Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom

Science fiction, Schrodinger's cat, and self-determination

Exhalation

“Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom” is the last installment in Ted Chiang’s Exhalation, a collection of short stories that beautifully fuses philosophy and science fiction. This novella is a meditation on what free choice and moral responsibility mean within the “many-worlds” interpretation of quantum mechanics. The MWI suggests that the universe is constantly splitting into a near-infite number of versions. In other words, there are countless parallel worlds, and thus copies of ourselves, that are superimposed in the same physical space but all evolving independently.

In “Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom”, the concept of many-worlds is encapsulated in an invention dubbed the “prism”, a device that causes a divergence in future timelines when activated at a point in time. After a timeline diverges, there is one prism on each divergent branch — interestingly, the prisms within these branches are connected and allow for a finite amount of communication. If you activate a prism you own, or if you can get hold of an older prism, you could communicate with your parallel self (aka “paraself”) from a different timeline.

Cat Cartoon # 8046 - ANDERTOONS
A parallel can be drawn between Schrodinger’s cat and prisms. When the box is opened in one universe, the cat is dead — but in another universe, the cat is alive. The two worlds had been identical until the moment the box was opened.

This prism technology creates widespread existential angst, and understandably so. There are an infinite number of branches of reality in which alternate versions of yourself act in an infinite number of ways that one self on one branch has no conscious control over, challenging our neat mental construct of personal agency and self-determination.

It’s important to note here that agnostic of their actions, all selves across all timelines are still you.

So if you seek to act morally, but your paraself made an immoral choice, what does that say about your character? And if you have no agency over the actions of your paraselves, who are still extensions of yourself, what does it say about free will and moral responsibility?

Chiang masterfully brings these ideas to life through his knack for worldbuilding. Throughout the novella, characters struggle with what it means to have agency over self in a world of infinite choice, and moreover, whether the gravity of decision-making is essentially moot in this world.

“Many worried that their choices were rendered meaningless because every action they took was counterbalanced by a branch in which they made the opposite choice. Experts tried to explain that human decision-making was a classical rather than quantum phenomenon, so the act of making a choice didn’t by itself cause new branches to split; it was quantum phenomena that generated new branches, and your choices in those branches were as meaningful as they ever were. Despite such efforts, many people became convinced that prisms nullified the moral weight of their actions.” — Ted Chiang, Exhalation

Kierkegaard

Ted Chiang fittingly borrowed the title for this novella from Kierkegaard, who is generally considered the father of existential philosophy.

“Hence, anxiety is the dizziness of freedom, which emerges when the spirit wants to posit the synthesis and freedom looks down into its own possibility, laying hold of finiteness to support itself.” — Kierkegaard, The Concept of Anxiety

In Kierkegaard’s view, anxiety is a side effect of free choice and the paralyzing possibility that accompanies it. Relishing the responsibility that comes with freedom naturally leads to anxiety, as the mere fact that we have the possibility of doing something can create deep dread.

However, for Kierkegaard, the nuance is that there is an inherent duality in which anxiety can either be constructive or destructive. On one side is the dread that accompanies the gravity of choice, and on the other is the exhiliration that comes from freedom to choose for oneself.

In the face of momentous choice, how we grapple with the dizziness of freedom defines whether we allow freedom to consume us or enables us. We can either adopt a nihilistic mindset and believe that none of our choices are consequential anyway, or we can see each choice as a meaningful opportunity to create and recreate.

I strongly ascribe to the latter interpretation. It’s captured well by Rollo May in The Meaning of Anxiety —

“We can understand Kierkegaard’s ideas on the relation between guilt and anxiety only by emphasizing that he is always speaking of anxiety in its relation to creativity. Because it is possible to create — creating one’s self, willing to be one’s self, as well as creating in all the innumerable daily activities (and these are two phases of the same process) — one has anxiety … It always involves destroying the status quo, destroying old patterns within oneself, progressively destroying what one has clung to from childhood on, and creating new and original forms and ways of living.” — Rollo May, The Meaning of Anxiety

Final Thoughts

Though it may seem like Chiang is painting a doom-and-gloom picture of self-determination in “Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom”, he actually subtly yet actively rejects nihilism throughout the novella. In the book acknowledgements, he suggests that if character is revealed by the choices one makes over time in one world, character can also conversely be determined by the choices you make across many worlds at one point in time. Moreover, you slowly shape your character with every decision, which eventually creates a center of gravity around which the future decisions you make will converge even as your timeline continues to diverge.

“And it’s not just your behavior in this branch that you’re changing: you’re inoculating all the versions of you that split off in the future. By becoming a better person, you’re ensuring that more and more of the branches that split off from this point forward are populated by better versions of you.” — Exhalation

I’ve been trying to remind myself that there is elegance in simplicity. So in summary, here are three takeaways I’ve distilled from Chiang’s piece that I’ve been mulling over lately:

  • Anxiety signals creation and change

  • You are the sum total of the decisions you make

  • Feeling anxious about the unknown is a privilege, as it’s preceded by the freedom to choose


If you’re a philosophy / sci-fi / Black Mirror nerd, I’d highly recommend reading Ted Chiang’s Exhalation collection if you haven’t yet! I can’t think of another fictional piece that so aptly reflects the dualities that define the human condition — it’s familiar yet alien, optimistic yet wary, and most importantly, it weaves boundless existential questions into a finite tapestry.