What is it like to be a vampire and/or parent?

Andrew Gelman contemplates a blog post of L.A. Paul and Kieran Healy (based on a preprint of Paulwhich asks:  it is possible to make rational decisions about whether to have children?

Paul and Healy’s argument is that, given the widely accepted claim that childbearing is a transformational event whose nature it’s impossible to convey to those who haven’t done it, it may be impossible for people to use the usual “what would it be like to to X?” method of deciding whether to have a kid.

Gelman says:

…even though you can’t know how it will feel after you have the baby, you can generalize from others’ experiences. People are similar to each other in many ways, and you can learn a lot about future outcomes by observing older people (or by reading research such as that popularized by Kahneman, regarding predicted vs. actual future happiness). Thus, I think it’s perfectly rational to aim to have (or not have) a child, with the decision a more-or-less rational calculation based on extrapolation from the experiences of older people, similar to oneself, who’ve faced the same decision earlier in their lives.

Here’s how I’d defend Paul and Healy from this objection.

Suppose you had a lot of friends who’d been bitten by vampires and transformed into immortal soulless monsters.  And when you meet up with these guys they’re always going on and on about how awesome it is being a vampire:  “I’m totally glad I became undead, I’d never go back to being human, are you kidding me?  Now I’m superstrong, I’m immortal, I have this great group of vampires I run with, I feel like I really know what it’s all about now in a way I didn’t get before.  Life has meaning, life has purpose.  I can’t really explain it, you just gotta do it.”  And you know, you sort of wish they’d be a little less rah-rah about it, like, do you have to post a picture on Facebook of every person you kill and eat?  You’re a vampire, that’s what you do, I get it!  But at the same time you can’t help starting to wonder whether they’re on to something.


I don’t think it’s actually good decision-making to say:  people similar to me became vampires and prefer that to their former lives as humans, so I should become a vampire too.  Because the vampire is not the same being as the human who used to occupy that body.  Who cares whether vampires like being vampires better than they like being human?  What matters is what I prefer, not what the vampiric version of me would prefer.  And I, a human, prefer not to be a vampire.

As for me, I’m a parent, and I don’t think that my identity underwent a radical transformation.  I’m the same person I was, but with two kids.   So when I tell friends it’s my experience that having kids is pretty worthwhile, I’m not saying that from across an unbridgable perceptual divide — I’m saying that I am still similar to you, and I like having kids, so you might too.  Paul and Healy’s argument doesn’t refer to my case at all:  they’re just saying that if parents are about as different from non-parents as vampires are from humans, then there’s a real difficulty in deciding whether to have children based on parents’ testimonies, however sincere.

(Remark:  Invasion of the Body Snatchers is sort of about the question Paul and Healy raise.  Many have understood the original movie as referring to Communism, but it might be interesting to go back and watch it as a movie about childbearing.  It is, after all, about gross slimy little creatures that grow in the dark and sustain themselves on your body.  And then the new being known as “you” goes around trying to convince others that the experience is really worth it!)

Update:  Kieran points out that the reference to “body-snatching” is already present in their original post — I must have read this, forgotten it, then thought I’d come up with it as an apposite example myself….

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10 thoughts on “What is it like to be a vampire and/or parent?

  1. There’s a cool generalizable issue here, I think: it’s clear that you can’t correctly rate an experience without accurately imagining it, but it’s unclear what correctly rating an experience involves in addition to just accurately imagining it. In many contexts we endorse a rule somewhat like ‘give a prospective experience the rating that this prospective experience gives itself,’ and in these cases correctly rating an experience and accurately imagining it are one and the same so we don’t even need a concept of correctly rating an experience that’s distinct from merely accurately imagining an experience. But in cases where we don’t want to treat the rating that an experience gives itself as authoritative, we’re not exactly sure what we need to do after the ‘accurately imagine’ step.

  2. I guess what I’m saying is that I don’t think the epistemic issue is essential here. (Perhaps you’re saying it too.) Like, even if I could accurately imaginatively invoke the state of mind of being-a-vampire-who-loves-being-a-vampire, it’s unclear that by having this accurate imaginative experience I’ve learned anything about how good or bad this state of mind is: of course the state of mind of being a vampire and loving it is great *according to the state of mind of being a vampire and loving it.* Perhaps we should say that by having the accurate imaginative experience I learned what the being-a-vampire-who-loves-being-a-vampire state — including the self-evaluative attitude it involves — feels like, and that I can now use evaluative criteria that are not those of the state itself to evaluate the state, including the state’s self-evaluative attitude. But I’m not sure how that’s supposed to work, since it’s a little like telling you to imagine the experience of feeling ‘this experience is the most valuable experience ever’ and decide how valuable this experience is. Maybe there’s no genuine short-circuit here, but it sure is murky.

  3. JSE says:

    Don’t have time to think this through right now but I just want to say I REALLY REALLY hope that the phrasing of your last comment was in oblique reference to the forgotten Mel Brooks / Leslie Nielsen vehicle “Dracula: Dead and Loving It.”

  4. Unintentional but almost certainly not accidental.

  5. piper says:

    1. hahahaha
    2. i actually *do* feel like a completely different person. and for that matter i am in ways that have little to do with having a kid. also i think you become a different person when you have to make decision after decision after decision. not all non-parents led the lazy, chemical-laden decision-free life i led, but anyone similar to how i was will not be someone similar to how i am now. i mean i go to holistic meetings and research natural remedies. i am someone former me would’ve branded a crazy hippy. i don’t know what’s on tv and i can’t distinguish between one direction and bruno mars when a new song comes on the radio. so if i say having kids is transformative, it’s not just so i can post pictures of myself throwing up gang signs with my kid over witty subtitles.

  6. Allen Knutson says:

    I feel like two slightly distinct things are conflated in your post — (1) is a parent enough the same person as they were pre-parenthood, that we can compare their notions of joy, and (2) do I*, a non-parent, actually believe that the joy of parenthood is “real”, rather than “just” a biological imperative, a way evolution has of tricking parents into feeling like they’ve done something that’s a positive in their lives?

    (Because evolution will pull that sort of shenanigans, you know. For example, long-term memory is suppressed during childbirth, the harder to remember “boy, that hurt!”)

    Hey, I’ve got a pill here. If you take it, it’ll make you accept Jesus as your savior. All those statistics about how much happier the devout are — that’ll be you! Believe you me, it’s awesome knowing that Jesus loves you. Just take the pill, and you’ll see! There are plenty of lucky people who didn’t need it, but maybe you do, and you can take this one here!

    *In fact I am a parent. And much of the time, happy to be one!

  7. JSE says:

    Allen, my intent at any rate was just to talk about (1), not about (2), but maybe that’s because I’ve given up on thinking that questions about authenticity have useful answers — it feels good to eat, and there are evolutionary reasons it feels good to eat, and I’m not going to sweat whether those are real feelings or just a trick or where, if anywhere, the scare quotes should go!

  8. Tom Church says:

    Jordan, it actually seems to me that while L.A. Paul’s paper is addressing Allen’s point (1), your post seems to be largely directed at his point (2). Paul’s interest is in whether it’s possible to *know* what it will be like to be a vampire, but you’re saying something different — that even if you could somehow guarantee that you would be happier as a vampire, or even be made privy to the internal experience of what it would be like, you still would decline the opportunity.

    Why do you, as a human, prefer not to be a vampire? Because the experience of being a vampire strikes you as insufficiently close to your experience of being a human, and to your identity as a human. That’s why learning to play the guitar doesn’t evoke the same repulsion — even though playing the guitar becomes more enjoyable the better you get, so that your enjoyment a few months in is coming from something that you wouldn’t have previously enjoyed.

    Of course this starts to sound quite close to (1): part of the reason you’re not scared to enjoy playing guitar is that you have lots of experience in other areas of your life with improved skills and the commensurate enjoyment, which means you’re better able to imagine what it’ll be like. But this is still distinct from (1) — it’s like reasoning “well, in the past I’ve been happiest when my life changed fairly frequently, and I’ve always been able to land on my feet in new situations, so I think I’ll give this vampire thing a try”.

  9. […] What is it like to be a vampire and/or parent? (quomodocumque.wordpress.com) […]

  10. […] while ago I read a great paper by the philosopher L. A. Paul and wrote this post about it, asking:  is the experience of becoming a vampire analogous in important ways to the experience of […]

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