I have a friend who is considerably less so. They remind me that there is weakness/evil/darkness in everyone and don’t think it can be overcome. I agree with the first part and am unsure about the second part. At which point, my version of Pascal’s wager comes into play. I can’t know how the future will play out (being a historian is no help here); but I choose to believe that there’s some bright surprises ahead. After all, what’s the downside?
In taking this stance, I don’t pretend that utopia or redemption is around the corner. As I have written elsewhere, there is plenty of reason to be concerned about the country and the world. There are many ways in which things could become pretty dire. The parade of horribles—techno-enhanced versions of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse—is ready to march. Optimism can’t be based on analysis.
Nor do I claim an epiphany or some noble mantle of purity, heroism, or martyrdom. I have my own roster of deficiencies and weaknesses. I don’t live up to my own aspirations (on a pretty regular basis). The way I see the world isn’t driven by faith or passion. Pascal called for placing a bet on the side of God; making a rational choice even though there is no way to have any evidence one way or the other.
I’m reminded of a discussion I had with a colleague not too long ago. We were bemoaning the lack of attention/energy in our students and implicitly wondering whether it was worthwhile to be a teacher. I said that I couldn’t go into the teaching business with any expectation of having an effect on my students. Not only would I never hear from or about most of them, but that most wouldn’t consciously connect their approach to the rest of their lives to what they (might have) learned from my teaching. Indeed, they likely wouldn’t even know themselves that they were changed by something I might have said a year or thirty earlier. In any event, I would never know what effect I might have had, but I choose to believe that it would be beneficial.
In addition to this investment of time, and beyond being able to live in extremely comfortable style, I am able to support some good projects and organizations here in the Bay Area and globally. I suppose I could implement my optimism in more material ways and ratchet up our lifestyle. There are myriad examples of more luxurious living within a few blocks of where we live. But we are already so much closer to the “one percent” that it’s hard for me to justify. Besides, if I am optimistic about our species, it seems like there are better places to put the money. In the real world, the pragmatic foundations of that optimism still can use some help. Neither a faith in or choice for optimism will plant the trees, get out the votes, help those in need, or spread the wisdom. A choice for pessimism can easily lead to nihilism or nescience.
As many of you know, I have read a lot of science fiction; including a fair amount set in dystopian futures. Some are variants of horror stories; generating enough brain chemistry in the reader to be engrossing and to sell well. Some are salvation stories in which the dystopia is defeated (or, at least, the corner is turned (e.g., the Jedi, Terminator); generating their own mix of brain chemistry in the reader/viewer. Many are precatory, trying to get readers to be aware of current trends and dangers (nuclear, climatological, biological). There are a few that are optimistic and substantive (e.g., Robinson’s Ministry; Stephenson’s SevenEves). All of these appeal to hopes and dreams; they are romances of the future. Many are thought-provoking; but few, if any, have anything to say to Pascal.
I have another friend who is not so much pessimistic as fearful. They burn enormous amounts of energy imagining the risks and catastrophes of life and the world. (I have my own bouts of such despair, too.) Cassandra; not Pangloss. It can be a downer hanging around with them. But, more importantly, it doesn’t seem very helpful as a way to live. I’m all for prudence and planning; beyond that, however, pessimism as a state of mind doesn’t seem like much use (nor much fun).
In the end, I suppose, whatever God/the Cosmos/the “Force” might do, they will do. If faith in God (or the “Force) works for you, go for it! (I think it will get you to much the same place as me). For myself, I believe that to whatever extent I can construct the world in which I live, I might as well make choices—based on a hard look at myself.
I choose to be optimistic, not from analysis of the state of the world or of “human nature,” nor from faith, but because I get to choose how to live and this choice makes living easier and happier; after all, what’s the downside?