Why Not Change Your Core Self?

25 October 2019

Let’s say you could snap your fingers and all your various tastes and aesthetic preferences would change overnight. You would appreciate different foods, you would like different books, you would prefer different colors and clothing styles and jokes. Would you do it? 


I’m guessing your answer is a clear ‘no.’ I would say ‘no’ too. But why? Why not switch?


The answer might at first seem easy. It would be really inconvenient to gain an entirely new set of preferences. You’ve set your life up around the ones you already have and you’ve made friends who like the same sorts of things as you. What’s more, you’ve made a great investment of research into those things you currently like. Changing your preferences and tastes would be a real headache and a lot of work.


The problem with this answer is that such inconvenience wasn’t essential to the question I wanted to ask. Let’s say you could snap your fingers and overnight all your preferences would change—but so would the world around you, in corresponding ways. Your friends would express newfound enthusiasm for the same things you’ve just begun to like. And you’d find yourself, by some miracle, endowed with deep knowledge of how to find and appreciate the things you now prefer. 


Would you do it? I expect you’d still say ‘no.’ So would I. But I’m a little less sure why. Let’s look for some explanations of our natural resistance to such an overnight preference switch.


My first thought is that, if I accepted this switch, the new preferences wouldn’t be mine in the way my previous preferences were really mine. But let’s try to figure out what that can possibly mean. 


We might start here: my old preferences were ones I liked having. Perhaps I not only had a preference for horror movies, but I also liked having that preference. I had a positive second-order attitude about the preference itself. But why would this have to be any different after the switch? We could once again build into the thought experiment that the switch would provide new preferences and a whole set of second-order positive attitudes towards them. Even if we built that in, I would still not switch. You probably wouldn’t, either. That seems to indicate that second-order liking of preferences is not fundamental to their being mine in the right way.


Here’s a more flat-footed attempt to say why the new preferences wouldn’t really be mine: I just got them! I have a long history with the old preferences. But can such a basic fact about preferences establish them as mine? The sheer persistence of something about me doesn’t necessarily imply that it’s mine in any deep sense. I’ve also had trouble sleeping since I was young, and I don’t own that trouble as mine that rationalizes keeping it around. I would be ready to give it up in a heartbeat. 


Here’s a third attempt. Perhaps what it takes for preferences to be mine in the right way is for them to come from me in the right way. The challenge now is to say what that right way is. 


One tricky thing about preferences is that we (usually) don’t reason our way into them. Many, if not all, of our preferences just fell into our laps. I just figured out one day that pink makes me happier than brown. I realized that olives taste bad to me. I don’t have reasons for these preferences, and they didn’t come from any reasoning process. That doesn’t show they’re not mine. In fact, that can make them seem really mine. 


So what it takes for preferences to come from me in the right way can’t be a matter of a reasoning process. Let’s try something else. Maybe what it takes for preferences to come from me in the right way is for them to reflect something deep in me. That deep thing could partly consist in my physiological makeup—including the way my brain and body are wired—but it could also consist in something less tangible, my ‘core self.’ It’s easy to feel that an overnight switch in preferences would have to do one of two bad things with my core self: either the new preferences wouldn’t reflect that core self that I’ve kept, or my core self would change. 


Now, we can easily build into the case that your new preferences would reflect your core self. But in order to do that, we may well have to admit that the switch would change your core self in some way.


I don’t think this gets us any closer to answering our question, though. We’ve built into the thought experiment that the shift in preferences would change your core self. That certainly seems like something I wouldn’t want to do—and I expect you wouldn’t want to, either. But we can simply ask our question again, now in an even more puzzling way. Why not change your core self? 


To sharpen the worry, let’s build in even more. Let’s say you like your new core self, as well as the new preferences. Your home, your social network, and your knowledge are all in sync with your new self, as are your new preferences. Your physiological makeup lines up with your new core self and your new preferences. And there’s nothing objectively worse about your new core self—you just like different stuff. So why not switch? 


I think the answer we reach for here is as obvious as it is uninformative: because that’s me. When we come to points as basic as this in philosophy, it’s hard to know what to do. Have we reached rock bottom, a fundamental fact, which needs no further explanation? If so, our inability to explain ourselves any further might not look problematic. 


But there’s another, troubling possibility on the horizon. We might have simply reached a deep, entrenched bias. This casts doubt on the legitimacy of our resistance to the switch. We might think the fact that we can’t explain ourselves any further shows that there isn’t any good reason to think this way. Indeed, we might think we should give up thinking this way. 


I’ll consider this possibility in my next post.


Photo by Niv Singer on Unsplash


Comments (11)

L Wakefield's picture

L Wakefield

Friday, November 8, 2019 -- 6:36 AM

the dream child hypothesis

Is it possible that a person in Trump's base could change preferences?

Please see the conversation in the attached link. There is kindness on both sides.

The elephant in the room is abortion.

One side deploys this analogy:

It is just as great a crime to destroy the painting of an artist when it is 80 percent complete as when it is 100 percent complete.

The painting is an analogy for a human life.

The other answers with a different analogy:

From behind the curtain, enters a twirling ballerina.

She dances a brief, dramatic story.

And in the end, she disappears behind the curtain-- forever.

The stage is life.

The ballerina is the self.



Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Wednesday, October 30, 2019 -- 12:22 AM

Hmm... this book seems a bit

Hmm... this book seems a bit shallow. Certainly we are not born unto our identity if that is what you are saying. Ask any shaken baby.

I applaud your self promotion and effort. Now comes the hard part. What are your reactions to this post? The easy path is to say your say, without coming to terms with others. Can you change your preference for self promotion and actually contribute here? I ask in all sincerity.

To quote P.D. Eastman "I do not like your hat."

L Wakefield's picture

L Wakefield

Sunday, November 3, 2019 -- 7:58 PM

In all sincerity, then. Here


Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Monday, November 4, 2019 -- 9:26 AM

Ah... so you change your post

Ah... so you change your post. Then put a "?" You can't change your postdate though can you? That won't change the vacuity of your books either. That troll hat looks good on you.

Laura Maguire's picture

Laura Maguire

Friday, November 8, 2019 -- 9:40 AM

I did see the original

I did see the original comment that Tim Smith responded to and which was later edited so that the response didn't make sense. As a result, comment editing will now no longer be possible a day after the original comment has been made. So, for example, if you make typos when commenting, you will still be able to edit your comment to fix them if you do so right away. However, after a day your comment will be fixed.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Sunday, October 27, 2019 -- 12:47 PM

Call me sentimental, but I

Call me sentimental, but I have mostly enjoyed my own experiences; quirks; foibles; idiosyncrasies and outright foolishness-es. Certainly it could be interesting to change all of that, but to what avail? Might as well say: start a new life, ala tabula rasa, start rolling the dice and see where bets might now take you! But, again, there is the matter of having led a life which was, better-or-worse, pretty good, chucking all of that for what, the unknown? I am a person of a certain age, whether having gotten there through cunning premeditation or dumb luck, what I have done I have done my way (thanks, Frank). A new me would amount to (maybe) some form of reincarnation, which is not all that unpleasant sounding, but, why do it over again? We are pretty ephemeral, compared to some other living things, so why ought we seek a radical new approach to all of that? On the other cuff, though, what if the propounders of reincarnation are correct? Suppose we are all just consciousness in temporal vessels and, destined to live other lives, again and again? If so, the notion of changing 'core selves' is nothing new and has been happening for thousands of years---or, maybe, there are only a finite array of core selves to go around? It's all speculative, of course.

I met a child once. At the wedding of a friend. During the wedding dinner, she kept her eyes on me much of the time. The experience was almost super, or better, supra-natural. She acted as though she knew me, with knowing smiles and a warmth of countenance which was charming. It was disturbing, in an nonthreatening way and by the end of the evening I sensed that I had come face-to-face with the reincarnation of my long deceased mother. Pretty creepy? Maybe so, but for a time, I read a little on reincarnation, trying to discover what had happened to me that evening and what, if anything, it meant for the rest of my life; how it might tie into who and what I would yet become. I have no notion. Still can't quite connect the dots. Perhaps it was something like what Jung called synchronicity. But, I may never know for sure. And, I do not expect anything as dramatic as a change in my core self. That self, whatever it is, is fine the way it is. I wonder what became of that little girl. I hope she is well...

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Wednesday, October 30, 2019 -- 7:37 AM

Professor Peacocke,

Professor Peacocke,

Yes. Yes I would like to do this snap change. I'd change especially if my friends would lose my number - or perhaps Mark Zuckerberg (in fact I've recently deleted my FB account for other reasons - but perhaps not entirely other.) Could you tell me how to do this snap change? I think it to be impossible without a leukotomy, drug or worse still some spartan self help routine pushed on me by some encroaching trend.

I'm guessing your answer is a clear 'no'. But how? How can one change their aesthetics?

I can tell you that it takes 30 days to delete your FB account (if you can trust such a company to follow their own policy - I have no confidence or qualms for that matter in my impending erasure.) Changing your preferences, ideas or mind even...that is the hard problem.

It's not that we can't change our thought. We can. We can not do anything, however, of our own choice, devoid of experience and the biological burden of our embodied minds. In fact, we are probably not who we think we are when we attribute any one thing to our identity. That is what "science" seems to be saying, to me if to no one else. But that is a thread jack and bitter pill best left to your impending essay.

But first and lastly why? Why would I give up my preferences? For the truth. Certainly not for relative beauty. Truth, absolute truth, is the one aspiration that I'd alter my staid and well pruned neural network to get just a little bit more comfortable in my own correctness. You don't seem open to reasons for change, but I think you too would like some truth for the snapping. Am I wrong? It would be the first time... I kid.

I'm looking forward to your next post. I'd keep it within the lines however. Philosophy is explaining how things in the broadest possible sense hang together in the broadest possible sense. I'm not sure if I understand what a preference is. You too ask this question. I'm not sure if you intend to answer it or not. I'll read your posts though because that is my preference.

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Wednesday, October 30, 2019 -- 8:22 AM

So... I slept on this. I've

So... I slept on this. I've fixed some typos above and now let me fix my thought about this idea one last time.

Wilfrid Sellars is the person who couched philosophy as understanding how things in the broadest sense of the term relate together in the broadest sense of the term. It was António Egas Moniz who won the Noble prize for pithing tens of thousands of human brains - mostly minorities and women.

I don't know why I have a need to attribute those two ideas. Science is surely the basal note of any contemporary philosophy as misguided as that may become. Attribution is central to the attachment to ones preferences. Though we may be standing on the shoulders of giants I'm really not too sure what exactly our standing is in the first place. As I read your essay again I wonder about what I am.

The more I think about this the less I think of my preferences, indeed, the less I think of my self at all. Sleep allows a certain clarity and consultation with my limited grasp where my own preferences originate.

Not sure if that adds anything or clarifies my response.

RepoMan05's picture


Wednesday, November 6, 2019 -- 3:37 PM

Change your core self? Not

Change your core self? Change what's innate to you? Not possible without: un-invented drugs, un-invended surgery and un-invented biotechnology. Unless by "change" you mean: drasticly, uncontrollably and detrimentally incur brain damage.

You can't just argue with billions of years or evolution without lying to yourself. It would be easier for you to argue with God-himself(assuming).

RepoMan05's picture


Wednesday, November 6, 2019 -- 12:22 PM

When Catholics are near, you

"When Catholics are near, you should always triple check if your "enemies" are your "best friends" and your "best friends" are your "enemies."
~ Really Really Dead People
~ The Bucket of a Well
~ and, The Phantom of a Dropout.

abdreaa23's picture


Tuesday, March 5, 2024 -- 8:00 AM

People can undergo personal

People can undergo personal development, learn new skills, word hurdle change habits, and adapt to different circumstances,

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