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Frontier Snippets #02 Philosophy: Optimism

Hi everyone, today's snippet is on a core idea in the world of Deutschian philosophy of progress. Optimism.


You can read it in tweet format here.

You can read the transcript below:

David Deutsch's definition of optimism is something unique and fundamentally different from how most of us perceive optimism.

Originally, optimism was the doctrine that the world-  past, present and future - is as good as it could possibly be. Conventional optimism or blind optimism is one of hope in that it consists of taking a stance that bad outcomes will not happen. Whereas blind pessimism driven by the precautionary principle seeks to ward off disaster by avoiding everything not known to be safe.

Deutsch argues both blind optimism and blind pessimism are close to pure pessimism. Both are prophetic in nature as both purports to know unknowable things about the future. The future is indeed unknowable as the knowledge that will impact the future is yet to be created.

His proposition for optimism is that all evils are due to a lack of knowledge and that knowledge is attainable by the methods of reason and science. There are no insuperable impediments to the creation of knowledge other than the laws of physics. Or in other words, anything that is possible under the laws of physics can be achieved, given the right knowledge.

But what is the underlying idea behind this principle of optimism? It is Fallibilism - the philosophical position that all human endeavours — attempts to create knowledge or achieve anything — are subject to error.  or that humans are fallible by nature.

However bleak this might sound at first, fallibilism is an optimistic doctrine.
Error is the normal state of affairs for humans and though perfection is a noble standard to strive for, imperfection is the state of human nature. And we should strive to improve upon our errors or failures and that is how we make progress. Following Popper, Deutsch argues that, even though no knowledge can be considered certainly right, through repeated cycles of conjectures and criticisms, human knowledge can grow indefinitely.

Therefore, the principle of optimism is not a prophecy for success but rather an explanation for failure. If we fail at something, it is due to a lack of knowledge. This applies not only to solving problems or creating breakthrough innovations but also in preventing the fall of civilization. Protecting ourselves from any disaster, foreseeable or not, or recovering from it once it has happened, requires knowledge, and knowledge has to be created.

Civilizations in the past have starved and fallen because of a lack of knowledge. Sometimes not having the knowledge of simple agriculture or military technologies caused the death of civilizations due to plague or war. In the not too distant past, large numbers of people died of Cholera since they did not have the knowledge to drink boiled water or polio since they didn't know or have access to vaccines. In the near future, we are likely to eradicate malaria and AIDs as we are on the verge of producing vaccines to prevent deaths caused by these diseases.

The principle of fallibilism and Optimism can also be applied to the role of governance and political institutions. Since errors will be inevitably made, as governments are run by humans, the right question to ask here is not who should rule but rather how can we rid ourselves of bad governments without violence.

Our political institutions, ways of life, personal aspirations and morality are all forms or embodiments of knowledge, all will have to be improved if civilization is to survive the risks that may come in the form of war, climate change, asteroid collision or even gamma-ray bursts in the galactic vicinity.

Optimism implies continuous improvement of all the other necessary conditions for knowledge to grow, and for knowledge-creating civilizations to last, and hence for the beginning of infinity. Certain civilizations of the past such as Athens and Florence had short-lived bursts of optimism but they failed to sustain it.
We should strive towards embracing fallibilism and optimism to make progress but more importantly sustain it. As David Deutsch remarks in his book, For if any of those earlier experiments in optimism, such as in Athens and Florence, had succeeded, our species would be exploring the stars by now, and you and I would be immortal.

Thank you for reading/listening.

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