Why Not Change Your Core Self? Part II

12 November 2019

If you could snap your fingers and all your tastes and preferences would change overnight, would you do it? I don’t think I would—even if I woke up having lots of things I (newly) liked, knowing how to cook the new foods I liked, with friends who also (newly) liked all the things I liked, and so on. I’m guessing you wouldn’t do it, either. My question: why not?


In my last post, I considered two kinds of answer to this question. First, you might say that the tastes and preferences you have now are yours, and that’s why you want to keep them around. Or, more drastically, you could say that changing your tastes and preferences would require changing your core self—who you really are, “deep down.” Neither of these answers seemed satisfying, because neither gives us any obvious reason not to make the change. We can simply ask a version of our original question, in slightly different terms. Why not take on new tastes and preferences as yours? Moreover, why not change your core self?


You might think that changing your core self would constitute a kind of death. And if you thought this, you’d be in good company. In his magnum opus In Search of Lost Time, Marcel Proust treated change in what (and who) you love as the death of a self you once were. Proust thought that this kind of death of a self is complete when you look back on something you previously adored with utter indifference. That is something you might well do in my thought experiment, if you were to change your tastes and preferences overnight. The jazz you once loved might leave you completely cold. That can sound like something to mourn.


But is it really all that illuminating to say that changing your core self is a form of death? It might at first seem illuminating, in the following way. Death is something we fear and resist, even though it’s not rational to do that. We can explain such resistance nonetheless. A long history of selective evolutionary pressures has left us organisms who remain with the kind of death aversion that tended to propagate our species in the past. The ones who feared and resisted death were the ones who tended to survive, and they passed that resistance on to us. 


But we cannot transfer explanation of a fear of death back to help us with our question. The pressures that left us who we are today selected for a fear of literal death—what happens when an animal organism ceases to function. But the ‘death’ of a core self is simply not the same thing. If you woke up with completely new tastes and preferences tomorrow, you would still be the same functioning animal organism you were the day before. You could even have explicit, rich memories of what came before. This is not how things will be, one day, when the lights really turn off for you. For this reason, calling a drastic change in the core self “death” does not open such an easy avenue to explaining our resistance to this change. 


Here’s a more compelling explanation of our resistance to change in the core self that does not make that resistance end up looking reasonable. 


The kind of change you usually consider is local: for instance, change to just one taste or preference you have. You might worry that you will stop loving David Foster Wallace (DFW) one day, or that you will stop finding joy in eating food of many diverse cuisines. You might have real, genuine reason to resist any such local change in your tastes. For example, you might have built friendships around your love for DFW, and you would drift away from those friends if you stopped loving him. Your taste for all sorts of food might lead you to travel to new and exciting places, and you would miss doing that too if you stopped loving new kinds of food.


But now we are not considering just some such local change in just one taste or preference. We are considering a global change to all your tastes at once—with a corresponding change that instantaneously restructures your world in order to cater to those new tastes. 


Since such global change involves lots of local change, and you have at least some reason not to undergo each such local change, you might think these reasons add up to lots of reasons not to undergo such global change to your tastes and preferences too. But this does not follow. Your reasons might not be structured in this way. 


Some reasons that you have not to undergo local changes in taste depend on other tastes of yours, as with the food and travel example. Other reasons not to undergo such local changes depend on the way you’ve organized your life around what you like, as with DFW. But if there’s a global change in your tastes and a corresponding global change in the way your world is set up around those tastes, it’s not as though all your reasons not to change sum up to one huge set of reasons not to change all your tastes. Instead, all your reasons not to change would evaporate. There wouldn’t be other stable tastes to give you reason not to change individual tastes of yours—and your world wouldn’t bear against changing your tastes, either. 


If there really isn’t reason not to undergo global change in all your tastes and preferences, why do we resist it? I think we all easily get confused. We generalize from the pain and inconvenience of local change to imagine that global change would involve much more pain and inconvenience—even if our world changed to cater to our new tastes. I think this is a mistake, but it’s a sticky one. I keep making it myself. 


There may always be reason not to change your tastes and preferences a little bit, even though there may be no reason not to change them completely, so long as your world reorganizes itself alongside your changing tastes and preferences. That is, perhaps you should be all right with changing your core self, in just the way I’ve described. But that doesn’t mean you should be comfortable with more local or incremental changes. Those are the difficult ones, after all.


Photo by Niv Singer on Unsplash

Comments (4)

L Wakefield's picture

L Wakefield

Wednesday, November 13, 2019 -- 5:15 AM

Why not change your core self

Why not change your core self?

Parmenides told of a change-- of being carried in a chariot through a large door into a hidden world.

I suspect that Zeno tried to help others understand this change by the mathematical paradoxes he invented.

Take the race between Achilles and the torttoise, where the tortoise is given a head start. If one believes the idea that before Achilles can overtake the tortoise, he must first reach a point that's between himself and the tortoise, then Achilles will never overtake the tortoise.

But (perhaps since there were more tortoises in those days) everybody in the audience knew that any human being could overtake a tortoise simply by walking-- much less by running. And Achilles was the fastest of the heroes!

From this perspective, the change that Parmenides told of-- the change of passing through the door-- was a change from believing (an idea) to knowing (from experience).

As support for this, according to Plato, the one person whom Socrates held in awe was Parmenides. In this context, most likely the change that Parmenides described was a change from believing what-one-is to knowing what-one-is-- it was the change to "Know thyself."

To accomplish such a change, according to Plato, Socrates advocated "dialectic," which comprises the words "two" (dia-) and "tongues" (lectic).

I know that Hegel generalized the idea. But to start with, it seems to me dialectic would have just meant talking with Socrates-- not just any two people talking with opposite ideas. In Plato's dialogues, dialectic always means Socrates talking with another person.

So for Parmenides and Socrates, the change you are (perhaps) writing about involved listening to one of these gifted individuals. (As well as, most likely, listening to yourself answer their questions.)

So it seems that the change in this case most likely involved more than just words.

There would have been prosody, for example. Facial expressions. Even touch.

This change from believing about to knowing the self must have involved feeling.

The heart must have been involved.


No heart-- no change?

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Friday, November 15, 2019 -- 3:32 AM

I heart this post… even as I

I heart this post… even as I disagree and find issue… I would come to terms with it… I just can’t.

Nobody invents math. Zeno, perhaps, was the first to think of his paradoxes (more likely it was the work of one of his graduate students ;-) Regardless of where he got this idea, Zeno is lauded for his paradox not because of its mystical merit but rather because he used it to justify his monism which has ramified to this day. L Wakefield, your post would do the same.

Parmenides used Orphic metaphor (that is all his hidden door is – metaphor) to justify the Eleatic monistic vision which denied simple fact and observation.

Let us first come to terms by understanding that Zeno’s paradoxes have been resolved. Divisibility and seeming cosmological infinity are today understood. Creation is finite on a quantum level and heavenly scale. While Zeno wasn’t able to change his core monistic abiding self, Leucippus and his pupil Democritus did just that in Zeno’s own epoch.

Humans might have saved centuries of human effort if only atomism and the brain, as the center of thought, were rightly understood as Leucippus and Democritus correctly deduced by observation and reason. Oddly enough they deduced atomism, at least, from Zeno’s paradoxes themselves.

Dialectic is a loaded term not only to Socratic method and Hegel but also to Marx. The false etymology is inexcusable (“two” “tongues” ??) and probably due, in part, to a sixteenth century misconception that strains the brain in its use here. Dia comes from the Greek primarily meaning “between” not "two". Lectic comes from the Greek legein meaning “speak”. You have to go pretty far back and stretch some more into Proto-Indo-European (PIE) to get a cognate similar to di – meaning two. You have to fabricate falsity altogether to get tongue from the PIE root leg-.

Parmenides and Zeno had nothing to do with change. They argued monistic nonsense that denied common sense. In the case of Achilles and the tortoise it was used to question motion itself.

Antonia’s post here doesn’t "seem" to come from Parmenides, Socrates or the heart. It comes form her thought experiment and modern idea of core self. The very idea of experimentation eluded the Ancients en masse. It comes from her brain through her words.

Only if heart is used metaphorically as a proxy for feeling, emotion and thought wholly housed in the human cortex can I find any common ground with you here. I think that is what your are saying, but the ancient origins and seeming acceptance of their validity give me pause.

I have slept on this... and would sleep more. I also have more, L Wakefield, to say/take issue with your post. I will if time and grace allow. In the meantime I will let the 24 hour rule solidify this post so as to allow others to hone their axes on its trunk. It is a very obdurate trunk, but I look forward to the chopping. A good pruning is incumbent of all philosophers. Excuse the metaphor but that prune is the gist of Dr. Peakcocke's musings here to begin with.

Let us come to terms in living Philosophy and not the vapid dregs of false prophets... be they dead or alive.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Thursday, November 14, 2019 -- 11:45 AM

In a hypothetical sense, this

In a hypothetical sense, this is similar to my take on the notion of infinity Among other remarks made on that deepest(?) of mysteries, I said that infinity was hardly worth contemplating, because it is neither a goal; state; nor destination. None of us will ever get there because there is no 'there' to get to. If changing one's core self could be thought desirable, it would not likely matter. We are pretty much locked in to the core self we have been given (or rather, that which has evolved with our own personal growth and evolution). John Searle talked about constitutive and institutional rules, facts and so on. What he did not mention is that such rules and facts are but contrivances, propounded in order to make our notions of what is right, true and logical fit with the realities of life, as we know it, and our attempt to tailor our own expectations and behaviors with those of the people around us. Fit, and whether it is world-to-mind or mind-to-world, is very much a matter of comfort and expediency, even survival in some instances. Changing core self, could it really do done, might engender more discomfort and inconvenience than it would be worth. A man's got to know his limitations (Clint Eastwood)... Good night and good luck (Edward R. Murrow).

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Friday, November 15, 2019 -- 2:52 AM

I still find this a

I still find this a fantastical thought experiment. We can't change our core selves. We often don't even understand how we form sentences or thoughts until after they are spoken. But then I think to real counter examples and it makes me go hmm...

Stockholm syndrome might be an example worth thinking about here. When worlds change drastically so do minds.

College freshmen released from home alter attitude and core self beliefs when allowed a change of environments. Derek Black is good example as told in this story last week on PBS NewsHour.


There is good biology to show that the later example might be an age related phenomena. Apes also have this band changing behaviour in either male or female young adults depending on the specie.

There are also tipping point tales of sudden world view changes. The Swerve is one bringing on the renaissance. Constantine's conversion is another bringing on the Dark Ages. The Russian and Chinese revolutions. Not to mention Hong Kong, Bolivia, Span and Iraq in the news as I post. All are hardly personal stories of core self change, but large changes nonetheless.

All of the above, plus personal stories of change I have seen in my family and community (the homeless epidemic is unparalleled in my childhood) make me wonder again that this post needs thought.

Most significantly climate change is the biggest cause requiring core self changes in large groups of humans to allow long term viability to our current populations. We don't have the time to allow death to force changes in lieu of the dangers a few more degrees will cause.

All told, I'm back where I started and now I wonder not if but how. I want this change. We need it. No matter how painful the small changes. We need hope on a grand scale and wholesale change to boot.