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Pessimism was once a tragic, self-fulfilling – but natural – misconception.
Today, pessimism depends on cynicism to remain plausible.
What I call the principle of optimism is that all evils are caused by a lack of knowledge. By ‘evils’ I mean anything that causes suffering or impairs human thriving. I have argued that there are no limitations, other than the laws of nature, on our ability to eliminate evils by creating knowledge. And I agree with Karl Popper’s arguments that this is done by problem-solving: criticizing and testing existing knowledge and creatively guessing improvements, usually incrementally. Thus, evils are problems – inadequacies or errors in existing knowledge.
Optimism in this sense is not a prophecy of success. It is an explanation for failure, based on the universality of the laws of nature: if we are failing at something, it is either because succeeding would violate universal laws, or because we have not yet created the requisite knowledge. There is no third possibility.
For most people who have ever lived, these ideas would have been difficult even to articulate, let alone to adopt. For one thing, the idea of universal laws of nature, as distinct from mere summaries of facts, is only a few centuries old. For another, for most of our species’ existence, when people thought they had some knowledge, they shielded it from criticism, memorized it, and faithfully acted on it. But perhaps the most important reason was that in a typical generation, no one witnessed any progress – any general decrease in suffering or increase in human thriving.
When one can’t imagine how some evil could be lessened, it is easy to mistake that for an argument that lessening it is impossible. That’s pessimism: the negation of optimism. From that, it is natural to conclude that no good can come of novelty.
That is tragically false; but novel behavior has indeed always been dangerous. In prehistoric times, anyone who experimented with putting objects in the campfire might well achieve nothing, and only ruin the food, or cause an explosion, or fill the shelter with smoke, or even just put the fire out. In subsistence cultures, such events could be life-threatening. Yet that same experimenter might also invent a way of hardening spear tips – or invent metallurgy, or cookery – to the enormous benefit of the family group and of humankind. But they had no way of knowing that.
So, cultures remained static. Chronic problems remained unsolved. Life remained full of torments and terrors. A tiny scratch or bite could cause a fatal illness. So could everyday food or drink. Almost everyone knew what it was to be hungry and not to know when one could next eat. One could be eaten, too. And all these natural torments and terrors were exceeded by those that could be inflicted by other humans. Misery, pain and fear, to an extent that’s hard to imagine today, remained endemic. And they were the same miseries, pains and fears that had tormented their great-grandparents and would go on to torment their great-grandchildren.
But pessimism is false. Not one of those evils was ineradicable. Even the stasis that people thought they could see for themselves, wasn’t real: progress did happen. But it was either too infrequent to be retained in oral history (the only kind they had), or not impressive enough at the time to be noticed. That is presumably why the inventors of transformative technologies such as campfires, clothes, spears – and later, the bow and arrow, the wheel, writing, etc., were never commemorated, and such achievements were either attributed to the supernatural or simply taken for granted.
In reality, there was nothing in the physics of the Earth, or the biosphere, or in the hardware of brains, that could have prevented people from tentatively trying out innovations and solving problems at an accelerating rate, and from forming tolerant societies that remained stable under the resulting changes. There was nothing to prevent their understanding the world better, inventing technologies, curing diseases – and anticipating all the past, present and future achievements of our species. Except lack of knowledge: they didn’t know how.
No one knew how a society could escape from the fixed limitations of their zero-sum lifestyle. They could have found out how. But they didn’t know how to do that either. No one knew that tolerating new behaviors and encouraging new ideas would have been the key to what Jacob Bronowski called The Ascent of Man.
With the advent of civilizations, there were larger networks of people communicating ideas, and so progress accelerated. However, most of the potential progress was never realized because of pernicious institutions, customs and myths. Although cultural evolution could now generate knowledge faster, it could also more effectively entrench ideas, including ones about demons, witches, and spiteful deities (who always wanted people to behave in traditional ways). Hence societies were now suppressing novel behavior not only when they feared it might be physically dangerous, but also for fear of provoking supernatural wrath.
Asceticism (inflicting discomfort on oneself) and sacrifice were widely admired. Having preferences among objects was stigmatized as ‘greed’. So was trade – in reality, second only to freedom of ideas as a driver of progress. Some myths targeted the very aspiration to progress: taking pleasure in one’s aspirations was stigmatized as ‘hubris’, and there was a myth that fate inevitably punishes it. In ancient Greek mythology, when Arachne, a weaver, dared to make progress at weaving, the goddess Athena resented this and turned her into a spider.
Athena was supposed to be a goddess of wisdom as well as weaving; but progress in weaving turned out to be a key component of the industrial revolution, millennia later.
In the Bible, God thwarts the would-be builders of the Tower of Babel because otherwise “nothing [would] be withholden from them, which they purpose to do”.
Heaven forbid that humans might succeed at what they purposed to do!
Even though progress continued to creep along slowly and fitfully, pessimism was still the norm. It now seemed that hard limits to progress had mostly been reached – from the number of people a given field could feed, to the distinction between high- and low-born folk, to the waters that enclosed the known world, to the proverbial futility of reaching for the moon. Of course, none of those was a real limitation: only lack of knowledge was. But in, say, 13th-century Europe, there were only a handful of isolated optimists such as Roger Bacon (1220-92).
Yet by the mid-19th century, progress was everywhere. Even people who hadn’t experienced it had heard of it, and most of them wanted to share in it.
Between those two times, there had been an unprecedented phase change in human thought, beginning in central and northern Italy and spreading far and wide. First, the Renaissance, then the Scientific Revolution, the Enlightenment, and the Industrial Revolution. Progress ever since has been unmistakable in people’s everyday lives.
By today, the expectation of staticity has disappeared from conventional wisdom. Horizons have continued to expand, diseases have been cured, cruelties abolished, tyrannies reformed, bigotries abandoned, and deep knowledge created. People expect to enjoy better lives every year for the same effort or less. Having become more healthy, more comfortable, better fed, more knowledgeable, freer from violence, and so on, than their parents, they consider that their children deserve to be still better off in turn.
And these material improvements are only the tip of the iceberg. They have been driven by underlying progress in ideas – intellectual, moral, cultural, social, aesthetic, and in every other respect that might reasonably be considered relevant to thriving. When progress in any of these respects briefly falters even a little, in anyone’s opinion, they rightly complain because they rightly take for granted that the problem is soluble.
Yet pessimism is still widespread. How can that be?
There are two main ways to defend pessimism in the face of blatant evidence of progress. One is to seize on some real or imaginary problem that would sabotage progress if it were insoluble, and instead requires radical entrenchment of new taboos. Examples of such supposed problems are population (Malthus), pollution (environmentalism), genetic drift (eugenics), racial determinism (racism), class antagonism (Marxism), and even the very fact of human fallibility (postmodernism). As soon as one gives up on problem-solving on account of any of those mistakes, one is advocating violence.
The other is to deny that progress has happened, is happening, or would be a Good Thing if it did happen. That is cynicism.
For example, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-78) was a prominent figure in both the Enlightenment and the early Romantic rebellion against it. But he first achieved fame for his savage attacks on civilization. Not the particular civilization he lived in (pre-Revolutionary France), but civilization itself. He entered an essay competition on the question of whether the advancement of the arts and sciences had been morally beneficial – and claimed to have realized in a flash that, on the contrary, it was the very source of moral degeneracy.
The apparent benefits of civilization, he argued, turn humans into willing slaves and habitual liars. He praised the early Roman republic and the early German barbarians for their martial virtues and contrasted civilized people unfavorably with them. Sophistication in art and science, he denigrated as mere vanity – behavior enacted to display conformity and garner approval. “Astronomy”, he wrote, “was born from superstition, eloquence from ambition, hate, flattery, and lies, geometry from avarice, physics from a vain curiosity – everything, even morality itself, from human pride. The sciences and the arts thus owe their birth to our vices…”.
None of that misanthropic diatribe was true: in reality, all those kinds of knowledge came from solving real problems and had contributed immensely to human thriving. But to the eternal disgrace of the competition’s judges, his essay won first prize.
If Rousseau had realized that sophisticated arts and sciences come not from our vices but from our errors – and specifically from not merely suffering under them but from gradually correcting them – he could have told a far more accurate story. One of Bronowskian ascent, not descent.
Instead, Rousseau’s attack struck a chord with many people, and soon became very influential. But it was not a new idea. It had roots in antiquity. For instance, at the height of Ancient Greek civilization, a philosophical movement called Cynicism arose. It denigrated, and attempted to abandon, all trappings of civilization, such as wealth, possessions, ambition, reputation, as well as physical comfort and elementary civility, on the grounds that such things were distractions from virtue, and impediments to the pursuit of truth, equanimity, and happiness.
They favored living a ‘natural’ life, simple and ascetic, just as (they thought) dogs 🐶 do. The most famous Cynic, Diogenes of Sinope (c. 404-323 BCE), lived in a large ceramic jar in Athens, and pestered passers-by with allegations that their lives were built on dishonesty and vanity.
But large ceramic jars are not ‘natural’: they are sophisticated trappings of civilization. So were the ‘simple’, woven clothes that Cynics, unlike dogs, chose to wear. Like dogs, Cynics lived in close proximity to human habitation: they had to, because they survived by begging. I suppose they were unaware that dogs, too, had not been provided by nature but by humans.
The Cynics professed to love humanity. But it was what we today call ‘tough love’. In their arbitrary way, they stigmatized almost all of what had caused improvements in human welfare up to that time. Though that wasn’t much by our standards, it already included a vast, sophisticated system of cooperation that was literally sustaining the Cynics while they bit the hand that fed them – not only agriculture but civility, generosity and other virtues, and the social order that legitimized dissent from tradition. Those things aren’t provided by ‘nature’.
In the event, the Cynics never succeeded in their purpose of discovering deep truth or becoming more virtuous than other people. Though they may sometimes have inspired others to think outside the conventional box, no wonderful discovery, invention or idea is named after a Cynic.
Modern cynicism and pessimism
Historians and philosophers distinguish between ancient Cynicism and what is called ‘cynicism’ today. The former, they regard as a bona fide philosophy, the latter as an unwholesome psychological state – something like: an excessive propensity to impugn people’s sincerity, or to deny that apparently good things are in fact good. But the differences are superficial: they are basically that modern cynics do not necessarily regard each other as fellow members of a movement; also, that ‘cynicism’ has become a pejorative term. Nevertheless, there is continuity: cynicism plays the same philosophical, social and political role now as Cynicism did then, namely to shore up pessimism by denying that “so-called progress” is progress, or that human flourishing is flourishing.
The ancient tactics and tropes are still recognizable. It remains common for someone who attempts achievement in a novel direction to be accused of ‘hubris’. Or of ‘playing God’ for wanting to eliminate some longstanding evil like genetic diseases. Self-denying practices are still adopted for the sake of virtue, and sumptuary laws are advocated and enacted. Literal asceticism is now rare, but denigration of wealth (not only that of individuals but of a society, or the world as a whole) is common. So is that ancient indifference to people’s comfort, pleasure and joy (other than joy in enacting self-abasing or cynical behaviors). Consumer technology is disparaged as ‘addictive’. Conspiracy-theoretic worldviews are common.
All this legitimizes pessimism, because regarding continued material progress as impossible, and regarding it as intrinsically undesirable, are two falsehoods that lend each other plausibility. An old-fashioned pessimist may regret concluding that civilization is doomed, or that The Limits to Growth are nigh.’, while the cynic may take grim satisfaction from it, but they don’t really disagree on much. Either way, they lend legitimacy to the associated policies of enforced conformity and taboos.
Progress and danger
It is often said that our civilization has entered an era of unprecedented risk from adverse side-effects of progress. It is said that for the first time in history, global civilization, and even our species, are at risk because of the speed of progress. But that is not so: that risk has been with us throughout our species’ existence and is less now than ever. For instance, the Black Death in the 14th century killed a substantial proportion of all humans. The Justinian plague in the sixth century had taken a similar toll as well as arguably precipitating the European Dark Ages. The indigenous populations of the Americas were almost wiped out by disease as a side-effect of the improvement of ships.
If not by plague, the Roman Empire could easily have been brought down by, for instance, cumulative lead poisoning, as some historians have suggested – i.e. by a side-effect of their many uses of lead, including in food and in their much-admired plumbing system which saved many lives. If lead had been a little more poisonous, they might never have known. They did not have enough scientific knowledge to test or quantify the danger. Nor was their technology improving fast enough to find better means of providing their citizens with water.
Yet progress – antibiotics, vaccination, or even explanatory knowledge of how diseases work – could have put an end to all those scourges. Nothing else could have. Every species whose members had the capacity for innovation, is now extinct, except ours, and genetic evidence shows that that was a close-run thing. All of them, and every past civilization that has fallen, could have been saved by faster innovation. In all of them, slow innovation caused unsolved problems to accumulate until, sooner or later, some novel threat from nature or other humans posed a problem that their civilization didn’t create the knowledge to solve before it collapsed.
Even today, fire still kills; but it is still essential to human welfare. And is still necessary for further innovation and improvement. Our very fire engines are still powered by it. Our spaceships still run on it – though only because a pessimistic fad stigmatizing nuclear energy has been heeded for decades. Nothing can eliminate danger, including from unforeseen side-effects of progress. Therefore caution is always necessary. The first flight of an airliner should not be carrying passengers. One should not trust the first predator 🐺 that seems friendly. But there is also danger from intangible enemies within, like taboos and pessimism. So one shouldn’t forgo the option to experiment with making use of the wolf. Unbeknownst to the people who first tried that, it would go on to create a new species 🦮 that could be of immense use – including guiding blind humans during the millennia before blindness is cured.
Furthermore, even the most cautious policy can prevent only a limited class of risks: foreseeable ones. Those may not be the most dangerous, just as the greatest benefits may not result from the most promising-looking innovation.
Not only was fire always dangerous as well as beneficial, so was the wheel. A spear could injure or kill your friends, not only your dinner. With clothes came not only protection but also body lice. With farming came not only a more reliable food supply but also hard, repetitive work – and plunder by hungry bandits.
Every solution creates new problems. But they can be better problems. Lesser evils. More and greater delights.
That’s what progress is. That is what is most visible today. And that is what cynicism must therefore besmirch, obfuscate and argue away if it is to make itself, and pessimism, superficially plausible.
So, let us instead exalt humans, and their ideas, and their civilization and its achievements. And let us regret only that their errors, missteps and misconceptions, not least pessimism and cynicism themselves, are not being corrected faster.
Professor David Deutsch is a physicist at the University of Oxford. He pioneered the field of quantum computing and in 2021 was awarded the Isaac Newton Medal and Prize for “founding the discipline named quantum computation and establishing quantum computation’s fundamental idea, now known as the ‘qubit’.
He is also the author of the bestselling books The Fabric of Reality and The Beginning of Infinity.
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1. See my book The Beginning of Infinity.
2. E.g. in his book Conjectures and Refutations.
3. The name of his celebrated TV series and book.
4. See Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist.
5. We have this story via the Roman poet Ovid in his narrative poem Metamorphoses (8 CE).
6. That was also the name of an influential 1972 report.
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