I have this memory —

I was a tiny kid, lying in bed and trying to fall asleep, and I started thinking about death and nonexistence, and I thought about how one day I wouldn’t exist any more, that there wouldn’t be a me thinking my thoughts and perceiving my perspective, and suddenly I was terrified.

I got up and knocked on my parents’ bedroom door and asked them about this. Maybe. Or maybe I didn’t because the fear was less crippling than the social awkwardness of randomly knocking on my parents’ door in the middle of the night to ask them a question like that; I don’t remember. It was a long time ago, okay?

This approximate topic is something I think and blog about now and then, rarely but consistently. Mortality was the light-hearted rambling one; Thoughts at Midnight was the dark philosophically-unhinged one. There are many even older posts, from before I told anybody about this blog. I’m not going to find them and you shouldn’t either. They’re probably terrible.

It inevitably feels weird writing about them because I rarely feel these feelings and roughly never talk to anybody about them. As I said before, it’s just not a popular conversation topic. But when they happen, they happen, except now I don’t think there’s anybody whose door I can knock on, not just because I’m far too old for this stuff and living away from family, but because I’ve thought so much about these things that I doubt I know anybody who could give me a convincing and satisfying answer. I know there is too much we don’t know.

I am not having these feelings right now. There might have been a few minutes in the last week, but otherwise nothing for a month or so. (Remember, my blog drafts go back years…) For whatever reason, I had an especially vivid, and relatively realistically-grounded, moment like that for a few minutes on the flight home.

I was sad about the fact that I was going to die. That life is fleeting, and nothing lasts forever. I was sad about the days I had spent with my precious family and friends that had passed, and the limited supply I had left, and how I didn’t know the proper way to use them, how I felt like my future self would inevitably regret some choices no matter how hard I tried.

I was sad about the long future, that I wasn’t optimistic about living a long and happy life with all the uncertainties and x-risks and how humanity is still so terrible at cooperating, despite the growing capacity of a few lone defectors to ruin things for everybody. Global warming or environmental issues in general, a particularly bad strain of virus or a biological or chemical attack, and who knows what’ll happen with artificial intelligence.

I was sad that even if we got everything right, the future probably wouldn’t need me. Everything I was learning or would learn, everything the world valued in me, everything I valued in myself — there would probably be some possibly non-human entity out there that did it better. And yet in some other way, that seemed desirable, because some of those things would benefit a lot of people if they were done better by anybody at all. I was sad that I couldn’t tell what I wanted, that my big-picture desires conflicted with each other and didn’t make any sense. That even if I had a benevolent genie, I wouldn’t know what to tell it. That I’m trying to keep an eye on changing the world for the better, but a little bit reluctant to think too hard and too precisely about what the moonshot optimal world I was ultimately aiming for because I might not like it.

That’s as much as I can express what’s it’s like. But the details don’t matter, right? The point is the same. These things are faraway and there are no good answers, so thinking about them is unhelpful, so I should stop. Right?

(Sometimes it works. Sometimes I can’t call up the same emotional weight of those thoughts even if I tried. They just collapse into sentences, words in a relation dictated by syntax. My Amazon package is going to arrive in the next one or two weeks; the Earth is going to rotate about its axis over the next 24 hours; I am going to die. Facts. Boring.)

On one hand, focusing on the present — seizing the day, living without regrets — helps me make myself actually do things instead of think in circles about ungrounded ideas. On the other hand, not looking at the big picture of life makes it easy to let days slip away without having done anything meaningful. When I suppress these philosophical thoughts, am I suppressing an unproductive side of me, or am I suppressing the side of me that would actually be able to experience life the most deeply?

(Or both?)


(Faux-philosophical blog content, posted as part of a daily posting streak I have openly committed to; standard disclaimers apply)

This is a hard essay to write because (1) it’s very irrational and I should (and I do) know better — death by car accident is much more likely than death by an airplane crash, but the latter is scarier because it’s more vivid and we have less control over it, and (2) people don’t like talking about it. When I tried writing it, though, I realized I already burned through most of the down-to-earth worries in the posts I made between April and August of 2010. They still coherently and accurately sum up my current thoughts surprisingly well. And most of the irrational, overly philosophical fears appeared in Thoughts at Midnight. So there used to be a lot of fluff here like this, which was inducing procrastination because I don’t know what to include and what to cut, but now that I have a daily deadline, I cut most of it. Here’s what’s left.

One, xkcd:


Two, bonus quote: As really-long-term readers know, I have had a reason to think that I might actually die in the past few years, a real reason that has stayed with me and gotten me thinking now and then about what my meaning of life is, instead of a short-lived fuzzy philosophical feeling obtained from reading Tuesdays with Morrie (which is not to say that Tuesdays with Morrie isn’t a good book; I just suspect no book can convey everything a personal experience can.) Anyway, it’s over in all likelihood, but the point is that in the middle, I wrote an essay for class in ninth grade, which I find equally coherent and equally representative of my views. The conclusion runs thus:

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Thoughts at Midnight

These are the thoughts that sometimes keep me awake at night.

These are things I don’t want to think about. These are things I’ve spent hours thinking about, never productively. They are worrying, but unlike typical worries in my life, it is fundamentally impractical to take steps to resolve or mitigate them, after which I may rest assured that I’ve done my best. The reason is that they also happen to be either untestable/unfalsifiable or only testable if one incurs absurd and irreversible costs, mainly dying.

Sometimes I explain them away to myself successfully and move on. Sometimes I read what I’ve written and think about these thoughts and do the cognitive equivalent of looking at them funny, as I’m expecting most readers to feel if they get that far — why would anybody be bothered, or afraid, or soul-crushingly panicked about these things? Life is so busy, there are literally more than sixty-four items on my HabitRPG to-do list, and besides, there are so many serious global issues humanity is actually facing right now, and people who are actually deprived of basic rights and resources and have to struggle to stay alive. How can I possibly be bothered by these absurd remote thoughts?

But I know that other times I do feel those emotions exactly. And if I stare just right, I can feel those emotions bubbling beneath the surface in me. Sometimes I can’t explain the issues away to myself, and a deep soul-sucking pang grows in my stomach. I’m irrational — I’m afraid of some of these thoughts — and I have submitted to the fact that there are some edges of my irrationality that would not be worth the effort to fix if just not thinking about them is better.

Sometimes these thoughts make me wish I were not so rational. Sometimes they even make me wish I were religious; it would be easier if (I believed) consciousness were, somehow, special. I suspect if I tried really hard, I could make myself believe something like that sincerely. But I think that’s a betrayal of myself I’m not willing to take. I think there are better ways to remain happy.

I want to maximize happiness. Thinking about more general moral principles will help with that, but the remoteness of these particular thoughts is such that I doubt I’ll ever have to make a choice that would benefit from me having thought about them. At least, I think the chance is small enough to not be worth the negative utility spent thinking about them.

So: “There is nothing to fear but fear itself.”

But I feel frustrated: not thinking about something just doesn’t seem like a solution. I don’t know how to come to terms with just how irrational happiness fundamentally is. And I still can’t resist thinking about them sometimes…

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