April 3, 2008

Four things that spook the shit out of me

Every once in a while I get hit by waves of existential angst. When this happens, it’s likely that I’m dwelling on one (or more) typical personal anxiety points. They are:
1. Existence
2. The presence of suffering
3. Human isolation in the cosmos
4. The high probability of human extinction relatively soon
Let me explain.

1. Existence

I can’t help but perceive at my ongoing presence in the universe as something too bizarre for words. Sure, life is cool and enjoyable for the most part, but it’s also quite eerie and disconcerting.

In fact, there are times when I'm actually afraid to be alive.

Why is there something instead of nothing? Why should I (or anything) exist at all? Should we infer any meaning to our presence as observers? Does our existence imply that other modal realties can also exist? If so, what might those be like?

And what a truly strange reality we find ourselves in.

We inhabit a universe with such things as spiral galaxies, black holes, the aurora borealis and SpongeBob. It’s governed by exquisitely precise laws, but looks to be headed for a miserable end.

It has also produced observers who comprehend the strangeness of their predicament; the cosmos has weirded itself out.

2. The presence of suffering

We also observe a reality in which suffering exists. The universe is indifferent and cruel.

Some look at this as the problem of evil – the inability to reconcile the presence of evil and suffering with the existence of God. Indeed, if God truly existed, this is not the kind of universe we would expect to find ourselves in by default.

Rather, we appear to occupy reality in spite of it, surviving as best we can. Humanity is mere cosmological ephemera, a species that has evolved self-awareness and the capacity to experience psychological and physical anguish.

Yes, we're also capable of experiencing happiness, pleasure and joy; this gives our lives meaning and worth. But the amount of suffering that goes on, whether caused by ourselves or external sources, is disproportionate and severe.

The presence of evil has larger metaphysical and even spiritual implications. What is the maximal amount of suffering that can exist per person per modal reality? Do Hell realms exist as predicted by various faiths? Does the Many Worlds Hypothesis reinforce this suspicion? Do we risk converting our own universe into a Hell realm? Is it already a Hell realm and we just don’t know it? Do we live in a twisted and broken reality? Are "normal" universes paradisaical and devoid of suffering?

3. Human isolation in the cosmos

Our pale blue dot floats in a universe more vast and empty than our brains can possibly comprehend. We’re like the Titanic sinking helplessly in the middle of the Atlantic.

This dilemma adds insult to injury: We exist in a universe filled with suffering -- and we find ourselves utterly alone forced to fend for ourselves.

But why are we so alone? There is no obvious answer.

God must be dead.

ET has forsaken us.

And the hacker gods running The Simulation have an agenda all their own.

It appears that no one is coming to our rescue. We’re going to have to figure it all out for ourselves.

But we probably won’t.

4. The high probability of human extinction relatively soon

The Doomsday Argument suggests that we ought to conclude that we’re closer to the end than the beginning. And given where we’re headed as an advanced technological species, this sounds disturbingly prescient.

Human civilization is a runaway freight train that’s charging straight into the Singularity. Radically advanced AI is poised to transform the species and our planet. It could be an existential paradigm shift, or a complete disaster.

But as disturbing as that is unto itself, we may not even get there. The decades leading up to the Singularity are set to be the most disruptive and dangerous that humanity has ever faced. It will be a time of great instability, hysteria and fear.

And this fear could be turned into reactive, destructive nihilism. A handful of disgruntled zealots could end the show in a real hurry.

I must not fear

I’m not always this dark.

Well, I'm not so dark and neurotic that I don't enjoy my life. If anything, my fears make me appreciate what I do have and I try not to take things for granted. I see life as a profound opportunity to simply experience and share in it with others.

As I look forward to the future and consider all the hardships we may face, I still wouldn't want to miss it for the world.

I just have to hold on to my hat and remember that fear is the mind killer.

Le me know what spooks you by adding a comment.


Johnny Smoke said...

But are we in a recession? That's what we all want to know. Just kidding.

As if we didn't have enough angst to wring our hands over here come a couple of disastrous bookends to consider. One from the inside and the other coming at us.

Galactic fireballs -

vs. Man-made black holes -

Hmmm... As ol' Pete Peterson of Blackstone would say... we all have options. Sure I'd say the same thing if I were an 82 yr old billionaire.

No wonder our palms are sweaty and our blood pressure elevated.

Johnny Smoke said...

It just occured to me that you were one of the messengers of the aformentioned doom scenario. Thanks for nothing.

dileffante said...

Weird, but none of your points recurs in my angst (at least they didn't before today :-) ). Accepting the invitation, here are my spooks (and incidentally I de-lurk).

1. I'm too basic if I start with death? It's not a fear of the moment of death (I don't share Woody Allen's words, "I'm not afraid of death, I just don't want to be there when it happens"); rather, it's the (almost physically) painful feeling of finiteness. Rutger Hauer's lament at the end of Blade Runner comes closer. Darn Chronos.

2. Paradoxically, the one which comes next is the emptiness of the moments when I'm just too aware that "I" is no one. The dissolution of the self. And hence, the pointlessness of most things. A paradox, since if there is no one, then no one will stop existing. Just a process with only illusory continuity.

3. When angst combines with a bird's eye view, then I get the bittersweet sensation of being a voice in a choral swan's song, one of the last generation of humans. I do believe that something different, perhaps better, perhaps worse, will come within some decades, but what the heck, I'm human, and we do have some charm.

Then I manage to get a good sleep, angst goes underground, and I go back to teaching, reading, talking, loving. What for? Mostly for the great fun of it.

Nato Welch said...

Fear itself.

It seems to be the most important reason we inflict suffering and destruction on each other. Perhaps if we weren't afraid, we'd end up blind to real threats. But in a world with progressively more connection, communication, and understanding, we would likely gain more by not swinging at shadows than by overlooking a few accidents.

Death doesn't even scare me that much.

Hoka-shay-honaqut said...

Do not fear. When I go to sleep, you cease to exist.

John M. said...

I am most fearfully disturbed by the banality of evil and the possibility that existence is meaningless, without purpose.

Fear, in its purest form, is a natural reaction; a signal, like pain, that says: something is wrong.

It's all about how we process and act on fear. If we are driven by our fears, we are in trouble. If we face our fears, as you have, we might find that things aren't as wrong as we felt they were.

Of course, it's all way more complicated than I could possibly sum up in a weblog comment. I'll finish by noting that many things, once we know them, we fear them less. Others, when we come to know them, we fear them more.

Anonymous said...

What spooks me sometimes is the sense that you know there's magic and great things just out there and the terrible notion that reality will not allow you to get to it and enjoy and experience the universe, just the wilting and withering and decaying of the human mind and body in just a few cycles of Earth...

Unknown said...

I must admit your 'existence' fear has spooked me also since I was small.

Also, I'm bugged by the mere thought of improbable scenarios where people get trapped in limbo forever. Such as the chap who makes a pact with Satan to live forever, then gets mistaken for dead and buried. The Twilight Zone episode where the lady finds a stopwatch that can stop time and stops it during WWIII just before a nuclear warhead detonates over her city is also uncomfortable.

Perhaps this translates to the fear of infinity. My mind is so geared up for dealing with the finite, that the idea of never-ending temporal or spacial dimensions fills me with dread.

Nick Tarleton said...

And this fear could be turned into reactive, destructive nihilism. A handful of disgruntled zealots could end the show in a real hurry.

How often are disgruntled zealots sufficiently smart, motivated, and capable of cooperation to do this? Damn infrequently, I should think.

Martin said...

I fear what some call a really "bad" mushroom trip. There is a moment in the peak (if one has taken enough) where one realizes that he is "someone", and this realization (or the transition from the period where you haven't realized it yet) can scare the THE shit out of you.
Also, pretty scary is when you begin to understand (again, while trippin') that you are the only consciousness there ever was, and anything you've ever seen or thought of, heard or smelled is made up solely by you. And the scary part in this is that you understand that this is for real...

George said...

Martin brings up an interesting point: when our psychology is stripped of all its safety buffers, does reality become all the more frightening?

Mr. Freer said...

trapped in limbo forever is a pretty scary one...

the fear that i'm the only person alive and everything is created by my imagination. very lonely and scary feeling.

The Love Collective said...

Isaiah 41:10: "Do not be afraid, for I am with you. Do not gaze about, for I am your God. I will fortify you. I will really help you. I will really keep fast hold of you with my right hand of righteousness.’

Cliff said...

Entropy freaks me out. I hate it. I hate knowing that the rocks are wearing down, that the stars are spewing out an incomprehensible amount of energy into vacuum every second.

The thought of not existing after death freaks me out too.

The thought of just how easily life on Earth could cease freaks me out - gamma ray bursts, asteroid collision, our magnetic field is disrupted, etc.

But to me, the fact that we even exist at all, as well as the fact that we are the beneficiaries of a long string of unlikely factors (Earth's orbit allowing liquid water, our magnetic field, and so on) makes me think that there is some sort of purpose to our existence.

Martin Wurzinger said...

Perhaps this helps.

Death: did we experience any trauma before our life? Then why should we worry about the time afterwards?

Suffering: our sensation of suffering and/or joy are relative to our disposition within the context of our reality. As much as it may hurt and/or make us happy, it ultimately depends on the degree of subjectivity. That goes for any scale (ie, individual, groups, society, etc).

Isolation: “We’re going to have to figure it all out for ourselves”. But of course! Doesn’t that in the end apply to any personal situation? No-one is really You.

Extinction: it’s a matter of perception. We know the past exists, but cannot fully comprehend its expanse, hence it mostly represents a conceptual fog. But we can abstract and muse about possible catastrophes, much weightier in our consciousness than the former. Therefore, no matter how long intelligent life exists anywhere, its members will always attach greater importance to what could come next than to what has already happened (and a good thing too :-)).

And in any case - the mere fact that some entity can employ its faculties and scare itself witless about everything that could go wrong - all the while remaining a functioning part of the whole - isn’t that in itself proof how well it works?

Casey said...

Yes George, this hits the nail on the head.

For me, add a Stygian vagueness haunting the periphery of my consciousness; impressions from the locale where I was conceived and reared (rural New England, USA — Indian trauma, religious repression, cruel weather, twisted forests, stony shores) and/or a psychological disposition reinforced by my depression-prone, psychedelic drug endorsing mother.

There are some comforts — meditation, Buddhist study, wife, cats, gadgets — but it's incredible how easily they can be overtaken by the ghosts of memory, or even simple mental/physical fatigue.

This is a terrific post. Like you, I feel a discrete thrill in knowing that I'm part of the totally bizarre and unfathomable interplay of transient phenomena that nevertheless appears to be solid, threatening, distracting and even occasionally indulgent.

If I lived in Canada, I'd buy you a beer.

Anonymous said...

Well, don't fret, George. Remember what Frank Herbert wrote:

"I must not fear.
"Fear is the mind-killer.
"Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
"I will face my fear.
"I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
"And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
"Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
"Only I will remain."

Wow, this entry reminds me of how god-damned lucky I am. When I was a kid (and this is relative, I'm not very old now) I used to worry the shit out of myself over things like this.

I actually went through a progression of intensifying existential angst throughout childhood as I considered the nature of reality and dispelled for myself all sorts of things I had taken for granted since I can remember. This culminated at fourteen when I finally got around to quitting belief in souls (and then to belief in immaterial consciousness as well) and lost my faith (generally spoken, I stopped having faith in the reliable reality of anything).

If you're anything like me, it should help significantly to realise that existential angst over these subjects serves no useful purpose. When I realised that I promptly quit being bothered about it and, to quote Anne Corwin, existence is wonderful.

Am I still sometimes afraid? Yeah. Terrified - of dentistry. But that doesn't mean I don't go to the dentist.

Do I still have attacks of existential depression? Yeah. I quite enjoy them, actually. It, like others, is a fascinating experience. It's actually almost (almost) annoying that I do enjoy the experience so much, as it thereby usually only lasts a little while, especially given the foreknowledge that it will only last for a little while.

Think of it this way: you live your whole life in a house of cards, terrified that you peer out the windows and see nothing but an empty tabletop. And you're frightened that if your house were ever to fall in, you'd be left alone on the tabletop with nothing but the cards at your feet. And then it happens and you realise that you've lived your whole life on a table in some person's basement. Are you going to stay there forever?

Delusions are scary things. What are yours?

To quote a shirt I saw one day, "I'd take 42 any day."

"I still wouldn't want to miss it for the world;" I couldn't agree with you more.
P.S.: Love your podcast music.

Anonymous said...

I guess I'm stereo typical in that I don't fear existence, but the lack thereof.

The fact that anything even exists means that anything is possible. At least, that's what I believe. I don't know how logical that is, but it seems reasonable to me.

I also think you could make an argument for suffering and God. Either you are right and God does not exist, or, it could be that God does exist and suffering is somehow tied to our growth as sentient beings. Or maybe God is a prick and enjoys watching others suffer?

Considering how limited our technology is, and the ways in which we look for life are archaic at best, I have trouble believing that we have exausted all the avenues of exploration, in the search for life in the cosmos, and that we can declare ourselves alone.

Lastly, if we do go extinct, I doubt it will be by accident. It won't be nuclear war, that wouldn't do it. Global warming wouldn't kill us either. It would have to be some kind of disease, and it would have to spread very easily to wipe us all out.

Personally, I am of the belief that there are powerful people in the world who want the human population to drop below 1 billion people. So maybe I do share this fear with you. I fear that all the decent human beings will be wiped out but the worst of us.

Nice Dune reference btw.

I should mention that man made black holes are not a real risk. Considering the number of particles that hit the earths atmosphere at higher speeds than any collider we have ever built, or likely will, and we haven't seen our planet destroyed yet.


Yeah, ain't life a bitch George.

Just a couple of weeks ago, out of the blue I was gripped by a horrific pain in my side which doubled me over - the pain was so excruiating I started suffering from continuous vomiting. I was reduced to writhing in pain prostrate in bed. Turned out it was a kidney stone and that level of pain lasted TWO WHOLE DAYS without respite.

We take health for granted but it doesn't last long. Believe me George, pain and suffering ain't funny. It's no joke mate (you just try a kidney stone for two days and see how you like it).

Our present human condition is objectively quite horrible.

Speaking of existential angst, I'm surprised that the topic of computer scientist Randy Pausch hasn't yet appeared on any transhumanist or futurist blog.

Pausch was a computer scientist diagnosed with cancer in Aug '07 and given 3-6 months to live. Then, he gave a famous 'Last Lecture' in which he talked about positive thinking. The lecture spread virally through YouTube and word of mouth...millions were inspired.

Pausch is still alive but in decline. He just published a book; 'The Last Lecture'. But his situation perhaps says something about positive thinking in the face of existential horror and impending death. His situation, is afer all, merely an extreme case of what we all face (finite life expectancy).

Pausch Link:

Randy Pausch Wikipedia article:

Anonymous said...

Besides the possibility of an infinite number of "Hells" (inhabited by an infinite number of victims?), the many worlds hypothesis bugs me for another reason.

Every day, everyone can make many different types of decisions. Most are pretty ethically neutral, but some are great (heroic) and some are really awful (evil). If I understand the many worlds hypothesis right, there are many versions of me in parallel universes. Some of those versions are doing absolutely horrible things, and some of them are versions of me in my immediate future.

I really can't stomach that kind of thing. So I try not to think about it. But the possibility makes me really hope that the many worlds hypothesis is wrong, or at least that I'm guessing wrong about the implications of the many worlds hypothesis.

Last, if we do develop strong AI, and if that AI can think about this kind of thing as a matter of course, it'll be really, really alien.

Michael Anissimov said...

I'm not so much afraid of these long-shot existential risks or vague philosophical things as I'm afraid that some not-so-nice group of people takes over the world with MNT in the next 25 years.

Maggie said...

I am terrified of infinity. I think this is just because we cannot understand anything without first experiencing it in some way and since infinity has no end we can never experience it fully.
I am also afraid of death like almost every living human except the extremely religious. Sometimes I attempt to console myself by looking out the window and seeing the amazing world. Our consciousness is the only thing keeping us separate from that wonderful world maybe death isn't so bad if you get to be part of that. But then I think because I wont be conscious it wont matter anyway.
I agree with you on the fact that we are here so therefore anything is possible. Maybe there is something beyond consciousness that is not anything but is also everything, something the Buddha hinted on with his idea of the 'void'. It cannot be understood until we lose our consciousness.
All I can do now is try to enjoy my life and help others enjoy theirs. I hope my existential crisis is over soon i have to much homework to do. Oh well I guess I'm on a win win. I either believe in nothingness after death and I die and get nothingness (and i wont ever know) or a get something as a pleasant surprise. If I believe in something and I get it thats cool or I might just die and get nothing but I wont ever know. XD This all sounds fun... not. We cannot escape from the human condition...

Hiram said...

You should really read the philosophy of Epicurus. He's my favorite Greek philosopher. Peace.