Optimism is an Explanation
The French philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal wrote that “knowledge is like a sphere; the larger its volume, the greater its contact with the unknown.” In this essay I propose why this creates pessimism, lament that many people are pessimists without knowing it, and attempt to show why optimism is not a choice, but an explanation, by which I mean a biophysical state. This is a summary, you can find the full text at my website www.talkingoctopus.com.
Sometimes it feels like the world is changing too fast to keep up, and on the other hand sometimes it feels like we cannot change fast enough. It depends on where you look. When we look at new discoveries, the implications of which we cannot fathom, it seems that the world is moving too fast. Social media culture, political misinformation, designer babies, nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, these problems that seem to be running away from us haunt our nightmares; we have anxiety attacks, we morally panic. We want the world to slow down, to give us time to think it through.
Other problems are urgent, and they seem to have easy solutions if we would only just implement certain policies. Climate change, nuclear proliferation, racism, malaria, wealth inequality, these are problems we don’t seem to be developing solutions for nearly fast enough. Nothing new is required to deal with them, we think. Only the political will. All that we need to do here is again, come together, think it through, develop a framework, make some rules. Motivate some policies. Spend some tax dollars.
There is a new pace to the discoveries of science…a pace seemingly dictated not by the speed of our assimilation of the real meaning of previous discoveries, but by the forceful multiplication of the geometrical density of bits on a silicon chip described by Moore’s Law. Pascal’s quote neatly summarizes the relationship we moderns have to the unrevealed mysteries in the world around us, in particular the social world. They are positively exploding. The mysterious is pressing closer and closer against us. We are drowning in mystery. We are suddenly aware of so many desperately unsustainable trends in our world, we cannot think of any comprehensive way out of all the troubles we have created for ourselves.
So what does hold the world together? What force does prevent disaster, the imminent extinction of the human race? The preacher has a simple answer: Jahweh. He tells us we are protected by a sky God, a suspiciously anthropomorphic being, dressed in the robes of a Bronze Age patriarch, who speaks to us in riddles through the magical pamphlets of disagreeing ancient Jewish scribes. He tells us everything will be all right in the end because this father-figure, who is so obviously the manufactured object of an institution associated with heinous crimes, will be the certain source of our ultimate deliverance. The ideology He represents, so clearly the result of an all-too-human process of make-believe, misinterpretation and outright lies, is put forward as divine, unquestioned, and unquestionable. This is too much to swallow for an increasing majority of the world’s thoughtful people.
The scientist also has a clear answer: Nothing. Reductionist science looks at the mechanisms that operate on the physical level…the very small and the very big, the laws of physics, the statistical correlations, the mathematical principles that explain the behavior of matter. At that level, there is no reason to believe that the laws of physics prevent all catastrophes that might come our way, quite the reverse. The rules of physics do not care about our feelings, and they do not try to sustain us. The world of matter and energy simply works, like a fantastically complex piece of machinery whose inner workings are perhaps indeterminate, but whose senseless causal properties span from quarks to supernovas without taking special care to protect the human sphere of existence in any way. We are living in a tiny, obscure corner of an unimpressive galaxy, circling a star whose life cycle has been worked out, that will die in a giant nuclear fireball eventually. The physical constants that even make our cosmic world possible are in fact quite sensitively tuned to a very narrow band that just allows for the existence of matter as we know it. If these constants were to drift, and there is no proof that they cannot, the whole fabric of reality might rip apart. Uncertainties abound in this view; physical scientists cannot even agree on how many Universes there are; perhaps there is only one, perhaps there are trillions, perhaps an infinity.
For the biologist, life is even more inexplicable and fragile. The fossil record shows how the vast majority of species that have ever some into existence on Earth have met with extinction. It shows the record of cataclysm after cataclysm, and the fact that enormous varieties of formerly flourishing creatures, whole ecosystems, have been wiped from the face of the Universe never to return. The Neo-Darwinian theory of evolution, the dominant scientific rationale for the existence of life, in fact demonstrates insistently that we are not even agents at all, but simply emergent consequences of the blind, stubborn, inanimate replicative propensity of DNA. These genes are our masters, they say, and their mechanical code of amino acid base pairs has no failsafe switch to protect us. By their unthinking molecular logic, they compel us to develop into the forms which spread them further into the world, following no ultimate wishes, no destiny, no fate, no purpose, other than the contingent opportunism of molecular reactions and their cumulative consequences made visible.
Even though the scientists are the shamans of the present day, and like high priests they have the respect of the masses and the ear of our leaders, these theories are as morally unsatisfying as the arbitrary theological visions of the cloud-Papa. The only choice, the only attitude remaining, seems to be the humanistic bootstrap attitude, the sensibility of Enlightenment liberality, the view of life as the job of all of us to work out. We seem to have the power, politically, technologically, socially, psychologically, to determine our own fate. We seem to be in charge, not the holy mackerel, not the barefoot redeemer, not the mama mia. Even less do the genetic blueprint, the laws of chemical and physical transformation seem to be in control, since we drive them to do everything we want them to do, more and better, faster and cleaner. The atomic forces bend manifestly to our will, the physics of life seems stable, amenable to all sorts of intricate and programmable manipulation. It seems like it is up to us, and no one else, to live our lives in harmony and sustainability. The revolutions of the world seem to be due to human agency, and the safeguards that hold us together seem to be human-manned bulwarks. Theories of law, of rights, of property, of speech, these are the ultimate arbiters of comprehensive security. In this view, it is our global, national, and local institutions that will save us, if only we sustain their underlying philosophical principles and keep them on track.
If all this responsibility for change and its consequences, our destiny, our protection, our deliverance from evil and destruction, really resides in us, in the jelly-smeared schmucks in sweatpants, what comfort is that? What guarantee could there possibly be that the cumulative silliness of the human race will not simply blink us out like a light? If there is anything we can count on, it is that people will make mistakes. In large groups, they seem more blind, more insane, more moblike, more fallible. In a group as large as the whole population of the world, it seems inevitable that one of us will trigger a cataclysm, simply because we are all such credulous fools, and the more power we wield the more unconstrained we seem to become. The Pandora’s box of new technologies will surely eventually spring forth with one that is so annihilative and contagious that we will perish from it forever. There are so many of us trying so hard to do things that are patently unsuitable, dangerous, disruptive, conniving, and manipulative, one of us must eventually succeed in bringing us all down. Our institutions seem if anything more corruptible and heartless and shallow than ourselves as weak, naked individuals. They ignore, trample, marginalize, oppress, discriminate, pollute, undermine, and invalidate. The system itself often seems to be a clever contrivance for producing ill-gotten gains for the least worthy, while spiriting away the enjoyment of security and flourishing for the most humble.
We are so thoroughly pessimistic now that the deepest pessimism is a sort of background radiation. We have all absorbed it so well into our bones we are wholly unaware of its effects. We have a shallow concept of pessimism; we think of pessimism as a mood, and optimism as a mood, as a temporary persuasion, or as a narrow prediction on a particular definite subject matter. I’m optimistic about the vaccine, we say, or I’m a wind power optimist. It never enters our imagination to consider for a moment that there could even be a generalized optimism, that a comforting explanation for the greater activity of the world and its future might exist anywhere, let alone here in the company of these unruly, self-aggrandizing, hypocritical apes we are and live among. Pessimism is the general sense that there is not any unity in the world, that nothing necessarily fits, that there is no mechanism for balance. For the pessimist, local optimism may be fine, because of course there are winners and losers in this uncoordinated dice game of existential problem-solving. Some things may get better, sure, but it only takes one slip to ruin it all. For the pessimist, good news is merely temporary, and only bad news is secure, based on faith. Bad news reveals the real condition of the world, while good news only reveals a transitory relief, easily swept away by another emerging problem.
If you have read much of my writing, you already have a sense that I believe that living systems have unique properties that we have only begun to understand. One of the mysterious properties of living things is something that the Santiago theorists call “structural coupling.” This is the idea that, in order to maintain homeostasis, a living being must remain in harmony with its environment. It must react to the energy and matter around itself in a way that preserves its unity, and the process that keeps it alive. It can only drift back and forth between certain tolerances, dictated by its body plan, certain temperatures, certain viscosities, certain balances of charged particles and energy. This is a form of art, really, a spontaneous, rhythmic music and dancing in metabolic and chemical reactions that keeps the organism whole and keeps it living. Much of it arises from interactions between the genome and the RNA and proteins on a molecular level, but it exists on every level, especially in higher cognition. External stimuli trigger internal reactions that cause the organism to find a way to its own internal equilibrium. But the key insight is that a great part of that environment, of that medium that surrounds the organism outside its membranes, is shaped by the presence of other beings. This means that our homeostasis is a calibration not only between ourselves and our food or our predators, but ourselves and all the other beings, as well as all the energy and matter in the Universe. It is all interconnected.
Seekers have always used biophysical techniques that help draw out their cognitive insights. I was unable to develop any reasons to be optimistic before I had within me the configurations that support optimistic theories. This is a strange thing to say, because it sounds like I have it backwards. How can it be that a theory is a configuration in the body, and yet configurations are needed as a precondition to develop theories? I think that the human sensorimotor system, throughout history, has been capable of entering states where it is more open to holistic insights. These states are driven by sleep, meditation, fasting, and psychedelics. At the beginning of 2018 I began to focus intensely on protecting my circadian rhythm from blue light. I started a habit of taking a warm bath before bed at exactly 9:15, and going to sleep immediately afterward. I timed this bedtime to be early enough that I would always wake up early enough that I could throw away my alarm clock. Since then I have only used an alarm clock a handful of times, and my sleep is still continuing to improve almost three years later. I take fish oil and resveratrol before bed, and vitamins and exogenous ketones in the morning. I also started giving myself a nap opportunity nearly every day just after lunchtime. I began a mindfulness meditation practice that I continue today. From 2018 through 2020 I spent two years in intense bouts of prolonged fasting, fasting for multiple days twice a month. In 2018 I water fasted a total of 65 days in different bouts, and in 2019 I did it for a total of 45 days. I took psychedelics during this period about eight times, psilocybin six times and LSD twice, in large doses, in quiet, meaningful, natural settings. The result of these biophysical experiments, for me, was that gradually, in fits and starts, a new set of ideas about the world came to me. A new way of living and a new way of seeing emerged. Here is the gist of these ideas:
Homeostasis is about seeking solutions, which is what all living things are about. Morality is our word for the best set of solutions we have to deal with other beings. This means the best future is always the most moral future. When you recognize that technological progress is the same phenomenon as moral progress, then you can see what it is that holds the world together. It is morality, not simply from the pious or from the idealistic, but from all living beings, including the ones we do not admire. The enormous whales and the miniscule rotifers, all beings are part of the striving for solutions, and “artificial” beings will come soon who can find them more and more rapidly. The same competitive information that seems to be disrupting us is in fact equalizing us. Knowledge is like a sphere because a niche is like a sphere, growing and merging with other spheres like small bubbles joining their membranes into a larger bubble. If knowledge is an expanding sphere, it is inevitable that as it progresses more rapidly it will be harder to see the solutions before they arrive. It will seem like more and more problems are unfolding unsustainably. But they are not. They are emerging in lockstep, in harmony with our ability to solve them, and here is why: because the problems we have today are only the consequences of our having solved more serious problems in the past. It is our own effects on the world that are driving its change. We are the speed limit. We cannot outrun ourselves. This is my submission for the optimism prize.
It may be that the biophysical states necessary to generate optimism are already inside you, and like me you are already seeking for their theoretical underpinnings. In this case, I hope some of the ideas in my online material are helpful to you in your journey. If not, if these ideas are not the ones that you can sustain, this does not mean that you are wrong, and perhaps it does not mean that I am wrong either. I think that there are many ways of seeing the same truths, and many different languages that they can be articulated in. It seems to me that spirituality has always been about developing both biophysical and theoretical practices together. Religions encourage not only obedience, but prayer. Not only tithing but fasting. Not only mantra but meditation. These biophysical techniques and the insights and theories they support go together. It has always been this way. I do think it is important to use rationality and logical refutation to improve our knowledge, but it is important to recognize the limits of rationality as well. I know that human creativity will continue to generate better and better insights than my own, and also that other cognitive beings will soon come that generate even more profound theoretical structures. I only hope to point to some of the foggy areas that have become more clear for me, in the hopes that you will find your own way.