by Maria Popova edited by O Society May 20, 2020
To be human is to suffer from a peculiar congenital blindness: On the precipice of any great change, we can see with terrifying clarity the familiar firm footing we stand to lose, but we fill the abyss of the unfamiliar before us with dread at the potential loss rather than jubilation over the potential gain of gladnesses and gratifications we fail to envision because we haven’t yet experienced them.
Emerson knew this when he contemplated our resistance to change and the key to true personal growth: “People wish to be settled; only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them.” Rilke, too, knew it when he considered how great upheavals bring us closer to ourselves: “That is at bottom the only courage that is demanded of us: to have courage for the most strange, the most singular and the most inexplicable that we may encounter.”
When faced with the most transformative experiences, we are ill-equipped to even begin to imagine the nature and magnitude of the transformation — but we must again and again challenge ourselves to transcend this elemental failure of the imagination if we are to reap the rewards of any transformative experience.
In Transformative Experience (public library), philosopher L.A. Paul illustrates this paradox and examines how we are to unbind ourselves from it in a simple, elegant thought experiment: If you were offered the chance to become a vampire — painlessly and without inflicting pain on others, gaining incredible superpowers in exchange for relinquishing your human existence, with all your friends having made the leap and loving it — would you do it?
The trouble is, in this situation, how could you possibly make an informed choice? For, after all, you cannot know what it is like to be a vampire until you are one. And if you can’t know what it’s like to be a vampire without becoming one, you can’t compare the character of the lived experience of what it is like to be you, right now, a mere human, to the character of the lived experience of what it would be like to be a vampire. This means that, if you want to make this choice by considering what you want your lived experience to be like in the future, you can’t do it rationally. At least, you can’t do it by weighing the competing options concerning what it would be like and choosing on this basis. And it seems awfully suspect to rely solely on the testimony of your vampire friends to make your choice, because, after all, they aren’t human any more, so their preferences are the ones vampires have, not the ones humans have.
This hypothetical situation, she points out, is an apt analogue for our most important life decisions:
When you find yourself facing a decision involving a new experience that is unlike any other experience you’ve had before, you can find yourself in a special sort of epistemic situation. In this sort of situation, you know very little about your possible future, in the same way that you are limited when you face a possible future as a vampire. And so, if you want to make the decision by thinking about what your lived experience would be like if you decided to undergo the experience, you have a problem… You find yourself facing a decision where you lack the information you need to make the decision the way you naturally want to make it — by assessing what the different possibilities would be like and choosing between them. The problem is pressing, because many of life’s big personal decisions are like this: they involve the choice to undergo a dramatically new experience that will change your life in important ways, and an essential part of your deliberation concerns what your future life will be like if you decide to undergo the change. But as it turns out, like the choice to become a vampire, many of these big decisions involve choices to have experiences that teach us things we cannot know about from any other source but the experience itself.
Our minds, lest we forget, are prone to misleading us — just as people’s confidence in their beliefs is not a measure of the quality of evidence upon which those beliefs are founded, the cost-benefit estimations we make of an as-yet unknown state reflect the suppositions drawn from our current state and not the actual features of the potential and wholly unfamiliar state. When faced with a choice on one side of which lies life as we know it and on the other a transformative experience, we can’t imagine what life on the other side would be like — what we are currently missing — until after we’ve undergone the transformation. (Interestingly, an intuitive awareness of this is at the root of the psychology of our fear of missing out.) Paul writes:
You know that undergoing the experience will change what it is like for you to live your life, and perhaps even change what it is like to be you, deeply and fundamentally.
It seems, then, that there is an equivalent to Gödel’s incompleteness theorem about the limits of logic in consciousness and its vassal, the imagination.
In consonance with psychologist Daniel Gilbert’s memorable assertion that “human beings are works in progress that mistakenly think they’re finished,” Paul adds:
In many ways, large and small, as we live our lives, we find ourselves confronted with a brute fact about how little we can know about our futures, just when it is most important to us that we do know. For many big life choices, we only learn what we need to know after we’ve done it, and we change ourselves in the process of doing it. I’ll argue that, in the end, the best response to this situation is to choose based on whether we want to discover who we’ll become.
In a sentiment that calls to mind the deaf-blind Helen Keller’s touching account of her first experience of dance and affirms the value of marine biologist Rachel Carson’s pioneering invitation to imagine Earth from the perspective of nonhuman creatures, Paul writes:
Unless you’ve had the relevant experiences, what it is like to be a person or an animal very different from yourself is, in a certain fundamental way, inaccessible to you. It isn’t that you can’t imagine something in place of the experience you haven’t had. It’s that this act of imagining isn’t enough to let you know what it is really like to be an octopus, or to be a slave, or to be blind. You need to have the experience itself to know what it is really like.
This brings out another, somewhat less familiar fact about the relationship between knowledge and experience: just as knowledge about the experience of one individual can be inaccessible to another individual, what you can know about yourself at one time can be inaccessible to you at another time.