Transformative Experiences
Saturday, November 15, 2014 -- 4:00 PM
Ken Taylor

This week,  our topic has to do with so-called transformative experiences.  Some events in a person’s life are so powerful, so life-altering, that there’s a sense in which he or she may not be the same person before and after the event.   Now I’m not talking about winning a mega-lottery, for example.  Doing that would, of course, change my life.  I could buy more stuff.  Maybe I would work less. Certainly, I would travel more. Those kinds of changes aren’t really what we have in mind, though. Those are just changes in the external circumstances of my life.

Think more about  basic values  – the sort of things that help to make you, you.  I’d like to think that money  -- even a great deal of money -- wouldn't change  my basic values in any way.   I admit that  there are people who can’t seem to handle sudden wealth.  It turns them into completely different people – people their former selves wouldn’t recognize or approve of.  For people like that winning a big lottery would be transformative –  too often in a negative way. But there are plenty of positive transformations too  -- like having your first child or starting out in your chosen profession.  

More generally, a transformative experience is one that somehow alters what matters to you.  Those are really important experiences.  Growing up, for example, typically involves a whole host of them.

But there’s even more to transformative experience than this.  Begin by thinking of what it’s like to give birth to that first child.  Now for me that's something I’m pretty sure, I’m never going to know.  As a man, I can’t possibly know what it’s like to give birth, because I'm never going to have the relevant experience.  But even a woman can’t know what it’s like to bear a child until she takes the plunge and  actually bears one herself.   In the absence of the experience of bearing a child,  a women is completely ignorant of what bearing a child would be like.

Now I suspect some will want to disagree. After all, they will say,  people are capable of learning lots of things from other people, without directly experiencing them for themselves.  You want to know what it’s like to give birth? Talk to women who have been there and done that.  Read some good books.  Go to parenting classes.  Watch videos of babies being born.  

I grant that those are all good ways of gaining information.   But it will only get you so far.  It’s no substitute for your own first hand experience. It’ll tell you something about what it was like for THEM to have the experience.  But it won’t tell you what it would be like for YOU to do so.

But what if I know that I’m similar to them in relevant ways?  In that case, won’t knowing what it’s like for them tell me a lot about what it would be like for me? The answer, I think, is that it will not.  That’s because I can’t really know that I am similar to them in the respect that really matters – call it experientially similar, if you will – until I actually have the experience and then somehow compare what it’s like for them to what it’s like for me.  In other words, only experience alone can teach me what it’s like to be me -- what kind of experiencer, if you will, that I happen to be.  Am I one of those types who would experience parenthood, say, as a great joy or one of those types who would experience it as a great burden.   I might have a guess about which type I am.  But I can’t really KNOW which type I am, until I have an experience and see what it reveals about me qua experiencer.  This means that there is a sense in which certain experiences transform us epistemically.   They alter how we see both the world and ourselves in relation to the world, they open up new imaginative possibilities, that we could not have anticipated before the actual experience.  I might have been able to imagine having a child before having one, but I could not really imagine it qua kind of experiencer that only experience can reveal me to be.

If this is right, then when a  person decides to undergo a potentially transformative experience, they are taking a complete shot in the dark.   In fact, she is taking something like a double shot in the dark.   First, she has no idea what experiences she will have or what those experiences will be like,  if she chooses to have them.  Second, she has no idea how her values will change in light of those experiences.   

But this raises the question of how anyone could ever decide – rationally decide – to undergo one of these doubly transformative experiences. When we make decisions rationally, we decide partly on the basis of what we believe will happen, once we make the decision, and partly on the basis of how we value the expected outcomes. But in the case of these doubly transformative experiences, we have no idea either what sort of outcome to expect, nor how we will value that antecedently unknowable outcome once it happens. 

And that is why experiences that transform us are worth philosophizing about.   People DO in fact choose to undergo transformative experiences. They enlist in the army, have children, choose a profession, change their nationality.  We’d like to think that their choices are rational – or not insane – at least sometimes. But it’s unclear how such choices can, in fact, be rational.  I don’t mean to imply that such decisions are a mere matter of whimsy.     I’m just saying that it’s really puzzling not only how we, in fact, go about making them, but also how we should go about making them.   Frankly, I’m stumped.  I don’t have a clue how we are going to solve this puzzle.  So why not give us a hand and see what we can come up together?