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AnneC comments on Avoiding Your Belief's Real Weak Points - Less Wrong

50 Post author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 05 October 2007 01:59AM

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Comment author: AnneC 06 October 2007 12:31:58AM 3 points [-]

When you're doubting one of your most cherished beliefs, close your eyes, empty your mind, grit your teeth, and deliberately think about whatever hurts the most.

This is good advice.

I started doing this around 9 years ago, because at the end of adolescence I experienced a sudden "mortality awareness". I imagine this is probably common -- that is, many people probably experience a moment in their life when the fact that they, too, are getting older, comes into sharp relief. But in my observation, most people seem to respond to this moment by saying, "Oh well, I'm just not going to think about that". I couldn't not think about it, though. I was already an atheist at this point, but when I was 20 I still hadn't come up with much of an approach for thinking about how to live my life in full awareness of biological vulnerability. So I forced myself to imagine becoming very old and sick, to imagine contracting cancer, to imagine every single worst-case scenario that would lead to pain and death (not just mine, but that of my family, etc., as well).

I didn't mention this to very many people, but those I did seemed to think it was "unhealthy", and that I was exhibiting a kind of OCD-like obsession with doom. But it was a phase I needed to go through, so that I could process the worst-that-could-happen without just reacting emotionally to it. It isn't that I'm "fine" now with the idea of horrible things happening -- of course I would like to avoid them -- but that I don't think that "not thinking about horrible things" is an effective means of avoiding them. I figure that (a) there are some things that could very well happen regardless of what I do or how I think, and (b) I am more likely to come up with an effective strategy for avoiding something bad if I don't hide from thoughts about that bad thing.

Also, after processing the "worst case scenarios" I thought up, I came to realize that even if every bad thing I can imagine happens at some point, life is still infinitely worth living in the meantime -- this is especially pertinent in how I try to approach the subject of life extension, because I think it would lead to damaging bias (e.g., overconfidence with regard to the development of effective biotech solutions for radical longevity in my lifetime) if I were to make my ability to live without despair contingent upon achieving this longevity.