Deep Optimism

The word optimism is often used to describe a mood or a habit of mind, a conventional approach to prediction in which when weighing different uncertainties preference is given to those which are beneficial and discount given to those which are dire. This is a pleasant habit, and very useful in society, but the routine of placing the outcome with beneficial consequences in the position of null hypothesis is not the form of optimism I am writing about here. I am not writing about the framing of problem situations in particular narrow domains. I am also not describing an anti-rational or Dionysian or gnostic disregard for the logical consequences of ideas, although that is an important way of gleaning meaning from the world. I am not writing about traditional religious faith, although deep optimism has some characteristics of religion, including a holistic character. I am not writing about mysticism. And although the concept of deep optimism required the hope instinct to be born, and requires the hope instinct to be adopted by anyone, I am not writing merely about the fruits of the passion for hope that humanity holds in such broad abundance when we have had enough sleep. I am writing about a discovery I have made in theoretical biology. I am interpreting for the world the rational consequences of the simple conjecture I stumbled upon while trying to explain why my own blood pressure was high…that an organism is in the physical form of a guess, and a guess is something that is composed of chemical oscillations.

The theory that I have developed called “epistolution” is the first good link we have ever had between our theories of physics and our theories of our minds, the first time the sources of human knowledge have ever been put into a falsifiable, testable, physical theory. If the test succeeds and I am confident it will, it will show not that downward causation as I have construed it is the truth, but only that it is the best explanation for how we create knowledge. This is interesting that a test could do this. A true Popperian would notice that we do not really need this test because what I propose is already the best explanation available; there was no existing explanation that had not been refuted by logical argument. This is the peculiar situation that gives me the confidence that the test will show that I am correct, and by correct I simply mean the best explanation available. When Deutsch introduced me to Popper’s epistemology I recognized that it was correct in the same sense, and that the conjecture that knowledge can always be improved closer to the truth no matter how far we have come was also correct. We are merely human not gods, and our human perspectives are all we have to work with, so we can never fully capture the true state of affairs.

The current theories of ourselves and the way we fit into the world could not be farther from this intellectually humble and correct point of view. Our current popular ideas are built on the shaky foundation of inductivism, power, and free will. In this version of human knowledge, “lived experience” of events provides the raw material for constructing ideas that explain the world, and explanations are supported by “the preponderance of the evidence.” Guessing is absent from this view; in its place are solemn people gathering masses of data and computing values from it, and pronouncing after generating lots of statistics where and what the truth is. In the more radical and nonsensical popular version of this theory, “lived experience” takes on so much relevance that its natural diversity due to racial and sexual differences between people becomes a gulf that cannot even be crossed…certain people can never understand one another no matter what. In this second version no knowledge can be built at all presumably, and that is probably the more widely shared version. But science does progress despite inductivism and wokeness. The sad fact is that absent from both of these versions are creative people who reframe the world and create beautiful ideas because they think about things very differently, people who are laughed at and dismissed as wierdos until they turn out to have generated a better interpretion of what counts as evidence. It is this category of person that truly deserves to be considered a scientist (the rest of it is engineering), and yet the inductivist account of science and society has no role at all for this person.

All that said, inductivism is not the main mistake that I am planning to criticize in this doc. There is a deeper assumption that underpins popular ideas of our minds, an assumption that even Deutsch must hold as I have heard him state that “we have a choice” whether or not to solve our problems or to retreat from them. That is the nearly ubiquitous illusion of free will and its conceptual twin, the notion that some humans hold a special power over others. The doctrine of power relations is the real fountain of deep pessimism. Until recently I was not aware that it was a documented pedophilic rapist, Michel Foucault, who turns out to be the most influential intellectual pioneer of this point of view. I feel anger toward this man for having brought so much suffering onto so many people whom I love and care about, for torturing those complex people who should have been grateful, and for humiliating those simple people who would otherwise have been proud. Let us not dwell on these past sins, (after all it was not in his power to have refrained from committing them) but find the way forward to a better theory of the world.

To begin, I think it would be helpful to distinguish some of the notions that come from the doctrine of power relations and free will. First of all, free will is essential to the idea of power because without the ability to choose one action or another, no one could be said to be holding any power. Once one has free will one has power, because taking some actions rather than others has causal consequences. Once one has power one has more or less power than others, because one person, by dint of their location and their relations with others, always has access to a different set of causal consequences than another person. Power is an instrument, and like other instruments it has a certain reach.

Inherent in this version of humanity is the concept of the individual agent. An individual in this view decides on their own how to act. It doesn’t take that much analysis to see that this theory makes the molecules attributed to the human (or perhaps just a few molecules in the human head) different in their physical properties from all the other molecules in the universe under our commonsense notions of physics. Molecules do not simply decide on their own how to act…they behave according to physical laws. Causation does not begin or end any place in particular in the physical account of the current universe, it is a big interconnected set of causal forces making everything adhere to the reality that we know. In physics, there is an individual agent either nowhere or everywhere. All matter and energy is ultimately interchangeable. But despite all the empirical work done to develop the entire fields of physics and chemistry, we have stubbornly refused to think that these rules might also apply to our own selves. In place of physics, we have agency, and because of agency, power relations.

Deep pessimism is the result of taking seriously this point of view, and applying it to as many situations as possible, especially in the social sphere. Let me spell out some of these consequences. Please don’t be surprised if some of these consequences contradict one another; as I noted above they also contradict physics and chemistry (and basic economics), and people certainly rely on these fields of thought for their daily concepts, so one can expect that incoherent themes will result.

Tenets of Deep Pessimism

· The social world is governed by power relations between individuals, nations, and identities

· Power stems from upward-caused freely-willed choices made by individuals which results in oppression of other individuals, nations, identities, etc.

· Intelligence consists in the computational ability to exert certain powerful forms of agency that are decisive in controlling events

· Morality is not progressive but eternal; what is wrong now has always been wrong, and what is right now has always been right

· Morality is not clearly correlated with knowledge. In other words, people in the past with rudimentary technologies in other domains could still reasonably be required to have known good and evil according to our contemporary standards when committing themselves to moral choices. This applies especially to past leaders or public figures

· Although technology clearly has developed, whether “knowledge” is increasing or not is debatable, and certainly moral knowledge seems to be static or declining

· Capitalism is extractive and is exerting harm on those who are at the bottom of the income spectrum

· Patriarchy and racism exist and are among the worst modern problems

· Patriarchy and racism are worst among the “white” elites, who are mostly unaware of it and perpetrate harms upon other groups thereby

· Immigration is harmful to the economy and degrades the civilization of the receiving nation

· Protecting the weak from the oppression of the powerful is paramount, except for unborn babies which have no humanity or moral interests at all

· Financial equality would be the only meaningful form of equality

· Taxation is exploitative and oppressive, eroding the opportunities of those who hold private capital as well as those who benefit from the economy

· Militaries are vital for suppressing tyranny

· Welfare is exploitative because money should be earned in order not to create moral hazard (laziness)

· The world is rapidly accumulating unsolved problems which pose existential risk

· The most important moral actions are preventing the other side from worsening the problems which are leading to existential risk for humanity·

· Conflict between people who are mostly good and people who are mostly evil is destructive, and tends to run the risk of spinning out of control

· Intelligence is one of the existential risks facing humanity

Against this dire set of opinions we can contrast the notions that result from taking seriously a downward-caused version of biological behavior. Deep optimism is the result of thinking about what must likely be true if the main form of causation is from the outside in rather than from the inside out. It means that organisms of the world are all intelligent, all moral, and all technological. It results from taking seriously the idea that technological and moral progress are one and the same thing. It results from taking seriously the idea that we are built of molecules just like all other molecules, and molecules do not control the universe, rather the universe controls us. This humble and realistic rational perspective is also the perspective taken by some versions of monotheism…the idea that a patient and benevolent God controls the universe and there is a plan that includes the moral betterment of the world. Epistolution doesn’t literally specify an omniscient creator with a plan, it is only a materialistic scientific theory, but this helpful metaphor gives us some idea how we should feel if this theory is experimentally validated.

Tenets of Deep Optimism

· The social and biological world is governed as one whole interconnected system by downward causation, and there is no such thing as individual power

· All human actions are interactions in the same physical style as any other chemical reactions

· All living cells are intelligent in the same way, only the contexts and histories of the different forms of life vary

· Intelligence is inextricable from morality. Superintelligence will not pose an existential risk but a profound benefit to humanity and all living beings

· Creativity is essential to knowledge-building, and creativity is within the abilities of all beings

· All living individuals are causally connected to their Umwelten in the same way, no one has special causal power over others

· There is no such thing as individual agency, only systemic forces and local consequences

· Organisms are machines for accumulating knowledge. All living is learning on different timescales

· The inescapable net result of all this learning is the development of technology and morality and their accumulation in templates like genes or bits

· This accumulation is called moral progress, and it is the same thing as technological progress

· No individual or swarm of cells is more blameworthy or oppressive than any other, because none of them makes independent choices

· Because there is a directionality to moral progress, there is a good and an evil in moral terms but it continually evolves as the world changes

· Good consists in increasing the opportunities for living beings, evil consists in their diminution

· All organismic individuals are moral beings set up to create local good and diminish local evil. Because their access to knowledge varies, they vary in their success rates

· Conflict emerges because of different abilities to ascertain and co-create good and evil among different individuals

· This organismal conflict leads to better morality and better knowledge, because knowledge is built through conjecture and refutation, and conflict promotes starker refutations

· Opportunities for living beings are all that matters. You could say that the world biosphere is an attractor like a whirlpool or black hole or tornado. It is an attractor of knowledge. The system is increasing its own possible number of future-states (which multiplies its knowledge-building ability) by means of moral progress

· Money is not a measure of equality of opportunity at all, but something like its inverse. Money is an expression of desire for greater opportunity than is currently locally presented, and this greater opportunity gets more costly as equality of opportunity among similar beings increases

· Problems seem bigger as moral progress rises because they are governed by the law of increasing return to information technology (Kurzweil’s take on Moore’s Law)

· Because of this, the speed of systemic change is increasing exponentially, but the urgency of these problems is an illusion. In fact the speed of problems is perfectly matched with the speed of solutions, because problems are just the consequences of past solutions taking hold

· Problems are contextual situations in the biosphere, and the biosphere is created by self-balancing and other-balancing organisms ruled by cooperative processes of knowledge creation. This results in a stable exponential form of positive global change because problems and their solutions are wrapped in an embrace of mutual causal reinforcement

· Moral progress is quickly creating equality of opportunity among similar beings as it speeds up, this is an inevitable result of competition, which spreads knowledge through conflict. Evidence of the equalitarianism of moral progress is the formation of species, which are equalitarian units of genetic knowledge

· We have nothing to fear, and nothing to do differently. Our very life is proof of our goodness and the certainty of our future safety. Just breathe




Charlie Munford is a writer based in New Orleans who explores the meaning of living systems and the boundaries of our ecological knowledge.

Love podcasts or audiobooks? Learn on the go with our new app.

Recommended from Medium

Whiskey Papers 2: The Microbiome

Who Was Thales of Miletus?

Imagining a city. Introduction to Conceptualization Theory

What Do I Have to Offer the World?

Awareness Of Awareness

Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder — Notes

Signgate: Wake Forest’s Defense of Hate Speech

Fear of the Unknown: Humans versus Aliens

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Charlie Munford

Charlie Munford

Charlie Munford is a writer based in New Orleans who explores the meaning of living systems and the boundaries of our ecological knowledge.

More from Medium

Spinoza’s Tractatus Theologico-Politicus – Irfan Ajvazi

Oscillators and Replicators: A dialogue with Ella Hoeppner

Predictably, Our Senescent Civilization is Now Collapsing

Populism and Pierre Poilievere