Philosophy of Timer

I recently saw the movie Timer, and it turned out to be a fascinating exploration of the idea of a soulmate.  Spoiler-ridden reflections are below the fold.

In the world of the movie, you can have a timer implanted in your wrist.  Once the timer is activated it begins counting down.  You will meet your soulmate within 24 hours after the countdown goes to zero; at the moment you lay eyes on him or her, you’ll hear a beep — and then you’ll know you’ve found your “one.”  However, the timer only works if your soulmate, somewhere out there in the world, happens to have a timer too.  If your soulmate is currently timerless, then your timer will be blank.  Blank timers are a fairly rare problem, as timers have rapidly grown popular; timerless people are now found mainly in a few scattered rural areas and among a few non-conformists.  But the movie’s main character, Oona, is one of the few cursed by a blank timer.  She’s about to turn thirty, and the blankness of her timer obsesses her.  At the movie’s outset, she’s spending a lot of effort seeking out timerless men and convincing them to get timers, in the hope that, by process of elimination, she will eventually find her soulmate.

The movie never reveals what a soulmate is.  Such questions are left to our imagination and preconceptions.  But it does give us a few clues:

(1) Apparently, soulmatehood is a reciprocal relation — that is, if X is Y’s soulmate, then Y is X’s soulmate.  In other words, you are guaranteed to be your soulmate’s soulmate.  (This is suggested by the fact that in the movie, whenever a person’s timer reaches zero, his or her soulmate’s timer also reaches zero.  Also, if you could fail to be your soulmate’s soulmate, surely this would be widely known, and it would be a source of worry for those whose timers haven’t yet zeroed out — yet no one ever mentions it.)

(2) You are very likely to meet your soulmate in the normal course of your life; for instance, it’s highly unlikely, perhaps impossible, for your soulmate to live in a faraway place that you’ll never visit.  (This is suggested by the fact that in the movie, people typically seem to just come across their soulmates, at school or work or home, without needing to do any kind of worldwide soulmate-searching.)

(3) Soulmatehood seems to have something important to do with happiness.  It seems that, whether you like it or not, you will be happy in a relationship with your soulmate, and you’ll never be fully satisfied in life without your soulmate.  This is so even if you’re currently in a passionate relationship with someone other than your soulmate, and even if your soulmate happens to be dating your sibling, and even if your life plans preclude a relationship with the person identified as your soulmate — etc.

(4) Everyone’s got at least one soulmate.  (All the characters seems to assume that the only available explanation for Oona’s blank timer is that Oona’s soulmate just hasn’t gotten a timer yet — but surely they would also consider that she might not have a soulmate, if that were possible.)

In fleshing out the idea of a soulmate, (1)-(4) actually give us a lot to go on.  And I think (1)-(4) are part of the common-sense notion of a soulmate — that is, part of the notion implicit in most people’s thought and talk of soulmates.  At the same time, however, I doubt there’s a plausible way to define soulmatehood such that all of these four constraints are satisfied.  Suppose we say that X is Y’s soulmate if and only if Y would be happier in a relationship with X than Y would be in a relationship with anyone else that Y might ever happen to meet.  Call this the Simple Idea of soulmatehood.  The Simple Idea satisfies constraints (2)-(4), but it doesn’t allow for reciprocity, which is the constraint in (1).  After all, it is entirely possible that X would be happiest in a relationship with Y even though Y would be happiest in a relationship with Z.

So consider another possible definition of soulmatehood — the Complicated Idea, which says that X is Y’s soulmate if and only if

(a) Y would be happier in a relationship with X than Y would be in a relationship with anyone else that Y might ever happen to meet, and

(b) X would be happier in a relationship with Y than X would be in a relationship with anyone else that X might ever happen to meet.

I think the Complicated Idea comes pretty close to what many people have in mind when they talk about soulmates.  Yet — although the Complicated Idea would satisfy (1), the reciprocity constraint, and I think would satisfy (2) and (3) — it wouldn’t satisfy (4), which is the requirement that everyone has a soulmate.  To see this, just take the case where X would be happiest in a relationship with Y even though Y would be happiest in a relationship with Z.  Then it’s clear that, from X’s perspective, there is no one who satisfies both condition (a) and condition (b).  In fact, I somewhat suspect that if we accept the Complicated Idea, we’re going to be forced to the conclusion that almost no one has a soulmate.

Of course, it’s possible to imagine a world in which it just so happens that, for each person, there is someone who meets both condition (a) and condition (b).  But that strikes me as pretty unlikely to occur simply by chance.  It’s also possible to imagine some sort of a benevolent, mystical force (e.g. “destiny”) that ensures that, for each person, there is someone who meets both condition (a) and condition (b).  And perhaps not coincidentally, talk of soulmates does tend to lead eventually to talk of destiny and the like.  I suspect that the ubiquity of soulmate-and-destiny talk suggests an implicit understanding among ordinary people that the notion of a soulmate doesn’t make much sense unless some kind of a mystical force is presupposed.

For more fun soulmate thoughts, see this conversation between Josh Knobe and psychologist Roy Baumeister about self-control and soulmates — or this conversation between philosophers Niko Kolodny and Simon Keller about love and reasons.

Related articles:

Well-Being: Psychological Research for Philosophers By Valerie Tiberius, University of Minnesota
(Vol. 1, September 2006) Philosophy Compass

Welfarism By Simon Keller , University of Melbourne
(Vol. 3, December 2008) Philosophy Compass

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