This century will be a painful one. Our generation has already suffered through a recession, a pandemic and an authoritarian in the White House. The years ahead don’t bring much hope.

The climate catastrophe will only worsen, leading to sinking cities, water shortages and more. Technology risks rendering jobs obsolete and the threat of nuclear weapons continues to hang in the background as the international community becomes more volatile. When I try to imagine where I’ll be and what the world will look like when I’m 30, 50 or 70 years old, it isn’t a happy picture. But this is no reason for anxiety.

In the essay “Personal Identity,” British philosopher Derek Parfit offers a radically different view of personal identity that can help alleviate this anxiety. Instead of viewing every future moment of my life as something I will experience soon, I should focus on what will happen to me within the next few weeks. We should all incorporate this mindset into our anxiety about the 21st century. 

Platos Symposium

Courtesy wikimedia Commons.

Parfit distinguishes between psychological continuity and psychological connectedness, which are traditionally thought of as making up our personal identity. Psychological continuity refers to the continuous stream of consciousness that connects me to my entire life. Psychological connectedness refers to the values, memories and beliefs I might hold onto at one time. As a person, I am psychologically continuous with both my past and future self. But, I am not psychologically connected with the past and future versions of myself. I can’t remember anything of my younger years, and I have forgotten all the ambitions, beliefs and fears of toddler me. Likewise, many of the ambitions, beliefs and fears that define me right now will mostly be abandoned in the coming decades. If I were to meet 70-year-old and six-year-old me, it would almost be like I was speaking to two different people.

Instead of thinking of all the versions of us as one personal identity, we ought to incorporate Parfit’s theory into our daily lives by thinking of ourselves in degrees. I am more psychologically connected and related to the person I will be in two weeks than the person I will be in 10 years. When we think of ourselves, we should think of our psychological connectedness rather than our continuity. This way of thinking helps alleviate some of our fears for the 21st century.

When we think of facing climate catastrophe and nuclear war, we are imagining ourselves as psychologically connected with the versions of ourselves that will face these problems. The issue of Miami sinking into the Atlantic in the year 2070 is imagined as a problem I might face very soon. The issue of Artificial Intelligence potentially achieving superintelligence and replacing humans in 2050 is imagined as something affecting my job prospects right now. I imagine a psychologically connected version of me facing these problems, but this isn’t the case. The version of me facing these problems might be as different from me as I am from me starting elementary school. We will be psychologically continuous, but not psychologically connected. I will have different beliefs and ambitions, and worrying about it now doesn’t do any good for me. 

There should be people planning and preparing Miami for far-future floods and people monitoring and proposing laws for the development of Artificial Intelligence. But, there’s no use for me, as a college student, to worry about these issues because they won’t affect me for a long time.

What’s left are the problems that a psychologically connected version of us will face. To be fair, these problems are many. From the Supreme Court, to the pandemic, to the immediate effects of climate change, there is still a long list of issues taking our attention and giving us worry. But, I think Parfit gives us a reason to remove the scary yet distant ones from this list. Instead of being trapped thinking of the problems of the far future, we can focus our attention on what is happening now and what we have to address today.  

Martin Shane Li (22Ox) is from Rockville, MD.