Meaning is Easy to Find, Hard to Justify

One of the strangest questions I get when giving talks on Age of Em is a variation on this:

How can ems find enough meaning in their lives to get up and go to work everyday, instead of committing suicide?

As the vast majority of people in most every society do not commit suicide, and manage to get up for work on most workdays, why would anyone expect this to be a huge problem in a random new society?

Even stranger is that I mostly get this question from smart sincere college students who are doing well at school. And I also hear that such students often complain that they do not know how to motivate themselves to do many things that they “want” to do. I interpret this all as resulting from overly far thinking on meaning. Let me explain.

If we compare happiness to meaning, then happiness tends to be an evaluation of a more local situation, while meaning tends to be an evaluation of a more global situation. You are happy about this moment, but you have meaning regarding your life.

Now you can do either of these evaluations in a near or a far mode. That is, you can just ask yourself for your intuitions on how you feel about your life, within over-thinking it, or you can reason abstractly and idealistically about what sort of meaning you should have or can justify having. In that later more abstract mode, smart sincere people can be stumped. How can they justify having meaning in a world where there is so much randomness and suffering, and that is so far from being a heaven?

Of course in a sense, heaven is an incoherent concept. We have so many random idealistic constraints on what heaven should be like that it isn’t clear that anything can satisfy them all. For example, we may want to be the hero of a dramatic story, even if we know that characters in such stories wish that they could live in more peaceful worlds.

Idealistic young people have such problems in spades, because they haven’t lived long enough to see how unreasonable are their many idealistic demands. And smarter people can think up even more such demands.

But the basic fact is that most everyone in most every society does in fact find meaning in their lives, even if they don’t know how to justify it. Thus I can be pretty confident that ems also find meaning in their lives.

Here are some more random facts about meaning, drawn from my revised Age of Em, out next April.

Today, individuals who earn higher wages tend to have both more happiness and a stronger sense of purpose, and this sense of purpose seems to cause higher wages. People with a stronger sense of purpose also tend to live longer. Nations that are richer tend to have more happiness but less meaning in life, in part because they have less religion. .. Types of meaning that people get from work today include authenticity, agency, self-worth, purpose, belonging, and transcendence.

Happiness and meaning have different implications for behavior, and are sometimes at odds. That is, activities that raise happiness often lower meaning, and vice versa. For example, people with meaning think more about the future, while happy people focus on the here and now. People with meaning tend to be givers who help others, while happy people tend to be takers who are helped by others. Being a parent and spending time with loved ones gives meaning, but spending time with friends makes one happy.

Affirming one’s identity and expressing oneself increase meaning but not happiness. People with more struggles, problems, and stresses have more meaning, but are less happy. Happiness but not meaning predicts a satisfaction of desires, such as for health and money, and more frequent good relative to bad feelings. Older people gain meaning by giving advice to younger people. We gain more meaning when we follow our gut feelings rather than thinking abstractly about our situations.

My weak guess is that productivity tends to predict meaning more strongly than happiness. If this is correct, it suggests that, all else equal, ems will tend to think more about the future, more be givers who help others, spend more time with loved ones and less with friends, more affirm their identity and express themselves, give more advice, and follow gut feelings more. But they will also have more struggles and less often have their desires satisfied.

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  • lump1

    I know you’ve been thinking about em religion, and this is one interesting occasion for speculating about it. Of course some ems would rather not live than face the intense Malthusian struggle, but we don’t need to worry about them.

    It’s more interesting to think about the ones who, despite the horrors of em life, choose to live on anyway. What sort of ideology would give an em the most strength to keep going despite hardships, while not interfering with their immense productivity? That’s the kind of em that will be selected for, so we might be able to outline what sort of religion they will believe.

    • RobinHanson

      The em life isn’t more horrible than the median human life in history, less so in many ways, so past ideologies should be sufficient for them.

      • lump1

        I know that much of human life was under Malthusian conditions, but I have an argument for why em Malthusianism would be still more horrible.

        For animals and humans, Malthusian population control worked through a mechanism of bottlenecks: Every so often – maybe ten years, maybe a century – some horrible blight would sweep through a human population and cause a massive dieoff. It might be an epidemic, a crop failure, a war, a drought – and a family with eight children might lose six or so. Other population control mechanisms like infections could strike anytime, but only reached life-threatening levels every few years in any given person. The point is that this left humans in Malthusian societies with some rather long intervals between episodes of cullings, and these intervals were comfortable. Most of a person’s life would consist of these comfortable, safe and even leisurely intervals. The nice thing about Malthusianism with bottleneck culling is that between bottlenecks, there are more resources than people, so the survivors have it good.

        Nothing like this applies to em Malthusianism, with its constant fight for life’s resources (CPU time). Ems with earning power that is even slightly less than the most productive individuals will be outbid for CPU time by the higher earners, or by the clones of higher earners. This means death. Initially many ems would just accept death with equanimity, because they psychologically can’t handle this rat race where burnout means death, refusing to work through your “vacations” means death, not undergoing the latest cognitive enhancement that makes you work even harder means death… because you know that some other em out there will outearn you if you slow down even by 1%, and he will be able to buy the CPU cycles you need to live. The survivors will need a much more potent religion than Christianity or Islam. I think its primary role would be to motivate them to keep striving and to not let themselves fall behind. One way to do this is to come to believe that death is not just an end of experience, but a transition to a worse afterlife, something like a Christian hell. Thus we must tread water no matter what, because the cruelties of hell are worse than the cruelties of constant maximal exertion. If one of two equally capable workers manages to sincerely believe this, he will out-compete the other, and the religion will spread. To make it stick, ems might heighten their capacity to feel deep terror at the thought of annihilation. It, along with other adjustments, would help them keep struggling, giving them another advantage. Interests and scruples that aren’t related to economic productivity would be extinguished as much as possible. And this would be an arms race in which everyone alive would try anything they could to stay alive for one extra interval. There are no periods of relative leisure, at least not for the survivors.

      • RobinHanson

        “some other em out there will outearn you if you slow down even by 1%”. No, in a recent post I estimated numerically the margin of the best over the second best em:

  • Peter Gerdes

    I still don’t understand why we wouldn’t do things like tweak the dopamergenic sensitivity in various parts of the brain or otherwise make pretty simple modifications to the relative strengths of various neurotransmitters in various places in the brain once we built Ems. I’m assuming you think we won’t otherwise it seems weird to answer the question as if ems were just biologically human.

    I mean people have limited success already both increasing happiness and improving their productivity with small molecule chemistry. Surely the ability to just directly affect some brain regions or neuron types but not others would let one pretty quickly find interventions that, while not perfect, are better than nothing for the environment in which these ems run in (it might be worse on the African savannah but I would imagine that the emotional balance best for working in an em virtual world wouldn’t be exactly the same as what we evolved…at the very least we could reduce various proclivities to anger or violent outbursts)

    • lump1

      I think we all figured that this kind of easy stuff would get done pretty much instantly, and increasingly more substantial and desperate mods would quickly follow. In em world, if you’re second-best at your job, you die. (It doesn’t cost more to run and clone whoever is better, so what would be the point of running you?) Even in human races people risk serious problems for enhancements that may give a tiny edge, and this happens even when we don’t kill the runner-ups!

    • RobinHanson

      Em tweaks would come quickly, but I predict a limited effect and they’d run out – soon they couldn’t find more tweaks to do better.

      • Peter Gerdes

        Ok, so on your model the human brain is nearly at a local maximum for most kinds of work that one needs complex AI type stuff to accomplish and after a few small modifications it becomes very very difficult to find other productivity enhancing modifications.

        Still, one would expect that ems would differ pretty substantially from normal humans. Surely those initial modifications would include things like stripping out all sexual arousal subsystems and maybe even the entire social reward subsytem (so one no longer feels any particular pleasure from chatting with others except insofar as it serves some other goal). Or is there a reason you think these initial modifications wouldn’t be quite this extreme.

  • Marius Catalin

    But didn’t Robin Hanson hear about Freud? Of course we can dismiss his work but, in present day UK for exemple, one in four is diagnosed with a mental illness. So, apparently, we do struggle to find meaning in our lives and some blame our socio-economic as the root cause of that for good reasons (Mark Fisher). Tanspose this into the hyper-capitalized society of ems, the malaise becomes unimaginible. Hanson’s revision of his book is a complete naivete. Zizek: “For Lacan, hedonism is in fact the model of postponing desire on behalf of “realistic compromises”: it is not only that, in order to attain the greatest amount of pleasure, I have to calculate and economize, sacrificing short-term pleasures for more intense longterm ones; what is even more important is that jouissance hurts”

    • RobinHanson

      Our ancestors faced far stronger competition than do we today, and their mental illness rate was manageable. Why would the fact that em competition takes place within “capitalism” change much?

      • Marius Catalin

        I will reply with an excerpt from Mark Fisher who comitted suicide this year: “… Deleuze and Guattari describe capitalism as a kind of dark potentiality which haunted all previous social systems. Capital, they argue, is the ‘unnamable Thing’, the abomination, which primitive and feudal societies ‘warded off in advance’. When it actually arrives, capitalism brings with it a massive
        desacralization of culture. It is a system which is no longer governed by any transcendent Law; on the contrary, it dismantles all such codes, only to re-install them on an ad hoc basis”

      • RobinHanson

        It isn’t remotely fair to say that “all existence is evaluated in terms of money alone”, for us or for ems. As indicated by my excerpt above, the literature on meaning is choc full of other kinds of meanings that people find.

      • Stephen Diamond

        But that doesn’t answer the argument that the “desacracralization” driven by capitalism fosters that attitude – and the implication that the process will go much further under emish ultracapitalism.

      • Dave Lindbergh

        I suspect widespread mental illness (esp. depression) is due to our living conditions being so different from the environment we evolved in.

        We’re adapted to life in small tribes of hunter-gatherers, where we knew everyone, were constantly on the move outdoors, and didn’t work all that hard.

        Today we live in a “big society” where we constantly interact with (and are sometimes dependent on) strangers. We sit (and push buttons) instead of walking. We spend most of our lives indoors instead of outdoors.

        Considering all that, I find it surprising how well we cope.

        Of course, none of that has anything to do with capitalism, except to the extent that capitalism enabled modern industrial society.

        (Agriculture wasn’t all that great either – probably worse. Constant back breaking repetitive physical labor, unvaried diet, restrictions on travel, etc.)

  • Peter David Jones

    Are ems going to have grandchildren? Perhaps the intuition your questioners have is that many sources of meaning are tied to (a real) biology.

  • Melchias

    If meaning is constructed on assumptions about the world that turn out to be false under critical scrutiny, e.g. the existence of entities that turn out to be unlikely, would we still want the meaning? Should we, philosophically, still want it? It’s not obvious to me that this is desirable, rather than a tragic misunderstanding of the world. If I had a choice between subjective meaning based on falsehoods and the absence of subjective meaning, I would prefer the latter.

    As for the low suicide rates, religion taught people for millennia that there is no such thing as death, and attempting it leads to infinite torture instead. Billions of people currently still believe this to be true. Other, less drastic, variants also exist. In addition, most suicide methods are surrounded by akrasia barriers made of pain, fear, animal instict. Concern for friends and family, as well as social judgment further block this road to the end of consciousness. So does the law: We still have a vitriolic culture war being waged against this liberty even in the most liberal countries on earth today.

    Imagine, by contrast, a world where suicide was passive and probabilitsic instead of active and certain. For example, if each night conveyed a 1% probability of dying in one’s sleep painlessly and without awareness, but this 1% could be reduced to 0% by simply jogging around the house 3 times. In such a world, the “suicide” rate by non-jogging would probably be much higher than our real suicide rates, despite the easy way to prevent the death risk. Of course, in such a world, jogging would soon be mandatory for everybody by government decree in most countries, emphasizing again the element of nonconsensual coercion underlying most of human life.

    As for happiness vs. meaning, it’s important not to be fooled by the words’ connotations. For example, happiness is often implicitly associated with seeking instant gratification or engaging in shallow, addictive activities with diminishing returns. Or with smiling a lot, having parties etc. However, actually increasing the overall subjective experience value of one’s life may be better accomplished by strategies that we don’t associate with happiness.

    And then there is social desirability bias. Topics like these are inevitably going to be mired in status-seeking distortions. For example, perhaps the most rational strategy to make life more worth living in the future would be to use the scientific method to tweak the brain in simple, effective ways. Reduce pains, increase pleasures, without losing the relative motivational weights of adaptive vs. maladaptive behaviors. This may not actually be possible, but even if possible, such strategies may be seen as low status due to their lack of authenticity, hard work and self-sacrifice.