The heuristic in my own life

Someone must by now be saying, “Faustus, come off it.  Surely you don’t think that anyone would accept a coin flip on their own life?”

Let me reflect a bit on my own life.  I can’t think of any one massive bad thing so far that would have led me to accept a coin flip on it, but, well…there are any number of smaller bets that I might have accepted that work out to a functional equivalent thereto.  Let’s begin defining another term:  a Mephistophelean Wager.  Imagine if you will that there is some powerful being, a misanthropic billionaire, wizard, devil, what have you, capable of removing some significant source of unhappiness from your life, but that said being will only offer to such relief as part of a wager which, if you lose, results in your immediate (but painless) annihilation.  The wagers are binary, relief with probability p, annihilation with probability 1 – p.  We might differentiate certain nominal categories of Mephistophelean Wager.  A Mephistophelean Coinflip splits the probabilities 0.5/0.5 between relief and annihilation, while Mephistophelean Russian Roulette is more generous, giving you a probability of 0.83 of relief and survival (think of putting one bullet in the cylinder of a fair revolver, spinning it and pulling the trigger).

Now as you might be aware, and as I cannot ignore, beginning around the age of 24 and continuing until about the age of 31 or so I went through a dark time in my life characterized by personal loneliness and deep career frustration.  I couldn’t get a girlfriend to save my life in spite of trying very hard, and I couldn’t get a job in the field I had spent the better part of a decade preparing for.  By any reasonable standard of evaluation I was a failure.  I wasn’t suicidal, exactly, although I did go to bed a lot of nights half- or more-than-half-wishing that I wouldn’t wake up the next morning.  Had a round of Mephistophelean Russian Roulette been available for me to play, I would have played.  Indeed, I think I would have played two rounds. I would have played one for a girlfriend — not Helen of Troy, not a harem of lissome beauties, just one with the character and charms of the individual identified as Second Serious Girlfriend in my Thaumatophile Manifesto.  And I would have played one for a permanent academic position (only somewhere good, mind you).

One might be tempted to say, how immature.  Well, I’m sorry but you didn’t have to live my life and go to bed all those awful nights.  You don’t get to judge.  One might also be tempted to say that it would have been irrational to accept a even a single round of Mephistophelean Russian Roulette because life now, in middle-middle age, is better than it was in my twenties.  It is better,  thank you.  But it is not, in my judgment, anywhere near sufficiently better that it somehow “compensates,” “outweighs,” or “makes up for,” what I had to go through in my twenties.   And what’s more, I don’t see anything in prospect in the likely balance of my life, be it measured in minutes or decades, that is likely to make up for that experience.  Between death at 24 and the balance of my life as it is, I think I would in principle choose the former, although obviously that is now something impossible to arrange.

And indeed, the very fact that I have a future is itself more of a problem than most people would realize.  Think of all the dreadful, dreadful things that lurk through and past human middle age that happen to people all the time,have, to a moral certainty, happened to people you  know.  Cancer.  Alzheimer’s Disease.  Loss of sight.  Loss of hearing.  Premature death of spouses and loved ones and its consequent bereavement.  Bankruptcy and consequent poverty.  Serious legal difficulties.  Drug and alcohol addiction.  Just the process of getting old, even in “good” health, seems filled with suffering:  what with the ruin of one’s attractiveness, the collapse of one’s abilities and mobility, the fading of one’s senses and memory and intellect, and the dying off of one’s friends and family.  People sometimes say that old age has its compensations.  I very much doubt this claim.  It seems like something the young tell themselves so as not be overburdened with pity for the old, and something the not-young likewise tell themselves as a way of whistling past (should that be whistlingtoward?) the graveyard.

The relevant point here is that there are likely to be any number of rounds of Mephistophelean Russian Roulette I would take if I knew that the alternative were some of these forms of suffering.  I’ve seen people dying of cancer:  I would much rather spin the cylinder and pull the trigger if on survival it would mean dying peacefully in mys sleep at some point int he future rather than having to go through that.  And if by some miracle there were a way to avoid old age but still live as long as a typical human being does these days, that would be worth a major gamble.   The point here is, I might be quite willing to take two more rounds.  And I would retrospectively endorse taking them earlier in life than I am now, if such a thing were possible.

But rounds add up.  The following table calculates the relevant probabilities.  In the left-hand column is a number of hypothetical rounds, and the right the probability (computed to two figures) of being dead after that number of rounds.

Rounds Probability of Death
1 0.17
2 0.31
3 0.42
4 0.52
5 0.60
6 0.67
7 0.72
8 0.77
9 0.81
10 0.84
11 0.87
12 0.89
13 0.91
14 0.92
15 0.94
16 0.95
17 0.95
18 0.96
19 0.97
20 0.97
21 0.98
22 0.98
23 0.98
24 0.99
25 0.99

Four rounds gets you over the threshold of 0.5.  By that standard, I feel justified in concluding that my life is on balance suffering.

Another note on the break-even heuristic

Another consideration in favor of the break-even heuristic might be something like the following (it’s a development of my parenthetical under point three in my previous post:

Suppose you were just icy-cold about death, utterly indifferent to just how much longer you would live from the moment of your decision onward.  Suppose you regard death as nothing other than the cessation of experience, a permanent zero on the scale, and a period you no more dread than you regret the nonexistence before your birth.  What rational decision procedure might you follow in deciding whether or not to accept the coin-flip?  Well, what you could do would simply be to survey all the things in prospect in your potential future life that give you pain.  If the quantity of pleasure is greater than that of pain — deprivations of good or normal things — then it would make sense to simply decline the coin-flip and live out your life.  If they pains and pleasures were exactly equal, then you would be indifferent between the coin flip and continuation.  If the scale tipped into more pain than pleasure, then the coin flip becomes a desirable gamble, because it represents an opportunity for a better life than you could have just leading onward.

Thus the even probability really does in some sense the break-even point between that at which life is and is not mostly suffering.

Of course if you do fear death — and most people do — then you would need a much heavier burden of suffering over good things in life before you would be willing to accept the fair-coin gamble. But that of course makes the test of someone’s being willing to accept that fair-coin gamble all the more compelling as evidence that her life is mostly suffering.