Philosophy Phriday: Trantsformative Experience

The Daily Ant hosts a weekly series, Philosophy Phridays, in which real philosophers share their thoughts at the intersection of ants and philosophy. This is the twenty-second contribution in the series, submitted by Chris Blake-Turner.

Trantsformative Experience

Let me start by making sure I say at least one true thing in this post: ants and humans are very different. I’m going to use this platitude to explore a problem that arises when we try to make some of the most important decisions in our lives. In particular, it seems that we can’t rationally decide: to have children; to change careers; to go to college.

A leafcutter ant with its children in a colony. Photo: Alex Wild

Consider the following two scenarios.


Suppose your best friend returns from a long trip and seems, well, different. You can’t quite put your finger on what it is, but something is definitely up. When you confront them, they explain that they’ve joined The Colony. This sounds to you a lot like a cult, and the more you hear the more convinced you become. The Colony is a community of people who, disenchanted with modern life, have created a social structure modeled on an ant colony. When people join The Colony, they agree to undergo an intense process of biochemicopsycho-reprogramming. Through a mixture of drugs and psychological reorientation, their personal goals are all shed. All they care about now is serving the needs of The Colony. Insofar as they get to do that, they are happy: happy to toil for hours on end to meet The Colony’s material needs; happy to die at an instant’s notice to protect The Colony; and so on. You shudder at this vision of putative happiness.

Your friend has returned to invite you to join The Colony. If you do so, your preferences will change radically and—your friend claims—you’ll enjoy selflessly serving The Colony. All you need to do is go with your friend and begin the process of reprogramming. Should you join The Colony?


Now suppose instead that your best friend returns from a different long trip. Once again, they seem different. This time when you ask them about it, they explain that they’ve had a child. (It was quite a trip.) In doing so, they’ve undergone an intense process of biochemicopsycho-reprogramming. Through a mixture of hormonal changes and psychological reorientation, their personal goals have drastically altered. Although they still care about other things, their primary aim is to serve the needs of their child. Insofar as they get to do that, they are happy: happy to undergo semi-permanent sleep deprivation; happy to be covered in various of their progeny’s effluvia; happy to talk about their offspring for hours on end to anyone who’ll listen. You shudder at this vision of putative happiness.

Your friend encourages you to have a child. If you do, your preferences will change radically and—your friend claims—you’ll enjoy selflessly serving your child. Should you have a child?

A perplexed ant. Photo: Alex Wild

There are many differences between Colony and Parent. But there are some surprising similarities that make deciding whether to join The Colony or have a child importantly alike. In particular, both are decisions to undergo what the philosopher L.A. Paul has called a transformative experience [1]. I’ll explain why joining The Colony and having a child are both transformative experiences, and why this means it’s hard—perhaps even impossible—to make a rational decision about what to do in these and similar cases. But first, let’s get clear about what a transformative experience is.

Transformative experiences have two crucial features. The first is that they’re epistemically transformative, which means that the only way for you to know what it’s like to have the experience is to have it yourself. For instance, consider trying a fruit that you’ve never tasted before. I’ve never had durian. It is supposed to have a distinctive and polarizing flavor. I’ve read and heard accounts of what it’s like to eat the fruit. They range from “It’s delicious” to “Like eating raspberry blancmange in the lavatory” [2]. But no matter how much testimony I get about what it’s like to eat durian, I don’t really know what it’s like to do so. And I won’t until I try it for myself. This is because tasting durian for the first time is epistemically transformative.

The second key feature of a transformative experience is that it’s personally transformative. This means that it radically changes some of your core preferences, your fundamental values. On the reasonable assumption that your core preferences at least partially constitute who you are, a personally transformative experience changes you in an important sense [3]. Consider reading an especially powerful work of fiction. Suppose after reading Shūsaku Endō’s Silence you become much more bothered about the problem of divine hiddenness. You devote much of your time trying to puzzle it out, perhaps starting with Michael Rea’s post in this very series. Before reading the book, you didn’t care about the problem at all; maybe you’d never even thought about it. Now it troubles you deeply, and solving it has become a priority for you. So reading Silence changed your core preferences in an important way. It was personally transformative.

Transformative experiences are both epistemically and personally transformative. You can’t know what it’s like to undergo them without actually doing so, and they radically change your core preferences. Joining The Colony and becoming a parent for the first time are both transformative experiences. Start with the former. No matter how much you learn about the social lives of ants, nor how much you talk to current Colonists, you won’t know what it’s like to live in The Colony without doing so. So it’s epistemically transformative. And it’s obviously personally transformative: by stipulation, the reprogramming you undergo will radically change your core preferences. Similarly, becoming a parent is both epistemically and personally transformative. No amount of babysitting or changing of nieces’ diapers will give you access to what it’s like to be a parent. And your post-parental preferences will be different from your pre-parental ones.

Trantsformative experience. Photo: Alex Wild

Here’s the problem. It seems impossible to rationally decide to undergo a transformative experience. Let’s focus on Colony. The first problem is that, because joining The Colony is epistemically transformative, you can’t make an informed decision. You don’t know what it’s like to be a Colonist. In particular, you don’t know what it would be like for you to be a Colonist. Given this, it seems you can’t put a value on joining The Colony and try to compare that with the value of your non-Colonial life. But that’s exactly what we typically think making an informed, rational choice requires: picking the option that is going to be most valuable (weighing appropriately for the probabilities of different outcomes of each option). Even if we could solve this issue, however, a deeper worry remains. Suppose we stipulate that your friend is right: you will love being a member of The Colony. But because joining The Colony is personally transformative, your core preferences will radically change when you do. So while your post-Colonial self will love doing whatever best serves the needs of The Colony, your pre-Colonial self would hate doing those things. Which preferences should you defer to: your current ones, or your post-transformation ones?

In the case of Colony, the answer to that question may seem obvious. You should, of course, defer to your current preferences and stay away from the myrmecic dystopia. Natural though it is, it’s not only hard to justify this reaction in this particular case, but generalizing it to all decisions to undergo transformative experiences cannot be right. That would lead to an unpalatable conservatism that would urge us not to embark on what many of us take to be some of the most important projects of our lives. This is because the problem about rational choice arises not merely in fanciful scenarios like Colony, but whenever we are faced with a choice involving a transformative experience. This is a situation all of us will find ourselves in at some point or other, for instance when deliberating whether to have a child, or change careers. Moreover, sometimes it seems like undergoing the transformative experience is clearly correct, as when doing so will ameliorate your morally repugnant (say, racist) core preferences.

I’m not sure of the answer to these issues. So I’ll end not by resolving them, but by highlighting something that may lead to an adequate solution. Perhaps the answer has to do with values other than rationality. Rationality is important, no doubt, but we oughtn’t be obsessed with it. Maybe the lesson of transformative experience is to indicate where the boundaries of rationality lie. Beyond those limits we may have to appeal to something like authenticity to guide us [4]. The thought is, roughly, that where we can’t make rational decisions, we should make decisions that are true to ourselves.

While this is a promising line of thought, several questions loom large. (I didn’t say this was a solution, just that it might lead to one.) Here are two. First, which selves should we be true to—our pre- or post-transformation selves? Without answering this, it looks like we’re no better off than we were before. Second, what are the limits, if any, on authentic choice? For instance, can a racist authentically refuse to undergo an experience that would change that part of themselves? Moreover, why couldn’t you authentically choose to join The Colony? Charles Foster is a lawyer and Fellow of Green Templeton College, Oxford. He has devoted significant time to trying to live as (among other things) a badger, definitely a transformative experience [5]. He seems completely sincere in his quest to find out what being a badger is like. So it’s not clear that inauthenticity is a barrier in cases like Colony. But then—if it’s no more irrational, and possibly just as authentic, as having a child—what’s to stop you from going with your friend and joining The Colony?


[1] Paul. L.A. 2014. Transformative Experience. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[2] The author Anthony Burgess, quoted in Tan, M. 2014. “Durian: love it or hate it, is this the world’s most divisive fruit?”. The Guardian. Available at

[3] I focus here on selves rather than persons. Maybe a radical change in core preferences doesn’t change the person that you are—in one sense, I’m still the same being that I was when I was twelve—but it plausibly does change the self that you are—in another sense, I’m definitely not the same being as twelve-year-old me.

[4] Paul draws on a specific understanding of authenticity to try and dispel some of the mystery of transformative experience.

[5] Foster, C. 2016. Being a Beast: Adventures Across the Species Divide. New York: Metropolitan Books.

CBTChris Blake-Turner is a PhD student at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill, with a BA in Philosophy from the University of Durham and a BPhil from a random no-name university. He is into epistemology, ethics, their intersection, and logic, and now ants.