A person's capacity for change (pt. 1)

Writer’s note: this was a difficult one to write, I scrapped an earlier draft completely because the more I wrote, the more I found myself having to account for too many considerations, which led to me feeling like I knew nothing about anything. That feeling prompted me to start over and adopt a structure that provided more focus.

Let me start by saying that this essay will adopt a somewhat unconventional structure. I will state upfront my position on a matter and get toward that destination through a process of elimination. If that sounds like an ignorant student attempting to answer a multiple-choice question by a process of elimination because he is unsure, well yes — today, that student is me.

The topic for today is an individual’s capacity for change. This reminds me of an assignment that I did for my philosophy professor, Prof. James Yess, when we were discussing the topic of free will vs determinism. We were challenged with describing our position with six words, as a sort of homage to Hemingway’s six-word story. I wrote something along the lines of, “Freer — but not free — will exists.” My position here is that of a compatibilist, in short, I believe that individual agency can exist alongside determinism. As it relates to today’s topic, I believe that an individual should only be judged based on the things that they can reasonably change about themselves.

Let us begin by first unpacking the term “self”. We can think of the self from a first-person perspective: a physical body that can be moved by our volition and a conscious mind that thinks, imagines, and remembers, among many other mental actions. Between the false dichotomy of mind and body, we have senses that can receive and interpret external stimuli, feelings that can experience the greatest joy and deepest sadness, and beliefs that seem so deeply ingrained in ourselves that they seem like second nature. Then there are aspects of ourselves that we are often unaware of — the unconscious mind. Before we go through this laundry list to evaluate which elements of the self are more changeable, let us quickly discuss why we would consider changing ourselves in the first place.

If we lived in a world where we were the only human being, we probably did not need to change ourselves that much, with the exception of learning behaviors that prevent physical pain, increase sensorial pleasure and ensure survival by meeting our bodily needs. If we had an anger management problem in such a world, we may not be motivated to change because acting on it may not yield much negative impact. Perhaps we may hurt ourselves if we punched a rock — in which case we may change mainly to minimize pain, as mentioned earlier, but not to address the anger. Fortunately in our reality, no man is an island — we live in an interconnected society that is filled with rich social relationships, where individual acts can have social outcomes. Humans are social creatures and our relationships are very meaningful to us. Therefore, on top of the aforementioned reasons for change, we also try to prevent emotional pain and increase psychological wellness, not just on an individual level but expanded to a wider social dimension. The earlier example of an anger management issue would have more serious consequences due to the potential to harm others. The person would also be more pressured to change due to socioemotional mechanisms of guilt and shame. Many of our personal behavioral changes, therefore, can be traced to our desire to be good for our society.

Now, back to the laundry list – which of the previously stated aspects of the self are we more able to change? Alterations made to the body are commonplace in certain areas of the world and to specific groups of people. However, in general, it is something that is not easily changed. Procedures can be painful, expensive, and sometimes even endanger a person’s life. I guess this is why judging anyone based on how they look feels wrong. Next, the unconscious mind is usually out-of-reach to us unless we seek psychoanalytic intervention, which often requires professional help. It is important to note, however, that the psychoanalytic definition of the unconscious is still debated to this day. If we take the cognitive definition of the unconscious and extend it to the realm of implicit cognitive biases and heuristics (as pioneered by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky), we can counteract some of these automatic processes through conscious compensation. Therefore, we find ourselves in the realm of conscious thought and feeling, which includes sense perception, emotion (a.k.a. affect), cognition, and belief. By definition, we are aware of our consciousness, which makes it the most actively changeable aspect of our self relative to the previous two (i.e. body and unconscious).

We are aware of our sense perceptions, but they are generally unchanged by conscious thought. We can, however, compensate for perceptual illusions by being aware of them. Emotions, especially intense ones like anger and grief, can sometimes be felt viscerally, but they can be regulated through thought. Our emotions often come from our interpretation of certain events that occur in our life. The area of practical philosophy, which aims to aid people in living “wiser, more reflective lives,” has been a central part of philosophers’ work since Laozi and Socrates and likely predates them. Hence, even if we feel strongly about something that happened to us, we are able to respond in a measured way, sometimes by reframing the experience in different ways.

Cognition refers to the mental activities involved in acquiring knowledge and understanding. It can be strengthened through various thinking tools and approaches that we learn and then employ to solve problems and make decisions. It is probably one of the most changeable parts of our mind, as seen from the huge investments that societies around the world put into educating people, especially the young, to read, write and do arithmetic. Based on the World Bank’s figures, we spent around 4.53% of global GDP, equivalent to US$3.68 trillion ($3,682,348,740,000), on education in 2017. Generally speaking, someone who has a better understanding of how the world works should be able to behave in a way that benefits themselves and their society. They may also be in a position that helps them understand complex, strategic, and long-term decisions that require trade-offs, compromises, and short-term sacrifices. Therefore, learning — specifically the acquisition of knowledge and skills — remains to be a powerful force for both personal improvement and social mobility.

Writer’s note: I realized that this topic cannot be adequately discussed in a single 1000-word essay. Click here for part 2.