Must we read letters from our past selves?

My daughter wrote letters to her future self when she was about 8 years old. She had noticed that perfectly nice kids sometimes turn into grumpy teenagers, and she wanted to tell herself not to do that. Now that she's 15, she refuses to read these letters. She thinks her 8-year-self has nothing to teach her.  Possibly cute, but something of a dolt -- I think that's about how she sees her past self. I personally think her 8-year-old self was a genius, and want her to get a hearing.

Her ... wait a second!  The standard metaphysics says a person is a single entity about whom different things are true in the past and the future.  My daughter is an entity such that once she wanted to avoid teenage grumpiness.  Now the very same entity doesn't want to avoid teenage grumpiness.  A subtly different view sees persons as collections of temporal stages. One stage of my daughter wanted to avoid teenage grumpiness. The stage that exists right now doesn't want to.

So this is my question: does the temporal stage story have a different upshot with respect to my daughter's problem than the standard story?  If people exist in stages, do we have past selves in an especially robust sense?  Can we wrong our past selves by not listening to them (that's stage talk) more than we can do wrong by not caring about what we used to want (that's standard metaphysics talk)? Does picking one of these theories or the other make a difference to how I ought to counsel my daughter?

Don't know yet -- I'm just thinking aloud.  Truth is, I don't want to figure this out so I can counsel my daughter (I already have:  READ THOSE LETTERS!) I just want to know if different theories about the self are really different enough to generate different life decisions. Or they all just rival "ways of thinking" about the world, with no palpable consequences?

Next on my personal identity reading list--Eric Olson's What Are We? and David DeGrazia, Creation Ethics.


Charles Sullivan said...

This seems like a question about how to understand what happens when people "change their minds."

Is this "entity vs stage" distinction the same as the "self vs bundle" distinction of personal identity?

Torquil Macneil said...

The stages theory of identity has some awkward potential implications in how we should relate to each other. For example, if I wrong you today, your 'self' of next year can have no real cause for complaint since she is now a different entity. You might say 'but the theft from that person a year ago has prevented me of today from having that money' (for example) but why should the person you are todaay be entitled to things just because someone else once owned them in the past? You could also complain that a personal injury in the past changes the person who comes into existence in the future and this might be for the worse (a trauma for example) but what is worse than not coming into existence at all? In fact you could claim therefore that the injury done to the person in the past that leads you to exist in the future/present is something that you owe gratitude for (although you cannot express the gratitude because the person who did your past self the injury no longer exists - which opens another can of worms about crime and punishment).

Jean Kazez said...

Charles--self vs. bundle are rival psychological accounts of personal identity, with no stage talk involved. The idea is that Johnny (identified at 10) is Grandpa John (identified at 100) just in case there is a certain sort of psychological continuity between Johnny and John. The self theory appeals to a "pearl" of self running from one to the other. The bundle theory says no, there are just continuous memories, traits, etc.

The stage theory is different, because the idea is that a person is a collection of stages, like a highway is a collection of segments. This is not necessarily a psychological theory about personal identity at all, since the stages comprise everything about a person, not just psychological components.

Jean Kazez said...

But stages are not free-floating--the stages that go together could have special rights to complain or be concerned on each other's behalf. I think one will want to say things like that, on a stage account of personal identity.

Justin F said...

I saw Tim Odegard (UTA psychology) give an interesting talk about when people claim not to be the same person as a past stage - could be worth tracking down his work.

In other news, I'm barely distinguishable from a robot by your Captcha.

Justin F said...

And in more direct answer to your questions, I think both views can say similarly plausible things about most cases.

Stage views will say that special relations obtain between successive stages that it makes sense to transfer property rights, moral responsibility, marriage status, commitments of practical rationality, etc, to successive stages. And both may allow that certain events involve such a discontinuity (even if it's within technically the same person, according to the "standard" view) that it no longer makes sense to transfer moral responsibility or obligations of practical rationality across such discontinuities.

Your daughter's probably right that enough time has passed that she's not practically obligated to give much, if any, more consideration to the desires of her 8yo self than she would to completely separate people, which invites the perhaps-metaphorical stage-theory-esque locution "why should I care what she thought?" But still there's enough chance she'd learn something from reading those letters that it almost certainly isn't practically (much less epistemically!) rational for her to bury her head in the sand like an ostrich. I think I can phrase this to myself in a pretty plausible way on either view you discuss.