There is an article in this magazine about why people are conditioned to always look to the future and hope that better times are ahead. (Isn’t the thought that you’ve lived the best of your life already really rather depressing?) In its discussion, the article cites a thought experiment devised by philosopher Derek Parfit.
The scenario runs thus:
You need a life-saving operation. It has a 100% success rate. However, the only way the operation can be carried out is without anaesthetic, so you will feel excruciating pain. You are told that the operation will take ten hours. You are also informed that the doctors are able to wipe your memory of the pain as soon as the operation is over. This seems reasonable to you, after all, it is going to save your life and you won’t remember the pain.
You wake up in a hospital bed and you ask a nurse: ‘Have I had the operation yet?’ The nurse responds with: ‘Either you have had the ten-hour operation and had your memory wiped and you are recovering, or you haven’t had it yet and it is actually now only going to take two hours due to sudden advances in medical science. You will, of course, still feel the pain throughout. We can still erase the memory afterwards though’. She then asks you which would you prefer to the be truth.
So, dear reader, what would you choose?
If you are like the majority of human beings, you will chose the first option. You will prefer to have had the operation, gone through the pain, and be on the other end without the memory of it, rather than be facing two-hours of pain.
However, look at this logically. Why would you chose to go through ten hours of excruciating pain over two hours of excruciating pain. Does that make sense? Well, yes it does, if you accept that humans are naturally future-biased. We see the future as more significant than the past. We consider future happiness, and future pain, as more important to our current existence than past pain or happiness. We can’t bear the thought that we have had our greatest happiness. We are quite happy to accept that we have been through awful pain, yet, thank god, we won’t need to do that again. This happens even if the pain and happiness are equal either side of the present. There is also an argument that humans are incapable of remembering the physical sensation of pain; we remember the emotions the pain gave us, but not the actual sensation of pain (otherwise, why would women go through childbirth not once, twice, or even three times – in my case at least?)
Isn’t that amazing? Yes.
I put this thought experiment to my three children today and they all, as predicted, opted for the ‘ten-hours of pain in the past’ scenario.
Number Two son then piped up with: ‘I guess this means that if you go to Disney Land and have your memory wiped afterwards then it isn’t worth going in the first place.’
This lead to a discussion on this question: if you forget a pleasure or a pain, is there a point to having it? We talked about whether it is worth the effort of celebrating the birthday of someone with a severe memory disorder where they don’t remember beyond five minutes in the past. I argued that celebrating the birthday and giving presents and a cake to that person was as worthwhile as doing the same for someone with a working memory. It is the moment of pleasure borne from the experience that is the most important element of the experience, not the memory of it.
In addition, I argued, you will be dead one day and once you are dead you won’t remember Disney Land or every single birthday cake.
So keep going, live for the moment, enjoy the now, experience the pain. And appreciate that just because a great pleasure has past and an equal pleasure might not happen again, that pleasure was wonderful at that time.