One Giant Leap in the Dark

We can’t know how a transformative experience — like walking on the moon — will change us until we make that first small step. UNC philosopher L.A. Paul explains.

Illustration of an astronaut walking from a moon scene to a painting studio scene, holding a paint brush.Illustration by Corina Cudebec
The moonwalkers were changed indefinitely after visiting Earth's evening star. Alan Bean (Apollo 12), for example, became a full-time painter after returning home.
November 17th, 2016

A urethane-coated nylon boot kicks up a cloud of lunar dust as it steps into the gritty surface. A stark, obsidian sky looms overhead. In the distance, planet Earth rests above the horizon.

Only 12 men have stepped foot on the moon — and each one returned to Earth changed. James Erwin (Apollo 15) formed a religious organization called the High Flight Foundation. Charles Duke (Apollo 16) started the Duke Ministry for Christ. Buzz Aldrin (Apollo 11) suffered from severe depression and alcoholism. Alan Bean (Apollo 12) became a full-time painter. “I remember thinking in lunar orbit, that if I got back from this I was going to live my life differently,” Bean said in an interview. “I was going to try to live it like I want to live it.”

The lunar astronauts underwent what UNC philosopher L.A. Paul calls a “transformative experience” — a life-changing, life-defining, never-before-explored experience.  “It’s something that’s so intense it makes you into a new kind of person,” explains Paul, who explores the moonwalkers’ tales in a new book she’s writing called “Who Will I Become?”

Major decisions — like deciding to become an astronaut — shape people’s futures and affect the type of person they ultimately become. “But certain problems arise in decision-making,” Paul says. “A lot of times, when we make decisions, we project ourselves forward. We think: What would I like better? Who do I want to be? How do I want to live my life? But you can’t assess your response to the situation because you don’t know what it’s like to be in that situation.”

Having a child is one of the most common transformative experiences, according to Paul. And who you are prior to having kids can be very different from who you are after. “Before becoming a parent, you might think, I don’t want to be one of those tired moms on the playground with vomit on her shoulder,” Paul says. “But once you become a parent and are one of the tired moms on the playground, you think: This is how I want to live my life. I love my child. This is so meaningful.

In fact, having a child of her own is what led Paul to research these kinds of experiences — something she couldn’t believe contemporary philosophers weren’t talking about. So many things fall under this category, from attending college, to fighting in a war, to redefining your religious beliefs — “the kinds of things you have to experience to understand,” she stresses.


The unpredictable path

For the past four years, Paul’s focused her research on decision theory — the concept of making decisions by assigning probabilities to various factors and numerical consequences to the outcome. Basically, it’s a math equation for how we think.

But decision theory struggles to capture the special role of how being immersed in an experience shapes who we are. It’s too impersonal, Paul points out, and doesn’t account for the tiny nuances that make us individuals. “It’s like we’re quasi-scientists broadly observing people and talking about how they’re making choices,” she says. “I think it’s important to change perspective and think about making decisions from within a specific person’s point of view.”

It’s similar to the difference between watching a T.V. show and becoming immersed in it through virtual reality, according to Paul. The television screen creates a divide that separates you from the storyline — the quintessential “fourth wall.” But when that barrier is removed and the scene is taking place around you rather than in front of you, it’s a completely different experience. “You no longer have that front-row-seat point-of-view,” Paul explains, “and that perspective changes you.”

This is why making life-changing decisions is not only difficult for the individual making them but for the researcher studying them. Who an individual will become after deciding to head down a particular path is too unpredictable. “If you can’t assess your response to the situation because you don’t know what it’s like to be in that situation, you can’t do that projection,” Paul says. “We can tell ourselves a story, but those expectations are based in fiction. Maybe recognizing that — that making big decisions is a leap in the dark — is the way we have to face those kinds of things.”

In Paul’s 2015 book, “Transformative Experience,” she argues that studying these decisions can’t be solved with the science we have now, but her collaborators in psychology and cognitive science are trying to tackle that issue. In the meantime, she’s looking to virtual reality as a substitute. “I was just interviewed by the BBC about some of my new work, which suggests that virtual reality experiences might help with the problem. So either I can actually attempt to have some of these experiences I’m studying, or I can try to have them virtually in order to get a better idea of what they involve.”


In someone else’s shoes

To better understand these experiences, Paul employs metaphysical themes such as being, knowing, substance, cause, identity, time, and the self — topics she unwraps in-depth in her abovementioned book. She’s particularly fascinated by empathy — the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person — and the role it plays in trying to identify with people who are very different from ourselves.

“Pretending like we can understand somebody else when we can’t is a mistake,” she shares. “Often, we are more willing to tolerate someone’s behavior if we can just grasp why they did it — if we can just understand enough about what it’s like to be in their head. But there are principled reasons why I can’t understand what it’s like to have Alzheimer’s or be of a different race or sexual orientation. If I haven’t lived that life, then who am I to judge or blame them for the mistakes they make or the things they do?”

Paul also thinks it’s a mistake to avoid our future selves. “I think it’s easy to gloss over how difficult, and even frightening, it can be to contemplate the possibility that who you will become is someone unrecognizable to you now,” she stresses. “Glossing this over isn’t the answer. We need to explore them and pick them apart and come up with better models that recognize what we can and cannot do.”

L.A. Paul is the Eugene G. Falk Distinguished Professor and director of graduate admissions in the Department of Philosophy within the UNC College of Arts and Sciences.