Optimism for rationalists


Optimism appears to be the single most important attitude in a world so profoundly challenged by apocalyptic events. Climate change, over-population, addiction to economic growth, and despotic political establishments form a wicked knot of contemporary problems that is hard to talk about, let alone change, or ‘solve’.

It is well known that those with a positive attitude to life are likely to be healthier and more able to confront problems of the day constructively. Recent Australian research – as reported by Julia Brown in ‘Seeing the glass half full’ (New Scientist 14 October, 2017) – enables a more nuanced view, since, for example, if one is already engaged with a set of problems or issues one is more likely to engage constructively or less likely to despair, or perhaps even ‘deny’. Nonetheless, one has to wonder whether the whole construction of optimism versus pessimism is terribly misleading. Surely one has to go beyond this dichotomy, important and fundamental as it may be.

The greatest dangers attending optimism are false hope and denial; conversely pessimism tends to yield despair and inactivity. Yet the motivations for all research require the healthy interplay of both sets of emotions – humans are not machines, and it is pointless to pretend otherwise. No, the way forward requires more courage and more reason than any debate about optimism versus pessimism can provide. Ultimately we need to be realistic about the futures we confront. That is a state of being that benefits from optimism and that can empathise with pessimism, but is not limited by either orientation. To achieve that we also need understanding, reason, science, and the big picture, of course – but above all else we need secular reason; reason that is not burdened by the existence or non existence of God, or gods. In other words, we need to reject false dichotomies and ultimately recognise that all dichotomies are misleading and merely an outcome of linguistic habits. That is more difficult and challenging than it might seem, since the historical overlays of habits (including linguistic and logical habits) are the institutions of the day – and we need these to survive in a civilised fashion.

Given such an impossible global cultural situation, one good possibility is that we look more closely at optimism and its institutionalisation in all cultures and in the daily lives of individuals. Has optimism become a new secular religion: the provider of hope for the disgodded; the only light in a world going darker?

This may require a big and possibly boring conversation, but the role of religions and belief in God or gods is really such an important starting point - because if one is a believer, optimism is a much smaller issue than it ought to be. This is actually a truth for all believers: left, right and centre.

However, once atheism and agnosticism became more acceptable positions in western cultures, the possibility of being optimistic in the world became open to rational discussion. Outside of rational frameworks, there is absolutely no hope of saving the world from the most destructive form of optimism: that which asserts everything will be for the best because God’s will must prevail, one way or the other. Today this is most likely a suicidal view, and one I would take as a point of departure for trajectories that can deliver us futures worth living.

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