No Ultimate Goal and a Small Existential Crisis

by elriggs2 min read24th Jul 202023 comments

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tl;dr There is no ultimate goal. That may seem to imply nihilism, but it doesn't. This is fine, but in novel situations, I don't know what to do, because I don't know which goal to choose, because there is no ultimate goal.

4 year olds frequently ask "why?". Often repeatedly. Often without knowing what they're even asking for.

Doing the same now at 24, it's clear there is no ultimate "why", no ultimate goal; it's groundless. It's tempting to answer "Because I just like to", "it makes me happy", or the more sophisticated "it's my terminal goal", but why stop there?

Even investigating our community's terminal goals of "Allow everyone to live fulfilling lives until the heat death of the universe" (or something like that), for what metric does this goal score well on? That it's personally motivating to us? That it compels us to action? (No seriously, is compulsion to action/passion a generally important criteria people tend to care about?)

And even if you come up with a metric that fits, why should we care about that metric? (or, what meta-metric says the first metric is "good"?)

A (Small) Existential Crisis

I'm fine; I really am. I still eat, work, and talk to friends and family, and I take pretty good care of myself. But I don't know what goals to pursue sometimes.

Some situations are clear and obvious. I get in my car, then I drive home. Easy. I get hungry, I eat. I'm playing frisbee, so I'm trying to throw it to my friend accurately. Habits and games are very clear (to me) about what goal is being pursued, and actions flow from that.

More open situations are muddy. I feel floaty and hesitant. I think, "What am I even doing? What should I try to do?". I think a few examples of what I mean would help:

1. Talking to a friend who's discussing texting strategies regarding love interests, I was thinking "should I talk about him and what he wants? or give my perspective/ experience on texting in that way? or ...". It was difficult to think of what policy to pursue, because there can't be an optimal policy without a goal in mind. Sure, if I wanted to know more about him, then X, or if I wanted to have a fun, then Y, or..., but which goal should I pick? I don't have a metric to decide the should in this situation.

2. Planning what to do on a day-to-day basis is weird, with a similar problem: which goals should I pursue? I don't have a problem with learning japanese (to talk to my SO's family better) or dancing (to exercise) or cooking (to make food, duh), but it's when I'm watching youtube, or reading an interesting story, or playing a video game that it's hard to hold the intention to finish the video, chapter, or level (though it's mostly when I'm doing these activities by myself as opposed to with others).

This doesn't quite fit with "not knowing what should be doing", it's more like "noticing I tend to do certain things consistently and not others", but it still feels related.

3. Projects (like a weekly group meeting or reading a textbook) also feel very "up in the air" to me. And it's not clear whether to do them, because it's not clear what goals I should pursue.

Counterarguments

These are counterarguments to the "No ultimate goal; therefore, nihilism" argument. I don't believe that argument, but I still think I'm affected by it. I'm also still confused on a couple of the counterarguments, so your thoughts would be appreciated.

Words Were Made for Man

Asking "why" and "what should I do" usually bring up a goal or a metric we're scoring on. But they were initially created to communicate our shared goals to coordinate (or other reasons). They were not initially created to describe a universal, objective goal.

Using "why" to find an ultimate goal is to be confused. It's only possible to do this by divorcing the word from its original contexts, and poking and prodding it in the sterile labs of conceptual thought.

[This feels like a compelling argument to me, but it's not prescriptive. It doesn't tell me how to figure out what goals I should pursue on a meta-level]

Meaningness

My inner David Chapman would say something like:

Anything you pick as an ultimate goal will indeed fall flat when investigated closely. You would have to ignore the patterns of meanings in everyday activities that you do find meaningful, but don't contribute to The Goal. There isn't any one thing that clearly encapsulates all things you find meaningful, but that doesn't mean there are no things that fuzzily point out areas of life that you find meaningful.
More specifically to your problem of not knowing which goals to pursue, notice you're facing that dilemma only in nebulous situations. It doesn't happen in the clear-cut habits and games. I would suggest simply embracing the nebulosity of the situation. Have fun! Allow yourself to be in wonder of the many different paths you could explore and play with it.

Which seems like good advice and I'll try it out (thanks inner Chapman!)

I would appreciate any feedback. I couldn't find any counterarguments from philosophy (I don't know the search terms), nor could I remember anything else from the Sequences that related. Any links would also be appreciated.

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I think it is easy to get confused by the following things:

1) I have my values, but they are not completely coherent, and I don't know their extrapolation. If you ask me about my preference with regards to something I don't understand yet, I will probably give you a stupid answer. But if I had an opportunity to learn about that thing, to understand it completely, maybe even have some experience with it, I would probably be much more certain about what I want. And luckily, I already have a preference for understanding things, so just give me some more time, please. Also, I already have a preference for having more time. So at least this part of my preferences is coherent. Give me immortality, food, and books, and I will gradually find out what else do I want.

2) I want to find out how things actually are. In the process of searching, it is helpful to temporarily ignore your preferences. Like, don't ask what you want 2 + 2 to be, instead ask what 2 + 2 is. Don't ask whether you want homeopathics to cure cancer, instead ask whether they really do. Don't ask whether you want democracy or communism to be a solution to all problems of humankind, instead learn the relevant parts of sociology, game theory, and whatever else might be necessary. But after you find out the answers you need, pay attention to your preferences again and do the right thing. "X implies Y" doesn't tell you what to do, but "X implies Y" together with your preference for Y tells you to do X.

3) People with low-level depression (which seems quite common) have a problem to feel their preferences.

Now add these three things together, and you get something like: "I cannot logically explain what I want, I don't feel it either, and I was trained to think as if I don't want anything... hey, maybe I actually don't want anything!"

Well, that's wrong. If you really, truly didn't want anything, you wouldn't write an article about it, you wouldn't worry about it, you wouldn't even get out of your bed in the morning. If you did, your actions clearly contradict your philosophy. Which is quite normal, because people do wrong philosophy all the time.

No seriously, is compulsion to action/passion a generally important criteria people tend to care about?

Do hungry people care about getting some food? Let me think about it for a moment... uhm... yes. Yes, they do!

Do I care about other hungry people getting some food? Well, definitely not in the same way. It's not like my stomach hurts when they starve. Actually, some people are probably starving to death as I am writing these words, and didn't even think about it before I started writing this paragraph. But in some other way, I care. How strongly, that depends. Usually, the more I know about something, the more I care, which makes sense from practical perspective, because knowing more about something correlates with being able to do something about it (and what's the point of feeling bad about something you can't do anything about), unless this process gets hijacked by media, of course.

Now before someone says "but that means you don't really care about other people", no it doesn't. It only means that I care about them less than I care about myself. But I care about them more than zero, which was the original question. The evidence is both my emotional reaction (I sometimes feel sad about other people suffering) and my behavior (I sometimes help other people).

Also, similar reduction in intensity of caring applies to my future selves, too. I have a preference for the future me not being hungry, but unless I am hungry at this very moment, I don't feel that preference strongly. But I obviously care about the well-being of my future selves, because I do many things that will benefit them. Otherwise I would quit my job (or just not go there, without sending any notice, because who cares, it's my future self's problem) and spend all my savings on immediate pleasures.

But I don't know what goals to pursue sometimes.

That probably means there are multiple ways how to gain value, and you don't know which one of them is more efficient.

But again, that actually proves that you care about something, because otherwise you would not worry about not knowing what to do. You would be perfectly okay with simply not doing anything.

Another possible source of confusion is that "doing things that contribute to a goal" feels differently from "having achieved the goal". For example, cooking feels differently from eating, even if the only way to get food would be to cook something for yourself. In some sense it seems wrong -- if the only way to eat is to cook, why don't I feel the same enthusiasm about cooking as I feel about eating? Evolution gave me some strong feelings about eating, to make me more likely to survive. Why don't I have similarly strong feelings about things that I logically know contribute to my survival way more than eating a cookie? Yes, that means we cannot blindly follow our feelings, because doing what makes you happy now sometimes makes you more sad tomorrow, and doing some boring thing now can make your tomorrow way better. But when we go against our feelings, we usually do it motivated by some other feelings, like eating one less cookie in order to achieve greater eudaimonia by being healthier.

In situations of uncertainty, it makes sense to usually do what is locally better, but once in a while experiment with something wildly different just to see if you are not stuck in a bad local maximum.

Also, paradoxically, sometimes the most difficult choices are the least important ones. Like, if you have a good option and a bad option, the choice is obvious. And if you have two similarly good options, the choice is more difficult... but on the other hand, even if you don't make the optimal choice, you still end up with a good option.

I didn't mean to come across as "not knowing what I want at all", but it's more like your last paragraphs on uncertainty (I've added a tl;dr at the beginning to help clarify).

1) I have my values, but they are not completely coherent, and I don't know their extrapolation... Give me immortality, food, and books, and I will gradually find out what else do I want

Thanks to your comment, I think I understand the question I want to ask: What sensations/ feelings do you experience that you use to know "this is what I value"?

Curiosity, joy, safety, growth...

I want a world that can be explored. Not one where there is nothing to see (only paperclips), or where it is forbidden to ask questions. Pleasant feelings, of course, but more importantly absence of crippling pain and suffering (minor discomfort is okay, especially when taken voluntarily), and absence of paralysing fear. Autonomy. Progress on personal goals.

Maybe I forgot some imporant things here. And some of these things are interconnected. Like, absence of pain or fear is important per se, but it is also a precondition to joyful exploration. If the exploration is meaningful, it will lead to better knowledge and greater ability. The abilities open new paths for exploration.

I think about this question a lot as well. Here are some pieces I've personally found particularly helpful in thinking about it:

  • Sharon Street, "Nothing 'Really' Matters, But That's Not What Matters": link
    • This is several levels deep in a conversation, but you might be able to read it on its own and get the gist, then go back and read some of the other stuff if you feel like it.
  • Nate Soares' "Replacing Guilt" series: http://mindingourway.com/guilt/
    • Includes much more metaethics than it might sound like it should.
    • Especially relevant: "You don't get to know what you're fighting for"; everything in the "Drop your Obligations" section
  • (Book) Jonathan Haidt: The Happiness Hypothesis: link
    • Checks ancient wisdom about how to live against the modern psych literature.
  • Susan Wolf on meaning in life: link
    • There is a book version, but I haven't read it yet

Search terms that might help if you want to look for what philosophers have said about this:

  • meaning in/of life
  • moral epistemology
  • metaethics
  • terminal/final goals/ends

Some philosophers with relevant work:

  • Derek Parfit
  • Sharon Street
  • Christine Korsgaard
  • Bernard Williams

There is a ton of philosophical work on these sorts of things obviously, but I only wanted to directly mention stuff I've actually read.

If I had to summarize my current views on this (still very much in flux, and not something I necessarily live up to), I might say something like this:

Pick final goals that will be good both for you and for others. As Susan Wolf says, meaning comes from where "subjective valuing meets objective value," and as Jonathan Haidt says, "happiness comes from between." Some of this should be projects that will be fun/fulfilling for you and also produce value for others, some of this should be relationships (friendships, family, romantic, etc). But be prepared for those goals to update. I like romeostevensit's phrasing elsethread: "goals are lighthouses not final destinations." As Nate Soares says, "you don't get to know what you're fighting for": what you're fighting for will change over time, and that's not a bad thing. Can't remember the source for this (probably either the Sequences or Replacing Guilt somewhere), but the human mind will often transform an instrumental goal into a terminal goal. Unlike Eliezer, I think this really does signal a blurriness in the boundary between instrumental and terminal goals. Even terminal goals can be evaluated in light of other goals we have (making them at least a little bit instrumental), and if an instrumental goal becomes ingrained enough, we may start to care about it for its own sake. And when picking goals, start from where you are, start with what you already find yourself to care about, and go from there. The well-known metaphor of Neurath's Boat goes like this: "We are like sailors who on the open sea must reconstruct their ship but are never able to start afresh from the bottom. Where a beam is taken away a new one must at once be put there, and for this the rest of the ship is used as support. In this way, by using the old beams and driftwood the ship can be shaped entirely anew, but only by gradual reconstruction." See also Eliezer, "Created already in motion". So start from what you already care about, and aim to have that evolve in a more consistent direction. Aim for goals that will be good for both you and others, but take care of the essentials for yourself first (as Jordan Peterson says, "Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world"). In order to help the world, you have to make yourself formidable (think virtue ethics). Furthermore, as Agnes Callard points out (link), the meaning in life can't solely be to make others happy. The buck has to stop somewhere -- "At some point, someone has to actually do the happying." So again, look for places where you can do things that make you happy while also creating value for others.

I don't claim this is at all airtight, or complete (as I said, still very much in flux), but it's what I've come to after thinking about this for the last several years.

Thanks for all the links! It will take some time to read through them, but it's good to have them all in one place:)

I especially appreciate you writing out your current views explicitly. Your view seems to boil down into useful heuristics/ strategies, but it doesn't explain why they're good. For example

Following these strategies for setting goals, I've noticed myself and those close to me being happier, and I haven't burnt out doing this so it's more sustainable.

Given our architecture goals are lighthouses not final destinations.

I think you're saying that there are two different relationships to goals (lighthouses and final destinations).

Could you give an example of a goal you used to treat as a final destination, but you now treat as a lighthouse? And in what way it is better?

Proximate goal: 'don't touch my stuff!'

Less proximate goal: wanting to know where things are when I need them

Less proximate: wanting to feel safe in my ability to meet my needs

Less proximate goal: safety

Less proximate goal: efficient compression of whatever 'safety' refers to in the training data I actually lived through

It's difficult to prioritize among goals when you don't know what they're really about.

I found this absurdly hilarious; loved the punchline. Thank you.

But then, how do you decide what to do?

I try to put as much effort in as I feel the decision is impactful. Sometimes I am better calibrated on this than others. I try to figure out what I really want and get it efficiently.

Thanks for the link! I've just read ~12 of them, and I think I've read them before. They sort of touched on the subject, but do you have a specific article(s) in the sequence that speak on it more directly?

So, for whatever it's worth, I think "why?" or really just "?" comes closest to being an ultimate goal for humans. Our minds seem oriented towards resolving confusion (i.e. predictive coding, minimization of prediction error). It's not literally the only thing making us go (we're all the descendants of creatures who were compelled enough to survive and reproduce that we're here, and we carry in us the marks of whatever made them do that), but it's a huge part of it, especially for the naturally self-reflective parts of the mind that notice and produce things like existential crises.

That's not to say resolving confusion/curiosity is absolutely and essentially ultimate in some way independent of human existence, but at least within the context of human being it's deeply, if obliquely, lying behind much of our activity.

I don't think it makes sense to search for your one true love or one true calling in life. It's more of a mutual process: you encounter a person or calling, ask yourself if it could work out, then invest. There's always a free choice, a leap of faith. Isn't it nice that the world works that way, instead of funneling you to one predetermined answer?

It doesn't make sense to me either, but how do you specifically know you're on the right track? What specific qualia do you experience?

Not sure I can give advice on this... it feels different every time, and it probably differs between people as well. You're on your own :-/

"for what metric does this goal score well on?"

Pleasure, or the absence of pain (and the relative importances of these two drives depends on your personality). Pleasure and pain are the bedrock you're looking for. They're unmistakable experiences that are motivating in and of themselves. They are motivation itself.

Every course of action you can take will give you a different net return (in pleasure or the absence of pain) over the course of your life. If you're conscientious about long-term planning and making good predictions, you can come closer to maximizing this ultimate metric.

"Pleasure" is a bit of an aether variable here though because if we start trying to drill down we'll wind up with multiple dimensions of pleasure which will just start recapitulating values talk with some new variable names. I agree in the pragmatic sense that usually such existential crisis are a result of losing touch with basic pleasures either acutely or chronically (and things coming to a head via some catalyzing event).

It sounds like for OP, some "values talk" is due. OP seems to be wondering how to weigh multiple values, and I'm saying weigh them according to how much pleasure can be derived from their indulgence. I don't really see "multiple dimensions of pleasure," I see many different paths to pleasure that are all commensurable.

I like the "how to weigh multiple values" frame.

But to use the initial argument in the post, why should pleasure and pain be the ultimate metric?

I'd argue that they inevitably are the ultimate metric, and all we can do about it is become more conscious of that and pursue them more intentionally.

But how do you verify that? What does it mean (to you) to become more conscious of it?

It means we'll get better at predicting the net return in pleasure of different choices. And especially, we'll become more aware of long-term consequences (because our system 1 is often biased toward short-term pleasures, which is liable to reduce total net lifetime pleasure).

We verify this process by taking stock of the amount and degree of regret we feel. By "regret" here I mean whenever you wish you could go back in time and choose differently.