Understanding what it's like to make a life transforming decision -such as belief in God- by way of a thought experiment

Situations which require a ‘leap of faith’ can be appreciated by way of this thought experiment which I just read about in my weekly summary from the website (blog or sub stack pehaps?) known as the Marginalian:

The Vampire Problem: A Brilliant Thought Experiment Illustrating the Paradox of Transformative Experience

To be human is to suffer from a peculiar congenital blindness: On the precipice of any great change, we can see with terrifying clarity the familiar firm footing we stand to lose, but we fill the abyss of the unfamiliar before us with dread at the potential loss rather than jubilation over the potential gain of gladnesses and gratifications we fail to envision because we haven’t yet experienced them. Emerson knew this when he contemplated our resistance to change and the key to true personal growth: “People wish to be settled; only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them.” Rilke, too, knew it when he considered how great upheavals bring us closer to ourselves: “That is at bottom the only courage that is demanded of us: to have courage for the most strange, the most singular and the most inexplicable that we may encounter.”

When faced with the most transformative experiences, we are ill-equipped to even begin to imagine the nature and magnitude of the transformation — but we must again and again challenge ourselves to transcend this elemental failure of the imagination if we are to reap the rewards of any transformative experience.

In Transformative Experience (public library), philosopher L.A. Paulillustrates this paradox and examines how we are to unbind ourselves from it in a simple, elegant thought experiment: If you were offered the chance to become a vampire — painlessly and without inflicting pain on others, gaining incredible superpowers in exchange for relinquishing your human existence, with all your friends having made the leap and loving it — would you do it?

Art by Edward Gorey from his special illustrated edition of Dracula

Paul writes:

The trouble is, in this situation, how could you possibly make an informed choice? For, after all, you cannot know what it is like to be a vampire until you are one. And if you can’t know what it’s like to be a vampire without becoming one, you can’t compare the character of the lived experience of what it is like to be you, right now, a mere human, to the character of the lived experience of what it would be like to be a vampire. This means that, if you want to make this choice by considering what you want your lived experience to be like in the future, you can’t do it rationally. At least, you can’t do it by weighing the competing options concerning what it would be like and choosing on this basis. And it seems awfully suspect to rely solely on the testimony of your vampire friends to make your choice, because, after all, they aren’t human any more, so their preferences are the ones vampires have, not the ones humans have.

This hypothetical situation, she points out, is an apt analogue for our most important life decisions:

When you find yourself facing a decision involving a new experience that is unlike any other experience you’ve had before, you can find yourself in a special sort of epistemic situation. In this sort of situation, you know very little about your possible future, in the same way that you are limited when you face a possible future as a vampire. And so, if you want to make the decision by thinking about what your lived experience would be like if you decided to undergo the experience, you have a problem… You find yourself facing a decision where you lack the information you need to make the decision the way you naturally want to make it — by assessing what the different possibilities would be like and choosing between them. The problem is pressing, because many of life’s big personal decisions are like this: they involve the choice to undergo a dramatically new experience that will change your life in important ways, and an essential part of your deliberation concerns what your future life will be like if you decide to undergo the change. But as it turns out, like the choice to become a vampire, many of these big decisions involve choices to have experiences that teach us things we cannot know about from any other source but the experience itself.

It probably isn’t too hard to see how this describes the experience of someone who acquires belief after having settled into a life without it. What might be more challenging is to see how those who only believe what they do based on the authority of their parents, a community or the Bible scoff at the possibility to know God directly without the foreknowledge which has been granted to them. From the POV of someone who comes to belief only through consideration of their own direct experience it seems that the tradition bound believer is missing out on a transformative experience too.


Interesting thinking. One point that does not pop up strongly enough is that the step to something new, even a life transforming step, is usually small. The transforming change comes through many small steps (following a path) or as a side-effect of a small step we take.

Two examples.
When someone officially asks if you want to marry a person, a very short answer may transform the life permanently. Many do not even understand how much life can transform by simply answering what is hoped or expected - a minor step (answer) but leads to a transformative experience.

A second example is asking that God saves you while surrendering fully to King Jesus. It is a small but influential step. What happens in the invisible (spiritual) world is something we cannot see, we can only see what changes in the visible life. Some feel peace and joy immediately after the step but for many, life does not feel very different after that small step. It is ‘just’ a step to the path that leads to a new, transformed life. Step by step, we who are on the path change towards something better.

In these small but influential steps, we can imagine something of what will happen. Every time we take steps on the path, we have expectations of what happens. Yet, where these small steps finally lead us may be beyond anything we imagined.

  • There are thought experiments which seriously attempt to exercise some rational and reasonable thought. The “thought” experiment Paul offers makes little to no serious such attempt, IMO.
    • How so?
      • Paul’s thesis–if that’s what it is–seems to me to begin here …
        • “In Transformative Experience (public library), philosopher L.A. Paul illustrates this paradox and examines how we are to unbind ourselves from it in a simple, elegant thought experiment: If you were offered the chance to become a vampire — painlessly and without inflicting pain on others, gaining incredible superpowers in exchange for relinquishing your human existence, with all your friends having made the leap and loving it — would you do it?”
  • Seriously?
    • I read Paul’s words [not to be confused with St. Paul, of New Testament fame–and note that the purported brilliance of her thought experiment rests on the question: If you could be any thing other than a human being, painlessly or fairly painlessly, what would you want to be?
    • Pardon me, but being a vampire is definitely not on my list. Plus, I think somebody doesn’t know how a vampire, which is, IMO, as imaginary a possibility as a unicorn or Superman or Wonder Woman, makes it through each day or night to survive. And I’d hardly call becoming or being a vampire painless and not the cause of pain to others, … no matter which of my family and friends, or how many, have taken the steps to become one already, which currently is “zero”.
    • The transformative experience would not, I think, be desirable even if I decided that I’d like to be an octopus or a dolphin or an eagle, bear, or lynx.
    • Becoming a Christian or a Republican or some such human before-and-after possibilities are another matter.
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I thought about it and figured it would be a great choice expect for one thing: vampires don’t do sunlight, and most of the things I enjoy in life depend on sunshine!

I’d happily become a Tolkien-style elf if I could set some parameters, but a vampire? That would be a (long) step too far.


Definitely not to be confused with St. Paul. L.A. Paul is Laurie Ann Paul, professor of philosophy at Yale. Just to be clear, the article I’ve quoted is the work of another writer, perhaps Maria Popova whose interest in it seems to be to examine what it is like to make truly transformative changes in life. I suspect the quotes from other writers (Rilke, etc) are probably choices she made to bring the subject alive for other humanities people.

But Paul’s thought experiment posits that becoming a vampire -in spite of what one may believe based on nothing but Hollywood fiction- entails no harm to anyone else, just risk to the person whose experience of the world is to be transformed. She goes on to also stipulate that the transformee will not lose any relationships as everyone of importance will undergo the same transformation.

The idea to compare that to the decision to become a believer in God was mine. It seems a reasonable extension given the way many describe the experience like Lewis. But it sounds like you don’t think the thought experiment makes any sense or is too farfetched for you. That’s fine.

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I think the underlying problem with the Vampire Problem is the illusion that we, as human beings, always have and always should have the right to make a major leap into a transformative experience through carefully reasoned cause-and-effect arguments.

In my experience, we often get shoved into the deep end of the swimming pool despite all our best efforts to ever so gradually and safely tiptoe our way into the pool from the shallow end.

The idea that you can undergo a major transformative experience with guarantees that you won’t lose any relationships is, unfortunately, the very opposite of what it means to undergo an major transformation. There is always a measure of risk. It’s possibly our instinctive awareness of the risk involved in major transformation that prevents so many of us from standing anywhere near the deep end, where we could get shoved in with dramatic, life-altering results.

The interesting thing, though, is that although you may lose relationships as you currently understand them, you may suddenly discover hidden potentials for love, trust, forgiveness, and courage between you and others that you couldn’t have previously imagined.


I would tend to see what you’ve said in your meditation on the vampire thought experiment not as a problem for it but rather as one of the finer fruits it can bring forth.

Maybe that points to one value in it being to make people see that they cannot always negotiate their way through life at an abstract distance from it. When life happens and you must respond you find out what you really believe and something about who you really are.

Agreed. Even if you can’t change your human shape :wink:

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Mark, thanks for this. I think it’s an interesting way to set up the question. It actually reminded me of Susie in Blood Music the one character we are familiar with who was given an option. I wondered why Bear made the exception for her, but it’s the same problem. How do you choose bases on limited knowledge, no possibility of Try Before You Buy and no going back?

That seems terribly distressing. I think what is more normal, though, is that circumstances provide us no options. Often we have no chice to make. The pivotal event has occurred. The disaster, the illness, the job change, a change in government in a rubber-producing country, a million things we cannot control that affect us directly.
We often don’t think much about those, but think about how we roll with them.

Great piece. Thank you. I have enjoyed every piece you have shared from the Marginalian.


I’m glad. I hadn’t though about the connection to Blood Music but of course a great fit. I guess the greater number of us are like everyone but the heroine of that story, coping after the fact as our fate plays out. For us it is enough if we may yet fall in love with the fate that must be accepted: amor fati.

Running today so I’ll see you where ever paths cross next.

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A psychiatrist I knew said that more than ninety percent of mental illness in the U.S. comes because we are raised to expect to be more in control of our lives than is humanly possible. He reported that just getting patients to accept that four-fifths of events in their lives are not under control was sufficient to bring them stability (i.e. “make them sane again”).

I need to remind myself of that more often. So much of my conservation work is driven by what people have donated that I can’t store for long (or at all), enough that quite often I’m not doing things in an optimal order. The worst is when I have to make use of a large amount of donated material within a brief period, which results in sore muscles that make it not possible for a couple of days to do more important things. This results every year in planting trees later than they should be.


I’m inclined to take that as a dare. I found this article titled The Sky and the Soul and featuring paintings of skycapes from the 1800’s fascinating to look at and have been tempted to post one in the Creation Photos thread but now I don’t have to. Thanks. :wink:

Honestly I’ve mostly just gawked at the paintings (several times).


Fascinating stuff. Straightaway, it reminded me of a famous essay from 1974 and one of my all-time favorite movies, Wim Wenders’ “Wings of Desire” (1987).

First, the essay, which concerns consciousness and the mind-body problem: What Is It Like to Be a Bat?

On the movie, the romantic Hollywood remake City of Angels with Nic Cage and Meg Ryan doesn’t hold a candle to the original. The only advantage it has is Iris by the Goo Goo Dolls on the soundtrack. The original is much darker and more philosophical. Here’s a taste:

When the child was a child, it was the time of these questions.

Enough for now. A clip from the movie.

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Well, I said enough, but I forgot one thing. We have no idea what it’s like to be a vampire, but transcendental experience isn’t necessarily irreversible, like becoming a vampire. We can venture into the unknown with fear and trepidation, such as becoming a believer in God, but that’s not a one-way decision that can never be changed. The same goes for being raised in a Christian culture and environment. Those things aren’t destiny, as the huge numbers of young people leaving Christianity testify. And some change their minds and return when they’re older.


Likewise. I’ve read what it’s like to be a bat but hadn’t heard of that movie. Pretty fascinating. I’ll have to look for the older version.


Seemingly so. Though whether we would welcome a reversal is another issue. Maybe once changed an old perspective would become untenable or even grating. Maybe we can return home and maybe not.


I might get to the article.
Too busy gawking with you.

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I’m not convinced it need be a major transformation. Considering my own drift towards agnosticism, it wasn’t so much that my beliefs changed, but my understanding of those beliefs did.

Alas, there are no super powers conferred by agnosticism, not even super-skepticism. :grin:


I need to find this film, Jay. I’ve heard of it but never knew anything about it.
And the German is just gorgeous to hear again.

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