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RS 183 - L. A. Paul on "Transformative Experiences"

Release date: April 30th, 2017

L. A. Paul

What if you had the opportunity to become a vampire, irreversibly -- and everyone you knew who had become one said "It's utterly indescribable." Would you take the leap, not knowing what it would feel like, or how it would change your personality and values? That's an example of what philosopher L. A. Paul calls a "transformative experience," one that's especially hard to choose (or forgo) rationally, because of how unknowable it is and how it changes your very preferences. In this episode, she and Julia discuss real life examples of transformative experiences -- such as having children -- and debate how to deal with them. 

L.A.'s Pick: "The View From Nowhere" by Thomas Nagel

Edited by Brent Silk

Music by Miracles of Modern Science


Full Transcripts 

Reader Comments (5)

Julia, I love your podcasts. Certain aspects of this podcast bothered me though. I hope the criticism comes across constructively.

As a listener, not having read the book, the debates that you were engaging L.A. Paul with seemed technical and narrow. It seemed as though you were repeatedly trying to push the interviewee into accepting your viewpoints -- namely, that one can rationally make decisions about transformative experiences and that transformative experiences are just higher magnitude versions of normal experiences. I felt that it might have been better at least let L.A. Paul clearly state her theses and then perhaps get into disagreements. One reason is that it is conceptually cleaner for the listener. Another reason is that there is an asymmetry between you and L.A. Paul -- she's a written book about this whole thing! So it's a matter of giving the person who has thought a lot about this the benefit of the doubt. Another request I would make is to not interrupt the interviewee while she is speaking. It gets confusing for the listener.

Anyway, that's my two cents. Thanks!
May 2, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterSid
I was just looking for a place to have a discussion on the episode, I hope this is the right place.
Reading Sid's comment, I really recognize what your saying, but I think the cause is not Julia trying to push Paul into accepting any viewpoints. Actually, I found that Julia asked exactly the question that I was also wondering about. The way it appeared to me was that Julia was trying to get some things clear (for instance, whether Paul sees the Transformative Experience as a experience that's different in kind or just different in degree. I think that's a very interesting question on this subject, but I got the feeling Paul didn't quite get the intent of the question (not trying to be demeaning in any way).

In other words, I recognize the apparently repetitive nature of Julia's questions in this episode, but I think that they were justified in a way, because Julia prepared some really interesting and I think essential questions, and Paul (for whatever reason) failed to answer them satisfactorily.
May 4, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterMendel
Disclaimer: royal grade moron here, and I haven't read the book.

I don't get the point of Paul's transformative experiences. It seems to me that she did not demonstrate sufficiently that these transformative experiences are in fact nonlinear and thus favors Julia's claim that although you may not have experienced the state of being in full, you may have a reasonable idea of what to expect. To me the problem seems like trying to predict an outcome with insufficient data.

In the case of whether a computer could tell if you'll be happier becoming a parent or not, I think that this matter could be settled by a simple analysis of the genes of the person in question, which would in turn decrease the error bars of the prediction to the point where the individual could understand if the decision would work to his/her improvement.

If I may add an example, let's imagine we have a curve with 10,000 randomly distributed data-points. And let's say that there is some sort of periodicity on the behavior of the curve such that it looks like a cos(x), but it also seems like the amplitude isn't constant. If these 10,000 points are distributed on the infinitum, then although these might be too many points for a single person to manage them appropriately enough to make a prediction, they are not enough to characterize a function. Instead of having a cos(x) we might be dealing with a J_0(x), which is still linear, but because of the lack of data would not be so simple to realize.
May 4, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterThe Mike
I really enjoyed this episode. The question of how to make choices about changing preferences is one that's often puzzled me and this discussion helped give me a framework for reasoning about the problem.

Brienne at Agenty Duck wrote an interesting piece that tries to provoke a sense of uneasiness with the changing preferences surrounding childbirth; I enjoyed it, and if you liked this episode it might be worth a read.
May 8, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterStefan K
I know a podcast is good when I find myself talking back to the radio. :-)

Something that I think would have helped both LA Paul and Julia in the discussion is a concept used in Artificial Intelligence circles known as a "fitness function." The inputs into this function are states of the world and the output is the agent's satisfaction with the particular state entered. It isn't just AIs that have a fitness function, we all have one. There are things we can do to change the state of the world and these changes with either increase or decrease our satisfaction based on our fitness function.

It seems to me that Julia spent much of the discussion asking something like, "but if we understand our own fitness function well enough, can't we rationally predict whether a particular action will improve our satisfaction?" The problem with this question is that a transformative experience, by definition, *changes* one's fitness function, but when we are analyzing the proposed action, we must do it using our *current* fitness function.

I can rationally analyze whether or not I want kids (or whatever) based on how I *currently* feel about children, but I can't know how the act will *change* how I currently feel. And even if I could predict how the act might change my fitness function, I can only analyze that change in the context of my *current* fitness function, not in the context of the altered function which I don't currently ascribe to.

So imagine I am contemplating doing some action. Let's say that through deep introspection, I have a incredible understanding of my personal fitness function (something that I agree with LA Paul isn't really possible, but for the purposes of this thought experiment, let's assume it can be done.) Because of this introspection, I know that committing the act will decidedly reduce my satisfaction. However, Deep Mind (God or whatever,) informs me that, if I were to commit the action my fitness function will change in such a way that I will receive increase my satisfaction considerably... Now I'm being asked if I want to commit the act that I find so abhorrent... but you see, my desire to follow Deep Mind's advice (or lack of it) is part of my *current* fitness function. I can't free myself from myself.

I found this podcast fascinating and I will be reading LA Paul's book. I hope LA Paul and Julia see this post and choose to do some research into AI especially specifically how it relates to these transformative experiences. Artificial Intelligence researchers are struggling with the same questions that LA Paul is bringing up and a breakthrough might be found with some cross pollination between the fields.
May 10, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterDaniel T 1263

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