Future Worship

Written on May 17, 2009. Written by .

Religion is usually defined by its promotion of belief in some supernatural power. But more fundamentally, we could define religion as a system of morals and beliefs that skews one’s ability to properly compute their life-quality maximization function. According to this definition, there is a subtle and insidious religion thriving in modern society that is rarely discussed-the religion of future worship. Future worship consists of a set of beliefs based around the idea that one should worry about their future. The italicized words are each important. The beliefs suggest that if one is not worrying, then one should start worrying, and that simply considering the future is not sufficient, worrying is necessary. This worry is responsible for many important life decisions and thus produces a large influence on the way the world is developing.

The reason future worship is so difficult to recognize is that it actually does make sense to invest for the future sometimes. There is an ideal level of investment for each person and for each situation, but there is no non-arbitrary place to draw a line that will handle all cases. So by the principle of non-arbitrary distinction, there is no absolute principle that will tell you when you are making a reasonable investment and when you are worshiping the future. But because future worship is based on worry rather than reason, a systematic bias is created in favor of sacrifice and investment. People are led to become disciplined and to rush into things they are not ready for, which has the consequence of degrading their own life quality and making the world less enjoyable for others as well.

Mental discipline emerges as a result of the need to make sacrifices for investment in the future. Major investments like education and career goals usually require that specific actions are taken at specific times regardless of one’s mood. This situation creates a system of pressures and deadlines that can only be managed with a good deal of mental discipline. These pressures are not entirely a creation of modern society – even primitive man had to go out and work to obtain food every so often, which may not have always been the most enjoyable option available. But there are some fundamental differences with the current situation. We now have larger discontinuities in life quality due to our deadlines. If you miss a final exam, you might end up failing the class and be forced to go through a whole lot more suffering next semester. For primitive man, deadlines were generally flexible, meaning that they provided a continuously increasing negative influence on life quality. When a primitive man was too lazy to hunt or gather, he would become hungry, but he doesn’t die until about three weeks of strong, direct incentives to collect food have been experienced. During the better part of these weeks, his body would ensure that he was in the mood for obtaining food. The same is not true for most modern pressures. Your body does not understand the significance of income tax returns, so any incentives that you have to do them will be indirect, through a long chain of abstract, assumed connections.

Ideally, we want to feel like everything we do is for our personal benefit, not just think that it is for our personal benefit. This is the problem with jobs. You think that being in the job is beneficial, but you feel like everything you do while at the job is for someone else’s benefit. The discrepancy arises because there is a disconnect between your motives and your actions. They are only connected through a contract signed a long time ago. No matter how many times you remind yourself of how well you are getting paid through your employment contract, you are never going to be able to get over the natural feeling that doing someone else’s chores is not in your self-interest, even if this feeling is actually incorrect and merely due to the limitations of human psychology.

In addition to such problems caused by discipline, there are the problems caused by rushing. It is now common for many high school students to feel that going directly to college is the only option after graduation. This forces the student to decide on a concentration at just about the time they are sobering up from all the partying they do in their first year on campus. At this age, most students do not have a strong conception of what it would feel like to work full-time in the career they are choosing. By the time they find an internship a few years down the road, they already feel that it is too late to switch majors. Due to the high costs of college, there is a strong disincentive to starting over. So they convince themselves that it won’t be that bad and continue along the path they chose based on insufficient data. Other students might actually have chosen the best concentration for them, but don’t yet realize it and so end up resisting their education rather than enjoying it. And even the lucky students who truly enjoy their studies often wind up over-worked and over-stressed to the point of losing interest in their studies, especially during graduate school.

As a consequence of the discipline and rush induced by future worship, people turn out to be less interesting. Often they must temper their passions and natural interests to support their career goals. And after long hours of draining work, it is difficult to have enough stamina to do anything but to seek recovery through passive forms of entertainment such as television and spectator sports. Such a person is less fun to talk to because they don’t have many unique experiences to talk about, and they are less fun to be friends with because they are always either working or recovering from work. But the harm due to their mistakes is not limited to their acquaintances-it affects everyone in the economy. The future worshiper creates demand for junk television and supports the outrageous salaries of professional athletes instead of stimulating markets for interests that require more active involvement. This makes it more difficult for others to make a living doing genuinely meaningful things. Furthermore, the willingness of the future worshiper to work such long hours makes it much harder for others to live without working long hours. If everyone simultaneously agreed that they would refuse to work more than 20 hours a week and refused to take a pay cut, the world would adjust and still work fine. Of course GDP growth would slow, but the structure of society would not change too much. Why are we still working 40 hours a week then? It is simply because there are too many future worshipers. Consider the example that Bertrand Russell gives in his essay In Praise of Idleness: a factory employs workers for 40 hours per week to produce pins and one day a new invention comes along that doubles the efficiency of the factory. It would be possible to reduce work hours to 20 per week without changing anything else, but that is not what happens. Worker’s pay rates are not determined by their productive output, but by the labor market. The factory owner knows this and just fires half of his staff. Those who got fired find new jobs; all the workers continue working full-time and the factory owner pockets the increased profits.

Many commentators take this as justification for an attack on capitalism. Indeed it does seem that the harshness of free-market competition is responsible for the plight of the workers in this case. In a way, free-market competition is responsible in the sense that it is a necessary ingredient for the situation to exist. But capitalism is not the culprit here. Blaming the problem on capitalism would be like blaming the laws of physics for the bad weather. In both cases there is simply no other feasible option and blame relies on choice. Capitalism is just the way trade (and hence economics) works. You can either have capitalism or capitalism twisted by threats of violence (socialism), but both are fundamentally capitalism.

So if we can’t blame capitalism, then what caused this unfortunate situation? We can only blame ourselves. It is the way we behave that creates the world we live in. The motives for our future worshiping behavior can be explained with the following observations. Primarily, our genes make us competitive and sacrificial straight from birth. Our genes are not concerned with our subjective life quality-they don’t mind if we are constantly stressed and worried as long as that stress and worry is helping us to survive and reproduce. When it comes to survival, our genes’ interests are allied with our own, but from our genes standpoint, it is ideal to be safe and boring so as to make it easier to raise children at a young age, which is not entirely ideal for us. Furthermore, parents assist in the promotion of future worship because they don’t want to have to take care of their children forever. Even if their children would survive fine on their own, they know that they will feel the need to send money if their children are experiencing severe hardship, again due to genetic factors. But they would prefer to just get their children into medical school so they won’t have to worry about this potential burden. Schooling too biases children toward future worship because the whole educational system is setup to convince students that life requires massive sacrifice, and the process is started long before they are old enough to see through the wool that is over their eyes. There is also the factor that the wealthy benefit from the sacrificial behavior of the poorer classes, which encourages the rich and powerful to promote propaganda based on the idea that hard work is virtuous for its own sake (e.g. the Puritan work ethic). Along with such propaganda comes the insinuation that it is somehow bad to not want to work, which is an absurd value judgment. Another factor is that we don’t have good lifestyle options for those who choose not to work. Homeless shelters and soup kitchens are unnecessarily inconvenient. Under an ideal form of government like geolibertarianism, everyone would receive a living wage coming out of the nation’s property taxes, alleviating the compulsion to work and curbing the exploitation of the poor.

Conventional wisdom would say that if a person just does whatever they feel like doing, they would become extremely lazy and their life would be purposeless. Based on real-world evidence, I am quite certain that this is simply not true. It is just one of the many false assumptions that has been implanted into our collective consciousness of our society by Christianity, which declares sloth as one of the seven deadly sins. Though some people may be naturally more lazy than others, I believe that aside from a few depressed individuals, laziness is self-limiting and everyone will equilibrate to natural level of laziness that leaves plenty of room for productivity and purpose in life. People are often deceived by the level of laziness seen on vacations. Of course you will be lazy on a vacation from a hard job, you are in a sort of motivation debt from all the sacrifice that you have been making. But after all that debt is paid off, assuming your vacations was as long as you choose, you would realize that sloth is not as fun as engaging in interesting activities that provide flow experiences.

The obvious question at this point is: How can one actually escape from the religion of future worship in the real world where we have all kinds of financial concerns to deal with? All you really have to do is stop worrying, but of course that is much easier said than done. To stop worrying, you need to convince yourself that worry is unnecessary. This can be accomplished by presenting yourself with a potentially plausible plan and using reason to justify its plausibility and desirability. So here is a generic plan that seems plausible: Be greedy with your time, don’t let anyone take it unless if you have no choice. Start by saving up a year’s worth of living expenses as a psychological security buffer, then live modestly and work as little as possible to get by. Use your free time to pursue your true interests, some of which will lead you to new money-making opportunities that will allow you to reduce your working time further through freelancing and business. Don’t go to college until you find something that you are truly interested in studying. When you do go to college, don’t pay attention to grades. Don’t have expectations for the future, then you won’t be disappointed when your grades are not good enough for the nation’s top medical school. Don’t have goals for the future, just let your rational desires guide you through each stage. Goals are based on the notion that the future is predictable, which is not true, so goals just lead to frustration and disappointment. Following your rational desires is the organic and adaptable way to optimize your life.

The difficult step is to convince yourself that such a plan is in fact plausible and desirable. Since it is hard to predict the future, the best bet is to just try it, but that is not easy either. You need to realize that you can always change your mind. And even if you do change your mind, that doesn’t mean you were wrong. The situation is different and the right decisions in differing situations may differ. You can’t be wrong about lifestyle decisions if you are using your best reasoning. So fill in some specifics such as what type of work you might want to do and see if it is possible. Here is some additional reading that might help.

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