I want to take a closer look at L. A. Paul's argument that The Decision (whether or not to have children) is not rational. In my last post, I claimed her argument is not clearly valid. I want to explain why. Her argument can be represented by this series of propositions:
1) If The Decision is rational, then it involves people who have never had children comparing what it would be like to have children with what it would be like to remain childless.
2) People who have never had children cannot know what it would be like to have children.
3) If a person cannot know what it would be like to have children, then they cannot compare what it would be like to have children with what it would be like to remain childless.
4) People who have never had children cannot compare what it would be like to have children with what it would be like to remain childless.
5) Therefore, The Decision is not rational.
On the surface, it looks like you must accept (4) and (5) if you accept (1), (2) and (3). However, I think the argument equivocates over the phrase "what it would be like" in premises (1) and (2).
Before I explain, I want to question premise (3). One might not need knowledge of what it would be like in order to make the sorts of comparisons required for a decision to be rational. One might simply need justified beliefs. A person might not know what it is like to have children, but still have justified beliefs about what it is like. And they can, based on those beliefs, make comparisons with what they justifiably believe it would be like to remain childless. They can, on that basis, make a rational decision about whether or not to have children even though they don't know what it will be like--and they can even realize that they don't know what it will be like. I suspect many parents might agree with me here: when you decided to have children, you didn't think you actually knew what it would be like. You had some reasonable beliefs about the matter, and those helped guide your decision. There's nothing irrational about that, is there? Thus, even if you don't agree with the argument I'm about to make concerning equivocation--even if you think Paul's argument is valid--I think we should reject her conclusion by rejecting premise (3).
Now, to see why there is an equivocation in Paul's argument, let's first consider what it would take for (2) to be true. This is where Paul explicitly appeals to Frank Jackson's knowledge argument. As I noted in my last post, Jackson's argument is controversial and it is not clear what, if anything, it demonstrates. It might just demonstrate that some knowledge is not discursively learnable. Or it might just demonstrate that our intuitions about radical epistemological states (like omniscience about the physical world) are unreliable. In any case, I don't think Paul is really relying on the knowledge argument per se. She's really relying on an older argument found in Thomas Nagel's 1974 paper, "What is it like to be a bat?" Nagel famously argued for the intuition that drives Jackson's knowledge argument: the intuition that you cannot know what it is like to X unless you have the right experiences of X-ing. Jackson's knowledge argument is well-known for taking Nagel's intuition and making an argument against physicalism out of it. (Physicalism is the doctrine that the physical world is all there is. Unlike the knowledge argument, Nagel argues that physicalism is perplexing, but not necessarily false--perplexing because we cannot imagine how subjective experiences just are physical states or processes.) Paul doesn't need to make an argument against physicalism. She doesn't seem to want to align her argument about The Decision with an anti-physicalist position. So she's probably better off not aligning her argument with the knowledge argument. (Edit: After discussing this issue with Professor Paul and reviewing her paper again, it's clear that she does not intend to align herself with the anti-physicalist knowledge argument. She is only using the thought experiment behind it.) The point is, for (2) to be true, "what it is like" must refer to the kind of properties you can only know about through experience. These are phenomenal properties, or qualia.
Qualia is the stuff of irreducibly subjective experience. It is what you know only by experiencing something, and not being told about it. For example, if there is something it is like to see red, then that is something that you only understand by having (or remembering, or imagining) the experience of seeing red. Similarly, if there is something it is like to be a parent, then you must have that experience (or remember or imagine it) in order to know it. There's a philosophical question regarding whether or not you can know what something is like without actually having the experience, and there have been many arguments back and forth in the last several decades among professionals. It's not a settled issue. But some intuitively believe in qualia enough to accept (2) as true. The problem is, this is not the sense of "what it is like" that makes (1) plausible.
To help flesh out (1), Paul writes:
Many prospective parents decide to have a baby because they have a deep desire to have children based on the (perhaps inarticulate) sense that having a child will help them to live a fuller, happier, and somehow complete life, that is, it will help them to have experiences with a kind of phenomenal character that one can describe as involving “life satisfaction” or “meaningfulness.” While many people recognize that an individual’s choice to have a child has important external implications, the decision is thought to necessarily involve an intimate, personal component, and so it is a decision that is best made from the personal standpoints of prospective parents. Guides for prospective parents often suggest that people ask themselves if having a baby will enhance an already happy life, and encourage prospective parents to reflect on, for example, how they see themselves in five and ten years’ time, whether they feel ready to care for and nurture the human being they’ve created, whether they think they’d be a happy and content mother (or father), whether having a baby of their own would make life more meaningful, whether they are ready for the tradeoffs that come with being a parent, whether they desire to continue with their current career plans or other personal projects, and so on.I'm sure most people would agree that the decision to have children usually does, and generally should, involve an intimate, personal component. I'm sure most people would also agree that issues concerning "life satisfaction" often do arise when considering whether or not to become a parent. However, this does not clearly involve unique phenomenal properties. The "guides" Paul mentions are focused on practical questions concerning readiness to commit to years of care-giving, readiness to make trade-offs, willingness to change career plans, and whether the parents-to-be (or not-to-be) think they would be happy and content. It seems like the bulk of this is stuff that people can form justified true beliefs about without having to first have children. It doesn't look like qualia. Perhaps qualia can be involved when we talk about the meaningfulness of a life with (or without) children. If there is an irreducibly subjective component, that must be where it is. However, Paul has presented the decision as one between a life which is more meaningful with one which is less meaningful. It is reasonable to suppose that one can know what it is like to have a life which is more meaningful (or less meaningful) without knowing the unique phenomenal properties involved with making your life more (or less) meaningful. You might not know the unique subjective states which will make your life more (or less) meaningful, but you know what it is like to experience an increase (or decrease) in the meaningfulness of your life.
So let's imagine some people considering whether or not to have children. They feel like their lives are not as meaningful as they could be. They didn't always feel this way, of course. It came with the aging process. Now that they are adults, they believe that having children has a high probability of filling this new void. They don't know how it will feel, exactly. They don't know what it will be like (in the sense of phenomenal properties, remember), and they don't pretend that they do. But they can make the comparison nonetheless. They can imagine a life without the void, since they remember not having it. They can predict that it will be even better than before--or at least better than it is now--even if they don't know exactly what experiential states will make it better. So, even if we stipulate that there are unique phenomenal properties associated with parenthood, you don't need to know them in order to make the comparison required for The Decision to be rational.
If I'm right, then (1) would seem false--and it is false, unless "what it would be like" in (1) does not refer to phenomenal properties. It refers to all the stuff that Paul mentions in that quote: the practical trade-offs, the happiness and well-being, and so on. It refers to the stuff that people talk about and form reasonable beliefs about without actually having the experience. So Paul's argument is invalid by reason of equivocation.
Update (March 14, 2013): I've begun an email discussion with Professor Paul and hopefully I'll be developing and perhaps even revising my point of view as a result. I do already see a need to qualify my accusation of equivocation. As Paul stressed to me in her email, she does intend "what it would be like" to be read in the same sense in both (1) and (2). So my best charge against her, you might think, is simply that she is wrong about (1). (I'm ignoring my criticism of (3) at the moment.) In that case, I'd have to admit that her argument is valid, if not sound. However, I'm not sure it is that simple. A lot of people find (1) intuitively appealing, and they are persuaded by Paul's argument for it. I suspect that there might be some unintentional obfuscation going on. I think that people might be taking "what it would be like" in (1) to mean something more than, if not entirely other than, phenomenal properties. I think more needs to be said about this. Hopefully I'll have time to devote a new post to it soon.