Optimism

Optimism is a form of mobilisation of our mental and psychological resources which is most likely not just philosophico-cultural but actually bionomic (>Diktat of the Recollecting Self) and which acts as a kind of buffer protecting us from any close contact with reality. If this psychological option of optimism had not existed, would procreation not have become a deeply problematical thing at least to those human beings who have, in the centuries since the Enlightenment, been deprived of any prospect of a “world beyond”?  But in accordance with what might be called the basically optimistic attitude the future is expected to be not just as good as the present but far better than it. Where this attitude is applied to the individual it results in the widespread tendency to imagine that oneself and one’s immediate milieu are immune to all strokes of ill fortune. People tend generally to underestimate the probability that they will become unemployed, fall ill with cancer, or give birth to only moderately intelligent children. In view of the murderous nature of human history up to the present day it is hardly possible to describe the optimistic attitude as a rational or realistic one. Also in light of past history the continuing wide prevalence of optimistic attitudes to the world a further reason to suppose that we are dealing here at least in part with a set of mental and emotional responses which are biologically-based and independent of the individual will and which serve to secure the species by helping us to fool ourselves regarding the actual nature of reality.

By now, however, the question of how it is possible that so many people continue to maintain an optimistic attitude even though reality ought in fact to have long since disabused them of this latter appears to have found a natural-scientific answer. Examinations were made of the brains of individuals while they were processing partly positive, partly negative information about their futures. It was found that, whereas on learning these pieces of news the neuronal networks could be relied upon to code desirable information conducive to an optimistic attitude, this was much less the case where the information to be processed was information that proved unexpectedly undesirable. Put simply, our brains are wired in such a way that an optimistic attitude is the natural one for us. And indeed, such an optimistic attitude does indeed appear to be promotive both of the perpetuation of the species and the survival of the individual – even if this attitude is not a realistic one and can consequently have results that are ethically difficult to justify. Especially in the area of procreation. The neurologist Tali Sharot notes: “The brain’s illusions have to be identified by careful scientific observation and controlled experiments and then communicated to the rest of us. Once we are made aware of our optimistic illusions, we can act to protect ourselves.“ (Tali Sharot, Guardian Weekly, 20 Jan. 2012, p. 25-27, here: p. 27) One must add to this finding the condition that all, without exception, of those affected by this optimistic illusion are to be taken into account. Paradoxically, even those human beings are to be “protected” from a merciless optimism who, had this optimism not exerted its powerful effect, would never have begun to exist in the first place.

From what we have said it is clear that Man’s process of self-cultivation – contrary to what the guiding principle of philosophical anthropology leads us to suppose – is still a long way from having come to an end. Man might be described as “a cultural being by nature”. We carry around with us – not least in the form of the reality-distorting optimism that we have been talking about – a legacy from our existence as merely natural beings which demands to be constantly examined and questioned in a spirit of genuine enlightenment.

 

Optimism, Unrealistic Nativistic

If one puts to a relatively large number of people the question of whether their own life has contained more positive experiences, and fewer negative experiences, than the average human life most of those asked will say that their own lives contain more positive things, and fewer negative things, than the average. But a majority which situates itself in this way far from the average must necessarily be suffering from an unrealistic self-assessment. A similarly unrealistic optimism must also be reckoned as regards the offspring of such people: their parents will assume that this offspring will naturally experience more happiness, and less misery, than the average.

 

Diderot, Denis (1713–1784)

Diderot practices a fundamental onto-ethical critique of all forms of optimism that underestimate human suffering when he writes that nothingness is to be preferred to a world in which happiness is to be acquired only at the cost of pain:

“Regardless of what the optimists tell us we will always retort: if the world cannot exist without beings susceptible of feeling and if these beings susceptible of feeling cannot exist without some degree of pain, then everything ought rather to have remained in that condition of perpetual peace. After all, an eternity had already gone by without any foolishness of this sort’s existing.” (Diderot, letter to Sophie Volland of the 20th of October 1760, S. 127)

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