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The Logic Of Optimism


Is the glass half full, or half empty?

This is a classic question which classifies a person as being one of two things, an optimist or a pessimist. This issue may seem benign or obvious to you, but I see it saturating many important topics today. I wanted to devote a post to exploring exactly how these views can affect a conversation when a person ascribes to one or the other school of thought.

I’ll start with pessimism and why I am not the biggest fan (as I am sure you could have guessed!). The problem begins with a fundamental misunderstanding to how it should be applied. I see a stark difference between constructive criticism, or I will go as far as to call it constructive pessimism, and stagnant pessimism.

There is a branch of pessimism which is certainly very constructive. I will use Nick Bostrom and Ray Kurzweil as examples to illustrate these positions. Nick Bostrom I would consider a constructive pessimist. Kurzweil, on the other hand, an optimist. These are two men who think a lot about artificial intelligence.

Nick Bostrom is a pessimist. He sees all the ways an AI can go wrong and spell the end of humanity. I welcome this position and strongly support Bostrom in his views because he is constructive while pessimistic. He has started organizations like “The Future of Humanity Institute”, “The Oxford Martin Program on the Impacts of Future Technology”, and written “Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies” which inspired Elon Musk to speak about his fears for AI. This man is obviously not sitting around and throwing up his hands in pessimistic defeat. He is actively changing the subject he is concerned about so that it works in the way we would like it to. He is envisioning a future which could go in many ways badly, and doing all he can so that it becomes a future that we want. Kurzweil, on the other hand, envisions a bright future, and sees the evolution of artificial intelligence as happening simultaneously with our own evolution, acquiring artificial general intelligence or super intelligence as we ourselves enter the technological, non-biological medium while it progresses.

Unfortunately, Bostrom’s is not the status quo for pessimistic discourse. Usually, when I talk to people about possibilities of the future, or when I hear conversations among professionals, there is a pessimistic theme which follows the “hands thrown up in defeat” trend. While I welcome constructive criticism wholeheartedly, I am constantly discouraged by people who have no room for optimism in their views of the future. If you look at history, on a macro scale, you will see that optimism for the betterment of the human race has been verified over and over. The world is becoming a better place. You can search back in history and see thousands of accounts of pessimism and apocalyptic predictions for the future, none of which have come to fruition.

Of course humanity has had its hiccups. If you plot any mode of progress the trajectory is positive, but not without dips in the line. The problem is that pessimists refer to their amygdala, the old part of the brain that handles instinctual stimulates and calls for action. It is an important part of the brain, that we desperately needed when life and death was based on external threats we faced quite often. The paradox arises in a 21st century style of living that is vastly different from life of the early hominids. Despite what the news tells us, we are not facing psychopathic killers on a day to day basis, however our brain doesn’t think so. When we see a threat that is reported on the news, our amygdala fires, short-cutting our new, reason-based prefrontal cortex and interprets the threat in our biologically evolved linear fashion of thinking. Suddenly, as far as our brain is concerned, the threat is only as far away as the TV is from our eyes. Our brain shuts out any rational deduction that the threat is actually far away and statistically extremely unlikely to happen to us.

But why not be prepared just in case the homicidal maniac just so happens to attack me? This is a fine and rational way to think, and I would suggest investing in some state-of-the-art home security technologies. The problem arises, however, when the fear driven stimuli distort our view of reality and the way the world actually operates (perhaps not the world as a whole, but a first-world community which lives in relative comfort and has an infrastructure that involves law enforcement and protection for its citizens). When your view of the world consists of a future that is constantly bombarded by destruction and misfortune, then it is hard to listen to statistics and facts which show that the world is actually safer and better than it has ever been in human history. Of course there was a nuclear stalemate between the United States and the Soviet Union, the Twin Towers were the subject of a horrific terrorist attack, and people really are murdered or robbed with some sort of consistency. We can have rational concerns about these events, we can advocate deep concern for these events happening again, we can approach these events with horror and disgust for ever happening in the first place, but I argue that they should be understood within a context which is accurate to the environment in which they occur. The events which account for the consistent dips in our trajectories of progress should not be allowed to paint a picture of reality which has a negative trajectory.

The reality we live in is much brighter than people realize. There has never been a better time in history to live. Ideas have an incredible impact on the world. Our technologies allow them to be spread and infect all who have an open mind. We can make immense change in the world if we want to try. My problem with pessimism is that it is usually not substantiated in reality, and it creates a trend where people will give up because they view the workings of the world as out of their hands. In this view, the human race is doomed, and there is no reason to try to make it a better place.

This is the attitude I have a problem with. I see this pessimism as not only inhibiting things getting done, which is why I would call it stagnant pessimism, but even making an effort to stop progress and the spreading of good ideas. Imagine the kind of world we could live in if people left their pessimism at the door when they engaged in intellectual conversations and only promoted constructive criticisms which had their merit in some sort of objective reality. I find conversations held back significantly and wishing for a second that instead of always playing the devil’s advocate, two people would simply talk about what is possible, what we can create, what ideas the fruits of the 21st century allow us to conceive. I hope to one day create spaces where these types of conversations are made possible.

I think a bias for optimism has some substantiation in empirical evidence. I also believe that when you share ideas with an optimistic approach you infect people around you with that positive energy. My thoughts are based on the work of Matt Ridley who wrote “The Rational Optimist”, and also on Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler who wrote “Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think”. These are great reads for anyone interested!

Below is Matt Ridley’s TedTalk “When Ideas Have Sex”, which includes many essential takeaways from his book.

And here is a TedTalk by Tali Sharot on “The Optimism Bias” which I found very interesting. It highlights some of the positives of thinking optimistically, and also why we overestimate our own abilities versus the abilities of society at large.

So next time you go to tackle a problem, think positive, and trust in your abilities, and most importantly, question everything!

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