See, Hear, Feel

EP94: Dr. Laurie Paul on transformative events, responsibility and openness

December 27, 2023 Professor Christine J Ko, MD/Dr. Laurie Ann Paul Season 1 Episode 94
See, Hear, Feel
EP94: Dr. Laurie Paul on transformative events, responsibility and openness
Show Notes Transcript

This conversation really helped me understand why I am having more trouble understanding my own self these days. Laurie also shares how taking responsibility, but not blame or praise, and openness can help us make decisions. Dr. Laurie Ann Paul, PhD (publishes under the name L.A. Paul) is the Millstone Family Professor of Philosophy and Professor of Cognitive Science at Yale University. Her main research interests include metaphysics, cognitive science, decision theory, and the philosophy of mind. She has written several books, including one titled, Transformative Experience, in which she suggests that living “authentically” requires occasionally leaving your old self behind “to create and discover a new self.” Part of being alive is awaiting the “revelation” of “who you’ll become.”

[00:00:00] Christine Ko: Welcome back to SEE HEAR FEEL. Today, I am very excited to be with Dr. Laurie Ann Paul, who publishes under the name L. A. Paul. Laurie is actually a friend of mine from the gym, from mactivity, which I sadly don't go to right now, and haven't since the height of the COVID pandemic, but hopefully will be able to go back to, soon.

[00:00:23] Laurie does still attend mactivity, which is awesome. And, so I'll tell you a little bit about her. Dr. Laurie Ann Paul, or publishing name L. A. Paul, is the Millstone Family Professor of Philosophy and Professor of Cognitive Science at Yale University. Her main research interests include metaphysics, cognitive science, decision theory, and the philosophy of mind. She has written several books, including one titled, Transformative Experiences, in which she suggests that living authentically requires occasionally leaving your old self behind to create and discover a new self. Part of being alive is awaiting the revelation of who you'll become. I find her work fascinating, and I've admitted I have her book on my list of things to read, but I haven't fully read it yet, although I've read other things that she's written.

[00:01:13] Welcome to Laurie. 

[00:01:14] Laurie Paul: Thank you for having me on the podcast, Christine. 

[00:01:17] Christine Ko: Can you first share a personal anecdote? 

[00:01:20] Laurie Paul: Sure. I had my first child in Australia, and I remember sitting there breastfeeding her in the little mother's area of the local mall. I had just taken her for a walk. And I thought philosophy's been going on for thousands and thousands of years, but it's mostly been written by men. And I thought to myself, this was an amazing, incredible experience, carrying and giving birth to this child. And now she was just three months old. Experiencing this tiny being involves so many interesting, deep questions about who people are, and the nature of thought, and how we understand ourselves, and how we make sense of ourselves through change and make discoveries.

[00:01:55] But it hasn't been talked about by philosophers in the very intellectual way that philosophers like to talk about all kinds of important life changes and ways of being and decision making. ,And so I thought, I'm going to change that. I need to bring this into the philosophical consciousness. So it was really my personal experience of having my children. And in particular, actually, the moment, then, when she was three months old, where I realized there's something to say here that I had never really had the understanding to say that I discovered through having a child. 

[00:02:24] Christine Ko: Can we backtrack just a second and can you define what a transformative experience is? You mentioned having a child, what else would be? 

[00:02:31] Laurie Paul: Okay. The way that I define a transformative experience is a little different from the ordinary way that people think of transformative experiences, but it's related, which is why I use the same phrase. The ordinary way people think of, oh yeah, that was a transformative experience. They just mean it was a kind of wow experience that kind of changed them in a big way.

[00:02:49] The way that I think about transformative experience is absolutely all about that, but there's a really important dimension of it: that is that the experience is both what I call epistemically transformative as well as being personally transformative. So the personal part, that just means like it really changes who you are, what you care about, like maybe what you care about most in some way, or at least reorganizes in a very profound way what you care about and how you think of yourself.

[00:03:14] But the epistemic side, epistemology is theory of knowledge, involves the kind of discovery of something new. And so the way I think about it is that a transformative experience is the kind of experience that you have to have in order to discover what it's like having a child or going through divorce or certain kinds of very serious situations and accidents and things like that, or I could go on. In virtue of undergoing the experience, you discover what it's like for you in a way that someone just telling you about it wouldn't be the same. And this discovery, this epistemological change, this epistemological transformation, just is so profound that it basically changes how you think about yourself in the world. 

[00:03:56] The choice of having your first child is a good example of that. The natural way in which we think about these kinds of cases, you think, okay, do I want to become a mother?

[00:04:04] Imagine myself as a mother, imagine how I would live my life and all the changes that would entail, and how I would feel in those circumstances. And then imagine myself as never having a child or not being a mother and living my life the way that I would live my life under those circumstances and what would be good and bad about that and how I would feel about that and then evaluate those two circumstances and maybe a few other variations on that and then and decide, is this something that I want to pursue?

[00:04:30] Contemporary theories of decision making and rationality are all about that. That's a version of what you're supposed to do when you're trying to decide between, do I want to choose A or do I want to choose B? Evaluate each of them. See how much you value A versus B and choose the one with higher value and then pursue that. 

[00:04:45] But I realized there's something actually really strange about this because this huge life experience, whether or not I want to do it, is actually in some fundamental sense, unknowable until I actually have the child. I really cannot know what's really essential about being a mother until I actually become one. First, by then it's done. It's irreversible. But second, it means that it just doesn't fit the way that we're supposed to rationally make decisions. Choosing to become a parent can't be done rationally, which is radical. And that's what I wrote about. 

[00:05:14] Christine Ko: Yeah. I'm not a philosopher. I'm also not a cognitive psychologist. So when I think about and read about decision making, some of it doesn't always quite make sense to me because I feel like this isn't actually really how we make a lot of our decisions. Small and big.

[00:05:31] Laurie Paul: That's true. So there's a big difference between how we actually make decisions, how people actually do things, and the ideal way we're supposed to approach things. And so you can think of like the philosophical approach and sometimes economists and psychologists do this as well. Like they say let's look at the ideal way to approach a decision or the ideal way a policy should be implemented or that sort of thing. Even if in actual practice, we can't do it that way, we at least know what to aim for. We know what the perfect approach would be. So there's the kind of idealization or the normative framing of a decision as a model for action. And then there's the actual way we do things.

[00:06:13] And those things absolutely come apart. But you need the idealization. You need to identify the rule that you're supposed to follow if you have any hope of even approximating it, of knowing what you're doing and why you're doing it. So there's a relationship between the two.

[00:06:26] And you can see a problem with what I'm articulating as the following. There isn't even a rule that we can follow. We can't even approximate. So maybe nobody actually rationally chooses to have a child. And if there isn't any kind of rule that you're supposed to approximate, or if even worse, we tell ourselves some story about the rule we're supposed to approximate, it's even worse if we couldn't possibly achieve that because then if you make a mistake, say it doesn't work out or whatever, people think you've done something wrong.

[00:06:55] But if you couldn't possibly follow that rule, then it's just completely wrong that you've done something wrong, actually. And so people blame themselves when they shouldn't be blaming themselves. There's lots more to say about this, but that's why it's still worth articulating what is actually possible for us as human beings to try to aim for. 

[00:07:12] Christine Ko: That makes sense. So if we don't even know what the best norm or standard would be, it's hard to even achieve that. 

[00:07:18] Laurie Paul: The example of having a child is one of my favorite examples, but for another one, imagine somebody who was deaf and then had a cochlear implant. They would discover what it was like to engage in spoken language or listen to music or whatever in virtue of getting the cochlear implants. And, you could describe to them beforehand all these things they were going to discover, but there's a very important sense in which until they actually hear music or language, they just can't know what it's like.

[00:07:45] Christine Ko: Yeah. It's funny that you bring that up. I don't know if you knew this. My son has cochlear implants. 

[00:07:50] Laurie Paul: Oh, I didn't know. In my book, I actually talk about in certain kinds of deaf communities, there also was a movement for children of deaf parents to not get cochlear implants. And that's because there's a sense in which if you're profoundly deaf and your child gets cochlear implants, there's a sense in which you can't communicate with them in the same way. They gain communication abilities with the spoken language communities, but there's something that's lost. And then there's this question. Is it more important for your child to have the close love and connection with their parent or parents? Or is it more important for them to be able to engage with the external community? And this is like a completely difficult, non trivial situation to be in. But I also say, there's this problem because there's a way in which the parent is supposed to decide this for the child before 12 months of age because of the way that the brain develops with either having audition or not. And so you need to make this decision, and you're supposed to choose, what's going to give my child a better life? What's going to be better for them? What would be better? What would they prefer ultimately? And I argue that you cannot possibly know enough about the two options to be expected to make that choice in that rational way I was describing before.

[00:09:00] Christine Ko: A thousand percent, a million percent. I didn't know that's in your book. Even more reason now for me to read it. You put into words my dilemma as a parent because the medical establishment, that I'm a part of as a physician, but also as a mom and hopefully as an advocate, not as someone who's going to make the wrong decision. I took the choice away from him, my son, to really decide whether or not to have that transformational event. 

[00:09:31] Laurie Paul: Yeah, you had to make a choice for him. If you had not made the choice for him, by the time he would have been old enough to make the choice, it would have been too late, presumably, or at least the choice would have been very different. In the book, I talk about how for parents who are asked to make these choices for their babies, how Important it is to recognize that there's a way in which we can't put ourselves into the perspective of the other when that other is very different from us.

[00:09:55] Christine Ko: Absolutely. You can correct me if I'm totally off on this, but in a way, my future self after a transformative event is also like an other. 

[00:10:03] Laurie Paul: You are 100 percent right. That is exactly it. So when you're choosing, let's say to become a parent, or you're choosing for your child to create a self with the cochlear implants, when you make the choice ,you're choosing to become this self alien to you in a certain way. And I think it's disturbing. It doesn't mean we shouldn't do it, but I want people to recognize it's okay to find this disturbing. And that's actually part of the challenge basically of being open and growing. Part of the difficulty is just the alien nature of it.

[00:10:31] Christine Ko: Yes. This type of conversation is why I keep doing this because of all that I've read and I've listened to some of the other podcasts you've been on about transformative events. It never quite got into my head the way it is right now. Cause I think you're touching on identity. The person who's deaf can't explain to you what it's like because you cannot experience that.

[00:10:52] Laurie Paul: That's right. When I first started talking about some of this stuff to my philosophical colleagues, I was like, you can't know what it's like to be deaf, profoundly deaf in particular, or what it's like to be blind. And you should not assume that you do, that you can know. This is a kind of thing where one of the really interesting things is you don't know what you can't know. You don't know. Our language in certain ways can't express the nature of the experience. We're just limited. I think that there are a number of fundamental ways in which this failure to be able to communicate plays a role in lots of misunderstandings having to do with decision making and how we understand the lives of people who have different abilities and embed themselves in the world in different ways. I think it can be really helpful to articulate the issues in these ways, so that we can frame the questions and distinguish between what it is we're expecting and trying to say and do and decide. 

[00:11:42] Christine Ko: Yes. So with all that said, how do you think difficult decisions should be made when we don't really know?

[00:11:50] Laurie Paul: People ask me this sometimes and I say look, I'm a philosopher. I ask questions. I raise problems. I don't answer them. That's not my job. No. What I think... first I think it's just really important for us to understand the constraints. What's possible, what should we expect of ourselves, and what should we not expect of ourselves? And one thing that's really helpful in this context is to separate out responsibility from attributions of praise and blame. When making decisions, separate out being responsible for the action that you take with blaming yourself for doing something where you couldn't have actually appreciated all the dimensions of the implications before you did it. But also praising yourself. Sometimes people take credit for things that can be a happenstance. The other thing is that I advocate for a kind of openness. To take it back to discussions of disability, some disability advocates will say, look, I value who I am. I still value that experience. And some people will say how can that be? You wouldn't choose to make yourself deaf, or you wouldn't choose, to undergo a serious illness or anything like that. The people who say that I think are conflating different sorts of things, because what you're saying, when you value having had this experience is that you value what you've learned and the self that you are. And it's totally rational to value the self that you are, even if an earlier version of you wouldn't maybe have chosen even to become that self. Now you're here and it's totally right to value it. And so, separating out valuing who we are from making these choices is also really important. Life involves transformative experiences. Sometimes we have to choose them. Sometimes we don't choose them.

[00:13:22] When we choose them, things can go well or badly. But recognize a kind of openness and just appreciate the discovery of what this new life is like. We can choose that. You can choose, I'm going to discover what it's like to become a parent by choosing to have a child. And that can be super cool and super interesting. It also could go badly, but there's still value in discovering this very fundamental option for human beings.

[00:13:42] Christine Ko: I like how you phrased all that. Responsibility, openness, and keep it aside from praise or blame. 

[00:13:50] Laurie Paul: One of the things I think is really interesting about some of the cases of transformation and transformative decision making that we engage in. I think what happens is a kind of radical reworking of who you are, thIs kind of replacement of the self that you are. And so to go back to somebody who experiences a very difficult event, like a painful event, a certain kind of disability or something. It's not that they have cognitive dissonance when they're happy and satisfied with who they are. It's that they've replaced themselves. Like the person that they were, the self that they were just isn't who they are now. And they have no desire to go back to that self, and they can value who they are. See, so there's this really weird, interesting kind of fact about the way that we're like a self and then we replace ourselves with a new self and replace ourselves with a new self. It's totally fine to not want to be that old self anymore. You don't have the same kinds of cares and values, and that's just the way life works. Doesn't mean that there was anything wrong with that old self. 

[00:14:41] Christine Ko: I like that cause I was diagnosed with breast cancer about a year ago and have been through most of my treatments now. And hopefully I'm cured. So in that sense, I'm lucky. But something I would have valued in the past, I just think is silly and dumb. Not that the people who still value it are silly and dumb. That's not what I'm saying. But just that my new self doesn't value it anymore, knowing that my old self did and would have, and certain people around me still value it. I'm confused. It's just this like weird feeling of, I don't think I'm the same person anymore. And I almost feel like I don't know who I am maybe. So I get confused because I'm like, Oh, I used to value that, and I don't anymore. So what does that mean? And I, I just don't know. 

[00:15:24] Laurie Paul: That sounds totally right to me. I don't think it's cognitive dissonance. Divorce can be like this. You go through this painful process, and sometimes you uncover a part of yourself that somehow got buried with the relationship and the marriage and things like that. And you also end up with new things that you value and there can be a conflict. Who am I? Because your values define you in a certain way. And if you care about new things, if your preferences and values have been changed as the result of a transformative experience, you are discovering this new self. You can value things now that you just didn't value before. And you can not value things now that you did value before and reject them.

[00:15:58] Christine Ko: Absolutely. Okay. Now this has been so good to talk to you. Do you have any final thoughts? 

[00:16:05] Laurie Paul: I learned a lot from talking with people who have gone through these different kinds of experiences. And I want to think more about it, and I would love to think more about it with you at some point.

[00:16:13] Christine Ko: I would love to. I would love to. Thank you, Laurie. 

[00:16:16] Laurie Paul: Thank you for having me on the podcast, Christine.