“One of the most important games of life, then, is the game of Revelation, a game played for the sake of the play itself.” L. A. Paul
What is it like to be a vampire? Nobody knows – unless you happen to be one of course! And that’s the whole point according to L. A Paul in her book Transformative Experience. You cannot make a rational choice to become a vampire because you don’t know what it’s like to be one until you are one.
It’s a startling thought experiment which, according to Paul, applies to many real life situations like contemplating parenthood or even a radical change of career. Normative rules of rationality break down here because no matter how much third-person empirical evidence one gathers, one cannot really know what many transformative experiences are like until one has subjectively felt it. Part of her argument is fuelled by a famous thought experiment in which Mary has been incarcerated in a monochrome room all her life. No matter how much information she gathers about colour, she cannot know what it is like to, for example, experience redness until such time as she leaves the room. So too, argues Paul, with many everyday experiences, when rational choice theory breaks down.
Interestingly, and perhaps a little oddly, Paul does not deploy perhaps the most famous thought experiment of them all in this field, devized by Robert Nozick and called the Experience Machine. In this scenraio scientists have invented a virtual reality machine which, once you are plugged in you a) cannot leave and b) gives you a perfectly happy life guaranteed to be happier than ‘real’ life.
Nozick anticipates that most people would choose not to be plugged in, thus demonstrating that there is more to life than happiness. But doesn’t this come up come up against Paul’s Transformative Experience problem? How could you make a rational choice to be plugged into the Experience Machine if you don’t what it would be like to be perfectly happy until you experience it? As Paul puts it ‘if we have to choose to have transformative experiences on the basis of preference revelation, that is, by preferring to discover the preferences we’d develop, then we must prefer to give up any current first-order preferences that conflict with the new preferences we’ll end up with. Many of these first-order preferences may be preferences that we think of, in some way, as defining our true selves’.
Paul refers to the importance of subjective values as being distinct from ‘merely valuing happiness or pleasure and pain’, thus obliquely referencing the Experience Machine. And she adds: “When we choose to have a transformative experience, we choose to discover its intrinsic experiential nature, whether that discovery involves joy, fear, peacefulness, happiness, fulfilment, sadness, anxiety, suffering or pleasure, or some complex mixture thereof.”
Paul’s solution to the problem of Transformative Experiences is to ‘draw on empirical findings when the right sorts of findings are available’. She adds: “But, crucially, in addition to managing the decision-theoretic worries using more sophisticated modelling techniques, resolving the problems raised by transformative experience also involves valuing experience for its own sake, that is, for the revelation it brings.”
The light that Paul shines on transformative experience is valuable but the conclusion is disappointing if all she is claiming is that it can sometimes be interesting to take the plunge and have a new experience. Surely, this is something that we all do from time-to-time while at other times we may be more risk-averse. Much depends, of course, on the nature of the risk. Nothing much hangs on sampling a new culture but Brexit is just the kind of transformative experience that Paul has in mind. Nobody knows what it will be like outside of the EU, despite protestations to the contrary on both sides. Perhaps this was a case where should have been more risk averse simply because we are gambling not with individual lives but with a country.