Selves Of An Inflection Moment

by David R. Rowley

Translation of Phemera assembly transcript 1723.21-23

Receptacle 1

‘It is good that so many are here now to discuss actions regarding the off-worlders. I do not have memory of a greater gathering of our people. But that is fitting, as I also do not have memory of any gathering with greater need. 

‘Most of you will be well aware of the situation Phemera society finds itself in, but for the benefit of any who do not have memory of all that has been happening, please allow a brief description. A year before today the off-worlders descended in their ships and revealed themselves, beginning to communicate with our society. This was slow going, although perhaps not as slow as might be expected given they have travelled the vast distances between the stars. They explained that they had arrived at Phemera the previous year and had observed our culture, allowing better communication.

‘Selves who met the off-worlders had many questions, to allow future selves to understand who they were, where they had come from, and how and why they had travelled here. The off-worlders also had questions, to give their future selves more knowledge and better understanding of Phemera culture.

‘In the following months off-worlders were shown different aspects of Phemera civilization. They were shown Phemera gardens, forests, lakes, mountains and coasts. They were shown Phemera homes, schools, gathering halls, dispensaries, and factories. In return they answered many questions we had. Phemera selves explained to off-worlders our technology, and off-worlders explained some aspects of their technology, which in many ways exceeds Phemera technology.

‘This Great Exchange proceeded well, with excitement and joy among selves both Phemera and off-worlder. Initially few off-worlders were here, but latterly there were more and more. Phemera selves invited off-worlder selves to the dispensaries for them to take what they needed, as any self may do. Off-worlders proceeded cautiously, and gradually learned that much of the dispensaries’ food, clothing, etc.  was suitable.

‘The off-worlders began spending longer among Phemera. Their daily selves were sustained by dispensary food, and their resting selves resided in Phemera homes, further facilitating the Great Exchange. More off-worlder ships descended, and more off-worlders arrived to live among us.

‘But as time went on problems arose, especially for the Phemera. Although the off-worlder’s daily food requirements were similar to the Phemera, selves began finding dispensaries greatly depleted. Many Phemera selves went hungry. Supply to dispensaries from great stores increased to accommodate the extra demand, yet however much was supplied, the dispensaries were always depleted. Phemera selves observed and questioned off-worlder selves about this. It transpired that most off-worlder selves behave similarly to the Phemera and only took what their daily selves require. However, a few would take much more: food and also other supplies like clothing, and even furniture, to be loaded into off-worlder ships. Factory production was increased, but still whatever was supplied to the dispensaries would soon be taken by off-worlders.

‘Production has increased as much as reasonably possible, yet at this rate many important supplies will completely run out within weeks. Phemera selves are suffering now, but unless the situation changes, future Phemera selves will be deprived and pained. I have memory of the planners for future selves saying that under this situation there could be no future Phemera selves in as little as 10 years.

‘Phemera now stands at an inflection; our society could go in one direction or another, with consequences likely more significant than any other time. And so I say to you, all the selves finding themselves here now, to discuss and deliberate how Phemera ought respond. Any self may speak.’

Receptacle 2

‘The Phemera must ask the off-worlders to leave. Given the threat, only this can avoid the pain for future Phemera selves, indeed ensure that there are future Phemera selves.’

Receptacle 3

‘The off-worlders ought not be asked to leave. Phemera do not deny others in need.’

Receptacle 2

‘Yet they are not in need. They take more than they could need, and pass it on to others.’

Receptacle 3

‘Perhaps those others are in need, and we ought not deny them.’

Receptacle 4

‘How many others are there? Phemera cannot support a vast other population. Can that population not support itself?’

Receptacle 5

‘What if they refused to leave?’

Receptacle 6

‘The Phemera must fight. Then, if they still refuse to leave, there will be fewer or no future off-worlder selves, and so there will continue to be future Phemera selves.’

Receptacle 7

‘Fellow Phemera. I believe I have information pertinent to this discussion. I have memory of many discussions with off-worlders, the selves of one receptacle in particular, and so understand well their attitudes. In many ways they are superior to ourselves. Phemera technology is a marvel: many tools and devices that have been produced are sophisticated enough that no one self could fully understand them, even with the memory of a lifetime’s study. Yet off-worlder technology greatly exceeds what Phemera have. They have therefore been able to safely travel the vast distances between the stars.

‘And yet, we must still consider them akin to children.

‘Many of us have experience of young children, and how they act. In particular, child selves are concerned above all with the future selves of their own receptacle. If sweets are presented before children, each will attempt to take more than they need for the benefit of the future selves of their receptacle. This is because they have such an affinity with those future selves. In some sense, they see those future selves as being part of them. Phemera children have much to learn, but learning that the selves of their own receptacle in future moments are no more part of themselves than are the future selves of other receptacles, is integral to becoming a Phemera citizen.

‘In this sense the off-worlders are children.

‘They too consider the future selves of their receptacle as more part of themselves than those of other receptacles. Indeed, they fully identify with the whole chain of selves associated with their receptacle. As such, like children, they work to improve the lot of those future selves, to the disbenefit of other future selves. They take more than they need, exchanging surplus with others to benefit their own receptacle’s chain of selves.

‘And this is why, when Phemera make food and goods available, off-worlders take so much.’

Receptacle 4

‘Have no off-worlders realized the folly in this? Do they not know that they are not identical to those future selves? Do they not see what harms such an attitude can cause a society?’

Receptacle 7

‘I have memory of putting such questions to off-worlders. It seems that some off-worlders, including receptacle chains they called Buddha and Parfit, pointed this out, but have had only limited influence on their society.’

Receptacle 6

‘This information only supports the proposal that Phemera must fight. If the off-worlders are so concerned with their receptacle’s future selves, then the fear for their safety will drive them away.’

Receptacle 4

‘But the off-worlders will easily fight back with their superior technology.’

Receptacle 6

‘They may be superior technologically, but their concern for their receptacle’s future selves will give them fear. Phemera fighters do not value their receptacle’s future selves over others. Being prepared for their receptacle’s death will make them more courageous, giving Phemera an advantage that outweighs the technology difference.’

Receptacle 7

‘Alas, my memories lead me to believe that the off-worlders will not respond as you believe. Their love for their future selves makes them greedy. They identify with their future selves, and also their past selves. When believing a past self of their receptacle has been wronged by another receptacle, they will bear ill will toward the present and future selves of that receptacle. Were the Phemera to fight, the off-worlders would fight back, and continue to fight back, even beyond when it would be in their, or their future selves’, interests. 

‘Yet I believe there is another way. The off-worlders clearly want to take from us. The Phemera could offer, instead of food and goods, learning. We can explain why selves at different times are not identical, and how this attitude improves society. By not identifying with future selves, individuals will not hoard resources, depriving selves in need. By not identifying with past selves they will not bear grievances, and so not bear ill will to others.’

Receptacle 3

‘But can we be confident that the off-worlders will welcome such learning? If they are technologically superior, they may consider themselves superior in all ways. It has already been said that they bear grudges. Would they not consider our offer offensively patronizing, and reject it?’

Receptacle 7

‘That may well be, if we did not also seek their advice.’

Receptacle 2

‘Is the suggestion that Phemera seek technological advice? Phemera have no need for advanced technology; Phemera can provide for all needs with existing technology.’

Receptacle 7

‘No, to not be taken as patronizing the advice must relate to their view of persisting selves.’

Receptacle 3

‘Yet why would Phemera have any interest in that, whilst also educating the off-worlders that selves do not persist?’

Receptacle 7

‘That is because I believe Phemera can learn from an off-worlder concept, one stemming from their view of persisting selves, although not relying on it.

‘This concept is narrative.

‘Phemera take pleasure in instantaneous experiences: a beautiful tree or mountain, the sound of a bird call or a sung harmony, the smell of a flower or a fresh meal, a warming fire or a cooling breeze. The off-worlders also have such pleasures. But they also enjoy another dimension. By considering a sequence of experiences across time as a single chain, they are able to compare those experiences to add value to the whole. Instead of a single flower we could have a whole garden, whose colours complement each other.’

Receptacle 3

‘Surely though, any such pleasures are not worth sacrificing the demonstrated concept of selves not persisting, given all the emotional and societal benefits that brings.’

Receptacle 7

‘Of course not. But we can appreciate a continuous narrative, while still being aware that the selves experiencing different parts are distinct. All that is required is that the recent memories a self finds themselves with are held in mind to balance against the current experience.

‘Furthermore, if I understand correctly, the benefits are not limited to simple pleasures. By considering the whole life of a receptacle as a narrative, they are able to add meaning to their lives. They embark on projects that take years or even decades. They persevere through hardship to triumph in eventual success, which is sweeter when considered as a journey. They can therefore produce, not just sophisticated technology, but artefacts of great beauty. Their receptacles’ lives take on a meaning when considered as a whole.

‘It remains to be seen how much value this attitude has, but I believe the Phemera ought explore its potential. By taking a genuine interest in the off-worlders we will flatter them, while also being able to explain that selves do not persist, and the value of seeing this. I believe not only that this approach most aligns with the Phemera way of doing things, but is also more likely to succeed than fighting. If this avenue fails then fighting remains an option. However, fighting would preclude both this chance of success and the opportunity to learn something truly profound from the off-worlders, and them from us.’

Receptacle 1

‘All now have memory of discussion of three options facing Phemera: continue without change; fight back against the off-worlders, or treat with the off-worlders to exchange ideas and learning related to the persistence of receptacles and the lack of persistence of selves. I ask all current selves to record their momentary preference for each option. If a majority emerges in support of one, it will be pursued, otherwise discussion will be continued by future selves.’



David R. Rowley has a doctorate in astronomy from Sussex University, which inspired a philosophical interest in the fundamental nature of the universe. Afterwards he worked as a government statistician, while pursuing a philosophical education. He is now working toward a philosophy doctorate at Leeds University, arguing for a mathematical basis for both the physical universe and consciousness. He lives in Edinburgh with his wife and son, and this is his first published fiction.

Philosophy Note:

The main philosophical idea explored here is the idea that selves do not persist, and so persons are not identical with future or past versions of their body. This is an idea core to Buddha’s no-self doctrine, Galen Strawson’s idea of the living moment of experience (The Minimal Subject, 2011) and Parfit’s discussion in Reasons and Persons (1986). The aliens in the story set up their society and live their lives according to this idea, including not giving permanent names to each other, which leads to an egalitarian, thriving society. This causes problems when they are encountered by humans, but they also see an opportunity to learn from humans about how considering experiences extended over time can enhance them, and also how considering a life in its entirety can add meaning to it (e.g. Kauppinen, Meaningfulness and Time, 2012).

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