Yonder we are having a book discussion thingy on Transformative Experience, with the chapters introduced/summarized/responded-to by individual commenters with an accompanying comment thread. I am not one of the volunteers for any of the weeks but, as the poster, had thought I might abuse my privileges to say something anyway. Since the things I have said expanded to great length, I have instead posted them here, below. They are something of a mess, having been said in haste.
I found a number of things puzzling or unsatisfactory or underspecified in the first two chapters, and have listed some of them below, not, however, in any particular order (certainly not, for instance, with the more important things coming first, or last), and also not with the visible marks of any effort I may or may not have taken to make them form some kind of coherent whole when considered together still apparent. (Though that is probably not the appropriate form for this kind of thing anyway.) They all broadly pertain to not understanding what the relevant conceptions of "experience" or "transformative experience" are, or finding puzzling Paul's assertions and arguments regarding the method of choosing that she seems to think is simultaneously the one that comes naturally to us, the one demanded by the norms of rationality, and the one that general social norms (whereas it strikes me now, as it did reading the earlier paper, as quite odd). Some of them, inevitably given that I wrote them, drift into somewhat stream-of-consciousness territory; sorry for that.
What's up with those vampires anyway? I just do not understand why this case is supposed to be so hard, in a way that basically affects the entire remainder of what we read for this week (so you see, at least I put this one so close to the top)—it seems as if there are plenty of ways one might quite rationally decide to become, or not to become, a vampire, and when we get to "if you want to make this choice by considering what you want your lived experience to be like in the future" (2), my first reaction was, and remains, "what an odd way to want to make that choice". I do not believe that I "naturally and intuitively want to make [my] life choices by thinking about … what [my] future experience will be like if [I] decide to undergo the experience" (4). The elision is significant; also it seems as if "experience" is being used in two different senses there; "my future experience" being similar to, say, "my life" (or "my future experiences") and "the experience" being some one thing I do or undergo; this equivocation seems pervasive though I don't know if it actually matters. I really didn't understand the difficulty after the initial presentation, but my lack of understanding, alas! persisted after reading the more detailed exposition forty pages on. (I understand that it will be difficult if we think the decision has to be made in precisely the way that Paul thinks we're inevitably lead to attempt to make it, I just don't see why it does.)
Why not, on the one hand, just take the advice of your friends? They're unanimous in praising the life of the vampire, and they would know (and you wouldn't). If you're really interested in basing your decision on knowing what it's like to be a vampire, it would seem that you can do that. You'll know "what it's like" only by description, but you have no reason to doubt the accuracy of your friends' reports, as far as I can tell. Paul says initially that relying on this testimony is "awfully suspect … because, after all, they aren't human any more, so their preference are the ones vampires have" (2), and later recurs to this theme, stating that there's a "dilemma" about whether to weight the testimony of so-and-so before becoming a vampire (when so-and-so had human preferences, etc.) or after (46). But what's the problem here? First, if you become a vampire, you too will have vampiric preferences (and vampiric abilities and disabilities), not human, so the fact that your friends are speaking from the perspective you'll have if you join them would seem to me to make using their testimony less suspect, not more. If you want to know what it's like to watch TV on a high-definition set, wouldn't it make sense to ask someone who has one? Wouldn't that person be able to tell you what it's like (even though, indeed, that act of telling won't let you in on the character of the experience as you'd have it watching on one yourself)? As for the supposed dilemma, it seems chimerical to me: the humans can't offer testimony about the subjective experience of being a vampire. They can offer arguments and considerations for or against making the change, but they can't attest to the experience.
Paul mentions other imagined circumstances that are supposed to make relying on testimony more vexed: "even people who seemed quite anti-vampire beforehand can change their minds about being bitten", for instance; their "pre-vampire selves" were against the life of the vampire. Or, perhaps vampires are subject to some kind of Stockholm Syndrome that prevents them from evaluating their state in any way other than a positive one (46). Again, though, as long as we're just attempting to decide based on what it's like to be a vampire—post transition, that is—these possibilities seem like nonissues. Maybe you wouldn't have wanted to there from here. But once you're there you'll like it. And we're concerned—aren't we?—with how things will be once you're there.
So I fail to see why the inability to "include considerations about what the lived experience involved in the choice would be like for you" in the way Paul means (18) is a big deal, even in the face of pp 24–30, on this topic. (In a different way, you are including considerations about what it would be like: that's what the testimony of your friends pertains to.) I also don't see how this involves a removal of "your experience or your individual, personal perspective" (tbh at a higher level I'm not sure such a removal is even compatible with decision-making; when, later, Paul says that she's concerned with deliberation "that is conducted from one's first personal, phenomenally conscious perspective" (25), I don't know what distinction she means to draw: isn't all deliberation conducted from that perspective? Isn't that inevitable?); one isn't, for instance, taking the impersonal view that it would be better all told if such-and-such were to happen and doing it for that reason. The fact that I do not know exactly what it will be like to be a vampire doesn't mean I'm abdicating responsibility for the choice, or letting my friends decide for me, or deciding irrationally, as far as I can tell, anyway.
Here is another instance! The significant elision above was "what [I] care about", and that's something that pertains to me now, right? Of course I'll also care about things post-transformation, too; possibly different things. (Paul speaks in terms of preference; I'd prefer to speak in terms of cares or values, and these don't seem similar to me, but whatever, I suppose, though one should note in what follows, I suppose, that she explicitly decides to ignore moral considerations on p 19 and again on p 25.) So we get the question "Which set of preferences should you be most concerned with? Your preferences now, or your preferences after the experience?" (48, and rather late; can I just say that from my perspective the first two chapters are really weirdly organized? thanks!). Of course in principle you might not even have the faintest idea what your preferences after the experience would be, so there's one problem in talking about the two sets as if they're fully determinate; Paul says this:
More simply: before you have the transformative experience, you can't know what it will be like to be you after the experience. So you can't compare what it's like to be you before the transformative change and what it's like to be you after the change in order to decide which experiential perspective and accompanying set of preferences you'd prefer. (49)
(Side note: the previous paragraph lays out the claim that "the problem doesn't arise in ordinary cases of preference change". Perhaps because I don't know what sort of cases she's thinking of as ordinary, or when, in general, one might have the opportunity to change one's preferences by a voluntary act, I did not remotely follow the argument there. Are the "ordinary" because you do know what it would be like to have either preference in play? But how would you know that? And don't say "perhaps at various periods in your life you've had both sets of relevant preferences". Perhaps at various periods in your life you've stepped into the same river.)
However, and this may just be a reiteration of my failure to understand what's so important about knowing what it would be like to be you after the change in the relevant kind of detail, I persist in thinking that the answer is obviously "you should be concerned with your preferences now". Suppose you're a vegan, or the vegetarian Buddhist mentioned on p 46. (Suppose you're a vegan but not for moral reasons, as some kind of personal purification or something, just to get around the bracketing of moral concerns).
Both of the following would seem to be perfectly reasonable and rational courses of deliberation: (a) "While, if I made the decision to become a vampire, I would then see nothing wrong with, and take pleasure in, living off the blood of animals, that would show only that I had become corrupt. No matter how enjoyable it would seem to me then, it would still be a repugnant way to live, as I can see now, so of course I won't do it."; (b) "Of course not, that would be repugnant", where in (b) we don't even consider the subjective experience post-transformation. (McDowell would be surprised to hear that "The subjective value of outcomes matters to us even if … we care most about the outcome's moral status, for the subjective value we assign to that outcome will be reflected in what it is like for us to experience that outcome as morally important" (25), or I assume he would be if I could understand what the second half of the sentence is driving out (I couldn't, since I don't know whether she means experiencing the outcome as morally important in the course of deliberation or in the course of action), since the virtuous agent wouldn't get as far as thinking about what it would be like to perform a vicious act.) I hope that (b) would be more or less what most of us would do if the act in question involved, say, procuring the extrajudicial killing of an innocent, however that might reorient our preferences and values (maybe, though always having conceived of ourselves as peaceful and humane, we are in fact highly susceptible to bloodlust!), or the sublime pleasures of kicking puppies, or whatever. Admittedly this does not involve being able to compare the having of the one set of preferences to the having of the other, but I don't see why one cannot say, well, if I preferred to X, or valued Xing, or needed to X in order to survive, I probably would in fact X, and even worse I might even like Xing, and that's unacceptable. I simply don't see how the actual experiential character of doing vampiric things as a vampire, or of being a vampire, is at all important.
Maybe a less frivolous-seeming, because vaguely possible, example is in order. Imagine an unusually reflective person, of an older generation, who used to believe, along with many of his generation, that nothing of quality existed on television, but who now believes that it's a medium as capable of rewarding a critical intelligence as any. We can call him "Alexander" and imagine that he might reflect, one day, thus (it's long, because that's how unusually reflective he is):
Although none of this is to say that watching television is bound to be morally benign, it should undermine our confidence in quick – and wholly negative – judgments about the effects of genres or media as a whole, especially while we are still unfamiliar with them. Even the narrowest judgment of beauty has far-reaching consequences and makes a difference to one’s mode of life. What such a life will bring is impossible to predict and, once it has brought it, difficult to evaluate. You can’t know in advance the sort of person it will make you and you can’t ever be sure of the worth of the person you have become. You can’t even be certain that you will eventually consider what you find through the pursuit of beauty to have been worth your while. Perhaps you will feel about it as Swann came to feel about Odette after all the years he devoted to her: “To think that I have wasted years of my life, that I’ve longed to die, that I’ve experienced my greatest love, for a woman who didn’t appeal to me, who wasn’t even my type!” Perhaps – that might be worse – you may find yourself satisfied, not realizing that what you loved has led you into a degraded life that you can’t recognize for what it is. Before I was attracted to television, for instance, I thought it despicable and felt a mixture of pity and scorn for those who seemed to enjoy it. These days I feel, instead, that I can see why it is worth enjoying – but can I? It seems to me that, other things being equal, I am better off now than I was then. But how can I tell, since, along with a taste for television I have also developed standards of judgment that, from the point of view of my earlier self, are depraved and corrupt? By my earlier standards, I am now debased and miserable although I don’t know that I am. By the standards that are currently mine, my earlier standards were silly, prejudiced and deprived me of great beauty. Which standards are right? (151–2 of Only a Promise of Happiness)
As I recall Nehamas was brought to his current appreciation of teevee by exposure to one or two particular (I believe Hill Street Blues was one). I, like basically everyone these days, happen to agree with present-day Nehamas, but I also think that presented with the opportunity to become a tv-liker he would have been completely correct to say "thanks but no thanks" on the grounds that he would thereby, in his estimation, have become a stultified goon. It is an interesting question how he wound up actually becoming a tv-liker. Perhaps someone dragged him to the couch in a headlock (linking this comment constitutes my wondering aloud how much of this book is related to the external reasons literature; also, it seems that much of Millgram's output for the past however many years is directly on point, to the degree that his absence from the bibliography is almost as puzzling as Kolnai's), or he was humoring a friend and consented to watch alongside and found it better than he expected (which would not be a choice to change his preferences but a choice to put himself in television's way). Perhaps he was convinced by the arguments of friends or critics he respected that there was something to the stuff, akin to listening to those already become vampires. This is also not the best example because there are really very few cases where one can expect a more or less sudden reconfiguration of one's preferences in a way that actually matters. (I experienced a more or less sudden reconfiguration of my preferences regarding almonds after eating an apricot kernel, but I wouldn't call that personally transformative.) But if Nehamas had announced something like his intention to keep watching tv until he started to like it, thereby (by his present lights) rendering himself depraved and corrupt, then, if he couldn't also cite some further end this served ("I just want to be like all you yahoos!") that made it at least instrumentally rational, I'm pretty sure I would find that bats. I think he should continue choosing based on his present lights, which are the only lights he has.
Similarly, regarding the chip-implantation stuff (pp 39–41), if you value tasting things so highly and aren't very intrigued by this new sensory modality, it escapes me why you would not stick with the modalities you've got. I mean: perhaps you are intrigued by the new modality, or the opportunity to advance knowledge, or curiosity about potentially greater pleasures than can be tasted with the tongue that will be revealed to you. But that would seem to be a tension within your present preferences, not one between your present preference and your hypothetical future preference. (I wonder how thinking about this example would change if it were like this: would you like to have a tremendously sharp sense of hearing, to the point of being able to navigate with a form of echolocation? If you say yes, I'll put out your eyes. (Though someone blinded as an adult would be unlikely to actually gain such a heightened sense of hearing, I suppose.))
About the claim that the book is weirdly organized Nevermind what came right before this:
It just means that the decision is the kind of personal decision that has no obvious or appealing way of approaching it if you don't take into account your personal preferences and point of view, for it essentially involves your subjective values and your subjective future.
It's also the sort of decision that in some sense should be made from your personal point of view. That is, in your deliberations, you should include considerations about what the lived experience involved in the choice would be like for you, because there is no better way to take your personal perspective and preferences into account, including your personal preferences about your future lived experience …
… [T]he problem is that … you cannot rationally choose to have the experience, nor can you rationally choose to avoid it, to the extent that your choice is based on your assessments of what the experience would be like and what this would imply about the subjective value of your future lived experience. (18–19; bolding added)
This does not actually say that Paul will argue that you should base your choice on assessments having to do with the subjective value of your future lived experience—only that you should take into account what the experience would be like, possibly ignoring the question of subjective value. But this is, I think, not terribly clearly stated. Anyway, later:
Now, in fact, I think it does make sense to ask how rational agents should make transformative decisions, because I think agents can meet the relevant normative standard. So, in the end, I will argue that normative decision theory does apply. But there is a catch: in order for standard decision theory to apply, we will have to reject or significantly modify a deeply ingrained, very natural approach to making such decisions, the approach that takes subjective values of one's future lived experience into account. (33)
Let us set aside, for my now, my impression that the said approach is neither deeply ingrained nor very natural. Here is my question. Why not say this straight out? Why coyly say, way back at p 14 (emphasis is added), "Subjective values play an important role … if, when we evaluate our alternatives, we choose between them based on the expected subjective value of an act", for instance? When I got there, I wrote "big if!" in the margin of the book, thinking that perhaps it was being implicitly endorsed. It is, apparently, to be rejected. I understand attempting to establish that there is a problem before delivering the solution. Sometimes the way out is through! But this felt as if the author was in possession of a secret all along, or something. (Partly, also, since I never thought the supposedly ingrained tendency was attractive, I felt somewhat as if it had just been revealed that there had actually been no reason for me to read the preceding 32 pages, or at least no reason to have gotten so het up in the process.)
Do we value gains in cognitive abilities? And if we do is that why what it's like to have experiences matters to us? (One might have thought it was because we were the ones undergoing the experiences.) (Also, does "what it's like to have experiences" on p 11 refer to a very formal what-it's-like, namely the what-it's-likeness of being an experiencer? Or to what it's like, in each case of experiencing, to have that experience?) Do we "especially care about having experiences of different sorts" (11)? I dunno, I mean, we surely value gains in some cognitive abilities for some reasons, because say it will make us better bridge players or because we wish to uncover timeless mathematical verities or something. And there are certainly people who seem to be experience-sort-mongers. But this feels like a much more abstract claim, like Kant's in the I want to say second introduction to the third critique that we take pleasure merely in perceiving. But I feel (quite possibly mistakenly!) as if I understand why Kant is led to say what he says much better than I do why Paul is led to say what she says.
Which experiences are (epistemically) transformative? If a transformative experience is one having had which enables the experiencer to imagine or "simulate" (ugh) having like experiences, then, as Paul acknowledges (36, regarding pineapples), one might think that all experiences are transformative, since each experience lets you imagine what it would be like to have precisely that experience, which you couldn't have done before. That may not matter for decisionmaking, since the differences between the experience of the pineapple before you now and the pineapples that were before you in the past (or between the second and third bites of the same pineapple) may not be of interest to you, given that you can tell that this pineapple, too, is ripe, but in principle it would seem that it's still, technically, transformative. Paul disagrees:
Epistemically transformative experiences arise from having new kinds of experiences, not from new token experiences that are instances of the kinds of experiences you already know about. If you've had an experience of a particular kind already, you know enough about its dominant, that is, its kind-defining, properties to know what having an experience of that kind is like. (36)
I am unmoved by this for two reasons, the first of which is the fact that, even if we grant the kind-talk, the second quoted sentence seems obviously false. There is, after all, a difference between doing φ, and doing φ again, or twice; just ask Constantin Constantius or Lichtenberg. Many people, for instance, find that their second oyster, or thirtieth glass of wine or whiskey, is not like their first.
The second is that the kind-talk strikes me as extremely fishy. First, Paul actually is willing to admit "highly refined kind[s]" such as "the experience of tasting precisely this pineapple" and allows that they are epistemically transformative (37), which seems to be precisely what she denied on the previous page. We can acknowledge that, as she said, dicing things so fine requires conceiving of the experiences in ways that "are not of much interest in most [but not all?] decision-making situations" (37), but I don't (presently) care about that, I just want to know which are the transformative experiences. And why, after all, isn't this something that stops me from rationally deciding what to do? I may not in fact care, but shouldn't I? After all, this is the pineapple I'm going to eat.
Paul also remarks that the finely-diced kind "ripe-pineapple-with-just-this-amount-of-cloying-sweetness-and-acidity" is "not a natural or ordinary kind" (37; the idea of the naturality of a kind of experience comes up also on 11). I am not sure what makes a kind of experience a natural one or why she is sure that the one just described isn't one. I wouldn't have thought that, for instance, winning an Olympic gold medal, cited on p 16, was a particularly sterling example of a natural kind. But anyway there seems to be some freedom of choice for what kind of experience one is having, at least for purposes of deliberation; one can freely reconceive the choice between pineapple and durian to be one about having the experience of tasting a new kind of fruit or knowing what it's like to eat durian (I'm guessing this would have to be, in fact, the experience of knowing, or the experience of the increase in knowledge). I'm more or less fine with saying that the kind of experience you're having depends on how you conceive of it (even retroactively, though this feels like a use of "kind of experience" that may not connect with the "kind" of "natural kind"), but no matter how you conceive of the choice or the actual eating of the durian, you will, having eaten it, have experienced the taste of durian and have gained the ability to imagine further durian taste experience, in which case it would seem to be transformative regardless of the kind of experience for the purposes of deliberation it is.
Why so certain?It certainly seems, thus far, that there isn't a lot of question about which experiences will be transformative, personally or epistemically or both. The focus (thus far, anyway) on choice might explain that, since if you have no reason to believe that an experience even potentially would be transformative then there wouldn't be a problem, for you, about deliberating, since you would just do whatever you did as regards ordinary choices, since that's what you'd think you confronted. But you might be confronted with choices where you don't know if they'll be transformative (personally or non-trivially epistemically), mightn't you? Maybe you opt to become a vampire and afterwards deliver the following monologue, sincerely and correctly: "Sure, I now know what it's like to live exclusively on blood, and that took some getting used to, and sure, several of my preferences have changed: I used to like my steak well done and now I insist on its being positively ultraviolet, and a day at the beach will never sound appealing again. But I'm still the same. My values (or whatever) haven't changed. I still feel the same to myself." Maybe you win the lottery and continue on much the same as ever. Maybe this is addressed later, or my impression is incorrect? It just seems strange to me.
What do you mean "experience"? why so punctual? + a personal reminiscenceIn addition to the uses as a mass and count noun, I'm uncertain what is meant by "experience" as a verb in the description of personally transformative experiences as ones that change "how you experience being who you are" (17). I could imagine taking some momentous decision to, say, take credit for someone else's work, advancing myself and sidelining the other, and then thinking myself a fraud, a usurper, and simply a bad person, whereas before I did not, but I don't know if that's how I experience being who I am. Or, I could imagine myself having given up some ambitious but unlikely pursuit for something more achievable but less rewarding according to my standards at the time of the change, and considering myself, say, a disappointment or a failure, and being correspondingly depressed, but that seems to be a judgment about what I am—who I am at a stretch—"how I experience being who I am" is too many layers of indirection for me to quite know what it means. Just "how I think of myself"?
As alluded to above, everything seems rather punctual; continuing on p 17, after skipping a bit:
Having a transformative experience teaches you something new … Such experiences are very important from a personal perspective, for transformative experiences can play a significant role in your life, involving options that, speaking metaphorically, function as a crossroads in your path towards self-realization.
Just about nothing that I think of as having functioned metaphorically as a crossroads in my life (surely one cannot help becoming what one is, one way or another) seems aptly described to me as an experience. At least, just about nothing I decided to do does. (Even something like seeing one's baby for the first time, which (I believe) occasionally does involve sudden and striking reorientations of one's values and priorities, is not something one can just decide to do, mostly.) The decision to leave academia, for instance, certainly changed the direction of my life, and no doubt I have preferences now that I wouldn't have had I decided otherwise (whether I have values now that I wouldn't have had otherwise I'm not sure), but I don't think of that as an experience, and I don't think Paul should either, since on both pp 4 and 18 "experiences" are described as things one undergoes, which is not the relation one stands in to decidings. Thus on 18 she speaks of a "a decision about whether to undergo an experience", and I don't think there is any such experience I underwent. Even having a chip implanted seems a poor candidate for "an experience" that changes you so significantly: you're likely to be anaesthetized. (Just to be clear, I would also be uncomfortable with the claim that it was a series of experiences following my decision that changed my life.)
And, while I can't deny that I was concerned, in thinking through what to do, about my future well-being, my concerns were expressed more on the level of "If I leave, will I regret doing so? Will I become bitter? Will it be a relief? If I stay, will I regret doing that? Will I get a job and if so will I be happy there?" In a way, that's a concern with the quality of my (let's say) lived experience, or, well, life. But: (a) it's not at the experience-by-experience level; (b) it's not clear that this involves "simulating" making the different choices and seeing what the outcome is, or simulating the same choice multiple times (this time I decide to leave and it's wonderful, this time I decide to leave and it's a disaster; I decide to stay and am ground down; I decide to stay and get a job and it's wonderful, or I get a job and it's strangely unsatisfying and I keep wondering what would have happened had I left, whatever)—not because one doesn't know what it would be like to occupy any one of those roles, but because one doesn't know which would actually happen. (I'm halfway to convincing myself that this is not a transformative experience, actually, and am somewhat left wondering what actually possible, actually important thing could be.) After all, just as I don't need to know what it's like, in the relevant way, to be eaten by a shark to know that it will be bad, I don't need to know what it's like, in the relevant way, to be bitter and regretful to know that it's bad. I had no way to know what would end up being the case (and there's still time, you know, for things to change) but we're then in standard decision-making under ignorance mode, no? (Well, perhaps not, since I don't know what kind of ordering of values Paul's preferred decision theory requires. Does a lexicographical ordering suffice? Do we need to be able to consider differences in values? Given the weighting of value by probability it seems like these are awfully number-like, which is a shame, I think, because while a normative standard isn't a description, it ought to be such that it could describe someone's actual deliberation (ought ought to imply can, y'know), and the more require of the values assigned in terms of number-like manipulability, the less likely it is that the standard is something any actual deliberator could meet. If we need to be able to multiply values by probabilities, for instance, I'm pretty sure I never have and never will deliberate rationally.) If I can get away with just saying "it's bad, whatever its precise phenomenal character" when it comes to being eaten by a shark, why can't I say the same when considering possible general outcomes of a decision? And it's the general, large-scale outcomes I was concerned with in this case, anyway.
Experience machines Here is a thing that I think supports the idea that one ought to go by one's present preferences/values/etceteras rather than those of one's future counterpart who made whatever choice is at issue. Early on Paul states that "the values of what it is like to have  experiences" is had "only when it correctly represents what's in the world" and the experiences are "real" (11–12), but adds in a note that she does not personally think that being veridical is necessary (12n14). She later reaffirms that "subjective value attaches to lived experience" and that we aren't dealing with an "experience-generating machine" (25n32). I think this stipulation is interesting. Suppose you were given the option of being fitted into a machine that would cause to have experiences subjectively indistinguishable from whatever you wanted, while in fact you chilled out in a pod. It's not necessarily the case that if you opted to do so you would, in your illusory world, form new and different preferences. But you might well decide not to do so on the grounds that, as you now know, were you to do so, you would not in fact be doing any of the things you thought you were, or be the way you thought you were; it would all be illusory, and you might prefer to take your chances with reality rather than enjoy an illusion that you wouldn't know to be one. This seems a reasonably close parallel to choosing not to make a choice that you would be happy with having made it, but unhappy with in prospect.
A question of genre How are personally and epistemically transformative experiences related? Are they just both kinds of experiences that happen, in one way or another, to change the person having them? Are they both specific kinds or uh species of a genus of "transformative experience"?