No Ultimate Goal and a Small Existential Crisis

by elriggs2 min read24th Jul 202023 comments


World OptimizationRationality

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.


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]


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.