there is to know about roses, but had never seen a rose in real life, can you be said to truly understand a rose?
  1. If a train was hurtling down the tracks, about to hit and undoubtedly kill five people, would you pull the switch to divert it to a different line where it would kill only one person?
  1. If you walked into a matter transporter, which duplicated each atom of your body in a different place before destroying your original set, is the person who walks as you still really you?

Being quite young and exposing yourself to these lines of thought for the first time is some mix of captivating and unsettling. For so long, life looks rather simple: you go about the daily routines of eating, sleeping, school, basketball practice. But in the intense years of teenager-dom, previously hidden doorways become visible. Your day-to-day existence begins to feel small and the rest of the world very, very big. The opening turns concrete things into water.

lullabyNew Zealand author of Lullaby, Bernard Beckett, knows this. And yet, he transcends the world of adolescent philosophy by putting it in a tangible situation. Far from philosophical questions being gasbaggy conversations on the quad in the afternoon sun, it is an immediate, devastating life choice with actual consequences.

Set in the not-too-distant future, Rene’s 18-year-old twin brother Theo is unconscious and dying. But a strange experiment is taking place. Rene can decide to essentially give Theo his mind. Theo would theoretically be able to wake up. But the catch is that all his thoughts and memories and so on would be a clone of Rene’s. Indeed, he would wake up thinking that he was Rene.

As the procedure is complex and a little risky and possibly not all that ethical, Rene has a few hours with a psychologist, Maggie, to determine his capacity to consent. He also has that time to decide whether or not he actually wants to do it.

What comes out of this discussion is intricate threads about identity, and what constitutes the division between oneself and someone else. Being twins, Rene and Theo are defined almost in opposition to each other. Rene is the ‘smart one’, which renders Theo ‘not academic’, even though his grades are mostly decent. Even though they are more alike than the same, the differences between them become exaggerated and fashioned into complete narratives about who each boy is. ‘Those differences grow into stories and the stories start to choke you.’

I’m sure that even non-twins can relate to this scenario. When I talk about my sister, I inadvertently define myself. She and I were pitted against each other growing up. I was the ‘smart one’, I had academics going for me, and the odd creative pursuit. Being the middle child, she was almost left an identity. Since ‘smart’ was taken, she got to be the social one, the one people liked, the fashionable one. That’s how I think it went. There was nothing inherent in her or me to specialise in personality traits so early on, and adulthood for both of us has seen an expansion in our interests, and new recognition for our hitherto invisible capabilities.

For Rene and Theo though, the chasm between identities is periodically undermined. Classmates and teachers ultimately see them as interchangeable. They could imitate each other only with a quick wardrobe change. Here, Rene may become more charming when he’s acting as Theo, but that can be attributed not to good acting, but instead to the fact that others more readily perceive him as charming as Theo.

‘Where we begin and end is not as simple as it looks.’ This is something Rene says to Maggie and it is the crux of Lullaby. This is true for people who are not twins. For example, we all have mirror neurons, a type of neuron which activates in the same way regardless of whether we are watching someone do a task or we are doing it ourselves. This is only the beginning of the way other people are related to us, dependent on us, influence us, and in some way are us. ‘The same, yet separate. A contradiction.’

Is it a problem for the two twins to converge into one identity? Everyone will have a different answer to this, similar to the way that reasonable minds differ on the four thought experiments listed above. Perhaps, as the book suggests, if you cannot be certain of your stable, intact identity – if there were, essentially, another ‘you’ – then you would unravel completely. But maybe if another you were to wake up, rescued from death’s clutches, and live completely independently from your other self, you would grow to be different anyway. You would grow to be not your destined self, for there would be no such thing, but a different self which was nurtured by a new environment far away.

Beckett’s offering is incredibly stimulating. I feel like I’ve revisited the quad years of my life where theoretical musing helped me nut out my beliefs, and consequently solidified aspects of my own identity. It is a treat to read a dialogue-driven story where philosophy is the hero, and the power of these questions are taken seriously. This is a book for those of us looking out for the invisible doors. Those of us who want to open them and lose the old world completely in order to find something true.

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