Why We Should Not Be Biased Towards the Future

Original: February 26th, 2009

Why We Should Not Be Biased Towards the Future [Derek Parfit]

Straightforwardly, Parfit points out that it is actually hypocritical for us to be biased negatively towards the future when we are not biased negatively towards the past in the same way. It actually does not make any sense for us to look forward to our future, inevitable death – our future non-existence – in a negative and fearsome way, when we obviously fail to truly see our past non-existence in a negative or fearsome light. He states that having this bias is bad for us – we do not appreciate and look at life as we should.

Parfit addresses the matter of our future death more stringently in his paper than he does of other future matters, however, he does mean to include all that we think to be bad about the future. Our bias towards the future includes all of the negative What- Ifs: all of those we love dying around us, the “minor” possibilities of losing our jobs and the subsequent struggles, how we have less and less to look forward to, etc.

He asserts over and over again that we should be just as capable of looking
forward to our future as we are when we look backwards. We are capable of filtering away and soothing bad past events and “rehearsing all of our memories of the good things”, so we should be just as capable of filtering away and soothing bad future events mulling over the future good things to occur. When we are young, we do not have many memories to look back to, but life is enjoyable because we have all these things to look forward to. Then, as we age, we have less and less to look forward to, but life should
still be enjoyable because we have all these memories to look backward to. Yet, we find ourselves irresistibly biased towards the future with no good reason. Again, we have this bias – and this bias is bad for us (since it affects our happiness).

It could be stated that we do not know for sure what is going to happen in the future. In fact, we could even say that any true belief in our future deaths is just wishful thinking. The future is full of all these Unknowns and at the very best, Probablies. While one could say that our unreliable memory, in actuality, resembles how we view the future – our memory is just as full of Unknowns and Probablies – though, for some reason, we think of our memories as Certain.

Parfit gives an example of his ideal person – who views life and time as he should – and he calls him Timeless. Timeless is capable of looking forward to the future just as he is capable of looking backwards to the past with the same amount of pleasure. There is a substantial amount of controversy about Time – which may not exist at all as we know it. Time is actually the fourth dimension, and we are only capable of seeing three. This view goes on to assert that perhaps everything has happened already – we just experience Time differently than what it actually is. Immanuel Kant,
himself, asserted that the concept of Time is something we bring to the world in order to be able to experience.

In having a bias towards the future we have a bias towards Time and how Time works. We see Time as alternating events, one after another in order, like beads on a string.

Now, what if, we did not experience our lives in order? What if, this imaginary person Timeless, in one moment he is about to kiss his wife, then in the next moment he is thirty years ahead at his wife’s funeral, in the next moment he is at a party in his adolescent years, then he sees his own death at 90, then back again to that moment in which he is kissing his wife as he is leaving to work? That explanation makes it sound like my example has Timeless going through a couple minutes then FLASH to another tiny moment then FLASH to another little moment all happening within a moment.

However, I mean that some moments may be short; other passages in time may be a few days. All in all, Timeless, in my example would genuinely have no bias towards the future or the past.

What reason would he actually have that we do not for not having a bias? That he has already experienced his death – though not in the order that we would? In a funny way, he is just as oblivious as we are as to what he is going to experience next.

However, because of this, he genuinely lives each moment as he should. When he sees his wife, he really sees her, because he does not know, if in the next minute or day he will! His life, ironically, is full of just as many Unknowns as ours; however, he really lives in each of his moments. I believe that Parfit would agree that this Timeless is indeed living life as he should just as his own imaginary Timeless lives life as he should.

In essence, we have our bias towards the future, though we should not, because we have a bias, a handicap, towards Time. We have this limited method of experiencing Time, which causes us to be afraid of and have an irresistible bias towards what we do not know: the future. This results in us not looking at and living life as we should. Again, it is quite hypocritical that we have this bias towards the future when we do not have the same bias towards the past (though we should have neither).