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Transformative Experience: A Primer

Is it ever rational to reshape your knowledge and identity in an unpredictable way?

Pamela J. Hobart
Pamela J. Hobart
3 min read

Some occurrences change people in obviously profound ways. These "transformative" experiences throw a wrench into personal identity issues. Worse still, transformative choices break ordinary models of rational choice.

Though it's in part a heady philosophical matter, transformation is also the stuff of real people's lives. It's not clear how individuals should make potentially transformative choices, or how they can make sense of completed (or in-progress) personal transformation.

Most experiences are not transformative in any important sense: trying a new restaurant, meeting a new friend, changing jobs, reading a book. They're different qualitatively from other experiences we've had, without being of a totally different kind. We emerge from these ordinary experiences in much the same way we entered them.

But many of us will experience some transformation(s) or other over the course of our lifetimes, even if we can't predict which ones. Things like becoming a parent, undergoing a religious conversion, exploring a hallucinogenic state, being diagnosed with a painful chronic illness, or losing a loved one.

A few years ago, I read philosopher Laurie Paul's wonderful book by just that name, Transformative Experience. As Paul explains, the hallmark of a transformative experience is that it changes you both epistemically and personally.

First, a transformative experience imparts knowledge that you couldn't have acquired by any other means, like through the testimony of others. You don't get the experience of human parenthood by adopting a dog (however edifying the latter may be - I know!) Hallucinating on ayuhuasca can't be simulated by downing a beer or six.

Second, a transformative experience changes who you are - it alters your values and preferences, creating a fundamental disconnect between your pre-tranformation and post-transformation selves. Though personal identity through time is a thorny matter already, transformative experiences make a further mess of things in this way. When you've had a transformative experience, you move through the world afterwards through the lens you thereby earned.

To make a long and sort of technical story short, the inherent nature of transformative experience defies ordinary models of rational decision making. The ordinary model is something like this: look at your values, look at the options on the table, figure out their probabilities, figure out how good each one of them would be to you. Crunch the numbers, pick the option that comes out on top. All-things-considered decisions can be very complex, but they are not in principle indeterminate or arbitrary.

But, when potential transformation is on the table, you can't compare options to determine which option better realizes your values. The nature of the transformative outcome is unknowable to you until you've undergone it, and you (and your preferences) will change in the process anyways. Plus, there's not even some higher level of value hierarchy to reference in deciding (from a subjective perspective) whether your old self's preferences or your new self's preferences are better. (Please do check out the book if you're interested in the details here).

In other words, both choosing and declining to make a transformation are (prima facie) not rational decisions in the way we imagine our decisions can and should be. Yet, all of us must make potentially transformative choices anyways. What now?

As Paul suggests in Transformative Experience, one quasi-solution to the problem of transformative choice lives somewhere in the neighborhood of the intrinsic value of revelation. As she closes the book:

If revelation comes from experience, independently of the (first-order) pleasure or pain of the experience, then there can be value in discovering how one's preferences and lived experience develop, simply for what such experience teaches. One of the most important games of life, then, is the game of Revelation, a game played for the sake of play itself.

Even if you can't know in advance what a transformative experience would be like (or who it would turn you into), declining to participate in one amounts to "affirming our current life and lived experience," it's a vote for the status quo. Humans are pretty curious creatures, a trait that's served us well often enough to persist genetically. It's not crazy to think revelation is valuable per se, at least some of the time.

That being said - a little lovely handwaving about the value of revelation is going to come as cold comfort to those whose revelations went sour (like parents who regret having children) or whose revelations weren't voluntary (the bereaved).

I promised a primer, so there you go! No real answers yet, mostly questions. Watch this space for more on the nature of transformative experience and how individuals can think about it fruitfully for their own personal purposes.

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Pamela J. Hobart Twitter

Philosophical Life Coaching in Austin, TX. Also mother of 3, Miata driver, and DIY manicure aficionado.