|—||Claude Monet (via elliejune)|
|—||Jorge Luis Borges, Paradiso (via human-voices)|
Optimism is, in the first instance, a way of explaining failure, not of prophesying success. It says that there is no fundamental barrier, no law of nature or supernatural decree, preventing progress… If something is permitted by the laws of physics, then the only thing that can prevent it from being technologically possible is not knowing how.
A disciple of Karl Popper and a quantum physicist, Deutsch is everywhere concerned not with positive absolutes but with the process of conjecture, refutation, and the gradual improvement of our explanatory understanding of the world, as well as the corresponding ability to control it. Amidst his many lucid, remarkably direct assertions about what we can know, what we can do, and the moral repercussions which follow therefrom, he tentatively offers only one moral imperative: “…the moral imperative not to destroy the means of correcting mistakes is the only moral imperative… all other moral truths follow from it…”
If optimism is “a way of explaining failure,” it is because of another of his pronouncements, which he advises humanity to chisel on stone tables: problems are inevitable; and problems are soluble. That is: there is no possible stasis of sustainability for humanity, or any other species, within any ecosystem or civilization. Only a continuous process of problem-solving will suffice to ensure our survival, and not only our survival but our gradual triumph over evil.
Evil! It is not a word he uses often, nor is it a word often-used today, although I suspect this is less because any of us denies the existence of evil -death abounds, injustice abounds, the suffering of the innocent abounds- but because we deny the existence of the good. In any event, discussing evils caused by insufficient knowledge, Deutsch writes:
If we do not, for the moment, know how to eliminate a particular evil, or we know in theory but do not yet have enough time or resources (i.e., wealth), then, even so, it is universally true that either the laws of physics forbid eliminating it [or not]… The same must hold, equally trivially, for the evil of death -that is to say, the deaths of human beings from disease or old age. This problem… has an almost unmatched reputation for insolubility… But there is no rational basis for this reputation. It is absurdly parochial to read some deep significance into this particular failure, among so many, of the biosphere to support human life -or of medical science…
That humanity has not yet conquered death is due to one fact alone: that we have only been engaged in the critical, open-ended creation of knowledge for a few centuries, since the Enlightenment. Before it, fits and starts of such knowledge-creation are well-known, but none were sustained; all fell, all halted, some due to authoritarian political developments, some due to reactionary religious awakenings, and others due to happenstance accidents of history. Above all, Deutsch maintains, those societies in which proto-Enlightenments occurred tended to have a sense of optimism about the solubility of problems and the value of progress, an optimism more fragile than it appears, an optimism easily damaged.
He describes two heartbreaking interruptions in detail: Sparta’s defeat of Athens and Savonarola’s campaign against the Medici’s Florentine Renaissance- before concluding his chapter on optimism with a paragraph I will never forget, particularly when considering the real value of different cultural and political systems:
The inhabitants of Florence in 1494 or Athens in 404 BCE could be forgiven for concluding that optimism just isn’t factually true. For they knew nothing of such things as the reach of explanations or the power of science or even the laws of nature as we understand them, let alone the moral and technological progress that was to follow when the Enlightenment got under way. At the moment of defeat, it must have seemed at least plausible to formerly optimistic Athenians that the Spartans might be right, and to the formerly optimistic Florentines that Savonarola might be. Like every other destruction of optimism, whether in a whole civilization or in a single individual, these must have been unspeakable catastrophes for those who had dared to expect progress. But we should feel more than sympathy for those people. We should take it personally. For if any of those earlier experiments in optimism had succeeded, our species would be exploring the stars by now, and you and I would be immortal.
I will never forget this. Conflict between those who critically examine, creatively conjecture, seek understanding and technological mastery and the atavistic and retrograde elements who believe in some holy antiquity or some savage’s noble edenic idyll is a real one, a suprapolitical one, and it has real victims. All of us who will die count among this number.
David Deutsch, The Beginning of Infinity