Followup toThe Moral Void

A widespread excuse for avoiding rationality is the widespread belief that it is "rational" to believe life is meaningless, and thus suffer existential angst.  This is one of the secondary reasons why it is worth discussing the nature of morality.  But it's also worth attacking existential angst directly.

I suspect that most existential angst is not really existential.  I think that most of what is labeled "existential angst" comes from trying to solve the wrong problem.

Let's say you're trapped in an unsatisfying relationship, so you're unhappy.  You consider going on a skiing trip, or you actually go on a skiing trip, and you're still unhappy.  You eat some chocolate, but you're still unhappy.  You do some volunteer work at a charity (or better yet, work the same hours professionally and donate the money, thus applying the Law of Comparative Advantage) and you're still unhappy because you're in an unsatisfying relationship.

So you say something like:  "Skiing is meaningless, chocolate is meaningless, charity is meaningless, life is doomed to be an endless stream of woe."  And you blame this on the universe being a mere dance of atoms, empty of meaning.  Not necessarily because of some kind of subconsciously deliberate Freudian substitution to avoid acknowledging your real problem, but because you've stopped hoping that your real problem is solvable.  And so, as a sheer unexplained background fact, you observe that you're always unhappy.

Maybe you're poor, and so always unhappy.  Nothing you do solves your poverty, so it starts to seem like a universal background fact, along with your unhappiness.  So when you observe that you're always unhappy, you blame this on the universe being a mere dance of atoms.  Not as some kind of Freudian substitution, but because it has ceased to occur to you that there does exist some possible state of affairs in which life is not painful.

What about rich heiresses with everything in the world available to buy, who still feel unhappy?  Perhaps they can't get themselves into satisfying romantic relationships.  One way or another, they don't know how to use their money to create happiness—they lack the expertise in hedonic psychology and/or self-awareness and/or simple competence.

So they're constantly unhappy—and they blame it on existential angst, because they've already solved the only problem they know how to solve.  They already have enough money and they've already bought all the toys.  Clearly, if there's still a problem, it's because life is meaningless.

If someone who weighs 560 pounds suffers from "existential angst", allegedly because the universe is a mere dance of particles, then stomach reduction surgery might drastically change their views of the metaphysics of morality.

I'm not a fan of Timothy Ferris, but The Four-Hour Workweek does make an interesting fun-theoretic observation:

Let's assume we have 10 goals and we achieve them—what is the desired outcome that makes all the effort worthwhile?  The most common response is what I also would have suggested five years ago: happiness.  I no longer believe this is a good answer. Happiness can be bought with a bottle of wine and has become ambiguous through overuse.  There is a more precise alternative that reflects what I believe the actual objective is.

Bear with me.  What is the opposite of happiness? Sadness?  No.  Just as love and hate are two sides of the same coin, so are happiness and sadness.  Crying out of happiness is a perfect illustration of this.  The opposite of love is indifference, and the opposite of happiness is—here's the clincher—boredom.

Excitement is the more practical synonym for happiness, and it is precisely what you should strive to chase.  It is the cure-all. When people suggest you follow your "passion" or your "bliss," I propose that they are, in fact, referring to the same singular concept: excitement.

This brings us full circle.  The question you should be asking isn't "What do I want?" or "What are my goals?" but "What would excite me?"

Remember—boredom is the enemy, not some abstract "failure."

Living like a millionaire requires doing interesting things and not just owning enviable things.

I don't endorse all of the above, of course.  But note the SolvingTheWrongProblem anti-pattern Ferris describes.  It was on reading the above that I first generalized ExistentialAngstFactory.

Now, if someone is in a unproblematic, loving relationship; and they have enough money; and no major health problems; and they're signed up for cryonics so death is not approaching inexorably; and they're doing exciting work that they enjoy; and they believe they're having a positive effect on the world...

...and they're still unhappy because it seems to them that the universe is a mere dance of atoms empty of meaning, then we may have a legitimate problem here.  One that, perhaps, can only be resolved by a very long discussion of the nature of morality and how it fits into a reductionist universe.

But, mostly, I suspect that when people complain about the empty meaningless void, it is because they have at least one problem that they aren't thinking about solving—perhaps because they never identified it.  Being able to identify your own problems is a feat of rationality that schools don't explicitly train you to perform.  And they haven't even been told that an un-focused-on problem might be the source of their "existential angst"—they've just been told to blame it on existential angst.

That's the other reason it might be helpful to understand the nature of morality—even if it just adds up to moral normality—because it tells you that if you're constantly unhappy, it's not because the universe is empty of meaning.

Or maybe believing the universe is a "mere dance of particles" is one more factor contributing to human unhappiness; in which case, again, people can benefit from eliminating that factor.

If it seems to you like nothing you do makes you happy, and you can't even imagine what would make you happy, it's not because the universe is made of particle fields.  It's because you're still solving the wrong problem.  Keep searching, until you find the visualizable state of affairs in which the existential angst seems like it should go away—that might (or might not) tell you the real problem; but at least, don't blame it on reductionism.

Added:  Several commenters pointed out that random acts of brain chemistry may also be responsible for depression, even if your life is otherwise fine.  As far as I know, this is true.  But, once again, it won't help to mistake that random act of brain chemistry as being about existential issues; that might prevent you from trying neuropharmaceutical interventions.


Part of The Metaethics Sequence

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Eh, I'm not annoyed about the universe being a meaningless dance of particle fields. I'm more annoyed about the laws of thermodynamics, which, among other things, guarantee that, eventually, everything turns into garbage. (Heat death of the universe and all that.)

The laws of thermodynamics prevent me from getting something for nothing. For example, in order to continue to live, I need to eat. If I were to be in a situation in which I did not have access to food for a sufficiently long period of time, I would die. My computer requires an external power source; someone has to pay the electric bill.

Someone needs to go hack the Matrix and repeal the laws of thermodynamics. :P

I can assure you we (if I may refer to myself as being part of the FAI/AGI researching ingroup even though I have yet to round 20 years of age and have yet to get a university degree) are working on that.

"You do some volunteer work at a charity (or better yet, work the same hours professionally and donate the money, thus applying the Law of Comparative Advantage)"

Better for the charity, maybe. Better for you and your angst, probably not.

Better for the charity, maybe. Better for you and your angst, probably not.

That (Western?) concept of so-called altruism is incredibly self-centered, which may explain why it brings little comfort to some. If you're just doing it to make yourself feel better... salivating over the spiritual benefits you expect... then small wonder it doesn't do much to take you out of yourself - not that that's the point.

How funny. My response to the article was all about that - charity, for most people, is about being good, not achieving good.

This may be the rare case where I'm more of a materialist reductionist than you, Eliezer. I think unhappiness is just brain structure/chemistry. I'd go further than Ferris and say excitement is too. The flip side of this is that you may be giving a lot of people bad advice and unrealistic expectations in this post. For a lot of people their unhappiness is a complicated unsolved challenge of bioengineering. With better technology, perhaps we'll be able to solve it. Until then, they may spend a period of time being unhappy, not due to the fuzzy advice you give in the last paragraph. And not due to anything about "morality".

If life is great and then you die, there's no existential problem: nothing needs to be redeemed.

On the other hand, if life sucks and then you die, the prospect of an omni-delightful life after death might be the only thing to take the edge off. In that case, rationality is a real downer.

@Hopefully anonymous There are different levels on which the gears of nature operate. The fact that happiness and excitement are rooted in biochemistry is common sense these days and but that is on a totally different level than Eliezers argument. The structure of how our mood works, how it reacts to different environmental situations, how some things make people happy or sad is not arbitrary. We can take advice and get better at solving the right questions.


What could be more exciting than embracing nihilism?

I don't know, it has not been my experience that the belief that life is meaningless is incompatible with happiness.

I'm bothered by the mention of cryonics here for three reasons. 1) cryonics, it seems to me, leaves death inexorable, just substantially delayed, 2) cryonics does not, as far as I can tell, actually increase my life expectancy much, as anti-aging tech and especially UFAI make most traditional causes of death irrelevant, 3) if someone finds life meaningless, how could more life help? I also worry about the 'unproblematic' part of the relationship. Shouldn't a genuinely loving relationship contribute to happiness/fulfillment/excitement even if it IS problematic? Finally, I worry about the positive effect on the world. I think that people should try to have such an effect, by which I mean that upon sufficient reflection almost all people would decide to (though most people might, upon less reflection, decide to stop reflecting), but that their lives should stay meaningful even once the world's problems are fixed. Preserving suffering so that you can asymptotically relieve it seems like a slightly plausible and horribly insane outcome of the wrong volition extrapolation dynamics.

"Preserving suffering" sounds terrible, but if we believe in a common currency of value (utility), then I don't think it's necessarily insane to preserve some suffering. Is the frustration experienced learning something challenging 'suffering'? Is it comparable to a dust speck in an eye?
The superhappies say hi.
I don't know - I would say that some of what we call frustration in that situation is, yes. And, yes, it should be eliminated. (if) you can get the learning without the suffering, which I think you can, you should.

On the up side, if life is meaningless and a happiness pill without any grave side effects (unfortunately not true for present day anti depressants) becomes available, there is absolutely no reason not to take it.

And before that, it probably implies you can do whatever makes you feel best, provided you have proper discounting in place.


Forgive me if i've misunderstood but I get the impression from your writings here that you believe no claim can be about reality unless there is some physical configuration of the universe, some state that can be described at the quark level, which would count as evidence against that claim. Claims about morality, by such a standard, cannot be about reality.

On a somewhat unrelated note, do you think the critics of logical positivism were wrong? As I read what you have written here it seems like the philosophy you are expounding is more or less the same old logical positivism, just with special emphasis on bayesian updating and (in the case of this post) palatability.

They are for me. Morality is about pattern matching algorithms in our brain. That which pings our morality algorithms is moral. That which pings our yummy algorithms is yummy.

Michael, life doesn't have to be "meaningful" for people to be happy. Nor do "genuinely loving relationships" seem to be necessary. It seems to me to be just a neurochemical state that can probably be induced by a variety of methods, not all of them social.

Like you, I noticed the cryonics throw-in. I thought it was problematic for a different reason. It's a bit of a tell IMO that cryonics serves at least (if not only) as opiate for Eliezer. I look at cryonics as just a persistence maximizing hedge against information theoretic death, an... (read more)

That universe if "mere" dance of particles is the most exciting feature. It means that anything one strives for can actually be achieved by a non-mystical operation of rearranging the matter, that nothing is beyond the reach. We only need to figure out how to establish our kind of the universal dance.

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But for some reason, they were very resistent that they were sad simply because their brain produced a lot of the sad chemicals
And with good reason: brain processes aren't only about the amount of neurotransmitters; receptor sensitivity is key. That's how addiction works, after all, and why set amounts of drugs tend to become less effective over time. And, of course, the structures formed by the neurons are vitally important. Neurotransmitter emission and detection systems alone don't encode anything in particular, it's how they're wired together tha... (read more)

Hopefully and Michael,

Whatever your current estimates of the probability of success, Eliezer here has a point that seems to have been missed.

His line is: There are reasons why one would legitimately be depressed. Unhappy relationship is one. Frequently those reasons underly claims that life is meaningless. We would need to assuage most such issues in order to have a legitimate case to consider whether life is meaningless

Some other legitimate depressors: obesity poverty lack of health lack of efficacy etc. and Fear of Death.

Since all of those could lead to ... (read more)


I've suffered from clinical depression with absolutely zero correlation to social factors and life circumstances. Between onset at age 11 and my early 20s I experience pervasive, uninterrupted despair. Oddly enough, it never affected my goals or terminal values, just my ability to achieve them. Then again, many people (perhaps the majority) die with many of the same goals they had in their youth, having done absolutely no work toward achieving them; so I'm not convinced explicitly held goals have a strong causal relation to behavior; perhaps having a goal is like getting a tattoo. But I digress. Biology matters a lot. I wouldn't say clinical depression is the same as being unhappy about something; even at the most basic level, there's obviously a lot more going on when someone's unhappy about a life event than if they have wonky receptors for some neurotransmitter or another. (I never experienced the sort of confabulation that makes the clinically depressed try to attach their depression to life events though; perhaps because I was young.) I think we could achieve some working simulacrum of happiness biologically though.

"Life is meaningless because it's all just atoms in the void and nothing we do matters"

But, but ... concepts must have referents to actually mean something, so to simultaneously say meaning is X, and by the way there's none of it, does not compute.


I'm just curious - was the despair about anything? Did it have no referent at all? You had a stable environment, good relationship with parents, self-confidence, social success, and yet still despaired? Was there no consistent content in your despairing thoughts?

I ask because this has always been a great interest of mine. I have been hospitalized for major depression a few times, but I have always been able to identify the circumstantial causes, even when others have not been perceptive enough to acknowledge them. I'm not saying that my case need be e... (read more)

Today, in the West, people think that atheism leads to an existential crisis of meaning. But in ancient Greece, people believed in creator gods, and yet had to find their own sense of purpose exactly the same as an atheist.

We assume that the religious person has a purpose given by God. But Zeus would have said that the purpose of humans was to produce beautiful young women for him to have sex with. Ares would have said their purpose was to kill each other. Bacchus would have said it was to party. And so on. The gods ignored humans, had trivial purposes for them, or even hostile intent towards them.

Every believing Greek had to find their own meaning in life; often based on a sense of community. This meaning, or lack thereof, bore no relation to whether they believed in the gods or not.

Anna wrote:

Maybe it will make it easier but they didn't really work at it. By having this alledged surgery will it make then more or less prone to believe in the quick fix or the long term discipline of working at it?

The reason for practicing discipline is to be able to solve problems. It would not be rational to avoid a quick solution to your life's biggest problem, in order to gain experience that might possibly be useful in solving smaller problems later on.

In ancient Greece philosophy was not only a discipline for academics, but a way of life. Here is a quote from Hadot who wrote a book called "Philosophy as a Way of Life": "All schools agree that man, before his philosophical conversion, is in a state of unhappy disquiet. Consumed by worries, torn by passions, he does not live a genuine life, nor is he truly himself. All schools also agree that man can be delivered from this state." In Greek there is a word "eudimonia" which means a life which is generally happy and free from anxiety. The Greek schools of philosophy claimed that this state could be reached by living in accordance with their doctrines. What makes these philosophies attractive to us today is that they provide a way of living that doesn't claim to be revealed by gods but was invented by humans. An advantage of this is that we are able to hold a personal opinion about what parts of the philosophy are useful today. If you are interested you should check out: *Stoicism *Epicureanism *Aristotle's Nicomachian Ethics Each promises eudimonia but provide different ideas about how to obtain it. I don't there can be perfect philosophy but I think a lot of happiness and freedom from existential anxiety can be achieved by choosing as a guide to life a 'good enough' philosophy.

Andy: I'm currently experiencing pretty much the same thing as poke--chronic depression from my early teens up to today (my early 20s). (I've currently found a treatment that's helping some, after going through several meds.) I think that there was a period of about five or six years in there that I thought there was something about my life I could change to fix the depression, but in the past couple years, my viewpoint has changed to match poke's.

I think it's important to note that we don't have any direct perception about what causes depression. We can't... (read more)

Phil: A conversion to atheism in the West can indeed be associated with existential crises. Most people converting to atheism convert from a religion, like Christianity, that strongly asserts its place in providing all true meaning to the lives of its followers, and often experience a whole lot of social alienation from church leaders and family. It's those things that come along with the switch, rather than the philosophical content, which precipitate the crisis.

“If it seems to you like nothing you do makes you happy, and you can't even imagine what would make you happy, it's not because the universe is made of particle fields. It's because you're still solving the wrong problem. “

Imagine being offered an option of spending the remainder of your natural life-span inside a virtual reality machine where all your material problems (poverty, obesity, loneliness etc) are solved. Plus as an added bonus you would be able to consume unlimited quantities of virtual heroin without damaging your health or your virtual social life.

If the “meaning of life” is a meaningless concept, shouldn’t every reasonable person jump on this offer? Would you?

Now good is your VR?

Andy Wood,

I'm just curious - was the despair about anything? Did it have no referent at all? You had a stable environment, good relationship with parents, self-confidence, social success, and yet still despaired? Was there no consistent content in your despairing thoughts?

I had all those things. Before I became depressed I stopped being sociable and started having problems with school attendance; I don't know if that was the cause of my depression or just an early development of it. I was certainly very bored at school and my home environment didn't off... (read more)

Hopefully, Poke: I totally agree with Poke here.

Kyle: Not that much money in cryonics. Horrifically little I'd say, even though I don't think it's the best current solution to rational fear of death. I think that life extension research, calorie restriction, re-perfusion research, and simply wearing biomonitors and developing better ones probably offer risk-reward payoffs exceeding cryonics, but all are grossly underfunded. Above all, FAI development is a vastly more efficient lever than cryonics, but not one that is terribly easily invested in usefully (you can't exactly fund an X-Prize).

Reminds me of a quote by Einstein:

"We act as though comfort and luxury were the chief requirements of life, when a ll that we need to make us happy is something to be enthusiastic about."


As with most Einstein quotes, that seems to have actually been written by another - Charles Kingsley.

Caledonian, yes, I simplified to the point of inaccuracy, but thanks for providing the footnote.

The interaction between brain and environment is complex, but reactions are variable enough that I think it's difficult to say X environmental stimulus (or lack there of) produces Y emotional state in a human brain. That goes for obsety, poverty, the range. This is minus some extreme and developmental examples many people here could conjure up. But "rational fear of death", "existential angst", it's entirely possible to go through life happy ... (read more)

Is there any data on whether atheists or more rational/intelligent people self-report lower levels of happiness?

I forget if I've said it here before, but I would have no problem entering Nozick's experience machine or becoming a wirehead if given the option.

pdf23ds: The claim that atheism inevitably leads to nihilism, and that belief in god inevitably relieves it, is made regularly by religious types in the West as the core of their argument for religion.

And this is exactly where I'm at right now in physical materialism / atheism. I've understood since I arrived here on Less Wrong that you guys have some immunity to nihilism. However, I can't find it. What is it?? (A link would be appreciated if this has been discussed before.)
For myself, I understand the following. Humans have a sense of things we should or shouldn't do, that has evolved over time. It exists in our brains. It doesn't really need to be named or explicitly spelt out. When I look inside myself for what should be done it is this evolved sense that I am drawing upon.
Well, I guess you could read the rest of Eliezer's metaethics sequence. Basically, morality is what you should do to make your most fundamental desires come true. Once you've really understood that, all the incoherent nonsense that theologians and (many) philosophers have written on the subject will vanish in a puff of logic, and you'll be left wondering how stuff like moral nihilism ever made sense to you.
So I wrote a response and then, to make sure I wasn't going to be repeating anything I read the OP... which of course said more or less exactly what I was going to say. Since it looks to me like your question was answered in the OP I'm not sure I get what you're asking. Nihilism is a symptom of depression. Not a cause. The extent to which I am immune to nihilism is the extent to which I avoid/treat depression.
Above Eliezer writes: I would agree that much 'existential angst' might be depression (an unhappy chemical mental state) or dissatisfaction (an unhappy life state). However, there's also still actual real existential angst, unaddressed in the post. As I would define it: existential angst is the feeling that the world isn't good enough; that there's too much that's bad and a refusal to just go along and accept it because the person didn't ask to be born or sign a contract, did they? Basically, it's the unresolved observation that life isn't fair. I will speculate that people who suffer from existential angst are either very empathetic (after all, how can you be happy when people are suffering?) or very idealistic, so that they cannot compromise on their expectation that life ought to be good. However, my main problem is nihilistic angst, not existential angst, and I'm composing a post now about nihilistic angst.
9Eliezer Yudkowsky
No, that's called Singularitarianism.
This unfortunately conflates "Refactoring the world is desirable" and "Refactoring the world is likely".
The observation that the world isn't close to just is one that has figured into a lot of existentialist philosophy over the years, though typically it is invoked in discussions of 'absurdity' rather than angst (which is traditionally a term of art about reconciling our freedom with our responsibilities). But when non-philosophers use the term 'existential angst' they're basically just referring to some combination of depression + deep thoughts about one's place in the world. Nihilism in this context usually means a belief that there is no purpose to life or that there is no morality. This is often a reduction or derivation from the existentialist premise that there is no purpose given to us by the the universe. We have to create our own purpose and are own values (and this may or not be a communal activity) I think people who are not depressed or unhappy have no problem with the latter. You can lead an extremely fulfilling life with purposes you've created for yourself (following whatever it is you desire). But depressed people can't deal with this fact, they don't desire anything so nothing seems valuable and they feel like they have no purpose. To wit: one of the DSM diagnostic criteria for depression actually is losing interest in daily activities.
It is likely that this is a case in which minds might be different. While many kinds of minds might be susceptible to nihilistic angst when they're depressed, one kind of mind protests emphatically that a purpose must be given by the universe regardless in order to feel like there is purpose. (For example, my mind.) If you read through the comments following this post, you'll find many that echo that they don't need an externally validated meaning to be happy (for example these) while a few claim that they would have a problem without it despite being otherwise happy (for example these). If you read through the comments following What Would You Do Without Morality?, you'll notice similar majority and minority populations.
Thats a possibility. I'm not willing to accept that that is the case just based on the existence of disagreement however because I used to hold your view and then changed my mind. As recent as 4-5 years back I would have said that I had a case of genuine nihilism that would arise from time to time. I was really convinced that my emotional condition was due to substantive philosophical consideration of my own existence. Only after going back and forth between being happy and unhappy a couple times did I begin to see that the nihilism was merely a byproduct of my unhappiness. Gathering anecdotal evidence: Have you ever genuinely lacked for externally validated meaning? What can you say about the experience? Do you or anyone else know someone who became unhappy immediately after giving up theism and claimed that the reason was nihilism? In my experience converted atheists seem to be about as happy as others in their social grouping (usually well-off but high IQ).
So we agree that some people feel like the absence of objective values would be the end of the world, and some people seem not to care. I'm open to the possibility that the difference in perspective is due to differences in depth of understanding of the problem. That's why I began this thread asking what is the source of immunity. However, in response to my question, no one suggested any solutions or even acknowledged the problem independent of depression. For me, this was an alarm that people who have immunity to nihilist angst can't even relate to it, suggesting some kind of personality difference between those who have it and those that don't. This is an amazing question to me because I feel this lack pretty much constantly. (This commenter also seemed skeptical that people feel this lack.) Actually, I'm probably an extreme case. I'm hesitant to take the conversation in this direction because maybe nihilist angst isn't always about personalities that require external validation. I would like to hear more from other people who experienced it. Nevertheless, since it seems we first need to identify what it is like in at least one case, I'll say some things about the experience in my next comment. I thought this was a significant reason for resistance to conversion! I would expect so, since I wouldn't expect someone to remain miserable in atheism indefinitely. I've heard atheists argue that once you don't believe in God, you can't go back to believing just because it would make you happier. I don't think it's so simple. If you stop believing in God and feel unhappy, this might (quite reasonably) be interpreted as an indication that atheism wasn't the right belief system for them. But there are also cases (drawing mostly from fiction, I guess) where people lose their faith and walk around unhappy for a few years and then maybe place their faith again.
I took the phrase "externally validated" from you but now I'm not sure if I we mean the same thing by it. In my understanding a meaning, purpose or value is "externally validated" if and only it justified by some fact of existence that is not a fact about the psychological states of human beings. So having a purpose that is to write the best music, for the reason that I love music, is not a purpose that has been externally validated (we might say self-validated). If I have that purpose for the reason that I'm good at writing music and society expects those who are good at music to dedicate their lives to it then that purpose is also not externally validated (call it socially validated). If I pursue music because I believe God wants me to worship him that way then the purpose is externally validated. I write this out mostly to make sure you agree with this classification of the middle case. The next question is obviously "are you depressed?" But that also isn't any of my business so don't feel obligated to answer. If you aren't then surely there is something you find enjoyable and valuable in your life. If this is the case then I don't think you are experiencing genuine nihilism (your life has meaning after all). If you are depressed then there is a high likelihood I can alleviate your depression with medication. Once your depression clears up I'd bet you would find purposes and value aplenty. It is unlikely that preventing serotonin reuptake is a direct cause of forming new beliefs about value and purpose. It seems much more likely that a healthy level of serotonin is necessary for one to find things valuable and one's life purposeful. That's my main argument right there. The anticipation of a loss of meaning probably does lead to resistance. It would be like telling someone here to stop caring about humanity, or AI, or philosophy before they had actually stopped caring about it. But my claim is that once one gives up God, if one isn't depressed, God will rapidl
Yes, that's what I meant by externally validated. The middle case isn't external validation because it's still just society's subjective opinion. No, I'm not depressed. But as Alicorn correctly described, I anticipate being depressed. ... Your argument is beginning to sink in. If I feel depressed about something, then this just means I'm depressed, and I might need medication. So, OK, if I jump the cliff, then I won't feel depressed (unless I'm depressed). (...) Wow, I'm really beginning to understand this argument and its ... depressing. So you're saying my sense of purpose and meaning is just a state of my body (say, serotonin levels) and whereas I think it could depend on something external -- like whether my values are externally validated -- you're saying it's just internal. I feel like I have purpose or I don't, based on serotonin, say, and then I project that feeling as being caused by something external. ... So I imagine that I would be depressed if external meaning disappears, because I imagine that meaning comes externally. The analogy to make all this rambling clear is that of me sitting in a room worried that if I close the curtains, it's going to get dark. But you're saying, no it doesn't make any difference because the light in the room is coming from the table lamp, not the window. I understand some kind of argument now, whether or not its the one you intended. I'll meditate on it. I'll simply observe that I do, in fact, feel extremely depressed about the light coming from the table and there not being any sun. So, anyway, I'm going to go eat lunch because when I'm this sad it means my blood sugar is low.
Upvoted for this bit. This type of mood maintenance is a big deal - I consider it a major breakthrough of my teens that I started considering my emotions "things to be managed with chocolate and company and thought and sleep" instead of "things unrelated to anything I've been doing with myself that reflect the ultimate nature of reality and make me write bad poetry and contemplate suicide".
Yes, I do feel much better after eating; no sadness at all. Yet I hope you realize that I was also making an ironic statement about Jack's argument while buying some time to think about it. While depression leads our thoughts to existential and nihilistic angst (and bad poetry and suicidal thoughts) our feelings of happiness, meaning and purpose also depend upon our beliefs. Accurate or inaccurate, beliefs affect how we feel. So my response to Jack's argument is that if I believe that the purpose and meaning of my life depends upon objective value, then I will feel depressed if I believe that there isn't any (even if I'm not clinically depressed). So I still need to examine these beliefs: whether feelings of purpose and meaning really do depend upon objective value as a necessary condition (for myself only, I understand this is not universal) and whether or not objective value exists. If the first, and not the second, then this would mean that accurate beliefs and feelings of purpose and meaning are simply not compatible for me.
A refinement: Proper serotonin levels (lack of depression) confers the ability to assign meaning to things and take pleasure from that meaning - it's more like the electricity that powers the lamp than the light itself. It's still possible for the light to be off, even if the electricity is running.That's what the original post was talking about: According to Eliezer, most people who claim to be suffering from existential angst need to realize that they can turn their light on for themselves, and figure out how to do so (Edit: without resorting to delusional thinking, which is how theists do it) - and that's a solution that the Judeo-Christian view of things doesn't suggest.
It is right that meaning and purpose don't come from serontin levels. And serotonin levels aren't the only cause of meaning assignment. But what I was denying above is that there are instances where someone is not depressed and yet also nihilistic (not having assigned meaning to anything). I think assigning meaning to the world is basically instinctual, if you aren't depressed you'll start valuing things without having to will it or make a conscious choice.
It does seem to be possible, for example in alexuthymics (example - and from the rest of that post, the poster doesn't appear to be depressed). I'll agree that such situations are rare, though, and perhaps impossible for people with normal brain-function. The point I was making was more along the lines of 'don't assume you're clinically depressed just because you don't automatically notice meaning in things the instant you look for it', though.
Great link, thanks. Unfortunately it led to a really intense reedit procrastination session. It did occur to me that there might be some kind of condition like this, and I thought about including that possibility but didn't want to qualify the argument and make it more complicated. I should have checked to see if there was such a thing. Anyway yes, qualify my previous claim with "with normal brain function". Sure. My position is just that chronic nihilism is epiphenomenal to unhappiness except in cases of non-standard brain function.
Suppose that everyone has such a room, with a lamp giving a light just like your own. Is this not like a sun that we all share?
The anticipation of this experience is enough to make people resist becoming atheists. The reality of it is not at all obvious, nor necessary to explain the phenomenon to which you refer. "The right belief system for them" implies that one prefers beliefs for reasons other than their accuracy, which tends not to be true of people who spend any amount of time as converted atheists. This is a powerful motif in fiction, and does get used a lot. It probably even happens in real life sometimes, but I'm inclined to impugn the depth of the initial transition to atheism in those cases. Someone who tries being an atheist, doesn't like it, and goes back to being a theist may have acknowledged the existence of compelling arguments in atheism's favor, but they didn't percolate deeply enough to stick; it seems like this scenario resembles people who say things like "I should eat less chocolate" or "I should be a vegetarian" or "I should give more to charity" and don't actually do so. They detect sound reasoning in favor of the proposition, but it doesn't sit right with preferences or other beliefs, and so the reasoning is discarded by means of "faith" or equivalent mechanism of ignoring evidence.
What I was saying, at least, is not that I don't need an external meaning, it's that what you probably mean by 'external meaning' is incoherent. Can you say what you mean by those words?

Some people are vulnerable to wireheading. Just as some people become heroin addicts. However, not everyone chooses such paths - some people deliberately avoid them.

Phil, which is why for people who do choose to become atheists in the west, it takes extra work for them to separate what their religion told them about atheism and what atheism actually entails.

"I bring this up because Eliezer seems to be proposing large social undertakings [...] which would seem to me to come at an economic cost. If a pill or a treatment is cheaper and accomplishes the same outcome..."

If you're referring to FAI development, then that's not the argument at all. The argument is that most people doing AI don't seem too concerned about the F part, which is very dangerous, so focusing on the F part needs to be the top priority. If you're referring to something else, then I have no clue what.


I wouldn't want to be a wirehead. I do things like exercise to keep my mood up now but I think of it terms of wanting to be productive rather than happy. (I find that exercise, health and regular sleep/wake cycles are essential for this.) If you could wire me up to be smarter and more productive (intellectually), but the cost was chronic pain, I'd probably sign up for that. (I can't really imagine how you could reconcile higher productivity with chronic pain though; the experience of pain seems to necessarily involve restricted attention.)

Are there people who say they're depressed because life is meaningless? I'm not an expert on the subject, but I've never heard of any.

There've been several mentions of obesity as a primary cause of depression. I haven't heard of fat people tending to be more depressed than non-fat, but maybe I've missed something. Do you mean obesity in the medical sense? That's actually just fair-to-middling fat. (See The BMI Project for what those numbers mean.) Or do you mean being incapacitated by one's weight?

Good Mood by Julian Simon might be of interest. He beat bac... (read more)

pdf, no I don't mean the FAI project. I mean the things Eliezer discussed specifically in the OP and follow-up comments. He gives a long catalog of recommended actions to solve individual unhappiness. I'm pointing out that in many instances pharmaceutical or other solutions might be cheaper.

Apropos of some of the comments, there is a growing literature on positive psychology, which instead of training focus upon what's amiss, aims to move beyond "psychic entropy" (a cognate concept of existential angst?)

As to happiness, the ancient tao philosopher Chuang-tzu wrote to the effect that a superior means of finding happiness is to stop looking for it. What he actually said is, of course, open to analytic interpetation or outright rejection on any number of grounds, but its spirit seems to jibe with the quote above attributed to Albert Einstein. Getting enthusiastic about something (hopefully something moral and constructive) would be the opposite of lapsing into psychic entropy.

If you concentrate on sleep, the awareness of sleeplessness inhibits the relaxation and release necessary to fall asleep. If you take your focus off of the qualities needed to fall asleep and concentrate on staying awake, you'll tend to nod off.

It's almost as though thought processes must be "taken offline" in order to be examined. Bringing the process into awareness interferes with its functioning.

Worrying about happiness tends to be incompatible with happiness.

Your problem, I think, has not to do with nihilism, but rather with narcissism. (If none of it's about anything, then certainly none of it's about you.)

Regarding the quest for mind-altering experiences I lay that at the feet of the same drive that causes us to want to control our environment, including that of our mind. Some folks just don't know when to quit. Depression is simply self-flattery. Get over it. If you're able.

And then back to the point: one trap laid before us by our narcissism is that we think we "know" as much as those who came be... (read more)

"Imagine being offered an option of spending the remainder of your natural life-span inside a virtual reality machine..."

This isn't what people want because people don't simply want "to be happy." They want X (where X could be something like "my children are healthy and happy"). Simply believing X, if it's not true, is not enough for most people, they desire for X to be ACTUALLY true. And since you can't affect the real world to bring your desires into existance from within the virtual reality machine, most people will reject... (read more)


Our problems are “real” only because they make suffer us or those we care for. Our looks or income, for instance, seem to be a problem only when they fall behind the common standards of beauty/average salary. In a world where obesity considered attractive and is not a danger for your health, it stops being a “real” problem. Thus if, together with our friends, children and all those we care for, we could move to the idealized virtual reality, we would solve all the “real” problems that Eliezer described.

The fact that such a move does not appeal to many rational people suggests that Existential Angst is no less “real” problem than poverty, obesity etc.

Hopefully Anonymous- Agreed. It is ALL just brain chemistry. THIS is where existential angst comes from, the fear and repulsion at the aesthetically displeasing idea that all of these intense, exciting, horrible, wonderful, all-consuming, passionate feelings have NO REAL MEANING, could be induced with a savy enough pill, a simulation, or a puppet show, that your lover and your connection is an emergent phenomenon of evolution, and then you disintigrate into heat and die and narry a memory of what you experienced exists to reverberate throughout a cold, c... (read more)

Poke, Andy-

My experience with depression was brought on by a myriad of environmental and existential factors... However, once it started, it was nearly completely a physiological problem. First, I stopped sleeping (at least in any reasonable way, though to me I really thought I wasn't sleeping AT ALL- this went on for 5 months). I lost 20 pounds because I couldn't make myself eat- the act of eating was repellent and completely non-reinforcing. My body temperature was always about 99 degrees, and my pulse was always somewhere over 75. Yet, I didn't want ... (read more)

However, once it started, it was nearly completely a physiological problem.
Um, that sort of claim was studied extensively several decades ago. Having 'physiological' symptoms rather than 'psychological' did not affect the chance that a patient would have had stressful experiences, the chances of responding to therapy, or the nature of the successful therapies.

Exogenous and endogenous depression are not distinguishable in their clinical properties, which is why the categories ceased being used - they weren't useful.

Caledonian: I think you misinterpreted what Lara Foster was trying to say with the word "physiological"; that once the depression started, it became a self-sustaining collection of symptoms that were unconnected to their initial causes, because the depression was a "physiological" problem within brain.


I think your comment bridges the gap for me between the "bodily condition" and "life's condition" aspects. Your description matches my experience: prolonged period of increasing stress, followed by a tipping point marked by cessation of sleep, followed by basic inability to function, medical intervention, and a gradual recovery period of several months.

So, once I had crossed a critical line, yes, it certainly became a physical problem (of brain state, brain chemistry, hormonal state) that I could not think my way out of without a l... (read more)


I really enjoy your articles, but one petpeeve I have is that you sometimes seem to endorse certain medical treatments.

In this article you mentioned:

stomach reduction surgery Based on what I read this procedure is quite dangerous and based on statistics generally bad although doctors make good money with it. Google for it.

neuropharmaceutical interventions. Also highly controversial. Psychiatry has it's own set of problems. Google Thomas Szasz and anti psychiatry.

Eliezer never forget that for many readers you are an authority figure and so be careful with what you endorse.



Ironically, based on what I know Psychiatry is perhaps the biggest Existential Angst Factory in existance.

Ironically, based on what I know Psychiatry is perhaps the biggest Existential Angst Factory in existance.

Neurology would fit that bill much better. Or physics, if we want to be play reductionists and I know the temptation is huge :D.

Data point of one for those who bash psych meds...

Within a week of taking prozac, I was sleeping and eating normally. Within two, I was up and about jogging and I was claiming to my shrink that I had been miraculously 'cured'.

This wasn't placebo effect. The first stuff they gave me did jack shit, and I had been depressed for half a year.

So perhaps those who are truly clinically depressed
You're making an elementary mistake. The definition of clinical depression is not based on evidence, but consensus opinion. It is whatever it is defined to be. Anyone who is said to be in the state 'truly' is in that state.

There is instead an overwhelming preponderance of evidence that most psychiatric concepts are distinctions without differences. That is inconvenient for most, and correspondingly ignored - or left to ignorance.

"Is there any data on whether atheists or more rational/intelligent people self-report lower levels of happiness?"

Apparently they don't, judging by selected responses to the recent "Survey: What Do Atheists and Christians Believe (and How Strongly Do They Believe It)?" by Sam Harris. The relevant statement is probably: "All things considered, I am very happy with my life", the fourth one under "Survey Results: Psychological Beliefs".

Re: You're making an elementary mistake. The definition of clinical depression is not based on evidence, but consensus opinion. It is whatever it is defined to be. Anyone who is said to be in the state 'truly' is in that state.


Clinical depression is a serious medical illness that negatively affects how you feel, the way you think and how you act.


"Now, if someone is in a unproblematic, loving relationship; and they have enough money; and no major health problems; and they're signed up for cryonics so death is not approaching inexorably; and they're doing exciting work that they enjoy; and they believe they're having a positive effect on the world...

...and they're still unhappy because it seems to them that the universe is a mere dance of atoms empty of meaning, then we may have a legitimate problem here. One that, perhaps, can only be resolved by a very long discussion of the nature of morali... (read more)



I don't know if you respond to comments added long after the post, but on re-reading this I remember that I was really curious about why you specifically disclaim being a "fan" of Tim Ferriss. What in particular do you object to about his writing(s) that you want to distance yourself from? I'm curious not because I am a fan per se, but because I happen to keep up with both of your writing and would like to know what points of intersection or disagreement you see. Even a short, point-form response would be much appreciated.


So...what if you are happy in your life; you enjoy your career, you love your friends and family and signifigant other, you still get excited by doing things that you love, but you are in a constant state of suicidal fear because it all seems hopeless? Just curious. Because that's how I am. I love life, still marvel at it with childlike awe and yet, I fight the urge to off myself constantly.

Nihilism may not be incompatible with happiness but after reading this post I still believe that I experience legitimate existential angst. It occurs at unpredictable moments, but more often exciting ones: during coitus, staring at a beautiful sunrise, listening to the climax of a beautiful piece of music; but also during mundane tasks like brushing my teeth. I experience an overwhelming sense of angst and meaninglessness. The feeling of arbitrariness, embodied as raw emotion, overwhelms all other sensation. Usually I am able to quickly recover, at least operationally.

I don't think I'm depressed and I've gotten better since the visceral discovery of nihilism back in high-school, but I suspect this will never go away.

I think that nihilism may be viable as a moral philosophy, in the sense that it's the default position, if you find that you reject all possible values you could have as "crazy" under sufficient reflection.

Does anyone have an argument why this is impossible or unlikely? For example, can anyone exhibit a clearly defined value and explain why (with high probability) this value would be part of one's CEV?

Edit: This doesn't apply to Wei's comment. Considering that "doing nothing" is also an action, what makes it a less likely target for declaring unmotivated than everything else combined?
6Wei Dai
Nihilism (or at least my version of it) does not say that one should "do nothing", but instead that there are no values (i.e., one is indifferent between all possible states of the world). If one does consider all possible states of the world to be equally preferable, there is an additional complication that our minds are largely collections of autonomous processes that are not affected by consciously held values, so you do not end up doing nothing even if you do end up being a nihilist. Instead, the part of your mind that is motivated by explicit verbal/philosophical considerations is no longer motivated to do anything, and leaves the rest of your mind to run your body on automatic. (If nihilism does say that one should do nothing, then you'd actively try to stop yourself from doing anything, but that's not my claim.)
I wonder if it's fair to say that indifference isn't a preference in the same sense that zero and one aren't probabilities.
3Wei Dai
0 and 1 as probabilities do make sense under the UDT probability-as-measure-of-caring interpretation (as opposed to the Bayesian probability-as-subjective-degree-of-confidence interpretation). In UDT you don't do Bayesian updating so you don't run into the divide-by-zero problem with probability 0 events, so you can rule it out as a valid probability on purely mathematical grounds. (EDIT: Obviously I meant to write "can't" in the last sentence.)
Good point. Also, we can push steven0461's analogy a bit further by saying indifference is what happens when UDT finds itself in a universe that has prior probability 0 :-)
This clarification makes my comment inapplicable.
5Wei Dai
I should acknowledge that at a low level of intelligence, nihilism (there are no values) may be indistinguishable from fragility-of-value (no value is valuable when considered by itself, but only in combination with other values). In other words, the fact that we can't exhibit a clearly defined value and explain why (with high probability) this value would be part of one's CEV can be explained by "value is fragile" as well as by nihilism. So I do not intend to demand that specific proof, and it's just an example of an argument that would work.

Isn't this just If you need magic, magic won't work all over again? It's a message that bears repeating, but am I wrong? How is this substantially different?

"If you need magic, you probably need money, lovers and kittens instead."

I am curious if any research has been done regarding, the effects patterns of thought have on brain chemistry? I am fully speculating here; it could be that in large part how we think determines how we feel. Furthermore that an existence which contains disagreeable circumstances in which no actions are taken to alter them, coupled with an inability to live with them are the root causes of depression and other chemically based brain disorders. Essentially behavioral change might be the key to correcting mood disorders and brain chemistry imbalances. If this research has not been done it should be.

I'm not sold on Ferris's excitement theory. Seems like we should throw ourselves into the tiger cage. Tranquility, contentment, pride, satisfaction, all rather sedate and unexcited, yet all very much about happiness.

To be brief, I think the Existential Angst Factory comes from a basic malfunction only possible in a conceptual being - believing that truth precedes value, and so engaging in a futile tail biting exercise that cannot succeed, while your value detection circuits continue to register the lack of value produced from the exercise.

There's something worse than asking the wrong question - asking a question that is not even wrong.

Hi, Yes..... this angst thing has haunted me for a long time. I find the argument that the opposite of happiness is boredom, very compelling. For some time now I've had suspicions that opposite of love is indifference. I would like to read more about Ferris' 'Solving the Wrong Problems' ideas, but the shortcut doesn't work for me. Can anyone tell me where to find it? Thanks, ..... john