A thought inspired by Wednesday’s Daf (page) in the Talmud, Nedarim 85
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Creating the dialog with your future self.
This post presents a philosophical idea inspired by the text of today’s Daf. The Daf is one page in the Talmud that tens of thousands of people study each day. I explain the connection to the text in a comment below. My purpose is to show that there are underlying philosophical assumptions in the Talmud that can have great significance for anybody today trying to understand our complex reality.
If you’ve been following my recent posts, you may have already seen some discussions on the elements that contribute to the tendency to push off tasks and procrastinate. These include lack of motivation, competing priorities, and difficulty prioritizing tasks. Additionally, the brain’s neural regions play a role in this, with some regions responsible for generating motivation and others that push for immediate gratification. There can also be a conflict between short-term desires and long-term goals, and difficulty in decision making and sticking to a plan. All these factors contribute to the tendency to procrastinate.
The purpose of this post is to explore the internal dialogue that needs to take place when, for example, we face the tendency to procrastinate.
When you look in the mirror, you see just one face, and it may be difficult to imagine that your “self” is made up of different parts that may not always agree or work together seamlessly. But this idea of your self as a sort of “squabbling committee” or “troupe of actors” taking the stage one at a time is not so far-fetched. The question is, what holds it all together? How do these different players coordinate and come to a decision?
At any one instant in time, there is only one “you” making decisions and taking actions. When asked “what do you want to do right now?”, there is usually only one answer. However, when looking at your thoughts and actions over a short period of time, it becomes clear that there are multiple forces at play. This is where the idea of a “squabbling committee” or “troupe of actors” comes in. When taking an more extended view of your self over time, patterns start to emerge about which desires manifest when, consistency in the way you behave, your values, goals, etc. This extended view is what others see as “you” and what you internalize as your self-image.
Another way to think about the concept of the self is through the metaphor of a molecule. Just like a molecule is made up of different atoms, each with its own characteristic behavior, the self is made up of different parts, each with its own desires, motivations, and tendencies. But just as the behavior of a molecule as a whole is different from that of each individual atom, the behavior of the self as a whole is different from that of each individual part. For example, H2O does not behave like hydrogen or oxygen, it behaves “like” water. If we apply this metaphor to the self, we can consider the self as a four-dimensional molecule, with three space dimensions and one for time to capture the way the self evolves and reacts in different contexts over time.
We understand how atoms coordinate with each other to form a molecule, but how do the different desires and motivations within us communicate and coordinate with one another? How does the desire in charge at one moment coordinate with desires in a few minutes or even a few decades from now? Before answering this question, it is worth considering how people coordinate and make decisions in a society. Just as individuals have different desires and motivations, society as a whole has competing interests and needs that must be balanced and coordinated. This concept of coordination and decision-making within a group can provide insight into how we coordinate and make decisions as individuals.
The basic answer to how people coordinate and make decisions is through the use of language. Language is used to deliver information and influence or even coerce others. The dialogue between people includes messages, but words can also be used to create new facts that change future behavior. For example, laws are a form of coercion that society uses to communicate how they want individuals to behave. Society communicates with us about how they want us to drive by legislating that we may not drive through a red light, even when there is no other car in sight. This is an example of how society uses words to create facts and set expectations for behavior. Laws, along with consequences for breaking them, serve to coerce our decisions and shape our behavior.
Just like the dialogue between people, the dialog between one desire now and other desires at some point in the future can take the same form. We make decisions or strengthen those decisions with resolutions. Decisions and resolutions are words, spoken out loud or not. This is how we coordinate the different parts of ourselves into the semblance of a unified actor. Much of what holds our conflicted self together, what makes us behave in a more-or-less consistent way and controls most of our passions is a story we tell ourselves about who we are, our self-image.
When we interact with other people, we know that they have different, sometimes contradictory desires, and so we use different tools to ensure they fulfill their obligations. We ask them to make promises about the future, or even to sign contracts. This is a way of using the internal consistency tools to make sure that people will behave predictably and follow through on what they have committed to.
Many experts believe that language evolved as a tool for primitive humans to coordinate their activities and survive. This included various forms of coercion, but it also served to maintain peace within the group. Similarly, using words correctly in our internal dialogue can bring inner peace, consistency, and allow for the fulfillment of our desires. By understanding the internal dialogue and the different parts that make up the self, we can use language to coordinate and make decisions that lead to a more harmonious and satisfying life.