I'm scared.

post by Mass_Driver · 2010-12-23T09:05:24.807Z · score: 41 (42 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 81 comments

Recently, I've been ratcheting up my probability estimate of some of Less Wrong's core doctrines (shut up and multiply, beliefs require evidence, brains are not a reliable guide as to whether brains are malfunctioning, the Universe has no fail-safe mechanisms) from "Hmm, this is an intriguing idea" to somewhere in the neighborhood of "This is most likely correct."

This leaves me confused and concerned and afraid. There are two things in particular that are bothering me. On the one hand, I feel obligated to try much harder to identify my real goals and then to do what it takes to actually achieve them -- I have much less faith that just being a nice, thoughtful, hard-working person will result in me having a pleasant life, let alone in me fulfilling anything like my full potential to help others and/or produce great art. On the other hand, I feel a deep sense of pessimism -- I have much less faith that even making an intense, rational effort to succeed will make much of a difference. Rationality has stripped me of some of my traditional sources of confidence that everything will work out OK, but it hasn't provided any new ones -- there is no formula that I can recite to myself to say "Well, as long as I do this, then everything will be fine." Most likely, it won't be fine; but it isn't hopeless, either; possibly there's something I can do to help, and if so I really want to find it. This is frustrating.

This isn't to say that I want to back away from rationalism -- it's not as if pretending to be dumb will help. To whatever extent I become more rational and thus more successful, that's better than nothing. The concern is that it may not ever be better enough for me to register a sense of approval or contentedness. Civilization might collapse; I might get hit by a bus; or I might just claw through some of my biases but not others, make poor choices, and fail to accomplish much of anything.

Has anyone else had experience with a similar type of fear? Does anyone have suggestions as to an appropriate response?

81 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by DanArmak · 2010-12-23T12:02:30.220Z · score: 54 (56 votes) · LW · GW

I've faced this problem and partially overcome it. I'll try my best to describe this. However, I've also been diagnosed with depression and prescribed SSRIs in the past, so my approaches to handling the problem may not fit you.

You have acquired your estimates of the dangers of the future by explicit reasoning. The default estimates that your emotional, unconscious brain provided you with were too optimistic. This is the case for almost everyone.

Consider that even though you have realized the future is bleak, your emotional, unconscious, everyday-handling mind still hasn't updated its estimates. It is still too optimistic. It just needs to be allowed to express this optimism.

Right now, you probably believe that your emotional outlook must be rational, and must correspond to your conscious estimates of the future. You are forcing your emotions to match the future you foresee, and so you feel afraid.

I suggest that you allow your emotions to become disconnected from your conscious long-term predictions. Stop trying to force yourself to be unhappy because you predict bad things. Say to yourself: I choose to be happy and unafraid no matter what I predict!

Emotions are not a a tool like rational thought, which you have to use in a way that corresponds to the real world. You can use them in any way you like. It's rational to feel happy about a bleak future, because feeling happy is a good thing and there is no point in feeling unhappy!

Being happy or not, afraid or not, does not have to be determined by your conscious outlook. The only things that force your mind to be unhappy are immediate problems: pain, hunger, loneliness; and the immediate expectation of these. If you accept that your goal is to be happy and unafraid as a fact independent of the future you foresee, you can find various techniques to achieve this. Unfortunately they tend to vary for different people.

Expecting to die of cancer in fifty years does not, in itself, cause negative emotions like fear. Imagining the death in your mind, and dwelling on it, does cause fear. In the first place, avoid thinking about any future problem that you are not doing anything about. Use the defensive mechanism of not acknowledging unsolved problems.

This does not mean that on the conscious level you'll ignore problems. It is possible to decouple the two things, with practice. You can take long-term strategic actions (donate to SIAI, research immortality) without acutely fearing the result of failure by not imagining that result.

We are used to think of compartmentalization as an irrational bias, but it's possible to compartmentalize your strategic actions - which try to improve the future - and meanwhile be happy just as if the future was going to be fine by default.

In a similar vein, I tend to suffer from a "too-active imagination" when reading about the suffering of other people in the news, and vividly imagining the events described. My solution has been to stop reading the news. When you're faced with something terrible and you're not doing anything about it anyway, just look away. Defeat the implicit LW conditioning that tells you looking away from the suffering of others is wrong. It's wrong only if it affects your actions, not your emotions.

comment by Eliezer Yudkowsky (Eliezer_Yudkowsky) · 2010-12-23T21:42:32.292Z · score: 10 (10 votes) · LW · GW

suggest turning this into a post

comment by DanArmak · 2010-12-23T21:50:36.996Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Thanks for the encouragement; will do.

comment by jimrandomh · 2010-12-23T22:51:01.666Z · score: 8 (8 votes) · LW · GW

Well said, and definitely an important, oft-neglected point. One thing I'd like to add is that if you can control what you feel good and bad about, you can do some nifty things to your behavior. For example, at some point I managed to flip my reaction to noticing flaws in myself from negative (boo, I have a flaw) to positive (yay, I noticed my flaw and can try to fix it now). This made me significantly more reflective.

comment by Mass_Driver · 2010-12-23T22:04:39.316Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

This is fantastic. When you do turn it into a post, though, consider the extent to which emotions and actions are part of a feedback loop -- if I look away from the suffering of others so as not to feel their pain, I may come to accept it as normal, and that in turn may affect my actions.

comment by Viliam_Bur · 2011-11-06T19:15:34.934Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I think you focus too much on possible negative outcomes. I thought this when reading your article, and reading this comment confirmed it.

Yes, it is possible that looking away from the suffering of others will affect your actions, so you will not help them. And it is also possible that looking too much at the suffering of others will make you depressed, so you will not be able to do anything, not even helping them. Seems to me that you prefer to focus on the first possibility and ignore the other one. This is your choice.

You are not perfect, and whatever you do, you will never be perfect. This is the bad news. The good news is that you are not perfect, but you can improve. Again, it is your choice whether you focus on the "I can improve" or the "but I will not be perfect anyway" part of the message. Both parts are true.

If something is bad, understanding that it is bad doesn't make it worse. You see bad things that you didn't see before, and it makes you sad. But unlike before, now you can also see how to improve things. Even a small improvement is better than nothing (although on higher levels, you should strive for more than just small improvements). Imagine that this is a "lesson 1". Your first lesson is to make a small improvement, and not care about anything else. After you complete the lesson 1, you get to a lesson 2, which requires you to make a bigger improvement. A bigger improvement can either be something larger, or something that provides long-term benefits. But don't skip your lessons. Start with the lesson 1, and focus on the lesson 1. You can do it. The goal for now is not to become perfect. The goal is to complete the lesson 1. Higher challenges await you in next lessons. And yes, sometimes the progress is slow. Don't complain and focus on your lessons. Do something. Then, do something better. Etc.

comment by jsteinhardt · 2010-12-23T15:54:53.688Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

As DanArmak said, happiness and utility don't have to go hand in hand. There is no reason why you have to be sad even though all of your preferences fail to be met (on some level, if you no longer achieve basic needs like food, sleep, shelter, companionship, then it is hard physically to not feel sad, but that is a separate issue).

Another thing to consider: by behaving rationally, you will probably end up doing better than 99% of other people in the world. Most of them seem basically happy with their lives, so there is a proof by example that it's possible to be happy even if is not achieved.

comment by Davorak · 2010-12-25T08:25:22.942Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Emotions are not a a tool like rational thought, which you have to use in a way that corresponds to the real world. You can use them in any way you like. It's rational to feel happy about a bleak future, because feeling happy is a good thing and there is no point in feeling unhappy!

I weakly disagree. Emotions are something the human race have evolved over a long period of time to make sure our gene's reproduce and contain useful insights. The non-defective ones are perfectly rational, but importantly are based on outdated data. It take a long time for basic human emotion to update it's view point because it take so long for humans to multiple and undergo natural selection.

So they are a tool as well just a very different one with strategies that are often outdated by a quickly changing data set.

comment by DanArmak · 2010-12-25T09:21:42.050Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Emotions are far worse than simply being 'not updated'. They have bigger faults:

  • Not always beneficial: often they do more harm than good, by anyone's accounting, and rational thought gives better guidance. It's almost never beneficial to be severely depressed, or to lose self-control in anger, yet the conditions are pretty common. They are failure modes of the system, not misapplied reactions.
  • Not always selfish: emotions are optimized evolutionarily for inclusive genetic fitness, which is often at cross purposes with personal interest. Emotions drive people to hurt others and risk themselves in various ways to increase IGF.
  • The social contract requires that we suppress our emotions a lot of the time; it would be better for us if these particular emotions weren't too strong.
  • Strong emotions which you're not acting on are often painful to experience.
comment by Davorak · 2010-12-25T11:15:54.314Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I mentioned two failure modes, emotions based on out of date data and defective emotions. I accept that emotions evolved to help our genes replicate and they are often based on out of date data, this does not mean that they can not be used as a tool. I accept that emotions are not always perfect guides and can be defective(In the evolutionary sense) this does not mean that all emotions can not be used as a tool.

Most of your points revolve around people not controlling their emotions and/or in someway being a slave to their emotions. Which leads me to believe that my following point was not communicated; that emotions can be used as a tool, not that you should be controlled/dominated by them nor that emotions should be used with out guidance from rational thought.

You can use them in any way you like.

I disagree that you can use your emotions any way you like. I have not witnessed or read of such absolute and deep reprogramming of the human mind. Since they serve a evolutionary purpose even if you could you should not arbitrarily repurpose them, but rather take them into account and use them as one of main data points in some rational thought process.

It's rational to feel happy about a bleak future, because feeling happy is a good thing and there is no point in feeling unhappy!

I do not this is self evident. This is only true if there is not benefit to being unhappy. Part of your argument was that some emotions are beneficial, "feeling happy is a good thing." Your argument accepts that some emotions are beneficial and some are not but have not provided any criteria to divide the two groups the ones that useful(tools) and the ones that are not useful(not a tool).

It seems to me that calling unhappiness pointless is the equivalent of calling unhappiness evolutionarily defective. One counter point which I think can be considered self evident is that experiencing unhappiness can be a strong motivator to avoiding it again. It is good for individuals to do their best to be as motivated as they can with out any unhappiness, however I do not think humans in general have the power to completely reprogram this trait out of themselves.

comment by DanArmak · 2010-12-25T12:57:45.045Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

emotions can be used as a tool,

That is exactly what I'm advocating. In my original example, use happy/positive emotions to feel better.

I disagree that you can use your emotions any way you like. I have not witnessed or read of such absolute and deep reprogramming of the human mind.

Of course you can't literally do anything you like. Look at the previous sentence in my comment to see my meaning in context. What I meant was that you can use emotions in a way that, on the surface, does not correspond to the emotion's "intent". For instance, you can try to feel happy about things you have so far felt sad about, because you rationally prefer to be happy. Of course you won't always succeed fully, but you can try; it's a legitimate and often useful approach.

Since they serve a evolutionary purpose even if you could you should not arbitrarily repurpose them

I disagree. Evolution's purposes are not my own. The only purpose we share in common is my own survival, and even then, for me it's an absolute top-level goal while evolution often trades it away for other things.

It seems to me that calling unhappiness pointless is the equivalent of calling unhappiness evolutionarily defective.

Again, even if it was true (which it isn't), it's unrelated to whether it's useful to me. I couldn't care less about evolution.

One counter point which I think can be considered self evident is that experiencing unhappiness can be a strong motivator to avoiding it again.

Certainly that is the evolutionary reason for, and benefit of, feelings of unhappiness. But humans can behave consciously and rationally to avoid problems. Given this, the amount of negative emotions is vast overkill for the necessary purpose of conditioning, and I wish we could decrease it. It's similar to pain, which has a useful purpose, but there's just way too much of it.

comment by Davorak · 2010-12-27T09:52:07.265Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

emotions can be used as a tool,

That is exactly what I'm advocating. In my original example, use happy/positive emotions to feel better.

We both used the word tool but I was not trying to advocating using "happy/positive emotions to feel better." I was trying to highlight the fact that emotions are a part of an efective evolutionary strategy and by using those strategy to reverse engineer your emotions you sometimes gain useful data to include in a rational thought process.

I disagree that you can use your emotions any way you like. I have not witnessed or read of such absolute and deep reprogramming of the human mind.

Of course you can't literally do anything you like. Look at the previous sentence in my comment to see my meaning in context. What I meant was that you can use emotions in a way that, on the surface, does not correspond to the emotion's "intent". For instance, you can try to feel happy about things you have so far felt sad about, because you rationally prefer to be happy. Of course you won't always succeed fully, but you can try; it's a legitimate and often useful approach.

I agree with this strategy when the emotion is evolutionary defective or if you would become dominated by your emotion otherwise(prevent you from acting rationally). In all other cases it is better to try and extract some useful data from the emotion+evolutionary strategy.

Since they serve a evolutionary purpose even if you could you should not arbitrarily repurpose them

I disagree. Evolution's purposes are not my own. The only purpose we share in common is my own survival, and even then, for me it's an absolute top-level goal while evolution often trades it away for other things.

I did not make the argument that the evolutionary purposes are your own and therefore emotions serve your purposes. Only that you can extract useful data, for your own purposes, from it because it arose from evolution/natural selection.

One counter point which I think can be considered self evident is that experiencing unhappiness can be a strong motivator to avoiding it again.

Certainly that is the evolutionary reason for, and benefit of, feelings of unhappiness. But humans can behave consciously and rationally to avoid problems. Given this, the amount of negative emotions is vast overkill for the necessary purpose of conditioning, and I wish we could decrease it. It's similar to pain, which has a useful purpose, but there's just way too much of it.

What I take away from this is you are arguing for separating your emotions form you rational thoughts so your rational thoughts are not unduly influenced by your emotions. I was not making points counter to this train of thought. I was trying to highlight a use for emotions that not only were not mentioned in your original post, but that your post seem to make points that ran counter to it.

In the cases that the emotional reaction is "overkill" like people that are severely depressed or suffer from other large emotional overreactions seem to be suffering from evolutionary flawed emotional reaction or an emotional reaction that evolved under different conditions and is no longer helpful(based on out of date data). I think we can both agree that these two categories of emotion are unproductive, so I am curious to know what categories you would add to my list which are orthogonal to the two categories I have provided.

Edit: I had misplaced "(prevent you from acting rationally)"

comment by RichardKennaway · 2010-12-23T09:46:13.222Z · score: 20 (20 votes) · LW · GW

Does anyone have suggestions as to an appropriate response?

This is the universal condition of mankind.

  • You must succeed,
  • You may not succeed,
  • There's no-one to do it for you.

Adulthood is grokking this.

comment by [deleted] · 2010-12-24T04:05:33.147Z · score: 8 (8 votes) · LW · GW

I like the ring of truth in this but I have great difficulty with it. Like, to the point that it's becoming a problem.

Other people stop wanting the impossible, wanting more instant gratification than is good for them, wanting easier solutions than exist, etc., but I never, ever stop wanting all of it. Sometimes I feel like a great hungry maw with an infinite sweet tooth. Utterly unreconciled with the "universal condition of mankind" and unready to grapple with it.

comment by RichardKennaway · 2010-12-24T10:38:55.681Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Wanting's fine. All you have to do is work on getting it.

comment by Mass_Driver · 2010-12-23T10:54:32.232Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Well, OK, that's a great summary. Thanks for condensing my post, I guess. Now, do you have any suggestions as to an appropriate response?

How did you reach adulthood? Or have you? Once one groks these three principles, what should one do next?

comment by Costanza · 2010-12-23T13:33:17.952Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

RichardKennaway has hit the nail on the head. Mass_Driver, the question you ask is an old, old one, and I'm personally glad you raised it in this forum, because it's so fundamental.

I think khafra is right to recommend that you take a look at the stoics. Classical stoicism is largely about dealing with the disappointments and general shittiness of life in a rational manner.

More broadly, education in philosophy and literature and history and the rest of the humanities were once supposed to help us answer these questions, to give us a role to play in the story of life and a sense of perspective. I don't know anything about your education in the humanities in school, but mine was typical, and I think very bad.

comment by Mass_Driver · 2010-12-23T21:52:40.152Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I don't know anything about your education in the humanities in school, but mine was typical, and I think very bad.

I'm sorry to hear it, Costanza. Sounds like you've managed to repair some of the damage, anyway.

I will definitely take another look at the stoics. I've read a full book by Epictetus and another by Marcus Aurelius a few times each, and found it a bit Pollyanna-ish...not so much advice for coping with a shitty world as exercises for tricking yourself into believing it isn't shitty. There is a strand of mystical optimism even inside stoicism. Still, I will look again, and see what I can find. There was enough practical wisdom there that I can readily believe that they do have good advice for coping with adulthood.

As far as my general liberal arts education, it's pretty good, but it's contaminated by Marx and Hegel and Maslow and so on...my sense of perspective is keyed to the theme of very bad things often happening to very good people but everything nevertheless working out OK.

comment by Costanza · 2010-12-23T22:33:41.513Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Sounds like you've already taken quite a look at the stoics. On another thread on this forum, I've seen the advice to check out the works of Albert Ellis. See http://lesswrong.com/lw/3eo/theory_and_practice_of_meditation/ . This would be one more thing on the growing list of things I have yet to do myself.

P.S. And fortyeridania's post on this very same thread.

comment by DanArmak · 2010-12-23T11:35:38.104Z · score: -2 (8 votes) · LW · GW

Once one groks these three principles, what should one do next?

Succeed.

comment by Perplexed · 2010-12-23T14:44:53.357Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Once one groks these three principles, what should one do next?

Succeed.

No, that is exactly wrong. The whole problem is that no course of action guarantees success. The world is throwing curveballs.

My own solution is to shift my terminal values to the meta level. Instead of demanding success of myself (and then feeling bad if success turns out to be unattainable) I reward myself with a gold star if I judge that I have done my best. I live my life so as to have no regrets.

The difficulty (you might call it a trap) in this approach is in the need to retain a brutal honesty. It may be very tempting to respond to failures by giving yourself the star anyways, with the excuse "How could I have known?". How could I have known that wouldn't work? How could I have known that is not what they wanted? How could I have known that my 'friend' was a con artist? There may well have been a way you could have known - clues that you missed.

It can be tricky finding the middle road of learning from your mistakes, without falling into the error of denying mistakes or obsessing over them.

comment by Costanza · 2010-12-23T16:32:52.313Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW · GW

This is a good point. It occurs to me that a disproportional number of people in this forum may have had the experience growing up of being the smartest, most promising kid in class. Maybe you were always put into the advanced classes even in subjects you weren't interested in. As you advance, the competition gets a little tougher, but you learn to push yourself, too.

For the overwhelming majority of people, this cycle has to end, early or late, with the shock of realizing that you are finally out of your league. Some poor bastard had to come to terms with knowing that he was obviously the dumbest physicist on the Manhattan Project, a net drag on the team.

The overwhelming number of people in historical times have died and been forgotten. How many people have lived? And of those, how many could possibly be even assigned a name by any historical records, let alone a place in popular memory?

comment by CronoDAS · 2010-12-24T20:24:03.939Z · score: 9 (9 votes) · LW · GW

Some poor bastard had to come to terms with knowing that he was obviously the dumbest physicist on the Manhattan Project, a net drag on the team.

Q: What do they call the person who graduates at the bottom of their class at medical school?

A: Doctor.

comment by Costanza · 2010-12-24T20:54:42.626Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Hell yeah! And may that doctor help to repair this deeply messed-up world!

comment by JoshuaZ · 2010-12-24T20:32:16.367Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Some poor bastard had to come to terms with knowing that he was obviously the dumbest physicist on the Manhattan Project, a net drag on the team

This doesn't follow. It might be that the dumbest person is still contributing productively. They'll just be contributing the least. Moreover, there might be enough variation in specific skill sets that no one is actually the dumbest (although I find this second argument to be weak. The truth is that some people really are better than others). Now it is more plausible that some of the dumber people who also worked less ended up distracting people in the project enough that they were net negatives. But that sort of argument requires that they be not only stupid but lazy and disruptive. In practice, few people with those traits last long in serious research.

comment by Costanza · 2010-12-24T20:51:38.094Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

It might be that the dumbest person is still contributing productively. They'll just be contributing the least.

This is true. I was thinking, though, of the purely emotional impact on someone who is used to being the smartest person in the room to suddenly finding himself the least smart person in the room. Specifically, it's a lesson I have had to learn myself -- for me, it was a lesson I started learning in high school, and have re-learned the lesson many, many times since then. It's not a fun lesson.

comment by Vladimir_M · 2010-12-24T21:17:34.221Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Perplexed:

My own solution is to shift my terminal values to the meta level. Instead of demanding success of myself (and then feeling bad if success turns out to be unattainable) I reward myself with a gold star if I judge that I have done my best. I live my life so as to have no regrets.

Trouble is, "doing one's best" is an elusive concept. Sure, there are situations where you have a clear goal and see a clear plan of action for how to give your best shot at it, so if you fail despite following it, you can still give yourself a gold star for doing your best. But at least in my experience, typical mistakes and failures in life are nothing like that. Truly critical problems and dilemmas usually can't be tackled with such a clear and accurate model of reality.

When I reflect on my own mistakes and failures, most of them were due to misunderstandings of the situation and errors of judgment that seem clear in retrospect and would have been avoided by someone more shrewd and knowledgeable in the same situations, but were completely beyond my mental and intellectual powers at the time. Others were due to lack of willpower that seems like "failure to do my best" in retrospect, but back at the time, the necessary level of willpower seemed (and probably was) impossible. In both sorts of situations, I did "give my best" in a very real sense, since nothing else could have been expected from me. But this leads to a tautological interpretation of "doing one's best" that would imply that nobody should ever have regrets about anything.

comment by timtyler · 2010-12-31T12:52:40.969Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I live my life so as to have no regrets.

Maybe you will like this one:

No Regrets, or: Edith Piaf Revamps Decision Theory - Frank Arntzenius

comment by Perplexed · 2010-12-31T16:39:20.464Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Yes, indeed. I like it very much. Thank you. Though the recommendation might be more useful to people if it had appeared in a decision-theory (Newcomb, expected utility maximization, etc.) thread, rather than here in a practical rationality thread.

comment by timtyler · 2010-12-31T20:21:18.468Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Yay - hookup points!

I have mentioned that paper previously here - on the Ingredients of Timeless Decision Theory thread.

comment by Mass_Driver · 2010-12-23T11:51:33.960Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

C'mon; it's not as if I forgot about that part. There's only 26 words in the summary, and 2 of them are "succeed." What I'm looking for is details on how to find new coping mechanisms now that I'm not indulging in the belief that everything is supernaturally guaranteed to go acceptably well.

comment by DanArmak · 2010-12-23T12:03:34.369Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I know. I was feeling snarky and defeatist. I apologize for not contributing to the discussion.

I've posted my best idea on how to handle this as a top-level comment.

comment by Mass_Driver · 2010-12-23T13:03:06.912Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Thanks; apology accepted.

comment by pjeby · 2010-12-23T23:50:58.956Z · score: 12 (12 votes) · LW · GW

Civilization might collapse; I might get hit by a bus; or I might just claw through some of my biases but not others, make poor choices, and fail to accomplish much of anything.

If those things are true, then you were already enduring the possibility. Admitting it doesn't make it worse.

Rationality has stripped me of some of my traditional sources of confidence that everything will work out OK, but it hasn't provided any new ones -- there is no formula that I can recite to myself to say "Well, as long as I do this, then everything will be fine."

What do you need that confidence for?

In the last day or two, it's occurred to me that nearly all I have ever done in my life is try to solve problems and find the "right" answers, and one particularly perplexing puzzle I've been trying to solve, cannot be answered "correctly". It can only be answered by an essentially arbitrary choice on my part - a choice of what I want the answer to be.

One would think that this would be easy, then, but the catch is that to be "right", the choice has to be a choice, not an attempt to divine an optimal answer -- one that brings me the most pain or least pleasure. In a certain sense, if I cannot choose arbitrarily, then I have made no choice at all, and no real progress has been made.

I think there is a certain similarity between your problem and mine, and it is this:

Freedom isn't easy, if you've been been practicing all your life to be a slave.

And it doesn't even matter that much what it is you were practicing being a slave to.

comment by Dr_Manhattan · 2010-12-24T05:26:37.239Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

It can only be answered by an essentially arbitrary choice on my part - a choice of what I want the answer to be.

This sounds interesting. Can you give an example of such a beast?

comment by pjeby · 2010-12-24T18:06:44.211Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Can you give an example of such a beast?

Any creative endeavor, actually. How do you decide when something is finished? It really depends on your arbitrary, personal choice.

comment by Dr_Manhattan · 2010-12-24T19:39:24.873Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

How do you decide when something is finished?

Using magical aesthetic sense? This feels more like some neural network reaching a threshold than an "arbitrary choice". It's only arbitrary because it's not explainable.

comment by pjeby · 2010-12-24T22:19:27.188Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

This feels more like some neural network reaching a threshold than an "arbitrary choice".

And what part of your everyday experience would you expect to NOT involve "some neural network reaching a threshold"? ;-)

comment by Dr_Manhattan · 2010-12-25T23:23:48.143Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Occasionally I find it easier making arbitrary decisions by tossing a coin; even without an explicit coin certain decisions are arbitrary by intent (e.g. mixed strategies in games would be an academic exaple), I would never go back and say I compromised my aesthetic sense on these due to laziness or whatever.

comment by pjeby · 2010-12-26T04:02:23.764Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I don't see any connection between your answer and my question, nor do I see why you asked for an example or started this subthread in the first place.

comment by Dr_Manhattan · 2010-12-26T20:33:32.055Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I understand the disconnect is frustrating, but my question was pure curiosity - trying to understand when "an essentially arbitrary choice" is the right choice is the right choice, and not satisfied with the "creative endeavor" answer. Feel free to not reply if this has no further interest to you.

comment by MichaelVassar · 2011-01-02T05:02:47.661Z · score: -3 (5 votes) · LW · GW

I think you are making a philosophical mistake here.

comment by wedrifid · 2011-01-02T16:45:58.970Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Ticket Closed: Could not reproduce.

comment by giambolvoe · 2011-01-02T05:53:44.150Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

The whole comment? Or just one part? I don't necessarily see any mistakes (possibly because I don't see any conclusions he makes, other than the pithy quote at the end*)

*which I like, regardless of its pithiness

comment by MichaelVassar · 2011-01-02T05:07:28.005Z · score: 8 (8 votes) · LW · GW

I think I could help, but it would take a while. I seriously need someone else to be able to start doing that helping in the not so long term. For now, I will flatly assert that I expect an intense, rational effort to succeed by a quite moderate number of otherwise ordinary people to be enough to swing the balance for the light-cone's future, but such an effort must actually acknowledge human realities and work with them, rather than punishing people for their imperfections.

comment by keefe · 2012-04-11T04:25:08.431Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Understanding what some call the terror of the situation will change a lot. People should volunteer at shelters or prisons or with something like big brothers/big sisters and see the pain that stupidity, weakness, irrationality, love of ignorance and all the rest cause. The real terror of the traits commonly possessed by the people and economic entities that shape our society. Think hard about daily life in rural china, north korea, iran, the ghettos and the trailer parks and think about the evolutionary pressure that puts on the 150+ IQs that happen to be born there and what the consequences of a little bit of love and reason can be. Thinking about this forces one to admit to selfishness and yield to temptation or intentional suffering to purify this, or admit that one is choosing love of misery over ripples of rationality that can add to a critical mass for breaking cycles of ignorance, corruption and abuse.

comment by John_Maxwell_IV · 2011-02-09T09:15:12.296Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

"otherwise ordinary people"

Are you really sure about this?

comment by MichaelVassar · 2011-02-09T16:30:27.150Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I don't mean average, but yes, ordinary, as in typical physics PhD from a good but not necessarily very top program. Darwin and Smith seem to have been such people to start, but aspired to more. Possibly Socrates and Einstein. No Newtons required, nor even Faradays or Fields Medalists.

comment by keefe · 2012-04-11T04:26:07.145Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

even the most extraordinary eat, shit, sleep, fuck, become addicted and I also feel that merging needs is the key to cooperation

comment by Nisan · 2010-12-24T08:23:23.047Z · score: 8 (8 votes) · LW · GW

This might help:

If you genuinely attempt to succeed, then other people like you will also attempt to succeed, for the same reason rationalists can cooperate in the Prisoner's Dilemma. They will do so even if you get hit by a bus.

You are not alone.

comment by khafra · 2010-12-23T11:10:09.059Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW · GW

Over on Hacker News, DanielBMarkham suggested a book detailing a modern take on the philosophy of stoicism. I got the book, and find it valuable. I don't agree with everything in it, and wish it had been written by a cognitive specialist instead of a popular author; but it specifically addresses being effective in the world without letting outcomes disrupt your tranquility.

comment by fortyeridania · 2010-12-23T15:39:26.442Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

I second khafra's suggestion that you look into Stoicism, although I have not read the book in question.

At least in my case, regular reading of Marcus Aurelius's Meditations helped bring about a fundamental change in my paradigm. I now find myself much more in aware of my feelings and in control of my overall outlook (if not my every affective state).

However, I also second khafra's reservation. Marcus Aurelius seems to have been a smart dude, but people have learned a lot in the last 1900 years. For the modern analogs of Stoicism, see cognitive behavioral therapy and its close cousin, REBT (rational emotive behavior therapy). They emphasize the importance of grokking the relationship between beliefs and emotions--emotions are a reaction to beliefs. (For good information on the Stoic views on this, see the aptly-titled Stoicism and Emotion.)

Destructive emotions are caused by distorted beliefs. In REBT terms, these beliefs tend to contain implicit demands on ourselves, other people, or the world generally. For example, someone's depression might be based on the belief that they're inadequate. But according to REBT, that's not the end of the analysis: they also demand of themselves that they be "adequate," by some standard. (Without the demand, the belief would no more cause depression than any other belief would, e.g. "I'm too short to play in the NBA.")

comment by Costanza · 2010-12-23T13:09:20.034Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Upvoted! I've been meaning to get that book for a while. Here's another take on it.

comment by Eneasz · 2010-12-29T07:56:54.247Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

I would never recommend this for anyone, but my personal solution has been very liberal quantities of vodka.

comment by TheOtherDave · 2010-12-23T18:22:40.854Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Primarily, the way I deal with this sort of fear is by attempting to be as aware as possible of what , specifically, I am scared of right now.

I often find that the vague fears -- civilization might collapse, I might not accomplish much, etc -- are built on top of more specific and personal ones, and that identifying the latter makes the resulting emotion much less paralyzing. (I also find that my specific and personal fears are often embarrassing as all heck, which is part of why I find it tempting to engage with the larger and vaguer ones instead.)

I don't mean to make this sound easy... it really isn't. But it is simple.

comment by Mass_Driver · 2010-12-23T21:54:55.917Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

No, that's definitely a good point; I do that too sometimes. Talk therapy or even just a good friend who will call bullshit on you repeatedly can make it a lot easier to identify the specific and personal fears.

Things are going relatively well in my personal life right now, and as far as I can tell I am scared of my own success, I think. I'm not sure what action steps to take on that fear.

comment by TheOtherDave · 2010-12-23T22:35:51.662Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

(nods) That's pretty common.

It might help to ask yourself what, specifically, you fear about your own success.

comment by JenniferRM · 2011-01-06T07:15:33.087Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

My brother doesn't really trust anyone until they have had some sort of crushing failure in their life. Something like a divorce, getting kicked out of school, going bankrupt, being permanently injured and missing the Olympics team, or anything where years or decades of effort towards a goal have to be substantially written off.

The idea is that the person you are after a failure like that is much more likely to be stable in the face of additional adversity if for no other reason than you've got a pretty extreme data point that extends the range in which you can emotionally interpolate rather than extrapolate.

The Fins have a concept named "sisu" to describe something like the attitude of someone who perseveres in the face of long odds, high stress, and repeated failure. If I understand correctly, they think of it as part of their national character. In English, the personality trait of grit might be a useful entry point into related academic literature.

comment by CronoDAS · 2010-12-23T10:12:08.434Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

It seems like most people are reasonably satisfied with whatever kind of life they ended up having. To the extent that you are indeed like other people, this should be reassuring.

comment by Mass_Driver · 2010-12-23T10:56:11.753Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Seems like hindsight bias, though, no? I mean, you can't go back and change the life you've already had, so there's not much point in getting upset about it post hoc.

Right now, though, I can change my life, at least in theory. So it's not much good taking comfort in the fact that someday it will be too late. Right now it's not too late, and right now I'm scared.

comment by Vaniver · 2010-12-23T10:08:37.418Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

The concern is that it may not ever be better enough for me to register a sense of approval or contentedness.

Contentedness is based on the interaction of your desires and your outcomes. You are becoming more realistic about your outcomes (this includes 'expected outcomes' here because we are predictors and count the future as part of the present). What is the natural next step?

The future is an uncertain, scary place. That means normality is a win. Every day you and the people you love survive without injury is a win. Every day you sit down and improve something instead of letting time slip through your fingers is a win. You understand that normality is more tenuous than you thought it was before; complete the circle and understand that normality is more precious than you thought it was before.

If you feel failure is more likely now that you anticipate the future more clearly, then develop a love of failure, for it is the parent of success.

comment by Mass_Driver · 2010-12-23T10:53:34.524Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

You seem to be arguing that I should lower my sense of which outcomes are "good enough" so as to match the outcomes that are likely to happen, but I'm not convinced. My sense of what is good enough is deeply entangled with my emotions and my moral intuitions -- even if I could artificially lower it, the side effects would probably do more harm than just allowing myself to be scared or upset about the likelihood of not-good-enough outcomes.

comment by Costanza · 2010-12-23T23:23:06.234Z · score: 3 (5 votes) · LW · GW

To be honest, questions like these remind me of why it was completely stupid to aspire to being a rationalist. Where ignorance is bliss, 'tis folly to be wise. I'm reminded of how Draco Malfoy felt in Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality when the main character seduced him to the dark path of science. A lot of religious believers are genuinely comforted by their nonsensical faith. Too late now, for me and thee (you who are reading this). We're fucked now, and there's no going back. Just have to make the best of it.

comment by ata · 2010-12-23T23:57:25.932Z · score: 8 (8 votes) · LW · GW

To be honest, questions like these remind me of why it was completely stupid to aspire to being a rationalist. Where ignorance is bliss, 'tis folly to be wise.

...unless you have something more important to achieve than bliss, or expect that you might discover some such thing if you relinquish enough ignorance.

comment by Costanza · 2010-12-24T00:21:39.937Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

First: Is there something better than bliss? Is bliss different than what the economists would call utility?

Second: Now I'm on the side of rationality, and hope to relinquish as much ignorance as possible. But it would be wrong to ignore the very real fears noted by Mass_Driver, who initiated this discussion.

Don't get me wrong! I'm on board now. But isn't there something of the basilisk about rationality? This is a real question. I expect it may be somewhere in a part of the sequences I haven't read. If so, a pointer would be welcome. Unless it's another basilisk, leading to a still lower circle of Hell. Ah, fuck it. Just let me know anyway.

comment by ata · 2010-12-24T00:39:45.548Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

First: Is there something better than bliss? Is bliss different than what the economists would call utility?

Very different — utility is about the things you consider valuable, and bliss is one feedback signal that tells you (often incorrectly) that you're doing something valuable (or, more generally, tells you to keep doing whatever you just did). This distinction is explained pretty well in Terminal Values and Instrumental Values, in the part starting at "Consider the philosopher who asserts..."

it would be wrong to ignore the very real fears noted by Mass_Driver

I don't disagree with that.

I expect it may be somewhere in a part of the sequences I haven't read.

Off the top of my head, this is touched on in Why Truth? and Incremental Progress and the Valley. Though I feel like I'm forgetting at least one good one.

comment by Costanza · 2010-12-24T00:44:44.939Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

That's an awesome and useful answer! No sarcasm or irony. I will read that at once. And upvoted.

P.S. God damn, the sequences are long.

comment by David_Gerard · 2010-12-25T14:52:41.394Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Is bliss different than what the economists would call utility?

Personally, I find I do better seeking satisfaction than happiness per se. YMMV, of course.

comment by Vaniver · 2010-12-25T15:22:26.609Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Don't get me wrong! I'm on board now. But isn't there something of the basilisk about rationality? This is a real question.

There is. Pretty much every transition upwards is one feared by the previous step- the infant feels worse off after leaving the womb, the adult feels worse off after puberty, and so on. But I see little to recommend the view that growth should be avoided because it is often unpleasant.

comment by [deleted] · 2010-12-26T04:43:54.250Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

the infant feels worse off after leaving the womb, the adult feels worse off after puberty, and so on.

This is a minor quibble, but -- the thing about the babies is speculation, since nobody really remembers how happy they might have been in the womb. My babies showed some evidence of discomfort in the cramped quarters of the womb (a lot of kicking, especially toward the end), and they displayed a lot of pleasure in things like nursing and cuddling and being played with once they got out into the world. If I had to guess I would say they were happier after birth.

For the puberty thing, I know that I felt much, much better once I was out of adolescence. So experiences vary.

comment by Vaniver · 2010-12-26T05:24:48.134Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Right, I think I misworded it (and it could be the point is totally wrong)- this stage seems worth it by our standards now but didn't seem worth it by last stage's standards.

comment by Dr_Manhattan · 2010-12-23T17:29:21.764Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I "suffered" quite a bit from this when extracting myself from religion, which takes the "Univese has a fail-safe" feeling to great heights (it's my personal candidate for the strongest emotion keeping people in religion).

My advice is to "accept things one cannot change" and compartmentalize them away. This manifests in my attitude to survivalism: I am somewhat prepared for things I can do something about, but that 2-mile tsunami (or stray bullet in the head) possibility, well, I don't think about it (other than another reason to develop FAI; I am a small donor to the known organization).

There is another aspect to this; I notice that people who are good at explicit thinking under-utilize the rest of their mind, to the extent to not doing much unless they "figure it out logically". There is much to be said for psychological normalcy, having IRL friends, hobbies, etc. This is an important part of winning.

comment by Mass_Driver · 2010-12-23T22:01:39.177Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

This manifests in my attitude to survivalism: I am somewhat prepared for things I can do something about.

Well, let's talk about that for a moment. What are some reasonable things to do to prepare for disaster? I have thought about stockpiling water, iodine, vitamins, and stuff like that. Also about getting a second passport. I don't have a keen grasp on what's reasonable and what's paranoia. I'm also not sure what kinds of disasters are worth living through -- water seems like a no-brainer; the water supply could easily be interrupted and travel cut off in my city for a few days without anywhere near enough damage to collapse civilization. Vitamins, a little bit less so -- if I actually have to worry about scurvy because the canned fruit has run out and there's no way to travel 200 miles to the farms (I'm in California), maybe there isn't too much worth living for.

comment by Dr_Manhattan · 2010-12-24T00:43:53.236Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

http://www.amazon.com/Emergency-This-Book-Will-Save/dp/0060898771/ref=sr_1_4?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1293151319&sr=1-4

not the best reference content, but he works it out like a rational person, rather than give caches answers "from his army training", like some other authors (however good they might be)

comment by Mass_Driver · 2010-12-23T22:02:56.992Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I notice that people who are good at explicit thinking under-utilize the rest of their mind, to the extent to not doing much unless they "figure it out logically". There is much to be said for psychological normalcy, having IRL friends, hobbies, etc. This is an important part of winning.

Agree on all fronts. Part of why I'm scared this week and not some other week is because my IRL friends have mostly checked out for Xmas.

comment by cousin_it · 2010-12-23T14:24:05.879Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Phil Goetz would say that your technical guy is afraid of the driver's seat. Maybe he will be less afraid after you let him drive for awhile, or maybe you should just put him back in his preferred role like I did.

comment by Mass_Driver · 2010-12-23T21:58:52.026Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Awesome.

comment by AdeleneDawner · 2010-12-23T12:55:55.319Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Most people don't do much, if any, work on being rational, and they do 'okay'.

Actually, the word 'okay' itself is a bit misleading here - there's an absolute meaning of the word that means something like 'having access to enough resources to survive', and then there's a personal one - whatever you meant when you said "fulfilling anything like my full potential to help others and/or produce great art", in your case. For the first definition, unless you're in an unusual situation, you should be pretty comfortable assuming that you'll be okay. (Well, assuming you've got whatever ducks you're interested in in a row regarding cryonics.) Regarding the second - wherever you're setting the bar, why are you setting it there? Especially if you think that the bar being in that particular spot makes it unreachable? In fact, why have a bar at all? All you can do is your honest best, and if that doesn't meet your definition of 'okay', I'd say there's something wrong with your definition, not your work, regardless of the specific value of the outcome.

comment by Aryn · 2011-08-09T23:18:21.409Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I've experienced (well, also currently experiencing) a related fear of a specific part of rationality. I've seen some people on LW and many more on OvercomingBias express beliefs that the conscious mind, the part I can call me, is so out of control that all it's good for is making up stories, rationalizing the actions of an unconscious mind guided by outdated programming and environmental factors.

Mostly, I think, I reject this idea because it would essentially mean declaring everything I've done, every decision I've ever made, and every decision I will make, as a lie. Not even one of those justifiable lies that people like to talk about in the face of radical honesty either. A huge, undefendable lie about every intention "I've" ever had. So essentially, by accepting such a belief, I've retroactively lied to everyone I know, myself included. All reasons for my actions can be thrown out the window, because none of them will ever be the actual reason unless I throw the burden of responsibility onto what is in essence a runaway mental train.

Every time someone asks me "Why do you think this is the best idea," I'll have to respond, "I don't know, but it's probably something horrifically self-serving. The driver does what they want, and I'm just here for the ride and to be the scapegoat when the idiot at the wheel does something wrong."

comment by artsyhonker · 2010-12-29T22:11:13.949Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I think it's quite understandable to fear for your future based on the evidence presented.

I find the worst thing about such fears is the way they can detract from my ability to take useful actions.

I find one helpful method is to re-frame my thinking. No, I have no guarantee that everything will turn out "all right" for any given value of that. However, so far I have been through more than I once thought I could cope with. Am I unscarred? Certainly not. But I have work that I enjoy, people in my life I love and who care about me. I have food and shelter and access to reasonable medical care. I'm in a lot less physical pain than I was a few years ago, and more importantly have learned that pain, while unpleasant, is more tolerable than I had imagined. When I can appreciate how far I have come, the unknown territory of how far I have yet to go is less daunting. Sometimes if I'm really struggling I turn this into a written exercise.

The other thing I find helpful is to distract myself by getting really stuck in to work, to the point that worries about things I cannot control or predict get crowded out by more immediately topical concerns. I'm not certain this is wholly beneficial, but as much of my work is project-based it is moderately self-limiting. A variation on this technique is to go on holiday, if I can do so without seriously endangering work. The change in routine can be disorienting but sometimes seems to encourage me to think differently, perhaps because in an unfamiliar environment I must pay more attention to my immediate surroundings.

These are more pragmatic responses than rational, and your experiences may vary.

comment by daddyhominum · 2010-12-24T01:52:59.236Z · score: -1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I like your piece, Mass_Driver.
I hope you can tolerate my discourse as a sort of 'stream of consciousness'. What is the proper contribution of a rational person that will give meaning and enjoyment in life? I decide to test the question against the little I know about such things. What is the natural role of individuals in evolution? I believe it is simply to pass on the species to the next generation through supporting current living species success. Evolution has no interest in my individual skills and outputs. It wants another generation of my species. All I need to be an achiever is that I do no harm to my species and if I can add a little extra it will be for my pleasure because evolution doesn’t care. So I am quite smug about my achievements. I have grown daughters and I have grandchildren and that satisfies my primary purpose. In addition, I have spent years educating others, creating horticultural beauty for others, and myself and have worked diligently to improve the lot of disabled people in my community. That satisfies evolution and gives me pleasure I did not discover the graviton. I did not succeed Dr. Borlaug. I have not cured autism. But I have satisfied the standard of nature so I am an achiever; as are you.

This smug self-satisfaction did not come to me until retirement age. It is necessary to struggle for yourself and others when you are of working age. But your success is determined by the fact of your birth. You are a bit of the evolutionary ocean. Enjoy the swim.