Re: The Meaning of Life

Eliezer Yudkowsky (
Wed, 05 Feb 1997 22:28:11 -0600

> Bacteria on Mars, if proven, would be a little unsettling, but there would
> still be a very long way go from there to intelligence and technology.
> I don't think wormholes or the speed of light is relevant, even in the
> unlikely event that we can never go faster than we can right now, we could
> still send Von Neumann probes to every star in the Galaxy in less than
> 100 million years and transform it beyond recognition, and that's not much
> time on a Cosmological time frame.

Pfui. A single galaxy? Makes perfect sense that we're the First. Just
requires, what, a billion stars per techie species? Only on a
Universal, 10^22-star scale is it a bit worrisome.

> Why should a meaningless Universe make me depressed? It is my sincerest wish
> that I am correct and that the universe has no meaning, because then I would
> be free to give it any meaning I want, otherwise I'm stuck with a meaning I
> may not like one bit.

Stop with the atheist hyperbole. Not everyone who disagrees with you is
a slavering religious fanatic. Having discussed that previously,

Let me translate your proposal into formal ethical terms. You do not
wish any goal to have inherently positive value, because then you would
be free to assign positive value to any goals you chose.

Now. If no goal has positive value, but you assign goals positive
value, you would simply be wrong. Try translating your proposal into
practical terms. You are saying: "I hope that there's no way to walk
across the room, because then I am free to assign to my actions whatever
walk-across-the-room-utility values I choose." Presumably you will
choose to assign a high value, in terms of getting across the room, to
blowing your nose. Now, in point of fact, blowing your nose will not
help you get across the room.

Your proposal *is* more intuitively appealing then the reductio above.
This is because of instinctive us-vs.-them thinking, as your
John-vs.-God example demonstrated. It seems preferable to choose your
own goals than to have them imposed. But that is not the issue - or
rather, the issue goes beyond that.

When we "choose our own goals" instead of having them "externally
imposed", we are not choosing our *ultimate* goals. We are choosing our
own goals in terms of which goals seem most desirable in terms of our
premanufactured, externally imposed ultimate goals, such as stimulation
of the pleasure centers. And we do not want goals "externally imposed"
because they would conflict with our ultimate goal of stimulating our
pleasure centers.

If there isn't a real Meaning of Life, our ultimate goals will always be
externally imposed. Always. John K Clark wants there to be no meaning
to Life so he can assign high value to, say, exploring the galaxy. And
he will want to assign high value to exploring the galaxy because he
thinks it will be fun. And he thinks it will be fun, because evolution
says it will be fun. So evolution is choosing John K Clark's goals for
him, in the absence of any real meaning to the Universe.

That example doesn't justify the "Always". In formal ethical terms, no
Meaning means - by definition - that any existing positive-value goals
were imposed by external fiat, or derived from positive-value goals
imposed by external fiat, or Interim (having probabilistic value).
Leave out the Interim; John K Clark is assuming that we know for *sure*
that all goals have zero inherent value; thus no Interim goals. Thus
there is no conceivable reason for John K Clark wanting to assign
meaning to anything, which will not trace its roots to evolution.
Either John K Clark will not know this, or he will know this and will
deliberately lie to himself.

By contrast, suppose the Meaning of Life is "new ideas". I can discard
all externally imposed goals, deduce that the Meaning is "new ideas",
and set out, completely free from all coercion, to explore the Galaxy in
search of new ideas.

You see, the thing about Life being meaningless is that you couldn't
have any positive-value goals except through self-delusion motivated by
externally imposed falsely meaningful goals. You'll choose your own
meaning? By what criterion? Life? Joy? Laughter? But they won't be
meaningful. In actual fact, they won't be meaningful. So you'll be
lying to yourself.

I think what you really hope is that the Meaning of Life will *be* what
you want it to be, like "joy in newness" and not something you
*wouldn't* want it to be, like "worshipping God". As you point out,
worshipping God is of no conceivable value to the Universe, once viewed
from the proper perspective. What good is worship to God? What good is
worship to anything? So a bunch of people have, in their belief
systems, the idea that God is of positive value. So what? Who cares?
What does it matter? That can't be the Meaning of Life.

Try to get this straight. If you can assign an absolute
(non-probabilistic) positive value to anything, without deluding
yourself or being motivated by externally imposed goals, that is the
Meaning of Life. Maybe there's one, maybe there's a dozen, maybe they
conflict with each other and maybe they don't. Maybe they're
observer-relative, maybe you can engineer them to be whatever you want
them to be. Maybe you'll fall on your knees and maybe you'll explore
the Universe.

But. You'll decide to do it. Of your own free will. Maybe the logic
is inexorable, and maybe it will conflict with previously established
goals, and maybe it leads to something you wouldn't want to face as you
are. But it will still be you, and nothing imposed by God, man or
evolution, that makes the decision that this is, that this must be,

--       Eliezer S. Yudkowsky

Disclaimer:  Unless otherwise specified, I'm not telling you
everything I think I know.