Saturday, March 24, 2012

Rational Optimism

When my first son was born I was surprised and impressed by his attitude.  As I remember it, just a few moments old, with his entire fist in his mouth, he stared intently at the bright heat lamp above him.  I occurred to me that he hadn’t known vision until this moment.  He had never seen light before.

Five years later it was the morning of his first day of first grade.  Off to school.  When I went into his room to rouse him he was sitting bolt upright, hugely excited.  He took a deep breath and exhaled two words …J ”What’s next??!” J

I’m thinking now of how great an attitude this is, this wonderment, this “what’s next.” I also know that the attitude can dampen as one slowly takes on responsibilities, and learns more about struggle, discomfort, and disappointment.  You can’t be wide-eyed all your life – but there actually is an adult version of “what’s next??!”, I think.  And it’s a certain sort of optimism.

I’ve had the pleasure recently of reading several books that recommend optimism.  One is Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of our Nature, which demonstrates that violence has declined dramatically, in almost every way, almost everywhere, at every time scale, and for reasons that also have much broader implications for human well-being.  Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist explains how commerce, specialization, technology, communication, and democracy bring about wonderful things, ingenious solutions, and the promise of much more.  And philosopher David Deutsch’s The Beginning of Infinity – a dense book -- explores the nature of knowledge, and discusses optimism itself in a way that was new to me.

For one thing, he explained that philosophical optimism and philosophical pessimism are much alike.  The former is the view that the world is just as good as it could possibly be, and the latter, that it could get no worse.  Neither leaves room for rational explanation of why things are so.  In modern terms, on the other hand, the words optimism and pessimism are directed only toward the future, where “blind optimism” manifests as overconfidence or recklessness while pessimism justifies what is known as the “precautionary principle:” avoid everything not already known to be safe.

I’m attempting to condense a very dense train of thought into a short commentary, but through history, Deutsch says, most societies were pessimistic, i.e., intolerant, conformist, and precautionary.  Bad leaders were retained because “better the devil you know than the devil you don’t know.”  Non-conventional behavior was considered immoral.  Tradition, ritual, and laws were designed to keep things as they were.  A small event was expected to have potentially large, unforeseen, and negative consequences (e.g., “a butterfly flaps its wings in Brazil and it causes a hurricane in Texas”).  Creative, "different," ideas were quashed by social institutions and, worse, the creative spirit itself was muted.  So there was not only little tolerance for change, there was little threat of change as well.  Blindly optimistic societies, on the other hand, were less common, as they often suffered the harsh consequences of recklessness.
Deutsch defines his preferred version of optimism much the same, I think, as Matt Ridley … and I’ll use Ridley’s adjective to distinguish it from the philosophical of blind versions: it’s rational optimism.  At its core is this idea:  All evils are caused by insufficient knowledge.” Problems are inevitable, in other words.  And they are soluble.

By accepting that things are imperfect we expect that problems will arise.  The problems, from a rationally optimistic perspective, have solutions, and solutions come from knowledge.  Hence, knowledge will lead to solutions, problems are solved,  and there is progress.  And this next point really turns me on: The key is that, because the solutions themselves are imperfect, finding the right solution is a mostly a matter of identifying and discarding those that don’t work. 

Karl Popper applied this principle to political philosophy around 1950.  How can we rid ourselves of bad governments without violence, he had asked.  Deutsch paraphrases Popper's answer: “Systems of government are to be judged not for their prophetic ability to choose and install good leaders and policies, but for their ability to remove bad ones that are already there.”   It’s simply trial and error, ironically (for an optimist) the emphasis is on the detection of error.

This seems to me very much like Darwin’s natural selection, 100 years earlier. Accepting that creatures are imperfectly suited for their environment (inherently improvable), progress occurs not by designing a perfect organism but by experimentation and selective removal of the errors.  But if  natural selection is “optimistic” it’s optimistic in a way that is decidedly not anthropomorphic.  From our perspective, for an example, malaria is a problem – from the disease’s perspective, humans are a solution.  

Rational optimism is forward reaching, and it was the rationally optimistic who develop vaccines, lightbulbs, and computers.  Pessimists thought it couldn't -- and shouldn't -- be done because they hadn't faith in rational thought.  To them, there is a catastrophe right around the corner (They live to 90, though, because of the rational optimism of others). 

Either of these systems – optimism or pessimism – has a self-sustaining feedback loop.  The first takes on more and more complex problems by embracing them one after the other, attempting solutions, and then better and better solutions to more nuanced problems.  The pessimists are locked in a steady state; problems are obstacles for which knowledge will never be a match, so why bother trying? With this attitude, knowledge isn't created, which becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy and a justification for more pessimism itself.

I had been thinking that optimism and pessimism were just counterparts -- cup half empty, or cup half full.  But Deutsch helped me see there is a huge difference between these perspectives.  The number of potential futures for an optimist is infinite, it moves forward, carefully, into an uncertain future.  The pessimist is afraid to do that.  The difference is not half full/half empty, it's the difference between infinity and the number 1.

So – full circle -- how does one retain a J “What’s next” J attitude toward life?  Expect problems, try to solve them, and be prepared to learn from the trying. 

But if a five-year-old ever asks me that question again (one can hope) I think I’ll just say “don’t know yet … let’s see!

Thursday, March 8, 2012


I'll start my little treatise by remembering an anti-evolutionary argument made famous by Rev. William Paley in England in the late 1700s.  He compared the human eye to a pocketwatch, he said the eye is proof of a designer, i.e., the existence of God, because of its exquisite design.  An eye couldn't have just happened, he argued; clearly it was designed -- hence there was a designer.  Someone should have asked him how it would not be less likely for the designer itself to have just occurred; it's a pretty good rebuttal. 

But Paley would not have welcomed that reply; he was using incredulity.  His was a good question: how could a human eye just happen?  But it was also a statement: An eye could not have just happened.   

Richard Dawkins' book The Blind Watchmaker is all about this argument, and he goes into detail about the evolution of the eye.  Yet recently a friend made just the same sort of statement, a Catholic, she told me she believed in evolution, sure,  but not that humans came from monkeys!!!?   “Humans … from monkeys??!! ,” she asked.  Well, not exactly.  But like Paley, the incredulity that carried her question suggested that she didn't really want the answer.  It was a statement: "I just don't believe it."  And that is that.

There is nothing exactly wrong with being incredulous, when you really are certain that you're up against something ridiculous, and you're willing to ridicule it.  But when you have an opinion, not a certainty, and you're not willing or able to defend the opinion with rationality, then incredulity can be used to turn a real question into a rhetorical one -- to seem to ask a question but rather to make a point.  In a funny way incredulity that appears to be a statement of fact may actually be just a nail in the coffin of knowledge.  See how different my friend would sound without the emphasis: “How would humans evolved from monkeys?” … well, they didn't quite, humans and modern apes share a common ancestor.  Humans and monkeys do too, but farther back...  And then you have a conversation. 

Sometimes a tone can convey concrete meaning.  It could be a disparaging tone, a bitter one, a mournful one, and so on.  I remember hearing a mocking "Hell-looow!” (which meant “your brain is completely emp-ty.”)   Or a protesting: "Reeeeeealy?!"  Each of these say something but mean something else.  They are what linguists call an implicator, a statement with two meanings, either one of which can be conveniently denied.  Are you saying my brain is empty?  No, I didn't say that.  Were you greeting me with hello?  No, I didn't really mean it in the literal sense.

My point is that incredulity can shift a question from information-seeking to point-making in a rather cowardly way.   I've been incredulous myself, I've noticed.  For example, in a recent work-related meeting (the context doesn’t matter) when someone suggested “those with fewer than three should get another.”   I asked “Whatt??!  Why three,?!” at which point my colleague withdrew the suggestion immediately.  I should have just asked "why three?"  There might have been a very good reason.  (It was actually self-recrimination for this incident that cause me to write this little essay!)

So I’ve been trying to notice this incredulous tone – when I use it, when others use it, my own reactions when I hear it, and the reactions of others.  And I've mostly lost respect for incredulity altogether.

So around the house it’s “What is this thing doing on the counter!!!!?”  or “are you really going to wear that tonight!?;  on the radio I hear politicians piling use it “I am so right about this, and also he’s an idiot!!"  At work it’s “Doesn’t he ever attend those meetings!!?”, “will she never return my calls!!!??,” and … “why three!?"

And incredulity can be infectious; it often evokes an incredulous response.  Someone says "What??? You must be stupid!"  and gets  "No you are stupid, and I'm right!"  Or the incredulity may be taken on onesself: If someone says "You’re not really going to wear THAT!?? (it looks stupid!)"; and someone reacts "Oh no, I can't won't wear this!"  Incredulity against onesself.  Ouch.

What I hate worse is when I use the tone myself.  I would like to protect myself from incredulity, spare others, and maybe pull a conversation back on the high road now and then. 

And hey maybe there are other tonal messages that are still subliminal to me, good and bad.  I certainly wouldn't be surprised.