Existential Angst Factory

Followup to: The Moral Void

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part of The Metaethics Sequence

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