Biographies are interestingly false. Drawing on collections of facts about a person’s life, they attempt to present these facts as being in some way related to each other. First one thing happens, and then another thing happens. The audience is invited to infer either that the first thing caused the second thing or that both things are expressions of unseen psychological law. A character trait. An obsession. A neurosis. A fleeting moment of psychotic anger. But this is to assume that the facts of our lives are connected in meaningful ways and that there are fixed patterns to our psychological states that govern our actions in a predictable and rational manner.
This is rather a large assumption to make.
The philosopher David Hume expressed a degree of scepticism about the idea of the self as a thing with fixed characteristics. According to the traditional reading of Hume, the self is a series of perceptions that are bundled together by coherence and consistency. One interpretation of this is that we are our own biographers and that by choosing to place discrete events and moments of our lives in a series of imagined causal relations, we are fashioning a narrative and thereby fashioning an identity for ourselves. Our continued existence is a myth. And yet…
The philosopher Derek Parfit, himself an intellectual descendent of Hume, argues that while it does not make sense to say that we are a single person who exists through time, there is a degree of psychological connection between the different selves that make up this illusory person. The key to psychological connection, according to Parfit is memory. The physicist David Deutsch explains the physics of behind this idea in his book The Fabric of Reality (1997):
We exist in multiples versions, in universes called ‘moments’. Each version of us is not directly aware of the others, but has evidence of their existence because physical law links the contents of different universes. It is tempting to suppose that the moment of which we are aware is the only real one, or is at least a little more real than the others. But that is just solipsism. All moments are physically real. The whole of the multiverse is physically real. Nothing else is. – Page 287
As a person, I remember my anterior selves and the impressions I get of my anterior selves allow me to construct an image of an enduring personality. A personality constructed from a series of discrete but completely real selves. A series of moments in time.
Danny Boyle’s film 127 Hours is an adaptation of Between a Rock and a Hard Place (2004) the autobiography of the outdoorsman Aron Ralston who, after being trapped beneath a boulder for five days, decided to saw his own arm off using a cheap folding knife. Ostensibly about the realisation that even the most self-reliant of people get lonely, the film is really an exploration of the idea that we are nothing but a series of moments.