Philosophy is the perfect type of talk to give to teenage kids, and those at the Auckland Town Hall yesterday were stunned to hear their inner thoughts being spoken aloud, and validated, by Julian Baggini.
Being a teenager is a time of change unlike any other in your life. You are constantly changing, and beginning to think about the big questions, Baggini says, one being – Who Are You? Or rather, what is it that makes you you. This is, in fact, the topic of his 2011 book The Ego Trick.
Baggini brought the audience along with him as he told us to think of ourselves four years ago – what we loved then, which we may be embarrassed about now, or possibly proud of. He also asks us to try and imagine our parents as young people – we can’t, because they have in fact become different people. “To be an individual person is to be someone that’s always changing. You are changing, but you have the sense of being a certain person.”
Likewise, projecting into the future is riddled with problems. When you try and consider who you are going to be in 10 years, you don’t know what that you is going to be like. I could see the cogs turning in the students’ heads!
I was interested in seeing Julian Baggini speak because I did my Honours in Philosophy, with special interests in the philosophy of science, and moral philosophy. I never would have thought of this as an option if it weren’t for a brief introduction to philosophy that I received during RE (Religious Education) in my final year at school.
After introducing the concept of self to us, Baggini then got the audience to participate in some thought-experiments. “Imagine you find out that your soul was in one of the people taking part in the siege of Troy. If this is true, you don’t remember it. But would that fact make you the same person that was there at the siege of Troy?” A show of hands showed that most didn’t think that you would be the same person, and he got one person from each side to argue their side of the story.
“It seems obvious to us, that who we are has got to be deeply connected to who we are. Our mental lives are important. There’s no evidence that these experiences are shaped by what happened in a previous life. So even though you’ve forgotten many things, they shape the way you are.”
So how important are memories, he asks. The second thought experiment is this: If you could imagine yourself to be the most amazing thing you could imagine – perhaps the Prime Minister, an All Black, the King of China – but to achieve this you had to give up your memory of who you had been to date, but it would be instant: would you do it?
In this case, there was closer to a 90 / 10 split. Those who argued for doing it say, “It seems that if you achieve your dream, nothing else matters. There are more good things about it than bad things.” Those who argued against see the hard work and reward as intrinsic to one another.
As Baggini carried on, he introduced the crux of his concept: There is no such thing as “I” – the “I” we are talking about is simply the unfolding set of experiences that the things that create you allow you to have. “We are a collection of our parts, like anything else.” Like this one, most philosophical arguments start with common sense, then gradually take a strange turn as we get deeper into thinking about things.
If this made you think, and you like thinking, go along and see Julian Baggini in action this weekend at the Auckland Writer’s Festival. Though his solo session, with Graeme Hill this Friday, is sold out, here are your other options:
A Meeting of Minds (free session), with Julian Baggini and Hirini Kaa, 10.30am on Saturday 14 May, at the Upper NZI Room in the Aotea Centre.
The Moral Mixing Desk (also free), with Gareth Morgan and Kate Frykberg, 1.30pm Sunday 15 May, Upper NZI Room
Come along and have your mind expanded.
Reviewed by Sarah Forster
Freedom Regained, published by Granta, ISBN 9781847087188
The Virtues of the Table, published by Granta, ISBN 9781847087157
The Ego Trick, published by Granta, ISBN 9781847082732