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Choosing the self we want to be

On the decision to have children and other transformative experiences

LA PAUL

Should you become a parent? Should you change your career? Decisions such as these change the directions of our lives in irreversible ways. However, it is not just your life that’s changing, it is your self. When making decisions, while facing an unknowable future, we should bear in mind who we are now and who we want to become, writes L. A. Paul.  

 

Imagine yourself in the following situation: you and your partner are trying to decide whether it’s time to start a family. In particular, you are trying to decide whether you’d like to have a baby. Your financial situation and physical health make the decision to become a parent largely up to what you choose—you have the necessary resources, so it’s about what you want your future lives to be like. This is a paradigmatic “big decision”: the stakes are high, and the choice is irreversible in the sense that, once you’ve had the child, you can’t undo its existence. Even if you give your child up for adoption, you’ve still become a biological parent.

There are many ways to approach a big decision like this, and, if you have any uncertainty about what you’d prefer, you’ll want to think carefully about what you value in order to make the best choice for yourself (and your partner).

Model-based reasoning, where you think about each way you could act, building out the likely consequences of each possible action, and then evaluate and compare these consequences, is the natural way to approach this high-stakes deliberative task. To deliberate, you assess your possibilities to compare them and create (or discover) your preferences. If you can accurately assess the expected value of each act you might perform and compare these values, then when you choose the act that maximizes your expected value, you are choosing rationally.

If you can accurately assess the expected value of each act you might perform and compare these values, then when you choose the act that maximizes your expected value, you are choosing rationally.

The trouble is, for many people, becoming a parent is transformative (Paul 2014, Paul 2015b). because it can transform you both epistemically and personally. If an experience is epistemically transformative, it is an experience that you need to actually undergo in order to know what it is like. If an experience is personally transformative, it changes you in ways that change some of your deepest preferences. A truly transformative experience, like having your first child, is both. When you actually hold your new-born in your arms, you can have an experience like no other, and this can change you in ways that shift some of your deepest preferences.

The shift involves a core value change. Before they become parents, many people prioritize things like their career, financial success, or social achievements. After they become parents, they care more about their child than anything else. Selfishness turns into selflessness. Put more precisely, most of us have a core preference to pursue our own interests, and this preference is replaced with a preference to pursue our child’s interests above our own. This is expressed most keenly by a change in our natural instinct for self-preservation. In a life-threatening situation, while we would want to help others, many of us would save ourselves first, or at least think about saving ourselves first. All of that can change when you have a child. The child (at a level that feels almost instinctual) comes first, even at your own expense. This changes what you care about and how you experience your life. Speaking personally, until becoming a parent, I had never truly understood what it was like to love someone selflessly enough to be willing, without a moment’s hesitation, to sacrifice my life for them. This is just one of the deep and important ways that becoming a parent changed me, and it was a type of change in how I experienced myself and what I value that I was unable to imagine until after I became a mother.

Prospective parents know, before the baby arrives, that a lot is going to change. They can know that they will love their child selflessly, much as I did. And yet, they can’t know how things will change, in the important experiential sense of truly understanding what their new lives will be like with these new values.

Prospective parents can’t know how things will change, in the important experiential sense of truly understanding what their new lives will be like.

The problem is that you can’t (accurately) mentally evolve the world forward in order to imaginatively assess what it would be like for you to have your baby when you live your new life as a parent. Therefore, you cannot compare this subjective value to the value of what it would be like for you to live a child free life. Your subjective value function, which takes as inputs your various possible lived experiences and gives as outputs their respective subjective values, goes undefined at a crucial point. This means that you cannot prospectively assess the value of your future lived experience as a parent.

This creates an epistemic wall between who you are now, and who you’d become as a parent. The epistemic wall is a psychological barrier blocking you from a certain kind of knowledge of your future life. Epistemic walls like these create two serious problems.

The first problem, the problem of undefined subjective value, stems from the epistemic transformation involved. It arises for any theory of rational decision that requires you to assess and compare subjective values in order to maximize your expected utility. If you can’t assign the relevant subjective values of the possible lived experiences, you can’t compare them to rationally decide which life choice is the best one for you.

The second problem, the problem of self-alienation, stems from the way that the epistemic transformation is the source of a personal transformation. It is a problem for any view that assumes that rational, reasonable life planning requires prospective, informed assessment of one’s future possibilities “from the inside,” or from the first-person (subjective) perspective. It arises because of the way personally transformative experiences can change us.

Strictly speaking, a person can be the same person over time while also being composed of a chain of changing selves. Each link of the chain is a different self, and after having a child, you are just not the same self. You’ve changed in core ways, and colloquially, that’s usually what we mean by saying “I’m a different person.” Having a baby can be a transformative experience, and so choosing to become a parent can mean you are choosing to become a different kind of person. This means that a choice to transform becomes, in effect, a leap into the unknown. You are choosing to become a self who is unknown to you now. You make a choice whether to replace your current self––that is, who you are now––with a new, alien, unknown self.

Put another way, by choosing to have a transformative experience such as having a child, you are choosing to replace who you are now with some radically different, alien self. So having a child is not just epistemically transformative: it is also personally transformative. Becoming a parent transforms what matters to you.

By choosing to have a transformative experience such as having a child, you are choosing to replace who you are now with some radically different, alien self.

Interestingly, even if you really, truly, don’t want to become a parent, the transformation often means that, afterwards, you are very happy and satisfied to be a parent. Does this imply that when you have a child, your underlying preference to become a parent is suddenly revealed?

No. There is another, very plausible explanation that fits your situation: something about becoming a parent eliminates your old preferences and implants new preferences in you. Even if you don’t want to become a parent, what you care about can change, hugely, when you have a child, and perhaps in virtue of the psychological and biological changes that becoming a parent brings with it.

If so, then your concerns about the choice are perfectly legitimate. You can not want to have a child even if you know that, were you to become a parent, you would be happy and satisfied. You are not being perverse. You are not confused. You are not ignorant of your own preferences. This is because your worry is not about whether you’ll be happy with who you’ve become after you’ve been transformed. Your worry is that, right now, who you are and what you care about—now—isn’t consistent with being transformed.

So well-meaning advice from friends and family to have a child is too simplistic. The advice is flawed, because it does not account for the true structure of the problem. For the same reason, the scientific evidence fails to apply in the clean way that the results might suggest. The clean application assumes that you will be the same in relevant respects after the choice as before. But when this assumption is violated, it is unclear how to interpret the statistical results, and thus it is unclear what one can infer about what is rational to choose in these circumstances. You still face an existential problem, one that friends, family, or and the experts are unqualified to address: Will you be happier after the transformative change? Or will you just become someone else?

Will you be happier after the transformative change? Or will you just become someone else?

What we have here is a first-personal version of a Kuhnian revolution. In transformation, we replace our old point of view, our self-understanding of who we are, with a new, incommensurable point of view, a new self-understanding of who we are. Instead of a conceptual revolution writ large, like the scientific revolution brought on by the discovery that the earth revolves around the sun (which replaced the old idea that the sun and other planets revolve around the earth), we experience a personal revolution, a conceptual revolution writ small.

So how should you choose? In the end, it’s simply up to you. In all of this change and discovery and transformation, you are not passive, the mere plaything of an irrational universe. If you choose to become a parent, you will be changed, but in that change you have the opportunity to fashion a new you.

That is, you have a kind of control over who you will become, even if you can’t know, now, what exactly you are facing. For even if you don’t know what it will be like to become a parent, you have control over your own self. Even if parenting involves challenges and uncertainties, as it certainly will, how you respond to them, even when they are unexpected and overwhelming, is under your control. Or, if you remain child free, do so knowing that there was another kind of life you could have had, one that is, in certain deep ways, not comparable to the life you’ve chosen, neither better nor worse, simply different. Take responsibility for the path you’ve chosen, and develop your own character through the discoveries and challenges it brings.

References:

Barnes, E. 2015. “What You Can Expect When You Don’t Want to Be Expecting.” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 91(3): 775–86.

Callard, A. 2018. Aspiration: The Agency of Becoming. New York: Oxford University Press.

Crockett, M. J. 2013. “Models of Morality.” Trends in Cognitive Sciences 17(8): 363–6.

Crockett, M. J., and L. A. Paul. forthcoming.

Harman, E. 2009. ‘“I’ll Be Glad I Did It”: reasoning and the significance of future desires’. In J. Hawthorne (ed.), Ethics, 177–99. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley–Blackwell.

Lewis, D. 1990. “What Experience Teaches.” In W. G. Lycan (ed.), Mind and Cognition, 29– 57. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell.

McCoy et al. 2019.

Parfit, D. 1984. Reasons and Persons. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Paul, L. A. 2014. Transformative Experience. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Paul, L. A. 2015a. “Transformative Choices: Discussion and Replies.” Res Philosophica 92(2): 473–545.

Paul, L. A. 2015b. “What You Can’t Expect When You’re Expecting.” Res Philosophica 92(2): 149–70.

Paul, L. A. 2017. “The Subjectively Enduring Self.” In I. Phillips (ed.), The Routledge Handbook of the Philosophy of Temporal Experience, ch. 20. Abingdon: Routledge.

Paul, L. A., and K. Healy. 2016. “Transformative Treatments.” Noûs 52(2): 320–35. Paul, L. A., and J. Quiggin. 2018. “Real World Problems.” Episteme 15(3): 363–82. Pettigrew, R. 2015. “Transformative Experience and Decision Theory.” Philosophy and

Phenomenological Research 91(3): 766–74.
Pettigrew, R. 2020. Choosing for Changing Selves. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Williams, B. 1970. “The Self and the Future.” Philosophical Review 79(2): 161–80.

Velleman, J. D. 2005. Self to Self: Selected Essays. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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