At some point, everyone reaches a crossroads in life: Do you decide to take that job and move to a new country, or stay put? Should you become a parent, or continue your life unencumbered by the needs of children?
Instinctively, we try to make these decisions by projecting ourselves into the future, trying to imagine which choice will make us happier. Perhaps we seek counsel or weigh up evidence. We might write out a pro/con list. What we are doing, ultimately, is trying to figure out whether or not we will be better off working for a new boss and living in Morocco, say, or raising three beautiful children.
This is fundamentally impossible, though, says philosopher L.A. Paul at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, a pioneer in the philosophical study of transformative experiences. Certain life choices are so significant that they change who we are. Before undertaking those choices, we are unable to evaluate them from the perspective and values of our future, changed selves. In other words, your present self cannot know whether your future self will enjoy being a parent or not.
“You’re supposed to know these special things about yourself—like if you’re a smart, thoughtful person, and you reflect carefully, you can know. I think it’s not a failure if you don’t know,” she says. “We can be alien to our own selves at different times.”
Paul began considering the lack of a rational decision-making framework for transformative experiences after having her own children. She found, as most parents do, that her core preferences changed; she was now willing to sacrifice herself for this other being, her child. Hearing about this instinct beforehand simply didn’t provide the same knowledge as experiencing it.
“One of the deepest and most important features of being a parent was epistemically inaccessible to me,” she says. “There’s a way in which I am a different person. I’m metaphysically the same person but I’m a different…