Polls tell us that lots of us are pretty gloomy about the future. Perhaps it’s the ugly political tensions we’re all observing every day , or maybe it’s the worries about terrorism, or could it be our perceptions about the economy, race, Zika, or global warming?
Or do people agree with Donald Trump that electing Hillary Clinton is “…the end of our country. It’s over. It’s over.” Lots of people have sunk into a profound despair about the future of humanity.
I discovered, to my surprise, in an after dinner conversation recently that a couple of my friends are deeply pessimistic about the future of the human species. I was surprised because both men are highly educated professionals who have been richly rewarded in their careers and now enjoy a very comfortable retirement.
They both believe, they said, that humans are destroying our lovely planet and we are not capable of stopping the destruction. They believe that our major human institutions are failing and cannot be transformed. They believe that we are fundamentally flawed creatures, with no path toward redemption.
The end is coming in some form or another, they are convinced.
I argued that humans are doing amazing things like peering into the universe, harnessing our discoveries about the laws of physics, and developing better and better explanations for just about everything.
I accused them of a perspective without awe.
But I made no headway against their pessimistic convictions and was left alone in my optimism.
Are you optimistic or pessimistic?
Before I get to why we have to be optimistic, a little quiz may help you decide where you fall on the optimism/pessimism continuum:
Answer I agree or I do not agree with the following statements. Yup, chose one or the other. Each of these statements requires a bit of reflection, so take your time.
In the course of human history, real progress is underway.
Positive change in human society is occurring thanks to our continuous acquisition of new knowledge
Our explanations for what is true in science, philosophy and art are at least somewhat flawed but our explanations are getting better and will continue to get better.
Bad philosophy denies the possibility, desirability, or existence of progress.
The future is not predetermined: the future is open.
We will learn how to govern ourselves better than we are governing ourselves now.
There are no problems that cannot be solved.
Almost no one is creative in fields in which they are pessimistic.
Knowledge is not bounded by laws of nature or by supernatural decree.
Pessimism is a false prophesy because we cannot predict what we don’t know.
If you agreed with each of these 10 statements, you’re an optimist and are enjoying the benefits that will be discussed below.
A disagreement with any of these statements means you lean toward pessimism. If you disagreed with quite a few of these statements, your pessimism may be limiting your life in the ways discussed in this post.
What is optimism?
The brilliant physicist, David Deutsch, says that the principle of optimism is “All evils are caused by insufficient knowledge.”
Optimism is the belief in progress through the creation of new knowledge.
Optimism is the belief that all problems can be solved.
Optimism is the belief that we are creating new knowledge that solves problems and that we will always be able to create new knowledge to solve new problems—into infinity–because there are no fundamental limitations to the creation of knowledge.
Optimism is not blind optimism: blind optimism is reckless, overly confident, proceeding as if we know that bad outcomes will not happen. Optimists believe that bad outcomes will always occur. Bad outcomes become problems that can be addressed and solved through the acquisition of new knowledge.
Optimists believe that optimistic societies innovate on the basis of criticism—criticism of current theory and knowledge—seeing that our explanations are flawed and moving toward less flawed explanations. Optimistic societies are open and unafraid to shake up the status quo; that’s why optimism is by its nature anti-authority.
Optimists don’t’ believe in prophesy (the end of the world is coming soon for all of the sinners) but they do believe in our ability to make predictions when we have developed good explanations like this one: in the distant future people on earth, if they still reside here, will not see any other galaxies because the universe is rapidly moving away from us at an accelerating speed.
Optimists are unlikely to drop into despair, because they understand that we are knowledge creating creatures who will always have the potential to solve problems and to improve our explanations.
When societies are primarily optimistic, they become dynamic societies—like our society has been historically.
What is pessimism?
Pessimism is the belief that progress isn’t possible, that we can make no fundamental changes, that we cannot develop better explanations.
Pessimism claims that knowledge is bounded by laws of nature or supernatural decree: no matter what you do you will understand no further.
Pessimism predicts a negative future.
Pessimism is marked by cynicism in the power of creativity, focusing always on our failures as humans.
Pessimism produces conformity and rigidity—an aversion to discussion and exploration. Pessimists claim that they are merely describing current reality. They think we are stuck in the current reality, or they think current reality can only get worse.
Pessimism is the view of most societies in human history; pessimism creates static societies—societies that almost never learn anything significant and never change.
How pessimism limits our lives
1. Pessimists limit their ability and motivation to learn. Learn—for what? No progress can be made anyway, so why bother to learn, accept to protect your own personal interests? As Deutsch says, “….almost no one is creative in fields in which they are pessimistic.”
Besides, learning requires questioning and criticism of what is supposedly true. Pessimists either are afraid to challenge authority and the current knowledge, or they don’t think it will do any good to challenge authority and current knowledge.
2. Pessimists hold back their contribution to the future. They may be quite devoted to their own safety, interests, and well-being, but they can’t be much interested in the development of their society or the human species.
The pessimists will refuse the duty and excitement of creating the future. The human race will progress but will have to drag the reluctant pessimists along as we learn and create better and better explanations.
3. Pessimists are naturally fearful, cynical, and earnest. Believing profoundly that things are going to turn out badly, they shrink into self-protective attitudes that align with their dark view of life.
Pessimists must separate themselves from optimists who they think are naïve: they, on the other hand, believe themselves more realistic as they posit their world-weary view. Pessimists withhold their love.
Optimism is the place to be
It is our duty to remain optimists. The future is open. It is not predetermined and thus cannot be predicted – except by accident. The possibilities that lie in the future are infinite. When I say ‘It is our duty to remain optimists,’ this includes not only the openness of the future but also that which all of us contribute to it by everything we do: we are all responsible for what the future holds in store.
Sir Karl Popper, The Myth of the Framework
David Deutsch says that we are at the beginning of infinity, meaning that the human species has become dynamic enough to create new knowledge into infinity.
He also believes that we are profoundly ignorant, just beginning to develop good explanations about who we are in the universe and about the nature of the universe itself.
Our explanations are always flawed, so optimists must—paradoxically—be in a constant mode of criticism in order to create new knowledge, new explanations that are less flawed. We create the future by detecting and correcting errors in what we think we know.
In other words, as optimists, our lives are devoted to pioneering on the frontiers of human emergence.
Everything is open, and wondrous. Wide awake, we are full of awe—about our own magical selves and what we can do to understand this cosmos that is our home.
To join the optimists on this globe, we’ll want to be in a poised consciousness—present, connected, grateful, creative, and lighthearted.
In a state of poised optimism, we will be able to contribute to the future, our full powers at our disposal, our love flowing, looking, looking, breathlessly into infinity.
A Note: I have been heavily influenced for this post by David Deutsch and his book The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations that Transform the World. In a way this post is not much more than a book report. I recommend this stupendous and difficult book, especially if you want to rise above the petty concerns of the day and explore with the author the magnificent role that humans play in the cosmos.
This essay has been revised since its earlier posting on this site.