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Welcome to, rationally speaking, the podcast, where we explore the borderlands between reason and nonsense. I'm your host, Julia Gillard. And with me is today's guest, L-A Paul. She is a professor of philosophy at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. One of her areas of focus is what she calls transformative experiences, which is a topic I've been interested in for a long time, although I didn't have this excellent handle to describe it. Choices about transformative experiences are especially difficult to think about conceptually, philosophically, for reasons we'll get into.
And they also include some of the most important decisions we have to make in our lives. So with that introduction, Laurie, welcome to rationally speaking.
Thank you. Thanks for inviting me to have the conversation. So, Laurie, you're a philosopher, and so hopefully you will won't mind if I ask you to kick things off by precisely defining your terms. What is a transformative experience?
OK, so the way that I like to characterize transformative experiences are experiences that have both an epistemic and a personal component. A transformative experience is something that changes you epistemically. That's a sort of technical philosophical term. But you can think of it as it changes your conceptual framework or it changes your mind, it changes your understanding of the nature of reality and a personal transformation changes who you are. And so a transformative experience, the way that I like to talk about it, I think it's important to talk about it this way, which we can get into is an experience that changes what you know about yourself or about the world or about your relationship to the world.
And that change either scales up into a change about the way you think about yourself or it causes a change in a way that you sort of think about yourself or understand yourself or in who you are. And so the epistemic transformation, which is this change or sort of mental discovery that you make then brings about a personal change. And it's a personal change that's not just minimal. It's not like getting your haircut, but it changes what you care about, how you think of yourself or you know who you care about.
Maybe you could give an example of a sort of characteristic. Sure. To change.
So one of OK, so the way that I like to think about these cases often involves starting out with a pretend case, a fictional case, because that way it's nice and clean and we can kind of imagine ourselves into the situation.
So in particular, the case that I like is one where we imagine that you have the chance to become a vampire. It's a one time only chance Dracula himself has discovered you. And he tells you, look, with one swift, painless bite, you'll be permanently transformed into an elegant and fabulous creature of the night.
Do I glitter, though? That's really crucial. Oh, well, yeah. Yeah, but you will look really good in black.
OK, ok, so. So that's a plus. You'll be really strong and powerful and you'll have like incredible sensory experiences. But it's also it's irreversible. It's an irreversible transformation. And the problem is that you can't bathe in the sun anymore. You can't you have to drink blood. Maybe it's blood of humanely farmed animals or it's artificially created blood.
And you know, the way that you'll regard the world and people around you is going to change. That's if you were presented with that choice. And it was a one time only chance. The question is, would you do it now? You might think, well, I'll just go and ask some of the people. So you go and ask your friends or your or your mom and they confess to you that they've already become vampires.
Well, I couldn't tell about it's kind of interesting. Yeah, well, exactly.
So so. Well, you know, vampires are incredibly skilled at covering themselves up in some ways. And, you know, so it's really interesting. And then you talk to them and you ask them, you know, what should you do? And they laugh at you because they tell you that you can't possibly understand what it's like to be a vampire until you become one. OK, so why this matters is the thought is that you're faced with a choice where you could become a vampire, but as a mere human, you just can't understand what it's like to become a vampire.
And so if you become a vampire, that's going to change the way that you understand reality and your relationship to reality is going to change how you experience the world. And it's also going to change you personally. So that's a good example. I think about kind of fictional case of like if you were thinking about undergoing a massive transformation, real life cases, I think involve one's having one's first child.
Yeah. In fact, I have to say, if I read your book and you you kick off the book with the vampire example, which is great. And the whole time you were describing it, I was thinking to myself, boy, this really has a lot of parallels to deciding whether or not to be a parent. And then later in the book, when you introduce the idea of becoming a parent and, you know, after introducing it, you say, and I should.
Point out this has some parallels to the choice of whether or not to become a vampire. Exactly. I mean, not on the object level, it's just the parallels in the sense of being transformative, although I guess you do kind of become undead for the first couple of years of parenting. That's right.
That's right. You stay up a lot at night. That's right. That's right.
Well, another case that's really a couple of the kids, they're really interesting are sort of if you go into the military and and fight on the front lines, I haven't done that. But I've been doing quite a bit of reading about that kind of case. And that's one where people testify to having basically a kind of transformative experience, especially if they had to kill someone or they're, you know, enmeshed in a really kind of violent altercation. That's a bad kind of transformative experience, but it's transformative nonetheless.
Yeah, I mean, I think the most interesting cases are ones in which the the people who have been through the transformative experience wax rhapsodic about it and say they're so glad they did it. But to you, it seems like not not clearly a good experience, but they have been through it and they say that it's great and you just can't understand. It's a little less interesting, I guess, when the person says you can't understand how terrible this was, you just have no idea, no way of imagining how terrible this is.
And I'm like, great, I will take your word for it. And not I could go about transformative experience.
Well, so with the case going to battle is interesting because people will say, oh yeah, it's terrible to be in battle, but then they'll also tell you things like my you know, I was forged in that battle and then, you know, that they are they're stronger now as a result or there's certain positive characteristics have come out of it. So sometimes you get this kind of interesting, weird. Oh, it was terrible. But I'm I'm glad that I went through it or I wouldn't be the person I am now if I hadn't that.
There is a bunch of interesting stuff to unpack there. But before we touch that, I just I want to ask whether you conceive of transformative experiences as or let me reiterate that whether you think of the difference between a transformative versus a non transformative experience as a difference in kind or a difference in degree, like, do you see a sort of spectrum of how transformative an experience is, where on the one end we have like eating a sandwich and like maybe I'm a slightly different person after you buy a sandwich, but not much.
I'm going at the other end would be like maybe having your IQ multiplied by a billion or like moving to like stepping outside of the simulation or something like that, where it's just basically impossible to imagine what that would be like. And having kids or being a vampire is somewhere on that spectrum. Or do you see a sort of clean, bright line that separates transformative from non transformative experiences? OK, so good question.
Let me there are some things as a philosopher, I want to sort of try to distinguish there. So first, I don't think that, like, usually having a sandwich, for example, would count as a transformative experience the way that I'm thinking about it, because it might be a little maybe it's a little more tasty than any sandwich you've had or it's a little colder or it's a little different in some way. So it's kind of epistemically changes you a little bit, but it doesn't lead to any personal change and so on.
That way of thinking about things, you had to sort of mind even a minor discovery by tasting this new kind of sandwich. You're tasting this new kind of food generally, but it doesn't scale up into something that's transformative.
Are you agreeing that it transforms your tiny bit, but you just think that for practical purposes we should round that down to zero? Or do you really think it changes you zero?
What I'm saying is I'm agreeing that it epistemically transforms you, but it doesn't personally transform you. And the way that I think about transformative experience, it's got to do both. So so. So there's no it's not it's not a transformative experience. It's a change. It's an epidemic change experience.
I guess I'm imagining that my values, my sort of personality, my worldview changed very gradually over time, just as the results, the cumulative result of all these little decisions that I make, all these little experiences that I have that add up. And so I was I mean, I just picked eating a sandwich is like a random example. But but surely, like all of those little actions that I take on an everyday basis are part of that gradual change in my personality.
I mean, maybe. No, no. So you can. So what matters here, though, is how we frame the events in question. So I do think that the kind of gradual change that individuals undergo, especially when they change from small children into adults, involve conceptual and personal change. And so over, say, a ten year period when you age from 10 to 20, then conceptually you're going to add certain kinds of epistemic resources to your repertoire and you're going to change as a person at those conceptual changes will lead to personal changes.
So, yes, you've got an extended in slow, transformative experience, but it's transformative, not moment to moment. But when we sort of we have to we have to say it's a transformative experience from age 10 to age 20. But even if it's not transformed from one moment, it's still transformative. Starting it at T1, which is at at age 10, then by age 20, it's transformative.
Well, maybe, OK, so maybe it wasn't the most useful example I could have picked. What if what about something like going to a party or meeting a new person where there's at least some non negligible chance that my values or worldview will be transformed a little bit by meeting these new people and talking to them? Like, I can point to examples where I see I see at least a slight difference in who I am based on having met a new person.
So we need to distinguish again.
Sorry, I do know. So we want to distinguish the one. But the one possibility, which is that some small minor event causes a change in you or slowly or causes other sorts of small changes that cumulatively add up to change. And also the small chance that some small event like having a sandwich will cause a dramatic change in in who you are over a short period of time. Both are possible. Whether or not it's transformative in the sense that I'm interested in depends partly on what you bring to it.
So if I've had, say, six children, I think it's unlikely that having another child is going to be epistemically transformative. Might be, but it's it's familiar to me. So in certain ways. And adding another child to the brood. So you're distinguishing the magnet expected magnitude of the transformation from the probability of.
What I'm saying is that there are a number of different dimensions of this. And it's only when certain one might say parameters are set that you get the kind of transformative experience that I think is interesting and that we want to pursue, but that there are sort of messiness. There can be messy cases around the edges that are that that are sort of edge cases that are also interesting. So it's not about so much about the probabilities in particular or about the magnitude of it.
You have to look at it sort of as a case on a case by case basis and say, oh, this is the natural kind of transformative exponentially or the psychological kind of transformative experience for some one person. It might for another one it doesn't.
So it's sort of like saying, yes, there's a difference in kind between games and buildings, but that doesn't mean that there aren't some cases where you're like, does this count as a game? Like where we're like, yeah, we're like playing hopscotch. Is that really a game? There's no, like, win and I don't know, maybe there is no kotoko or something. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.
Or dance or a game. Kind of.
Not really. But so it's like fuzzy but it's still a distinct category. It's not a sort of continuous spectrum from games to buildings. That's right.
That's right. And so and also some of the fuzziness can be like with the temporal extension.
So I tend to look at very sharp transitions because those are easy to pinpoint. But you were right to say, well, you know, you could have an extended one. And the socialization process that happens when people become like pick out a professional career is often one that's kind of temporally extended temple experience. And then you look back and you realize 10, 20 years down the line that you've become a different kind of person.
Yeah, I guess one reason that I was asking about whether it's a difference in degree or difference in kind is that you talk about transformative experiences. You use phrasing like you can't know what it's like. And it seems to me that that's I mean, maybe that's just shorthand, but if it's not just shorthand, it seems like I can I mean, I know more than nothing like I you know, maybe I've never I've never been a vampire before, but I have I have been in the night time before.
I have I have, I don't know, been part of like sort of exclusive or secret societies before or I'm imagining or I have felt sort of like a discriminated against minority before. I don't know. I can sort of pick out components of the experience that I have some experience with. And unless you want to stipulate that they combine in such a way that is completely unrelated to that, the whole is completely different from the sum of the parts. It still feels like I have more than zero information about what that experience would be like.
There's not a complete singularity, you know, between me and that experience.
I think that's what I think on the very edge, maybe in a massive technological change or. Yeah, the singularity or something like that, you might get very extreme. There's just the quality of life is fundamentally different. There's no way that you could know what that's going to be like. But in most kinds of cases, there's first there's stuff that, you know, for example, you might have evidence or testimony or descriptions from from others. And it might be that, you know, something about like you're saying, some of the parts of the of the experience.
And so when I used the a couple of things. So that book, the book, that transformative experience, although it's pretty accessible. To people who aren't totally enmeshed in sort of philosophical debates about these questions, it still is written for those people. And so when I use the what it's like phrasing, I'm actually really trying to kind of pull out and say, look, there's a there's a subjective quality of the experience that is really important to us, is potentially very important to us when we're thinking about making a decision and we can't grasp that.
So it's not that there aren't other elements of the subjective quality of the experience like becoming a parent. Well, I know what it's time now. I've been jet lagged and there's a way in which I knew before I became apparent that it was kind of going to be like being jet lag now, OK, jet lagged for two years instead of three days. And that actually does have a pretty big difference is actually significant. But it's not like I didn't know anything.
And so now your point about, well, does the some of those things that I can know make a difference? I do think, interestingly, maybe there's three different things. One is sometimes those parts that you know about when they some together, even if you didn't know all the parts, I actually do think it can be distinctively different often, which is very interesting with these complex experiences is not just being tired and just feeling joy and just things right.
But it's also that I think that in the most interesting cases, it's not that you don't know anything about the subject, the nature of the future experience, but you don't know the most important part. And so let me take the baby case, because that's what I like to talk about. So the interesting thing about having a child and this doesn't happen to everyone. So, again, going back to the earlier thing, it's not that everybody who has a child experiences this kind of change, but for a lot of us, when we think about becoming a parent, one very important thing as well is this.
How do I want to become is this how I want to live my life? Is this the kind of life change that I that I that I want to bring on myself? Because it's irreversible and obviously it requires sacrifice. And and so it seems like a big decision. You bring your life into the world, that sort of thing. And the thought is that the most salient part of having a baby and raising that child to adulthood involves the forming of the attachment relation between you and the child.
So the mother child bond sometimes gets or the parent child bond. And what's interesting about this is that this attachment, it's a bit like having a close friend or loving your parent, but it's not quite the same. And it has a very it's a very kind of distinctive experience. And so while you're undergoing all these other things, like running around like mad, feeling tired, feeling joy and amazement at the fact that you've kind of created this life, if you physically produce the child feeling tired, you also form this amazing bond to this other individual.
And it's different from like the love relation to a spouse, although it's intense like that in a lot of ways.
And that has a really distinctive character. And I guess I think that that character then both kind of dominates the whole experience and really introduced and also changes how you experience the other stuff.
So it's like changing nasty poopy diapers is just not the same when it's this child that you love with all your heart and you respond to it, you're also exhausted and blah, blah, blah. That is different. So it was a long. So that's why I like for example, babysitting isn't you know, you can baby sit, you can know what it's like to do some of these things. But if you're not standing in that attachment relation to the child that you're babysitting, it just it's a different kind of experience.
Yeah. And I I'm very aware of the risk of sounding sort of laughably naively reductive here. But the claim that I'm making is not that having a child is basically just like, you know, babysitting plus being jet lagged or something. It's I'm just trying to claim that having having this objective knowledge of what these sort of experiences that are similar to some of the components of being a parent are like having that subjective knowledge. It reduces at least slightly, reduces your uncertainty about what the subjective experience of being a parent would be like and that.
Well, I suppose I should put this question in context. Where I was hoping to go next was was to the question of whether it's possible to make a rational decision about whether or not to undergo a transformative experience, given the fact that we can't know exactly what it will be like to have undergone that transformative experience. And I think we should talk about this. But my sense from having read your book was that you felt that you feel that the fact that we can never know exactly what the subjective experience will be like means that we can't make a rational decision about whether to make that choice.
And I guess I was going to claim that, like, as long as we can reduce our uncertainty to some extent with our past experiences that are somewhere in some ways similar or without that information that seems relevant, as long as we can reduce our uncertainty to some extent about whether we'll be satisfied with that choice, then that is that that's where rationality comes in. And like that, councillor. Rational decision making. So there's a lot of stuff there I probably want to disagree with, like three things that I said at least, but I totally great.
So first, I think you're right that we can, shall we say, refine our uncertainty about the outcomes that we can grasp using some of the subjective information we might have, like knowing what it's like to be tired or knowing it's like to work hard and those kinds of experiences. Right. But I think the real root of the problem just isn't one that involves uncertainty. So this is just going to target directly. So when when when you're uncertain about what something about what's going to happen, then you have a clearly defined sense of the different possible outcomes.
But you're not sure how likely the different out each different outcome is to sort of occur?
Or you're maybe you're not sure about just what kind of a value you want to assign to these different possible outcomes. But the case that I'm interested in is one where there's a way in which you can't represent the outcomes that matter. Maybe you can get descriptions of them, but because you yourself can't imaginatively kind of put yourself in the situation that you need to, you can't represent them in the way that you need to in order to either form defined preferences or as a cluster.
I would say assign them value to me, too. So it's sort of like you're distinguishing between on the one hand, like there's a 40 percent chance that I will feel jet lagged and a 60 percent chance I won't feel jet lagged. And I know what both of those things feel like. I'm just uncertain about which one will Landen versus. I know for sure that I will feel a little bit of both, but I don't know what feeling flip it over is like or something.
So compar there's a 40 percent chance that I feel jet lagged and a 60 percent chance that I'll feel great to. There's a 20 percent chance that I feel jet lagged and a 40 percent chance that I'll feel great. And then there's a 40 percent chance that I don't know what the hell is going to happen. Right. Yeah, because there's a big gap there. Or maybe there's a 40 percent maybe there's a 20 percent chance of something that something I know not what, another 20 percent chance of a difference, something I know not what.
And so then, you know, if I think about decision making is like building a model and it's like you have a map that has like that doesn't have it doesn't have all of the all the spaces represented. There's just this big, bushy gray area, big chunk of the map. So you can't you don't have any path to get there. You don't even know where they're mountains or there's rivers. You know what's going on there.
Yeah, it's a really interesting question. How to represent. I do feel like it makes there's some way in which it makes sense to talk about reducing your uncertainty about what an experience would be like. Maybe a way to quantify that would be like similarity to what you're envisioning. But like the I don't know, maybe, OK, maybe a different way to cash that out would just be in terms of how satisfied you will be in that experience. And so I can reduce my uncertainty about how satisfying being a parent will be, even if I can't imagine exactly what it will feel like.
OK, so right. Another good. OK, so so here's what I'm hearing you say. And this is an approach I think that some people might find, you know, satisfying, say, well, look, whatever. I don't have to be able to imagine myself in these different situations. Let's say somebody just tells me, oh, you're going to love it, you know, and they're right. Or, oh, you know, I mean, one problems I have is that I just don't think human these life experiences are that reductive.
Like, I think that they're complex and there's lots of varied sorts of responses we have. And of the subjective character of the experience isn't just reducible to you satisfaction level. I agree.
But I, I mean, but there's still some mapping that could be useful to make, even if it doesn't capture all of the rich texture of the experience that.
Yes, I think. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Amazing reading about how people back back before we had thermometer's, people argued that we could never the concept of measuring temperature made no sense because you could never capture all the rich texture of of humidity and cool breezes. And and that's all true, that the actual number on the promenade doesn't capture that. But that doesn't mean thermometers don't measure something useful.
I think that's right. And part of what so I think a useful thing to do to try to get to the roof is imagine we're not in this situation. But imagine you had some kind of super scientist. I don't know, Google might build some kind of super scientist. I can kind of tell people what their satisfaction levels will be if they if they become parents.
I love that these kinds of thought experiments used to involve, you know, God or supreme being. Now I'm dating. I don't know if I love that, but I get some valuable. I love that. Yeah. Yeah. I like to think of how how from 2001, A Space Odyssey, he was the original kind of guy. Right. Right. But it's all gone right now. So, so, so you get. Some kind of right now, you know, not available, but in our technical and technologically advanced future, somebody, you know, build something that can tell you, you know, how you're going to respond in terms of or you'll be dissatisfied.
If we were in that situation, we could make the choice rationally. OK, now, part of what in my book, what I argues that we're not actually in that situation now. So we can't rely on that kind of specific information. We could talk more about, well, what do you do when you don't have that kind of specific information? I say, well, we try to imagine ourselves in this situation, see how we respond and try to kind of correct for any errors.
And I just I think that we're telling ourselves a story when we try to imagine how we're going to respond like we overdress. We overestimate what we know about our inner selves in this weird way.
But even if we did have this kind of perfect algorithm to tell and tell us how we're going to respond, so we made the choice rationally, then I think, yeah, you make it rational and then there's something else that we lose, and that is we lose the sense we have of reasoning through the possibility of what we want to do with our lives and trying to think ourselves into these situations and making a decision based on who who we think we want to become.
Because notice that when the computer tells you what you're going to you know, whether you should like whether you're going to be happy or not. Right. That has nothing to do with what you think. It's more like, well, OK, I have assessed your personality type, and even though you think you'd be great, parents would be wonderful. You wonderful for you, you're actually satisfaction you're going to drop. So, no, it's not rational if you have a child.
It was the case. I'm interested at some. So, OK, I want to first I want to separate two things. One is the the question of whether it makes sense to have preferences about what kind of person you become independently of, how satisfied you are once you are that person. I'm going to set that aside for now and just focus on this other thing, which is whether you should care about the manner in which you make choices about your your life, because you seem to put a lot of weight on on how you make a decision independently of how well the decision turns out that like even if making a decision using empirical evidence about how satisfied other people like yourself were with their decision, even if that turns out really well and predictably so, that's still somehow worse than making the decision by relying on your own sort of internal simulations of what it would be like.
Why no worse? No, no, no, no. I don't think it's fair.
It's OK. Yeah, so go out. And I just didn't say it very well. So the thought is not that you should take information into account. The thought is that ordinarily. So I want to distinguish the situation from the ordinary situation that we're in when we're not we're not thinking about a transformative experience. And part of my point is we run those together and it's really important not to run them together. So when I'm thinking about, oh, what I like, I don't know, to move to this part of the country and I get some empirical evidence about moving to California, let's say.
I think and I know a little bit about California because I've been there before. So I imagine myself living in California, I sort of consider the statistical information that I have in conjunction with my own reflections on what I think I like. Yeah, and I come to a conclusion, OK? And of course, I had to do that because the evidence is not about me. The evidence is about people who are very roughly like me, you know, like white women in my kind of demographic.
Maybe I don't read about it. Yeah. Yeah, exactly. I might have racial whatever age, you know, it's very, very coarse. Yeah. And so, in fact, when it's been like that, there are lots of things about lots of properties I could have that could mean that in fact I'm not well matched to that population. And so maybe I'd fall, maybe I get a good response, but there's probably a pretty good sized error bar there.
OK, so. So who knows where I fall in the distribution there. Hopefully it would be good, but there's a lot of there's always a gamble and we try to close that gap by thinking about ourselves. All right. But the problem with a transformative experience case is that that second bit where we close the gap is not available to us. And we forget that because we're used to making our decisions by reflecting on, you know, who we are as a as an attempt to kind of inform our decisions when we're assessing statistical evidence.
So what I am worried about is making a decision purely on the basis of statistical evidence. That's a big life decision like this.
Now, maybe that's the only thing. Would you turn to that, would you, to just making the decision based purely on statistical evidence if the way that you're closing that gap is not by running internal simulations, but instead making some kind of judgment calls about relevant similarities between like, relevant ways in which you might be different from the average person in that in the population data about like I say, I notice that most people really like playing with children and I kind of don't.
And so the fact that most people end up happy as parents, well, that's the sort of baseline I can use to. Estimate how happy I would be, but I should adjust downward from that, given that I seem different in this relevant way. I don't think that you can do that. You don't know, because what happens when you have the child is, in fact, the way that you respond to children, especially playing with your own child is different than some bizarre things, but completely differently.
Do you really think that if you took 100 people who enjoy playing with children and one hundred people who don't enjoy playing with children and you force them all to have kids?
Because in this thought experiment, there's no you know, do you really think that you wouldn't expect any average difference and how those two groups would would feel about being parents?
That's not what I'm saying. You're asking about whether you would say, do I know enough about myself to know that my properties are enough, like the people who who stay the same throughout having a child? Or do I know enough about myself to know if I'm relevantly similar to people who don't stay the same? And that's the information that you don't have. So the problem is definitively. But you don't. But you don't you don't think that I could.
No. Reduce my uncertainty in a helpful way by looking at these these traits, the similarities or differences.
I didn't say you couldn't reduce your uncertainty a little bit. Maybe you can, although I think relying on anecdote and sort of internal reflection is a pretty kind of iffy and unscientific way to try to reduce that. But even if you do reduce it, the problem is you're not able to reduce it very much. And, you know, if if mean if we're going to I'm not really a fan of relying on anecdote and sort of local, you know what my friends say.
On the other hand, I have plenty of friends say, you know, I really didn't like kids, but now that I have one of my own, I at least like my kid. I like playing with my kid. I might not even like playing with any of those other kids, but I can spend hours like reading storybooks to my own child. This is not an uncommon experience.
So maybe the best. But I'm just saying that this is this is the weirdness of it. Like, this is so. OK, let me add one more thing. We haven't covered this, but this is one of the interesting things about certain kinds of transformative experiences. And I think being a parent is one of them. And I touched on it with the military case as well as that. Weirdly, I think the experience itself can form preferences in you.
Yes, I completely agree. Yes. OK, so so the problem is, is that so to say before let's say that you don't really like kids and you're a woman who's really interested in doing lots of things with your life, and one of them is not having children. And you see these women, they're exhausted and they clearly have taken career hits. So you think, God, I would never want to do that. But then, you know, you fall pregnant through some kind of happenstance that it just happened.
Maybe your birth control filter failed or whatever, and you think, OK, I'm going to do this and you have a child. The experience of having a child and forming that identifying attachment relation that I was talking about earlier can disrupt and change your preferences. So much so that you are grateful that to have the very child that you had and this is bizarre.
I mean, I can only look at it. It is bizarre. I'm so used to this fact about the world that it immediately seemed bizarre to me until I stare at it. But yeah.
So then so then go back to the physical evidence. Right. And the question is like, so, so the computer tells you, oh, you're going to be so happy if you have a child, you think, no way, there's no I want to have a child. But what's really going on is the computer actually knows in some weird sense is calculating for the fact that when you have the experience, your preferences are going to change, that you are satisfied at the other end of it.
Yeah. And then the question is, you know, is this should we just kind of do what the computer says? Because it's going to kind of morph like the experience is going to morph our preferences in a way so that I'm happy at the end or should I be true to myself right now? Because right now I don't want to have a kid.
Well, in my mind, I'm going to be kind of simplistic here. But just roughly speaking, it seems like the rational thing to do is to trust the computers prediction to the extent that the computer seems to have, you know, a lot of data that's relevantly similar to you. So trust the computer prediction about how happy your future self will be, but then also separately ask what kind of person with what kind of preferences do I want to be?
Because I do think that it makes sense to have preferences about your future selves, preferences. Like I you know, you could tell me, hey, take this pill, it'll make you insane, but happy and. Well, I guess that doesn't really count as preferences, but personality, let's say. And, you know. Well, I would certainly if I had to choose, I'd rather be happy and sane than miserable and sane. But I have very strong preferences about not being insane, independently of how happy I am in that state.
I think it can similarly make sense to say, you know, I like the idea of becoming the kind of person who just cares far more about a child, her child, than about her career, even if that's not the kind of person I am now. Or it can also make sense to say I don't like the idea of becoming the kind of person who has this strong attachment to a child at the expense of her career. And I don't think one of those preferences is more correct.
But you probably will notice that you have those preferences about your preferences if you introspect. And I think it's totally rational to take that into account in making your decision. No, but the. Well, no, no, the problem is not when you want to change your preferences and the computer tells you you'll be happier because your preferences will change. The problem is when it at the time when you're reflecting on whether you want to have a child, you prefer to remain the kind of person you are.
Do you I mean, I don't always believe I mean, the kind of person I am. No, no, no. I wasn't saying, oh, we're talking about a particular kind of case. So it's not that you don't have a rational conflict in every kind of case, but there are a particular class of cases where there is a problem. And the problem exists when it when you're at one, when you're thinking about your choice and you prefer to remain the kind of person that you are, you don't want your preferences to be changed.
But the computer tells you, I've done all the empirical work and actually you'll be more satisfied afterwards because replacing your preferences will make you more satisfied. And you think I don't want to replace my preferences. Yeah, so so what I'm saying is there are lots of interesting transformative experience cases where something like that is the situation that people find themselves in. And so if you think about oh, well, I'll just decide whether or not to have a baby by, you know, thinking about my innermost thoughts and trying to figure out as well, really by having this child, I'll reveal an unknown preference to be to be a mother.
And I think, no, that's not actually what it's about. It's actually you go into this experience, it changes you from the outside and implants a preference in you so that you become a different kind of person.
That certainly seems to make it a trickier decision. But do you think that that makes it a decision that's impossible to think about rationally or a decision that's impossible to make rationally?
No, what I what I think is that if you try to make the decision based on Simenon in your future self before you've done something that involves a transformative experience, that you can't you don't have the information you need to be able to compare the different options and make a decision rationally because you can't define the outcomes. If the computer tells you the result, then you can make the decision rationally if you just follow what the computer says. But the problem is, is if you find yourself in a case like the one we were discussing before, where you actually don't want to change your preferences, then I think there's a conflict because we don't have any highwater way to solve like whose preferences matter more.
The person you start with, the person that you end with, why can't why can't I just use my current selves preferences about both how much I value being happy in the future and also how much I value keeping my current identity like there's probably some degree of happiness at which I would be willing to change who I am fundamentally in a way that I don't like.
I think that there are ways of trying to resolve in the book. I talk about this a little bit. I say, look, if we want to try to make these choices rationally, what we need to do is understand these different sort of deeper questions at play here and then step back and see if, in fact, you know, we have preferences, let's say either to discover what it's like to be a parent. So then I want my preferences to allow my preferences to be changed.
And I prefer that because it does set out this. You know, let's say the computer tells me, I'll have this. I'll testify then to having this higher level of life satisfaction. Or I could have a preference to basically remain who I am because that's the life that I know and that's the life that I value. And so then I have a kind of higher order preference to weight that over the other. I think that's all fine. OK, that's really the point of the book, is that these questions, I think, are weirder and more puzzling and deeper than that.
People have have explored that I totally agree with. Yeah, I, I think what I thought were I thought we disagreed, which doesn't in fact seem to be the case was that I thought that you were saying that the fact that we can't know for sure, we can't sort of quantify our uncertainty precisely until it collapses into risk, like rolling a dye that we can't therefore make the decision rationally. But that's not what you're saying. Well, I mean, you're right.
So so so when I I framed some discussion in the book in a way that fits exactly what you said. But what I do is I have this kind of big caveat, which is say, look, ordinarily when we think about these cases, the way that we don't we just don't go that far. We just think you're supposed to if, you know, you read around some of the self-help literature or some of the stuff on, you know, should you have a baby and you just are supposed to kind of think yourself into your future self and make a decision that way.
And so and I say that's not rational. That's what I'm arguing about.
I agree with in fact, I think that have this opposite failure mode that maybe is more common among sort of analytical engineers in the Bay Area. But I hang out with that just as like, well, just look at the empirical evidence about whether parents are happy. Looks like they're less happy than non parents. Well, there you go. That's that's your answer. And that also seems like very, very poor way of making a decision, in part because I guess we didn't quite get into this directly, but.
The question of how what your subjective experience will be like after you make a choice does not have to be the end of your consideration if you take account of decision making. That's right. Totally have preferences about the don't cash out in terms of your subjective experience, like a preference to pass on your genetic material or a preference to accomplish something big in your life, even if you don't feel satisfied in doing most of the moments that you're accomplishing it.
You know, I think this is a I think there's this other dimension of some of these life experiences where sometimes people choose suffering and they choose unknowingly because they get knowingly, because they also value the kind of life experience that's involved in that or the performance of that, whatever that, you know, achieving that goal or doing something for others. And so sometimes, especially some of the empirical evidence seems to kind of kind of be underdeveloped. And that's not a criticism, really, the empirical evidence, because it's incredibly hard to kind of measure these things.
And so it's not like there's some obviously easy way to to measure this, but that's just yet another reason for not sort of unthinkingly just taking on some of these results and kind of thinking either that you can just do it by imagining yourself into the situation and figure it all out that way. Or you can just take on the kind of scientific statistical evidence and not have to think about it that way either. Right.
Do you want to talk at all about this concept of I think I remember the word correctly, the revelatory decision making. That was sort of an interesting new angle on the question.
Yeah. So this it does connect to something else. And you're talking about because and my thinking is still evolving on this, but I, I like to think that there's value in discovering how like the nature of reality as I experience one for each of us, there's value in maybe this can be captured, but you go to like a new country, like I've never visited Japan of Japan. I hope I'll get there one day. And when I get there, because I'm going to go the spirit, you know, like it.
Yeah. And I'm going to have lots of contact with people and parts of culture that that are different from anything I've had before. And I will discover what it's like from my mind to come into contact with those bits of reality. This is a way to put it and you can just it as I'll discover reality. But some of us think, well, it might be a lot more complicated than that. And so what you're really doing is forming, discovering what it's like for you to come into contact with other parts of the world and then kind of creating a really kind of interesting rich life experience that can involve other people.
And that's part of what life is about. So there's this kind of discovery element to kind of rich and full satisfying life that involves revelation, namely allowing the world to reveal itself to you as you go out and experience it. So and I think having a kid can be the same kind of thing.
That's OK. So is the is the idea then that the revelatory value of a choice could be an additional factor to weigh into your decision making, in addition to how much you predict you'll enjoy yourself after having made that choice and how much you like the idea of the kind of person you'll be after making that choice, etc., that the the regulatory value should be added in as well. Or am I not is that not the right category in which to put.
Yeah, I think you're right.
I mean, I think that's a probably that's I say something a little more radical in the book. I, I say something I think is kind of unsatisfactory, which is, you know, and the edge in the edge cases. Maybe that's all we have is the relative value. Because, you know, if we're really considering a dramatic change where we can't think ourselves into the future and the relevance has and there's no empirical evidence like if there were no real evidence, then all we've got is like, you know, we're standing on the edge of a cliff and we have to, like, decide if we want to leap into the abyss and discover what's there that makes it sound bad, where it's not supposed to be other better.
Well, you always have to step out of the simulation, but. Yeah, yeah. There you go. To step out summation.
Do you take the red bell? Do you take great deal. You know. Yeah.
Yeah, but but I, I, I guess again, just coming back to what I said, I think that there's that real life is like this in a lot of ways. And what I'm trying to do in the work that I'm doing, the sort of analytic, analytical, philosophical work is to identify the ways in which real life is like this and find the kind of philosophical structure and press on those parts so that we can discover more about it and not underestimate, you know, not underestimate the importance of experience, but also not underestimate the kind of challenges that we face when we think about these decisions.
I mean I mean, just get one more thing out, because something I'm really interested in is like when we do advance directives or when I say you're facing the possibility of of cognitive decline over the next three years, you find out that you've got early onset Alzheimer's and you have to make decisions about your future life or you have to make decisions for someone that you care about. I think we're in a really difficult epistemic position there and recognizing how difficult it is for people to know what to do in those situations, I think is a part of respecting people and and to have been tolerant of mistakes that people make and not blame people for and also understanding what they're facing so that we can support them in the right way.
And I guess I've been concerned for a long time that that a failure to recognize some of the really weird structural facts about transformative experience has kind of made that we've underestimated those those issues, but does seem like a very important practical takeaway from this area of philosophy.
I'm wondering if there are other ways in which, just practically speaking, you think having this framework in mind changes the way someone should approach having children? Like, I think usually I'm the one saying, like, well, things are actually much more complicated than you think, and we should have much more uncertainty than you think. And so I have a lot of sympathy for that perspective. But at the end of the day, you have to make a choice somehow.
And I feel bad just leaving people there and saying, like, well, look, look how complicated and uncertain everything is. Fine.
I'm off like, yeah, I know I do.
So, for example, you might say that, like, well, in practice people I don't know I don't know that you would say something someone could say in response to my question is, well, in practice, people tend not to allow themselves to take into account the fact that they will be a different person. And if they were if they did allow themselves to take that into account and really stared at it, they might not make they might not take the leap as often as they otherwise would because, you know, in fact, they do have preferences about what preference, how their preferences change.
And if they are ignoring that, then they'll end up making choices that they maybe rationally shouldn't or something. So that would be like a difference you would expect to see in people's decision making after having this framework in mind. Maybe that's horribly wrong.
But, yeah, sadly, I don't have a lot of I don't have a lot of positive suggestions it to be good at.
I can do better at finding problems. Well, you know, I don't know about offers, so I'm asking you to step out of your comfort zone to some extent out of control.
But I guess the practical thing that I find as someone who has had children and I was just like uninterested in having them before I had them. So I was fascinated by this whole kind of weird process. And yet I love my life now and I just don't know what to say about it. But I wouldn't I'm not I don't want to tell other people how to live their lives.
That said, I I guess I want to say that recognizing that it isn't straightforward and that that there can be these problems that people face. And there's this right now, I think no obvious way in a satisfactory way to resolve them means that we should all be more tolerant of each other. And, you know, if people can make these decisions, maybe not in a perfectly rational way, but it's a perfectly adequate there's there's a lot of permissibility here.
And people shouldn't blame themselves if they make a mistake. And they also shouldn't congratulate themselves if it turned out well, because I think it had a lot less to do with kind of foresight than it has a lot more to do with luck and a lot more to do with maybe structural facts that just kind of happened to work out or happen not to then, you know, us sort of soldiering on as carefully planning things and looking ahead and realizing ourselves in various sorts of ways.
I just think that's a kind of interesting picture, that that puts too much kind of individual responsibility on us of, you know, that's the American way, I guess.
But there's something liberating about that, about making that move. Yeah, yeah.
That's that's why I hope that people would feel a little bit more about it, especially those of us that in a sense have to buck the system where we have to like women who in today's society, who are really committed to their careers, have to make really tough choices often when they decide to have a child. And and so, you know, the world hasn't made it easy for us to do this. And I think that one can should be forgiven for not always being able to sort of prescriptively kind of predict what the future is going to be like.
Yeah, OK. Well, maybe that's a good place to wrap up. Before we end the episode, I would invite you to give the rationally speaking pick of the episode, which is a book or a website or or blog or something like that that has influenced your thinking in some respect. So, Laurie, what's your pick for today's episode?
Thomas Nagel's The View from Nowhere. Oh, Thomas, that was a brilliant philosopher. And his his work is fascinating and thoughtful, and I think that's a great book.
Is there any particular aspect of the book that you want to highlight that?
I think that yeah, I think that one thing I liked about it is I've always been a person who cares a lot about exploring the nature of experience. And contemporary philosophers have not always been so interested in that question. But Nagel's an exception, and he worries about whether or not.
It can make sense to have a view from nowhere and sort of eloquently, I think I know where you mean, a view that isn't sort of colored and shaped by the person having that view.
Yes, that's one way to put it. You know, there's this kind of, you know, picture that you could have some kind of bird's eye or God's eye view of objective reality that isn't kind of colored by the subjective lens, one might say. And it is a really nice job of articulating these issues and defending the thought that there always is is a view from somewhere. And he's a good writer. And I think it's it's just a great book for people, for people to if they want to start exploring some of these questions.
Great. Well, we'll link to The View from Nowhere on the podcast website, as well as your personal site with links to your book and a bunch of your popular writings on transformative experiences and other areas of philosophy as well. Laura, thank you so much for being on the show. It's been a pleasure having you. Thanks for having me. It was really fun. This concludes another episode of Rationally Speaking. Join us next time for more explorations on the borderlands between reason and nonsense.
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