Stephen King: Possible Worlds and the Idealised I

“Perhaps no-one at the end of his life, if he gives the matter sober consideration, and is, at the same time frank, ever wishes to live it over again, he more readily chooses non-existence.” (Schopenhauer: ‘World as Will and Idea’ p. 204)

“This is the best of all possible worlds”. (Leibniz ‘Essays on the Goodness of God, the Freedom of Man and the Origin of Evil’)

Philosophers from Plato to the present day have been constructing grand metaphysical narratives about the nature of reality and man’s place in this grand metaphysical scheme. As well as using rational arguments, and empirical evidence to support their position philosophers have often used thought experiments to support their theories. Famous thought experiments like ‘The Allegory of The Cave’, ‘Twin Earth’ ‘The Zombie Hunch’ and the ‘Chinese Room’ are part of all undergraduates lexicon. In many ways good fiction can serve as interesting thought experiments for philosophical consumption; thus Dostoevsky’s ‘Crime and Punishment’ can be read as a thought experiment on the nature of morality in a Godless universe. Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace’ can be read as a large thought experiment on the nature of freewill[1] . Voltaire’s ‘Candide’ is a satire of Leibniz’s claim that we live in the best of all possible worlds. Candide is a brilliant thought experiment with which we can explore whether we agree with Leibniz’s claim. Though it should be mentioned that Candide’s novel like all thought experiments should not be read at face value, we should read it and try to change certain parameters in the book to see if this effects the conclusion Candide tries to force on us. Likewise we should read Leibniz’s actually philosophical arguments closely along with reading ‘Candide’ and explore the degree to which it is an unfair caricature etc[2].

It is important to note that a novel doesn’t have to be “high brow” to be useful as a thought experiment for philosophers. Nor does the novelist need to be interested in philosophy or attacking a particular philosophical system for it to be interesting as a thought experiment. Thus, for example, George Orwell didn’t like philosophy nor did he read much of it. Nonetheless his 1984; in particular the scene where O Brien and Winston debate with each other about truth, has massive philosophical importance[3] .

All novels have potential for providing philosophical insights and the potential to at least give us some interesting premises which we can explore.  Novels provide us with possible worlds other than our own actual ones, and hence can be used to help us think through various themes and issues. So, for example, Stephen King’s science fiction novel ‘11.22.63’ raises some interesting philosophical issues about the nature of the self. The central protagonist of the novel is Jake Ebbing an English teacher. Ebbing is told of a portal that leads into 1958 by the owner of a diner called Al. Al shows Jake the portal which is in his diner, and lets Jake go through the portal. After Jake comes back through the portal Al tells Jake of his plan to stop the murder of Kennedy in 1963. After Al commits suicide Jake decides to fulfil Al’s mission and stop the assassination of Kennedy.

However; interesting and central as the plot to stop the Kennedy assassination is, I think that the relationship between Ebbing and another character Harry Dunning is even more fascinating. Early in the book Ebbing recounts how when teaching a General Educational Class he was given an essay by Harry Dunning a slightly brain damaged and crippled man. Dunning’s story ‘A day that changed my life’, was about how his alcoholic father murdered his mother and siblings with a hammer and left him brain damaged and crippled. This story had a deep effect on Ebbing even reducing him to tears.

Dunning’s story had such an influence on Ebbing that he decides to try to help him. The time portal that Al shows to Ebbing can be used to change things that happened in the past, and hence can create a different future. However, if after changing the past you step through the portal again you will reset history, your previous changes will be erased. When he returns to the past Ebbing tries to change the tragic events which led to Dunning’s family being killed and Dunning being brain damaged and crippled.

The choice of which person to save and why would be mind boggling. People die every day in various preventable ways, whether through accident, or murder etc. When Ebbing decided to change Dunning’s past he would have been moved by the tragedy of Dunning’s story, by the lost possibilities. Dunning’s siblings were wiped out of existence, any potential they had to achieve or experience something was wiped out. By changing past events Ebbing was creating new futures, new potentialities, and new destinies.

Throughout the novel Ebbing managed to save Dunning from his father a number of times. But reality being what it is there are no happy endings[4] to be had. Dunning is saved from his father only to be killed in the Vietnam War in one reality. In the other reality Dunning is saved from his father only to end up living in a post apocalyptic world. Dunning it seems can’t catch a break. In the novel things are such that we don’t get to try out endless possibilities to see if we can find a perfect ending for Dunning. The question raised by Dunning’s alternative realities is: is there a possible world in which Dunning gets his happy ending?

Arthur Schopenhauer in his ‘World and Will and Idea’ argued that the nature of existence is such that all creatures are destined to live a miserable existence. The world is full of living things who to need to feed off each other. Every creature by virtue of existing is taking up space and resources from another creature. We can try as hard as we like to decrease suffering, but our very survival depends on killing and eating other living creatures. No matter how hard we strive to achieve happiness our bodies eventually decay and breakdown and die, and the same thing happens to everyone we will ever know and love. Schopenhauer notes that all our fairy stories have a similar structure.  Heroes are challenged by Evil Queen’s, Wicked Witches, Monstrous Kings etc; the heroes face challenge after challenge and eventually overcome them. Schopenhauer notes that these fairy stories all end with the claim ‘They all lived happily ever after’. None of the details of these happy endings are ever provided, and the reason according to Schopenhauer[5], is that even children would recognise the absurdity if they had to read a description of a perfect ending. Such things do not exist.

Now I am too much of a pragmatist to buy into any grand metaphysical, whether optimistic like Leibniz, or pessimistic like Schopenhauer.  I think the best we can do is to try and cope with the flux of experience as best as we can. However I do think that Schopenhauer has a point to some degree. Any course of action we take will have consequences for other living creatures and either pro or con. This is why in the clichéd science fiction dialogue one protagonist reminds another that any changes they make can have dire consequences. I want to briefly discuss a possible dire consequence of Ebbing changing Dunning’s past: in a sense Ebbing is killing Dunning.

Journalist Brendon O Connor has a daughter Mary who has Down syndrome; in 2013 he wrote an interesting article ‘Would ‘fixing’ our child with Downs’s mean we’d be given back a stranger.’ In his interesting article he noted that we do things all of the time to improve those we love, we give them glasses to improve eyesight, send them to behavioural specialists to improve their ability to learn better. But he worried that if his child was cured of Downs she would be in effect a different person. Such a cure, if it were possible, would in effect change his child into a different person. Now in a sense Brendon’s sensitive and well thought out views are to some degree misplaced. Any cure would not be a miracle overnight cure. The child would still have suffered developmental delay and would slowly have to learn to think differently once the Downs is cured. The slow process of the child learning once the Downs was cured would mean that Brendon would not feel he was losing his daughter. He would rather just think she began to look and think differently.

The case of Dunning would be different. He would have his entire life erased. Without the brain damage and the traumatic experience of seeing his family killed Frank would have become an entirely different person. The brain is an incredibly complex organism, the brain injury Dunning suffered, and incredibly traumatic childhood experiences he had would have had a huge effect on who he became. By changing that Ebbing was in effect killing Dunning. But most people would argue; so what? Frank was damaged goods. Killing this damaged person is a good thing if it makes room for a better person[6].

Ebbing’s belief that he is saving Dunning is understandable. He is going to make Dunning physically and cognitively superior and prevent him from experiencing a terrible trauma. However there is reason to doubt that changing Frank’s past is for the good. Any life anybody has is going to have a lot of trauma. No matter what way the chips fall we will all suffer. But surely the amount of suffering we experience differs depending on our environment. On average a person living in a severe famine in a war torn area will have less happiness than a person living in an affluent peaceful area. Similar things could be said of Dunning surely he would have been happier if his family were not slaughtered on front of him by his father. We can take this as axiomatic. Right? Well actually we simply don’t have enough data about how this one event affected the world that Dunning lived in to make any claims about how it would have affected his overall happiness. Maybe one of his sisters would have turned out to have been worse than his father. The truth is no matter what our intuitions tell us we cannot be sure how this would have affected his overall happiness.

The same is true about his physical injury. Can we say for sure that without it he would have been happier? Who knows? In the book without the injury he ends up going to war and dying. When it comes to his cognitive abilities again it is hard to be sure. There is little empirical evidence I know of to say that people with higher IQ’s are happier than those with lower IQ’s[7]. Is wiping brain damaged Dunning out of existence without any clear empirical evidence on the issue justified? Ebbing doesn’t really feel the need to look for the evidence he just assumed that brain damaged Dunning’s life was terrible and needed to be changed.

To return to Brendon O Connor; in an interview on The Late Late Show he noted how he went through a process of mourning when his daughter was diagnosed with Downs. He had an implicit idealised image of who his daughter would become. It took a long process of mourning to cope with the fact that his daughter would not go through the typical developmental milestones that other children do. Apparently this is a common phenomenon for parents. But once they get to know their child they learn to love the actual person as opposed to some illusory idealised fiction.

Lacan talks about children going through a mirror phase where they recognise themselves in a mirror and note the stable nature of the image which they oppose to their own experiences of their bodies which they have limited control of. He speculates that children who go through this phase begin identifying with this image and this continues through to adulthood. As developmental psychology there is little reason to take Lacan seriously. But he does have a point about the idealised I. We all seem to have a kind of fictional perfect world which we and those around us are imperfect exemplars of. Ebbing used this implicit belief in an idealised I as justification for fixing Dunning. But he had little justification to do so. He had no real idea of who Dunning was. His beliefs were an unverified assumption. I think we should take King’s novel as a cautionary tale against assuming that some life is an imperfect exemplar of some perfect life they were denied. There are no perfect lives; no happy endings just people trying to cope with the flux of experience as best as they can[8].

[1] Obviously the brilliance of the above mentioned books goes beyond any use they have as philosophical thought experiments.

[2] Candide because of its narrow focus on refuting Leibniz is actually a pretty poor novel with one-dimensional characters silly plot twists. But it works as a caricature of Leibniz. To this degree it is not really good art. Dickens’ ‘Hard Times’ manages to both attack a philosophical view Utilitarianism and tell a brilliant human story; not an easy thing to manage.

[3] For discussion of some of these issues see Pinker’s ‘The Language Instinct’ and ‘The Blank Slate’ as well as Rorty’s ‘Contingency, Irony and Solidarity’

[4] Shout out to the excellent children’s programme ‘Once Upon a Time’ which explores the issue of happy endings in an easy going manner.

[5][5] David Berman discusses Schopenhauer and Fairy Tales in the introduction to the everyman edition of ‘World as Will and Idea’.

[6] It could be claimed that saving Dunning isn’t the only motivation for Ebbing he is also saving his siblings. But this is not Ebbing’s primary motivation. And furthermore Ebbing has no idea of whether saving Dunnings siblings will lead to a better or worse world.

[7] To think through this premise I would recommend reading ‘Flowers for Algermon’ a science fiction story about a child with intellectual disabilities who has his IQ radically raised. The jump in IQ isn’t followed by a jump in happiness. A novel is no proof on the issue each way but it can be a spur to thinking about the issue and may inspire doing some empirical research on it.

[8] Note a parent who tries to cure their child of some disability is not making the same mistake as Ebbing. They don’t need to destroy anyone when using a cure. They are just trying to help their child cope with the flux of experience in the best manner they know how.


2 thoughts on “Stephen King: Possible Worlds and the Idealised I

  1. oiscarey

    Love this piece, I really need to read more literature haha. An interesting question arises from it: are our moral responsibilities in these time travel thought experiments the same as those in the present tense? If Ebbing had been born in the same era as Dunning, and had the opportunity to save him from abuse by his father, would he have more responsibility to do so than if he had traveled back in time to do so?

    1. surtymind Post author

      That’s a very good question. I hadn’t thought of that. I seem to be holding Ebbing to a very high moral standard when time travel is possible. But I wouldn’t automatically hold the same moral intuitions if they were born in the same time. There I would think he should definitely save Dunning independent of the unknown consequences in the future.


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