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Last week I compared life to a video game. A video game where the number of players continues to increase, meaning that our collective knowledge of how best to play the game should also be increasing, except that at the same time the version of game we’re playing is also changing. As an aside I also mentioned that it’s becoming harder to know if we’re winning. This week I’d like to take that thought and expand upon it. What does it mean to be winning the video game? Or, to go a step further why are we even playing the game?
Coincidently at around the same time as I was thinking about this issue I saw the following on the Slate Star Codex subreddit:
I have been thinking a lot about life lately and reached to some disturbing conclusions. Basically, I can see only 3 good reasons to live:
- External meaning – worship god, raise your kids help the poor etc…
- Fun and joy – Just plain hedonism.
- Fear of death and instinct
I’ve come to the conclusion that for me (And I would guess for many others) the only reason I’m alive is reason number 3. For reason 1: I would say that kids are a reasonably good external meaning, all the rest seems somewhat ridiculous to me, I don’t believe in god or religion – and it seems the end game of it all is heat death of the universe in the super long future or just human replacement by AI or another type of species very far from humans in the near future, and I don’t see the point of bootstrapping it. But I don’t want to have kids because it seems pointless and cruel (See reason 2).
Looking at the second reason: It just seems that life is full of suffering and that suffering is greater than pleasure for most people in most situations throughout history…
This is not a bad list of reasons for playing the game, and by extension ways to win it. And I’ll be returning to it, but first it’s worthwhile to look at why this individual and perhaps others have decided that the game might not even be worth playing. He takes pains to clarify that he’s not depressed, and that his mental health has been confirmed by a professional, he just thinks that on net he and most people are suffering.
One of the more interesting responses is a link to a chart showing the percentage of people in different countries who rate themselves as “very happy” or “rather happy”, vs. their guess for what percentage of their fellow countrymen give that answer. It turns out that most people think they’re happy while thinking that far fewer of their fellow citizens are. Perhaps the most extreme example is South Korea where 90% of people consider themselves “very happy” or “rather happy”, but when asked to guess the percentage for the country as a whole they think it’s only 25%. (If you’re curious the numbers for the US are 90% and 49%.)
Accordingly the individual is probably wrong about how widespread suffering is, but he’s not the first to jump to the conclusion that it is. In a previous post we talked about the antinatalists who are basically arguing the same thing.
Beyond the idea that this despair may not be widespread, or at least not as widespread as the individual imagines, it’s nevertheless real enough for him and presumably many others. Given that one of the major questions from my last post was how behaviors change and how much weight we should give to history it’s interesting to ask if this sort of despair existed historically? My assumption would be that it wasn’t completely unknown, but that it’s far more common now. Maybe not, perhaps the rate hasn’t changed, but given that conditions are generally acknowledged to be much better now than they have been historically, you would expect it to be far rarer, and I definitely don’t think that’s the case. In other words, as I’ve pointed out before, there’s evidence that what should be making us happy isn’t.
It’s interesting to speculate why that might be. Is the relative lack of historical despair due to more intense and widespread religiosity? Was there just not enough time for it? If all of your attention is being directed towards survival, then you may not have the energy for an existential crisis. Or perhaps this brand of despair is something which occurs much more frequently at certain tech levels. Certainly people have been talking about the alienation produced by modern life since at least the time of Hegel, and obviously Marx made much of it. It could be that they had a point.
It is not my intention to delve too deeply into Marx and Hegel, but if winning is becoming more difficult to define even as more people play the game, that does lend support to the idea that the speed at which the game is changing is at least as important as how many people are playing it.
Of course defining what it means to win is exactly the problem this individual is expressing. He doesn’t see any way to win, which leads him to question why he’s even playing the game in the first place. As I said, his list of the various reasons for playing the game represents a reasonably comprehensive summary of the various ideologies, and as we dive into his (and others) specific complaints we might as well start with them.
He starts off by talking about external meaning, mentioning God, children and helping the poor. As I mentioned above it’d be interesting to know how many people used their religion to stave off this sort of despair historically. If we imagine that there was less despair back then how much of that was due to religion? It’s not inconceivable that much of the difference was due to religion. But regardless of whether it was used in that way in the past it doesn’t appear that this individual could use it to that end now. And there’s an increasing number in the same position. Sure, there are certainly people who go from unbeliever to believer even now, but the opposite direction, particularly if you take observance into account, is far more common. If religion was a significant source of historical meaning what do we tell people who feel their life has very little meaning (or is a net negative) and who will never be religious? That’s a good question that I don’t really have an answer for. Several people respond by suggesting the individual take up effective altruism in place of religion, and perhaps that works for some people, but he said he had tried it and it didn’t make him feel any better. The only thing remaining from his list is children, which I’ll get to in a bit.
One thing he didn’t mention in his “external meaning” list was patriotism, or anything related to finding a reason to live in your nation and culture. It’s entirely possible that more so even than religion this has been the reason many people have had for playing the game. Though as Huntington points out in Clash of Civilizations religion may be be inseparable from culture. Which all leads to the thought that if there has been an increase in existential despair (or even if it’s just stayed constant in the face of prosperity and riches) that it might be a mostly Western phenomenon. And reflects both the decline of religion and a decline national identification. Which I suppose, Huntington might argue, marks the decline of the civilization as a whole.
In any case for this individual I’m sure that the idea of finding a reason to live in his nation or culture is even less practical than the idea of finding it in God and religion. Perhaps in recognition of this fact it doesn’t come up in the 121 comments that were left on the post.
But all of this does lead into a discussion of external meaning more broadly. Historically most people have played the game as a team, and that team not only provided external meaning just by existing, but its existence was dedicated to some further external meaning. Religion is the best example of this. People gain external meaning just from being in a group of their co-religionists, but they also receive external meaning from a belief in God and the hereafter when they would be judged by their actions.
Historically, I would argue, not only were more people on teams, but team cohesion was higher. I just finished listening to an episode of the Hardcore History podcast about the Japanese during World War II. And if you ever doubt the existence of cohesive cultures all working towards a specific end, then World War II in general and Japan in particular should disabuse you of that doubt. But in our specific example, how much of the existential despair being experienced in the reddit post comes from not being on a team? And what place to teams have in the latest version of the game and how does it relate to the greater number of people playing the game?
You might assume that a greater number of people would mean more teams, or larger teams, but the opposite seems to be happening. All the way back in 2000 Robert Putnam came out with the book Bowling Alone, which documented the decline of social capital and civic engagement. His major theory was that technology was individualizing people’s leisure time, and if anything, since 2000, individualization appears to be getting worse. A search on the exact phrase “epidemic of loneliness” brings up 100,000 articles. As far as I can tell the majority written after Bowling Alone.
Tying all of this together it would appear that external meaning definitely can work as a motivation to play the game. And that, historically, many people even felt that it provided a good way of winning the game. Despite all this something about the latest version has made it more difficult to find meaning externally. In part this is because of a decline in religion and patriotism, and in part because, despite there being more people in total playing the game, there’s less playing as a team, one of the major tools for generating external meaning.
His next point was finding external meaning through hedonism. Given that I am mostly approaching things from a historical perspective it’s worth looking at the history of hedonism. It would of course be inaccurate to say that the philosophy of hedonism is of recent vintage. One of the very earliest philosophies we’re aware of. Epicureanism, was based around hedonism. But if you look into it you’ll find that it was less The Wolf of Wall Street and more Little House on the Prairie. From Wikipedia:
Epicurus believed that what he called “pleasure” (ἡδονή) was the greatest good, but that the way to attain such pleasure was to live modestly, to gain knowledge of the workings of the world, and to limit one’s desires. This would lead one to attain a state of tranquility (ataraxia) and freedom from fear as well as an absence of bodily pain (aponia). The combination of these two states constitutes happiness in its highest form. Although Epicureanism is a form of hedonism insofar as it declares pleasure to be its sole intrinsic goal, the concept that the absence of pain and fear constitutes the greatest pleasure, and its advocacy of a simple life, make it very different from “hedonism” as colloquially understood.
Indeed I don’t think anyone, even now, is really advocating for “‘hedonism’ as colloquially understood.” So what sort of hedonism are they advocating? I think the most common form of hedonist philosophy currently, might be called Pinkerian Hedonism (though I’m sure Steven Pinker is not the first to notice it and I’d be happy to change the label if someone points me to someone earlier than him.) Pinkerian Hedonism, which I discussed at length in several previous posts, claims that everything is much better objectively than it ever has been, and that we basically just need to keep doing what we’ve been doing. Well we have at least one example of this not being a persuasive argument, and I’m sure many thousands more beyond that. And If your argument is that this is meaningless besides the billions of people it is working for then that’s a pretty good argument.
All that said, what’s interesting is that despite the quality of the argument, and the disparity in numbers, that’s not the argument most people make when they respond. Sure, as I already mentioned people point out that he’s wrong to claim that the majority of people are unhappy. But I think I saw only one individual who was attempting to convert him to happiness. If anything most people appeared to be trying to convert him to suffering. Allow me to explain what I mean.
You can easily imagine someone trying to convert him to Christianity, “Well your problem is that you just haven’t accepted Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior.” You can imagine someone trying to talk him into having kids, or just surviving (which we’re about to get to) because survival has value, but the one attempt to convert him to happiness was more a story of overcoming depression (which the original individual claimed not to suffer from) and involved no references to Pinkerian Hedonism. On the other hand, as I mentioned, lots of people said, “Of course you’re suffering. Suffering is the whole point and that’s where you need to find meaning.”
What I think everything but happiness has in common is that they all have standards attached. If you belong to a religion there’s a standard attached to that religion, and you can measure how well you’re doing against that standard. Same with kids, either you have them or you don’t, and they’re either doing well or they’re not. Surviving has the easiest standard to measure of all.
As far as measuring suffering it has some similarities to happiness, in that it’s subjective, but because of the way we’re wired if we expect suffering and we get it then everything’s going according to plan, but if we expect suffering and don’t get it then that’s fine too. Also, unlike happiness suffering is easy to create, whereas, for most people, including the individual from reddit, you’re either happy or you’re not, and if you’re not, making a Pinkerian argument of, “Well you should be, you’ve got a great car, a huge TV, and a low chance of dying!” Has no effect whatsoever and may in fact make the problem worse.
Of course this being the Slate Star Codex reddit, people inevitably mention that once the singularity happens this won’t be a problem and we will be able to create happiness, so the person should lash his external meaning to hastening that.
I think we’re ready to turn to his last point. He calls it “Fear of death and instinct”. I think I’ll label it a just “survival”. We play the game because that’s what we’re supposed to do, that it is in fact what we’ve been programmed to do (which makes the game metaphor suddenly a little weird.) As I’ve mentioned I’m becoming increasingly convinced that many if not most of the fundamental ideological battles of modernity come down to a difference of core values, with one side valuing happiness/pleasure/hedonic utility and the other side valuing survival. And here again we see the same dichotomy, this individual is essentially valuing pleasure, and since he feels that he’s suffering, on net, then there’s no point in playing the game.
It should also be noted here that while he separates things into three points that the first point is largely about survival as well. Certainly historically most sources of external meaning gave meaning because they related directly or indirectly to survival. Children being the most obvious example of this, but group membership (tribe/religion/culture) being a very big one as well.
In the battle between pleasure and survival, I obviously think the core value should be survival, and for a detailed examination of why you should read my past posts on the topic, though in short if you can’t survive you can’t do anything else. Which means that the reason to play the game and the win condition are both very simple. We play the game to keep it from ending and the win condition is to have children. Or as I saw it phrased in a book I just read (The Righteous Mind by Haidt).. The point of the game is to “turn resources into offspring”. Now there is an argument to be made that humanity has too many offspring, which I’ve also covered in the past. But in that post I also pointed out the wisdom of Tommy Boy, “You’re either growing or you’re dying there ain’t no third direction.” And if that’s the case we appear to be dying.
To put it plainly, if survival is the point of the game, technology and modernity seems to have made us a lot worse at it. At least at the individual level. The individual who made the original post is a great example of this. He has thousands of generations of ancestors who survived long enough to reproduce, and yet despite all of the accumulated genes and experience, he has decided not to. I’m not holding it against him. I’m not saying it makes him objectively a worse person. Certainly it doesn’t seem malicious, in fact he claims he’s doing it for altruistic reasons because he thinks his children will, on net, suffer. But somehow after thousands of individuals being driven to reproduce this person has decided it ends with him.
This is obviously only one data point, but insofar as having children, and upstream of that, sexual activity, are proxies for survival, the society-wide view is not great either. Just in the last couple of weeks new numbers were released for the US birthrate and only Utah and South Dakota are at above replacement rates. On top of this we have articles asking “Why are young people having so little sex?” Which might be welcome news if this predilection suddenly reversed itself somewhere in the 20s but it appears to continue into adulthood. (See “epidemic of loneliness” above.) If there’s no third direction, then we appear to be dying.
This post was designed as a continuation of last week’s post. And to put it back in those terms, my argument is that the point of the game is and always has been survival, but that something in the latest version of the game makes us think that a different way to win has been introduced, and I don’t think that’s true. I think we may have hacked the game to make it more pleasurable, and convinced ourselves that’s “winning!” but we’ve only changed how the game plays, not its ultimate goal.
In addition to the metaphor of the video game I also talked about same sex marriage (SSM) in last week’s post. After which a long discussion ensued in the comments over whether SSM might be a bad thing. Many interesting arguments were made on both sides, but I’m not sure that anyone really captured the argument I’m trying to make: That SSM whatever it’s other benefits and downsides is clearly playing the game to make it more pleasurable, not in order to “turn resources into offspring”. It is true that modern technology has finally introduced a way for same sex couples to eat their cake and have it. Passing on their genes without having to do anything heterosexual, but how many of them take advantage of that really? And is it more than the number of people who used to do it while remaining closeted? And given the larger trends mentioned above is this number going up or down? Finally how does it affect the game-playing strategy of everyone else?
It’s entirely possible that SSM is just a symptom of the larger underlying problem of prioritizing pleasure over survival. That it carries with it no inherent harm. I might even go so far as to say that this is my prefered explanation. But it is an explanation which makes the problem harder not easier. One can conceive of the Supreme Court eventually reversing Obergefell v. Hodges (though I’m on record as predicting they won’t). It’s much more difficult to imagine, short of some giant catastrophe, a wholesale rejection of happiness/pleasure in favor of survival.
As is so often the case, I hope I’m wrong. I hope that humans are just as concerned with survival as they always have been. Or that if they’re not it won’t require some giant catastrophe to change things. Or that our prowess has grown to the point where we don’t need to worry about survival, that that problem has been solved once and for all. That we can survive without having to prioritize survival. But, if I didn’t think the evidence was against all of these hopes I wouldn’t have written this post.
To reiterate I think we’ve convinced ourselves that we’re playing a new game with different rules, but that’s not the case. The game is the same as it’s always been, and the only way to win is to keep playing.
I’ve convinced myself that the only way to win is to keep writing. If you’d like to help with that, and you don’t mind backing an underdog, consider donating.