I asked a question in the discussion section a little bit ago and got very productive responses.  What follows is mostly a paraphrase of people's comments.

From time to time, like Pierre, I don't care.  I get emotionally nihilistic.  I find myself doing things that are morally awful in the conventional meaning of the word: procrastinating, sneaking other people's food out of the communal fridge, being casually unkind and unhelpful, breaking promises.  I don't doubt that these are awful things to do. I figure any moral theory worth its salt will condemn them -- except the moral theory "I don't care," which sometimes seems strangely compelling.  

What I want to know is: what goes through people's heads when they're motivated not to be awful?  What could you tell someone as a reason not to be awful?  If you are, in fact, not awful, why aren't you awful?  What do you think, or feel, when you care about things?  What would you tell someone who claims "I just don't care" if you wanted to get her to care?  What would you tell yourself, in your nihilistic moments?

The (more) trivial utility function

Nihilism feels like a utility function where everything is set to the value zero.  Landing that job offer or school admission letter?  That's worth nothing.  Making someone smile?  Worth nothing.  Being in good physical shape?  Worth nothing.  Living according to moral values?  Worth nothing.  Nothing is fun, or appealing, or worth looking forward to.

The thing about a nihilistic mindset is that you can't really argue your way out of it (at least, I've never succeeded.)  It's perfectly logically coherent.  A function that's constant at zero is still a function.  You can have a function where all the best things in life, all the "peaks," matter much less to you.

Edit: Vladimir_Nesov comments that it's not really a zero utility function because even a nihilistic person doesn't behave totally at random, and can usually keep up some minimal degree of self maintenance. This is a fair point. It's more accurate to say that it feels like nothing matters, or at least that the desire for goal-directed behavior is significantly diminished.  Maybe it's not a flat function, but a flatter function, where the things you used to value the most seem empty.

Most of us aren't in a nihilistic state all the time.  But we can have days like that.  Or weeks, or months, or years.  (I had a year when I was almost always in this state.)  And until you snap out of it, you can do a lot of damage, to your career, your relationships, your body, and your moral values.  So how do you avoid all that?

Tactic 1: Get rid of the nihilism

Nihilism doesn't feel good.  You don't have any positive emotions.  The SEEK switch is turned off in your brain.  It's really in your interest to escape this flat utility function.

So one thing you can do is to try to find a physiological switch.  Take a nap, get some exercise, have something to eat.  I've also found that what you eat matters: carbohydrates make me a bit more emotionally "down."  Sometimes the physiological is enough.  Sometimes you need a cognitive switch: start doing something absorbing, like reading a book or watching a movie or talking to a person.  Because your motivation is very low here, you don't want to be ambitious.  Do something that's easily available, or something that's already a habit.  (I run enough on a regular basis that "go for a run" doesn't take much more motivation than "go to Subway and get a sandwich" -- but if you're not a runner, then running is a totally unreasonable choice.)

Tactic 2: Plan for nihilism

If this has happened to you before, and you know it could happen again, you need to anticipate and plan for those times when you can't bring yourself to care about anything.  First, you need to prepare by "stocking up" on things that tend to help you escape a nihilistic mood.  Keep the right kind of food easily available.  Get adequate sleep over the long term.  Make a habit of exercise (so that it's available as an option for you when you're "down.")  Keep absorbing activities available: have books around you, and also have friends and social commitments that you can't easily blow off.  

The other way of planning for nihilism is to have ironclad rules and habits, so that you can do pretty much the right thing even when you're not in a mood to care.  Being rigorous when you're in a good mood should carry over somewhat to when you're feeling nihilistic.  If you NEVER miss deadlines or play hooky, force of habit will carry you through even in your bad times.  If you NEVER steal or make hurtful remarks, you're less likely to start when you get in a foul mood.  Think of it this way: even now, you probably don't do just anything when you feel nihilistic -- it's unlikely that you murder people, no matter how bad you feel, because that's totally outside your range of possibilities.  If something is totally outside your range of possibilities, if you normally never, ever do it, you're not very likely to do it for the first time when you're having a bad day.  On the other hand, if something is an occasional vice of yours, you're liable to do a lot of it in bad times.

Tactic 3: Heuristics for escaping nihilistic thinking

These are things to remind yourself, or reflect on, that seem to be shortcuts to modifying your utility function away from flat.


  • Empathy.  "How will this action make other people feel?"  When you think about this, you may find that you suddenly care how other people feel.
  • Respect.  "What would [person I respect] think of me for doing this?"  You may find that you suddenly care about earning someone's respect.
  • The future. "Will I regret this later, after I've snapped out of my nihilistic funk?"  You may find that you care about preventing harmful future consequences.
  • Awesomeness.  "Am I being awesome?"  You may find that you want to be awesome.


You may have your own heuristic -- something that reliably makes you care more, some kind of trigger.

Tactic 4: Avoid "rock-bottom rituals."

This didn't come up in discussion, but it occurred to me in my own life. Sometimes you have a "rock-bottom ritual," something you do when you start to feel terrible, that sort of cements the feeling.  It's an official declaration of nihilistic misery.  The prototypical example is drinking a lot.  I don't do that -- I listen to Wagner and eat unhealthy food.  You may have something different.  The problem is, rock-bottom rituals prolong your nihilistic periods, when what you really want is to shorten them.  Saying "Ok, it's time to break out the Jack Daniels" (or the Tannhauser and peanut butter) is just about the worst thing you can do for yourself.

Hopefully this will help.  I'm still trying to figure out how best to manage emotional nihilism.  It seems to be common, but it also seems to be more of a problem for some people than for others. I'd like to see any further contributions from LessWrongers!

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Are we talking about nihilism here or depression?

Nihilism is a philosophical position.

Depression is a mood - a physiological state which causes a psychological state.

Nihilism is sometimes offered by depressed people as a rationalization/justification of their behavior. It is an effect, not a cause.

Chronic depression can be treated pharmaceutically. Episodes of depression often respond to physical activity. Running is a good suggestion for some people.

Nihilism, as a philosophical position, can be treated by reading better philosophy. However, treating nihilism does nothing to cure depression.


I'm not talking about philosophical nihilism. I'm talking about a kind of psychological state: lack of motivation, lack of pleasure and desire, temptation to give up on everything. It's the sense that very little matters.

I didn't want to call it "depression" because I didn't want to deal with the issue of whether this is a part of normal life or a pathology -- I thought I would describe the psychological state itself, and taboo the name for it. I actually don't know when and for whom pharmacological solutions are appropriate. That's something I'd like to understand better.

Me too considering I've been on an SSRI for 2.5 years and I've just gotten progressively worse. I've asked for a consultation with a psychiatrist so hopefully he or she can shed light on the matter.
4.5 years later still on SSRI's, a bit suicidal. Seeing a therapist, looking for a psychiatrist. Feels like I'm going to lose my mind and believe any old thing, return to a community and a way of life I despise (because of mind loss). So I came here to see what LW's have to say on this and noticed my old post. This has been going on for a while, no resolution in sight.
I have a friend who suffers from severe depression. He has stated on many occasions that he hates himself and wants to commit suicide, but he can't go through with it because even that would be accomplishing something and he can't accomplish anything. He has a firm delusion that he cannot do anything worthwhile, that the world is going to hell in a handbasket and nothing can possibly be done by anyone about it, and everyone else feels the same way he does, but is repressing it. This makes talking with him about many subjects exceedingly difficult, as he will ignore or rationalize away actual evidence as being, at best, an exception to the rule of pessimism. It's like talking to a patient with a disorder like somatoparaphrenia, where the ordinary person can see quite obviously that the patient has a problem, but the patient confabulates. He literally cannot see reason on these subjects -- his brain or this deep-seated delusion won't let him. To the best of my knowledge he has been seeing therapists and psychologists and they have been unable to help him. How should a rationalist deal with such a situation? Even if Singularity-level technology were available to repair the causes of his depression, he would refuse it if able. If such technology were available, would it be ethical to improve his quality of life against his will by changing his mind? I must confess I am almost at the point of not protesting his desire for suicide; he seems genuinely unhappy, and incapable of changing that fact of his own volition.

he has been seeing therapists and psychologists and they have been unable to help him.

As you probably already know, therapists and psychologists generally cannot prescribe anti-depressants - that takes an MD (psychiatrist). I am not a psychiatrist, nor do I play one on the internet. I have no idea whether the cause of your friend's depression is biological or purely psychological. I have no idea whether his therapists have advised him to see a psychiatrist, or whether they are the kind of quacks who "don't buy into the biological model". So I don't have the information I think I need, and I don't even know enough about depression to know what information I do need to help you and your friend.

How should a rationalist deal with such a situation?

If I were in your shoes, I would call the local suicide prevention hotline. Tell them the story. They can give you good advice, which may include referring you to even better resources. Do it now. Those hotlines are open 24hrs, and the people (volunteers) who man them know what they are doing much more than I do.

He lives halfway across the continent, and he has been talking like this for months without doing physical harm to himself. Is it right for me to cause the intrusion into his life such a call would surely bring without stronger evidence that it's necessary?

Is it right for me to cause the intrusion into his life such a call would surely bring without stronger evidence that it's necessary?

Yes. You already have the strongest evidence it is possible to get without him dying.

He is probably safe unless he starts getting less depressed, because at that point he'll probably still be suicidal but have enough energy to do something about it. If he's been stably in that condition for months then I don't think it's an emergency. I'm fairly torn on advice for this case. If he really has tried everything and it hasn't helped, then I don't think living is much of an end in and of itself and he should be assisted in his wishes, or at least not prevented.(Be aware that I am biased, this is my perspective as someone who empathises with your friend) If you think he hasn't tried everything, then the intrusion is completely warranted. He is at the point where he literally can't help himself. Therapy can only work if the patient has an interest in getting better, which he doesn't.
Inklesspen, I also believe in respecting the guy's autonomy. But it sounds like he might be willing to listen to someone who accepts the possible validity of his negative feelings and treats those feelings with respect. The best reason for going on living is simply to see what happens next. Tell your friend to find and watch the video "Little Miss Sunshine". Suggest that suicide might make sense, but then so might taking anti-depressant medication. But if he wants to try both, he has to do it in the right order. Shift him from talking about suicide to joking about suicide. But, as I've already said, there are people who can give better advice than mine. Find out what they say.
I believe he does take medication; I remember him saying his psychologist started him on Abilify and he was terrified that Abilify would cause permanent muscle tics, as apparently it does in rare cases.
If he has a psychologist then there's not much you can do directly to help. That's sort of their job. However, it may help to just be there for him. And when he says something that's obviously negative about himself and likely to be wrong, explain why it is wrong. That won't do much, but it might help a tiny bit.
I'm told that talking about suicide is a "cry for help". If he is your friend, you have a right and duty to help him. Call your local suicide hotline. Educate yourself more efficiently than you are doing by asking questions here. Ask their advice, if you wish without giving your friend's name or geographic location. They can give you far better information and better moral arguments about whether and how to intervene.
I called a suicide hotline once. I was put on hold for a long time, got frustrated, and hung up.
Tentative: have you tried telling him that the universe isn't keeping score? It seems to me that he's running a script of trying to prove that he deserves to live. Or possibly a script about whether he's allowed to let himself feel good about what he does. Check for influence from Ayn Rand. Some of her ideas are good, some of them are utterly poisonous. There's some level where he's still trying to live, even if all he's doing is trying to feel a little better by talking about what he's thinking. On the therapy side, I think bodywork helps, though it isn't the only route. (Strong belief here.) Habitual thoughts and emotions correlate with neuromuscular pattern-- that's why, if you know someone well, you can tell what they're thinking about by looking at them. On the therapeutic side, giving a person the experience of not going into those patterns can be useful. I don't know know how much difference your protesting his desire for suicide makes-- as far as I can tell, it depends on how emotionally close he feels to you. It seems fairly common for people to not commit suicide because there are particular people they don't want to hurt. Honestly, I don't know how much you can do. I'm having a hard fight with less serious depression-- some progress, which I'll probably write up. Meanwhile, I think Holy Basil is doing my mood some good. This is a very tasty holy basil and rooibos blend. As for the larger rationalist question, I don't know. I don't believe FAI + uploading = immortality. There's too much that can go wrong on the individual level even if the clade survives.
That is very serious business, and it is not likely that you can handle it yourself. The first thing to do is make sure he's seeing a competent therapist. If he's lapsed, or his therapist is actually a quack, or his therapist for some reason doesn't know what's going on, that could be very dangerous. So get a name, contact him or her, and pass along what you just said. In writing. That is the most important thing. (EDIT: Actually, this is probably too slow; the time it'd take to do what the previous paragraph describes is a substantial unnecessary risk. Contact a suicide prevention hotline first, as Perplexed says.) The cause of this is probably biochemical, and must be addressed at that level. Unfortunately, identifying the cause of this sort of thing is hard, and there are no good tools for it. I would start by checking the basics of his therapists' work - diet (especially micronutrients; ask if he takes a multivitamin), a minimum amount of regular exercise (pressure him into playing a sport with you if necessary), and a minimum amount of recurring social contact (weekly events that happen automatically without him having to do anything to arrange them). After that, start looking at pharmaceutical solutions. Don't encourage him to change anything without the approval of a licensed professional, since if he's already borderline suicidal then the wrong change could tip him over the edge; but do find out what he's taking, look it up on PubMed, and ask a psychologist other than the one he's currently seeing whether his regimen is reasonable. Whatever it is, your description suggests that either he's not taking it, it's not working, or it's making things worse. You can probably distinguish between the first and the other two possibilities, but not between the second and third. That information would be useful to his therapist; but beware that it could be both that he's not taking it and that it doesn't work, in which case letting his therapist blame the problem on n
As I said to Perplexed, he lives halfway across the continent. I do know his name and mailing address, but I talk with him exclusively over IRC. I know some of the therapies and medicines he's taken, but I don't know what he's taking right now. Part of my reluctance to take matters into my own hands is that I don't know how to reliably tell a qualified psychiatrist or psychologist from a quack. I can look up what Wikipedia says about a specific therapy like ECT, but how do I know whether what it says is accurate enough to trust my friend's life to it? As the status quo seems unlikely to have a catastrophic turn for the worse, I'm reluctant to do anything that would change it without either a strong confidence in its efficacy or at the very least a strong confidence that it will do no harm.
Neither of us is qualified to judge whether that's true. The fact that you talk with this person exclusively over IRC limits your options a little, but it also changes things in one important respect; it greatly increases the probability that you're the only person (or only responsible person) with this information. He might tell you things that he doesn't tell any of the people he interacts with face to face. If you're the only one who knows, then you can't just sit on that information. If you do call a hotline, the first thing they do will probably be to find out who your friend's psychiatrist is and contact them. The information you have is sufficient to do this discretely. They are well aware that doing the wrong thing could be disastrous, and aren't likely to do anything stupid.
Most of the Wikipedia information on mental disorders and standard treatments for them is fairly accurate.
Got any suggestions? I'm pretty sure my own nihilism is caused by certain irrational beliefs I hold, but more weapons to use against it never hurts.
There are several philosophical positions known as nihilism. I'll take a quick crack at the moral dimension. I will first give reference to the doctoral thesis of Richard Volkman, "Why be Moral? The Ethical Individualist Response to Alienation from Morality", conveniently available in closed stacks at University of Wisconsin-Madison. The fully general solution starts with understanding morality as simply asking, "What do I have the most reason to do or want?" (credit to Sidgwick). Then, in noting regularities in my own behavior I should be forced to admit that I actually do act as though there's a fact of the matter here. Even when pretending to take nihilism seriously, I eat food instead of scrap metal or drain-o; I say, "I am a nihilist" instead of "Unrepentant the fish ba-zoop whirrr gharble!" Now that it's apparent that even the supporters of nihilism necessarily regard nihilism as false, one can proceed to ask "What do I care about?" and work from the obvious things like food and TV up to more complicated notions such as friendship and awesomeness. Along the way one might notice that one must develop good habits of behavior (what we call 'virtues') in order to actually succeed at things like having friends and consistently acquiring food.
I should have forseen that someone would ask that question. Well, actually, I know almost nothing about "meaning of life" philosophers, except that there is this position called Existentialism. According to wikipedia: I've never read Kierkegaard, but I first heard about him in my teens, learned roughly what that wikipedia quote says, and have ever since then called myself an existentialist regarding the meaning or purpose of life. It just made sense to me. And I now realize, to my embarrassment, that I never bothered to ask the question: "Why bother making up a meaning for life, if it doesn't already have any intrinsic meaning?" Or, if I did ask, I must have answered the question in the obvious way. "Why not?" Maybe Kierkegaard has a better answer. Though I don't see how he could.
You may find this hard to believe, but Nietzsche (in his better works) is a better philosophical remedy to nihilism. Kierkegaard invests too much in a particular (religious) form to the meaning that one can create. I started reading Nietzsche when I thought only nihilism might be coherent; and by the time I realized he wasn't actually a nihilist, neither was I. ETA: However, I'm not sure I'd recommend Nietzsche to someone grappling with this problem. His tone is still too dark for most readers, unless the rest of their life is in good shape (as mine was).
Ok, I guess reading some Nietzsche won't kill me.
Indeed, it might make you stronger. I recommend The Gay Science- it was written at his peak. But whatever you read, it needs to be a Walter Kaufman translation (or else a very modern one); most translators mangle him.
As I recall, Nietzsche was good about the impulse to action, but had the drawback of setting the threshold of respect too high.
this is tangential to the thread; but Nietzsche's writings frequently seem to be quite religious actually, take his Übermensch theme for e.g., which makes the absolute/divine/god/etc become part of man, a theme prevalent in Christianity as well.
Well, he was going insane by the time of his later writings (especially by the point of Ecce Homo, which still contains some brilliance); and furthermore, Zarathustra (where some of the least rationalist quotes come from) was intentionally written in a religious style. But the point is otherwise well taken.
We don't have to make up a meaning for life; evolution has already provided us with several built in. The real work is reconciling them and filling in details, because evolution left some parts of our utility functions to be acquired from the environment, and never bothered to optimize for internal consistency.
Check out Learning Methods-- it's something like Cognitive Behavior Therapy, except that the idea is that if you pin down a habitual obstructive thought very precisely and then analyze it thoroughly, it's no longer attractive.
Thanks! I'm already CBTing but as I said, more weapons never hurt. :) What would you identify as the main differences between the two?
What flavor of CBT? Burns? MoodGym?
There are flavours? Anyway, my therapist likes to use modules from the Centre for Clinical Intervention. Thanks for the reference to MoodGym, I'll check it out over the next couple of days.
Learning Methods is a lot more meticulous about tracking down exactly what people are thinking that gets in their way, and identifying errors in that thinking. What I've seen of CBT seems like much simpler pattern matching.
I expect to an extent one can establish behavior despite shifts in psychological drives, if there is something to protect and honest non-compartmentalized philosophical position says you ought to perform certain actions, even if you don't feel adequately driven (or passive drives strive to overpower).

I'm interested in testing what happens if you watch "8 minutes of courage":


Are you supposed to watch it full-screen while staring into the eyes of the wolf and listening to the thumpa-thumpa on headphones?

I found the off-putting slogans too jarring to make up for the rest, and I generally don't have the patience to watch video. I'd prefer to look at a static, full-screen montage of the better ones.

I made up a few more:





ETA: A static, full-screen montage of the better ones.

I like your last one. "Stealing the horse" should be a metaphor for conquering death.

T-shirt design: in an arid landscape, a man on Death's horse rearing up in triumph, while Death, depicted as the traditional cloaked skeleton, lies dead on the desert floor, pinned to the ground by his own scythe through his chest.

Meme generator.
The premise is alright, and having a well-made video like that handy would be useful. Unfortunately, the execution sucks; most of the platitudes are alright, but a few of them were very jarringly bad, and that ruined it for me. They also seem to presuppose that you're trying to psych yourself for a fight or competition of some sort (many of them make reference to a human opponent), which doesn't work to motivate me to, say, finish the programming I'm working on.
I'm not exactly the target audience-- did you watch it through to the end? It was so over the top and insane that it didn't knock me into raving self-hatred, but I did feel some habitually tight muscles getting tighter. I got a possibly salable button slogan from it. I think a relatively small proportion of people are susceptible to pep talks, but I'm curious about whether I'm right.
Which slogan might you buttonize?
Being #1 is how I warm up.
I didn't actually see my favourite one in the video: Bite more than you can chew THEN CHEW IT
I think it was there.
It's at 7:56.
I'll have to try watching it again when I'm feeling down and/or unproductive. It didn't elicit much of a response either way. However, according to a friend, listening to Courage Wolf and adopting that sort of over-the-top "fight everything" attitude helped her change things in her life. She's now adventurously taken a working holiday in Australia, though I can't say to what extent these things are correlated.
That actually made me kind of upset.
I couldn't even watch two minutes of it. The music was sort of cool, but the text was a distasteful blend of macho crap and meaningless, vaguely punny platitudes.
Hrm... I wonder then about the effect of absurdly over the top macho crap: Specifically, the original Powerthirst. (TURBOPUNS!)
That's just funny. Especially "400 BABIES".
As I said, absurdly over the top. Is indeed amusing. :)
I didn't feel a surge of motivation, but I laughed a lot. The best one was "PROCRASTINATE LATER". Some of the offensive ones would've been more appropriate for Advice Dog. The music wasn't good at all, why is everyone saying it was?
What was your theory?

Apparently my theory was wrong.

When I'm feeling down, what snaps me out of it will be something which exhibits what TV Tropes would call the Determinator trope. Shinji 40k, Fate/stay Night UBW route, etcetera. 8 minutes of courage is that in highly concentrated form, and the silliness doesn't bother me. I guess, however, that this is an idiosyncratic response which doesn't extend to anyone else.

But yes, when I get up in the morning, and didn't get quite enough sleep, and the prospect of working on the rationality book fills me with weary dread, watching "8 Minutes of Courage" is enough to make me think, "YOU CALL THIS AN OBSTACLE? I CALL IT A SPEEDBUMP".

Maybe when MoR finishes, I'll find someone with the flash skills to do some slogans set to the Rationality Patronus and the music of Emiya #0.

I tend to think of myself as someone who's nothing like a Determinator, so looking at that particular video made me feel inadequate.
That's something like it at my end-- we're definitely in PJ Eby territory of how different people hear advice. With an added layer of "would you really like another round of why there aren't many women at LW?",
About pep talks, mostly from people who hate them. It would probably be useful to get some counterbalancing detail from people who like them.
I think pep talks only work on me when I'm in a reasonable mood to begin with, and even then they can still backfire some of the time. (I tried to find an appropriate Gurren Lagann clip to link to, but the copyright police are keeping them off of Youtube. Sorry!)
I have a similar response, but it is concentrated to only very few of the slogans, probably one in twenty or less. "Do not settle for second, winning is everything" has little or no effect on me, nor do some of the more outrageous/offensive/sexual ones, but "THEY DIED FOR YOU; LIVE FOR THEM" or "FALL SEVEN TIMES; GET UP EIGHT" are like a direct injection of energy.
1Eliezer Yudkowsky
My response is probably concentrated to one in five or something like that.
I chuckled in amusement. Basically, my reaction was similar to cousin_it's and jimrandomh's. I don't find machismo nearly as distasteful as Alicorn does, but probably a bit more than you do.
For the same effect, Dragonforce.
Good music. Would be more fun with Insanity Wolf.
I concur with Alicorn:

I'm pretty familiar with the state you've described here. I usually drop into this temporary anhedonia when I haven't talked to people for a while, haven't recently accomplished anything I'm particularly proud of, and haven't gotten much exercise. (My diet is fairly consistent, so that wouldn't appear to me to be the controlling factor.)

I can escape this anhedonia by getting some exercise, or spending time around friends. Accomplishing major goals would also do it, I suppose, but that's a rather harder to control.

This came together really nicely. Something I'd add to #4 is that "venting" when you feel bad is only occasionally useful, and pretty reliably keeps whatever you're venting about at the front of your consciousness.

A friend pointed out to me that when one feels depressed, one acquires blinders about the past and the future. After he suggested this I started noticing it--on a really bad day, it felt like all days were really bad. If I couldn't get ahold of someone for some company, no one ever wanted to see me. Noticing this consciously was incredi... (read more)

Related You Are Not So Smart post: Catharsis.

Tactic 4: Avoid "rock-bottom rituals."

Unless your habitual 'rock-bottom' rituals are really damn good for you. I know mine are. (I get fed up, think 'f@#$ this' and go run for 40kms. That is a powerful reset button.)

"Rock Bottom" actually tends to come with positive connotations along those. It is often use to indicate that the person has got as low as they are going to get and are about to kick their way out of it.

What's a good way to deal with something that seems like a major personal failure?

A few hours ago, I submitted something important approximately one minute after the deadline, which probably cost me a shot at a dream job. :(

I'm feeling better now, but it's so disappointing...

I am so lucky.

I got a confirmation email a few minutes ago - my essays were accepted (I guess I was close enough to "on time" that it slipped through the cracks or something) and I qualify to participate in the next round.


Good going :)
You rock.
That looks like a really fun job. Good luck.
I don't know, but one thing that held me for a while is the thought that even if you've failed, once or many times, you're still a human being in possession of a life, and that makes you valuable. Think of a human being. Now think of a rock. You're a lot cooler than the rock. You're alive and sentient and capable of choice and that makes you, as a matter of plain fact, pretty damn wonderful. (Never mind that you, CronoDAS, are very obviously insightful and interesting.) Now once you recognize that you're already pretty damn wonderful, you can start thinking about the optimal way to cope with your setback. It's disappointing (God knows I worry about my failures) but if you take a step WAY back and think about the fact that you're a living human being, and you can't ever be worthless no matter what, it takes away some of the fear.
Playing devil's advocate for a while, rocks also tend to cause a lot less damage than people. Rocks don't pollute, eat meat, receive a government subsidized education, contribute to traffic congestion, or other things. On a purely economic level, at least, so far I've made the world slightly poorer rather than richer; if I were a business, I'd be one that has gone through quite a lot of start-up capital and hasn't become profitable yet.
This is true. That's also how I think about myself. It's not a complete answer. It just sometimes puts into perspective why I (and you, and everyone) might deserve to stick around even if we've made some mistakes. Might even deserve to be happy with ourselves. Somehow I want that to be true and I think it probably is true. It's better than thinking of yourself as an overgrown tapeworm.
Yeah, I'd rather be a pet hamster than a tapeworm. ;)
Well, I wasn't expecting to be the one to get the job, I'm just annoyed that I washed out earlier than I expected. (Last time, I made it past the multiple choice exam.) So I'll just have to invoke Sour Grapes here; it doesn't matter that I failed at this point rather than later, because I probably would have failed anyway (but it was still worth the attempt, though).

Do you have any evidence for your claim about tactic 4? I'll sometimes (as you mention) eat unhealthily when I'm unhappy, but this seems like a perfectly rational "Eating unhealthy foods makes me happy; I can't do it all the time because it would make me fat, but I can do it as an acute intervention when I'm unusually unhappy to make things a little better." This seems to work okay for me.

It's not that the food is unhealthy -- this is something different from a treat or a pick-me-up. This is when you take an action that (for you) symbolizing doubling down on your gloom or underlining it, instead of trying to return to normal life. Other examples would include dwelling on thoughts like "I wish I were dead." If you think too much about planning your suicide, you'll get stuck in that mindset for a while. I've been looking around trying to find clinical evidence that thinking gloomy thoughts makes you stay gloomy longer but in these few minutes I haven't found it; maybe people think it's too obvious?
When I get gloomy, I often find myself wanting to stay gloomy.

Nice post. I will be linking friends here frequently. It would be great if you replaced all references to "having a 0 utility function" with "feeling like you have a 0 utility function". I know Vladimir_Nesov already pointed this out, but it's more than a technical concern: I've actually used this distinction personally to get out of emotional nihilism myself.

See my first response in this comment thread.

The point is that even if you can't think of what you want to do, you might be able to imagine what you would do in certain circumst... (read more)


Nihilism is like a utility function where everything is set to the value zero... The thing about a nihilistic mindset is that you can't really argue your way out of it

I agree that nihilism is self-consistent, but ironically my usual heuristic is often an argument based on the fact that nihilism has everything set to zero. The general idea once I start feeling awful and like I could just act awful, is noting the fact that, even as I feel like this, I'm still mostly not being awful. Noting my habits that I do [like going to class or hanging out with frien... (read more)

I'm actually doing something similar at a macro level right now. I've kind of spiralled myself into a corner: I get negatively triggered by observing certain normal social interactions (among other people), but I refuse to take the resulting bad mood out on my friends and it's strong enough that I have trouble supressing it. Since I don't know how to remove the trigger itself, I've just been avoiding situations where it could come up ... leading to more isolation, more bad moods, etc. Haven't thought my way out of that one yet.
Have you tried writing about the trigger to see if you might have more ways of reacting to it than taking it out on your friends?
I have, and I've sorted out bits and pieces of it. Not so much that it doesn't still bother me, but I think I'm making progress.
Alternate outlets, like Nancy said, are always good. Have you also considered discussing the triggers with your friends, or would that be to far removed from social norms? I'd suggest the "they don't really know better" thought about social norms. After all, not many even think about why we do what we do [when it comes to social interaction], so one can't exactly expect them to act in a way one would consider much better yet. That's sometimes how I diffuse people acting in ways that trigger negative reactions in me. Just watch out for a sense of arrogance that may try to work its way in.
I just noticed I never responded to this part. I've discussed it a little bit; some people know enough of the history to already understand what's going on, and some I've explained it to because they asked and to get it off my shoulders. Someone offered me a good metaphor for it: People restrain our behavior in front of strangers. We don't talk about very personal things, or very suggestive things, or very nitpicky things, because we don't know how they'll react. As we get closer to the ones who become our friends, it becomes more okay to open up and share more. What happened to me is as if that switch got reset, but only on my end--so I became really uncomfortable seeing and hearing things that my close friends had every reason to believe I'd be comfortable with. I really didn't want to ask them to treat me like a stranger! That seemed more likely to damage the relationship in the long-term than just backing off for a while would. It's gotten a little bit better recently; I'm working on unwiring the trigger that makes me want to back off so much. This involves some trial and error, but at least it's progress.
The trouble is that they're not violating any. Nobody's doing anything wrong, it's just me overreacting. It's not this, but imagine if you cringed every time you saw two people shake hands. It's hardly reasonable to ask them to stop doing that around you, but it's also really hard to avoid being around.
Positive Bias, you strike again. I hadn't considered the idea that nothing is really wrong. I recommend the writing outlet, so you can figure out what it is that bothers you. If it's really nothing, you may have an Ugh Field to deal with, and writing it out should help notice the issue.
I have a pretty good sense of its origins already. The phenomenon is not a mystery to me. Only how to remove it is.

"I just don't care" is a curiosity-stopper. The actions of a "nihilistic" person of the kinds you describe are still very specific: they don't convulse uncontrollably, choosing to send random signals down their nerves. Thus, "all-zero utility function" is an incorrect model of the situation, making further analysis flawed.

Agreed that all-zero utility function is more or less just wrong.

People like this can still remember what happiness is and wish that they were happy; they can dislike feeling nihilistic.

They can still experience all sorts of things as unpleasant, such as making an effort.

A state of mind in which happiness is very difficult to obtain and drive/motivation is at an extremely low ebb is not a zero utility function.

Nonetheless I find it very easy to understand why "zero utility function" would be used in this case as a poetic metaphor.


good point, and something to think about. Obviously someone who assigned truly equal value to every possible action would behave completely at random, which nobody does.

A better guess: what happens when you feel nihilistic is anhedonia. You don't get as much value or satisfaction out of the "peaks" -- experiences that once were very desirable are now less so. This results in expending much less effort to attain the most desirable things. Your ability to desire intensely is messed up.

I think you could model that by flattening out the peaks. It leaves most processes intact (you still speak in language, you still put on clothes, etc.) but it diminishes motivation, anticipation, and happiness. You can do a little goal-directed activity (rock-bottom rituals, choosing to eat or sleep) but much less than normal.

Yes, reduced intensity and resulting disturbed balance of psychological drives is a much better description.

Her formalism may be wrong-- it probably is, since it's possible to have ordinary nihilism which permits minimal self-maintenance. For that matter, those hitting bottom rituals are still goal-directed behavior. Still, pervasive akrasia or high-lethargy depression or whatever you want to call it does happen, and I think the post is a good effort at addressing it.
It should strive to be much better, at least this utility function mysticism could be avoided.
I agree with you and Nancy Lebovitz that it's not literally the case that emotional nihilism corresponds to the trivial utility function - I think that SarahC did not intend to make this claim and was instead describing her subjective impressions of how emotional nihilism feels relative to a more common equilibrium emotional state.
I'm not sure exactly where in the conversation is the best place for me to inject this comment, but this may be as good a place as any. I think that it is important to realize that only rational agents can be behaviorally modeled using a utility function. Non rational agents, including agents beset with "depression" or "nihilism", don't necessarily even have well-defined utility functions, and if they do have them, their behavior is not controlled by expected utility in the same way that the behavior of rational agents is controlled. The success that the simple hypothesis of hyperbolic discounting has had in explaining akrasia has perhaps misled us into thinking that all departures from rationality can be modeled by simple tweaks to the standard machinery for modeling rational agents. It ain't necessarily so.
If you drop enough of the axioms (e.g. the axiom of independence) from the expected utility formalisation you can represent the behaviour of any creature you care to imagine with a utility function. Eventually, such a function just becomes a map between sensory inputs (including memories) and motor outputs.
At some point, you can't call it a utility function any more. Such a hypothetical function is as useless as the supposed function, in a deterministic universe, for calculating all future states of the universe from an exact knowledge of its present.
Richard, I think your first point is probably based on a misconception about the idea. It would still be a utility function - in that it would assign real-valued utilities to possible actions (before selecting the action with highest utility). Being that which is maximised during action is what the term "utility" means. Sure, if you go beyond that, then the word "utility" might eventually become inappropriate, but that is not what is being proposed. I can't make much sense of the second point. Utility functions are maps between sensory inputs (including memories) and scalar values associated with possible motor outputs. They are not useless if you do things like drop the axiom of independence. Indeed, the axiom of independence is the most frequently-dropped axiom. It is generally useful to have an abstract utility-based model that can model the behaviour of any computable creature by plugging in a utility function.
Hang on, a moment ago they were functions from outputs to values. Now they're functions from inputs to values. Which are they?
Gonna take a wild stab: A "Utility Function" is a function from the space of (sensory inputs including memories) to the space of (functions from outputs to values). For any given set of (sensory inputs including memories) we can that set's image under our "Utility Function" a "utility function" and then sometimes mess up the capitalization. Is that more clear, and/or is that what was being said?
Utility functions are maps between sensory inputs (including memories) and scalar values associated with possible motor outputs.
Yes, that's what I already quoted. But earlier in the same comment you said this: There you are saying that it maps actions to utilities. Hence my question. I have something to say in response, but I can't until I know what you actually mean, and the version that you have just reasserted makes no sense to me.
Utilities are scalar values associated with possible motor outputs ("actions" is a synonym for "motor outputs"). The scalar values an agent needs in order to decide what to do are the ones which are associated with its possible actions. Agents typically consider their possible actions, consider their expected consequences, assign utilities to these consequences - and then select the action that is associated with the highest utility. The inputs to the utility function are all the things the agent knows about the world - so: its sense inputs (up to and including its proposed action) and its memory contents.
I don't think the point of the post is about reaching complete nihilism. It's reaching a point where you more-or-less think "what difference could it make" and then stop at "I don't care". It's not exactly all utility being zero (because, like I said in my other comment, that would mean doing nothing, and there's no way out then), but it's damn near close and is a problem for just about anyone in the "nearby-nihilism" state.
Being indifferent doesn't mean doing nothing. How would you privilege "doing nothing" over other courses of action, if you are indifferent to everything?
It's less consciously privileging "doing nothing" over anything else so much as looking at everything else you'd usually do, not caring about any of those options, thinking up some alternatives, still not caring, and subsequently just doing nothing, possibly because it's easiest.
So one does still care about things being easy.
Possibly, so I guess it's not completely nihilism. Or it's just null-set nihilism: If nothing seems worth doing, do nothing. Note the fact that, in my original scenario, we considered alternative choices of action. I get the feeling a pure nihilistic engine wouldn't even do that, so I'm already arguing from the wrong point.

I think harmless "rock-bottom rituals" can help. When I feel like everything I do is pointless so I have no motivation to do anything, spending a day just watching TV and eating junk food is like acknowledging to myself that I am sad and that it is okay to feel sad. It's normal.

I give the "sad" part of me its time, let it have its way with the unproductive day of TV, and then it's my turn again. Otherwise I will be constantly trying to fight it and that's exhausting. If I embrace it once in a while, most of the time it's not there.

Of course I'm talking about a day here. If it was more than a day, this kind of thinking would just be an excuse to spiral downwards.

I can't say I've ever experienced an emotional state such as you describe, of just not caring about anything, so this is probably useless advice. That said, I find that when I am feeling conflicted about what actions to take, or what I want to do, I respond well to cleaning out excess 'stuff' from my life.

For instance, just over a year ago I had so many books overflowing my bookshelf that I needed to get a second one to start storing them on. But gradually, over the last year I've switched to a mental space that values quality and simplicity over quantity.... (read more)

I do this too; even just organizing the stuff I still have can help. Generally, an appealing space to be in is another one of those subtle mood factors (like being fed and rested).
true- I usually go with cleaning my Bookmarks instead of physical books though-it helps a lot since not doing stuff or lacking enthusiasm for what I do are my main reasons for slipping into a nihilist mood.

Thanks for raising this important topic. I see definite value in tactics 1 and 2. Tactic 3 sounds useful in principle but in practice I've found it ineffectual. I have mixed feelings about tactic 4. I've found that rock bottom rituals which look destructive on the surface can actually be good relative to the other realistic alternatives available. But certainly it's possible to carry such things too far and fall into habits which prolong the period of emotional nihilism as a result.

One tactic which I've found useful and which you don't mention is that of... (read more)

Yep, I've been there, sometimes for extended periods. As you noted, nihilistic moods respond to physiology - food, exercise, carbohydrate. I'd like to add that they also respond to dietary deficiencies (in my case, thiamine, though I'm biochemically atypical); and that taking a multivitamin regularly tends to be one of the first things to go with self neglect. So if you find yourself there, and haven't been taking multivitamins lately - go get some, and make sure to take one every day. It might have a surprisingly disproportionate effect.

I thought when you talked about "being awful", you meant having wrong goals, not the absence of goals.

A person experiencing absence of goals is certainly wrong, according to any reasonable notion of wrong.
oh, oops, I did mostly mean the absence of goals. I don't think I've engaged in persistent, goal-directed activity that I also believe is immoral (that seems almost self-contradictory! Do people do that?) What I'm talking about is lack of motivation and akrasia that includes moral failures.
Yeah, for sure! It's called evil. Sometimes you know a course of action is wrong (intrinsically or because of its effects on others) but you like the way it will affect you, so you consciously figure out how to gain those benefits.
For what it's worth, I also misinterpreted your original query as more specific than the topic of this post: "what prevents you from doing mean things when you don't care" as opposed to "how do you prevent and get out of that state." On the other hand, I wouldn't have thought of the empathy response if I hadn't. This topic is similar to one of the ones I added to my everyday questions post, although that one is specifically about anger loops and focuses more on the mental, rather than tangible, effects. I'd definitely be interested if you had any ideas about that one.
Yes, I found the title misleading as well - maybe a better title would have been something like "escaping emotional nihilism" or "how not to feel awful".

I suggest just getting some casual exercise or watching some good films and tv shows. They're full of emotionally motivating experiences.

I think there is a worrying tendency to promote puritan values on LW. I personally see no moral problem with procrastination, or even feeling bad every so often. I feel worried that I might not hit deadlines or experience some practical consequence from not working on a task but I wouldn't want to add moral guilt. I think if people lose sight of the pleasures in life they become nihilistic which in turn leads them to be ... (read more)

I don't think you have an accurate model of the community here. For example, people don't talk about being productive all the time, they talk about reducing akrasia, which is being unproductive when you would genuinely prefer to be more productive. I see this site as promoting perfectionism - trying to get the most value out of what you currently want to be doing. If what I really want to do is travel the world then I should make concrete plans to do that rather than sit at home watching travel shows, which is what most people do. And if I have an assignment due but I want to relax, the best way to enjoy that relaxation would be to get that assignment done so that I don't feel guilty about it during my fun time. If you really think that the people here would prefer to be puritanical, I refer you to the recentish posts about video games, board games, and Go.

I often exhibit the traits described here, but I avoid the term "nihilism". The Russian revolutionary nihilists were real enthusiastic believers in nothing, whereas I merely don't believe in anything. I'm not unhappy either, I'm too contented to move out of my comfort zone (like a warm groove made in a comfy chair). And of course I don't care about my attitude and have no desire to change!

You're thinking of the Big Lebowski. The Russian nihilists were just anarchists.
From what I've heard, the Russian nihilists were actually less hostile to the idea of the state than most revolutionaries (recall that the Marxists believed it should "wither away"). They were against so much of Russian society that they thought it would be necessary to use the state as a tool for changing it. But I agree that I was using "believe in nothing" for the sound. Perhaps they might have been better described with "make total destroy".

One other question to ask, whenever you're feeling nihilistic: Am I in caffeine withdrawal right now?

Or, more generally, "am I in some kind of physiological distress?" Hungry, tired, headachey, etc. I rarely find myself in that kind of funk without discovering that one of those things is troubling me, and I've learned that taking care of them is the fastest and cheapest way to fix it.

Donny: Are these the Nazis, Walter?

Walter Sobchak: No, Donny, these men are nihilists, there's nothing to be afraid of.

Maybe you should try some music other than Wagner, then? Oddly enough, one of the few things that can consistently snap me out of a bad mood is spending an hour listening to one of my favorite CDs from beginning to end.

What are your favorite CDs?
Promise not to laugh? Music From Final Fantasy V and Final Fantasy VI Video Games Weird Al Yankovic - Running With Scissors Pokemon: 2B A Master Rob Balder - Rich Fantasy Lives
Complete tangent: here is an excellent piano rendering of some FF music that you might well enjoy.
What kind of AGI are you? How do you do the things you do-o-o? Could it be our utility you maximi-ize? What kind of AGI are you? Are you Friendly through and through? Please tell me paperclips don't int'rest yooou What kind of AGI are you?
I do use music, but it works inconsistently for me, so I wasn't sure if it was good general advice. I do have one dramatic example. This summer, a friend of mine suffered a loss and had several personal worries, and I was considering cutting him out of my life completely because it seemed daunting to try to comfort him. I found a recording of the Prisoners' Chorus from Fidelio and I had an epiphany -- "Hey, that would be an incredibly shitty thing to do! I care about my friend, after all!" And, of course, I stayed in touch with him. It was really a remarkable change: the song actually made me more caring and motivated.
This is something that I often forget and have been trying to keep in mind recently. I don't listen to music most of the time and am not very passionate about it, but it's still a surprisingly good way of improving my mood. ... although I have to choose it carefully. Of my two recent favorite albums, one is a little too blue for a pick-me-up (Ella Fitzgerald & Joe Pass - Fitzgerald and Pass ... Again), and the other is too bouncy for me to tolerate when I'm in a bad mood (Teapacks - Disco Menayak).
I find music draws me out of a bad mood best when it first matches my mood, then gradually changes toward my desired mood. You might try making an "anti-nihilism" mix that starts with Wagner and progresses through Elle Fitzgerald into the Teapacks.
My girlfriend just posted this site on facebook, which looks like it could systematize the process I described in the sibling comment.

I think emotional nihilism is more like a utility function that's locally constant at zero. You have emotional investments, but they're options that are too far out of the money. (Worse is when your short puts and calls are at the money and your longs are out of it.)

The advice presented above about behaving as you would were you not feeling nihilistic, while you are, is strikingly similar to Aristotle's advice about virtue: 'we become just by doing just acts; good by doing good deeds. virtue is the result of habit'. For Aristotle, virtue was a means to the end he defined as the 'good', which in turn was pleasure. Not hedonistic pleasure, but intellectual pleasure.

So how do you avoid all that?

Exercise, drugs, counselling and relaxed socialisation.


Is this "emotional nihilism" the same thing as "anhedonia"? I often get into a state where the positive parts of my utility function get flattened, but the negative parts remain as sharp as ever. More specifically, a state where the things that used to feel good don't feel good anymore, but the things that used to feel bad still feel bad, and so I keep trying to avoid them. Your advice seems like it applies to this condition, even if it's not exactly the same condition.

This does seem like really good advice. The sort of advice that ... (read more)

What's wrong with peanut butter?

Its macronutrient ratio makes it inadvisable for use as a staple. Too much fat for an isocaloric diet, too much carbohydrate for a ketogenic diet. Additionally, unless it's expensive peanut butter marketed to the health-conscious crowd, it has a lot of the lipoproteins currently thought to be especially bad for you.
Isocaloric? Ketogenic? I haven't been able to find reliable dietary information on the 'net, but you sound like you know what you're talking about and I suppose you wouldn't buy into any unsubstantiated crap. Would you recommend something sensible to read?

"Happiness" is an arbitrary choice for a utility function when the universe has no intrinsic purpose.

It's not arbitrary. Evolutionarily speaking, the species that persist are the ones that have utility functions which lead them to thrive and reproduce. Happiness is a utility function that covers a lot of basic activities like eating, health, bonding with other people, morality, and self-improvement, all of which directly impact our individual and collective fitness as a race. That's why most people agree on it and not something else.
There are two salient senses of something being non-arbitrary: something you prefer for a clear moral reason, and something understood as resulting from a clear physical cause. You are elaborating the sense irrelevant in this context: that happiness as a phenomenon appeared because of evolutionary factors (although explanatory power of this argument is debatable). But this is not at all a moral argument for preferring happiness, which is the context of Rain's confusion.
Since my simple and straightforward question regarding this statement was voted down, I'm assuming that people believe me to be some kind of troll or otherwise flippant in the current discussion. I assure you that nothing is further from the truth, and that I want to know the answers to my questions, since I consider them very important. Rather than engagement, I find only frustration. For a thread on strategies to thwart nihilism, "downvote it" does not seem like an optimal action.
I agree that there's a semantic distinction between those two senses, but I'd point out that when you're talking about humans, there's not much practical distinction. It's not as if someone comes up to us at the age of 18 and says "OK, you're an adult, so if you don't find happiness to be moral, you may now modify your preferences at will to match your morality." That's really hard to do! So I don't think it's irrelevant.
You fully understand morality? Edit: I apologize if this seems inflammatory. I did not mean it that way.
From another comment: On with the question: The answer is obviously, "No." There! I understand your comment as meaning to state, "Vladimir, keep in mind that you don't understand morality enough to claim that." But you dressed that into a blend of fallacy of gray, offense through implying me boast more knowledge than I actually possess, and a rhetorical question. Going with charitable interpretation, please be more specific, "you don't understand morality enough to claim that" doesn't point out the specific problem. An even more charitable interpretation would go, "Your argument doesn't convince me". I'll accept that, but don't want to work on a new one.
I admit that I am confused about morality. I posit that others are also confused, and that claiming my statements are confused is in no way helpful or meaningful when the entire topic is left in such a sorry state. Specifically, I wanted to know if you were, like me, also confused, which you've said that you are, though by your reference to the fallacy of gray, you appear to be claiming you are less confused than me. I apologize for my original phrasing, and seek further clarification. I'd very much like to find someone who isn't confused (or even less confused) and who would be willing to explain morality, since I very much want to understand the topic. If you are such a person, please do so.
Sorry, pointing out an error in your conduct was easy, "explaining morality" would probably be very hard, I'm not willing to make that commitment.
Well, I am totally confused. Not so much about morality, but I am mostly confused about why this subthread, since your first comment, has turned into such a train wreck. I have read through several times looking for the cause. But I have some hypotheses now; allow me to present them. Things started going wrong with your first comment: I think what you meant was "Happiness is an arbitrary choice for a utility function when the chooser believes he has no intrinsic purpose." See the difference? Mentioning a hypothetical intrinsic purpose for the universe seems to drag in the notion of a deity. And in any case, it is the hypothetical purpose of the agent which is relevant here. I'm guessing that this (accidental?) reference to a deity is what put RobinZ and Nesov on edge. The next collision began with cata suggesting that evolutionary psychology privileges happiness as a choice of utility function for an evolved agent. This strikes me as a reasonable contribution to the discussion, and I thought it was offered in a non-inflammatory manner. Reasonable, but not quite relevant, as Nesov then pointed out. But then he picked horrible language to do this. Instead of writing that cata's evopsych justification of happiness is not a good argument in the context of your question or your comment, he wrote "the context of Rain's confusion." I am not sure whether he intended that as an insult. I also don't think you were unreasonable in interpreting it as one. But here you made your second mistake - one I'm pretty sure you already understand. Rather than "You fully understand morality?", it might have been better and more direct to ask "Why do you suggest that I am confused?". So much for post-mortem. Do I have anything useful to say regarding nihilism, existentialism, happiness, and morality? Only this. I think that morality arises from self-interest, once an agent takes a long term view on self-interest and takes into account the opinions of other agents and how one's own rep
Based on this, I will revise my previous estimate of the path morality is taking: it seems more probable that self-interest and future prediction would be the drivers. Agents who approximately implement my utility function would then receive more empathy (cooperation, consideration) as a second order effect.
Approximately - had Rain said "Happiness is an arbitrary choice for a utility function when the chooser believes he has no intrinsic purpose", my answer would probably have been more along the lines of cata's.
Yes. But why survive?
If the only justification for wanting to survive is that that's what most people want, and that you personally want it, and want to have fun, and be happy, then I don't understand why you can't also let people who do not want those things from doing what they want, even if that's [unthinkable]. What if "pathology" (nihilism, depression) is an alteration of terminal values away from human norms?
Empirically speaking, nihilism and depression usually is a temporary condition; given time, or if conditions change, most people will revert to having more normal human values. So if you want to help someone else maximize utility over time, it's usually reasonable to help prevent them from making decisions in a nihilistic and depressed state which they will find extremely regrettable if and when they are no longer nihilistic and depressed.
I hope you see the correlation between this and wireheading: each involves altering someone's terminal values to achieve greater utility over the allotted time span. The major difference is that one is labeled normal and the other abnormal.
but one can go back to being nihilistic if one chooses to, I think this does not strongly seem to be the case for wire heading.
It seems like less of a choice than one might think. I'm starting to believe terminal values can have natural or provoked drift. Or perhaps they're conflicting and incompatible, gaining and losing strength over time. Or both.
"Arbitrary" is a somewhat meaningless adjective to invoke regarding an entity with no intrinsic goals.
I never did like "Arbitrary". Or this one, either. Really, the whole meta-ethics sequence is pretty useless [to me].
Yes. Luckily, we're not in the business of choosing our own utility functions, but of implementing and analyzing them.
If the utility function is self-referential at any point, then implementing it will necessarily involve choosing (portions of) it.
Tentatively disagree. With the 'necessarily' part. A broad class of self references will be such that there is only one unique solution to the utility function that fits. In such cases the process would be one of mathematical analysis or of calculation. It isn't out of the question that the letter 'e' would appear in a written transcription of some of them.