Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Babies and Qualia

Having reached an age at which procreation is a thing done by my peers, I found myself grappling with the question of whether or not procreation was a thing for me to do.  After talking to a friend, he sent me a link to a sample draft of a paper, by L.A. Paul, about an epistemic issue involved in the decision to have a child.  I read it, thought about it, and filed away the info in my "I'll blog about that someday" folder.  Turns out NPR posted a blog about the paper last week.  So, it seems to be the time to toss out some words.

Conventional thinking lands us in an untenable middle-ground between two approaches to the question of procreation.  On one side is the "I want one" camp whose main approach to the question is emotion-based.  One feels one's way through the question by means of one's emotive inclinations, or lack thereof, to procreate.  On the other side is the "Let's think about this" camp whose main approach to the question is reason.  These individuals cost / benefit their way through the question, assess issues of economic concerns, ask existential questions regarding the nature of reality, etc.  Both positions imagine their way through the questions and concerns to reach a decision on whether or not they shall fuck without using contraceptives.

Paul's paper tosses a wrench into the process.  The wrench is this:  Many parents report that having a child is a life-changing experience that fundamentally alters their perception of reality.  The life-changing nature of parenthood significantly alters one's epistemic framework after childbirth.  Given the significance of the life alteration, it is impossible for one to reason, emote, or imagine their way through the question of procreation to make an informed decision:  You really do not, and can not, know what it will be like to have the child until after you have the child.

Most people seem to think this conclusion is either obvious or hogcock.  Unfortunately, most people think that as a result of a knee-jerk reaction to being told something about their self by an academic, rather than a thoughtful critique of the thesis put forth by Paul.  So, rather than be knee-jerk about it, let's assess the crux of Paul's argument:  Epistemically-transformative experiences.  Paul uses the example provided by Frank Jackson, so let's go with that one.

Imagine a neuroscientist named Mary.  She has complete knowledge of the mechanical and neurological processes by which one sees color.  When someone sees the color red, Mary can completely explain how they see the color red.  Sadly, Mary has been raised in a black and white laboratory.  She has only ever seen black and white; she has never seen the color red.  Jackson argues that despite her knowledge about color, light, and neurology, it is impossible for Mary to know what it is like to see red, to access the qualia of "seeing red".

Paul argues that the "seeing red" qualia is akin to the "having a child" qualia.  Just as Mary cannot read and research her way to "what it is like to see red", one cannot reason or emote one's way to "what it is like to be a parent / have a child".

My initial inclination is to say that "seeing red" differs from "having a child" in a way that renders the Mary story irrelevant.  The qualia of seeing red may be unique and one may only gain it by having the experience.  Having a child is not this sort of thing.  Rather, "having a child" is the heaping of all the discrete particular actions involved in having a child:  providing nutrients, changing diapers, paying bills, having concerns, teaching skills, running errands, buying toys, etc.  In my estimation, I can approximate what it is like to have a child by talking to parents, babysitting, spending time in the Wal-Mart toy aisle, staring at shitty diapers, and setting my money on fire.

The problem, of course, is what Paul argues:  Many parents claim that "having a child" is a life-changing event that is epistemically transformative.  If these self-reports of parents are correct, then one cannot get to the qualia of "having a child" by heaping up a lot of babysitting.  When one has a child, something magical happens, and they become a different person who can access a bit of qualia that was previously unattainable.

I am not sure what make of that.  If true, then we seem to be epistemically screwed.  Someone who fervently argues against procreation may, after having a child, become a fantastic parent.  A woman who breaks up with males that exhibit reservations against procreation may eventually turn out to loathe her children, and lament leaving the dudes who were not keen on knocking her up.  Moreover, one seems unable to know whether or not the event will be life-changing, for them, until after it happens.

There's also the problem of being reductionists about qualia.  To go back to the Mary story, how different is "seeing red" from "seeing orange"?  If we treat these as atomistic then we get one answer, but if red and orange are on a spectrum with white and black then perhaps there is no vast epistemic gap, and Mary can get to red from her white and black qualia.  Similarly, perhaps "having a child" isn't too different from raising a sibling, or babysitting a lot, or having a fussy cat.  We can place parenthood on a spectrum, and then approximate it by navigating our way through the spectrum.

Ultimately, I like Paul's paper and think it is a helpful application of philosophic theory to practical concerns.  Anything that softens an individual's stance on procreation, with respect to one's own desires (pro or con), is probably a good thing.  Raising the question of procreation's impact upon the individual knower is beneficial.  Telling people they cannot predict what having a child will be like, for them, and providing an argument seems keen.

Unfortunately, Paul's project maintains the theme of asking procreative questions from the parent's perspective:  How can you know whether or not you will like having a child?  It continues the trend of treating children as a means to the parent's ends.  In contrast to Paul, and most of humanity, I think the better procreative question to ask is one that addresses the concerns of neither the mother nor the father:  Will your child want to have been born?


Caleb said...

This. This.

_J_ said...

High praise, indeed!