What is a self? Merely a human being? Or perhaps a soul? Hume claimed he could not find a self when he looked within, only a succession of impressions.
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.