Reading: Transformative Experience

L. A. Paul’s Transformative Experience has received unusually broad praise for a contemporary work in analytic philosophy. How many proper philosophy books come with a quote from a Slate interview on the back?

Paul’s book deserves the attention, whether or not you are convinced by its conclusion. It presents an issue of decision theory in clear terms and with accessible examples. At the heart of the book lies the question how we can rationally choose in light of a transformative experiences, such as turning into a vampire or having a child.

Paul distinguishes between epistemically and personally problematic experiences:

An epistemically transformative experience teaches a person”something that she could not have learned without having that kind of experience” (p. 10). For example, if a formerly colour-blind person sees red for the first time, this teaches her something she could not have learned otherwise. (Paul discusses the famous Mary example and goes into more detail.)

Personally transformative experiences do not necessarily convey information, but rather change ones motivations and take on the world:

The sorts of experiences that can change who you are, in the sense of radically changing our point of view (rather than only slightly modifying your preferences), are experiences that are personally transformative. (p. 16)

Paul calls the sorts of experiences, which are epistemically and personally transformative just transformative experiences  for short (cf. p. 17).

With this terminology in place Paul spends most of the book making her case that the characteristic features of transformative experiences undermine the rationality of our standard approach to personal decisions. If an option creates an experience likely to change your preferences and you do not even know how, what could serve as the basis for or against choosing the option? If becoming a parent changes you in ways you cannot grasp yet, including preference change, how can you rationally choose to become a parent? How can you rationally choose against it?

The introduction of preference change got me interested, since I have been thinking about it for a while. But Paul does not dwell on it. She takes preference change for granted. The problem she raises is rather how we can be rational in light of such change, especially if transformative experience also provides us information we cannot have beforehand.

Most of the book develops this thought, discusses different kinds of examples, and considers a variety of responses. For better or worse, Paul avoids all formalisms and instead dissects her core cases. The book remains an enjoyable read throughout, but leaves much to future research.

It does not settle the issue, but rather introduces readers to the problem and invites them to come up with their own solutions. Paul herself hints towards a solution at the end (p. 120-121)

Faced with a transformative choice the rational way forward is to decide whether you want to have the revelation that comes with making the choice. You have to ignore your first-order preferences and instead look at your higher-order preference about the revelation. Prima facie this might sound convincing, but consider what it means for the choice of having a child.

Since having a child is a transformative experience, you cannot rationally choose it because you want a child, you can only rationally choose to have child because you want the revelatory experience of having a child. Rationally deciding to have a child is not about the child, its about your experience of having a child. It reminds me of the one-thought-too-many problem for various ethical views. Starting to care more about your own revelatory experience than the child seems dubious.

If someone came up to you and told them they decided to have a child because they put a high value on the revelatory experience it would bring them, not because they want children, would you think this is a good choice? We seem to care more about the first-order preference for children, than the revelatory experience. Even though we cannot actually know what it is like to have children before having them.

My musings do not amount to a final criticism of Paul’s solution. They only show how much more remains to be discussed. L. A. Paul’s Transformative Experience kick-starts debates worth having in an insightful and engaging way. If my thesis achieved that, I would be more than satisfied.


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