More on phenomenal knowledge and rationality

As a follow up to my last post, I’d like to sketch some of my thoughts regarding the objection I raised in the last post and then raise a further worry about Paul’s arguments.

Like Paul, I do and would continue to hold that we cannot know what it is like to have a child of our own (HC) on the basis of our phenomenal experiences with other people’s children.  I would argue that this is true for exactly the same reasons that I suggested in the last post as a possible response to my worry.  We can know what it is like to experience certain types of experiences – say,  ‘caring for’; ‘loving’; ‘laughing with’ and ‘being angry at’ – on the basis of our experiences with other people’s children.  Yet, I would argue, there is something unique about having experiences of these types with the specific token ‘a child of our own’ that, in turn, makes our experiences of these types unique.  So, I am sympathetic to the claim that we cannot know what it is like to have a child of our own before having one and that, for this reason, having a child of our own is a transformative experience.  For similar reasons, I am also sympathetic to Eric Schliesser’s claim that perhaps other everyday experiences (such as eating chocolate ice cream or seeing red on this day, in this light, in this mood) are transformative.

However, though I accept this sort of position, it doesn’t lead me to think that we cannot make rational decisions to HC (or, for that matter, to see red or to eat chocolate ice cream).  Because of our having experienced what it is like to have these types of experiences – ‘caring for’; ‘loving’; etc. – with others (or in other instances), I do think we can form an approximation (or approximate idea) of what it will be like to HC.  And, I would argue, an approximation is all that we need to make rational decisions to HC on the standard model.

And this leads me to an important ground for questioning Paul’s arguments.  It concerns her emphasis on the importance of knowing what is like to HC.  On the standard model, in order to make rational decisions to HC or ~HC, you must determine the expected value (EV) of both options (the rational decision is the one with the higher EV).  To determine the EV of HC, you must determine the value of all of the outcomes associated with HC and the probability of these outcomes occurring.  On Paul’s view, the value of the outcomes of HC is determined only by knowing what it is like to HC.  But why think that we have to know what it is like to HC in order to determine the value of the outcomes associated with HC?  On the standard model, rationality requires that we determine the value that we estimate will be associated with the outcomes of HC not the known value of the outcomes of HC.  Something less than full knowledge of what it is like to HC is sufficient to determine the EV of the outcomes of HC and, in turn, to make a rational choice to HC.  So, even if we allow Paul’s claim that we can only know what it is like to HC by being in a state where we actually HC (see the last post on this) and not on the basis of similar types of experiences, it seems that, on the basis of such related experiences, we can at least estimate what value the outcomes of HC will have for us.  This is sufficient to make a rational decision about whether to HC.

Paul can block this move by denying that we cannot have even an approximate idea of what it is like to HC on the basis of our experiences of similar types.  If this is right, then we wouldn’t be able to make rational decisions to HC because we would lack even an estimation (approximation) of the EV of HC.  But, I wonder if such a move can plausibly be made.  Do we really lack even an approximation of what it is like to HC and of the value that it will have for us?

2 responses

  1. Hi Meena,

    Great discussion! I would like to comment on your (and Paul’s) claim that we cannot know what it is like to have a child of our own unless we have had a child of our own. I thought that perhaps we could use some of the ideas in your previous post to resist this claim. In particular, I would like to focus on the idea that some experiences should not be seen as unified and distinctive experiences, but rather as being made up of distinct experiences. I think we could similarly think of the experience of having a child of one’s own in terms of a complex experience, that is, an experience that has other, more simple experiences as constituents. For example, the experience of seeing a blue triangle is (somehow) constituted by the experience of seeing a triangle and the experience of seeing something blue. And coming back to the issue of phenomenal knowledge, I think it is very intuitive to say that if someone has seen a blue triangle and a yellow square, they could know what it is like to see a blue square and a yellow triangle, even if they have never experienced that particular combination.
    Likewise, I would like to suggest, one might be able to know (or at least approximate) what it is like to have a child of one’s own if they can know, first, what it is like to experience the different constituent experiences (via projection from similar experiences), and second, what it is like to experience that particular combination (via combination of the constituents).
    How could we find out what it is like to have a child of our own, then? First, we will need to have had experiences around other people’s children, as you discuss in your previous post. In addition, we might reflect on previous experiences of similar “passages”, such as moving from hanging out with people who have relationship R with other people, to having relationship R with someone yourself (R might stand for being a sibling, friend, lover, spouse, employee, etc.). This could arguably give us some insights into what is involved in moving from hanging out with and taking care of other people’s children to taking care of one’s own child.

  2. Thanks, Esa! I am generally quite sympathetic to what you state (I especially like the idea of reflecting on other “passages”). In fact, as you note, your suggestions are very much along the lines of one my earlier post (on Mary in the pink-room). However, I am not entirely sure I understand the upshot of what you suggest. I think one way of interpreting what you say is to view it as an attempt to establish that we can *know* what it is like to have a child of our own (HC) on the basis of past experiences, if we view the experience of HC as a complex what it is like experience, made up of other distinct what it is like experiences. While I do find this claim plausible, I am still struggling between whether the process you suggest for finding out what it will be like to have a child of our own or to see a blue square and a yellow triangle will lead us to *knowledge* of what it will be like rather than an *approximation* of what it will be like. I agree that I can have an approximation of what it will be like to see a blue square (for the first time) on the basis of experiencing what it is like to see a blue triangle and a yellow square. However, I am still slightly inclined to think that if we have never experienced what it is like to see a blue square that we do not yet *know* what it will be like. What grounds do you have for thinking that we can have phenomenal *knowledge* on the basis of past experiences? Or have I completely misinterpreted your upshot?

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