Beyond L.A. Paul’s theory of transformative experiences

Luc P. Beaudoin
4 min readSep 1, 2023

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What happens when we have a transformative experience?

L.A. Paul has recently been interviewed by Sam Harris on transformative experiences. In 2020 she was interviewed on the same subject by Sean Carroll.

By her own admittance, Paul’s book Transformative Experiences, focuses on the problems that transformative experiences pose for decision theory. She claims (a) decision theory assumes a fixed set of preference; (b) some transformative experiences change an agent’s preferences; (c ) future preferences are incommensurate relative to current preferences, making them impossible to understand with the standard tools of decision theory. But contrast Amia Srinivasan’s review of Transformative Experiences, “All the same” PDF

To be more precise, Paul writes:

normative decision theory does apply. But there is a catch: in order for standard decision theory to apply, we will have to reject or significantly modify a deeply ingrained, very natural approach to making such decisions, the approach that takes subjective values of one’s future lived experience into account. (p. 33)

So, Paul doesn’t stray very far from decision theory in her characterization of self-transformation (or “transformative experience”).

Beyond decision-theoretic framings of self-transformation

First, I haven’t described her work in enough detail for you to take in my assessment. I recommend listening to interviews of L.A. Paul and reading her book and related information. See this web page of mine for references.

Second, very briefly, here’s my take on Paul’s Transformative Experiences book.

  • As argued in chapter 6 of my 1994 thesis, decision theory is of limited usefulness for understanding autonomous agents. More generally, as Stephen Wolfram also argues, non-quantitative approaches to mind are required. My criticism is aligned with Herbert Simon’s and Gerd Gigerenzer’s criticism of decision theory.
  • L.A. Paul’s book takes an intentional stance (folk psychology), not the designer stance — let alone an integrative design-oriented (“IDO”) perspective. As such, she ignores key problems that someone who takes an integrative design-oriented perspective to personal transformation would find most challenging, interesting, and worthy of attention.
  • Thus, (a) L.A. Paul’s book fails to communicate models of mind in relation to which transformation can be understood. She refers vaguely to preferences and attitudes, from a folk psychology or maybe a philosophical perspective. But she fails to provide insight into the machinery of motivation? If motivation is something that changes when we are personally transformed, then what is her theory of motivation? There are plenty of theories to choose from in, say, the excellent book, Beyond Pleasure and Pain: How Motivation Works by Tory E. Higgins). Higgins’ theory is aligned with my theory of motivation (from my early 1990’s publications onwards), though his theory lacks some IDO elements.
  • (b) her book fails to show an appreciation of (let alone communicate) the concepts of mindware in the virtual machine sense of the term, mind-design, and mental architecture.
  • Her book focuses on experience without considering the most deliberate source of self-transformation, adult self-directed learning, the subject of my Cognitive Productivity books. (on using knowledge and technology to become more effective) Her book does touch on a different kind of learning, namely inductive learning.
  • The title of her book is transformational experiences. However, there’s much more to self-transformation than can adequately be captured through an experiential lens.

To put it differently, decision-theory is a narrow lens through which to view self-transformation. Only by taking an integrative design-oriented perspective to understanding humans as autonomous agents can we adequately characterize human self-transformation. When we do that, the problems raised by Paul seem very narrow. Why are they getting so much traction in podcasts? And why have the problems mentioned above not been raised by podcast hosts who interviewed L.A. Paul? I guess it’s high time I build a list of co-signatories to the integrative design-oriented manifesto and we publish it in AGI or somewhere.

On Sept 24, I will host a Beacon humanist meeting about self-transformation. I’ll likely follow up with more information on the subject, given that much of my career is concerned with transforming ourselves with knowledge, aided by information technology 😊. I will explicitly fill in some of the gaps that I’ve criticized the decision-theoretic approach for leaving blank. Till then you check out the [Cognitive Productivity books](https://cogzest.com/books/) or some of my papers, such as [Mental perturbance: An integrative design-oriented concept for understanding repetitive thought, emotions and related phenomena involving a loss of control of executive functions](https://www.researchgate.net/publication/343924235). Hint: in deepest personal transformations, the mind-brain develops new cognitive monitors and motive generators.

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Luc P. Beaudoin

I R&D software, theories & books to understand & self-regulate deep knowledge-work, mental perturbance & somnolence.🇨🇦 https://linktr.ee/luccogzest