Monday 7 November 2011

Where was I before I was born?

Here is one of my favourite paragraphs, written by Angela Carter.

There's a theory, one I find persuasive, that the quest for knowledge is, at bottom, the search for the answer to the question: 'Where was I before I was born?' In the beginning was ... what? Perhaps, in the beginning, there was a curious room, a room like this one, crammed with wonders; and now the room and all it contains are forbidden you, although it was made just for you, had been prepared for you since time began, and you will spend all your life trying to remember it. ('Alice in Prague or The Curious Room', in Angela Carter, American Ghosts & Old World Wonders, London, Chatto & Windus, 1993, page 127.)

This could mean lots of things. The interpretation of the first sentence that most resonates with me is that each of us has a tremendous urge to merge his or her perspectival view of the world, the view from his or her own point of view, with a non-perspectival view from nowhere. Each perspectival view only endures for a lifespan. The non-perspectival view is in principle available at any time and the same for all, although different people would interpret what they saw differently, but that view is in practice available to no-one. To see the world as it was before I was born, or as it will be after I die, I would have to be somewhere at a time when I was not, or will not be. There would have to be a place I was before I was born, and a place I would be after death. What I can in fact do is see traces left by the past, and current indications of what the future might hold, and make inferences from those traces and indications. But that is not the same thing at all.


  1. What a thought provoking blog post!

  2. Is non-perspectival view omniscient ? or omni-seeing ?

  3. You say: "I would have to be somewhere at a time when I was not, or will not be."

    and: "there would have to be a place .... I would be after death"

    So will you be or not be after death ?

    Or do you mean that your body will be somewhere after death whereas you yourself will be no more ?

  4. I shall respond to the two preceding comments together.

    First, what is the nature of the the view from nowhere? This term could mean either of two different things. The first is a view, such that the location or even the existence of any observer would be irrelevant to its significance. Strictly speaking, it would be a conception rather than a view, because all views are from somewhere. This is what I had in mind, and it is why I wrote of a non-perspectival view. The second meaning is an unbiased or objective view, one that describes how the world is anyway, independently of our thoughts about it. It is easy to run the two meanings together, but that would be a mistake. Perspective is not the only source of bias or subjectivity, and a perspectival view may be unbiased and objective. At least, that is so unless we interpret "perspective" to mean any source of bias or subjectivity, and I do not think we should do that.

    Second, is there any sense in which I exist or have a location at times outside my lifespan? No, there is not. My body will be somewhere for a while after my death, but I won't be there, or anywhere. It follows that I cannot see the world outside that stretch of time. I can, however, draw inferences about the world outside that stretch of time. Of course, if one thought that all seeing was inferential, the boundary would be blurred and one might speak of seeing the world at times that lay outside one's lifespan.

  5. But if someone read your blog´s posts or your posts on a forum after your death, would you not be (= exist) a little in this person´s imagination at least ?

  6. I don't think so. That would be too metaphorical a sense of "exist" for me. And in any case, I would certainly not be in any position to be aware of anything.

  7. Es fällt aber auf, dass viele Menschen ganz natürlich und spontan sich die Frage stellen: wo war ich, bevor ich geboren wurde ? wo werde ich nach dem Tod sein ? Auch Kinder stellen solche Fragen.
    Es ist schwer sich die eigene Nicht-Existenz vorzustellen. Deshalb haben die Erklärungsmodelle der Reinkarnationstheorie und vieler Religionen so großen Zulauf.