422. Existential Angst Factory

422. Existential Angst Factory

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

Let’s say you’re trapped in an unsatisfying relationship, so you’re unhappy.  You consider going on a skiing trip, or you actually go on a skiing trip, and you’re still unhappy.  You eat some chocolate, but you’re still unhappy.  You do some volunteer work at a charity and you’re still unhappy because you’re in an unsatisfying relationship.

Is that true? Well, many problems in my life have nothing, or at least little to do with reductionism. But it still seems to me that I would be happier if I knew I had a soul, if there existed genuine miracles, heaven and god, or if there were literally something magical about love.

But again, maybe that has nothing to do with reductionism. I would also be happier if I knew I were immortal (reductionism-speak for soul), if I knew a positive singularity would occur (~heaven), or if a FAI already existed (~god).

Now, if someone is in a unproblematic, loving relationship; and they have enough money; and no major health problems;… and they’re doing exciting work that they enjoy; and they believe they’re having a positive effect on the world…

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

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

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

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

I can imagine what would make me happy (wireheading+LSD+Zhang Ziyi+Baldur’s Gate for starters; I don’t know how long my excitement would last but I’m willing to give it a shot). Actually, I’m already quite happy, at least psychologically/biologically. But not in an existential or philosophical sense. A mute, uncaring universe just seems fundamentally fucked up. And I have the vague feeling that I’m (successfully) suppressing the dark corners of my mind.

Whatever, good comment by CronoDas:

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

–Yeah, contemplating the second law of thermodynamics and the accelerating expansion of the universe makes me kinda sad.

Another one by Hopefully Anonymous:

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

–Very true. Believe me, some antidepressants work great. Other chemicals can affect your happiness big time, too.

FINALLY! AN EXCELLENT (and long) thread in the comment-section, started by byrnema:

“Above Eliezer writes:

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

I would agree that much ‘existential angst’ might be depression (an unhappy chemical mental state) or dissatisfaction (an unhappy life state). However, there’s also still actual real existential angst, unaddressed in the post.

As I would define it: existential angst is the feeling that the world isn’t good enough; that there’s too much that’s bad and a refusal to just go along and accept it because the person didn’t ask to be born or sign a contract, did they? Basically, it’s the unresolved observation that life isn’t fair. I will speculate that people who suffer from existential angst are either very empathetic (after all, how can you be happy when people are suffering?) or very idealistic, so that they cannot compromise on their expectation that life ought to be good.

However, my main problem is nihilistic angst, not existential angst, and I’m composing a post now about nihilistic angst.”

–Of course, FAI or achieving a positive singularity through some other way are pretty decent strategies to eliminate almost all suffering and create an utopia. I’m a huge fanboy of singularitarianism and transhumanism for exactly this reason.

Good response by Jack:

“The observation that the world isn’t close to just is one that has figured into a lot of existentialist philosophy over the years, though typically it is invoked in discussions of ‘absurdity’ rather than angst (which is traditionally a term of art about reconciling our freedom with our responsibilities). But when non-philosophers use the term ‘existential angst’ they’re basically just referring to some combination of depression + deep thoughts about one’s place in the world.

Nihilism in this context usually means a belief that there is no purpose to life or that there is no morality. This is often a reduction or derivation from the existentialist premise that there is no purpose given to us by the the universe. We have to create our own purpose and are own values (and this may or not be a communal activity) I think people who are not depressed or unhappy have no problem with the latter. You can lead an extremely fulfilling life with purposes you’ve created for yourself (following whatever it is you desire).

But depressed people can’t deal with this fact, they don’t desire anything so nothing seems valuable and they feel like they have no purpose. To wit: one of the DSM diagnostic criteria for depression actually is losing interest in daily activities.”

–Create your own purpose? Dude, that’s bad poetry! Just say it like it is: You do what the fuck you want for no reason whatsoever; no need for the p-word! It seems utterly pointless to “create your own purpose”. Oh, you value love and meaning and altruism because of some contingencies in our evolutionary history? Just go wirehead yourself and stop bitching about it, or make ice-cream your “purpose”, after all, you can “create your own purpose”, don’t you?

Creating your own values just seems completely arbitrary. We only have the values we have because they were evolutionary advantageous. As soon as wireheading becomes possible, why wouldn’t you change your values in such a way that they are easy to fulfill?


Jack wrote: “We have to create our own purpose and are own values (and this may or not be a communal activity) I think people who are not depressed or unhappy have no problem with the latter.”

It is likely that this is a case in which minds might be different. While many kinds of minds might be susceptible to nihilistic angst when they’re depressed, one kind of mind protests emphatically that a purpose must be given by the universe regardless in order to feel like there is purpose. (For example, my mind.)

If you read through the comments following this post, you’ll find many that echo that they don’t need an externally validated meaning to be happy (forexamplethese) while a few claim that they would have a problem without it despite being otherwise happy (forexamplethese).

If you read through the comments following What Would You Do Without Morality?, you’ll notice similar majority and minority populations.”

–Just in case you missed it:

One kind of mind protests emphatically that a purpose must be given by the universe regardless in order to feel like there is purpose.

–Totally. Is this sentiment caused by some philosophical confusion or is it an (almost) unchangeable fact about my psyche? If the latter, wireheading or fundamentally changing my brain (by e.g. neuroengineering) are the only workable options.

Back on topic. Robert Nozick formalized the above view in his book “Philosophical Explanations” (especially in the chapter “Philosophy and the Meaning of Life”), here is a very short and grossly incomplete explanation and I recommend reading the whole chapter:

If B gives meaning to or is the purpose of A, then B has to be greater than A. It doesn’t make sense to say that “the meaning of life is making my stomach happy.” “Contributing to the flourishing of humanity” is at least prima facie a meaningful answer. But why is the flourishing of humanity meaningful? Because it gives meaning to my life? Certainly not.

Something can only be meaningful, if it is grounded in something greater than itself. But here the dreaded infinite-regress-problem rears its ugly head yet again. Nozick tries to solve this problem by postulating something that “transcends all boundaries” (he uses the Hebraic term ‘Ejn Sof’) and is therefore intrinsically meaningful because nothing greater can give meaning to it since, well, there is nothing greater than it. Not the most convincing argument, I know. But does “Ejn Sof” actually exist? I don’t know, but Tegmark’s Ultimate Ensemble seems like a good candidate.

Anyway, Jack again:

“Thats a possibility. I’m not willing to accept that that is the case just based on the existence of disagreement however because I used to hold your view and then changed my mind. As recent as 4-5 years back I would have said that I had a case of genuine nihilism that would arise from time to time. I was really convinced that my emotional condition was due to substantive philosophical consideration of my own existence. Only after going back and forth between being happy and unhappy a couple times did I begin to see that the nihilism was merely a byproduct of my unhappiness.

Gathering anecdotal evidence: Have you ever genuinely lacked for externally validated meaning? What can you say about the experience? Do you or anyone else know someone who became unhappy immediately after giving up theism and claimed that the reason was nihilism? In my experience converted atheists seem to be about as happy as others in their social grouping (usually well-off but high IQ).”


“So we agree that some people feel like the absence of objective values would be the end of the world, and some people seem not to care. I’m open to the possibility that the difference in perspective is due to differences in depth of understanding of the problem. That’s why I began this thread asking what is the source of immunity. However, in response to my question, no one suggested any solutions or even acknowledged the problem independent of depression. For me, this was an alarm that people who have immunity to nihilist angst can’t even relate to it, suggesting some kind of personality difference between those who have it and those that don’t.

Gathering anecdotal evidence: Have you ever genuinely lacked for externally validated meaning?

This is an amazing question to me because I feel this lack pretty much constantly. (This commenter also seemed skeptical that people feel this lack.) Actually, I’m probably an extreme case.


I took the phrase “externally validated” from you but now I’m not sure if I we mean the same thing by it. In my understanding a meaning, purpose or value is “externally validated” if and only it justified by some fact of existence that is not a fact about the psychological states of human beings. So having a purpose that is to write the best music, for the reason that I love music, is not a purpose that has been externally validated (we might say self-validated). If I have that purpose for the reason that I’m good at writing music and society expects those who are good at music to dedicate their lives to it then that purpose is also not externally validated (call it socially validated). If I pursue music because I believe God wants me to worship him that way then the purpose is externally validated.

I write this out mostly to make sure you agree with this classification of the middle case.

This is an amazing question to me because I feel this lack pretty much constantly.

The next question is obviously “are you depressed?” But that also isn’t any of my business so don’t feel obligated to answer. If you aren’t then surely there is something you find enjoyable and valuable in your life. If this is the case then I don’t think you are experiencing genuine nihilism (your life has meaning after all). If you are depressed then there is a high likelihood I can alleviate your depression with medication. Once your depression clears up I’d bet you would find purposes and value aplenty. It is unlikely that preventing serotonin reuptake is a direct cause of forming new beliefs about value and purpose. It seems much more likely that a healthy level of serotonin is necessary for one to find things valuable and one’s life purposeful.

–To be clear, I agree with Jack here. Depression is in almost all cases and to a great degree caused by brain chemistry, social ostracism or stuff like that. But still, life seems somehow meaningless or at least superficial without an externally validated purpose. In fact, I’m probably only happy because I have the vague hope, that there is some greater purpose, something transcendental (whatever that means), and that we’ll find out about it after we’ve gained superintelligence through whatever means. Right now, we’re just too dumb to understand the big picture, the marvelous purpose of the universe.

Or, as I said, maybe I’m merely confused about meta-ethics and after reaching superintelligence I’ll see that Eliezer and co. were right all along and I can take joy in the merely real (and the merely real will be pretty awesome after achieving a positive singularity). This gives me hope, too.


I write this out mostly to make sure you agree with this classification of the middle case.

Yes, that’s what I meant by externally validated. The middle case isn’t external validation because it’s still just society’s subjective opinion.

The next question is obviously “are you depressed?”

No, I’m not depressed. But as Alicorn correctly described, I anticipate being depressed.

… Your argument is beginning to sink in. If I feel depressed about something, then this just means I’m depressed, and I might need medication.


Wow, I’m really beginning to understand this argument and its … depressing.

So you’re saying my sense of purpose and meaning is just a state of my body (say, serotonin levels) and whereas I think it could depend on something external — like whether my values are externally validated — you’re saying it’s just internal. I feel like I have purpose or I don’t, based on serotonin, say, and then I project that feeling as being caused by something external.

… So I imagine that I would be depressed if external meaning disappears, because I imagine that meaning comes externally.”

–Let’s hope Jack/Yudkowsky are right. I for one have no problem experimenting with medications or antidepressants, in fact, I love it.

This entry was posted in Fundamentals, Lesswrong Zusammenfassungen, meta-ethics. Bookmark the permalink.

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