Musings on Nihilism and Metaphysics

Today’s post will be a bit weirder than the usual fare. Ever since a fun discussion at Ephemerisle, I’ve had a bunch of things on my mind related to many worlds, the simulation hypothesis, and anthropics in general. I don’t understand anthropics. As far as I can tell, no one does.

In the narrative of my relationship with others, they’re the one who are nihilistic, not me. But, of course, it’s more complicated than that. We all have nihilistic parts. Mine is somewhat in shadow, mostly because of my judgments that it isn’t useful and that some of its conclusions are embarrassing or not prosocial enough.

I’ll explain how mine works. In fact, I’ll let my nihilistic part write a whole bit from its perspective. Here’s what it has to say:

A long time ago, before I had ever heard of quantum mechanics, my intuitive model of the world was pretty much the Clockwork Universe. I didn’t know the term, but it’s exactly what I had in mind. I used to picture a bunch of billiard balls bouncing around and muse on determinism and how free will was an illusion.

Whenever we (the system that is Divia) got too upset, guilty, freaked out, etc., it helped to remember that I didn’t believe in free will anyway, and things couldn’t have gone differently. It seemed to help us feel better, and short circuit bad feelings that didn’t know what to do with themselves. I provided a very useful frame.

Then, I read about quantum mechanics and pretty much accepted the Copenhagen Interpretation because it seemed like the books I was reading said the experts thought it worked that way. It seemed weird, but I didn’t trust myself to come up with anything better. (I still don’t claim to understand the double slit experiment. Does someone else who reads this blog? I can repeat back the results just fine, but I’m baffled as to how to update my metaphysics accordingly.)

So my understanding of quantum physics at the time seemed at odds with determinism. But chance at the quantum level hardly explains free will, so the frame still pretty much held.

Then, I read The Sequences. I read about how the correct thing to do with free will is to dissolve the question, and also about how I was right that the Copenhagen Interpretation seemed like it didn’t make any sense. The working theory was now many worlds. (But then there’s the simulation hypothesis, which I encountered around the same time. Depending on how the simulation is set up, things may be different yet.)

I also learned about things like IFS and NVC and realized that there were ways to address the bad feelings that didn’t know what to do with themselves that didn’t involve framing away agency. I relaxed that part of my role quite a bit. Around the same time though, I expanded my role a bit to help frame away worries about the fate of the world.

But my job isn’t just about checking other runaway emotional patterns. I care about truth. The many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics is a determinist one. The actual prediction, as far as I understand, is that the distribution of Everett branches cannot “be influenced”. I’m not sure what it would even mean to do so. Everything happens. Universes where I have more kids, and universes where I don’t. Universes where someone reading this blog post hallucinates that I titled it “Purple Unicorns”, and universes where no one hallucinates, but on someone’s computer screen the pixels actually randomly rearrange into the pattern where the title says “Purple Unicorns”. 

There are very few universes where the magical-type things like letters rearranging happen. Casual googling hasn’t revealed guesses about how many Everett branches split off every second. I only found a FAQ that said umpteen… My brain rejects any attempts to truly visualize every quantum thing going every possible way and multiplying all that. Trying to imagine it boggles my mind.

Will has on occasion talked about choices we make causing bad outcomes in whole bunches of Everett branches. But no. I get what he’s saying, that he’s trying to get our human brains to conceptualize tail risk. But all Everett beaches happen. It’s not about what we do.

Then there’s stuff about identity and anthropics. Maybe if I identify as this or that kind of algorithm, then it’s fair to say that I can affect what happens to “me” because, while the distribution of universes is fixed, I can change what I’m counting as me, so I can on average chance what is likely to happen to one of the things that counts as “me”.



I’d call my nihilism relatively mature (jargon I’ve been appropriating from Big Mind Big Heart). It’s not mostly about stereotyped behavior and numbing pain. It’s quite curious and interested in getting feedback from reality, mostly through scientific and philosophical writing. But it’s definitely there. I’m grateful to it, and I think it has some good insights. Its questions and confusion are likely even more valuable.

  • Dermot Harnett

    Where’s the nihilism here? This just sounds like the LW consensus to me. Nothing about it precludes compassion, joy or happiness.

    • Fair enough. I do think the facts of what I said amount the LW consensus and the frame does not preclude compassion, joy, and happiness. But the idea that nothing matters seems nihilistic to me, and that can get in there too.

      • Dermot Harnett

        I’m just curious to know how your non-nihilistic frame differs? Is it by the presence of additional beliefs not present in the above, or by disagreement with some of the above?

        • Good question!

          In the non-nihilistic frame, I think that some hypothetical smarter wiser future me would advise me to become the sort of agent who tries to make the world a better and more likely to survive place. I believe that if I somehow got to remember the life experience of being both a more goal-directed world saver person and a person who only cared about enjoying life then I would definitely pick the first option, including because I should expect it to be a longer life.

          Nihilistic me isn’t convinced of the above-described point.

          Thanks for encouraging me to pin this one down :-).