Fifteen thousand years ago, our ancestors bred dogs to serve man. In merely 150 centuries, we shaped collies to herd our sheep and pekingese to sit in our emperor's sleeves. Wild wolves can't understand us, but we teach their domesticated counterparts tricks for fun. And, most importantly of all, dogs get emotional pleasure out of serving their master. When my family's terrier runs to the kennel, she does so with blissful, self-reinforcing obedience.

When I hear amateur philosophers ponder the meaning of life, I worry humans suffer from the same embarrassing shortcoming.

It's not enough to find a meaningful cause. These monkeys want to look in the stars and see their lives' purpose described in explicit detail. They expect to comb through ancient writings and suddenly discover an edict reading "the meaning of life is to collect as many paperclips as possible" and then happily go about their lives as imperfect, yet fulfilled paperclip maximizers.

I'd expect us to shout "life is without mandated meaning!" with lungs full of joy. There are no rules we have to follow, only the consequences we choose for us and our fellow humans. Huzzah!

But most humans want nothing more than to surrender to a powerful force. See Augustine's conception of freedom, the definition of the word Islam, or Popper's "The Open Society and Its Enemies." When they can't find one overwhelming enough, they furrow their brow and declare with frustration that life has no meaning.

This is part denunciation and part confession. At times, I've felt the same way. I worry man is a domesticated species.

I can think of several possible explanations:

1. Evo Psych

Our instincts were formed in an ancient time when not knowing the social norms and kow-towing to the political leaders resulted in literal and/or genetic extinction. Perhaps altruistic humans who served causes other than our own were more likely to survive Savannah politics.

2. Signaling

Perhaps we want to signal our capability to put our nose to the grindstone and work for your great cause. Hire me!

3. Memetic Hijacking

Growing up, I was often told to publicly proclaim things like "Lord, I am not worthy to receive you." Perhaps spending years on my knees weakened my ability to choose and complete my own goals.

4. Misplaced Life Dissatisfaction

Perhaps it's easier for an unemployed loser to lament the meaninglessness of life than to actually fix his problems.

The first theory seems plausible. Humans choke to avoid looking too good and standing out from the pack. Our history is full of bows, genuflects and salutes for genocidal a-holes and early death for the noble rebels.

The second seems less likely. Most similar signaling makes people appear as happy, productive workers, not miserable, tortured artists.

The third and fourth explanations fit well with my experiences. My existential angst didn't fade until I purged my brain's religious cobwebs and started improving my life. These things happened at about the same time, so I can't tell whether three or four fits better.

I'd welcome anecdotes in the comments, especially from people raised in a secular environment. If you don't grow up expecting the universe to have meaning, are you ever dissappointed to find it is meaningless?

But no matter the cause, "What is the meaning of life?" is a question that should be dissolved on sight. It reduces humanity to blinding subservience and is an enemy to our instrumental rationality.

Building instrumental rationality may not be the reason why we're on this planet, but it it is the reason we're on this website.


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I had a secular upbringing. I'm not disappointed that the universe has no meaning (i.e., purpose given by a creator) but I do sometimes find it frustrating to be in the situation of being an optimizer who doesn't know what it is they're supposed to optimize.

It is as if a capricious creator-god made a hodge-podge of heuristics and underdetermined and conflicting preferences, and as an afterthought endowed it with the desire to have a comprehendible set of values.

Man, this comment thread is so profound.
Indeed, a very alien god [].

I'm sure anyone who's really thought about the problem of extrapolating volition has been rather frustrated with this at some point. Not only is it uselessly difficult to figure out what we want, it's incredibly difficult to figure out how to design something that figures out what we want, and this chain of dependencies ends up requiring vast knowledge of mathematics, psychology, philosophy, cosmology, and other fields that any sane agent just shouldn't need to have mastered in order to introspect on the question of "In the end, what am I trying to do?".

Doesn't this contradict another comment of yours []?
In what way do they contradict each other? Please explain.
If you know you have no utility function, why do you feel you're an optimizer?
I guess I used the word "optimizer" because 1. I personally enjoy optimizing things, for example writing the fastest and/or most elegant code, or finding the best deal on a purchase. 2. I'm similar to a utility maximizer in many respects (e.g., has beliefs based on deduction and induction, considers consequences of actions, etc.) except that I don't seem to have a utility function.
Here you say you're an optimizer, and there you say you have no utility function. Or am I misunderstanding something?
One of them assumes that you're optimizing something, and the other one says that you aren't.
Why do you feel you're an optimizer at all? I don't.
[-][anonymous]12y 15

I liked this post.

I needed a few solid years of good strong individualist pep-talks before I was at all ready to be an adult.

"Non serviam,"

"I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine,"

"Listen to the fools reproach! It is a kingly title!"

"I am free, no matter what rules surround me. If I find them tolerable, I tolerate them; if I find them too obnoxious, I break them. I am free because I know that I alone am morally responsible for everything I do."

"Truth forever on the scaffold/ Wrong forever on the throne,"

and so on. (This song is in the same vein.

There's a cluster of writers (generally science fiction, libertarian, and atheist, with a little Tom Paine and Blake and Joyce in the mix) who were really good at inspiring me to be less automatically servile, more willing to stand for things on my own, less excessively guilty. I actually knew some people who were like that in real life, and would say things to the effect that they'd rather die on their feet than live on their knees. Wonderful folks.

As time ... (read more)


There's a cluster of writers (generally science fiction, libertarian, and atheist, with a little Tom Paine and Blake and Joyce in the mix) who were really good at inspiring me to be less automatically servile, more willing to stand for things on my own, less excessively guilty. I actually knew some people who were like that in real life, and would say things to the effect that they'd rather die on their feet than live on their knees.

Trouble is, there are things in life where being servile and shutting up about your complaints is the only sane thing to do, and standing up for yourself would be a self-destructive act. Someone who consistently lives by the principle you cite will almost inevitably end up prematurely dead or in prison.

Of course, in many cases you'll benefit from standing up for yourself, and in fact, the willingness to do so is one of the main things that sets successful people apart from losers. However, the problem is not only how to tell these cases apart in practice (which can be very difficult by itself), but also how to manage inconsistent attitudes that you're supposed to have. Ideally, you'd like to suppress your aversion against servility in situat... (read more)

Well, the very thing about the exhortatory (sp?) mode is that it tells you that some kinds of behavior are admirable and others shameful -- not what's practical. This site is not particularly fond of exhorting people to behave any one way, except to behave rationally. I suspect that is not because LW readers have no beliefs about what admirable behavior includes; I suspect there is even some overlap in their beliefs. I think it's more likely that they already take their own values for granted and are no longer looking to be preached at.
This post helps me understand where you're coming from. You write that there were those that "were really good at inspiring me to be less automatically servile, more willing to stand for things on my own, less excessively guilty." So it seems that your background was an expectation to serve and surrender to something external. So if you believed in God, God was the powerful force that needed to be served because God was good whereas you only had the potential to be good. I think people would and should chafe against such a world view of overt control and self-negation. My background is different, and perhaps it explains why there seems to be a spectrum of some theists and atheists seeing God as a dictator, with different theists and atheists have angst about 'the meaning of life'. In my background, independence and self-actualization was always emphasized, but unfortunately this was combined with a skepticism about everything. There was still strongly instilled that idea that you should live to 'something higher' but it's never explained what that is (you need to find it for yourself) and meanwhile all the things that are proffered as examples (being wealthy or famous, playing a great role in history, making discoveries, decreasing suffering and helping others) are always handled cynically. It seems there's actually 'nothing to believe in', nothing higher than oneself, and thus no way to improve oneself or transcend circumstances. There's a running joke in my family, expressed in different ways, that the only life-philosophy that successfully bears testing is materialism. My whole life I've been looking for meaning. As a child, I went to any local place of worship that I could walk to, because I liked the idea of a perfect plane of existence parallel to this one. I felt like a worthwhile life would be one that somehow transcended this life. I'm very happy in this life, and am converging on the idea that my personal meaning of life is to learn to love more full
I don't follow the reasoning. Why does 'nothing higher than oneself' mean there is no way to improve oneself? And it's even less relevant to being able to transcend circumstances. Crazy talk.
I suppose because any changes you make will result only result in differences, not anything better. If you can't define a better way to be, which direction should you move in? I agree. For several months now, no directions on this topic have not seemed crazy. I think it's crazy to look for value outside oneself, and I don't believe one chooses what to value; they choose what it is they value.
This seems like a distinction without a difference. Can you explain in more detail what you mean here?
Yes, I had some trouble writing that sentence. (My initial, "I don't believe one chooses what to value; one chooses what they value" was even worse.) There is the idea floating around that if there is no God dictating values, we get to define our values for ourselves. There's this sense -- perhaps I am misreading it -- that there's joy in this unexpected freedom to define our own values and define who we are. My point was that whatever values we 'decide' to have, we picked those values because we already valued them. It doesn't feel like freedom to me. It feels like we have exactly the same set of values we've always had, but now instead of being guided in a positive direction by something "inherently good" (e.g., God made us in his image) they are given by something I feel neutral about and not so loyal towards (evolution and chance circumstance). On the other hand, I understand that if someone had a view of God as doling out arbitrary or burdensome values (you must go to church, you must get married to someone of the correct gender, etc), then being able to go by your own internal values would feel relatively free.
Hmm, this implies that if/when someone here becomes a much stronger rationalist they'll start finding Eliezer's posts to be overly preachy
Probably will.
3NancyLebovitz12y [] "Heretic Heart"-- a song which only has modest philosophical overlap with LW, but is solidly inspirational for living by one's own judgement. "I think with my own brain" could slotted in near the end, and rhyme better than actual lyrics.

The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, many others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear, others are slowly being devoured from within by rasping parasites, thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst, and disease. It must be so. If there ever is a time of plenty, this very fact will automatically lead to an increase in the population until the natural state of starvation an... (read more)

"What is the meaning of life?" is a question that should be dissolved on sight.

Some questions can be dissolved. Others need to be replaced, lest they leave a gaping hole. I would suggest replacing that question with this one:

What meanings have you given to your life?

Robin Hanson [] tries to tackle what most people mean when they ask this. (I do as well in the comments.)

The reason "What is the meaning of life" is such a hard question is because it includes part of a wrong answer right in the question. We should instead ask, what is a meaning of life, because there is no reason to think there is only one. Or if we insist on there being only one, then we have to narrow it down to, say, what is the meaning of my life.

Agreed. The question also hides the tricky issues of what is meant by the question itself (there are multiple interpretations of "meaning of life" [to name just one issue, the extent to which such a meaning is descriptive or proscriptive], and depending on how you define it, it may or may not even be a coherent question), how one should go about answering the question (LW readers no doubt choose some form of rational methodology, but that underdetermines the approach), and what sort of thing could/should count as an answer.

Perhaps spending years on my knees weakened my ability to choose and complete my own goals.

When you choose your own goals, by what criteria should you decide they're worthy? Some criteria meant to satisfy some higher goal, right? If you had a highest goal (and I'm not sure humans are even really capable of it, but assuming we are), how could you have chosen it? By what criteria could you decide that it was a good or bad goal, given that evaluation of the worth of anything at all is only meaningful in respect to some goal or other?

Saying "this is... (read more)

Only if you are sane.
Yes, but not necessarily a goal which we've consciously chosen. To take a ready example, I participate in meaningless rituals [] because it amuses me to do so. I haven't set out to go through life being constantly amused; I'm just wired to accept opportunities for amusement. Perhaps even more illustrative would be a self-destructive habit; I could hypothetically want to do a thing because it would harm me, not because my goal is to be harmed, but for subconscious reasons I don't fully understand. That's the silver lining of the above--when you don't understand all of your own motives (and I'd wager most of us don't), it's hard to be distressed by their incompatibility. I was going to say "Besides, you could always just pick a highest goal arbitrarily/irrationally," but a) somehow I don't think you'd find that any more palatable, and b) we can't really choose arbitrarily. Our ideas of what might make a good goal, even when choosing for ourselves, are influenced by the values we take from our culture, which ties back to the first horn of your dilemma. Or would you find that degree of agency sufficient? (I arrived at that point by asking myself, "Well, how did you choose your goals," and replying, "Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time ...")
I don't really disagree with what you actually say, here, but it seems rather inconsistent with the comment you link to, especially: I don't think you have the freedom to choose one, if we're using "purpose" to mean an overarching goal in life -- that was essentially the point of my comment to which you replied here. My reason for posting in the first place in this thread was just to point out that either you have a purpose (a supergoal), or you have an inconsistent collection of goals, and neither of those possibilities admits of choosing your own purpose. There seems to be this trap that the areligious are prone to falling into, of thinking that if there are no gods, we are free to rationally choose our own purpose, and it's this idea that I'm arguing against.
I think you're right that that's inconsistent; I wrote the bit you quoted before reading (or thinking about) your point here. (The bit I linked to it for was in the second paragraph; I didn't think about the conflict with the first.)
I can't fault your reasoning. So I'll limit it, instead. In a broader sense of "choice" it is still possible to choose a highest level goal. To wit, you can try pursuing it, and find that you continue to do so, perhaps even more strongly than initially. Alternatively, you can find that you lose all interest. Over the long term as you try different pursuits and settle into a stable set, you can be said to have chosen your goals - just not in the explicit matching-means-to-ends kind of way. "But this just amounts to choosing satisfying pursuits! So the highest goal is really satisfaction." OK, if you want to talk that way - but note that "satisfaction" may amount to nothing more than this very fact of goal stability in the face of experimentation and learning. One might as well say that your highest goal is to choose pursuits that are worthy for you. Come to think of it, that's exactly what I would say.

I'm another one raised in a secular household, since you asked. Not an especially atheistic one, just apathetic to the concept of religion. I don't feel like I'm missing a purpose; on the contrary, it gives me the freedom to choose one, with no one to answer to about my choice. I find it somewhat alien that people are willing to accept a purpose which is handed to them by someone who had it handed to them by someone else .... and it bothers me that I don't understand it, because that prevents me from communicating intelligently about it. This is why I don'... (read more)

I was raised in a religious household, and I also do this, just with different rituals or motions. I'll often find myself preforming the clapping motion from Full-Metal Alchemist [] just as a side amusement while thinking or walking past walls, and I don't think a day has passed since I hit 15 that I wasn't pretending to swing a sword of some sort. I'd also like to add that, with no reason for other than the simple enjoyment of rituals, that I would seriously consider joining a secret society that was unknowingly based around goofy traditions.
Ha. Okay, I'll let you know if I get around to that. By "unknowingly" do you mean unbeknownst to you, or ... ?
I meant unknown to most members, potentially myself included, though that's not a necessary component. I didn't really think it through last night, so I'm unsure how such a group would work.
Me too; that's why I haven't done it yet. But I have some notes on the subject tucked away.
Well there's the Bayesian conspiracy [].
  1. Evo Psych: Our instincts were formed in an ancient time when not knowing the social norms and kow-towing to the political leaders resulted in literal and/or genetic extinction. Perhaps altruistic humans who served causes other than our own were more likely to survive Savannah politics.

I find the case that post-agricultural humans are the result of selection pressures for neoteny to be fairly convincing: The 10,000 Year Explosion (a short, good book on recent human evolution) talks about this some I believe. Many have remarked that humans in general ar... (read more)

most humans want nothing more than to surrender to a powerful force... I worry man is a domesticated species.

Seeking a powerful benefactor, who provides guidance and protection, is simply about the self-interest of the seeker. There is a rational will to power at work even in a slave seeking a master.

In a human life, parents are the original powerful force, and religion and politics are largely about finding a substitute for this relationship.

A human being starts out unapologetically selfish. They may not understand much about reality, but they have ... (read more)

I am not sure whether you were intending to agree with or refute the quote but description matches 'domestication' perfectly.

But no matter the cause, "What is the meaning of life?" is a question that should be dissolved on sight.

I usually replace it with "What do I want?"

I think, in my case at least, Misplaced Life Dissatisfaction is the main cause of existential angst. I've noticed a strong positive correlation between how happy I am at a given moment and how satisfied I am with my purpose in life (or lack thereof). There is a causal link, but it works the opposite way from what I first assumed: sadness makes me angsty, not the other way around. This despite the fact that my logical reasons for being angsty were just as valid no matter whether I was feeling good or not.

As with all biases, identifying the problem doesn't get rid of it, but it helps.

Strong agreement there-- I've noticed that emotional state attracts or generates thoughts which are congruent with it at least as much at thoughts generate emotional state.

I really like this post. It touches on two topics that I am very interested in:

How society shapes our values (domesticates us)


What should we value (what is the meaning of life?)

I find the majority of discussions extremely narrow, focusing on details while rarely attempting to provide perspective. Like doing science without a theory, just performing lots of specific experiments without context or purpose.

1 Why are things the way they are and why do we value the things we value? A social and psychological focus, Less Wrong touches on these issues but ap... (read more)

I'm very sympathetic to your comment. I feel that there's an emerging community of people interested in answering these questions at places like Less Wrong and GiveWell but that the discussion is very much in its infancy. The questions that you raise are fundamentally very difficult but one can still hope to make some progress on them. I'll say that I find the line of thinking in Nick Bostrom's Astronomical Waste [] article to be a compelling justification for existential risk reduction in principle. But I'm still left with the extremely difficult question of determining what the most relevant existential risks are and what we can hope to do about them. My own experience up until now has been that it's better to take some tangible action in real time rather than equivocating. See my Missed opportunities for doing well by doing good [] posting.
Thank you, I also agree with your comments on your posting. I generally prefer a balance of pragmatic action with theory. In fact, I view the 'have a go' approach to theoretical understanding to be very useful as well. I think just roughly listing ones thoughts on a topic and then categorising them can be very revealing and really help provide perspective. I recently had a go at my priorities (utility function) and came up with the following: * To be loved * To be wise * To create things that I am proud of * To be entertained * To be respected * To be independent (ideally including being safe, relatively healthy and financially secure) This is probably not perfect but it is something to build on (and a list I wouldn't mind a friendly AI optimising for either). Also, as with the positive effects mentioned in your article, I've found giving to charity makes it easier for me to feel love (or at least friendship) towards others and to feel more cared for in return (perhaps simply because giving to charity makes me slightly nicer towards everyone I meet). My current focus is wisdom, I feel uncomfortable that I don't have perspective on problems in society or the structure of the economy (i.e. how my quality of life is maintained). When I mention these ideas to others their reaction is generally to describe the problems as being too hard or impossible, I think this is a very interesting form of rationality failure, because the same people would go to enormous lengths to construct a solution to a technical problem if they were told it was not possible. Why don't creative, intellectual and rational people apply their problem solving skills to these kinds of issues? Why don't they 'have a go'?
My guess would be that the situation is that the "self-help" genre has a really bad name among creative/intellectual/rational people because the quality of people who have written in it is so low, and that consequently creative/intellectual/rational people feel squeamish about even entertaining the thought of doing an analysis of the type you describe. Basically, when problems are really obviously important, lots of low quality people get attracted to them, so that when high quality people work on them they're at risk of signaling that they're of low quality. When high quality people work on more arcane things that are of subtle importance there's not the issue of being confused with hoards of low quality people. The dynamic described above has the very unfortunate consequence that many of the most important problems are simply not addressed.
In regards to prediction: I just heard [] (starts at 9:20) some claims that no method of prediction for the economy is doing better than extremely crude models. Unfortunately, I haven't been able to find a cite for the "two young economists" who did the research. However, I'm not sure that prediction is a matter of wisdom-- I think of wisdom as very general principles, and prediction seems to require highly specific knowledge. It was obvious that real estate prices couldn't go up forever, especially as more and more people were speculating in real estate, but as far as I can tell, it was not at all obvious that such a large amount of the economy was entangled in real estate speculation that a real estate bust would have such large side effects. Solutions to difficult technical problems became much more feasible after science was around for a while. I'm not dead certain we even have the beginnings for understanding complex social systems. Part of the difficulty of prediction is that it's dependent on both science and tech which hasn't yet been discovered (our current world is shaped by computation having become easy while battery tech is still fairly recalcitrant) and on what people are doing-- and people are making guesses about what to do in a highly chaotic situation. Taleb [] is interesting for working on how to live well when only modest amounts of prediction are feasible.
Interesting points. I suspect that predicting the economy with economics is like predicting a persons behaviour from studying their biology. My desire for wisdom is in the form of perspective, I want to know the rough landscape of the economy (like the internal workings of a body). For example I have little grasp of the industries contributing most to GDP or the taxes within my (or any other) country. In terms of government spending this site [] provides a nice overview for the UK, but it is only the start. I would love to know the chain of businesses and systems that provide the products I use each day. In particular, I'm very interested in the potential for technologically supported self sufficiency as a means for providing a robust underpinning to society. To do this effectively its necesary to understand the systems that we depend upon. While such understanding might not enable prediction, I think it does provide perspective on potential opportunities and threats (just as biology does). It also helps to focus on relative importance, similar to how concentrating on cash flow helps prioritise business decisions. E.g. the social equivalent of worrying about too much paper usage in office printers when there are entire business units that aren't profitable. Or similarly, being blind to opportunities that could render many other problems irrelevant (such as easy self sufficiency reducing the necesity for potentially problematic government infrastructure).

By the way, here's how 30 users of one of the world's smartest Q&A sites answered the "meaning of life" question:

(Quora is mostly entrepreneur types at the moment and the epistemic rationality is well below LW-level.)

What is the meaning of life?

My usual response is that it is a category mistake (a type mismatch, for the CS nerds), or to interpret the question as:

What is the meaning of "life"?

I think dissolving the question actually consists of answering "What is 'the meaning of life'?"
But "What is the meaning of life?" is a completely different question, semantically, from "What is the meaning of "life"?". It isn't just a type mismatch.

the meaning of life is to collect as many paperclips as possible

Upvoted for this.

You forgot to log in as Clippy before making that comment...

Actually I'm just abiding by established community norms [].

What is the meaning of life? Read the FAQ.


I can think of several possible explanations:

An explanation that I've more or less settled on, if it is true that my constitution requires a certain kind of "meaning" that doesn't exist, is that a core component of my personality in charge of evaluating goals and my progress towards them simply doesn't allow terminating goals.

It seems like a tool with some usefulness that eventually hijacked my mind. Since this component is more meta it feels more conscious than other components (more like the 'I' of my mind).

Emphasizing the importance of ev... (read more)

Great analogy. My nonterminating goal is to make my own gold standard.

On a trivial level, the meaning of the word meaning is just "that which one intends to convey by language", the meaning of something is it's definition, it's essence.

But we don't take the question to mean something trivial, such as "what is the definition of life?"

So the deepness comes from connotation, for meaning is something that implies purposeful intent. So really it is the question of a creator in disguise.

Or we take the connotation of purpose to imply we are the agent both conveying and interpreting meaning, and it is thus us wh... (read more)

It's ironic that, not only do we fail to consciously represent our creator's purpose, we also fail to consciously represent a coherent picture of our own fragmented purposes. We typically act like confused servants to a crowd of waxing and waning drives. If you understand this state of affairs, then you can use the full power of conscious thought and achieve your true purposes better than you otherwise would have. You can strive to be a knowledgeable and effective servant to a crowd of waxing and waning drives.

From my LW-inspired blog post: What Is My Purpose?

[-][anonymous]12y 2

I just remembered what this article somewhat triggered in my mind:

An addition to the evo-psych account:

If reason is primarily optimized for arguing about right and wrong, we shouldn't be surprised if this leads to some characteristic biases when we try (or think we try) to use it for truth-seeking. In particular, we tend to be more successful in argument if the ethical principles we state are more general, less based on personal preference, and more widely agreed upon, and so we'd expect to see a bias in favor of these characteristics. Carried to its extreme, this would lead us to characterize our moral framework as univ... (read more)

I had a secular upbringing and was never really disappointed nor frustrated that the universe supplies no inherent purpose. These days I'm frustrated (but I turn that frustration into active thinking about the problem of extrapolated volition, which hasn't led anywhere at all useful but ya never know). That said, probably like a lot of people, I got into one or two small philosophical happy death spirals around first Buddhism and then Secular-Buddho-Epicureanism between the ages of, I dunno, 13-16, leading me to think that the 'meaning of life' was somethi... (read more)

Context creates meaning and in its absence there is no meaning. To discuss meaning we also need to discuss context.

Perplexed suggests a personalized context.

What meanings have you given to your life?

When the Mormon missionaries visit my home, we often invite them in. Once I was asked, "If you don't believe in God, then what is the meaning of life?".

After talking with them, I could see that what they meant was purpose. Their beliefs gave them purpose and direction. They knew what they needed to do, and acting on those beliefs gave them comfort... (read more)

I agree, it's potent stuff, especially when combined with modern tools like CBT: you can see how a strong rationalist might grow up on science, Buddhism, and CBT alone. In my experience rationalists generally come from the Liberal-Scientific-Secular-Buddhist crowd or the Libertarian-Techno-Furutist-Objectivist crowd, and the old Liberals and the old Libertarians tend to eye each others' origin stories with a cocked eyebrow. I of course still think my old team was the better, more Enlightened one.

I've long been of the opinion that (high truth probability that) we evolved into a Slave Race during the Neolithic. Republics are an accident of history, when a bunch of Noble Savage throwbacks come into power purely by accident, and build a system to keep people free. 50 years later the mutants start infiltrating it, and we go back to feudalism, our natural form of governance.

Heh. Some psych experiment -- I forget the details -- showed that there's a minority group of people who consistently, temperamentally, resist arbitrary authority. It almost behaves like a phenotype. If it is a gene, I sure as hell haven't got it, but I kind of envy those who do.
The psychologists call it "trait reactance". But I always thought those with trait reactance do not resist arbitrary authority, they resist all authority.
Is there a difference? Seriously though, the smart approach is to acknowledge authority to the minimum extent reflective of the degree to which they can actually make life difficult for you.
mattnewport: That's easy to say, but in reality, it's often very hard to know where these limits are. Moreover, it can be very hard to maintain optimal emotional reactions: you want to feel rebellious when it's rational to stand up for yourself, but you also want to be meek and submissive and feel good about it whenever rebellion would be self-destructive (or otherwise you'll suffer the feeling of subjugation, and you'll have to fight the temptation to do something stupid). As I wrote in one of my recent comments, I suspect that an important secret to the achievements of at least some very successful high-climbing individuals is that their emotional reactions happen to be very luckily calibrated in this regard.
Agreed, but I brought up cultural context because I think that in most modern Western societies the consequences to not acknowledging authority are generally less dire than they have been in other times and cultural contexts (less likely to result in death or serious violence). They can certainly be inconvenient however. While I have a certain respect for this guy [] for example I would probably not want the hassle. He was never in any real danger by not showing respect for arbitrary authority however. I have friends who have opened my eyes to how far it is possible to safely ignore authority in modern society and I think there are quite a few examples of people achieving significant success by ignoring arbitrary authority that others unquestioningly accept. There are certainly risks however and at certain times and in certain places this strategy can have fatal consequences.
mattnewport: That's true, but on the other hand, the economic and social status consequences can be very severe. For one, insubordination at work is a sure path to unemployability. Moreover, often the magnitude and even the sign of the consequences is impossible to predict. Suppose you're tempted to stand up to your boss. Will it make him respect you more, or will you get fired as a consequence? If you get fired, does it mean that you've just sabotaged your career, or will you eventually realize that you should have quit that job long ago since much better options are available elsewhere? Often it's impossible to know. Could you give some details about what exact forms of ignoring authority you have in mind? I'm really curious, but of course I understand if you think it would mean divulging too many personal details in public.
For a sufficiently narrow definition of insubordination it may be a path to being fired (which is not the same thing as a path to unemployability in general). However not exactly following 'orders' from a nominal superior in the workplace can often be an effective strategy in my experience. In most workplaces the nominal org-chart hierarchy is imperfectly aligned with the defacto power structure and large gaps can be profitably arbitraged. A lot of 'office politics' revolves around shifting the defacto power structure in order to bring about changes in the nominal hierarchy. Naturally there is a degree of risk and uncertainty involved in this kind of activity but this is true of most things in life. I'm afraid I by necessity have to be fairly circumspect. What I have learned from such friends however is that the nominal structure of authority in the world in general (what we might call 'arbitrary authority') is very loosely aligned with meaningful authority - that is the power to actually impose on your personal freedom of action. Some people seem to have a natural ability to largely disregard the nominal rules and arbitrary authorities and focus entirely on the reality of what you can get away with. It turns out that this is quite a lot.
mattnewport: I think I know exactly what you mean. I also know some people who regularly do things that look like nonchalant recklessness, and yet never suffer the consequences you might expect. They seem to have an extraordinary instinct for distinguishing meaningful from nominal authority. In concrete situations, this can be thanks to technical knowledge (for example, knowing that a punishment you're threatened with is an enormous hassle to execute in practice, so the threat is effectively empty), or thanks to sheer people skills (e.g. inferring that a threat is not serious just from the way it was delivered). Another important point is that when you interact with authority figures in practice, a lot of the time they don't stick to a stern and reserved officialist attitude, but instead lapse into the normal human mental state where they want the interaction to be nice, friendly, and conflict-free, and where it's possible to establish rapport where they're effectively treating you as an equal. Individuals with good people skills can reap amazing advantages from such situations. Of course, a wrong step may snap them back into the official mode, possibly with bad consequences.
SarahC: Envy? The way you describe it, it sounds to me like people who end up jailed or killed.
Well, a dear friend of mine is like that and will wind up either jailed, killed, or very rich and famous. I don't want him to get in trouble, of course... but let's just say I'm not sympathetic to people who say "he had it coming."
Or rich. It probably depends very much on cultural context and luck.

I was educated as an atheist. Maybe, be cause it was under communism, when I was born and raised.

The almost single good thing I attribute to the communism today. Good thing, non the less.

Building instrumental rationality may not be the reason why we're on this planet, but it it is the reason we're on this website.


I reversed my upvote when I noticed this comment. That claim is making a factually incorrect assertion to me about myself and also thrusting a normative presumption at the community at large. I always vote down such claims, no matter how good the rest of the post or comment is.

(Incidentally, apart from that final sentence your post applied to epistemic rationality at least as much as it applied to instrumental rationality.)

Thanks for the feedback. You make a good point. That was me trying to be a good writer instead of a good thinker. Thank you for holding me to high standards.

Good insight.
Well now we're curious. Why are you on this site. I'm here for that reason, and because I'm bored.
That reason, and because it's fun and because I want to improve epistemic rationality as well.

As someone who was raised atheist in the liberal-scientific-secular-buddhist crowd, it has always seemed fundamental to me that there are amazing experiences like friendship and romance and poetry that have nothing at all to do with God but are just inherently worth pursuing.

My parents were not antireligious or militant atheists, and they have described themselves many times as spiritual. But the natural world and human desires seem to have simply won out in terms of being the best models for pursuing happiness and purpose.

It's not enough to find a meaningful cause. These monkeys want to look in the stars and see their lives' purpose described in explicit detail. They expect to comb through ancient writings and suddenly discover an edict reading "the meaning of life is to collect as many paperclips as possible" and then happily go about their lives as imperfect, yet fulfilled paperclip maximizers.

It seems likely that people really do have a biological (not memetic) god or authority figure-shaped hole in their lives (on top of naturally making way too many Type I... (read more)

Is the hole really biological? I was raised in an atheist family and never took religion as a serious possibility. It may be the reason that the phrases "meaning of life" and "purpose of life" were almost incomprehensible to me. Any suggestions that "meaning of life is X" I have interpreted as "you shouldn't just enjoy your life, since you must do X", and I have always felt quite strong negative emotions when the topic was discussed (which wasn't too often, fortunately). Of course, my anecdote doesn't disprove the general existence of a biological god-shaped hole, but it would be good to investigate how much atheists who are not interested in philosophy really consider the question of "meaning of life" as meaningful or important.
prase: Forgive me for asking a personal question, and of course please feel free to refuse to answer should you be so inclined, but are you by any chance Czech? I'm asking because I see here a potential instance of some cultural differences I find extremely interesting, and before elaborating, I'd like to see if my guess might be correct.
Yes, I am Czech. Could you elaborate on the cultural differences you have in mind? Is it really possible to guess person's ethnicity from the attitude towards "purpose of life", or did you use other available heuristics to guess?

It's a very complex topic, but to put it as succinctly as possible, the key difference is between self-declared atheists who truly appear as such, and those who insist on their atheism, but various quasi-religious elements are nevertheless clearly discernible in their lives and worldviews (to the point where I would dispute whether it makes sense to exclude them from the general definition of "religion").

Overall, my impression is that among the atheists found in North America, those of the latter kind are far more frequent and prominent compared to the post-Communist Eastern Europe, with Western Europe being somewhere in-between, but closer to North America. (Of course, these large geographical regions contain parts of greatly different religiosity, but what I write tends to be true for the local atheists found there regardless of their percentage in the local population.) Why this is so, and what exact quasi-religious elements are commonly seen among different sorts of self-declared non-religious people, are complex and fascinating questions, which are however difficult to discuss because they touch on many ideologically sensitive issues.

When I read people's writings o... (read more)

Voted up for the sheer awesome deduction tree. Almost Sherlock-holmes-ish, though some insider knowledge is involved.
This is probably in agreement with my anecdotal experience, but I haven't realised it explicitly before. What I can think about at the moment is the webpage Daylight Atheism [], whose author had spent a lot of time defending the concept of atheist spirituality (e.g. here []), and there was usually surprisingly little opposition in the comments. It means simply "pig" in Czech. My original idea was that you were Russian, and after reading your previous comment, I have put a non-negligible probability to you being Czech too; hence, my nationality-predicting abilities are visibly inferior to yours. Can you identify some specific instances of Slavic sounding structures in my writing? It could help me to eliminate them.
prase: I don't have in mind only such overt manifestations of quasi-religiosity, but also the way many people find beliefs and causes that technically don't involve any supernatural elements, yet nevertheless become objects of mystical reverence in their lives, and are altogether impervious to any rational discussion. In many cases, I would argue that such beliefs effectively involve postulating the existence of metaphysical entities which, while not anthropomorphic, are no less imaginary than the deities postulated by various traditional religions. (One philosopher who made some original and radical inquiries along these lines was Max Stirner.) But this is a really difficult and controversial topic. One thing that's almost impossibly difficult for Slavic speakers is the use of articles, and you sometimes drop them in a quite Slavic-sounding way (I still do it occasionally too). However, these are just small and occasional things; your English is at a near-native level, and very well written overall. (Also, I should note that I probably notice this sort of thing more than a typical reader because I have a hobbyist interest in linguistics.)
Why do you think that is? Longer history of atheism? I do think that "converts" (either to a religion or to atheism) think differently than people who were raised in their current belief system. If you're childhood was religious, then you'll associate religion with childhood and your parents, either negatively ("religion is childish") or positively ("religion is comforting.")
I suppose the history of atheism, measured by many reasonable criteria, is actually longer in North America than in Eastern Europe. Yes, the atheism was state sponsored for 40-50 years in Eastern European countries (70 years in the Soviet union), but it was often imposed on thoroughly religious societies. Practically all intellectual innovations were coming from the West. Some possible (not experimentally tested and probably false) causes of the differences in atheists' thinking: 1) The communist ideology has used "atheism" and "materialism" practically interchangeably. The latter term has connotations which put it into opposition to all "purpose of life" questions, which are usually associated with idealism (in Marxist terminology, idealism and materialism are two disjoint complementary types of worldview). Therefore, people who consider questions of "purpose of life" important aren't comfortable with calling themselves atheists in former communist countries. 2) The word "atheist" is sometimes used as an insult in the US (rarely so in Czech republic, I have no idea about rest of Eastern Europe). The US atheists have adopted the term in order to signal their opposition to organised religion, however they have to compensate the associated negative feeling of being perceived as immoral, and they compensate it by frequent thinking about ethics, morality and purpose of life. 3) There were several intellectuals in the West who identified themselves as atheists and set the standard for atheist philosophy, where questions about purpose of life are meaningful. (Somebody who knows the writings of e.g. Bertrand Russell better than me should tell whether this isn't sheer nonsense. I can't think about any instance of famous self-proclaimed atheist writing about purpose of life.) On the contrary, Eastern Europe lacks any credible atheist intellectual tradition. 4) The word atheism has simply a sligthly different meaning on different sides of the Iron curtain. The difference
SarahC: Well, as I said, that question is very hard to answer not only because it's complex and involves many concepts that aren't amenable to a no-nonsense scientific approach, but also because any sensible answer must include ideologically sensitive claims. History of ideas is a fascinating subject, but also an extraordinarily difficult one. I don't have anything like a complete and plausible theory that would answer your question, but one thing of which I am certain is that such a theory should start with re-examining the standard notion of "religion," which I believe has outlived its usefulness in the modern world, and is nowadays creating more confusion than insight. But getting even just into that topic means opening enormous cans of worms.
Hm, I'm one of those always-been-atheists who's also always been interested in the whole 'purpose of life' thing. Now that I think about it though, most of the people my age (teenagers) who I talk to (say, 15 people out of 20) have the same attitude as the one you express in your comment: basically, not really caring about religions or gods (or barely nominally caring) and when prompted with philosophical questions quickly exclaiming that they just want to live life and have fun. Updating on this evidence and taking into account that memetic explanations should trump biological ones in the first place, my hypothesis was probably heavily skewed towards a careless genetic explanation based off a pet theory. Interesting biases to have uncovered. Thanks!
Do you remember how did you get interested in it? Did the question appear spontaneously to you, or did you acquire it from reading and then find it interesting? And in what age approximately? (I hope you don't find the questions too personal, however it's always interesting to find people with different intuitions.)
I think we are biologically primed to treat our parents as authority figures. What sort of hole gets left as we grow to adulthood, just what it is that we use to replace our parents - that is something influenced both individually (marital status) and culturally.
Not all human cultures include a triple-omni God, so far as I know. Some have gods, possibly with a remote Creator behind them that (I think) doesn't generally interact with people. I'm tentative about metaphysics, not just because I haven't studied religions in detail, but because it's not easy to get at the background beliefs of people from your own culture when you're talking with them, so I assume that there's going to be much more guesswork about people from more distant cultures or when there's only texts and art to make deductions from. Even if the triple-omni God had to be invented, the popularity of religions which include one suggests that there's a strong want for one even if it isn't a biological need.
Maybe it is only a desire for perfection and inability to cope with infinities, not particularly concerned with god? All scales have something at the top, and for goodness, power and wisdom, the top rank is occupied by god, by coincidence. You know, the logic of Aquinas' fourth argument. I have a strange tautological feeling from the statement, which I am probably not able to formulate precisely at the moment, but let me try. If the need isn't biological, then it had to be memetic, which may, or may not depend on religion. Since not all cultures have invented an omnimax god, the memetic structure which creates the need is probably dependent on having the omnigod religion, or alternatively said, it is the religion itself. So, your statement in principle reduces to "omnimax-god religions are self-propagating/memetically successful", which is a statement about the religions, not about the mind itself. If it had to be interpreted as a statement about the mind, then one could say "the mind is vulnerable to special type of religions", but doesn't that postulate a biological need, if any? (I apologise for being a nitpicking theologist-like sophist here, but sometimes I can't resist. I still haven't decided whether a notion of a non-biological god-shaped hole makes even sense, so I want to start discussion which can clarify it a bit.)
No apology needed. If what I'm saying seems vague, it may be because it is vague. I'm not sure what counts as a biological need. Do people have a television-shaped hole? The whole thing is very weird for me, possibly because I don't have a God-shaped hole. I've just been reading somewhat [] by people who hate a great deal of what the Catholic Church is doing, but they're still Catholics because they can't imagine being anything else. And these are smart people.
Perhaps they do. But more likely the adoption of the "God-hole" term is a mistake. Adoption of concepts made by theists is a mistake relatively often.
I don't think the human psyche has a "god-shaped hole", but I do think there are a bunch of other things people need which religions provide, including weekly community gatherings (services), an inducement to concretely specify desires (prayer), a person to talk to about sensitive topics confidentially (confession), and a moral framework. All of these can be had elsewhere, but lacking any one of these is a big deal and non-religious people often end up missing one.
The way I've seen it phrased here before is that people do not have a god-shaped hole, rather they have a hole-shaped god.
A very important (and often overlooked) one is a setting in which it is socially acceptable to express strong positive emotions and very high levels of enthusiasm.

What could instrumental rationality mean without reference to a set of terminal goals (or equivalently: intrinsic values, preferences, a utility function)? Given that we seem to have value uncertainty, asking "What is the meaning of life?" seems perfectly reasonable (as long as one doesn't assume that there must be an answer). There is no reason why we couldn't have been designed by some creator to serve the creator's purposes. I'm not sure if it makes sense to be disappointed when that turns out not to be the case (as seems likely at this point), but it certainly doesn't make the value uncertainty problem any easier.